Hither came Conan...
By Geoff Hoppe
November 11, 2006 - 21:43

Frank Frazetta's Conan
As a little kid, I was reluctantly subjected to " Sesame Street" on a daily basis. I detested everything about " Sesame Street," and, even at five years old, felt it insulted my intelligence. But amid the antics of Big Bird and company were buried short animated segments that captivated me. One fascinating short showed a muscle-bound man stacking books in a library lit by a lurid, post-apocalyptic glow. I couldn't tear myself away. The mix of blood red and searing orange, the dark tone, the doom and gloom imagery punctuated by the Herculean figure all combined to make me forget how much I loathed Telly Monster, even for a few seconds.


This memorable experience was my indirect introduction to the barbarian king of Aquilonia, the corsair named Amra, the youth who sacked Venarium, the jet-maned, panther quick swordsman, and the scourge of Thoth-Amon. He is best known, however, by the birth name given to him on a battlefield in the "grim, grey hills of Cimmeria": Conan.


In Viking mythology, the frost-giant Ymir emerged full-formed from the hazy chaos of eternity. In similar fashion, Conan the Cimmerian—"black haired, sullen eyed, sword in hand"—emerged, full-formed, from the mind of Texan pulp-writer Robert E. Howard in the 30s.


Howard's descriptions of Conan's creation do not describe careful planning, numerous drafts, and various character sketches that refined a rough idea into a finished product. Conan sprung, full-formed, from Howard's mind:


            Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande . I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures.


            This is not to say Conan was not inspired by other sources. Howard had amassed a lifetime of experiences by the time he sold his first story at nineteen. He had moved frequently in childhood, completed high school, and held several jobs. Conan drew on the countless personalities Howard had encountered. In one letter to a friend, he said:


            He (Conan) is simply a combination of a number of men I have known and  I think that's why he seemed to step fullgrown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series.  Some mechanism in my sub consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prizefighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.


Cary Nord's depiction of the Cimmerian thief
One could also argue that Conan is frustration personified. Like William Blake or George S. Patton, Howard's personality was better suited to a different age than the one he lived in. He was meant to be an adventurer, an explorer, or a crusader, perhaps—but not a Depression-era American. To better understand how out of place Howard was in the 20s and 30s, think of his literary contemporaries. Try to picture Conan at a cocktail party with Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. Doesn't work, does it?


Conan is the antithesis of the civilized man. Like many other authors of his day, Howard obsessed about the limitations of civilized life. The same concern (in different form) is present in Jack London's angry socialism, or Ernest Hemingway's desire for adventure and discovery. One way to "read" Robert Howard is as one member of a brotherhood of very malcontented, very masculine, early twentieth century authors. The source of the malaise these authors' work sought to combat is a different question entirely. Also interestingly, Howard and Hemingway committed suicide, and it's hotly debated whether Jack London's death was self-inflicted.


Out of the age undreamed of and into the twenty-first century


Today, the phrase "pulp fiction" brings to mind a Quentin Tarantino movie, rather than a literary sub-genre. There were plenty of "pulp" magazines in the 20s and 30s, many of them unsuccessful. There were also hordes of writers, stories, and characters in these publications. Conan has outlasted other popular pulp characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow. Why is this?


The easy answer: he's had more exposure. Conan the Barbarian was one of Marvel Comics' flagship titles for about twenty years. Artists from Barry Windsor-Smith to Jim Lee were involved in the series in some fashion over the years. Comics legend Sal Buscema was the series' first writer. Attempts to bring characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow into comics were comparative failures.


Any discussion of Conan must acknowledge Frank Frazetta. Frank Frazetta painted the covers for the Conan paperbacks adapted and edited (some might say butchered) by L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Frazetta's first Conan gig was the cover illustration for the 1966 Lancer/Ace edition of Conan the Adventurer. People bought the paperback for its cover alone. Frazetta revolutionized the way people imagined Conan. Before Frazetta, attempts to illustrate Conan were often unintentionally comic. Frazetta captured the raw, amoral, primitive energy that characterized the Cimmerian swordsman. Frazetta is also responsible for the titanic frame and long black hair prevalent in the Conan images of today. From Barry Windsor-Smith to Cary Nord, all modern Conans stem from Frazetta. One could even argue that producers of the Conan movie would have selected a less muscular actor, had it not been for Frazetta's iconic depiction.


Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan
The biggest reason "Conan the barbarian" remains household words is the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Conan the Barbarian. More a loosely inspired story than an adaptation, this movie made film history, and spawned countless parodies (that, in their own way, are just as responsible for Conan's continued presence). The film's financial genesis is simply explained: mogul Edward R. Pressman needed a vehicle for a young Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Conan was it. Conan was, surprisingly, based on a screenplay by Oliver Stone, and directed by John Milius, best known for his cult hit Red Dawn. While the movie's visuals and fight scenes capture Howard's sense of "high adventure," Conan die-hards won't find accuracy in storyline, costume, or characters.  


The story butchers some elements of the Conan mythology, but successfully adapts others. In the movie, Conan is sold into slavery as a boy (never happened in the stories), becomes a gladiator (never happened in the stories), and encounters an ancient, mystic bad guy with magical powers (a frequent theme in the stories). Schwarzenegger is physically imposing, but fails to portray Conan's psychological complexities as Howard captured them. The opening credits say "inspired by the work of Robert E. Howard" for a reason. To be fair, the movie is extremely well done, and puts many other (even contemporary) fantasy films to shame. To direct an accurate, stand-alone Conan yarn would have been financial suicide, and probably couldn't have made it past early 80s MPAA standards.


Another Conan movie, Conan the Destroyer, was made in 1984. Destroyer was horrendous. Unlike the first movie, it lacked any textual elements in the plot, and introduces a rash of dull and uninspired characters. Following Destroyer, there were several failed attempts to bring Conan to tv. A quickly cancelled cartoon series and a dreadful live-action show generated zero interest in the character.


In 2004, Dark Horse Comics, producer of such hits as Sin City and Hellboy, launched a new Conan comic book series, entitled Conan. Penciled by Cary Nord and written by Kurt Busiek, the series premiered to critical acclaim and has continued to win kudos from the comic community. Unlike the movies, or the Marvel Comics series, this Conan is faithful to Howard's original stories. The series follows Conan's life in a chronological order, adapting some Howard stories remarkably faithfully, but also filling in gaps in the timeline of Conan's life. Dark Horse's Conan is a Conan series for purists and casual fans alike, and gives creator Robert E. Howard the most respectful treatment of any comic adaptation yet. Issue #28, for instance, honors the centennial anniversary of the author's birth; if you love Robert E. Howard, if you love fantasy at all, go buy a copy of that issue (brilliantly penciled by The Goon scribe Eric Powell).


The Eternal Primitive


Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan
Seventy-four years have passed since Howard introduced Conan. Why does Conan survive? Why does he inspire such fervent devotion from fans, and continue making money long after his creator's death? Two primary reasons come to mind.


The first is Conan's surroundings. The Hyborian Age is the most magnificent playing field ever constructed by a fantasy author. Monsters, gods, cultists, warriors, wanderers and supple young women abound. Dilapidated, maleficent ruins are in abundant supply. Other fantastic realms are enjoyable to read about, but not as much fun for a reader to imagine oneself in. Narnia, for instance, is beautiful, but full of theological realities and moral responsibilities. Middle Earth, the most brilliant of modern fantasy realms, is perfectly designed, perhaps too well designed: everything has a place (even lowly Gollum, inadvertently pulling the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom). Middle Earth values responsibility; the Hyborian age values initiative. As the Lord of the Rings saga ends, the fantastic elements are receding: the Halflings are going underground, the Elves are leaving, and Sauron's forces are on their way out. The "Age of Men," of relative order, is beginning. Contrastingly, the Hyborian age shows no signs that the dangerous, uncivilized aspects will ever retreat. As a frontiersman notes in the end of the Conan story "Wolves Beyond the Border," "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph." A barbarous world implies a farrago of opportunities to tame or combat the unruly. It is the promise of adventure, and what red-blooded man can resist it?


The second explanation for Conan's longevity is his brilliantly archetypal design. In the early twentieth century, a Texan storyteller whose education stopped at high school somehow tapped into a primal well of the human subconscious. Conan embodies the will to power, the urge to survive, the mix of cynicism, hope and glory-lust that motivates many men, but few will admit to. If Conan has a cousin in the history of literature, it's Don Juan. Both men are forces of nature personified. The key difference is that Don Juan's principle interest is sex, but Conan's is power and glory (Conan also has a distinctive set of ethics—Don Juan has none). Howard's recounting of Conan's creation sounds like a textbook description of the collective unconscious, a psychological concept pioneered by Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung. In Jung's psychology, the collective unconscious is a murky haze located beyond the borders of consciousness. Compare this to Howard's statement that Conan " stalked full grown out of oblivion," and the reflection that Conan was an amalgamation of "the dominant characteristics of various prizefighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers and honest workmen" Howard had met.


an original image of Conan
Robert E. Howard's experience is inspiring for all writers: against the odds of a frustrating home life, and an education inadequate for his native curiosity, he still managed to wrestle into existence a character from the hazes beyond the borders of the conscious mind. (What's even more provocative: Howard always describes Conan's homeland of Cimmeria as grey and misty, much like common depictions of the collective unconscious!)


Can Howard be called a great writer? That depends on how "great writer" is defined. The phrase is brandished frequently, with little thought given to its meaning. Many deemed "great writers" may have little technical skill, but tremendous imagination as storytellers. Other authors have great technical abilities, but feeble imaginations. Very few writers have both. Robert E. Howard lacked the charm or technical skill of Somerset Maugham, or the genius for language and form of James Joyce, but he had an imagination raw and powerful enough to create myth in an age of ennui. While his expatriate contemporaries left in groaning boatloads for Paris to mull worldly issues, Robert Howard stayed in America, a passionate, cynically hopeful paradox of a man who believed in reincarnation, and worshipped human will. Out of an age when America was afraid to dream, one author's primal creation spread his influence over our cultural history like "blue mantles beneath the stars."

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