To say that I'm a fan of Conan the Barbarian is a bit of an understatement.
And if you asked me what my hands-down, most favorite issue of all time was, it would be Conan the Barbarian #4 - The Tower of the Elephant.
There's a couple things to understand, before we get into it. The first is, how weird
it was, to have this comic that was adapting the work a pulp author that had died back in 1936. This was still the 1970s, long before the movie with Arnold Schwarzeneggar came out. There had been a mild revival of weird fiction, sword & sorcery, and fantasy - the first because of the paperback publications of Lovecraft and other writers in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line during, the second because of the cheap publication of Robert E. Howard's stuff in a series of Lancer paperbacks with great covers by Frank Franzetta, and the last largely because of the sudden explosion of the Lord of the Rings
Marvel Comics had some success licensing short horror stories - including Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, and Robert E. Howard - to comics in the late 60s. I talked about this a bit here
, but they took a chance on adapting Howard's famous barbarian - and it was a surprise hit. Now, it wasn't a right away
hit, it took the team of Roy Thomas and Barry Smith a few issues, but they got the readership up, and I think part of the reason is that it was like nothing else on the shelves those days. And right away, Thomas was approaching it as an original work, but they could use all the Conan stories, and did. And one of those was "The Tower of the Elephant."
And the first thing you notice when you come to this comic, it isn't the barbarian you might be used to. It's not Conan as Mr. Universe. Thin, lean, young, this is Conan the thief, in the city of thieves, and that itself is remarkable, in the era of the Comics Code Authority. It's kind of amazing what
they could get away with, without explicitly violating the Code, and the whole atmosphere of it...it wasn't like a "Very Special Issue" where you come to terms with race in Green Lantern or drug use in Green Arrow or pedophilia in Spider-Man (and doesn't that fucking date me). It might be the only comic at the time where you can talk about getting drunk and slitting throats and throwing a prostitute over your shoulder and head upstairs - and that was all your hero.
It was a great time to be alive, and you could tell it right from the first page.
Now, if you haven't read it, I won't go into the whole plot in detail. And the thing is, it's an aesthetic experience. Old comics - and this is over forty years old now - they age like fucking papyrus. They're soft as newsprint, you can smell
the slightly mouldering, high-acid paper the moment you open the box. It's like going into an antique bookstore when you open the plastic sleeve, and the whole thing feels so soft and fragile under your fingertips...babies don't have skin that soft. You're almost afraid to hold it. But you turn the page.
The coloring is, not great. They were using the four-color dot system, which we talked about a bit the other week in the Understanding Comics retrospective
, and when Dark Horse re-released it as a trade they re-colored everything digitally, which doesn't quite look right:
Aesthetics aside...it's not a complicated story. Conan goes to the Tower of the Elephant, which has a wizard in it, and runs into a bunch of obstacles, some mundane, some less so. That's all fine. It's a classic sword & sorcery approach, with a very minimal amount of sorcery, as it should be. Anything that bleeds can die and all that. But then - and this is the part I love - Conan gets into the tower.
...and this is where it becomes something worthy of Weird Tales
, no, beyond that, because you have to remember that WT
was a pulp magazine being published between the 1920s and 30s, and it wasn't all gold and instant classics. There was a lot
of crap. Terrible racist shit, horrible oriental "exoticism," some of it was awful. Your average WT
story with an elephant-god would be something like Frank Belknap Long's The Horror from the Hills
, where they're an evil caricature of Ganesh or something.
And it's just...have you ever seen a monster cry
? Have you ever seen a thing from beyond the stars, it's limbs twisted and broken on the rack, eyes blinded, and you've got the space-elephant's trunk gently groping Conan's face like any blind person might do? That was brutal to me. I was about eight years old, reading through my dad's old stack of comics, the ones where my fucking uncle as a young bastard had scribbled over some of the characters drawing Hitler mustaches and swastikas, because even as a kid he was a little shit, and I was eight years old and full of Batman and Superman and Captain America and Spider-Man, and here was this comic
, and it's the very definition of making you think and plucking at your heartstrings.
But the thing about Robert E. Howard is...and people don't often recognize this. He doesn't write stories to tug at your heartstrings. I mean, they might, in a manly sort of way, and no-one has brought as many manly tears to my eye as Robert E. Howard. But REH, he doesn't write stories about that. REH writes stories about revenge
And they don't show a lot of blood. But it's still one of the great sequences. It's great because
it's not the standard hero response. Batman wouldn't have killed Yag-Kosha. Captain America wouldn't have taken his revenge. And that is the brilliance
of Conan. It's the difference between good and lawful and honor. Because there are things in this life where there aren't any easy answers. Where the things that people ask of you are not easy. It's a last request, and it's a last request for revenge, and Conan doesn't know everything, and he hasn't known this elephant-headed stargod for more than five or ten minutes, he could just knick the jewel and be halfway down the Tower and then up to his armpits in prostitutes before the night is out. But he does it anyway. Because he's Conan.
That's why this is one of the great comics. That's why this is one of those comics that stays with people, even if the language is a little stilted and the art a little flat at times, and the coloring is funky. That's why this comic has been remade and re-adapted and is essential
to any serious run of Conan the Barbarian comics. And I love it for that. I love it for being daring
, I love it for being honest
. I love that this is an adaptation that carries the soul of the story with it, that doesn't blunt or subvert the message, or seek for a moral that isn't there. It's a weird story, and it's a bit of an adventure. And at the end you're standing there with Conan, as the tower collapses...
...anyway, it's my favorite Conan the Barbarian comic.