When Marvel launched Conan the Barbarian in 1970, it was a game-changer. Roy Thomas had seen fan letters asking for a Conan book and he knew there was a market for it; Stan didn’t know Conan, didn’t think much of the idea, but he had enough faith in Roy to support him. And so a legend was born.DC’s sword-and-sorcery series Nightmaster preceded the Cimmerian by a year but he’d been a flop, never making it out of Showcase. Conan, however, proved the genre could sell in comics, and thereby inspired imitation. At Marvel that included more Howard characters (Solomon Kane, King Kull and eventually Red Sonja) plus Conan knockoffs such as Lin Carters’ Thongor and John Jakes’ forgettable Brak the Barbarian. DC tried Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in Sword of Sorcery but that didn’t last more than five issues (as a fan of Leiber, I bought them, but found them most unsatisfactory).
DC relied much more on original adventurers during this era: Warlord, Stalker (the Man With the Stolen Soul) and Claw the Unconquered, with Warlord the only long-running hit. But they did try one other adaptation — I use the word loosely — the Michael Uslan/Ricardo Villamonte Beowulf. It only lasted six issues but those were some good-looking, cheerfully absurd, wildly imaginative issues. As witness they really do include Beowulf and Vlad the Implaler having a Clash of Titans.
The first issue gives us the basic set-up of the Anglo-Saxon poem. Beowulf, lord of the Geats, receives a message from the noble King Hrothgar, asking for help against Grendel, the monster terrorizing Hrothgar’s great mead-hall, Heorot. Beowulf, clad in the traditional Geat garb of a metal corset and a minotaur-skull helmet, sets out accompanied by a few characters left out of the epic poem, such as the mystic Shaper and the warrior-woman Nan-Zee, shown on the cover in Grendel’s grip (as you can see, the artist gave her traditional garb of that era too).
In the second issue we learn that Grendel is Satan’s agent (it’s implied he’s also the Son of Satan), sent to the mortal world to spread misery and despair. The barbaric-looking Satan (I really love the art on this book) gloats to Beowulf that the Geat is no match for Grendel; this turns out to be true, so Beowulf sets off with Nan-Zee and his friends to get the ingredients for a magic super-power potion. The quest includes encounters with Greek myths, Gods From Outer Space, minotaurs … and Dracula.Dracula makes the series’ handling of Beowulf look like a model of fidelity to the source material. He crosses Beowulf’s path while hunting and killing the wandering tribes of Israel, which he does purely because he’s evil. And even though he’s not undead, he drinks blood, just because he’s a baaaad boy. Beowulf kills him but Satan turns Dracula into a vampire out of respect for his evil awfulness.
This launches a plotline in which Grendel realizes Satan has a new favorite. Egged on by his mommy, Grendel kills Satan and replaces him on the throne of Hell, then prepares to defend his new domain against Dracula. I’ve no idea how this would have played out, as this happened at the end of the six-issue run. That issue also has Beowulf achieve his quest, drinking a potion that makes him a physical match for Grendel — but would that help when Grendel commands the forces of Hell?
I can’t say I’ve ever lain awake at night tormented by the thought I’ll never know the answer. But the book is entertaining in its over-the-top, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. I’m glad I have all six.
#SFWApro. Post is rewritten version of one from my blog; covers top to bottom are by Barry Windsor Smith, Joe Kubert and Villamonte.