Monday, November 9, 2020

Claw the Unconquered

Back in the mid-80s, my friends and I were very briefly – but intensely – enamored of TSR's Conan Role-Playing Game by David Cook. At the time, I don't think any of us were all that familiar with Conan outside of Marvel's comics or the Schwarzenegger movies, the second of which had come out the summer before the RPG was published. (I had read some of the Lancer Conan books by this point, but they didn't make a huge impact on me)  As I recall, the game had a fun and easy to use character generation system that produced appropriately pulpy characters. One of my friends generated a character who had a physical deformity – a claw on one hand – that was the result of a curse or black magic or something similar. He called the character Talon, which, at the time, I thought was pretty clever, and had many adventures during the Hyborian Age.

Many years later, I learned of the existence of Claw the Unconquered, DC comic that ran for only a dozen issues, beginning in June 1975. Like my friend's character, Talon, Claw is afflicted with a curse – an ancestral demonic pact, we eventually learn – that results in members of his family having a bestial claw in place of his right hand. I don't know if my friend ever read Claw and based his character on it or it's a case of independent invention.

Claw's real name is Valcan, an outlander who has come to the realm of Pytharia, seeking fame and fortune.

Let say right now that the art in Claw is excellent, nearly the Platonic form of what I associate with the comics of my youth. That's not surprising, since it's the work of the late, great Ernie Chan (credited as Ernie Chua, at the time), who worked on many comics during the time, including Conan the Barbarian for Marvel. The writer was David Michelinie, best known for his time at Marvel Comics, a few years later.

Claw's titular appendage is something Valcan hides with a red gauntlet, largely because of the reaction it elicits in others, as we learn early in the first story.
The ruler of Pytharia is named Occulas of the Yellow Eye, who dwells within Castle Darkmorn. As a young prince, Occulas learned of an omen that "the hand of justice," which is "webbed like a dragon's paw," would one day threaten his rule. Concerned for his future, Occulas scoured the world looking for anyone who bore such a mark. Eventually, his agents succeeded, finding the farmer Kregar, who possesses a hand like that foretold by the omen. They first accuse him of treason and then slay him, along with his wife, leaving their infant son an orphan. I trust no one will be surprised to learn that that infant grew up to be Valcan, who was apparently raised by some mysterious individual, who found him shortly afterwards. 
Naturally, when a now-older Occulas hears of a demonic-handed outlander wandering about the streets of his capital city, he takes a keen interest in him and places a bounty of 10,000 dreknars on his head and right hand. 

Truthfully, it's a solid set-up for a sword-and-sorcery comic. Since the title only ran for twelve issues, I assume it nevertheless failed to catch the reader public's imagination. As is so often the case with unsuccessful characters like this, Claw has made cameo appearances in other comics over the years, including in the pages of The Warlord. I wonder if part of the reason for the comic's demise was its perceived similarity to the incredibly popular Conan the Barbarian and The Savage Sword of Conan over at Marvel. If so, I can understand that, given the visuals, but it's a shame nonetheless, since, even in the very first issue, it's clear that Michelinie intended to take the series in a very different direction than did Roy Thomas with his own magazines. At the same time, the 1970s is a graveyard for failed fantasy comics and the fact that Claw the Unconquered is among the dead says little about the quality of its core concept.

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