Right from the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (Weird Tales, December 1932) Howard populates his Fantasy world with evil creatures drawn from elder dimensions and eldritch space. The Baboon-Demon of Stygia is the first of these.
There was a movement in the air about him, such a swirl as is made in water when some creature rises to the surface. A nameless, freezing wind blew on him briefly, as if from an opened Door. Thoth felt a presence at his back, but he did not look about. He kept his eyes fixed on the moonlit space of marble, on which a tenuous shadow hovered. As he continued his whispered incantations, this shadow grew in size and clarity, until it stood out distinct and horrific. Its outline was not unlike that of a gigantic baboon, but no such baboon ever walked the earth, not even in Stygia…
The hideousness of its face transcended mere bestiality. It might have been the face of an ancient, evil mummy, quickened with demoniac life. In those abhorrent features the outlaw’s dilated eyes seemed to see, like a shadow in the madness that enveloped him, a faint and terrible resemblance to the slave Thothamon…Conan, shaking the blood-drops from his eyes, stared frozen. At first he thought it was a great black hound which stood above Ascalante’s distorted body; then as his sight cleared he saw that it was neither a hound nor a baboon.
As Mark Finn points out, “The Phoenix on the Sword” doesn’t often get picked for “favorite Conan story” but it is a good one. The story was originally a rejected King Kull piece called “By This Ax I Rule”. Howard revised it, added the sorcerer Thoth-Amon and his baboon-demon and Farnsworth Wright could do nothing but accept it for Weird Tales.
Many artists have drawn the baboon-demon. The first was the artist who illustrated the original story in the pages of Weird Tales. This was Jayem Wilcox, who did the black and white illo in a scratchy line drawing. His demon looks quite humanoid with pointed ears and a dog’s mouth. Compared to many of the illustrations found in the pulps this one isn’t bad, capturing some of the creepiness of the monster.
The next artist to draw this same confrontation scene was Richard Corben in a portfolio of images for Golden Age #7, Winter 1971. Corben’s demon looks more baboon like, standing on short animal legs. He shows the penultimate moment when Conan is about to stab the monster with the broken enchanted sword. Corben heightens Conan’s dire spot by drawing the picture from ground level.
The first comic book adaptation of “The Phoenix on the Sword” was done by Marvel Comics for Conan the Barbarian Annual #2 (1976). This issue was an improvement over the first issue because it presented an original story, not reprints. This was the entire story of “The Phoenix on the Sword”, closely adapted by Roy Thomas, and drawn by Vincent Alcazar and Yong Montano. The artwork is disappointing since Alcazar had done some great Sword & Sorcery work for DC, but this one just doesn’t gel. Except for the scene when the baboon-demon appears to Thoth-Amon. Here Alcazar’s work is perfect, with the right amount of baboon and bulk to make the monster look formidable (something neither Wilcox or Corben did.) Roy Thomas’s version is close but he does add one thing that isn’t in the story, a splash page where the spirit of King Kull shines over Conan. The ancient ax had belonged to the King of Valusia. Not exactly as Howard wrote it but a nice little segueway, tying the two characters and stories together.
Thirty-six years later in 2012, Dark Horse Comics would do the second comic book adaptation of “The Phoenix on the Sword”. This time, Timothy Truman wrote and Tomas Giorello and Jose Villarubbia did the art. Giorello’s work is fabulous with plenty of detail and fantastic flare. His version of the demon is quite anthropoidal but creepy and gory in good measure. Truman is even more consistent than Roy Thomas in adapting the story, rendering the massive fight scene blow-for-blow as Robert E. Howard described it. The only place where he wanders is by adding a frame to the story with an elderly Conan telling of his experience. This is handled well and doesn’t really hurt the story.
Howard seemed obsessed with apes (like many Pulp writers, I suppose, including Edgar Rice Burroughs and Seabury Quinn). In Howard’s case the most likely source for this inspiration was H. Rider Haggard who wrote two important ape pieces. The first was “Alan’s Wife” (December 1889) which featured Hendreka, the girl raised by baboons. The second is Heu Heu, the Monster (1924):
Imagine a monster double life size — that is to say, eleven or twelve feet high — Imagine this thing as a huge ape to which the biggest gorilla would be but a child, and yet not an ape but a man, and yet not a man, but a fiend…It was covered with hair like an ape, long gray hair that grew in tufts. It had a great, red, bushy beard like a man; its limbs were tremendous, the arms being of abnormal length like to the arms of a gorilla, but, mark this, it had no fingers, only a great claw where the thumb should be. The rest of the hand was all grown together into one piece like a duck’s foot, although what should have been the finger part was flexible and could grip like fingers, as shall be seen.
It’s not hard to see how these two creatures combine to make Howard’s demon. Howard would feature other important anthropoids in “Rogues in the House” and “The Queen of the Black Coast”.