Monday, June 15, 2015

The Sword of Charlton, Part 1: Herc and Thane [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

When you say "sword-and-sorcery comics" you usually think of Roy Thomas and Barry Smith in Conan the Barbarian, back in October 1970. DC tested the waters in 1969 with "Nightmaster" in DC Showcase #82-84, then in 1971 there was a guest spot for Fafhrd and Grey Mouser in Wonder Woman #202 (August 1972), but DC didn't put them in a regular title until March 1973 with Sword of Sorcery. You would think Charlton - Marvel and DC's poor cousin - would be slow to take on the new fad of sword-and-sorcery comics, but in fact this was not the case.

Sword-and-sorcery titles exploded after Conan the Barbarian, but they had a good five-year initiation before the Cimmerian stomped the Halls of Marvel. The action was in the horror anthologies and undergrounds: Unearthly Spectaculars, Creepy, Eerie, Witzend, The Witching Hour, Web of Horror, Vampirella, House of Mystery, Chamber of Darkness, and on. Artists who became famous (or were already famous) for other kinds of comics experimented with sword-and-sorcery: Wally Wood, Steve Ditko, Gray Morrow, Reed Crandall, Jeff Jones, Tom Sutton, Alex Nino, and Berni Wrightson. The most prolific writer before Roy Thomas was Archie Goodwin. The anthologies were willing to take a chance on a sword-and-sorcery story as long as it had some horrific element. And why not? It was just one story.

The only exception was a Charlton title: Adventures of the Man-God Hercules (October 1967-December 1968), predating Conan by three years. The comic ran for thirteen issues, all written by Joe Gill and drawn by Sam Glanzman. The title sticks out because during this time at Charlton the majority of their comics were either horror anthologies like The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves or media-based comics like The Flintstones or Bullwinkle and Rocky. In 1967 there were no new Hercules films. From 1963 to 1965 there had been a spate of them starring Gordon Scott and others. On TV, the cartoon The Mighty Hercules had finished its run in 1966. For Charlton to do a new non-media-driven Hercules title, when the material seemed worn out, is unusual.

Until you consider sword-and-sorcery. Lancer books had been selling piles of Conan paperbacks starting in 1966. Someone at Charlton had noticed and that person was Denny O'Neil (scripting under the pseudonym Sergius O'Shaugnessy). In the letter columns the editors clearly identify the comic as sword-and-sorcery. A fifteen year-old Klaus Janson, who would become famous as Frank Miller's inker on Wolverine, asked why Charlton did not adapt Robert E Howard's Conan? The answer: too expensive. The public domain character of Hercules was a much cheaper alternative. O'Neil would leave Charlton for DC, giving him the chance to create Nightmaster for DC and write Sword of Sorcery, those DC titles mentioned above. Without the opportunity to explore the genre at Charlton, Denny O'Neil and DC might never have looked at sword-and-sorcery comics.

The thirteen issues of Hercules were based on the Twelve Labors of Hercules from mythology. Upon his mother's death, Hercules asks his father, the god Zeus, if he can become one of the gods. To do this he must complete twelve impossible tasks (erroneously nine in the first issue but corrected in the second). As Hercules attempts a different task each issue, Zeus' wife, the goddess Hera, tries to thwart him, since Hercules is the son of one of Zeus' lovers, Alcmene. These mighty challenges include killing the Nemean Lion, the three giants Gerion, returning Queen Alcestis from the dead and fighting Cerberus, entering another dimension and defeating the harpies for golden apples, stealing the Amazon queen's girdle, fighting the minotaur and the giant bull of Minos, the giant boar of Erymanthus, the flesh-eating horses of Diomedes, and the nine-headed hydra. Hercules ran out of labors shortly before the series ended. The feel of the series is quite similar to the films of Ray Harryhausen such as Jason and the Argonauts from 1963, with its heavenly game-players watching over the human pawns.

In terms of artwork, Sam Glanzman begins with a fairly tight style, then loosened up after the first two issues. Some letter writers complimented his art as being similar to Joe Kubert's work. By issue five Glanzman's distinctive look was in place, with Hercules' eyes being almond-shaped. There was discussion about the "slanted" eyes, but Glanzman never changed this, keeping his style the same to the end. The early issues feel stiff and dull. Though the later style is perhaps more cartoony, the lines suggests more action and flow.

It is doubtful Hercules had much influence on Conan the Barbarian as Roy Thomas had Robert E Howard's original stories to work from, but this can't be said for later comics (especially DC titles) like Michael Urslan's Beowulf: Dragonslayer and Gerry Conway's post-apocalyptic version of Hercules Unbound. The mythological hero-adventurer is part-and-parcel of sword-and-sorcery and these writers used it as well. What Adventures of the Man-God Hercules did do was get the ball rolling, allowing Marvel to establish their Conan franchise.

The back-up to Hercules was "Thane of Bagarth" (December 1967-Sept 1969) written by Steven Skeates and drawn by Jim Aparo and later San Ho Kim. This strip was set in the days after Beowulf. Hrothelac has his title of Thane of Bagarth taken from him by deceit. His enemies, including his brother, frame him for collaborating with the Swedes. In exile, he is captured by Vikings and made a slave. His ship sinks off the English coast and Hrothalec is imprisoned. He escapes with the help of the alchemist Mordwain. The series takes a weird turn at this point with time travelers coming to the past. What had been a complex tale of intrigue and power-playing shifts into science fiction. The series was partially reprinted in 1985 using fantasy-related strips from their vaults as back-ups, including Steve Ditko's "The Hammer of Thor" from Out of this World #11 (January 1959) and "Robin Hood Confounds a Rival" from Robin Hood and His Merry Men #32 (May 1957). Skeates left Charlton for Warren in 1971 where he wrote sword-and-sorcery in "The Dragon-Prow" (Creepy #39, May 1971) and "Musical Chairs" (Eerie #43, November 1972), drawn by Charlton pal, Tom Sutton.

After thirteen issues, Charlton dropped their one sword-and-sorcery title, but they weren't done with heroic fantasy just yet...

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

1 comment:

Mikey D. said...

i LOVED THIS SERIES- Sam Glanzman's work was just simply amazing if you ask me. I take these out to binge read every once in a while. I pour over the art and am reinvigorated. Great comic books inspire

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