Thursday, June 24, 2010


Lately I've been reading the hardback collections of the Dark Horse Comics version of Conan the Barbarian. This rough, unsophisticated, yet strangely compelling character was originally created by writer Robert E Howard in 1932 and presented in a series of short stories in Weird Tales magazine.

The 1930s spawned a number of classic fantasy stories and besides Howard, the most well known author published in Weird Tales is H.P. Lovecraft. This era was also the breeding ground for what is referred to as pulp fiction (not the movie), which describes a large body of cheaply written and published escapist stories designed to appeal to teen boys and young men. The best of these humble stories have gone on to inspire and entertain generations.

Batman was almost certainly born from this genre as a mysterious "hardboiled detective", half-Mike Hammer and half Sherlock Holmes at least as originally conceived. Pulp fiction stories were simple, involving a tough hero who often wasn't particularly nobel out to foil a definitely not-nobel bad guy, usually to solve a crime, rescue a girl, attain a treasure, or sometimes all three. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and his somewhat lesser known "cousin" John Carter of Mars came from this body of literature (though some wouldn't use the term "literature" to describe these adventures). Why does this stuff endure?

The first Tarzan story was published as a magazine story in 1912 and the last known version of our ape man was a film produced by Disney in 1999. While I've heard of no recent attempts to further present Tarzan in any medium, we have a history of almost 90 years in which Burroughs' most famous creation thrived. Batman was created by Bob Kane in 1939 and I think it's safe to say that the Guardian of Gotham is as popular as he's ever been. And although it's been decades since Howard's Conan has "graced" the silver screen, he is being reborn next year in a film directed by Marcus Nispel.

Why am I writing this? Why should you care?

What's amazing is the longevity of a character who it's hard to imagine would attract much of a following. Conan is a Barbarian; a man from an ancient land called Cimmeria, born into an antediluvian world of the snowy northlands, where living is hard and live is cheap. A man lives by his wits and his sword and if he lives long, it's only because others have died.

Conan also belongs to the sub-genre of pulp fiction called "sword and sorcery", which usually pits such rough hewn men against ancient and evil magicians and creatures best left in the realm of nightmares. The stories always depict the barbarian overcoming sophisticated, civilized magic or dark and sinister entities from shadowy worlds by brute force, a sharp sword, and occasionally, a bare hint of intelligence. Conan's career spanned from wandering youth to mercenary, thief, assassin, soldier, general, and finally King. In the course of his journeys, he has encountered a Frost Giant's daughter, a "god" in a bowl (boy, do I hate snakes), and an ancient "elephant" and his heart as prisoners in a crystal tower. What makes Conan and his tales so special? It's been almost 80 years since he was "born". Why does he still exist?

Beyond the sheer thrill of his saga and the lure of escapism, Conan does what we can only dream of...flaunt the rules of civilization and live by his own rough code. Even in the cities of his own age, he often commits capital crimes by obeying his particular morals and ethics (if a man insults you, hit him...if he does so again, kill him). Remember, Conan's the good guy.

Think of him as a sort of House, M.D. who thinks what he likes and says what he likes, regardless of social convention. Conan goes further by doing what he likes and sees "civilization" as almost always weak and corrupt. His own "god" Crom creates men with the strength, skill, and wits to conquer their enemies and then leaves humanity alone. It's on those terms that a person lives and dies. No rules, no theology, no prayers. Hope is in a strong arm and a sturdy weapon. Life is cruel and simple.

I don't think Conan's fans want to really "be" him as much as they (we) want to temporarily escape into him. We have no desire to disembowel a person or to fight the demons of Thoth Amon, but it's really cool to read about Conan doing all that for a little while. The Dark Horse Comics rendition of Conan brings back the flavor and character of the original Howard storytelling as well as some of the magic of the Marvel comics version first published in the early 1970s.

Most of us aren't barbarians nor do we wish to be, but for awhile, as with our other fantasy outlets, it's fun to pretend. Just get over it by the time you have to face the morning commute to work.


  1. (though some wouldn't use the term "literature" to describe these adventures)

    Those people who do insist on making a distinction between "literature" and "not literature" have no understanding of basic English. Anything which is written is literature: that includes fiction, journalism, non-fiction, dictionaries, alphabets, anything. It's as meaningless a distinction as the one between "movies" and "films," and just as pretentious.

    Also, "occasionally, a bare hint of intelligence"? Conan displayed more than a bare hint in the stories. Conan speaks dozens of languages, he knows the history, culture and even palaeontology of many foreign climes. He spent hours listening to Zamorian philosophers discussing existentialism, and spent weeks in the company of Pelishti wise men while he was recuperating from a shipwreck. As king, he was a patron of the arts and advocate of religious freedom.

    I think there's more to Conan's longevity than you give credit for. For one thing, the original author. Robert E. Howard has been studied and critiqued in independent scholarly journals like The Howard Collector, The Dark Man, The Robert E. Howard United Press Association, The Cimmerian, REH: Two Gun Raconteur, Cromlech, books like The Dark Barbarian, The Barbaric Triumph, The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard, and even more. Only Tolkien can rival the sheer volume of criticism in the fantasy genre.

    If, indeed, the only appeal of Conan was to role-play as a barbarian, then surely the dozens of Conan clones out there would suffice for that purpose. Instead, the likes of Elak, Brak, Thongor, and Jongor have fallen into obscurity, while Conan persists, and the original short stories are still in print 80 years after their debut. Howard's work is collected in the Library of America and Penguin Classics, he's about to become the subject of an Edwin Mellen press academic study, and his recent critical appreciation from the academic mainstream is moving forward.

    Why does Conan survive to his day? Simple: he was the creation of Robert E. Howard.

  2. I'm glad my article inspired such an impassioned response. When I speak of "lack of intelligence", I'm addressing the larger body of "sword and sorcery" stories, not particularly Conan. I've actually been a fan of Howard's stories for quite some time and Conan is unique among his fellows.

    I appreciate your detailed and well thought out response and agree with your comments. Thanks.

  3. I never read any Conan until recently because I thought it "wasn't for me". Then I read the Dark Horse Savage Sword reprints. Now my enjoyment of the character is inextricably entwined with John Buscema to the extent that I'm worried to try any new interpretation or artist.

    Buscema is a master story teller and unmatched in drawing characters who look like they move according to the laws of physics, yet are graceful, beautiful (have you seen his women!) and each one with unique set of features and posture.

    And Roy Thomas of course, takes credit for making the stories exciting, witty and timeless, even if they sometimes lack complexity and subtlety.

    Savage Sword of Conan and John Buscema sold me on the character and should be read by everyone interested in comics.

  4. As much as I admire the talents of Buscema and Thomas, I still enjoy the original Howard stories the best.