After the congressional hearings of the 1950s that saw comic books blamed for contributing to juvenile delinquency, the comics industry spent the better part of two decades churning out kid-friendly material under a rigid code of self-censorship. It was not until the mid-1970s that American comics dared again to try and cultivate an adult audience. Several publishers experimented with oversized black-and-white comics magazines; free from the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, the black-and-whites could explore more mature themes and approaches than the four-color funnybooks.
The results were mixed—in practice, “mature” usually translated as “gore and titties”—but at their best the black-and-whites hearkened back to the pulp roots of comics, recapturing some of the dank, nasty energy of the old “men’s adventure” magazines. Indeed, many pulp characters were being revived for comics in this period—Doc Savage, the Shadow, and Tarzan among them. The most successful character to make the leap was Conan the Barbarian, who brought great fortune to Marvel Comics as the star of both the eponymous PG-rated color comic book and the hard-R black-and-white spin-off Savage Sword of Conan.
Now, in comics, as in any artform, innovation engenders imitation; and soon every publisher was scrambling to market a sword-and-sorcery hero of its very own. One of the best of the Conannabes—and certainly the strangest—was El Cid, who appeared in the pages of Warren Publishing’s Eerie magazine, whose adventures are collected in the new hardcover Eerie Presents El Cid.
El Cid—rather inconveniently for a prospective fantasy hero—was a real person, not a shadowy quasi-historical figure like Robin Hood or King Arthur, but a genuine, documented 11th Century Spanish nobleman named Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar. A brilliant military commander, the Cid (an Arabic title translating roughly as “warlord”) was Spain’s great patriotic hero. He settled a bloody civil war by swearing allegiance to the claimant to the throne—only to be rewarded with exile; he was a Christian who fought to free his country from Moorish conquerors, who went on to lead an army of both Christian and Spanish-born Muslims against foreign invasion.
A fascinating career, to be sure. But at first blush the Cid is an unlikely candidate for a makeover as the poor man’s Conan. Although elements of legend have attached themselves to the story of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, there’s nothing of the supernatural about him. There are plenty of swords, but no sorcery; no tales of him slaying dragons or bedding sea nymphs, or storming the gates of Hell—all things that happen in the stories collected in Eerie Presents El Cid.
The Eerie stories, first published in 1975 and ‘76, do not adapt any of the known poems or legends about the Cid. But the best of them, like “Crooked Mouth” or “The Emir of Aragon,” use the historical setting to excellent effect, setting their tales of treachery and seduction against the political skullduggery of the period. The early stories, scripted by Budd Lewis with plot input from others in Warren’s stable of writers, have little truck with historical accuracy, but at least try to keep events within the realm of plausibility; the monster of “The Troll” turns out to be the hoax of an all-too-human villain, while the sea monsters and phantasmagoric creatures of “The Seven Trials” exist only in the hero’s dreams as he lies wracked with fever. The supernatural events of “The Vision,” and even the demons of “The Lady and the Lie”—those can be read as allegory.
But towards the end of the series’ run, it’s as if Lewis simply says, “what the hell,” and the proceedings go to full-on Dungeons & Dragons territory. The shift in genre is jarring, from a skewed period piece to outright slipstream fantasy; imagine Cold Mountain morphing into Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter midway through.
Even when the stories venture into the ridiculous, they are magnificent to look at. Gonzalo Mayo, who later went on to work on Vampirella, wasn’t much of a narrative artist at this point in his career; the action is murky at times, and Mayo’s layouts don’t “read” clearly. But the sheer craft and design sense he brings to his pages is astonishing. Mayo draws from a variety of influences, from both comics and fine art, to forge a dramatic, illustrative effect. There are traces of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, naturally enough, and of Wally Wood—but also of Art Nouveau draftsmen like Alphonse Mucha. In the sinister creatures and riotous detail of the panels, there are even echoes of Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Poe and Goethe.
Tasked with handling the bulk of the storytelling, Budd Lewis overwrites desperately: “And hie! Hell had cracked open to let fly demented spectres loose!” he pants in a typical caption. “The face of the living dead looked down upon his last enemy! El Cid!” But even these deep shades of purple are true to the pulp roots; every line is breathless, urgent, unleavened by even a dash of humor or irony.
El Cid is not, let’s face it, great comics. But for all its conceptual wonkiness and narrative grind, it is consistently beautiful to look at. And it’s an important artifact of a neglected moment in comics history, when the medium was reaching for an adult audience but without pretending to respectability, when comics still gloried in its disreputable image. It’s a fascinating glimpse at an outlaw artform before rehabilitation and gentrification—a key transitional period for comics, and one that’s overdue for reassessment.
He is no poet’s dreaming, no children’s rhyme. He is legend—a man whose name has turned to myth. He is Critic-at-Large for Popdose. He is—Jack Feerick!