By GW Thomas
Nightmaster failed to become DC's first sword-and-sorcery title, but DC kept trying in the horror magazines. “The Eyes of the Basilisk” (The House of Mystery #184, January-February 1970) was written by E Nelson Bridwell and drawn by Gil Kane and Wally Wood. The plot has the country of Karinek invaded by the deadly serpent. The king offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can slay the basilisk. Many try, but fail. Two brothers, Ursus and Ulfar, go to defeat the monster using a polished shield. Ursus doesn’t look into the basilisk’s eyes, but in the shield. The terrible gaze freezes him and the serpent kills him. Ulfar goes to avenge his brother, lifting the shield and reflecting the monster’s gaze into its own face. The basilisk turns itself to stone and Ulfar becomes king. It is only at the end that we find out Ulfar is blind.
Kane and Wood’s presence here is significant. Wally Wood was the artist responsible for “Clawfang the Barbarian” (Unearthly Spectaculars #2, December 1965) five years earlier and he had drawn several pieces for his own fanzine, Witzend. He would go on to do both Hercules Unbound (1975) and Stalker (1975) for DC. Gil Kane would draw many sword-and-sorcery pieces, some based on Robert E Howard’s stories for Marvel in the pages of Savage Sword of Conan and Conan the Barbarian. Perhaps his best of all of them was his adaptation of “The Valley of the Worm” in Supernatural Thrillers #3 (April 1973).
DC’s next ploy to test the waters was to reprint three of Joe Kubert’s Viking Prince stories from the pages of The Brave and the Bold from 1955, in DC Special #12 (May-June 1971). More Viking Prince episodes would be used to fill out the backs of DC Special #22-25. These giant-sized magazines featured new stories about the Three Musketeers and old Robin Hood reprints.
This was followed by DC's first sword-and-sorcery title launch: Fritz Leiber’s two best thieves in Lankhmar, in Sword of Sorcery (March-April to November-December 1973). Before the five-issue run, drawn largely by Howard Chaykin (another artist linked to the feel and look of sword-and-sorcery with his work for Marvel), Fafhrd and Grey Mouser first appeared in Wonder Woman #202 (September-October 1972) in an introductory episode that did little but pit them against Diana Prince. This tale was written by science fiction master, Samuel R Delany and drawn by Dick Giordano. Sword of Sorcery failed after only a few issues, as would titles like Stalker, Beowulf, Dragonslayer, and Claw the Unconquered. Success was to be found in the science fiction-tinged The Warlord by Mike Grell, running for 133 issues with new material up to 2008. You would think after all this trying, DC would have ended the sword-and-sorcery appearances in their horror titles, but this was not so.
“King of the Ring” from Plop #23 (September-October 1976) is an unusual outlier that has to be mentioned. Written and drawn by Wally Wood, the strip is one of the first comic parodies of The Lord of the Rings in the manner of Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings. While not sword-and-sorcery exactly, the funny piece packs many of the highlights and characters of Tolkien’s masterpiece into only six pages. Woody uses silly variations such as Gondeaf for Gandalf and Snyder for Rider, etc. He has a crew of dwarves with names like Slappy, Droopy, Sleazy, Groucho, Harpo, Snoopy, and Shlepo. There is an incognito king who announces he is incognito, the frog-like Glum who wants his “sweetums,” Nazighuls, norks, Schlob, and the ring finally gets destroyed when Frodo shoves Glum over the edge. Wood ends it with the ring flying out of Mount Doom to Gondeaf’s hand. The wizard decides to keep the ring and be evil. Drawn with Wood’s best Mad Magazine-meets-The King of the World style, it is a classic parody.
“Bruce the Barbarian” in Unexpected #205 (December 1980) was written by JM Dematteis with art by Vic Catan. Bruce E Platt is an unpopular disc jockey who uses the occult to create a fantasy world in which he is a heroic barbarian. This alternate reality becomes so real that when his former girlfriend, Cornelia, comes to his apartment, he kills her by accident. When the cops come to arrest him, they find Bruce being tormented for eternity in a very real hell. This type of story, the fantasy fan as escapist-loser is one of my least favorite tropes, being the shallow reaction of non-fantasy fans: whether it is Harlan Ellison’s “Delusion For a Dragonslayer” (1966) or the anti-LARPing film, Mazes and Monsters starring a young Tom Hanks (1982). Dematteis would pen the final issues of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, so I suspect he’s not an anti-fantasy fan.
“No Penny, No Paradise” in Unexpected #222 (May 1982) was written by Robert Kanigher of Wonder Woman fame (as well as SF titles like Metal Men) and had art by Keith Giffin and Larry Mahlstedt. Not really a hardcore sword-and-sorcery tale, the plot follows Alexander the Great as he conquers Asia. Before his death, he reminds Philo to place a penny on his tongue. When Alexander arrives at the River Styx, Charon refuses him entrance into heaven because he has no penny. Alexander goes back to haunt Philo. The thief defeats him by placing a penny in his own mouth before dying. Alexander is powerless to stop Philo from crossing the Styx while he is damned forever. Giffin got his start with the later issues of Claw the Unconquered. Unfortunately he did not ink his own work. Malhlstedt’s inking lacks the weird flavor of Claw. The cover art was provided by Ernie Colon, the artist who created Arak, Son of Thunder with Roy Thomas.
With that final issue, DC Comics said goodbye to short sword-and-sorcery, but not all heroic fantasy. In 1982, the company had the unpopular Arak, Son of Thunder, Arion, Lord of Atlantis, Masters of the Universe tie-ins, The Warlord (no longer with Grell), The Atlantis Chronicles by Esteban Maroto, and the on-again-off-again Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld. By 1988 though, the ranks of DC would not include sword-and-sorcery. In fact, by the 1990s, only old cornerstones such as Conan, Elfquest, Masters of the Universe, and television fare such as Xena, Warrior Princess would be in evidence. The 1990s would not be kind to sword-and-sorcery. DC Comics, like everyone else, had tested the waters, but ultimately gone back to superheroes.
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.