Saturday, July 6, 2024

Dagar the Invincible - Archives Vol. #1

Western Publishing Company, a Wisconsin company, made a huge splash in the world of home entertainment in the early 20th century. The company was one of the first manufacturers of paper puzzles and tabletop games. Their enterprise eventually expanded into book publishing, initially developing the line of Little Golden Books. By the middle of the century they had partnered with Walt Disney Productions, Warner Brothers, MGM, and even the estate of the popular author Edgar Rice Burroughs

From 1938 through 1961 the company published comics under a partnership with Dell. But, in 1962 Western Publishing began their own comic book company, Gold Key Comics. The marketing strategy was to license just about anything they could get their hands on. From Planet of the Apes to Star Trek nothing was out of bounds in the world of Gold Key Comics. Back then the chances were pretty high that if you watched it on television, Gold Key had an accompanying comic book to go with it. But, the company also published their own original titles as well like Doctor Solar, Magnus Robot Fighter, and Space Family Robinson. While I've read my share of Gold Key comics back in the day, a few titles escaped me, like Dagar the Invicible.

In the 1970s, the sword-and-sorcery genre was at an all-time high with the reprint publications of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian stories in paperback. Beginning in 1966, readers were able to finally read the original Conan stories in affordable paperbacks by Lancer. These books had amazing artwork and featured original published stories, but also many incomplete stories that were discovered as drafts and completed by authors Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. The books sold well and by the end of the decade countless imitators appeared – some good, some not so good. Along with paperbacks, the comic book industry quickly got involved with sword-and-sorcery. The early 1970s saw the publication of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan

Gold Key marched out their sword-and-sorcery comic, Dagar the Invincible in October 1972 with the blurb “Tales of Sword and Sorcery”. The entire series was visually created by artist Jesse Santos and written by Donald F. Glut. It ran a total of 19 issues with two issues reprinting the debut (#19 published under the Whitman brand). You can still get these issues fairly cheap online or you can purchase two hardcover collections from Dark Horse that compile the entire series. Very cool. This review is on the first hardcover collection, simply titled Dagar the Invincible Archives Volume #1. This compiles issues #1-9.

Jesse Santos broke into comics in his home country of The Philippines in 1946. He drew Halakhak Kommiks' “Kidlat” before moving to the U.S. to work on comics like The Microbots and Brothers of the Spear. Along with Dagar the Invincible, Santos would later draw Gold Key's The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor and Tragg and the Sky Gods. He turned down an offer to work for Marvel on the Conan the Barbarian comic. 

Donald F. Glut began his writing career by working with Warren Publishing and their black and white magazines Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella as well as the Skywald Publication Psycho. Along with writing Dagar the Invincible, Glut teamed with Santos on The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor, and Tragg and the Sky Gods. He would later move on to writing for Marvel books like Captain America, Savage Sword of Conan, and Thor as well as the DC Comics titles House of Mystery and House of Secrets

The first issue is a true origin story, “The Sword of Dagar”, explaining how Dagar became the heroic fantasy warrior. The era is explained vaguely as a “time when Gods and Demons walked the Earth as men and certain men possessed the best and worst qualities of both”. From what I gather, this particular world is a combination of prehistoric elements and the Middle Ages militant kingdoms complete with rival leadership and classes. Glut specifies it is the twilight years between the end of the stone age and the beginning of Babylon. 

In the opening pages of the first issue, Dagar is battling a saber-tooth tiger while reflecting on his life and heritage. In a flashback sequence, readers see young Dagar admiring his grandfather's battle helmet. In an onslaught of brutality a swarm of invaders ride into town and slay every Tulgoian except Dagar and his grandfather. Thus, a sworn oath is made that Dagar will train under his grandfather's tutelage and become INVINCIBLE! After a few years of training, the grandfather dies and Dagar is shown wearing an animal skin and holding a sword. He plans to find the one named Scorpio that led the assault on his people. He also states repeatedly that he will take on a life of fighting for money. I didn't quite grasp the significance of this. 

In this issue's second part, “Castle of the Skull”, an old man asks Dagar to journey to a cursed castle and rescue his daughter. The narrative really picks up the action and gets Dagar into dark hallways slaying skeletons with a magical mace. There is a little trick ending that recalls some of the surprises found in the horror comics of the time (hint: the young beautiful woman is really an old hag). 

The second issue, “The Beast Within”, Dagar takes on a job finding a beautiful woman's missing brother. But, little does he realize that the missing man is actually a werewolf who disappears during a full moon to keep from killing his loved ones. When Dagar teams up the werewolf they hunt down Scorpio to another monolithic castle (there are a lot of those). The finale comes when both are forced to fight an enormous lizard. This story reminded me so much of the Conan stories, complete with the cavernous castle and behemoth reptile. 

The third issue features one of my favorite covers of the series. Let's face it, every cover in this series is simply awe-inspiring, but the use of the red castle, the cliff, the vampire bat creature set against a moody backdrop of purple just invokes so much color and imagery into this sword-and-sorcery affair. The story in this one is called “Wrath of the Vampires” and has a demonic beginning. Dagar rides up on a ghoulish scene as a woman is being sacrificed on an altar. But, instead of saving her he rides off and says to himself he only fights for money. Either that is totally badass or just plain despicable...I can't decide which. Dagar gets an explanation from a guy that the girl has been sacrificed on Blood Mountain to a race of vampires that prey upon the community. On the quest to find and free the girl he gets himself imprisoned by a sadistic creature called King Desmos. Dagar breaks free and teams up with some hideous monsters that have been abused by Desmos to fight their way through the savage hordes. At the end, Dagar and his new lover, Graylin, ride off into the sunset.

In “Vengeance-Sweet Vengeance”, issue five's story, the Dagar and Scorpio confrontation is promised to deliver the goods. In the beginning, Dagar is following a map he obtained that supposedly leads to Scorpio. Fortunately (or unfortunately), he stumbles upon some sort of floating wormhole that immediately jets him into Scorpio's coveted stronghold. As being the only guy in the building half nude wearing animal skins, Dagar is immediately recognized and forced into captivity. The only logical use for him is to deposit him in the gladiator games to fight lions and stuff. After fighting free of the arena, Dagar goes into an underground tunnel and teams up with an old man who gives him advice on how to fight Scorpio. There's some drugged out colors and designs swirling all over this issue with a stinging final boss fight of Dagar fighting a gigantic scorpion. The end proves this through story has reached its conclusion and Scorpio has been vanquished. Revenge complete.

Issue six is a real turning point for the series and sees more narration in third-person instead of Dagar speaking to himself to narrate the story for readers. I was waiting for this type of storytelling to emerge. It makes the comic a bit more modern. I hate when the heroes of the golden age would say things to themselves like, “I must pick up this sword and go down that hallway to fight the beast”. Instead, the narrator does that much better by telling us the story and then allowing the art and dialogue to supplement it. 

In this story, “Another World...Another Time”, Dagar journeys back to his lover Graylin but instead hears her cries from another world. It seems Graylin went off searching for Dagar and accidentally went into an “oracle cave”. Dagar finds the cave and journeys through it to discover a savage prehistoric playground of dinosaurs and volcanoes. Basically, this is Donald Glut conjuring his Edgar Rice Burroughs' styled comic Tragg and the Sky Gods into a Dagar book. One of the cave-men from Tragg, a guy named Jarn, teams up with Dagar in this issue to rescue Graylin from an evil sorcerer named Zerg. There is a bunch of dinosaur fighting and weird hypnotic stuff before the end that sees Dagar and Graylin once again on horseback riding off into another adventure in their own time. 

The sixth issue is broken down into two separate stories with the first being “Treasure of Nai-Po-Gah”. This story is right out of Conan with the two hunting for treasure in a seemingly abandoned city. When Dagar removes a jewel from a large statue they hear a man calling for help. In interviewing the man, who seems to be trapped in a well, Dagar has a moment of clarity – he only fights for money! But Graylin insists he help the man. Dagar should have stuck with his code here because once the man is free he turns into a giant demon named Zu-Borr that creates a ton of chaos for the two lovers. That story ends and a new one begins titled “Demon of the Temple”, a short narrative that features Graylin and Dagar fighting a monster and a mad mage. 

The series seventh issue puts Dagar on the high seas in "Two Swords Against Zora-Zal". The hero is out fishing on the shore when a band of pirates net him and force him into a galley slave ship. While brutally rowing for days and days Dagar strikes up a friendship with a fellow slave named Durak. When the ship anchors on the Island of Queen Zora-Zal, Dagar and Durak are put to work building a giant tower. After an escape attempt an evil sorcerer throws Dagar into a deep well to fight another monster (recurring theme here). Dagar wins and then leads Durak to overthrow their captors and free the island. At the end Durak says farewell to Dagar and steers the galley ship off to adventure. 

In the following issue, Dagar returns back to the city only to find that his beloved Graylin has been drug off with other women to a smoking crater on Mount Bargoll. This story, "The Red Ruby of Garloth", shows a little more compassion from Dagar. Since he only fights for money, he wants to rescue Graylin only. However, a young girl gives Dagar her only possession, a necklace, to help find her mother. Dagar refuses the necklace and is shown dropping the other coins he was paid into the dirt. He tracks Graylin to the mountain and finds it riddled with the undead! A zombie named Kagra is using a magical gem to resurrect dead people. However, the deal requires a sacrifice - one live one for one dead one. Dagar puts an end to the transactions and with Graylin's help they destroy the place. 

"The Night of the Serpent" closes out this volume, the lead story in issue nine. Dagar and Graylin watch as a large sloth is fatally poisoned by a coiling giant serpent. The two are headed to the city of Yang-Dorr where 

Dagar hopes to place his sword for hire, but they get distracted in the swamps. It is here that the tribe of nomadic black warriors known as Zargani use their spears and battleaxes to hunt and survive. The tribe's chieftain, Torgus, and his wife Renya are out walking when Renya drinks from the same river that the injured giant serpent retreated to. Renya gets poisoned and Torgus is desperate for a cure. Readers are treated to a flashback sequence explaining how Nar-Kal, a sorcerer, obtained the Magical Eye of the God Org-Ra. It is explained that Nar-Kal is actually in control of the giant serpent and each time the snake kills then Nar-Kal becomes more powerful. Torgus needs to stop Nar-Kal so his beloved wife can heal. There is a brief fight between Dagar and Torgus before the two realize they are better as allies fighting Nar-Kal. The story ends with with both Dagar and Graylin enjoying time with the Zargani couple.

At nine meaty issues, sword-and-sorcery fans will find plenty to like about Dagar and his adventures through this savage land. Obviously there is a huge nod to Conan, but I never felt like the writing and art was at that level - no matter who was writing or drawing Conan over at Marvel. This is more of a third-tier type of series that is still wildly enjoyable and reeks of nostalgic pleasure. The art is good, the writing is okay. It just isn't something that is mandatory or suggested unless you really love this genre, era, and brand. Gold Key has a cult following cemented by titles like Dagar. For me, I got enough out of it to want to read more...just give me a few months. This collection has so much material and it's a little bit of a chore to get through it all. But, if you like this genre then by all means you need to at least sample Dagar the Invincible. 

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