Comic strips were the only game in town in the 1930s but these strips were eventually collected into omnibuses that lead to the standard comic book. Heroic Fantasy was slow to appear in the “four-color format” but tales of the glorious past were not. In 1937, Hal Foster exploded in the newspapers with Prince Valiant, a comic strip so influential it would have an effect on Fantasy comics to the present day. Valiant itself was not a Fantasy strip per se, though set in King Arthur’s time it did feature the odd dinosaur or witch, coming close to the Sword & Sorcery genre. Valiant, obviously, inspired many imitators including The Golden Knight, The Silver Knight and of course, The Black Knight. Also at this time were Slave Girl Comics and Robin Hood. All were found by Fantasy comic fans, but none was the actual article, a Sword & Sorcery comic.
The first of these appeared in June 1950 in Avon’s Out of This World Comics #1 in the form of “Crom the Barbarian” by Gardner F. Fox and John Giunta (who signed his name Jay Gee). Crom is a blond-haired member of the Aesir, a tribe wandering over the savage Earth in a time long-forgotten. Armed with his sword Skull-cracker (which Crom often tells to “drink its fill”), the barbarian and his sister Lalla end up on an island owned by the wizard Dwelf. He sends Crom to Ophir to steal water from a fountain of youth inside the Black Tower. There Crom fights and slays a giant snake. Crom comes away with the water and a new girl, Queen Tanit of Ophir, no less. When the treacherous Dwelf drinks the water he becomes younger, then a baby before sinking into pre-birth non-existence. It is not hard to see what inspired Gardner F. Fox. The use of “Crom”, “Ophir” and “Aesir” are fairly obvious Robert E. Howardisms, the wandering Aesir taken from his James Allison stories.
The next two Crom tales appeared in Avon’s Strange Worlds 1# (November 1950) and #2 (April 1951). “The Spider God of Akka” and “The Giant From Beyond” feature the Spider God Spraa worshipped by ape-men and the giant Balthar and his cave-dwelling disciples. Most of the situations in Crom’s life are recognizably Howardian and will resurface in the 1970s comics from Marvel. As “Crom the Barbarian” progressed through its mere three episodes the feel became less Howard and more Fox, suggesting if it had gone on longer it might have become something quite different.
Fox wrote comics for decades, being the man who invented Batman’s utility belt as well as The Flash and Hawkman (the most S&S of all superheroes), but in 1968 he left comics to try his hand at actual S&S books, penning the Kothar the Barbarian series (1969-1970), the Kyrik series (1975-1976) and finally the Niall of the Far Travels for Dragon Magazine (1976-1981). His work on Crom showed other creators what Fantasy comics could look like, making way for Joe Kubert’s “Viking Prince” in 1955 before a long drought that would end in the pages of Warren’s horror magazines.