By GW Thomas
That first attempt at sword-and-sorcery was to be found in their horror titles. (If it hadn’t sunk the Warren magazines, why not?) “In a Far Off Land” in The Witching Hour #3 (June-July 1968) was written by Steven Skeates and drawn by Bernie Wrightson. The plot follows a man of Earth who is drawn into a fantasy world by magic. The wizard who has summoned him has also locked away his memory. Charged with defeating the barbarian invaders, armed with a magic sword, he prevails by killing the evil Lafhards and winning the girl. When his memory is restored, the man finds he is a murderer who rests in a prison cell. He is given the choice of staying in the fantastic realm or return to Earth. He chooses (rather stupidly) to return and pay for his crime. Skeates would go on to write other sword-and-sorcery stories for Warren’s Creepy and Eerie. Wrightson would achieve fame as the artist behind such horror titles as Swamp Thing, but during this time he produced more sword-and-sorcery for DC and Marvel.
In an editorial at the end of the issue, O’Neil lays out his background and mission in “Take That, You Hideous Magician, You! Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Swordplay.” He mentions the big guys: Burroughs, Howard, Leiber, Tolkien, and Moorcock; claiming their inspiration for all the people involved in the comic. “We wondered why nobody was publishing a sword-and-sorcery comic magazine. It seems to us that the comics medium is perfectly suited to sword-and-sorcery’s blend of action, grotesque beings, eerie places. Yet the few attempts in the past to embody sword-and-sorcery in panel art have been dismal failures. Readers left them languishing like ugly kittens. Perhaps these earlier attempts were badly done (and perhaps they weren’t). More probably, potential fans simply hadn’t discovered the special joys the pages offered.” In 1969, this statement is true. Nobody was publishing a real sword-and-sorcery title. O’Neil hints at his stint “at another company” on Hercules and perhaps means himself when he means under-appreciated.
The finale has the Warlocks sending giant spiders to kill the heroes on strands of smoke. Spearo and the Warlock Lord (this predates Terry Brooks’character of the same name in The Sword of Shannara by eight years) set a trap for the Nightmaster. They take Janet Jones, change her appearance, and erase her mind. She is turned into Mizzi the Maid, guest-drawn by Jeff Jones (you can recognize his style) in a cutie-pie fashion. Rook and his crew recruit the grumpy wizard Mar-Grouch to help the heroes and retrieve Janet magically. Rook is disappointed when it is Mizzi who is rescued. Now a member of the group, Mizzi tries and tries again to kill Rook, first by stabbing him, then by putting yellow crystals in his flying gear. Green crystals would have worked fine, but the yellow attract the deadly Arivegs, giant man-eating flying plants. They defeat the Arivegs and corner the conspiring Lord Spearo and Warlock Lord. The magician puts them to sleep with a spell and the heroes are captured. Mizzi frees the heroes, but not before the Warlock Lord turns her back into Janet. Using a portal that looks like a big ink blot, the Warlocks cross over to our dimension to begin their conquest. Rook forces them back into Myrra then destroys the portal. He and Janet are standing on the street, wondering if it was all a dream, but the glowing sword in his hand says otherwise.
DC Comics tried to gain a foothold in the world of sword-and-sorcery comics with DC Showcase’s Nightmaster, but it failed. What would have followed a successful run of Nightmaster can only be guessed. Would the comic have become a superhero comic set in our world or would Jim and Janet have gone back to the realm of Myrra? We will never know what Denny O’Neil would have done if the comic was a hit, but we can be pretty sure what others would do. In 2005, fans of the old series created Shadowpact, a collection of old characters who fight in a superhero group. This superheroing seemed inevitable from how O’Neil finished the tale. Working out of the Oblivion Bar, now owned by Jim Rook. 2011 saw writer Adam Beecham and artist Kieron Dwyer give us Nightmaster: Monsters of Rock, in which Rook does go back to Myrra to fight Lord Meh and rescue the Shadowpact superhero group. His companion is an elderly hippie. Berni Wrightson did a great cover for the last entry.
Next time, DC tries again...
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.