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Monday, February 18, 2019

Dueling Pencils: The Tower of the Elephant - a Review

Today we're going to hop in the wayback machine, journeying to June 8, 2012. On that date I published a post on the Bronze Age Babies that placed some artwork we'd used about six months earlier in our review of Roy Thomas's and Barry Smith's "Tower of the Elephant" adaptation side-by-side with the John Buscema/Alfredo Alcala rendering in Savage Sword of Conan. We had some nice comments then, and I'm hoping for more of the same. And if nothing else, I've added a splash of color to the blog today!

Many thanks to my co-author and partner, Karen, for her blessing in my use of this material that is half her own. I appreciate her continued support in this endeavor that is the BWBC. And interestingly, you'll see us remark a time or two on the computer coloring in the Dark Horse Chronicles of Conan trade we each used in our original review. Ironic, isn't it, on this blog that celebrates comics in black and white? On to the review(s) -

Doug:  How many stories can you name that were written by one author, but illustrated by two masters, six years apart?  Today we're going to look at such a tale, "The Tower of the Elephant" featuring Conan the Barbarian.  Karen and I ran a review of the comic on the left, above, back in December 2011.  I have the reprints of The Savage Sword of Conan that Dark Horse has been publishing, and the last story in volume 2 reprints "Tower" from Savage Sword #24 (November 1977).  The latter version has very pretty pictures from John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala.  Given that the original version was put together by Barry Smith and John's little brother Sal, it's going to be difficult to go wrong here.

Doug:  We're going to reprint our review, but relocate the Smith pictures and set them side-by-side with the Buscema versions -- as close as we can get it to the same scene that we used the first time around.  Oft-commenter Cerebus660 said, back in December (with some minor editing by me):   

Roy Thomas was a master at adapting REH's work and getting the tone just right (within the boundaries of the Comics Code, of course).  Barry Smith's artwork was rapidly maturing issue by issue, and this story's final image of the tower collapsing is just beautiful.  Thomas had another go at this story when he wrote an extended version for Savage Sword Of Conan no. 24, with artwork by that team supreme, John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala. It's very interesting to contrast the two different approaches...

Doug: If you're new around here, feel free to comment on the story itself or on our review; if you recall us doing this last year, then critiques of the different artistic interpretations are your mission.  So, away we go --

Conan the Barbarian #4 (April 1971) -- originally reviewed on December 26 2011
"The Tower of the Elephant!"
Roy Thomas-Barry Smith/Sal Buscema

The Savage Sword of Conan #24 (November 1977)
"The Tower of the Elephant"
Roy Thomas-John Buscema/Alfredo Alcala

Doug: Happy Holidays, everyone! And what cries out "Good will toward men" like a barbarian slugfest?

Doug: I can't hardly contain my excitement over the art in this issue. Last Wednesday Karen and I (and a few of our faithful commenters) remarked that through the first several issues of Conan one could watch the maturation of Barry Smith's art. This being only Smith's fourth outing, it's nonetheless a tour de force. From the first page, his backgrounds are busy, the facial- and figure work are dynamic, and almost all hint of the Kirby-cloning is gone. We also touched on the computerized recoloring last Wednesday... it's my opinion that it really adds to this moody tale.

Karen: Although Sal Buscema is credited as the inker on this issue I thought it really looked quite different from issue 3, which he also inked. I don't know if he was experimenting with brush work or what, but the lines here seem heavier and thicker, particularly in the first few pages. Whatever the case, the art was very strong in this issue. I agree about the coloring -I think they've done a very good job here, one that doesn't distract the reader.

Doug: We begin in the filthy thief-city of Arenjun in Zamora; think of the cantina in Star Wars and you'll get the idea. A fat rogue of a thief-kingpin speaks loudly about his prowess as a slave-trader and stealer of women; in the course of the conversation he mentions the Elephant Tower of Yara and the jewels hidden within. A strong hand lights on his bulbous shoulder -- it belongs to the young Cimmerian Conan. He notes that he has had his eye on the tower since coming to Arenjun, and that it seems unguarded. The rogue laughs at the youngster's ignorance, and it's obvious that others in the tavern know of the Tower -- splinter conversations abound. Conan wonders if someone could bypass the ground guards, if he had the courage. That does it -- the probing questions aside, this final insult sets the Kothian rogue to near-frothing at the mouth. The rogue strikes Conan across the chest, which draws the ire of the Cimmerian, as well as of his broadsword. A brawl ensues, as the candles lighting the den of thieves are knocked over. When they are again lighted, the thief lies dead on the floor and Conan has left the premises.

Karen: This is a great sequence, one that really pulls you in to Conan's world. You can practically smell the perfume, smoke, and sweat in this thieves' den. Smith's art is also becoming much more detailed -note the pattern on Conan's sword.

Doug: Conan has approached the silver tower, which rises from a large high-walled garden. As Conan stealthily approaches the perimeter, he sees a purple-robed figure approach the guarded gate. Initially denied entrance, the robed figure rebukes the guard and is granted entrance. Conan notes that as the figure moves, his feet hover slightly above the earth! Racing around the wall, Conan scales it and drops to the other side. Getting his bearings, he begins to move when he suddenly trips over the body of a guard. Had the robed figure strangled the man to death? Conan looks around, and feels another presence moving slowly through the garden. Spying his company, and after sizing each other up for a moment, these two trespassers introduce themselves. The newcomer tells Conan that he is Taurus of Nemedia, known as the King of Thieves, and also the true killer of the guard. Coincidentally, Conan and Taurus have arrived in the same space and time with the same goal. I thought it was interesting here that neither Conan nor Taurus seemed suspicious of the other, and they quickly formed an alliance to steal the fabled Heart of the Elephant.

Karen: Thomas does a good job getting across Conan's youth and inexperience. He is both awed and frightened by the priest Yara. I can't imagine the Conan of later years reacting that way. The alliance with Taurus does seem a bit convenient though.

Doug: The now-allies move toward and onto the inner wall. Bent on their common goal, Conan continues his inquiries into the history of their prize. Asking Taurus just why this location is called the Tower of the Elephant, Taurus asks Conan if he knows what an elephant is. Conan tells that while he's not seen one, he does know that they are "monstrous beasts, with a tail at both ends." It's here that we see how Robert E. Howard often plugged in existing world history and mythology and the terminology of both. Conan mentions that a wandering Shemite had told him this. The term of course references one of the sons of Noah, Shem, who (if we are to believe classical anthropology) served to repopulate the earth in the area we'd call the Middle East. Anyway... As our protagonists land on the other side of the wall, they immediately see that this new area is guarded by a group of three silent lions, who rush towards the two thieves. Taurus takes out a blowpipe and pushes a green dust into the air around the beasts. Conan is incredulous as the animals breathe their last, and asks what manner of substance they were felled with. Taurus answers that it is the powder of the mysterious black lotus.

Karen: I enjoyed Conan's remark about his god, Crom: "Great Crom lives on a mountain...and little he cares for what men do with their tiny lives." We'd hear a version of this years later coming from the mouth of Arnold Schwarzenegger! That powder Taurus had was pretty amazing stuff -lucky he didn't inhale any!

Doug: Reaching the wall of the tower, Taurus pulls out a grappling hook and rope and gets it to hold fast on his first toss. Conan suddenly whirls to see a fourth lion pouncing. Conan lashes out with his sword, killing the beast. The two men begin to scale the tower. They marvel at the surface, encrusted with uncountable jewels and gemstones. Reaching the top, Taurus tells Conan to walk the perimeter of the tower's landing to look for guards below. With Conan distracted, Taurus sneaks inside the door and shuts it behind him. Conan senses this potential treachery and returns to the door. Conan hears a sound from within like a man being strangled, and Taurus' limp body falls back through the door into the barbarian's arms. Bearing only small needle-like marks on his neck, Taurus is cast aside as Conan cautiously enters the room. Amid caskets of jewels, Conan moves forward until he is smitten on the shoulder by an acidic liquid. Suddenly a giant black spider swings down and attacks. Conan evades the spider's first attack, but before he can reach the door the creature encompasses the barbarian in a sticky, constricting web. Conan is able to grab one of the heavy jewel boxes and hurls it at the giant arachnid, crushing its head.

Karen: I was very taken with the way Smith drew the tower -glimmering, almost in motion it seemed. The coloring no doubt enhances this; I'd like to see the original comic book coloring for a comparison. The fight with the spider was brief but exciting. Earlier Conan had remembered a story he heard, that Yara, the priest of the tower, had once turned a prince into a tiny spider. Perhaps this was another victim of the sorcerer, although much larger?

Doug: Conan enters a door he'd not seen previously during his conflict with the spider. Entering and descending some steps, he sees a large green elephantine idol seated on a throne. As the Cimmerian approaches, he is stopped in his tracks by fear when the creature begins to move. It looks around sightlessly, assuming that Yara has come to torture it -- from his words, this has apparently been a regular occurrence by both fire and the racks. Conan hesitantly speaks to it, and the creature names himself as Yag-Kosha. Conan tells the green elephant that he will not harm him; in turn, Yag-Kosha asks Conan to come closer so that he may touch the barbarian. Conan does so a bit too willingly for my tastes (no way... I'm thinking no way -- it's gotta be a trick!), and Yag-Kosha begins to speak of the origins of his people and how he came to be in this place. He reveals that he is an ancient space traveler who came to Earth long enough ago that he witnessed apes become men. Eventually his people died out, and Yag-Kosha was the last of his kind. He later taught a pupil named Yara, a sorcerer already gifted in the black arts. Once Yag-Kosha had given of enough knowledge to make Yara truly his master, the elephantine man was imprisoned by the scheming Yara. The very tower which he had built for Yara in but a day now served as his confines.

Karen: The elephant man's tale is a bitterly sad one. Even the barbarian is moved by it. Smith does a fabulous job here. Yag-Kosha is brilliantly drawn, not ridiculous but imbued with a tragic nobility. Again, the level of detail is stunning. Look at the pattern on the drapes, on the small amulets Yag-Kosha wears on his tusks, vines growing up sides of buildings - Smith was really thinking and putting it all into this art.

Doug: Yag-Kosha asks Conan to kill him. Yag-Kosha tells the barbarian to plunge his sword into the alien's heart and then take the Heart of the Elephant jewel and set it before Yara. He must then recite an incantation which will finally do in the corrupt sorcerer. Conan does all this. Yara is sleeping in a nearby chamber. Conan enters the room and shouts Yara's name, causing the sorcerer to awaken and curse Conan. Conan places the gem, now blood-red, on a table and Yara is magically drawn into the gem. Yara begins to shrink, stepping out of his clothes and eventually becoming the size of a mouse. Yara somehow scales the smooth surface of the gem and disappears into it. Conan's eyes widen when he sees an image of a majestic Yag-Kosha awaiting. Conan, having been warned by Yag-Kosha to flee, leaves the tower, getting far enough away to see The Tower of the Elephant collapse. The Heart of the Elephant was not to be his -- but what an adventure!

Karen: The coloring of the sphere is wonderful and once again, I have to agree that this modern coloring technique can bring a lot of life to the art. I think this is one of the more fantastical Conan comics I've ever read. It just has more fantasy elements than a lot of the stories. There's very little swordplay but it still manages to be an exciting tale.


  1. I love this story; it's the first of the REH original stories that I read and it's still one of my favourites. As long as the comics adaptations stick to the original, they can't seem to miss. I think I like the B&W art better than the colours, though it is nice to see Yag-Kosha in all his green glory.

  2. Yeah, this is a good story; I read the b&w version more recently, in the reprint book, while I read the color version in one of those pocketbook reprints in the late 1970s.
    This is a really good review, by the way. I really like the juxtaposition of the images from the two versions. I really can't say which I think looks better - the respective art teams in both cases just really hit it out of the park.

  3. Hiya,

    I really, really respect both sets of creators when it comes to the visuals of these works. That said, I'm going with the Smith/Buscema version. At that time Smith was a young, literally hungry artist. He was learning and both making mistakes and still hitting someone for six* with his googlys*. He also had a inker who could smooth out some of his pencils. I've seen some of these and, trust me, Buscema earned his check.

    Also, I really think the shorter version of the story kept the action flowing at a brisker pace.



    *Both expressions just seemed appropriate. Google them and see.

    1. One more thing:

      Where did the women on the covers come from?

      And where did they go to?



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