Conan the Barbarian is the best-known of the characters created by Robert E. Howard, but he is far from the only one. Prior to his early death in 1936, Howard conceived an entire pantheon of pulp heroes including the likes of Solomon Kane, Kull of Atlantis and Bran Mak Morn, many of whom had afterlives in other media, particularly comics.
Howard’s interests extended beyond mighty-thewed male heroes: he showed a fondness for sword-wielding women as well. Most famously he created Red Sonya, the sixteenth-century warrior later adapted by Marvel into bikini-clad barbarian Red Sonja. But there is also a heroine who appeared in Howard’s stories more times than Sonya ever did, yet who remains considerably less famous: Dark Agnes.
Howard used Dark Agnes as the protagonist of three stories. However, like a large number of the tales penned by this prolific author, these ultimately never made it into the pulp magazines for which they were intended; instead, they remained unpublished (and, in the case of one story, unfinished) at the time of Howard’s death. It was not until the seventies that they saw the light of day, thanks to the world of periodicals and chapbooks that did so much to recover Howard’s previously unseen work.
Then in 1977 came a paperback entitled The Sword Woman, which gathered together the three Dark Agnes stories alongside a pair of unrelated pieces by Howard. Readers unfamiliar with Agnes – and, at the time, that would have been a sizeable majority – were given a preface by pulp author Leigh Brackett that introduced the previously-obscure heroine. Brackett begins her piece by lamenting the fact that Howard never wrote more stories about Agnes:
Perhaps she came a little before her time. Women who could do things were not very popular in fiction back in the ‘30s, particularly in the adventure story field.
She goes on to speculate as to whether Agnes was based upon C. L. Moore’s red-haired swordswoman Jirel of Joirey, noting that Howard and Moore each admired the other’s heroine. She then brings up still earlier predecessors – the historical warrior-women Mary Ambree and Joan of Arc – before dismissing those who would find Agnes an implausible figure:
One more point, for the benefit of any MCP’s [male chauvinist pigs] who may happen to read these stories and say, Oh, well, they’re good yarns and all that, but no woman could really be capable of doing these things.
Rubbish, my good sirs.
Queen Boudicca led her armies to battle. The white armed German women fought alongside their men and frightened the wits out of the Roman legionaries. The Vikings had their shield-maidens. And even after the advent of Christianity, exceptional women continued to break out of the trap. They have served honorably as soldiers in many wars, less honorably as pirates and freebooters, but they were all good women of their hands with sword and pistol. The women who helped to open up the far places of the world were not made of custard. They could shoot a rifle and hit what they aimed at. They could withstand heat and cold, hunger, thirst, and the ever-present threat of death quite as well as their husbands.
The collection takes its name from “Sword Woman”, the story that begins Dark Agnes’ saga. We are introduced to Agnes as she is forced to marry a man named Francois: “He will tame you, I warrant me”, says her father. “He will not humor you, as have I. You will eat stick from his hand, my fine lady.” Agnes refuses, and her father resorts to dragging her into the village by her hair. But she is saved by her elder sister Ysabel, who was similarly subjected to an arranged marriage: “Do not cling by your fingers to life, to become as our mother, and as your sister; do not become as me”, she says. “Go while you are strong and supple and handsome.”
Armed with a dagger provided by her sister, Agnes is able to escape the wedding, stabbing the grotesque Francois in the heart and fleeing into the forest. She meets a horseman named Etienne Villiers, who agrees to take her to Chartres – even giving her a change of clothes and a rough haircut so that she can evade her pursuers by masquerading as a man. But Etienne, it turns out, intends to sell Agnes to a brothel.
Learning of this, Agnes fights off Etienne and initially tries to kill him. However, she decides to spare his life after learning that he is an enemy of the corrupt Duc d’Alencon – a detail that appeals to Agnes’ anti-authoritarian leanings.
While tangling with the Duc’s forces, Agnes takes part in precisely the sort of exploits that are to be expected of a Howard hero. She indulges a taste for hard-drinking (“in all my life I never saw a woman drain a flagon like that”, remarks Etienne) and she shows that she is adept at wielding a sword, although the sixteenth-century setting means that she is also granted a pistol (“I plucked it forth and fired point-blank into the face of Jacques, blasting his skull into a red ruin”). Seeing the carnage left by one of her victories, Etienne declares that a “star of darkness shone on her birth, of darkness and unrest” and coins an epithet for her: Dark Agnes.
From the start, Agnes is characterised as being between two worlds. She comes from a peasant background and yet bears a noble name, her father being the illegitimate son of the Duc de Chastillon. Taking up a new life as a fighter she finds herself not only between classes, but also between genders.
“Ha, by the tripe and blood of Judas, you guzzle like a man!” says her tutor-to-be, mercenary warrior Guissard de Clisson, upon witnessing Agnes’ drinking habits. “Mayhap women are becoming men, for ‘tis truth, by Saint Trignan, that men are become women, these days.” Agnes then asks to join Guissard’s band, declaring that she is “weary of being a woman”. Yet, Agnes still possesses a few traits that she views as essentially feminine. When Etienne asks why she spared his life, she replies “Because of the woman in me… that cannot bear to hear a helpless thing beg for life.”
In the story’s climax, Etienne returns Agnes’ favour by tracking her down and rescuing her from the Duc d’Alencon’s men. “Will you not let me ride to the was with you?” he asks her. “As comrade, no more,” she replies. “Remember, I am woman no longer.” Etienne accepts this: “As brothers in arms,” he concludes.
Agnes’ adventures continue in “Blades of France”. This story begins with her heading to a rendezvous with Etienne, only to be hassled by a passing letch:
“…Come hither, Agnes, and give me a kiss.”
“Fool!” My ever ready anger was beginning to smolder. “Must I slay half the men in France to teach them respect? Look ye! I wear these garments but as the garbs and tools of my trade, not to catch the attention of men. I drink, fight and live like a man—”
“But shalt love like a woman!” quoth he, and lunging suddenly at me like a great bear, he sought to drag me into his embrace, but reeled back from a buffet that split his lip and brought a stream of blood down his black beard.
The altercation ends with Agnes killing the man before robbing his body for money and clothes. This leads to a case of mistaken identity, as Agnes is confused with the man she killed; her “recklessness and womanish curiosity” prompt her to play along, causing her to fall in with the band of rogues who – in the previous story – killed her mentor Guissard de Clisson. Afterwards comes swashbuckling action as Agnes does battle with pirates, alongside a touch of courtly intrigue – Francoise de Foix, real-life mistress of King Francis I, turns up as a major character in the story.
Aside from a passage in “Sword Woman” where Agnes expresses a superstitious fear of encountering “werewolves or goblins or vampires” in the forest, neither “Sword Woman” nor “Blades for France” are fantasy stories. But “Mistress of Death”, which was left unfinished by Howard and completed decades after his death by Gerald W. Page, brings a supernatural element to Agnes’ adventures – even portraying the heroine herself as the carrier of a curse. In her introduction to the paperback collection, Leigh Brackett speculates that Howard may have decided to move Agnes towards fantasy on the grounds that the genre had more room for female leads, as suggested by the success of C. L. Moore’s Jirel stories.
“Mistress of Death” begins with Agnes being attacked by robbers, and saved by Scottish exile John Stuart – her former comrade Etienne being absent from this narrative. “Well are you called Dark Agnes!” remarks Stuart. “For all your red hair and fair skin there is something strange and dark about you. Men say you move through life like one of the Fates, unmoved, unchangeable, potent with tragedy and doom, and that the men who ride with you do not live long.”
The two then stumble upon a pair of bodies in an alleyway – one of them the corpse of Costranno, who had previously been hanged for sorcery. Agnes is sighted near the corpses and falsely accused of murder, in what evolves into another of her encounters with predatory men:
“I know well why you wish to arrest me, Tristan,” I said coldly, approaching him with an easy tread. “I had not been in Chartres a day before you sought to make me your mistress. Now you take this revenge upon me. Fool! I am mistress only to Death!”</em?
After escaping, the pair end up investigating another killing. Stuart concludes that the culprit is the sorcerer Costranno, his body having been retrieved from the gallows by his accomplices and placed in the alleyway to be resurrected by supernatural forces (“I have heard that the stones paving that alley were taken from an ancient heathen temple”).
The story’s climax has Agnes triumphing over her “womanly fear” to slay the undead magician. Her brush with dark magic and the eldritch horrors that lie within Castranno’s crypt leave her shaken, but she is comforted by Stuart: “there is no shame for you to act as a woman, Dark Agnes, for you are quite a woman indeed.” The story concludes by striking two of Howard’s favourite notes – a sense of supernatural dread, and an overall eagerness for further adventure:
“Do not forget the curse that hangs over me, John Stuart. Does it not bother you that the men who ride with Dark Agnes ride to an early grave?”
“Not a bit,” John Stuart said, with booming laughter. “For what is another curse, more or less, upon the head of a Stuart!”
Unsurprisingly, given its hodge-podged origins, “Mistress of Death” is not the strongest story in the Howard canon. It does, however, have the distinction of being the first Dark Agnes tale adapted for comics. The first issue of Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan magazine, published in 1974, included a retelling of “Mistress of Death” – at the time, the only one of Agnes’ adventures available to the public – under the title “Curse of the Undead-Man”, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by John Buscema and Pablo Marcos.
The adaptation is broadly faithful to the details of the original, with one major exception: Roy Thomas reconfigured it as a Conan narrative, moving the action from historical France to the Hyborian Age and replacing the two leads with Conan and Red Sonja, the latter having been introduced into the comics the previous year.
Both being flame-haired, heavy-drinking, sword-wielding heroines, comparisons between Dark Agnes and Red Sonja are obvious; but there are also significant differences, even leaving aside the matter of time period. While Agnes tends to wear male attire, Sonja flaunts her feminine form in an iconic chainmail bikini. Even this difference was later obscured, however, as Stephen Fabian’s cover art to The Sword Woman depicts Agnes as an unmistakable Sonja-alike, clad in a metal bra and some sort of leather kilt.
Curiously, given the overlap between the two characters, the comic adaptation of “Mistress of Death” does not use Sonja as a counterpart to Agnes. Instead, she gets Stuart’s role (killing the robbers at the start, providing exposition) while Agnes’ part in the story (slaying the evil magician) is handed to Conan. Thanks to Marvel, Agnes had undergone a gender-bending session rather more extreme than anything Howard had put on paper…
Agnes would not make her proper comic debut until 2010, with the debut of the Dark Horse anthology Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword. Serialised across the first two issues was “Storytelling”, an Agnes adventure by writer Marc Andreyko, penciller Robert Atkins, inker Rebecca Buchman and colourist Michelle Madsen.
The comic has the double-task of both telling a new tale about Agnes while also introducing her to a readership that might be unfamiliar with the original Howard stories. It begins with a Hessian mercenary barging into a tavern and asking a hooded man – who turns out to be Etienne Villiers — about Agnes’ whereabouts. Without letting on that he is her travelling companion, Etienne tells a story of Agnes’ origin.
In fact, two stories are being told over this three-page sequence. The artwork depicts scenes from Howard’s “Sword Woman” – we see her being beaten by her father and forced into marriage, before killing her groom and riding off into battle. But Etienne’s narrative captions spin a tragic fairy tale around her: “many believe she is the daughter of Mars and Venus… she happily prepared for her marriage into a bloodline of royals… her heart was bursting with love, but it was not to be… her true love was struck down before the vows… it drove her mad—some think she became possessed by the Devil himself.”
After the story has been told, and after the mercenary has groped a serving girl, Agnes makes her appearance decked in a gallant costume, sword pointed at the rogue’s neck. A fight breaks out, the main villain joined by a small band of soldiers, but Agnes is triumphant.
“You know,” says Etienne, “I could have gotten that out of him without the bloodshed. Why did you come out swords blazing when you did?”
“Seeing the way the Hessian pawed that barmaid recalled too much of my own past”, replies Agnes. “I couldn’t watch her suffer that fate.”
The story ends with two more legends of Agnes being told. In a tavern , the fearful Hessian tells his comrades about his triumphant foe “She truly is part harpy, part demon, with a blood lust like I’ve never seen”. Meanwhile, in a forest clearing, the barmaid – now wielding a knife given to her by Agnes – regales a band of what appear to be female outlaws: “She took down five Hessians like they were cordwood! She saved me from their pawing hands, their hair, dirty flesh… she is sent from God to show us how it can be… how we are not chattel for men. She is glorious!”
“Storytelling” is, on the whole, a successful update. The comic’s feminist themes are ultimately true to the Howard tales, if perhaps amplified somewhat (Etienne is even more effete than in the original stories, his main role in the fight to private comic relief through ineptitude). And while the story has a touch of irony about it, as tends to be expected of adventure fiction in this day and age, it nonetheless treats its pulp heritage with respect. Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword later ran a mostly-straight adaptation of “Sword Woman” – scripted by Paul Tobin, with art by Francesco Francavilla and Aaron McConnell – but the series was cancelled before it could tell any more tales of Dark Agnes.
This year, however, Agnes has made her return to comics courtesy of a miniseries from Marvel. Written by Becky Cloonan and drawn primarily by Luca Pizzari, the current Dark Agnes comic is on its second of five issues.
The first issue sees Agnes reunited with Etienne as she rescues him from an execution; the two then set off together, with Agnes evading capture and saving a nun from assault before heading off for still more adventures. As with Dark Horse’s “Storytelling” this is used in large part as a framing device to re-establish Agnes’ backstory, the main events of Howard’s three stories being divulged through dialogue and the occasional choice flashback panel. Towards the end of the issue Agnes relives her welding in a nightmare sequence, where the other characters are rendered as anthropomorphised animals, evoking he medieval taels of Reynard the Fox and Chanticleer.
The second issue grants fresh adventures to Agnes and Etienne, albeit ones haunted by ghosts from their past. The two infiltrate Parisian high society in an effot to track down Renault de Valence, the man who killed her old mentor; and during the issue’s climax, she has a vision of her slain fiancé, hinting at a supernatural element to the story.
The new Dark Agnes comic has the swashbuckling violence and bloody intrigue that is to be expected, although between Cloonan’s fondness for humorous banter and Pizzari’s cartoonish artwork, the overall tone is more light-hearted than in Howard’s stories. But then, a character can hardly be expected to survive for eighty years without a degree of change.
Red Sonja will likely remain the go-to choice when it comes to Robert E. Howard-derived comic heroines. But perhaps only a short distance away will be her close relative, Dark Agnes: a character who forgoes bikinis for britches, who is adept with a pistol as well as a sword, and who is willing to put herself against all manner of brutal banditry and courtly corruption even if it involves defying every gender norm of her day.