Thursday, September 3, 2020

Beowulf, Dragon Slayer

When looking back on the past, it's vitally important to be aware of our unconscious biases. Comic books are a good case in point. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, we might not realize just how big comics were as a medium. Characters with little or no name recognition today, such as the Rawhide Kid, regularly moved more copies of their comics each month than do iconic characters like Batman or Spider-Man today.

I bring this up as a prelude to a question whose answer I wouldn't have known until very recently. The question is "What Marvel comics character headlined a second comic before Spider-Man?" Before answering, allow me to add one more detail: throughout the 1970s, The Amazing Spider-Man was quite consistently Marvel's best selling title. Given that, which superhero could possibly have been so popular that Marvel decided to launch a second series starring him? The answer: Conan.

Though not its best selling title, Conan the Barbarian, penned by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith, was nevertheless one of Marvel's most popular comics throughout the 1970s – so popular that, in 1974, a second title, Savage Sword of Conan, was launched. Together, they played roles in making Conan the Cimmerian a household name, as well as introducing new generations to sword-and-sorcery literature. It is no exaggeration to say that the 1982 John Milius film would not have been possible without these comics having appeared first, not to mention many other aspects of contemporary Conan fandom.

Looking on the success of Conan the Barbarian, DC Comics made numerous attempts to replicate it, one of which was Beowulf, Dragon Slayer, which premiered in May 1975. Written by Michael Uslan and drawn by Ricardo Villamonte, Beowulf is a strange comic. Issue #1 starts with what appears to be an attempt to retell the Old English epic, but it quite quickly veers off into comic book territory thanks to the inclusion, of among other things, Nan-zee, a supposed Swedish Scylding warrior who instead looks like one of the less memorable of Conan's many female companions. What makes it all the more amusing is that the issue includes a piece by the author, in which he touts the literary value of the comic.

Needless to say, Beowulf, Dragon Slayer did not prove to be as successful as Conan the Barbarian, lasting only a half-dozen issues. Of course, during those six comics, our Geatish protagonist faced off against not only Grendel and his mother but also Satan, Dracula, the Minotaur, and extraterrestrials masquerading as gods – this was the 1970s, after all. This undoubtedly sounds far better than it actually is, unfortunately. Instead, Beowulf is largely forgettable. The comic is noteworthy primarily for being one in a long line of attempts by DC to find their version of Conan. From what I understand, the character has reappeared in recent DC publications, though one wonders why. 


  1. Ah, yes - I had issue #2 ("The Slave Maid of Satan!") which had a cover my six year-old self couldn't resist.

  2. It's been pointed out to me that Conan was not in fact the first Marvel character to receive a second comic book of his own. That honor goes to Nick Fury, who appeared in the pages of both Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D..

    I stand corrected!