Sunday, July 31, 2016

Weird Marvel Tales Volume Four

by Gilbert Colon

After “join[ing] with his longtime friend Sir Richard Grenville to harry Spanish shipping in the Indies,” Kane – per Fred Blosser, as chronicled in “The Trail of Solomon Kane: An Informal Biography” (Kull and the Barbarians #3) – “returned to England on another mission of vengeance.  The daughter of a close friend had been murdered by pirates, and Solomon set out to locate the killers,” led by “Captain Jonas Hardraker! … whom men call the Fishhawk.”  Of course Kane being Kane, he sets out to do more than merely locate these malefactors…  

The Savage Sword of Conan #33 Table of Contents crows that the “Puritan adventure-hero—blazes a bloody path across a continent,” but as Professor Tom points out, this Robert E. Howard short story, “Blades of the Brotherhood,” is a relatively minor episode in Kane’s career. It is almost an auxiliary adventure, pleasurable in its own right, a diversionary interlude before the upcoming epic “The Moon of Skulls” (spanning Savage Sword of Conan #34, #37, and #39) in which Kane really does cross continents to plunge headlong and deep into the heart of the Dark Continent of Africa.  As “Blades of the Brotherhood” begins, Kane declares that he has come ashore all the way from the mainland by way of Portugal, but this “swashbuckling tale” only begins with his landfall on coastal England and is strictly confined to the provincial seaboard.  

On the field of honor, Kane arrives just after a young Jack Hollister wounds and nearly kills Sir George Banway in a duel, the dispute remaining unresolved.  Through a ruse, Banway takes Hollister hostage, and has captured Mary Garvin as well, “the woman [Hollister] love[s],” in order to subject her to a two-month period of rape before returning her to Hollister despoiled and ill-used.  Kane trails them to Banway’s “ancient manor house,” better called a pirate’s lair now that he keeps company with the Fishhawk and his sea-rovers.  

Sure that “the Lord…hath delivered mine enemy into mine hands!,” Kane – “ever the aggressor in any battle” – takes on the whole motley crew with “bloodied blade,” wiping out “the Brotherhoodonce and for all.  With Hollister and Mary safe and reunited, Kane’s work is done.  The thankful couple bid him “STAY!,” but Kane – that “harbinger of doom!” – leaves them with the explanation that “while evil flourishes and wrongs go rank, there is no rest for me,” bidding them “FAREWELL!” before “vanish[ing] in the darkness, with no sound coming back of his going.”  FIN.  

Early in the yarn, the Puritan shares with Hollister, and readers, a little of his backstory when asked if he is the Kane who was “a captain in the French Army for a space.”  The landless wanderer admits that he “led [sic] a rout of ungodly men, to my shame be it said, though the cause was a just one.”  This is a reference, again per Blosser, to Kane’s time “as a mercenary captain in one of the many religious wars which devastated that country in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  He saw action in at least one major battle, then eventually resigned his commission, sickened by the ‘many foul deeds…done under the cloak of the cause.’”  

Along with good old-fashioned altruistic avenging, the flintlock pistol-toting Puritan swordsman, branded “Broadbrim!” by one pirate, has added personal motives for undertaking the rescue.  “[F]rom the main to Portugal…to England,” he has followed “the brotherhood of buccaneers turned…bloody gang of cutthroat pirates!”  It seems that “[t]wo years ago [they] took a ship in the Caribees--” upon which “was a young girl … her father…a close friend to [Kane.]”  When he learned of her “fate he went mad,” and since “she had no brothers [to] avenge her,” it fell to Kane to right the matter.  One freebooter quips, no one “[e]xcept you, Sir Galahad?”  It is a foolish taunt.  Not only is chivalry not dead, it is upheld by the Puritan cavalier who deals death to those who violate that sacred Code of Chivalry.  

This is the story that delivers the quintessential Kane line, oft-quoted: “It hath been my duty in times past to ease various evil men of their lives!”  And ease them he does, though in this one case he is mildly mournful that evildoer Sir George Banway – who gets it “through the eye and into the brain,” Professor Matthew! – was so young: “But my heart is heavy, for he was little more than a youth and not my equal with the steel.  Well, the Lord judge between us on Judgment Day.”  But you would never know of Banway’s “boyish charm” from Dave Wenzel and Duffy Vohland who illustrate Banway with a hard and weathered face.  

Their representation of Kane, however, is another matter.  A letter-writer back in Savage Sword of Conan #23, who “really buy[s] SAVAGE SWORD to read the stories of Solomon Kane ... find[s] the character of the moody, driven avenger both fascinating and haunting,” is unequivocal that “[a]s far as artwork is concerned, by far my favorite interpreters of Solomon Kane are David Wenzel and Duffy Vohland.”  She is convinced that “[o]nly Wenzel and Vohland really draw Kane as Howard described him: tall, gaunt, with a high brow, narrow eyes, and thin lips.”  Her conclusion and plea?  “Clearly, the only artists who have ever managed to capture the complexity of the character of Solomon Kane are Wenzel and Vohland.  Their portraits are beautiful, but why not let them illustrate a whole story?”  Editorial responds, “Why not, indeed,” promising that “if they have the time and desire to do it,” then Marvel will give an upcoming “Kane the Wenzel-and-Vohland team.”  And so it did.  “How’s that for service, lass?”  

The splash page subtitles the story “A Tale of Solomon Kane in the days of Good Queen Bess,” but it is safe to say that Kane would have something to say about that line (absent from Howard’s original).  In the REH short story “Hawk of Basti,” Jeremy Hawk asks Kane if “good Queen Bess still rule[s] old England?,” then catches himself by saying, “You never loved the Tudors, eh, Solomon?”  The Puritan answers, “Her sister harried my people like beasts of prey ... She herself has lied to and betrayed the folk of my faith.”  There you have “Good” Queen Elizabeth.  

Kane declares that “there is no fire hotter than the blue flame of vengeance which burneth a man’s heart night and day without rest until he quench it in blood!,” and in the phrase “the blue flame of vengeance” lies a knotted backstory.  Blosser’s “Informal Biography” contends, in the “NOTES:” section, that a “variation of ‘Blades of the Brotherhood’ was published in Over the Edge, a 1964 Arkham House anthology edited by August Derleth…  Rewritten as ‘The Blue Flame of Vengeance,’ by John Pocsik, the alternate version included a warlock and a changeling; the official Howard story was a straight pirate adventure.”  

On the other hand, the comprehensive online bibliography Howard Works offers a competing account: 

“This story was originally written in 1929, titled ‘The Blue Flame of Vengeance,’ and featured Solomon Kane.  REH failed to sell it, perhaps because it had no weird element, and hence Weird Tales would likely not take it.  REH rewrote it in 1932, changing the hero to Malachi Grim, changing the title to ‘Blades of the Brotherhood,’ and shortening the story by a couple of pages.  There is no record to show to which magazines this story was offered, if any.”  

Whether this obscure “Malachi Grim”* revision contained a “weird element” is a matter for the collectors to address.  (It was made available as a facsimile copy from the Robert E. Howard Foundation in 2007, and was also anthologized in the pricey REH Foundation Press volume Pirate Adventures in 2013.)  Back at Howard Works, they list “‘The Blue Flame of Death’ [a]s the title of an earlier draft of ‘The Blue Flame of Vengeance,’” but one thing is for certain – when the story debuted in the 1968 Donald M. Grant anthology Red Shadows, it appeared under the title “Blades of the Brotherhood.”  

The definitive Del Rey edition available today, The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, goes back to basics by republishing REH’s original as “The Blue Flame of Vengeance,” underneath which it reads on the title page, “Previously published as Blades of the Brotherhood.”  This volume, which takes its text directly from the typescript, further clarifies in its “NOTES ON THE ORIGINAL HOWARD TEXT”: “We have restored Howard’s original title” because “when the Howard-only version was first published, it was retitled ‘Blades of the Brotherhood.’”  

Glut’s adaptation retains Kane, not Grim, but opts for the Donald M. Grant retitling “Blades of the Brotherhood.”  To Glut’s credit, he adapts the story as Howard wrote it when, in the Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp era of pastiche, fragment completion, and out-and-out rewrite, it would have been very easy for Marvel to prefer an alternative version filled with supernatural sensation.  (And as Professor Tom suspected, to Glut’s credit he “lifted a lot of Howard’s dialogue [and] quite a few lengthy speeches, all fire and brimstone”: [O]ffal of Purgatory!”)  In fact there is one moment when the reader may think the tale is veering in that direction on page 54 when the grim Puritan fires upon Banway who thereupon “slips unharmed into the passageway” with a wicked grin as if he were some impervious undead thing.  (It turns out Banway has “worn a steel mail under…shirt.”)  

This “favorite stor[y]” is what “really made the issue” for one reader whose published letter appeared in the Swords and Scrolls page of Savage Sword of Conan #37, adding that “Kane is probably my favorite of all Howard’s heroes, including Conan (sacrilege, sacrilege).”  He finds it “reassuring” to read of a hero “who would travel halfway around the world to save, or in this case to avenge, an unknown victim,” especially “[i]n today’s world of non-involvement.”  (Considering the 1978 vintage of the issue, a possible reference to the wounds of the Kitty Genovese case reopened a few years earlier by the film High Plains Drifter?  Or a Vietnam that collapsed into a totalitarian state upon American withdrawal, or most current to Savage Sword of Conan’s pub date, nonintervention in the Khmer Rouge genocide that transformed swaths of Cambodia into Killing Fields drowned in innocent blood?)  The effusive letter-writer applauds “Hollister’s attitude concerning Mary Garvin,” yet sadly “wonder[s] how many men would actually be willing to fight duels for their girlfriends today.”  Lamenting a lost ideal, he “can only think of a few men who would even consider putting their lives on the line like that.”  

Editorial responds with news that besides “Edward R. Pressman Productions…readying a multi-million-dollar version of Conan for the big screen, so another producer – in England, this time – has purchased rights to bring Solomon Kane to your neighborhood movie theatre!”  Apparently “Sword & Sorcery Productions…was formed in London last year by Milton Subotsky (formerly associated with various film adaptations of non-Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs) and Andrew Donally, who have already assigned screenwriters to work on a script based on various REH stories.”  Marvel promises to keep readers apprised of that project, but unlike Conan, it would be another 31 years before Solomon Kane and his brand of blue vengeance reached the silver screen (and was roundly drubbed by Kane lovers).   


* "Malachi Grim" is the second of three Solomon Kane handles, the third purportedly "Jonathan Flint." Just as Howard turned Kane into "Grim" for the "Blades of Brotherhood" version, Wikipedia's uncorroborated assertion is that "Blue Flame of Vengeance" rewriter [John] Pocsik went on to pen several other Kane pastiches, only one of which, "The Fiend Within," saw print in Ariel (with "Solomon Kane" changed to "Jonathan Flint")."
 Who, it should be added, almost brought Lin Carter's Thongor of Lemuria to the big screen in Thongor in the Valley of Demons which, had he succeeded, would have beat Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan the Barbarian.