“One of the greatest monster epics of all time!”
— Cover text from Supernatural Thrillers #3, 1973
The work of Robert E. Howard inspired a lot of great comics. Yet one of Howard’s more obscure tales served as the basis for what just might be the best REH-inspired comic ever made: Supernatural Thrillers #3 featuring “Valley of the Worm.”
When it comes to sword-and-sorcery comics, Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian set the gold standard by adapting Howard’s most famous creation with roaring success. Roy Thomas, who was helping Stan Lee run Marvel Comics in the late 60s, had the idea to adapt a swashbuckling, sword-swinging pulp character into comics. Little did Roy realize at the time he was inventing a whole new genre of comics. Conan the Barbarian’s success spawned a glut of sword-and-sorcery comics including Howard’s other famous barbarian Kull the Conquerer. There was also Claw the Unconquered, Beowulf, Thongor of Lemuria, Warlord, Red Sonja, and plenty of others. It even spawned a line of black-and-white “mature readers” magazines so the barbaric battles could be seen in all their gory splendor, and the comely maidens could go unclad whenever they pleased.
It was Roy and artist-extraordinaire Barry Windsor-Smith who brought Conan into comics in 1970, but that was only the beginning. Roy continued adapting other Howard concepts into comics, in addition to tales from other fantasy writers. Only a handful of Howard’s prodigious output involved Conan (about a dozen tales and a single novel—all still in print). There was a lot more of Howard’s work to explore, and Roy left no stone unturned. Gil Kane, already a legend for his seminal work on The Atom and Green Lantern, originally had the idea of bringing Conan to comics, but Roy beat him to the punch. However, in 1973, while Conan was selling out on the newsstands, Roy chose Kane to adapt a lesser-known Howard tale called “The Valley of the Worm.” The results were phenomenal, a testament to Gil Kane’s artistic genius, Howard’s fertile imagination, and Thomas’ ability to adapt classic tales with authenticity and flair.
The story ran in an issue of Supernatural Thrillers, one of Marvel’s lesser-known horror titles. This adaptation would be a new height for that struggling title, and a legendary piece of comics storytelling that remains quite possibly the greatest single sword-and-sorcery comic ever made. Gil was coming fresh off a fantastic two-issue run on Conan, filling in for Windsor-Smith before the original Conan artist came back for his last few issues. It’s as if Gil’s two issues of drawing the Cimmerian (as beautiful and masterful as they are) were only a warm-up to prepare him for the superb work he did on the one-issue “Valley of the Worm” adaptation.
Roy asked fellow Marvel scribe Gerry Conway to help him script the adaptation, probably because Roy was running Marvel at this point and was extremely busy making sure dozens of titles were finished and shipping on time. Between these two scripters and Gil Kane’s phenomenal talent and love of the genre, this issue of Supernatural Thrillers became a landmark in the field of comics, yet one that is still largely ignored by most comics historians—probably because it was published in such a third-rate title. The phrase “diamond-in-the-rough” has never been more accurately applied than to this one-issue story.
What made the Thomas/Conway/Kane adaptation of Howard’s “Valley of the Worm” such an incredible comic?
Well, first things first, you have to look at the source: Robert E. Howard. He was a masterful writer, whose non-Conan work is too often ignored, but his prose sang with power and imagery unrivalled to this day for its evocative qualities. Howard has been much imitated over the decades, but there’s only one REH, and this story is a terrific example of how his talent went far beyond a handful of Conan stories.
Howard drew on history itself for inspiration, and he theorized about the great unknown epochs of pre-history. He explored the concepts of race memory, reincarnation, and life-after-death in many stories. Yet his work was visceral and action-packed, not the musings of a intellectual, but the weird tales of a man who saw history through a haze of blood, battle, and struggle. “Valley of the Worm” was full of prehistoric adventure, but it was not the typical heroic fantasy.
In “Valley,” the protagonist is dying on the very first page:
“My name is James Allison—and I’m dying! I lie soft between satin sheets, warmed by torrents of bright sunlight which cascade through my bedroom window—and I am dying. But while death creeps upon me like a blind slug, I must tell you of a man called Niord—and of that loathsome, demonic thing which crawled hideously up from Hell one day, and into that savage, time-lost land he knew as—the Valley of the Worm.”
Only a couple of panels on the splash page show the “present day” James Allison lying on his deathbed. The main body of the story focuses on one of Allison’s past lives, a warrior named Niord Worm’s-Bane. As Allison’s most recent life fades away, this memory of a previous incarnation washes over him…it’s a flood of memories involving eternal reincarnation. Howard uses this concept to explore one of the most classic of the epic legends: the Dragon Slayer.
It’s a fascinating conceit: That every dragon-myth and dragon-slayer legend down through the ages was actually based on one single truth, the prehistoric battle of Niord against a gargantuan, worm-like creature. Allison tells us this in no uncertain terms…Perseus, Beowulf, Saint George, Siegfried, all these heroes were simply re-tellings of Niord’s primeval battle against the horrid thing from the Valley of the Worm. Niord was the original archetype for all these legends, Howard (and Allison) tells the reader.
As the story unfolds, Howard creates (and Gil Kane brings to life) a vision of primordial, tribal existence where sabretooth tigers, giant snakes, and cro-magnon brutes threaten a migrating tribe of early humans. These were the days when a man had to be strong, or he would not live long. The days when you had to kill, or you did not eat. The days when terrible things crawled through the darkness, hungry for human flesh.
Nobody could bring these things to life like Howard could. In fact, the first story he ever sold (as a teenager, no less) was a stone-age adventure called “Spear and Fang,” about a caveman who rescues his mate from a ravenous, neanderthal ape-man. All the promise of Howard’s future work is evident in that story. The eldritch horror that infests the valley and slaughters Niord’s tribe was certainly inspired by Howard’s friend and fellow Weird Tales writer, H.P. Lovecraft, an acknowledged master of horror.
What makes this adaptation so fantastic is primarily Gil Kane’s exquisite artwork. His figures are dynamic, lean, and powerful. His work has been called a “savage ballet,” and that term applies very well to his depictions of breakneck action rendered with graceful choreography. Gil’s jungle backgrounds are lush and primal, his landscapes and crumbled ruins impeccable; his costuming reeks of authenticity, as if he were really there walking among those prehistoric tribes and taking notes. His creatures…well, you have to see them to believe them. Tigers, serpents, hideous abominations from the depths of Hell…Gil Kane could draw some damn monsters…
Kane’s inker on this issue was the legendary Ernie Chan (who was going by the name Ernie Chua at the time). Chan would soon go on to earn fame as John Buscema’s regular inker on Conan the Barbarian for many years, during the title’s best post-BWS period. When I was a kid buying Conan and Savage Sword of Conan off the racks, I made sure it was a Buscema/Chan art team before I bought it. They were the guys to beat. On “Valley of the Worm,” Chan’s inks fit over Kane’s clean lines like a series of proverbial velvet gloves. There is a perfect synergy of pencil-and-ink at work here; Chan gives Gil’s clever compositions and tight renderings a sense of warmth, depth, and dimensionality. These two artists did not pair up very many times, but when they did it was a fantastic synergy. Ernie Chan is one of comics’ legendary inkers, and he shows it nowhere better than in this adaption of Howard’s story.
The “dragon” of the tale, the Worm that lurks below the ruins of an ancient cursed city, is unlike any other creature I’ve seen in comics or fantasy paintings. Gil took the aspects of a vast serpent, the tendrils and feelers of a colossal centipede, the pulsing suckers of an octopoid, and the ruby eyes of a leering demon-god, and combined them all to fulfill Howard’s vision of this ultimate terror.
Here’s a passage that inspired Gil to envision this grotesque creation:
“Out of the temple, a monstrous dweller-in-the-darkness had come—and I, who had expected a horror cast in some terrestrial mold, looked on the spawn of insane nightmare! From what subterranean Hell it crawled in the long ago I know not, nor what black age it represented! But it was not a beast, as humanity knows beasts—for lack of a better word—I must call it a worm!”
Gil Kane shows us the indescribable horror of that beast, and his immense skill makes it absolutely beautiful in its hideousness. The battle that follows between Niord and the Worm is literally the stuff of legends. If you’ve read Beowulf, you know how it ends…Niord defeats the beast but is gravely wounded. He lays dying in the Valley of the Worm just as his future self, James Allison, lays dying in a North American 1930s sickbed. Only a single panel shows us Allison sinking into oblivion as his previous incarnation, Niord the original dragon-slayer, does the same.
There’s something about this tale that reaches right into your gut (as a lot of Howard’s writing does), and tugs on strings that you didn’t know existed. Perhaps it is Howard’s talent for tapping into racial memory—Jung’s “archetypal consciousness”—which Gil Kane also did very well. I’m sure at least a few tears were shed in ’73 when Marvel fans read the dying words of Niord:
“ Let my tribe remember…let the tale be told from village to village, from tribe to tribe…so that men will known that not man…nor beast…nor devil…may prey in safety on the golden-haired people of…Asgard. There was more that I said—but already it faded, as the life flowed from me. I finished my few words—and then, while Gorm howled and beat his hairy breast…death came to me…in the Valley of the Worm…”
This largely ignored issue is one of the greatest sword-and-sorcery comics in history, and definitely one of the best direct Howard adaptations.
“Valley of the Worm” is a masterpiece of the comics form. Good news: The issue is still available at ridiculously low prices—I found a good-condition copy for one measly dollar at the San Diego Comicon a few years back. I immediately bought it for a friend of mine who had never read it.
It’s also worth noting that the entire epic takes place in one 21-page tale. Today many creative teams shy away from self-contained, one-issue stories in favor of what’s been called “decompressed storytelling.” Many of those who can’t seem to tell a complete story in a single issue could really learn from Old-School Masters like Roy Thomas and Gil Kane.
If there’s such a thing as a “perfect” comic book single issue, this may be it.
REH would be proud.