Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Conan's elephant friend

Here's a page from one of my favorite Conan stories.  It's from "The Tower of the Elephant," adapted by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith (with inks by Sal Buscema) from the Robert E. Howard short story, and it appeared in Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #4 (April, 1971).  As you can see, Windsor-Smith's art is in a transitional state between his earlier clunky Jack Kirby imitations and his current ornate pre-Raphaelite look.  But his Conan is still wearing that silly horned helmet Windsor-Smith stuck on him right at the start.

In this story, we find a younger, slimmer Conan just starting his adventuresome career.  It's right after he quit McDonald's, but before he studied accounting at the local two-year community college.  Like a lot of young Hyborian dudes on the make, Conan spends a lot of time in the taverns of Arenjun, the "thief-city of Zamora."  There he overhears a big blowhard spouting off about the Tower of the Elephant and its fabulous treasure, the Heart of the Elephant.  Someone really likes elephants.  Probably Yara, the priest who lives in the tower.  He used to collect clown figurines, but his mom got him this little elephant carving for his birthday one year and he was never the same after that.

Anyway, the mouthy braggart has a Conan-type accident, and our favorite barbarian slips out to snag that fancy jewel for himself.  He's a little nervous about it-- this Yara guy is some kind of magician, and magic is the one thing that gives Conan the shivers-- but he climbs the walls, meets another thief with the unlikely name Taurus.  Taurus proves useful when a couple of lions show up.  A quick puff of the ol' black lotus and it's good bye, lions.  Taurus doesn't last long, either.  They manage to shimmy up a slender rope Taurus thoughtfully brought along, right to the top of the tower-- itself made itself of jewels of incredible value-- but then the ever-prepared Taurus dies from a spider bite.  Guess that's one thing he didn't see coming.  Conan kills the spider, then makes his way down into the tower only to meet this green elephant.

Yag-Kosha is his name.  Yara's blinded him and kept him in torment for 300 years while trying to learn all his elephantine magical secrets, such as the special ingredients to his famous chocolate chip cookies.

It's really kind of a melancholy story, the kind that proves Howard had more on his mind than just pulpy action.  It resists cliche.  Thomas, taking his cue from Howard, treats the first killing almost coyly.  We don't see it, just its aftermath.  Then there's Conan's palpable fear as he undertakes his thievery; he's not just a stolid, dull-minded hero.  Rather than have Conan fight his way into the tower, the story has him just a moment or two behind the action as Taurus else dispatches the guards and the first few lions for him.  Conan does get to fight a lion a little later, which is pretty sweet, but Thomas and Windsor-Smith don't dwell on it.  It's over in four panels, the first being a small silhouetted image.  Windsor-Smith crops the killing blow so we actually don't get to see it.

Yag-Kosha could easily have been a monster for Conan to fight, but instead he's treated sympathetically.  He simply tells his sad story-- which fills Conan with shame at being human-- and uses the barbarian as a vessel for his vengeance against Yara.  Which also doesn't involve violence, but a strange transformation that freaks poor Conan right the hell out.  Conan doesn't gain a treasure and comes away with nothing but an interesting story.  And that's what I've always liked about it.

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