Friday, June 8, 2012

The Tower of the Elephant -- Dueling Pencils

Doug:  How many stories can you name that were written by one author, but illustrated by two masters, six years apart?  Today we're going to look at such a tale, "The Tower of the Elephant" featuring Conan the Barbarian.  Karen and I ran a review of the comic on the left, above, back in December 2011.  I have the reprints of The Savage Sword of Conan that Dark Horse has been publishing, and the last story in volume 2 reprints "Tower" from Savage Sword #24 (November 1977).  The latter version has very pretty pictures from John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala.  Given that the original version was put together by Barry Smith and John's little brother Sal, it's going to be difficult to go wrong here.

Doug:  We're going to reprint our review, but relocate the Smith pictures and set them side-by-side with the Buscema versions -- as close as we can get it to the same scene that we used the first time around.  Oft-commenter Cerebus660 said, back in December (with some minor editing by me):   

Roy Thomas was a master at adapting REH's work and getting the tone just right (within the boundaries of the Comics Code, of course).  Barry Smith's artwork was rapidly maturing issue by issue, and this story's final image of the tower collapsing is just beautiful.  Thomas had another go at this story when he wrote an extended version for Savage Sword Of Conan no. 24, with artwork by that team supreme, John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala. It's very interesting to contrast the two different approaches...

Doug:  Before we send you off to your analysis, some apologies from my end on the inconsistent layout of the art.  I've had a devil of a time with the updated Blogger interface in regard to the addition of images to posts.  Personally, I thought the old version was more user-friendly.  If you're new around here, feel free to comment on the story itself or on our review; if you recall us doing this last year, then critiques of the different artistic interpretations are your mission.  So, away we go --

Conan the Barbarian #4 (April 1971) -- originally reviewed on December 26 2011
"The Tower of the Elephant!"
Roy Thomas-Barry Smith/Sal Buscema

The Savage Sword of Conan #24 (November 1977)
"The Tower of the Elephant"
Roy Thomas-John Buscema/Alfredo Alcala

Doug: Happy Holidays, everyone! And what cries out "Good will toward men" like a barbarian slugfest?
Doug: I can't hardly contain my excitement over the art in this issue. Last Wednesday Karen and I (and a few of our faithful commenters) remarked that through the first several issues of Conan one could watch the maturation of Barry Smith's art. This being only Smith's fourth outing, it's nonetheless a tour de force. From the first page, his backgrounds are busy, the facial- and figure work are dynamic, and almost all hint of the Kirby-cloning is gone. We also touched on the computerized recoloring last Wednesday... it's my opinion that it really adds to this moody tale.

Karen: Although Sal Buscema is credited as the inker on this issue I thought it really looked quite different from issue 3, which he also inked. I don't know if he was experimenting with brush work or what, but the lines here seem heavier and thicker, particularly in the first few pages. Whatever the case, the art was very strong in this issue. I agree about the coloring -I think they've done a very good job here, one that doesn't distract the reader.

Doug: We begin in the filthy thief-city of Arenjun in Zamora; think of the cantina in Star Wars and you'll get the idea. A fat rogue of a thief-kingpin speaks loudly about his prowess as a slave-trader and stealer of women; in the course of the conversation he mentions the Elephant Tower of Yara and the jewels hidden within. A strong hand lights on his bulbous shoulder -- it belongs to the young Cimmerian Conan. He notes that he has had his eye on the tower since coming to Arenjun, and that it seems unguarded. The rogue laughs at the youngster's ignorance, and it's obvious that others in the tavern know of the Tower -- splinter conversations abound. Conan wonders if someone could bypass the ground guards, if he had the courage. That does it -- the probing questions aside, this final insult sets the Kothian rogue to near-frothing at the mouth. The rogue strikes Conan across the chest, which draws the ire of the Cimmerian, as well as of his broadsword. A brawl ensues, as the candles lighting the den of thieves are knocked over. When they are again lighted, the thief lies dead on the floor and Conan has left the premises.

Karen: This is a great sequence, one that really pulls you in to Conan's world. You can practically smell the perfume, smoke, and sweat in this thieves' den. Smith's art is also becoming much more detailed -note the pattern on Conan's sword.

Doug: Conan has approached the silver tower, which rises from a large high-walled garden. As Conan stealthily approaches the perimeter, he sees a purple-robed figure approach the guarded gate. Initially denied entrance, the robed figure rebukes the guard and is granted entrance. Conan notes that as the figure moves, his feet hover slightly above the earth! Racing around the wall, Conan scales it and drops to the other side. Getting his bearings, he begins to move when he suddenly trips over the body of a guard. Had the robed figure strangled the man to death? Conan looks around, and feels another presence moving slowly through the garden. Spying his company, and after sizing each other up for a moment, these two trespassers introduce themselves. The newcomer tells Conan that he is Taurus of Nemedia, known as the King of Thieves, and also the true killer of the guard. Coincidentally, Conan and Taurus have arrived in the same space and time with the same goal. I thought it was interesting here that neither Conan nor Taurus seemed suspicious of the other, and they quickly formed an alliance to steal the fabled Heart of the Elephant.

Karen: Thomas does a good job getting across Conan's youth and inexperience. He is both awed and frightened by the priest Yara. I can't imagine the Conan of later years reacting that way. The alliance with Taurus does seem a bit convenient though.

Doug: The now-allies move toward and onto the inner wall. Bent on their common goal, Conan continues his inquiries into the history of their prize. Asking Taurus just why this location is called the Tower of the Elephant, Taurus asks Conan if he knows what an elephant is. Conan tells that while he's not seen one, he does know that they are "monstrous beasts, with a tail at both ends." It's here that we see how Robert E. Howard often plugged in existing world history and mythology and the terminology of both. Conan mentions that a wandering Shemite had told him this. The term of course references one of the sons of Noah, Shem, who (if we are to believe classical anthropology) served to repopulate the earth in the area we'd call the Middle East. Anyway... As our protagonists land on the other side of the wall, they immediately see that this new area is guarded by a group of three silent lions, who rush towards the two thieves. Taurus takes out a blowpipe and pushes a green dust into the air around the beasts. Conan is incredulous as the animals breathe their last, and asks what manner of substance they were felled with. Taurus answers that it is the powder of the mysterious black lotus.

Karen: I enjoyed Conan's remark about his god, Crom: "Great Crom lives on a mountain...and little he cares for what men do with their tiny lives." We'd hear a version of this years later coming from the mouth of Arnold Schwarzenegger! That powder Taurus had was pretty amazing stuff -lucky he didn't inhale any!

Doug: Reaching the wall of the tower, Taurus pulls out a grappling hook and rope and gets it to hold fast on his first toss. Conan suddenly whirls to see a fourth lion pouncing. Conan lashes out with his sword, killing the beast. The two men begin to scale the tower. They marvel at the surface, encrusted with uncountable jewels and gemstones. Reaching the top, Taurus tells Conan to walk the perimeter of the tower's landing to look for guards below. With Conan distracted, Taurus sneaks inside the door and shuts it behind him. Conan senses this potential treachery and returns to the door. Conan hears a sound from within like a man being strangled, and Taurus' limp body falls back through the door into the barbarian's arms. Bearing only small needle-like marks on his neck, Taurus is cast aside as Conan cautiously enters the room. Amid caskets of jewels, Conan moves forward until he is smitten on the shoulder by an acidic liquid. Suddenly a giant black spider swings down and attacks. Conan evades the spider's first attack, but before he can reach the door the creature encompasses the barbarian in a sticky, constricting web. Conan is able to grab one of the heavy jewel boxes and hurls it at the giant arachnid, crushing its head.

Karen: I was very taken with the way Smith drew the tower -glimmering, almost in motion it seemed. The coloring no doubt enhances this; I'd like to see the original comic book coloring for a comparison. The fight with the spider was brief but exciting. Earlier Conan had remembered a story he heard, that Yara, the priest of the tower, had once turned a prince into a tiny spider. Perhaps this was another victim of the sorcerer, although much larger?

Doug: Conan enters a door he'd not seen previously during his conflict with the spider. Entering and descending some steps, he sees a large green elephantine idol seated on a throne. As the Cimmerian approaches, he is stopped in his tracks by fear when the creature begins to move. It looks around sightlessly, assuming that Yara has come to torture it -- from his words, this has apparently been a regular occurrence by both fire and the racks. Conan hesitantly speaks to it, and the creature names himself as Yag-Kosha. Conan tells the green elephant that he will not harm him; in turn, Yag-Kosha asks Conan to come closer so that he may touch the barbarian. Conan does so a bit too willingly for my tastes (no way... I'm thinking no way -- it's gotta be a trick!), and Yag-Kosha begins to speak of the origins of his people and how he came to be in this place. He reveals that he is an ancient space traveler who came to Earth long enough ago that he witnessed apes become men. Eventually his people died out, and Yag-Kosha was the last of his kind. He later taught a pupil named Yara, a sorcerer already gifted in the black arts. Once Yag-Kosha had given of enough knowledge to make Yara truly his master, the elephantine man was imprisoned by the scheming Yara. The very tower which he had built for Yara in but a day now served as his confines.

Karen: The elephant man's tale is a bitterly sad one. Even the barbarian is moved by it. Smith does a fabulous job here. Yag-Kosha is brilliantly drawn, not ridiculous but imbued with a tragic nobility. Again, the level of detail is stunning. Look at the pattern on the drapes, on the small amulets Yag-Kosha wears on his tusks, vines growing up sides of buildings - Smith was really thinking and putting it all into this art.

Doug: Yag-Kosha asks Conan to kill him. Yag-Kosha tells the barbarian to plunge his sword into the alien's heart and then take the Heart of the Elephant jewel and set it before Yara. He must then recite an incantation which will finally do in the corrupt sorcerer. Conan does all this. Yara is sleeping in a nearby chamber. Conan enters the room and shouts Yara's name, causing the sorcerer to awaken and curse Conan. Conan places the gem, now blood-red, on a table and Yara is magically drawn into the gem. Yara begins to shrink, stepping out of his clothes and eventually becoming the size of a mouse. Yara somehow scales the smooth surface of the gem and disappears into it. Conan's eyes widen when he sees an image of a majestic Yag-Kosha awaiting. Conan, having been warned by Yag-Kosha to flee, leaves the tower, getting far enough away to see The Tower of the Elephant collapse. The Heart of the Elephant was not to be his -- but what an adventure!

Karen: The coloring of the sphere is wonderful and once again, I have to agree that this modern coloring technique can bring a lot of life to the art. I think this is one of the more fantastical Conan comics I've ever read. It just has more fantasy elements than a lot of the stories. There's very little swordplay but it still manages to be an exciting tale.


Inkstained Wretch said...

I have to say, I like John Buscema's work better here. Buscema's work, especially on Conan, had a much more earthy quality: The sweat, soot, smoke and grime of Conan's world can really be felt and it ads a whole extra dimension to the story. I swear I can almost smell the art... I love the detail in his work too. His Conan looks like a feral beast, all muscle and sinew. The facial expressions are great too. Buscema draws Conan as kind of ugly, but in a commanding way -- as it should be.

Barry Windsor-Smith's work is good, but dang it, I just prefer Buscema.

humanbelly said...

It's a happy accident, in a way, but the fact that Smith's Conan preceeded Buscema's is something that works very much toward establishing a "young" Conan that eventually ages into a "mature" Conan. If their tenures had been reversed, the differences in appearance would only have been jarring. Truly, the two different versions don't have a very strong resemblance, y'know? Especially comparing the comic-to-comic versions-- Buscema's Conan ALWAYS struck me as looking oddly Native American (even down to the generally reddish/ruddy hue of his particular skin color). I don't recall my Hyborian geography or geneology well enough to remember if that's somehow the case, though.

This was an entertaining and memorable story by Howard himself, by the way. I think it was in one of the first couple of books from the series released in the 70's and 80's. One amusing detail is that the size of the giant spider grows in both comic adaptations. In the source story, I'm pretty darned sure it's referred to as being the size of a small pig-- big enough to be horrifying, yet small enough to be dangerously fast. In a way, by making it so big in the Buscema version, it almost becomes passe'--- just another "giant, demon, killer animal" to contend with. . .


david_b said...

I don't have too much to offer never having gotten into Conan, but I love both styles presented here for different reasons (and the ones already mentioned), and that's SUCH an iconic cover on Conan #4.., probably my favorite.

Fred W. Hill said...

Both Smith & Buscema did great jobs, but my preference is for Smith's version. It just occurred to me that it's sort of like comparing the Ditko & Romita versions of Spider-Man. Ditko & Smith did the young version of the characters, with a little more finesse and grace in their art; with Romita & Buscema, the heroes were noticeably older, bulkier, and the art exuded more raw power. In each case it fit that one artist followed the other, as Humanbelly noted about Smith & Buscema. BTW, Hyperborea literally means "beyond the land of the north winds (aka Boreas)", which to the ancient Greeks meant north of Thrace (which back then included part of what is now Bulgaria). Much later, Scandinavians apparently self-identified as Hyperboreans. Buscema's Conan also struck me as looking vaguely Native American although perhaps Buscema meant for him to look like what he conceived of as a a bit of a mix of far northeastern European and Turkic or Mongolian.

Garett said...

Wow, great idea! Love looking through these scenes one after the other. I like both! I've always been a Conan fan, just catching the tail end of Buscema's run as a kid, then reading Smith through reprints, then reading the original novels, then collecting all of Buscema's run, especially enjoying Savage Sword!

Buscema adds the psychology to the death of elephant dude, with pity on Conan's face, while Smith's is straight physicality. On the fighting-the-spider page, I like Smith's dynamic compositions, but love Conan's LEAP by Buscema! Smith's thief has the '70s biker mustache, while Buscema's looks wild like some pirate/caveman. Whenever I see a Buscema face like this, I imagine Buscema himself to look like this on an unkempt angry day.

Interesting strike by Conan in Smith's pub brawl--a slap/palm strike? Nice pub scenes by both artists. Buscema's is so gritty/sleazy--like IW said, I can smell the booze! Love the angle of the drinking lout panel, gulping his ale.

Gotta go read some Conan now--it's been a while! Thanks for this!

Oh I should tell the story--my favorite Buscema art for years was Savage Sword #73, drawn and inked by Buscema. Great art throughout, with ink wash...lots of battles, a girl of course. In fact that issue was my favorite comic, period. One day I'm at the comic store, and comment on one of the original comic pages on the store wall. The owner says, oh yah, I've got a bunch more art pages...and pulls from behind the original Buscema page from SS #73!! I couldn't believe it and bought it on the spot for a price so low if I told you, you'd want to either cheer or kill me! It's hanging on my wall now, the one piece of original comic art I own. Conan in 5 of the 6 panels. Ahhh... : )

Anonymous said...

Hard pressed to think of any comics artist who would compare favorably with John Buscema. Certainly not Mr. Smith, whose work here still suffers from his weakness at drawing faces. The scene where Conan plunges his blade into the elephant man suffers from poor composition as well: Conan's stance could not possibly give much force to his thrust, despite what the narration indicates.

The black and white is also better suited to this type of story. The color art just seems garish in comparison.

I don't see where Mr. Smith even comes close. I'm assuming he was still young and improving at his craft. I wouldn't have bought his Conan comics based on what I see here. This does make me want to read the John Buscema Conan reprints.


humanbelly said...

I'd forgotten about this until I noticed the poll off to the side. Conan #37 was, I thought, a stand-out issue visually-- pencilled by Neal Adams, of all folks! (Don't remember the inker, offhand.)

The book really did have a legacy of great artists, didn't it?


Taranaich said...

I like the ink, style and general execution on Buscema's take, but the scene composition of Smith's better: it just flows more naturally, it has more dynamism, and it's a bit more faithful to the source material (even in little ways, like Conan pushing the Kothian with his open hand, rather than taking a swing and somehow missing in the Buscema adaptation).

Even so, there are some times where too much detail damages the power of the work. The spider, for instance: Smith's version is a vague, scuttling black mass of legs and terror, but Buscema's is too detailed. It's like how the great horror films only show you glimpses of the monster, while some show too much, making it less frightening and more like a silly rubber prop. Similarly, Smith's Yogah seems more alien, where Buscemas really just looks like a guy with an elephant mask.

If Buscema designed a scarier-looking spider and more alien-looking Yogah, that wouldn't be a problem, but here they just look goofy.

Normally I'm definitely in Buscema's corner, even if his Conan doesn't look right facially, it bugs me that his Conan never changes AT ALL over the course of his life: he looks exactly the same here as he does as king 20 years later, but I think Smith has enough going for it to make them "good in different respects."

Buscema's Conan ALWAYS struck me as looking oddly Native American (even down to the generally reddish/ruddy hue of his particular skin color). I don't recall my Hyborian geography or geneology well enough to remember if that's somehow the case, though.

It definitely wasn't: the Cimmerians were the ancestors of the Gaels.

One amusing detail is that the size of the giant spider grows in both comic adaptations. In the source story, I'm pretty darned sure it's referred to as being the size of a small pig-- big enough to be horrifying, yet small enough to be dangerously fast.

Howard described its body as "large as a pig," which suggests that only the thorax and abdomen are included in that estimate. Howard's use of "large as a pig" as opposed to "small as a pig" suggests it was erring on the side of big. I think both adaptations were pretty close, though they used foreshortening and such to make them look bigger.

Interesting strike by Conan in Smith's pub brawl--a slap/palm strike? N

“Will you mock me and then lay hands on me?” grated the barbarian, his quick rage leaping up; and he returned the push with an open-handed blow that knocked his tormenter back against the rude-hewn table.
- Robert E. Howard, "The Tower of the Elephant"

Pretty good approximation by Smith, I'd say.

Joseph Gilbert Thompson said...

Both Smith & Buscema did great jobs, but my preference is for Smith's version.Robert E. Howard, "The Tower of the Elephant" reads like Smith draws.Buscema draws a more accurate adaption,but Yagg Kosha is too stupidly,big headed.BWS draws Yag-Kosha more alien-looking Yogah..
Beside was second Conan comic I read-first being Lair the Beast-Men.It was first Howard.Still my favorite.I never of Big Two Gun Bob,but if could a tale this,I'm hanging this Conan guy for awhile.Smith added some artistic look to the Hyborean World-an Age Undreaded of look.

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