Wednesday, August 17, 2011


A new Conan movie comes out this week. I don't have high expectations for it. August releases are often second-rate movies that are dumped at the end of the Summer. More important, the character as created by Robert E. Howard is difficult to translate to other media.

I read all of Howard's Conan stories as well as most of his other works in my teens and 20s. This summer I reread Red Nails and some of Howard's Solomon Kane stories so I am up on the material.

Howard is credited with inventing the Sword and Sorcery genre. He saw it as a precursor to the modern world filled with archetypes. Even though it took place thousands of years ago, it was still an old world. Atlantis had risen and fallen well before Conan's time. Other horrors had populated the world before the rise of humanity and some of them were still lurking in the shadows. Howard often corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft and incorporated some of the same otherworldly monsters in his fiction.

Conan himself is a complex character. Howard saw him as the embodiment of vitality, untamed by civilization. He was bigger, stronger, and faster than civilized men. His senses were sharper and his mind keener. He was a master of languages although he spoke most with an accent. He was a born leader. He was amoral but trustworthy (for the most part). If you hired him he would put his life on the line for you but he would kill you in an instant if you betrayed him.

Conan was not always the central character of the story. Red Nails, the last story written, features Valeria, a female pirate, more than Conan. This is a classic Howard story with a lost city peopled with a dying race who stole the city from its builders but do not know all of its secrets. Everyone betrays everyone and Conan and Valeria are the only survivors.

The character was briefly popular during the days of the pulp. In the 1960s, Howard's stories were resurrected and collected into a series of paperbacks. In addition to this, story fragments were finished and non-Conan stories were altered to fill out around a dozen books. They were very popular.

Because of the popularity of the books, Marvel Comics bought the rights and began a long, successful series of Conan comics. It started slow. British artist, Barry Smith, was selected on the basis of a sword and sorcery horror story he had drawn. At first his art was uninspiring. He quickly grew as an artist. Smith left the book after a few issues but came back almost immediately. His return marked the full flowering of his talent. He had been inspired by the pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century. Their focus on Arthurian themes worked perfectly with Conan and Smith became a fan favorite.

He eventually left for the more lucrative field of limited edition art and was replaced by John Buscema. Buscema's first issue began with an adaptation of a King Kull story so Conan didn't appear until ten pages into the book. While Buscema's version of the character looked quite different from Smith's, he was instantly recognizable. The first time I read that comic I was two pages past Conan's first panel before I notices how different he looked.

Coupled with various inkers from the Philippines, Buscema became a fan favorite on his own.

Marvel was trying to expand into the more adult-oriented black and white tabloid comics and Conan began appearing in both formats (plus some over-size reprints of the Smith comics).

Roy Thomas wrote all of Conan's appearances. He was a huge fan of Howard and some of his adaptations were excellent. Thomas's original works were less successful. In the stories, Conan never had a sidekick. At most, he got the girl at the end but there was never any long-term commitment.

Thomas felt more comfortable introducing various supporting characters. Some of them came from Howard's stories. Most were either implied or original. This made story-telling easier but the stories lost Howard's feel. Also, as time went on, Thomas began over-writing his stories. He often felt the need to add a dialog box where none was needed or to have a character explain a plot twist. There was also the problem of creating new challenges for Conan. After you have killed a dozen wizards in a year, what do you do next year?

By the mid-1970s the Conan craze had faded. Marvel shut down its black and white line. Thomas and Buscema left the strip and it declined.

The most lasting contribution from the Roy Thomas Barry Smith days was Red Sonia. This was adapted from a non-Conan story set during the early 16th century. This featured a Conan-style character and Red Sonja (with a "j"), a military commander. Sonia originally wore a full mail shirt over average breasts but the character was later given a scale mail bikini and more generous cleavage.

The big screen version of Conan tried to be memorable by lifting the most memorable scenes from Howard's stories. These included Conan killing a vulture with his teeth while being crucified and a slain lover appearing long enough to save him. Since The Empire Strikes Back had just come out, they also threw in James Earl Jones telling Conan, "You are my son." The action was slow and the movie is not very good. The sequel is faster moving with a plot by Roy Thomas but is generally inferior to the first movie or the stories.

The character has been revived in comics a few times but was never the hit that it was in the 1960s and early 1970s. A syndicated Conan series was produced for a while. I only saw a few episodes. They were not memorable.

Which brings us to the new movie. The first review I saw panned it and the trailers do not resemble anything Howard wrote. Interested parties would probably be better off watching The Scorpion King again.

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