Conan of Cimmeria is probably the foremost hero of the sword and sorcery genre and one of the most prominent characters in fantasy literature in general. But this was not always the case. While never obscure among genre enthusiasts, Conan was hardly a household name back in the 1970s when Marvel Comics first adapted the tales of Robert E. Howard for the funny pages market.
It was Stan Lee’s associate editor, Roy Thomas, who took the first steps in expanding Marvel Comics’ repertoire beyond simple superhero books in the early 1970s. He eventually wrote over 200 issues of Conan The Barbarian and several associated spin-off titles over the next decade, as well as serving as an adviser on the first Conan The Barbarian movie. Not bad for a book that was briefly canceled before it had been out for a single year.
To say that the Conan The Barbarian comic series had a huge effect upon both the comic industry and its titular hero would be a vast understatement. Indeed, some comics historians cite Conan The Barbarian #1 as the start of The Bronze Age – a period of time in which American comics began to tell more mature stories aimed at older readers and to reestablish itself in genres besides superheroes.
Thomas’s stories have aged well and, while some of them are formulaic (Conan fights monster, Conan finds girl/treasure, Conan loses girl/treasure, etc), they are never dull. Thomas took a unique approach towards writing Conan stories, a necessary evil given his limited budget in paying for the rights to direct adaptations from the Robert E. Howard Estate. Thomas would take Howard’s lesser known works, including poems like “Zukala’s Hour” and short stories like “The Grey God Passes,” and reworked them into Conan stories. He also wrote his own original tales featuring Cimmeria’s favorite son and, once the book proved profitable, was able to freely adapt Conan stories such as this volume’s “The Tower Of The Elephant.”
Thomas was blessed with a truly gifted artistic partner in the form of Barry Windsor-Smith. Now considered one of the greatest sword-and-sorcery artists of all time, Windsor-Smith was originally assigned to this book because his page rate was much lower than that of Thomas’ first choice, the equally legendary John Buscema. Luckily, Windsor-Smith was as tired of drawing the same old comic books as Thomas was of writing them and his detailed yet ever-clear style proved the perfect thing for depicting the wild and visceral realm of Hyboria.
This collection features an afterword by Thomas himself, in which he muses upon the creation of the book and each of the individual stories. That alone would make this volume of interest to graphic literature readers who wish to read the thoughts of one of the masters of the art form upon the art form itself. The actual comics – full of action and adventure beyond compare – are a happy bonus.
Dark Horse Books rates this volume as appropriate for ages 14 and up. Despite these early volumes being acceptable by the standards of the Silver Age Comics Code Authority, I consider that a fair assessment given the general age range at which these stories were originally aimed. There’s not as much blood and gore as in the modern Conan comics, but this is still something to keep away from any children younger than middle-school age.
Chronicles of Conan, vol 1: Tower of the Elephant and Other Stories
by Roy Thomas
Art by Barry Windsor Smith
Dark Horse Comics, 2003
Publisher Age Rating: 14+