BRAK IS BACK! And for now, I’m sorry to say, this is the end of the line for Brak the Barbarian. This ugly-ass monstrosity is the most recent (and last) Brak book in my collection, a 1980 reprint of Brak the Barbarian vs. The Sorceress. Comparing this cover to the Frazetta on the original is, to put it lightly, a one-sided battle.
This edition comes from an outfit called Tower Books. The only reference Wikipedia has on Tower is that they once had a comic book division that published Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, which I vaguely remember seeing in comic shops in the early 1980s (but even those were from another publisher, as Tower’s comics line shuttered in the mid-1960s).
Tower Books is long gone now, and looking at the horrible cover above I’m thinking their design sensibility may have had something to do with the line’s eventual demise. I’d prefer to post only the coolest, most interesting covers from my book collection here, but every once in a while I will put pure Fugly on parade. And I’m afraid this cover is nowhere near the bottom of the barrel as far as ugly covers go. It will get worse, but I have to leak these out in dribs and drabs, lest a bad cover drive anyone away or, perhaps, blind them.
Here’s what was happening in the world of John Jakes circa 1980. In that year, Dell released the final Brak book: The Fortunes of Brak, which included many (possibly all) of the as-yet unpublished 60s and 70s magazine appearances of the character into a final book. DAW had, three years previously, published The Best of John Jakes, which declared him “the nation’s best-selling author.” The edition pictured above calls him “America’s most popular storyteller!”
Woah, you might say. Hold on there! Brak the Barbarian books were once the best-selling books in America?
Well, no. What actually brought John Jakes national fame were not his early fantasies, sci-fi, or westerns, but rather a very long series of historical romances alternatively called the “Bicentennial Series” or the “Kent Family Chronicles“. These books were written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and boy howdy did they cash in on the Bicentennial fever sweeping America. Apparently every single book in the 8-volume series sold more than 3.5 MILLION copies, and all of them hit the best-seller lists.
The Kent Family Chronicles ended in 1979, by which point the series had spawned three made-for-television movies (one starring brilliantly named actor Randolph Mantooth!).
With three TV films and eight best-selling novels, it was probably inevitable that the speculative fiction publishing companies wanted a slice of the pie, so this period also saw the most furious reprinting of Brak’s tales, as well as numerous other stories from Jakes’s fantasy and science fiction catalogue.
Jakes mentions the Kent stories in his new introduction to this edition of Brak vs. The Sorceress, commenting about a guest at his daughter’s wedding who asked him about Brak and his pleasure at knowing that the character was still fondly remembered. He goes on:
“It was in the role of a dedicated Conan fan that I wrote the first Brak tale, “Devils in the Walls”. In spirit, anyway, the story was a Howard pastiche, and I have acknowledged that fact more than once. Still, as literary characters often do, Brak soon took on a distinctive life of his own. Sometimes the changes in his personality, story to story and book to book, surprised even me.”
He concludes: “With a little luck, one of these days I may find the time to add some new pieces to the canon.” That was in October, 1980. To my knowledge Jakes never returned to Brak the Barbarian, though he did produce another enormously successful historical romance series in the form of North and South, a Civil War-era trilogy that was filmed as an ABC miniseries in the mid-1980s. That was enough to trigger a final Brak revival from Star Books in 1987–1988, but so far as I know that series only printed the first three (of five) Brak books before petering out.
As a final note, it’s quite possible that the edition pictured above was published in 1981 and not 1980. Knowing what I know from publishing Planet Stories, it’d be almost impossible to have an author write an introduction in October and get the book out by the end of the year. Still, as 1980 is the only reasonable date that appears anywhere in or on the book, I’m sticking to it for now.
Tower Books provides no printing data for this edition on the legal page, instead giving the original 1969 copyright date (helpfully stated in Roman numerals). The cover artist is also uncredited, though perhaps in this case the omission is a good thing.
Until I pick up more Brak books, this will be the last Brak Attack for a while. There are plenty of other Conan clones to cover, and even some books that don’t involve heaving thews at all.