Back when I wrote about DC’s Beowulf, I intended to write about Claw the Unconquered, and I clearly remember having done so. But as I looked recently and can’t find any such post, the memory is obviously wrong. So here we go with a look at the most successful of DC’s Bronze Age sword-and-sorcery series (alongside Beowulf, Stalker — The Man With the Stolen Soul and Swords of Sorcery).
As you can see from Ernie Chan’s cover and the Gil Kane image below, the creative team gave readers a character visually interchangeable with Marvel’s Conan except for the red gauntlet. Initially, Claw comes off much in the same mold too, a wandering barbarian swordsman out for adventure, gold and women. By the end of the first issue, though, it was obvious something different was at work.
It turns out that under the gauntlet, Claw’s — real name actually Valcan — hand is a grotesque demonic paw. And that he’s the player in some cosmic game: the tyrant Occulas murdered Valcan’s father (who had the same hand deformity his son inherited) years ago because of a prophecy he would threaten Occulas’ rule. Now it appears Claw poses the same threat. Oh, and it’s hinted that Claw’s hand may be capable of independent action, striking at threats Claw hasn’t spotted. In the second issue, that becomes canon.
In the fourth issue, Claw and his new friend, the elegant womanizer Ghilkyn, encounter Occulas nastiest weapon, the death-demon N’Hglthss. Being near him kills living things, which then rise as zombies. Fighting N’Hglthss will require the two reluctant heroes head across the multiverse their world exists in. The multiverse exists in balance between two forces, light and shadow; Occulas is an unwitting agent of Shadow and if he wins Valcan’s world, the balance will tip in favor of darkness.
This isn’t at all Conan’s style, but it’s very much in the spirit of Michael Moorcock. Moorcock began writing sword-and-sorcerey with his character Elric, doomed non-human prince of ancient Melnibone. He then created several other characters, including Dorian Hawkmoon and Prince Corum, all of them, like Elric, avatars of the Eternal Champion who preserves the balance between Law and Chaos.
David Michelinie’s Claw is very much in the Corum mold. They both fight across a multiverse in a cosmic battle. They both have an enchanted hand. And Claw’s adventures tend to be much weirder than Conan’s, closer to the exotic stories and grotesque settings in Moorcock. When Valcan visits a chaos-ruled world in #8, Keith Giffen’s art truly makes it look bizarre and chaotic. It’s the kind of strangeness it would take me as a writer a lot of words to capture, but Giffen’s able to bypass description and just show it.
Running to 12 issues, Claw the Unconquered was, as noted, far more successful than DC’s other S&S adventures (though I’ll probably write about them eventually). It did not, however, survive the DC Implosion of 1978, in which Warners ordered DC to axe 40 percent of its line. The final issue ends with Valcan, horrified when his demon-tainted hand kills someone against his will, cuts it off. Had #13 come out, Claw would have discovered the hand reattaching itself.
Claw resurfaced later in a 2006 series from Wildstorm, which I haven’t read. It lasted six issues and included a special crossing Claw over with Red Sonja (I wonder if she noticed the Conan resemblance?). 1994’s Primal Force introduced a descendant of Valcan as one of the eponymous team, dedicated to protecting Earth from supernatural forces.
It’s no match for Conan’s long comics run, but it’s not bad either.
#SFWApro. Covers by Ernie Chan (Claw 1 and 4), Keith Giffen (#8), Gil Kane (Conan), Ken Hooper (Primal Force) and Bob Haberfield (King of the Swords). All rights remain with current holder.