(Editor’s Note: G. W. Thomas has been a published author since 1987 with “The City in the Sea” in Cthulhu Now! By 1993 he was appearing in Writer’s Digest along with other magazines such as The Writer, The Armchair Detective, The Mystery Review and Black October Magazine. In 1999 he received an Honorable Mention from Years’ Best Fantasy & Horror for “Waking Dream” (Flesh & Blood #4, June 1999). Currently he is focused on writing Mythos Noir with his Book Collector series and Sword & Sorcery fiction.
He lives in the cold, flat part of Alberta, Canada and can be found at http://darkworldsquarterly.gwthomas.org/)
Most Sword & Sorcery fans consider “Crom the Barbarian” by Gardener F. Fox and John Giunta (Out of This World #1, June 1950) the first true S&S comic. One can make the case that even earlier was the Prince Valiant comic strip back in 1937. This strip by Hal Foster influenced everything that came after. Prince Valiant follows the adventures of a knight in Arthurian times, has an encounter with a dinosaur and a witch. Does that make it S&S? Not really since the bulk of the strip isn’t supernatural but a costume drama. Fox’s Crom is truly a Howardian pastiche like no other.
But was Crom the only contender? There was another who came a little later that is worth looking at too. This is “The Viking Prince” by Bob Kanigher and Joe Kubert. This comic that appeared in the first twenty-four issue of The Brave and the Bold went through three phases before being driven out by costumed superheroes.
DC’s The Brave and the Bold began as an anthology of historical adventure comics. “The Silent Knight”, “The Golden Gladiator” and “Robin Hood” shared space with Jon the Viking Prince. From Issue #1 we learn Jon is a foundling who has lost his memory. Jon ends up in a fishing village near Lord Thorvald’s castle. Thorvald plots Jon’s death, for Jon is the rightful heir to the throne. Each episode has Thorvald coming up with a cunning plan to kill Jon, which ultimately fails. All supernatural elements, such as the Hammer of Thor, or an iceberg carved like a dragon, or an ocean volcano prove to be false. The philosophy of the comic is one John W. Campbell would have approved of in Unknown, with science lying behind everything. In this way, “The Viking Prince” was no different than the monthly escapades of Robin Hood to thwart Prince John or Marcus against Cinna. After the second issue, Kanigher handed scripting chores over to Bob Haney and Bill Finger.
After fifteen episodes of fighting with Thorvald and flirting with Gunnda, Bob Haney changed things up. A new origin and a new type of story arrived as well. Jon, still having no memory of his past, sets out to win his kingship by completing the Twelve Tasks of Thor. These include fighting giants, battling Valkyries, defeating living statues (ala Ray Harryhausen’s Talos) and giant fire birds. This second incarnation of Jon was actual Sword & Sorcery. In this version of the comic, Jon is accompanied by a minstrel who can’t speak, only sing. He knows the answer to Jon’s journey but can’t tell him. It is too bad he doesn’t tell us because the thread of the Twelve Tasks of Thor remains unfinished.
A third version of “The Viking Prince” appeared in the last two issues to feature the comic. Once again, the writer switched things up, this time returning to the original non-supernatural historical drama format. It was a sad change that fortunately didn’t last long. Jon is now the son of King Rikk, who Jon must rescue repeatedly from his enemies.
Through these three incarnations we got to watch Joe Kubert’s art evolve. The initial phase has artwork similar to his early stuff on Son of Sinbad. By the end, it is the mature work we loved years later on Tarzan.
This was not the end for Jon the Viking. Kubert would try to re-ignite interest in the comic during the Sword & Sorcery craze that followed Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith’s Conan the Barbarian, with a reprint volume in DC Special #12 (May-June 1971). Two of the middle period stories were reprinted along with a few new pages for continuity but the experience must have failed. No new The Viking Prince appeared though DC did try with Stalker, Beowulf Dragonslayer, Hercules, Claw the Unconquered, Sword of Sorcery and several others. The only big winner here was Mike Grell’s The Warlord. Kubert would bring Jon back for a Sgt. Rock cross-over in Our Army at War #162-163 and again in Sgt. Rock Special #1 (October 1988). He would appear in later DC comics as well but now he was little more than another superhero.
Jan Duusema and Bob Kanigher would create a new four-parter “Frozen Hell for a Viking” as a back-up feature in Arak, Son of Thunder #8-11 (April – July, 1982). The convoluted tale gives us a youth of Jon and his twin sister, Alisa. Krogg the Red kidnaps the girl setting Jon on a journey that involves having his arm re-attached by a witch after a battle with druids. Along the way, Jon gains companions in the silent bard from the previous comics, Illan, the beautiful redhead who falls for the Viking Prince, Evor the dwarf, court jester turned warrior, and the boy Nikki, who possesses a giant hawk. Together they infiltrate Krogg’s castle, only to have Alisa pointlessly throw herself out a window to her death. Jon kills Krogg before setting out on new adventures that never happened.
In the end we can accept the second version of Jon as the second true Sword & Sorcery comic of the 1950s. “Clawfang the Barbarian” Unearthly Spectaculars #2 (December 1965) would try in the 1960s along with numerous individual stories in the Warren magazines, but it would take powerhouse Conan the Cimmerian to cement the idea of Sword & Sorcery comics for all time.