By Bobby Derie
Conan the Barbarian #1 was launched by Marvel Comics in 1970...and before that, Conan appeared in an adaptation of “Gods of the North” in Star-Studded Comics #14 (Texas Trio, 1968)...and before that, down in Mexico, several series of La Reina de la Costa Negra ran through the 50s and 60s, starring a blond Conan alongside his pirate-queen Bêlit. They had first appeared together in the anthology Cuentos de Abuelito (1952). Before that...Gardner Fox had created a pastiche, Crom the Barbarian, who first appeared in Out of this World #1 (1950).
Comic writers and artists would go on to publish the adventures of Conan and Kull, Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane, and Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, James Allison and Breckinridge Elkins, and others, albeit rarely. But these are all heroes.
So, too, would they adapt and publish some of Howard's standalone horror stories. “Dig Me No Grave” was adapted in the revived Journey Into Mystery #1 (Marvel, 1972), “The Monster from the Mound” and “The Thing on the Roof” in Chamber of Chills #2 and #3 (Marvel1973)—but what about before that? What was the first Howard horror story adapted to comics?
In the days before the Comics Code Authority was created in 1954, horror comics proliferated on the stands, each one trying to outdo the other in grue and ghastliness. The comics shared many writers, artists, and editors with pulp magazines, and “borrowing” plots from the pulps was common, without credit to the original authors, and they often ended up strongly altered along the way. H. P. Lovecraft’s “Cool Air” was discreetly adapted by EC as "Baby...It's Cold Inside!" in Vault of Horror #17 (1951), and his “Pickman’s Model” became “Portrait of Death” in Weird Terror #1 (1952).
They borrowed from Robert E. Howard too.
“Skulls of Doom!” in Voodoo #12 (1953) is very obviously, albeit loosely, based on the story “Old Garfield’s Heart” which had first been published in Weird Tales (Dec 1933). The parallels are uncanny: a doctor is called to the beside of a dying old man, in whom an alien organ belonging to an old god resides—and must be returned. However, the adapters took Howard’s simple and powerful story and give it a few twists. Instead of the heart, the organ is the brain—an undying brain from the Egyptian priest Vishnu, who was made a god after his death. In a typical pre-Code horror morality play, the unscrupulous doctor steals Vishnu’s brain—and puts it in his own skull. Which works out great, until Vishnu returns to reclaim his brain.
There may be some earlier adaptation tucked away in the moldering pages of some other pre-Code horror comic, and few of the writers and artists of that era could come close to capturing the magic of Howard’s prose, even if they borrowed his ideas. But for those who want to read “Skulls of Doom!”, the comic has passed into the public domain, and may be read for free.
Blogger bio: Bobby Derie is a scholar of pulp studies and weird fiction; the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
The Pavilion Blog is the companion blog of The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies. It features brief, conversational reflections related to Robert E. Howard at around 500-600 words. Interested in contributing? E-mail the editors at email@example.com