A Brief History of Sword-and-Sorcery Comics
By Charles Rutledge
Many people are under the impression that sword-and-sorcery as a comic book genre got its start with Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian #1, cover dated October of 1970. Conan is indeed the longest running sword-and-sorcery hero in comics, but there were mighty swordsmen in comic books before the big Cimmerian, and there have been many since.
The cover of DC Comics’ Showcase #82, from May 1969 actually bills that issue's Nightmaster story as “Beginning A Great New Sword & Sorcery Saga.” Nightmaster was a sword-wielding hero who wore superhero-ish blue tights and adventured in an alternate dimension. Issues 82-84 of Showcase feature some of the earliest work of fan favorite Bernie Wrightson.
The subtitle "The Barbarian” had been used before as well, as far back as 1950 in a series called Crom the Barbarian. Crom is of course the name of the god Conan worships, and the character was created and written by comics great Gardner Fox, a writer well versed in the pulps. Crom, a sort of a blond Conan, made his first two appearances in the pages of the Avon pulp magazine Out of this World. Along with traditional prose fiction, the magazine included a 32 page color comics insert. The stories were later reprinted in the Avon comic book Strange Worlds.
Another barbarian appeared in 1966 in a Harvey anthology comic with the somewhat daunting title of Unearthly Spectaculars. Issue #1 featured Clawfang the Barbarian, a post apocalyptic tale of warriors and monsters beautifully illustrated by Al Williamson.
Crom, Nightmaster, and Clawfang are probably the earliest examples of comic book characters specifically geared toward the concept of sword-and-sorcery as a genre, but there were several characters in the history of comics who would fit the genre requirements. Newspaper strips like Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, and Foster’s (and later Burne Hogarth’s) Tarzan are marginally connected. Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon would fit more into the Sword & Planet genre, as would the comic strip adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, by Burroughs’ son, John Coleman Burroughs.
In 1955, the first issue of DC Comics’ anthology title, The Brave and the Bold, appeared on the stands. The Brave and the Bold #1 contained stories of three historical adventure characters, The Silent Night, The Golden Gladiator, and The Viking Prince. Viking Prince, originally written by Bob Kanigher and illustrated by Joe Kubert was the breakout character, getting most of the covers and taking over the comic entirely for two issues before The Brave and the Bold became a try-out book much like Showcase.
Though originally conceived as a historical adventurer, the Viking Prince fought monsters, magicians, and villains of every type, firmly fitting him into the sword-and-sorcery category. On an odd note, the Prince took part in one of the strangest team-ups in comic book history: he showed up in Our Army at War #162, joining forces with Sgt. Rock and the combat happy Joes of Easy Company. The Prince had been somehow frozen in ice, and was thawed out just in time to help Rock fight the Nazis. They just don’t make comics like that anymore.
Kubert was responsible for another character who marginally fits the genre. Marginally because the titular hero was a caveman named Tor rather than a barbarian. His adventures with savage tribes and prehistoric monsters, however, are similar in many ways to some of Robert E. Howard’s tales of Conan. The first issue of Tor appeared in 1953. There was also a 3D version of Tor a little later, and the entire series has recently been reprinted in hardback format.
Gil Kane’s Blackmark was a Sword-and-Sorcery hero who was conceived before Conan reached the comics, but not actually published until afterwards. Blackmark, another post-apocalyptic saga, was begun around 1968, created, plotted and illustrated by Kane, with script by Archie Goodwin. The story follows the adventures of a genetically altered hero who fights evil in the distant future. Blackmark’s saga was originally supposed to appear as a series of mass-market paperbacks, however only one volume was printed, in 1971.
Later Chapters of Blackmark showed up in Marvel’s black-and-white magazine, The Savage Sword of Conan. This was fitting because Kane reportedly had sought the rights to produce a Conan comic several years before Marvel, and he would go on to be considered one of Marvel’s classic Conan artists. All of Kane’s Blackmark work was reprinted in a trade paperback from Fantagraphics Books.
Which brings us back to Conan. The story of how Marvel Comics came to adapt Robert E. Howard's most famous creation to comic books has been told many times, but basically Marvel writer/editor Roy Thomas was responsible for acquiring the rights to the character. Mail from Marvel's readers had indicated that they would like to see a sword-and-sorcery hero in the comics.
Thinking that the rights to Conan, who had been enjoying brisk paperback sales, might be too expensive, Roy initially looked into getting Lin Carter's Thongor of Lemuria. While Thongor did eventually become a comic book series, appearing in 1973 for 6 issues of Marvel’s try-out title, Creatures on the Loose, Roy was able to get the rights to turn Conan into a comics hero and the rest is history.
It took a while for the mighty barbarian to find his feet, and the comic was reportedly almost canceled a couple of times in the early issues. (For a more complete account of Roy Thomas and Conan, check out the back pages of Dark Horse's Conan Chronicles reprint trade paperbacks, featuring a great series of essays by Roy.) The original artist on Conan the Barbarian was a young Englishman named Barry Smith, who started off by imitating comics legend Jack Kirby, but quickly developed his own very distinctive style.
The early issues of Conan are a veritable who's who of Sword-and-Sorcery. Roy Thomas not only adapted some of Robert E. Howard's short stories, but also brought in John Jakes to plot issue 13, and for issues 14 and 15 Roy managed to persuade sword-and-sorcery heavyweight Michael Moorcock (with the help of James Cawthorn) to plot a story featuring Moorcock's signature hero, Elric of Melnibone. (More about Moorcock and Elric later). Thomas would later adapt the works of S&S authors Gardner Fox (Kothar) and Norvell Page (Wan Tengri) into Conan stories.
Both Savage Tales and The Savage Sword of Conan are important to sword-and-sorcery readers for other reasons, as well. Articles and interviews were used to fill in the pages in between the comic adventures of Conan and Kazar. These included essays by Lin Carter, Glen Lord, John Jakes and others. Speaking of Jakes, his own blond Conan homage, Brak the barbarian, appeared in comics form in issues 5 through 8 of Savage Tales. The Savage Sword of Conan also served as a showcase for Kull, Solomon Kane, and other Robert E. Howard characters.
Though Conan was an undeniable hit, REH's other sword-and-sorcery heroes didn't always fare as well. Kull, variously known as The Conqueror, The Destroyer, and just plain Kull, managed to rack up 29 issues of his original comic book series beginning in 1971, and 10 more issues of a second try in 1982.
Solomon Kane, Howard’s Puritan adventurer, never made it to the big leagues. He starred in issues 33 and 34 of Marvel Premiere, and then later in his own six issue miniseries in 1985.
Oddly enough, the arguably second most popular character to come out of the Marvel Sword & Sorcery boom wasn’t, strictly speaking, a pure Robert E. Howard creation. Red Sonja, the She-Devil with a Sword, was based on Red Sonya (with a ‘Y’) of Rogatine, a character who appeared in the REH historical adventure story "The Shadow of the Vulture." Roy Thomas adapted the tale for Conan issue 23, changing the story’s original hero, a German Knight from the 16th century, into Conan, and transferring Sonja/Sonya to the Hyborian Age. Sonja would really come into her own in issue 24, "The Song of Red Sonja."
Sonja would return in the pages of Conan the Barbarian, The Savage Sword of Conan, and finally in her own series in 1977. The original series ran only 15 issues with some impressive artwork by Frank Thorne. As they did with Kull, Marvel would try bringing Sonja back again a few years later, but she never achieved the success of Conan.
Meanwhile, back in the early 1970s, seeing that Marvel had a hit on their hands with Conan, DC Comics decided to re-enter the Sword-and-Sorcery field themselves. They did it in an odd way, introducing comic book versions of Fritz Lieber’s classic characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in an issue of Wonder Woman before giving them their own feature in a comic called Sword of Sorcery in 1973. Lieber’s stories were adapted by Denny O’Neil and for the most part illustrated by Howard Chaykin. The adaptations were faithful to Lieber’s books, but unfortunately the title was canceled after only 5 issues. There would be another attempt to adapt the stories by Marvel comics many years later.
The next big run DC made at the sword-and-sorcery genre happened in 1975. DC was trying out quite a few new titles and several of them were S&S. These included Claw the Unconquered, Kong the Untamed, and Stalker the adjective-less. Stalker did have a subtitle though. He was billed as the man with the stolen soul.
Claw was the most obvious attempt to emulate Conan. Aside from the red metal gauntlet that hid his beastlike namesake, Claw was pretty much a Conan clone from his long black mane to his somewhat shaggy loincloth. The initial issues even featured art by Ernie Chan, one of the most frequent inkers on the color Conan title. Claw ran for twelve issues.
Kong was another cave man character, sort of a younger version of Tor. Enough said. Stalker, as his subtitle says, was a man whose soul had been stolen. His quest was to get it back, of course. Stalker was written by Paul Levitz and drawn by the impressive art team of Steve Ditko on pencils, and Wally Wood on Inks.
Another somewhat odd DC attempt at S&S that came out in 1975 was Beowulf, Dragon Slayer. Yes, THAT Beowulf. Apparently comics fans weren’t big on British Literature and Beowulf barely managed to stay on the stands for a year, which was more than could be said for Kong and Stalker.
DC did have one big success in the Sword-and-Sorcery field. Artist writer Mike Grell took a little of Burroughs’ Pellucidar, a little of Howard’s Conan, and a lot of his own brand of action adventure and created The Warlord. Grell had planned Warlord as a newspaper adventure strip called The Savage Empire, but ended up offering the concept to DC, where he was already drawing titles including Green Lantern/Green Arrow, and The Legion of Super Heroes.
Beginning with the eighth issue of yet another try out book, First Issue Special in 1975, then jumping to his own comic in 1976, Warlord chalked up an impressive 133 issue run, making Warlord the second longest running sword & sorcery comic so far. Warlord told the story of Travis Morgan, a US Air Force Pilot who, while on a Cold War spy mission, veers off course and finds himself inside the inner surface of the Earth. Within our hollow world lies Skartaris, a land of dinosaurs, wizards, monsters, and anything else Grell felt like throwing in, including Atlantis and some science fiction elements.
The series lasted longer than DC’s other S&S titles, probably because it was a more original concept. Morgan was a contemporary man, not a Conan clone. He often carried a .44 Magnum pistol in addition to a sword, and Grell worked hard at giving his lead character more of a personality than the average comic book hero. It didn’t hurt that Grell was a very talented artist either.
Another successful sword-and-sorcery comic book hero was Gold Key’s Dagar the Invincible. The first issue appeared in 1972 and was written by Don Glut and drawn by Jesse Santos. The comic book was actually titled Tales of Sword and Sorcery but the logo "Dagar the Invincible" was much larger on the covers.
Dagar was the last survivor of the nation of Tulgonia, the other Tulgonians having been wiped out by the armies of the evil Scorpio. He spent his life training for vengeance, and set out to be a mercenary swordsman. Mistrustful of humanity, he swore to fight only for pay but, as it turned out, Dagar had a kinder heart than he thought, and he ended up saving folks whether they could pay him or not.
Don Glut was one of the first writers to try and bring some Marvel/DC style continuity to Gold Key, and while his Dagar stories did tend to be complete in one issue, he still carried plot threads over from story to story and managed to link Dagar to some other Gold Key titles, including Dr. Spektor, and Tragg and the Sky Gods. (Tragg was a caveman hero who got involved with Extra Terrestrials. Adam Spektor was a para-psychologist who fought supernatural menaces.) The Dagar stories are full of monsters, magic, and maidens, and they really deserve to be reprinted.
Glut had a second barbarian character at Gold Key named Durak, who appeared in three stories in Spine-Tingling Tales issue 3, a special sword-and-sorcery issue, and who sometimes turned up in the pages of Dagar as well. In a nifty crossover in issue 16 of Dr. Spektor, Durak traveled to the future to fight alongside the good doctor against the evil wizard Xorkon and the Frankenstein monster. Shades of the Viking Prince.
In 1975 an upstart comics company called Atlas brought out two monthly color barbarian comic books, Wulf the Barbarian, and Iron Jaw. Imagine a blond Conan and Conan with a bear trap for a mouth, and you’ve pretty much got it. Both comics lasted only four issues each. Atlas itself didn’t last much longer.
British fantasy author Michael Moorcock is probably best known for his stories of the Multiverse, a series of alternate realities in which various incarnations of the Eternal Champion fight to attain balance against the forces of Law and Chaos. It’s fitting then that the comic book career of Moorcock’s most famous hero, Elric the Albino, is almost as complex as the Multiverse itself. Within just a couple of years, in the early 1980s, Pacific Comics, Marvel Comics, and First Comics published Elric. He finally settled at First for a series of adaptations of Moorcock’s novels. Roy Thomas wrote the adaptations, and P Craig Russell is the artist most associated with Elric in the comics.
Moorcock himself has written Elric’s most recent comic book appearances. Elric appeared in a DC Comics 12 issue limited series titled Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse in 1997-1998, and recently starred in a four issue series, also from DC, called Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer. Moorcock has had a longtime involvement with the comics industry. He was a comic book writer for the British weeklies, annuals, and digests in the 1950s and 1960s, and he did an Eternal Champion graphic novel called The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell featuring his character John Daker with Howard Chaykin in 1979.
The edge of the Multiverse seems like a good place to bring this history to a stop. This article is far from all-inclusive. During the writing I learned that Dark Horse had published a four issue mini series in 1990 featuring Robert E. Howard’s Cormac Mac Art.
What about the present and the future? I mentioned above that Elric is back in action, and the Albino certainly isn’t the only Sword-and-Sorcery character to make a comic book comeback here at the turn of the 21st century. Dark Horse Comics is into the second year of a new Conan comic written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Cary Nord. Dark Horse has also just picked up the comics rights to Fritz Lieber’s classic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.
Dynamite Entertainment has begun publishing a new Red Sonja series. At the time that this article is being written, DC has announced plans to bring back Warlord, and there are reports of the return of Claw the Unconquered as well. The future of sword-and-sorcery as a viable comic book genre seems assured.
and our own web comic, Catspaw, go to the
Sword and Sorcery Comics Page .