115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

"Keep Your Swords Above the Mire!": A Reconsideration of the 1975 DC Comics Series Beowulf

Jarret Keene, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

This paper explores how the 1970s DC Comics series Beowulf: Dragon Slayer, written by then-college professor Michael Uslan, extends and enriches the saga of the protagonist of the Old English poem Beowulf by situating the character within a larger universe of myth, literature, religion, and pop-archeology.

Proposal: 

The post-Vietnam barbarian or “sword and sorcery” trend in comic books was fueled by Marvel Comics’ successful 1970 adaptation of pulp writer Robert E. Howard’s Conan. In an effort to capitalize on Conan the Barbarian’s success, DC Comics introduced Beowulf: Dragon Slayer, based on the Anglo-Saxon mythic hero, in 1975. While the first issue in the series stays true to the epic, the next five installments veer wildly into hyper-surreal pastiche, in which Beowulf encounters Satan, Dracula, Odysseus en route to the underworld, King Minos and the Minotaur, the Lost Tribe of Israel, the lost continent of Atlantis, and, amazingly, the space aliens responsible for constructing the pyramids of Egypt. Despite being advertised as a sword-and-sorcery comic book, Beowulf: Dragon Slayer becomes something else entirely—namely, a genre-smashing mash-up of mythology, Homeric verse, Victorian fantasy, Plato’s allegories, and the then-popular pop-archeology subject of “paleo-contact” with ancient extraterrestrials. Written by college professor Michael Uslan—who would go on to produce the Tim Burton-directed Batman film many years later—Beowulf was not well-received and was canceled after a half-dozen issues. In the intervening years, the comic has been maligned as being, one critic notes, “like the kind of movie that you’d describe as being so bad that’s it’s good, its miscues so amazing that they become unintentionally hilarious.” However, in the wake of British comics writer Alan Moore’s success with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which unites public-domain characters from the pages of Victorian literature into a semblance of a superhero team, Uslan's adaptation seems hugely influential. Although Moore has long been an acclaimed author of graphic novels, a great deal of critical praise focuses on his conceptualizing of teaming up, say, Captain Nemo with the Invisible Man with Mina Harker with Allan Quartermain with Mr. Hyde, and so on. This presentation, then, is an effort to salvage the pioneering efforts of Uslan in his Beowulf adaptation and demonstrate how his literary blending of myth and ancient literature and 20th-century speculative nonfiction was ahead of its time and went on to influence later comics writers in both England and the U.S. I argue that a book like Beowulf: Dragon Slayer set the standard for the new postmodern graphic narrative, occupying the intersection between visual art and contemporary fiction while at the same time pushing readers to imagine a universe inhabited by both the Dane fighter and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I include an examination of barbarian-comics tropes to show how Uslan’s Beowulf pushes against the typical narrative formula to instead offer a critique of brutish masculinity at a time when Marvel and other comics companies strove to project an aura of extreme machismo on book covers, house advertisements, and other marketing tactics. This presentation will also offer images from both the DC series as well as panels from competing barbarian comics published around the same time to demonstrate how Beowulf: Dragon Slayer is, in fact, a lost classic in the history of the medium and a valuable pedagogical tool for drawing in students to better understand the epic poem and its monster-vanquishing hero.