Saturday, November 23, 2013

Four Color Conan: Meeting Mr. Smith


I discovered both the character Conan and the Conan comic book at the same time, with issue #36 of Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian. By that time the regular artist on the book was Big john Buscema, who remains my favorite Conan artist. I was totally unaware of the  24 issues (give or take a Gil Kane fill in) by the previous artist, Barry Smith. Didn't know a thing about his near legendary time on the book or his final famous issue, The Song of Red Sonja. No, my reading of Marvel Comics didn't get started until late 1973 and by then Barry was long gone.
   The first time I ever laid eyes on Smith's art was in a reprint in the back of Giant Size Conan issue #1. The story originally appeared in Conan the Barbarian issue #3 and was called THE TWILIGHT OF THE GRIM GREY GOD.
   I don't think I noticed the blurb at the bottom of the splash page that stated that the story had been adapted from Robert E. Howard's story THE GREY GOD PASSES. We'll come back to that in a bit.
   No, what I noticed was Smith's portrayal of Conan, which was so vastly different from John Buscema's. Buscema's version was a hulking  brute, where Smith's was more lean and youthful looking. The underrated inks of John's brother Sal Buscema also gave a smoother, more 'Marvel' looking finish to the art. It was a bit of a jolt after reading a half dozen or so current issues of Ctb, but I liked it. Fortunately for me, Marvel was doing a lot of Giant Size comics when I started collecting Conan, and there were plenty of back up feature reprints, so I got lots of chances to see Barry Smith's art without having to hunt down pricey back issues. One of the tabloid size treasury editions reprinted Smith's masterpiece RED NAILS along with an adaptation of what would become my favorite REH Conan story, ROUGES IN THE HOUSE.
   But back to TWILIGHT OF THE GRIM GREY GOD. As I said, I didn't notice that the story was an adaptation. Hey, I was twelve and I'd never seen a book by Robert E. Howard. Howard's tale was itself a rewrite of an earlier historical adventure, SPEARS OF CLONTARF. When he failed to sell Clontarf, Howard rewrote the purely historical tale, adding a supernatural element so he could pitch it to Weird Tales. Having read both, I prefer THE GREY GOD PASSES, but that's just me.
   Something else I didn't know at the time, but can see now, was that this story marked something of a turning point for Barry Smith in terms of his art. Smith, like most Marvel artists of the 1960s/1970s was working in the shadow of the King of comics, Jack Kirby, who really was the 'Marvel Style'. Smith had done a lot of super hero work in his quasi-Kirby style and his first two issues of Conan the Barbarian still have a certain Kirby-ness to them, right down to the omnipresent 'impact lines' and even some 'Kirby Krackle'. The figure work contains a lot of Kirby flourishes as well in the extreme foreshortening and the bulked up anatomy of a lot of the characters.
   Issue three almost looks like a different artist. Though there are still one or two minor Kirby-isms, the figures have taken on more realistic proportions, growing leaner and more graceful. Smith's layouts, which always seemed to me to have a bit of Jim Steranko influence to them, are more interesting and varied than the previous two issues.
   Smith's interest in classical art is beginning to show. Check out the panel reproduced below where the 'Choosers of the Slain' come riding through the clouds.

 While you're at it, check out the dialogue.

   "Now comes the reaping of kings..the garnering of chiefs like a harvest."

   "Gigantic shadows stalk red-handed across the world and night is falling on Hyperborea."

   Most of these words are Robert E. Howard's, though with slight changes. The original story was set in Ireland during the very real Battle of Clontarf, so Roy Thomas had to adapt the tale to Conan's Hyborian Age. He did his usual bang-up job. I think one of the things that makes the first 60 or so issues of Conan the Barbarian so beloved to readers is the internal consistency. Whether Roy was adapting an actual Conan story, rewriting a non-Conan REH yarn into a Conan tale, or spinning his own original story, the characters and the world all seemed to fit. I maintain that Thomas is at the top of the heap when it comes to Conan pastiches.
   Anyway, that was my first look at the art of Barry Smith, now known as Barry Windsor Smith. It was amazing stuff and it would continue to improve by leaps and bounds as the series went on.


James Reasoner said...

I was reading the Conan comic from the first issue and remember the store where I bought #3. I could tell it was something of a departure, too. I hated to see Smith leave the book, but I liked Buscema's version, too.

El Vox said...

I like Buscema's art too, and now think he was one of Marvel's better artist, though they had many. And, like you, was a bit taken aback by the Smith art. But it wasn't until after I came back to it later that it sort of hit me what he was trying to do--draw a more youthful Conan, and then it gelled.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

El Vox, yep I had to get used to Smith's art, but once I did, I really came to appreciate it.