Guest post by Anthony Perconti
In 1991 Dark Horse Comics published an adaptation of the Robert E. Howard sword and planet story, Almuric. This one shot graphic novel collects the serial that originally appeared in several issues of the Marvel magazine Epic Illustrated. It was written by longtime Marvel staffer and Howard scribe Roy Thomas and lushly illustrated by Tim Conrad. Later that year, Dark Horse commissioned a four issue follow up entitled Ironhand of Almuric. Thomas remained on writing duties with black and white interiors provided by artist Mark Winchell, while Conrad provided four fully painted covers. In this series, Thomas was able to veer away from the source material, continuing the further exploits of Esau ‘Ironhand’ Cairn on his adopted world. Given Roy Thomas’ pedigree and experience with Howard characters, it only seemed fitting that he helm a new set of adventures on Almuric. Thomas holds the distinction of acquiring the rights to Conan for Marvel Comics and in 1970, Conan the Barbarian made its debut. He had an extensive run as writer on the book; penning a total of one hundred and fifty out of two hundred and seventy five issues. Illustrators on the title included the breakout talent, Barry Windsor-Smith, and the highly prolific John Buscema.
Ironhand takes place two years after the events chronicled in Almuric. Having defeated the bat winged Yagas, with the combined forces of the (male hominid) Gura tribes, Esau Cairn has been ruling as king from the city of Koth. His modern human mate, Altha, is well along, expecting their first child any day. The old king, Kossuth Skullsplitter, acts as Ironhand’s second in command. Cairn has come back to the city after a successfully abundant hunt to bolster the city’s food stores and that evening, a celebratory dinner is held in the palace. Unfortunately, Ironhand is blind to the fact that there is discontent among the populace; the nobles of the city hoard the meat rations brought in from those forays, leaving the majority of the city’s inhabitants to fend for themselves. Add to this the fact that Kossuth and his peers have reinstituted the tradition of slavery (especially with regards to female captives from other parts of the planet that were freed from Yaga captivity). During the celebration, Cairn receives word that an unknown force has killed the majority of Kothan guards stationed at the Girdle; a steep mountain shelf bisecting the northern and southern hemispheres. Upon hearing the news, Ironhand, leaving Kossuth in charge, bids his wife farewell, musters his troops and is southbound to investigate. When the company arrives at the base of the Girdle, they discover that the dead guards bear no signs of bodily violence or struggle; it seems that they just fell over, dead. Ironhand cajoles his superstitious men into scaling the rock face of the Girdle, with him in the lead. When he arrives at the summit, he is presented with the giant holographic visage of Professor Hildebrand, the man responsible for sending Cairn to Almuric. Hildebrand warns Ironhand to turn back and when he refuses, the hologram emits a psychic blast, causing extreme pain to the climbers, who proceed to fall to their deaths. Cairn barely survives the fall, landing on several bodies of his troops; half dead, he rides back to Koth. Upon his arrival at the palace, he finds that Altha has died during childbirth and that Kossuth has usurped Ironhand and reclaimed the throne for himself. Stripped of all that he holds dear, fighting his way through his enemies, Cairn narrowly escapes the city with his life.
Ironhand confirms his worst fear; he has fled to the Kothan open air garden of the dead, where he finds the remains of Altha and the newborn child. In an act of desperation, Cairn is about to commit suicide, until he hears a cry for help. In the distance, being chased by armed Kothans, he sees a copper skinned woman fleeing for her life. Ironhand intervenes, killing the Kothans and saving the woman; she introduces herself as Wynnea, from a tribe south of the Girdle, one of the pleasure slaves kept by Kossuth. Cairn recognizes her as a dancer from the royal court. Her plan is to return home to the southern hemisphere; she knows of an alternate way across the Girdle, a path that is not guarded by the hologram. Ironhand agrees to accompany her on the journey. An underground river and cavern system exists running through the mountain barrier. Cairn and Wynnea make their way through the labyrinthine subterranean river system, onto the planet’s southern hemisphere. During the trip through the Girdle, the two become lovers (so much for Cairn’s mourning period). Upon entering the lower half of the planet, they are set upon by a single Yaga male. The solitary Yaga was sent to kill Ironhand by order of his mother, Queen Yasmeena, who was presumed dead (along with the entirety of her race), at the end of Almuric. The two men commence fighting and the Yaga takes to the air, ascending quickly, with Ironhand clutched to his back. The combatants trade blows high above the surface, each trying to gain the upper hand, when Cairn gets hold of the Yaga’s wing and the two men plummet to the ground. Fortune favors Ironhand yet again, with the Yaga breaking his fall. Wynnea helps his battered body up, finds a place to shelter for the night and they start the journey to her village the next morning.
After weathering a storm and saving the critically injured male Yaga in the process, Cairn and Wynnea travel to the city of Jhuma. The Jhuma people are modern copper skinned humans and (surprise!) Wynnea is their queen; her first order is to make Cairn their war-chief. The tribal shaman Sarnath tells Ironhand of the Ancients, who once ruled the planet with their advanced technology. The Ancients have all but disappeared, making their final refuge in the frozen South Pole city of Xathar. The shaman also lets slip that Cairn is only the most recent of a long lineage of alien champions transported to Almuric. After a week’s rest, Ironhand gathers an exploration party, with the imprisoned Yaga male in tow, and travels south. Their journey leads them to the southern Yaga stronghold, the Tower of Devils; inside they find that Queen Yasmeena is very much alive and within the royal birthing chamber a new brood of Yaga awaits. Yasmeena attacks Ironhand and before being killed (again), she drops a filial bombshell on him (much to his surprise). The slayer of the Yaga matriarch becomes the new brood master. Esau Cairn becomes a father in more ways than one; his plan is to recuperate the week at the Tower of Devils, while his brood comes to full maturity. Upon that time they will complete the final leg of the expedition to Xathar and utilize the Yaga to help breach the defenses of the Ancients.
The final issue of the series opens above the south pole of Almuric with the Yaga forces, lead by Ironhand and the Yaga male, flying towards the entrance of the glacial citadel of Xathar. The Ancients activate their force field, killing most of the invaders in the process. Ironhand, the Yaga male and three others survive and gain entrance to the fortress. It is at this point in Thomas’ story that a departure is made from standard sword and planet tale, to the domain of Arthur C. Clarke. The technology that the Ancients wield is so advanced, that Clarke’s Third Law comes into play; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”(1) Within the fortress lies a ‘great spider’s web’; this metallic web is studded with the remains of beings that have human features. In the distant past, a highly advanced humanoid race terra-formed and shaped the planet Almuric as they saw fit. These humanoids, using genetic manipulation techniques created a servitor race, the Yaga, to administer the planet. Over time, the population of the servitors expanded exponentially and a war of rebellion was waged against their masters. The Ancients used their advanced technology to raise the mountain range known as the Girdle as a topographic barrier and giant ‘do not enter’ sign aimed at the Yaga. Done with physical existence, the Ancients uploaded their collective consciousness into a supercomputer, the giant metal spider web. Knowing that the Girdle would not halt the privations of the Yaga into their territory, the Ancients used their technology to reach out to other planets with the aim of collecting alien champions to act as buffers against the continuous Yaga threat. Ironhand was the latest in a long line of warriors from across several worlds, spanning thousands of years. Professor Hildebrand and his ‘Great Secret’, along with Esau Cairn, were nothing but intricate board pieces in the long game of the Ancients.
Roy Thomas, in his essay, ‘Return to the Planet Almuric’, states; “This sequel, Ironhand of Almuric is perhaps a bit unusual… it makes every effort to be faithful to the events and spirit of REH in most ways, in other ways all but turns the original tale on its head, by showing that all was not necessarily as it seemed in the first novel. This is not to argue that REH would have done it that way, had he lived to see Almuric published and gone on to write a sequel himself. There are as many potential sequels to Almuric as there are to the John Carter or even the Sherlock Holmes stories.” (2) To Thomas’ point, the series Ironhand of Almuric acts as a subversive take on the sword and planet subgenre as exemplified by the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The sole reason he was chosen and beamed to Almuric was due to his savage nature; Ironhand is the toughest head smasher among a galaxy of them, but he remains a puppet nonetheless. By the end of the fourth issue, the machinations of the Ancients have been neutralized, with Cairn and the male Yaga making their way back north on foot from the citadel of Xathar. The throne of Koth still waits to be reclaimed, across leagues and leagues of harsh, dangerous terrain. Ironhand’s ultimate fate is left unresolved; it has been twenty six years since the publication of this series. The chances of a continuation of Esau Cairn’s adventures in comic book form seem slim. This may be in part due to the fact that Almuric’s popularity is limited based on its single novel status. The popular Howard heroes (Kull, Solomon Kane, Conan and to a lesser degree, Sailor Steve Costigan) were multiply recurring characters who had several stories apiece attached to their names. Generally, series characters have stronger staying power and are able to make the transition into the medium of comic books with far better success. Just look at all the Howard (and to a lesser extent, Burroughs) themed comic books that have been published over the last twenty years; Conan, Conan the Cimmerian, Conan the Slayer, Conan: Road of Kings, Kull: The Cat and the Skull, Solomon Kane: The Castle of the Devil, Warlord of Mars and Tarzan. Another variable to consider is the popularity of the sword and planet subgenre with the reading public has been on a steady decline for several decades. But with the recent news of Marvel’s reacquisition of the Conan license, and a new series slated for 2019 release, who’s to say what the future holds for other Robert E. Howard properties.
Roy Thomas deserves credit in taking a minor aspect of the Howard cannon and crafting it into an interesting story. This goes beyond a mere comic adaptation; Ironhand of Almuric is nothing if not ambitious. However for me, there is something lacking in this project, in this instance, the sum is not greater than its parts. To my mind, the Ironhand of this series differs from the version presented in the previous graphic novel as well as the original Robert E. Howard work. The Esau Cairn seen in the book Almuric is certainly not of a philosophical bent, he is no deep thinker, no King Kull. He is thoroughly a hot tempered man of deeds, yet Howard also shows the reader that his protagonist has the capacity for inquiry and analysis. The same can be said of his representation in the Epic Illustrated material as well. But in Ironhand of Almuric, it seems that Cairn is written almost as a caricature; always on the verge of anger, ready to bust heads and not much in the way of brains, the stereotypical dumb barbarian.
In the Howard story, as well as in the graphic novel, Cairn is continually tested by adversity, only to rise to the challenge and come out the other side as a stronger version of himself. From ferocious predators, wrestling matches with Guras, to a confrontation with a gargantuan electric slug (yes, really!), he takes his lumps, gets back up and becomes tougher for it. This crucible effect is not evident in the miniseries. It seems that he is just going through the motions. I also question the actions of Kossoth, Skullsplitter. It’s absolutely plausible that he covets the throne from an alien usurper, but for Kothan society, slavery is abhorrent. It is not practiced; it is a key characteristic that differentiates Yaga society from theirs. “Why not take me into the tribe?” I remarked at random. He shook his head. “We are not Yagas, to keep slaves.”(3) Although a matter of personal taste, in my view, the art in Ironhand is underwhelming; especially considering the previous offering of Tim Conrad’s insane full color artwork. Mark Winchell demonstrates a clean pencil style that would have been better served in a traditional superhero book. Thomas’ Conan the Barbarian collaborator, good old John Buscema would have been an exemplary candidate to illustrate this book (check out his black and white pages from Savage Sword of Conan to see what I mean). Criticisms aside, I’m glad that I picked up and read this series. I purchased three of the four issues of Ironhand at a local comic convention for fifty cents apiece. The missing issue I purchased online for two dollars. At the total cost of three dollars and fifty cents, it was well worth the price.
1. “Clarke’s three laws.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16, May 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke%27s_three_laws
2. Thomas, Roy. ‘Return to the Planet Almuric.’ Ironhand of Almuric (#1). August, 1991. Oregon: Dark Horse Comics. Page 26.
3. Howard, Robert E. Almuric. eStar Books. LLC, 2012. (Originally published 1939) Kindle E- Book Location Page 26 of 95-27%