Let there be nipples
Of my old comics, one of the very few left in my possession is the huge magazine-style version of Robert E. Howard’s “Red Nails,” adapted by Roy Thomas and Barry [Windsor] Smith (originally in Savage Tales #2-3; here reprinted in color). There is no point in trying to articulate Smith’s presence and creative force in comics. Just … look at this.
Now that you’ve got your breath back, notice something … Conan’s chest is anatomically complete, as it is in all the title issues that Smith illustrated. This may be simply his essential integrity as an artist at work, and maybe not being an American. Stunning male beauty characterized the book. I appreciate that greatly; I’ve never understood why superhero comics art has to bulge and distort the male body, its central iconic imagery, so bizarrely. [I’m using only “Smith” in this post to reflect his crediting at the time. I know his full name. Thanks.] [This paragraph was edited due to unjustified speculation; thanks to Jeremy Duncan for pointing it out – RE]
Here’s the last issue of FOOM I received during my one-year membership, and the only one I really valued in later years. As usual, the interviews were extremely candid and informative, and this may have been the last pop culture Conan artifact prior to the run-up to the 1981 film. At one point, Thomas talks about how he was impressed by Smith’s consistent inclusion of nipples on male chests, and that he quickly decided it was idiotic not to see them in the other titles, you might as well leave off people’s noses or something. He insisted that Buscema include them when he took over the title, and also started instructing inkers and finishers to do so in the superhero books too, just because once you see how weird a blank chest is, you can’t unsee it. I remember spotting them across Marvel titles for a while, on the Hulk as you can see here, perhaps not as, uh, rendered as Smith’s but present nevertheless, and knew “Roy’s been here.” (They made a comeback for a while later too, maybe during Goodwin’s editorship, I’m not sure.) I agreed with him wholeheartedly, as I too now found the blankness jarring, wondering if the women ever lost their tops in this strange universe, whether their big full boobs would be similarly featureless. I even elected myself Roy’s assistant editor, drawing in bare-chested men’s nipples myself onto the pages of my comics where necessary, and putting little semi-circles onto the women’s clothes for their nipple-bumps. Sue me, I was twelve, and I still maintain it made the art better.
To back it up a little, even before reading tons of comics, I was already into Greek, Norse, and other mythology, and was swiftly turned onto fantasy fiction by adults. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at age 10, already a relentless library hound, blazing through anything freaky and fantastic I could: Earthsea, Elric, Lee, Zelazny, Leiber, Ellison, Dunsany, Shelly, Wells, this in addition to being a rabid Star Trek and Planet of the Apes fan, and therefore hunting down anything and everything associated with them …
I was still about twelve when reading the letters pages of the Conan comic, I found a reference to a Neal Adams guest issue (#37, which I also had, actually a fill-in by way of reducing an earlier Savage Sword story in size and coloring it), stating that one panel resembled Frazetta’s cover painting for the book Conan the Conqueror and was captioned, “He conquers!” My eyebrows raised: book? There are books?
There were books, but they weren’t that easy to find. The eight Lancer paperbacks from the 1960s were out of print, and the bookstores were just beginning to bring in the Sphere ones. Ace and Tor didn’t exist yet. This would all change to a standardized 12-book set (about 25% Howard) by the time I was 15, and Conan and Frazetta would be everywhere, but it was a little bit of a slog at the time and my collection is very motley-looking with different spine colors and formats.
Conan, the associated Howard works, and pulp fantasy (sword and sorcery) would become formative influence on my life. But it’s a Conan that everyone has forgotten. Even with the recent revival of a focus on Howard, the 70s Conan has vanished from cultural memory and especially from fandom.
Let’s take a look at the Thomas Conan, the crucial phase between deCamp and Carter’s very 50s style fanboy grip on the character and the 1981 movie’s overriding reboot of him. Since Marvel only had the license for the Howard work, Thomas either used those stories, or adapted other Howard stories into Conan’s saga, or invented his own, just as deCamp and Carter had. Therefore the comics were a perfect filter for someone like me, who learned to study the indicia of the paperbacks (which were otherwise very deceptive regarding who wrote what) to find the real author for each story. Instead of accepting the twelve-book collection as a saga, I recognized it as a co-option of a far smaller body of work into a vision whose content and style differed substantially, and permitted me to compare what Thomas was doing with the same material. It led me to hunt Howard’s other work as well, the other heroes, the pulp adventure, the poems, and in this I was aided by the Panther and Zebra paperbacks.
Once you read Howard like that, it’s immediately clear that Thomas is the single adapter or imitator of Howard’s Conan who had even the first clue about what made the character tick. According to some, my single best role-playing work is Sorcerer & Sword, and according to many, it stands as one of and possibly the best supplement in the hobby. That book owes its existence to Roy Thomas single-handedly, if perhaps involuntarily, defying the trend since Howard’s death to subsume his work into two 1950s fans’ canon. Lame canon.
The titles were the bimonthly and later monthly newsstand-style comic Conan the Barbarian and two black-and-white magazines, Savage Tales (11 issues, intermittently published) and the long-running The Savage Sword of Conan. The idea was that the comic was a chronological account of Conan’s life and the mags would run adaptations and original stories set whenever in that chronology, as well as lots of other Howard adaptations, notably Kull and Solomon Kane. Since the comic suffered greatly from art delays, a lot of the b&w work showed up there in reduced size with coloring.
They’re wordy as hell, I grant you that, both in captions and in Conan’s general loquaciousness, as more than one letter-writer pointed out. But I submit three things. First, that the stories always made sense, based on characters’ decisions and the back-story, which isn’t a guaranteed commodity in either comics or sword-and-sorcery fiction. Second, that the prose always gave pride of place to Howard’s own words. Third, that the text treats the reader as an intellectual equal, which goes hand-in-hand with the hero as a socially-savvy, quick-witted fellow – the one thing that no other adapter had managed to understand about Howard’s Conan.
A whole dissertation stands to be written on Thomas’ delicate balancing of Conan as womanizer, Conan as possible ravisher, Conan as a respecter of women, women as objects of “the gaze,” women with agency, and the considerable range of Howard’s women as a subtopic, all in the shocking ferment of mid-70s sexual politics and media. It’s way too much for a li’l blog post. I say that even negotiating it to find working frames for great stories was a triumph in itself.
Black characters in comics and movies and TV and prose fiction of the day were simultaneously no joke and completely confusing. In the superhero titles, Thomas’ portrayals were as varied as anyone’s; blame as you like but it was the whole media at the time. I cite here in the book he wrote most personally and intently, several thoughtful and well-developed black characters, especially Zula in the later stages of the Belit saga. It occurs to me now that one of Zula’s major contributions in addition simply to being a good pulp fantasy hero was de-Sueing Conan both physically and socially. Here was someone who was basically an African Cimmerian, perfectly capable of holding his own, sticking to his own priorities, and often providing acerbic commentary – acting like the hero of some other amazing sword-and-sorcery comic who happened to be visiting this one for a while. He didn’t get punked or outdone by Conan. He didn’t get killed off. I have no doubt that after their goodbye handshake, he went off to find and rule the African Aquilonia.
Speaking of great supporting characters, that’s one of many reasons for my love for John Buscema too, on the monthly book. He drew really individualized, vibrant people: Murilo’s return as a still-just-slightly foppish bad-ass mercenary captain, Belit of course, who ranks among mainstream comics’ great Semitic (“Shemite”) major characters, and Red Sonja reappearing as a wickedly funny killer-rogue rather than the somewhat loopy tease in her first appearance, even with the you-know-what Buscema dressed her in.
It’s hard to believe anyone could make a title his own after Smith’s run, but Buscema managed it, working toward his own strengths of mood, shadow, explosive action, and as it happened, more beautiful women than Smith’s, with a broader range of body types and facial expressions.
He was doing so many titles at this point that he often contributed breakdowns, not much more than stick figures and circles-and-ovals, and the finishers weren’t just inkers but pretty much co-illustrators, who ranged widely. Dick Giordano contributed a memorable issue, the Crusty Bunkers fascinated me with a completely original look, and one of the best was Ernia Chua, often credited as Chan, especially their Conanization of C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau” in #41. Issue #38 which Buscema finished and inked himself is practically a defining artifact of beauty and horror.
The standout, though, was his more personally detailed work and the apparent life-blood of many inkers in The Savage Sword of Conan, where his “Beyond the Black River” (#26-27) probably out-squeaks even the above-mentioned “Red Nails” as my single favorite adaptation of this character.
There is much to be said about Savage Sword, which was a triumph of publishing success and should by rights be the jewel in the crown of any reader of heroic fantasy. I kept buying it long after giving up every other comics title, throughout high school. I enjoyed Alfredo Alcala’s inks before everyone else learned who he was in Swamp Thing (even if he did go a little nuts with that zip-a-tone), and the Brunner adaptation of “The Scarlet Citadel” in #29 is a high-water mark in all fantasy illustration of any kind:
The logistics for both titles suffered badly during the late 1970s, especially the monthly comic – so many fill-in issues, so many reprints; I was lucky to get seven original issues in a given year. What finally killed me on them, though, was licensing the deCamp and Carter stories, which were just as distasteful to me in comics form as in prose. I now understand (in the sense of “I’ve read”) that Thomas had fallen out with Marvel and was doing only these titles, and I idly wonder whether he was sticking it out just long enough to complete the Howard stories in Savage Sword, so he could be said to have adapted them all. I suppose the negotiations for the movie were the only thing that kept the comic from outright cancellation.
Still and all, the Thomas adaptation stands as one of the great depictions and even resurrections of a hero character in pop culture, right? Recovering the knowledge of his actual creator? At the very least, honored in that specific title Conan the Barbarian, as its own named thing? Right?
Fuck John Milius anyway, and his stupid, movie.
Next: What does this power do?
Posted on April 26, 2015, in Filmtalk, The 70s me, Vulgar speculation and tagged Barry Windsor Smith, Belit, Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Barbarian 1981 film, Crusty Bunkers, Ernie Chua, FOOM, Frank Brunner, John Buscema, Kubert-Kubrick under-brow glare, Neal Adams, nipples, Red Sonja, Robert E. Howard, Roy Thomas, Savage Tales, The Savage Sword of Conan, Tony DeZuniga, Zula. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.