Sunday, May 27, 2012

Howard Criticism: The Dark Man, Part I Roy Thomas Interview

I have a small, but always growing, section of essays and critical works about Robert E. Howard. For sometime now, I've had intentions of checking out The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies. I finally made good on that intention and ordered a sample copy. I picked up Volume 5, No. 2 August 2010. I chose this issue knowing that there was a Roy Thomas interview, which was the main attraction for me.

The issue itself is just shy of 50 pages and features two articles: the aforementioned interview with Roy Thomas and an article that briefly looks at one of my favorite nostalgic items, fanzines; particularly, Fantasy Crossroads. Both features were entertaining and worth the price.

The Dark Man was started in 1990 by Rusty Burke (a name I am familiar with from several other Howard related sources). With the help of Necronomicon Press, Mr. Burke released the first issue. The particular issue in discussion here served as the 20th anniversary.

The cover art is by Bo Hampton and is from a portfolio of sample art he sent to Dark Horse Comics when they were looking for artists for their Solomon Kane comics.

This posting turned out longer than I anticipated, so will be done in two parts. In the first part, I will look at the Roy Thomas interview.

"The Man Who Helped Conan: An Interview with Roy Thomas", by Jeffery Kahan. The interview itself was a phone interview and tape recorded. I will cherry pick a few highlights that I enjoyed (JK = Jeffery Kahan, RT = Roy Thomas, comments in Bold are mine):

JK: Where did [the interest in Conan as a comic book character] spring from?

RT: It was really thrust upon me by the Marvel readership...we started getting a lot of letters...suggesting various things Marvel ought to buy the rights to...Marvel didn't generally license characters in those days...

Thomas goes on to say that Marvel mostly made up their own characters. This was before franchising was common. Conan, and all licensed properties, could have been ignored and Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith could have easily just made up their own barbarian character. If that had happened, things could have gone very differently for Conan.

RT: So we ended up having go after a Sword and Sorcery character...We figured Conan was probably out of our reach...[Stan Lee] preferred names like Kull and this other name I told him about, Thongor, which was Lin Carter's character...So we first went after Thongor. Lin Carter liked the idea of his characters being made into comics...but his agent did not like the $150 an issue that [Martin] Goodman had authorized me to offer for it.

Wow, Lin Carter really should have had a different agent. Just think, if his agent had accepted the offer, we could right now be Thongor-maniacs instead of Conan-maniacs! On a side note, Thongor did appear in Marvel comics, in Creatures on the Loose #22 (1973).

JK: Your collaboration with Barry Windsor-Smith remains a bit of a mystery. In his official online biography, he states that he drew the pictures and then added some dialogue in the borders and that you then added filler.

I love that word "filler" as stated by Mr. Kahan. It infers that Thomas didn't do much of anything and that Windsor-Smith did it all.

RT: I'm not saying that Barry is totally wrong. He tends to exaggerate--as we all tend to do, I suppose--his part of things, I assume quite sincerely, but he is still wrong.

 Thomas goes on to politely refute Windsor-Smith, and does so without "calling him out"; however, some of my favorite Conan comics are the Thomas/Windsor-Smith collaborations. I like most of the Thomas issues with artists other than BWS, but those with him remain my favorites and are, in my opinion, superior to most other Conan collaborations. I wonder just how much was due to BWS and not RT?  Thomas also points out, and I'm paraphrasing here, that memory is a tricky thing; therefore, Windsor-Smith might actually believe that he was the driving force behind Marvel's Conan the Barbarian. Mr. Thomas is exactly right. Memory is tricky and often events are different than how we remember them. With that in mind, how accurate is the memory of Roy Thomas?

Mr. Kahan asks him about a the various What If? appearances of Conan (vs. Captain America, vs. Wolverine, etc.). Thomas states that he was under constant pressure, mostly from Stan Lee, to bring in other characters from the Marvel Universe. At one point:

RT: [because] the book was doing poorly...we basically were told by Stan [Lee] that we were going to have  to bring Thor in....It made more sense than a lot of characters...Barry and I toyed with the idea of Thor having a little more primitive version of his costume. The thing is, right about that time, the sales suddenly took a bounce...[and] Stan stopped the push to get us to use Thor.

The Conan fan in me is glad that Thomas worked hard to isolate my favorite barbarian from the rest of the Marvel U, What If? appearances aside (which I enjoy), it's hard to marvel at Conan's strength when he is going toe-to-toe with the Hulk. I think bringing in Thor would have killed the comic (it was done, years later in an issue of What If?). To bring in Thor would have essentially changed the comic Conan the Barbarian  to Thor and the Barbarian. It may or may not, have put a serious dent in the popularity of Conan as a franchise; however, the Marvel Fan-Boy within really wants to know if Barry Windsor-Smith did any preliminary sketches of Thor wearing "a little more primitive version of his costume" possibly doing battle alongside Conan? If so, I'd love to see/own them.

Skipping ahead, Roy Thomas starts speaking of other actors considered for the role of Conan in 1982's Conan the Barbarian: Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone and Michael York. 

I end with that, and a request. Could someone with art skills better than my own submit a rendition of A) Charles Bronson as Conan, B) Stallone as same and the one I really want, C) Michael York as my favorite barbarian. Please?



Dave said...

I find it hard to believe that the chief writer at the tme Roy would not have been in control of the art selection as Buscema was the first choice and BWS second. I do believe that without Roy Stan would have took any old barbarian and with Glenn Lord's help they chosse rightly. Conan came to be as Roy and Barry's love child. :)
Is Michael York the guy that acted in Logun's Run? If so , talk about skinny Conan arrghhh. ;)

Mike D. said...

I like this piece. Nice.
Historically I always perceived what I had read that since Roy came to Stan with the idea the entire responsibility was laid upon Mr. Thomas' shoulders and he ran with it. His first choice was Big John but Stan would not allow it because of John's page rate as he was the highest paid artist at that time other than Jazzy John.
So...they went with Barry as he was paid 1/4 what John was paid per page.
Are these facts? I dunno I aint going to say they are but they are my interpretations based on what I'd read.
But we got Big John anyway , eventually. As far as BWS is concerned...his contribution and his style and his legacy can't be dismissed. I am quite fond of the way it all came together.
It's a rich history for a creation deserving of the hype and hoopla!

Kilsern said...

Thank you for reading and responding Dave. I believe your assumptions are correct, and I didn't mean to be misleading in my analysis. The Thomas/Windsor-Smith discussion is akin to the Chicken and the Egg argument. That being said, I do believe that Mr. Thomas had ultimate control, but I think Mr. Windsor-Smith took some liberties that Roy Thomas liked and henceforth kept. Barry Windsor-Smith remembers is differently, but aren't many of us the heroes of our own memories? And for Michael York, you are correct Sir. Logan's Run, 1976 I do believe, and yes, he would have made a scrawny Cimmerian. ;-)

Kilsern said...


Thank you for the kind words, I had fun writing this piece and am looking forward to finishing up part II.

I agree with your assumptions. It is a fact that Mr. Thomas wanted John Buscema, but Stan Lee vetoed it. Mr. Buscema was too pricey for a non-super hero book that most at Marvel felt would fail. BWS was far cheaper, and as fate would have it, helped cement Conan into comics so along COULD come Big John. Fate is funny.

Ralph said...

I read another great Roy Thomas interview here:
He says he's developing a barbarian character of his own. Can't wait to see what that's going to be like!