Friday, September 08, 2017

Guest Post | DC Flirts with Sword-and-Sorcery, Part One: Nightmaster

By GW Thomas

Sword-and-sorcery comics have become a thing in their own right. Titles like Conan the Barbarian, The Warlord, and Red Sonja have been successful franchises spanning hundreds of issues. But back in the late 1960s, while Lancer was virtually coining their own money with the purple-edged Howard paperbacks, the response in comics was slow. Heroic Fantasy had yet to find a foothold in mainstream comics. Artists like Wally Wood and Gray Morrow experimented first in fanzines then later in the black-and-whites pages of the Warren horror magazines. Slowly, the big boys took notice. DC beat Marvel to the punch, but their first attempts gained little notice. By 1970, with the swelling success of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, DC had to take a second look at this new thing, this “Conan stuff” that was part fantasy and part horror.

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 a Far off Land” set the pattern for a longer version of this test entitled Nightmaster, using the same man-from-our-world goes to a fantasy realm (what we now call portal fantasy) and has poorly hidden jokes in the names. The three-parter (each bearing a Joe Kubert cover), beginning with DC Showcase #82 (May 1969), was written by Denny O’Neil, a writer who had penned Charlton’s Adventures of the Man-God Hercules under the pseudonym Sergius O'Shaugnessy. This first issue was illustrated by Jerry Grandenetti and Dick Giordano. Grandenetti had drawn several sword-and-sorcery pieces for Warren. The first issue tells how rock musician Jim Rook transcends dimensions to Myrra, a land of fantastic creatures. He meets King Zolto, who relates how Rook is the descendant of Nacht (German for "night"), a hero sent to our dimension by the wizard Farben. Zolto arms Rook with the Sword of Night and sends him to defeat the Warlocks who hold his fiancee, Janet Jones (long before Gretzky). Rook’s assistant is a strange boy named Boz (the character is entirely white and never really explained). Before Rook (now titled Nightmaster and given a rather superhero-looking costume) can defeat the Warlocks, he has to pass through a magical gate. To do this he needs the three magic words from the Ice Witch. The duo ride giant grasshoppers to her mountain and scale the steep walls while Warlock troopers throw icicles at them, but finally defeat the witch after she assumes Janet’s appearance. End of Part One.

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.

According to Like a Bat Out of Hell: Chatting with Bernie Wrightson (Summer 1999), Wrightson was supposed to draw all three issues, but he was pulled when the first seven pages proved unsatisfactory. Grandenetti was working with O’Neil on The Spectre and was called in to start things off. Wrightson did complete the last two segments. With issue #83 (June 1969) and #84 (August 1969), Wrightson inherited Grandenetti’s rather un-Conan-looking hero and a new companion is almost immediately added: Tark. This ram-horned Szaszian barbarian is much closer to what fans expect of sword-and-sorcery. His real name is Tickytarkapolis Trootrust, but Nightmaster dubs him simply Tark (thank goodness). The trio becomes a group of five when the heroes rescue two sirens who have had their voices stolen by the Warlocks. Breaking into Lord Spearo’s castle, they fight empty suits of armor called Hackies and rescue the sirens’ voices. Using the magic of the sirens, they defeat the present Warlocks, but still have to stop the Warlocks’ plan to cross dimensions and conquer our world. End of Part Two.

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.

The writing style of Nightmaster is forcibly scarred by dated language. Rather than having Rook talk in normal phrases he replies in slangy earth references. This constant jarring makes the story a bit of a lark in the Harold Shea vein rather than serious sword-and-sorcery. Perhaps unwisely, Nightmaster was portal fantasy while Conan and Tolkien are not. In the art department, Wrightson got help from two other sword-and-sorcery artists, Jeff Jones and Mike Kaluta. These three, along with sword-and-sorcery superstar Barry Windsor Smith, formed an artists’ commune in 1975 known as The Studio. In this way, with Smith at Marvel and the other three working on Nightmaster, all four contributed to early sword-and-sorcery comics.

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.

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