The first thing you notice about Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan comics is their beauty.
Starting in 1970, Smith drew almost two dozen of the first issues of Marvel Comics’ translation of Conan into a monthly color comic book, and added a few more stories in the oversized black-and-white companion magazine Savage Tales. Scripts for those stories, often direct adaptations of Robert E. Howard tales, were by Marvel veteran Roy Thomas, but Smith has stated that he had a prominent role in the plotting of the comics, sometimes even providing dialogue.
Smith’s work has an elegance and power to it unusual in comics, then or now. His line-work is detailed, expressive, and precise: the right marks in the right places. Compositionally, his work is always clear, always energetic.
And it’s alive, because his characters are alive; they move through three-dimensional space, they have realistic body language — more than that, their forms express what they feel and think.
Perhaps above all, Windsor-Smith’s design — of clothes, swords, balustrades, towers, armour, even ships and stone walls — is constantly inventive, deriving from the organic forms of art nouveau and the near-hallucinatory realism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
This has the crucial effect of building a world for Conan and his adventures, a setting with texture and, implictly, a history. We see the shining kingdoms and the jeweled thrones about to be trodden under sandalled feet, and we believe in them.
Windsor-Smith didn’t begin his work on Conan as a comics master. He was a very young man, with a relatively small body of work behind him. In fact, he was originally assigned to Conan because, as a journeyman artist, he’d command a lesser salary than veteran Marvel artist John Buscema, originally scheduled for the job.
At the time, Marvel had never done a sword-and-sorcery book like Conan, and even though they’d acquired the rights to do the book for a relatively small sum, they had no idea how the book would sell; any savings they could find stood to help the title’s health.
(In fact, Conan would run for over two decades. John Buscema would in fact eventually draw the barbarian for quite a while himself, and do a decent job.)
Windsor-Smith, originally credited as just Barry Smith, grew as an artist almost issue by issue. His command of anatomy became more fluid, the rhythm of his panels became smoother, and his storytelling became both more individual and, concomitantly, more effective.
This matters because comics art isn’t just about the rendering of an illustration, nor even about the choice of angles for a panel. It’s about how the images work together. How the page is structured as a unit, and how the reader’s eye is guided through it while still being presented with the visual information needed to make the story work.
For the first few issues of Conan, Windsor-Smith’s storytelling was still in the shadow of one of American comics’ greatest artists, Jack Kirby.
Kirby created a style of visual storytelling that defined Marvel comics, a dynamic, dramatic art of stylised bodies whirling through the air in combat. Radical foreshortening, forced perspective, and clever framing helped give Kirby’s pages a ceaseless energy that perfectly fit the frenetic, violent content of Marvel’s super-hero line.
But super-heroes are one thing; barbarians are another. Windsor-Smith’s early Conan owed a lot to Kirby, but he quickly incorporated Kirby’s lessons into his own vocabulary.
His pacing grew more refined; his panels shrank to focus on details, or opened out to show sprawling cityscapes or battle-scenes. And Conan’s freewheeling brawls became increasingly brutal, perhaps more brutal than any mainstream comic fight scenes up to that time.
Which was, really, not saying very much. Marvel Comics were subject to approval by the Comics Code Authority, a voluntary regulatory and censorship agency. The strictures of the Comics Code (you can see the original 1954 Code here, the 1971 revision here) tended to infantilise comics, decreeing that violence be handled in conventionalised ways, sexuality be almost entirely avoided, and the forces of good always defeat evil.
You can imagine the problems you’d have faithfully adapting Robert E. Howard stories under the Comics Code.
In retrospect, it’s amazing that the Marvel Conan came anywhere close to Howard. Of course the book had a tone of its own — it had to, in order to succeed. Windsor-Smith may have been exactly the right man for the job.
The beauty and detail of his artwork replaced some of the grimness of Howard, making something new; it was a true adaptation, a re-creation of a work in another medium, losing some of the characteristics of the original in order to find other strengths fitted to the new form.
Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan comics have been reprinted a number of times, most recently earlier this year by Dark Horse Press in a two-volume hardcover set; you can see details of those books here and here. You can find Barry Windsor-Smith’s web site here, complete with reflections on his Conan run.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His blog is Hochelaga Depicta.