Swords and Souls

Autumn feels very much on its way and the summer holidays are fading behind me. However, I wanted to post about some Bronze Age reading I did in August.

In the late summer of 1975, we had a family holiday in Rothesay. During that week, I got three DC comics: one was Kamandi’s excursion in Canada, the Dominion of the Devils; the other two were the first issue of Justice Inc. ( a Doc Savage imitator ) and, in Port Bannatyne, the first issue of Stalker.

These were both premiers in Joe Orlando’s Adventure line, heavily promoted in DC s of the day. These were (Justice Inc. excepted) sword -and-sorcery or caveman adventures poorly timed to glory of Marvel’s award-winning Conan. While that one character, as we’ll see later, achieved surprising longevity in comics, other fantasy titles faltered and failed. DC had launched the Fritz Leiber and ERB adaptations earlier in the decade but they had proved short-lived ( perhaps too “literary”).

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I was intrigued by Stalker perhaps because the alienated hero reminded me of Moorcock’s Elric, whom I’d discovered earlier in the summer of 75, in the UK Conan weekly.

Although I recognised Ditko’s blend of Tibetan mysticism and Film Noir from way back in the Power Comics days of my primary schooling, I don’t think I was impressed overly by him or indeed by Wally Wood in those days. Of course, Wood, unbeknownst to me then, had already drawn some charming epic fantasy short stories for Marvel circa 1970.

Quest For a Stolen Soul: the comic creates a Tolkienesque, medieval world and this opening episode introduces Paul Levitz’s elvish protagonist who is a fusion of Elric and Cinderella, with a touch of the Creeper thrown in.

The ice queen Baroness of Castle Loranth is marked for death by the urchin she once enslaved: a boy who sold his soul to the warrior god Dgrth ( Confusingly, there is also a reference to a god named Wgrth). It’s a dark, cynical world of crushed dreams and betrayal.  The protagonist cannot experience emotions and has been cheated by both his patron and his god. He sets out on a quest to reclaim his soul by entering hell and dispatches a monk in a fiery temple of blades once he’s got a lead.

Interestingly, Stalker’s tracking abilities recall Levitz’s Legion inductees, Dawnstar and Mwindaji. The comic’s text page also features a sure-fire winner for me: a map of Stalker’s world- although it’s a sparse one.

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Darkling Death at World’s End Sea: Stalker tracks down Prior F’lan at  the End of Eternity, where the sea literally rolls off the edge of the world. ( I remember my school friend Graham Sim telling me a planet would have to be extremely small to make that possible. Don’t know if that’s right.)

Stalker rescues a slave girl and extracts the location of the entrance to Dgrth’s realm from the prior . He then binds F’lan to the Wheel of Infinity. This ruthlessness is very 70s, very Punisher and Conan seems a bit more compassionate by comparison.

This was the second-and last- issue of Stalker I  read: back in 1978 or 1979 as one of a “Grab-Bag” of comics from Lewis’s department store in Glasgow’s Argyle Street. The contents also included one of Kirby’s last Kamandi issues (“The Soyuz Survivor” with a Joe Kubert cover); the final issue of the Fleisher/Kirby/ Wood Sandman; and one each of Claw, Beowulf and Kong– further entries in the Adventure line that didn’t grab me by that time).

However, I wanted to create some new memories of Bronze age books. So I bought the remaining two issues of the series online and read them while visiting Dufftown a couple of weeks ago.

Dufftwon is home to Glenfiddich and several other distilleries. So in a woodland park where the air was thick with whisky fumes , I read Stalker 3 and 4.

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The Freezing Flames of the Burning Isle: Stalker encounters a red-werewolf and a harpy. The latter  is revealed to be the beautiful Srani, a “changeling” who claims she was marooned on the island. With her destruction, Stalker enters the gates of Hell.

While in her human disguise, Srani recounts some of the history of Stalker’s world, including “legends of ships that sailed not upon the sea…gods came from the stars…men fought them back.”

So, this Epic Fantasy world contains imagery of astronauts. While an unusual approach, there was a precendent for this melding as seen in the very first Barry Smith issue of Conan the Barbarian: there, a shaman glimpsed a manned spaceflight in a vision.

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Invade the Inferno: Stalker beards  Dgrth in his lair,  Castle Carnage but is bedevilled by a “3-headed terror”, skeleton warriors, a dragon and a  riddling 3-foot imp. The god explains that Stalker’s soul is incorporated into his being – or something- and can only be released with his dissolution. However,  belief in evil sustains him so Stalker vows to  banish all evil from his world.

This final issue is not unlike The Son of Satan’s confrontation with his demonic dad a la Herb Trimpe. Indirectly, it also recalls Dr. Strange’s first meetings with Dormammu and Eternity.

And there the series ended, dying a quick death like most of DC’s Adventure line. Being rather pallid imitations of Marvel series from earlier in the decade, they didn’t really offer much of an alternative but Stalker was an interesting idea that probably needed more time to find its market,

Stalker returned in 1999 in the miniseries The Justice Society Returns: rather fittingly, since Levitz’s JSA in All-Star Comics was one of my favourite comics in 1977-78.

James Robinson, something of a fan of mid-70s Dc obscurities used Stalker as a world-conquering menace unleashed by Nazi occultists. In the series, Stalker now resembled Dgrth. A more familiar Stalker shared an adventure with Wonder Woman where she offered him some redemption despite a betrayal. He returned a third time in the New 52 version of Sword of Sorcery but that title folded in the spring of 2013.

I also read an issue of Savage Sword of Conan – a series I always associate with the last weeks of summer.

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The Devil in Iron is a Thomas/Buscema/Alcala adaptation of a REH tale, published in October 1976 ( at the same time that Captain Britain made his debut!)

The original adventure rehashed several elements of earlier Conan stories: the evil sheikh and his nubile victim in an island’s lost city  from Shadows in the Moonlight; the resurrection of an ancient menace from Black Colossus; and the phantom inhabitants of a city with secret passages from The Slithering Shadow.

The Marvel version is all lush charcoals and captures the furious action and decadent evil of the original. The metallic giant monster Khosatral Khel is a more pharaonic being than the grotesquerie of Boris Vallejo’s  cover and there is a rather silly image of his head on fire. However, it’s a good example of Marvel’s Conan Classic.

In the near future, I’ll comment upon the first outings for Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor and the new monthly Titan Comics for his immediate predecessors.

 
All images presumed copyright of their respective owners

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