On the cover of Conan the Barbarian King-size Special Issue, #1, in a red circle, it says: “SPECIAL ACADEMY AWARD ISSUE! TWO OF THE GREATEST CONAN SAGAS EVER TOLD!” A pretty compelling claim, but it wasn’t the awards that drew me in, it was Conan himself.
The comic book in question was released in July 1973, so I was still eight years old when I bought it. Already a Marvel Comics fanatic, especially enamored of the Fantastic Four (which was the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine, actually), I had seen the name CONAN in the little ad lines on the bottom of the pages of other comics, had caught glimpses of him in ads, but never really understood who he was, and what he represented. I knew he was an uncharacteristic break from the ever-unfolding Marvel Universe, and that was what made me skeptical of him.
Then I saw that comic book.
The cover paining by Barry Windsor-Smith is without a doubt one of the greatest pieces of fantasy art of all time. Here’s Conan the Barbarian staring straight at me—right into my eight-year-old eyes, challenging me, threatening me, welcoming me in a way that only an eight-year-old boy frightened of everything around him but his own imagination could be welcomed. Here is Conan, inviting me to fight him, to fight beside him, to be him. How on Earth could I have done anything but accept?
The king-size special contains two reprint stories, “Lair of the Beast-men,” which bore the badge on the title page of the story: “Nominated for best story, 1971, by the Academy of Comic-book Arts.” Stan Lee is credited as Editor, but the story was written by the great Roy Thomas, who’s name is second only to Robert E. Howard’s in the annals of the timeless barbarian. Maybe third after L. Sprague DeCamp, but we won’t split hairs. Let’s say Thomas and DeCamp are tied for number two.
“Lair of the Beast-men” was reprinted from issue #2 (December 1970) of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian. It’s nineteen pages of everything that good sword and sorcery is all about: our hero enslaved by bestial gorilla men in a strange underground city whose exotic domed buildings glow with a sickly green light, and a beautiful blonde femme fatale named Moira who lures our hero to his (temporary) fate. Some twenty-four years later, the story was adapted for TV as the third episode of the short-lived 1997 Conan series, which you can check out on hulu.com.
The second story is an adaptation of one of the original Conan short stories by Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant.” This one, adapted by Roy Thomas, was nominated for best story, 1972. It was reprinted from issue #4 of Conan the Barbarian. A full page longer than “Lair of the Beast-men,” “The Tower of the Elephant” needed twenty pages to retell. The original story, which I read years later in a now-forgotten anthology, was first published in Weird Tales, March 1933.
“The Tower of the Elephant” tells the tragic tale of the humanoid elephant Yag-Kosha, once revered as a god, now enslaved in a crystalline tower. How did Barry Windsor-Smith make Yag-Kosha look so sad, so desperate, so alive? It’s a rare gem in the comic world when an artist can bring out emotions like that in a human character, but a green-skinned elephant man? Smith is a genius, there is no doubt.
Barry Windsor-Smith was born in 1949 in London’s working-class East End and studied at East Ham Technical College with Ralph Steadman, who years later became known as a compatriot of the infamous Hunter S. Thompson and was the illustrator behind the Pink Floyd album The Wall. A comic book fan from childhood, Barry started drawing “pin-ups” for the British editions of Marvel comic books, then emigrated to the U.S. in 1971 where he found his way to Marvel to draw the first run of their Conan adaptations.
Roy Thomas, nine years Smith’s senior, followed Stan Lee as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. He started as a staff writer at Marvel in 1965 and by 1970 had brought his love of pulp adventure stories, especially the Conan tales of Robert E. Howard to the pages of Marvel comics, breaking from their superhero mold in a classic and stunning way.
Robert E. Howard was born in 1906 and spent his life in Cross Plains, Texas. He was a regular contributor to Weird Tales in its heyday. Howard battled depression and finally committed suicide in 1936. His writing career tended to revolve around his fascination with the noble savage, and not just Conan. His first published story was “Spear and Fang,” a caveman adventure story that appeared in the July 1925 issue of Weird Tales.
So, what’s the big deal about this thirty-six-year-old old comic book? Maybe not much, to all but a few collectors. I found one site online that says it’s worth $10.00 now, but that must be wrong. It must be worth more than that. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because I’ll never sell it.
It was my introduction to fantasy.
And not the kids’ fantasy of the time, from The Wizard of Oz to The Banana Splits, but Fantasy, with a capital F. From the moment I first saw that cover I couldn’t get enough of Marvel’s Conan comics, and because Lee and Thomas always gave credit where credit was due, I started reading the original Conan short stories, then more by Howard, then DeCamp, then Burroughs (Edgar Rice, that is, William S. came much later), then newer (at the time) authors like McCaffrey and LeGuin.
I don’t have a photograph of myself when I was eight. My mother might have a few, but I have none. I don’t need one. I have something better. Thanks to Robert E. Howard, Roy Thomas, and the brilliant Barry Windsor-Smith I have a comic book that shows me and anyone who cares not what I looked like in 1973, but what I wanted to look like, who I wanted to be. The fact that I drew from King-size Conan #1 a lifelong love of fantasy that I managed to build into a career, makes it one of my most valuable possessions, regardless of it’s market value.
And now, thirty-six years on, what I want is to be is the kind of guy who not only held onto that comic book, but the kind of guy who knows why I held onto it, and will always keep it. If I did have a photograph of myself at age eight, I’d look that kid in the eye and thank him for buying that comic book, thank him for reading it, and thank him, as much as Howard, Thomas, and Smith, for setting me on the road to being me, age forty-four, and for the rest of my life.