“Wizards are dangerous!” – Needle
“Not as dangerous as BARBARIANS.” – Conan
Know, Avocado readers, that between the years when Unicron battled Rodimus Prime and GI Joe: The Rise of COBRA, there was an age undreamed of… The early 90’s. It is three decades ago of the history very little known in which animated Conan aired. It is me, its chronicler, which only can tell its apogee. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure.
By the end of the 80’s, Sunbow Entertainemnt was basically done for. Its heyday of the Transformers, GI Joe, Jem, and My Little Pony were over. Now they were fighting for scraps. Sometimes they worked out: The Tick became a minor hit for For Kids. But who remembers GI Joe spin-off Sgt. Savage and His Screaming Eagles? Or The Mask: The Animated Series? Or the very last thing they ever did, The Cramp Twins? The production company that once defined childhood for kids all over the world was now making forgotten shows for TLC about a magical lighthouse and a little boy named Salty.
Still, some of the lesser known 90’s efforts are underrated. I very much enjoyed Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars earlier this year. This time, we stumble across another surprisingly solid entry: 1992’s Conan the Adventurer.
The character of Conan was created by Robert E. Howard. The often shirtless barbarian debuted in the Weird Tales pulp magazine in 1932. Howard’s Texan background is thought to be a major influence on Conan. He lived to see his world transformed by the oil industry. Conan was a Cimmerian, believed to be based on the Celts. He was the son of the village blacksmith but had the bearing of a warrior. Conan would go on adventures to fight monsters and wizards until one day he became king. He has since gone on to appear in Marvel comics, the silver screen, live-action television series, and video games. And then… there’s the cartoon.
I know what you’re thinking: “Conan? Isn’t that wildly inappropriate for kids? Oh, those naive audiences of the 80’s and 90’s!” You’d be tempted to lump it in with the animated versions of Rambo, RoboCop, and the Toxic Avenger in that strange subgenre of R-rated films that were also marketed toward kids. After all, Conan is best known by the credo as paraphrased from Genghis Khan. What is best in life? “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
As you may imagine, then, the violence is very much toned down. When you’re Sunbow Entertainment, though, making kid-friendly violence is your specialty. Why worry when you can claim that the human-shaped things being blown up are robots? Or when you can show people hitting the eject button on your plane or jumping out of your tank at the last minute? Sunbow probably pushed the envelope a bit when they killed off Optimus Prime (and several other popular characters — RIP Ratchet!) in Transformers: The Movie. But you know what? The moment has been imprinted in the minds of children everywhere, introducing the concept of loss and mortality. Sunbow went for real violence and it meant something. If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.
Still, in a post-Optimus Prime world, Sunbow couldn’t ever come up with that trick again. So what’s the solution for Conan? Something even more elegant… magic! For you see, Conan is given a sword made of Star Metal. His enemies, the
lizard people serpent men known as the Stygians, can be banished to another dimension by lightly tapping them like so. Actually, scratch that. Conan only has to be near them. The Star Metal first turns them from human form into serpentine form (kinda like that lagging effect on online videos). Then a portal opens up above them. The serpent men are turned into mist and are sucked into the dimension of evil serpent god Set. But don’t worry, kids! Those no good serpent men are still alive. There’s dialogue in one episode where set says the serpent men are with him. So Conan didn’t kill anyone. He just sent them off on a little trip.
If you’re mummy, a snake, or an oversized cockroach though… all bets are off. Decapitation is back on the menu.
You’re probably scoffing right now. “This isn’t Conan! Conan is about blood and violence and the riddle of steel. Not this cheesy kiddie pabulum.” Reader, I once would have agreed with you. After watching this, though, I began to re-evaluate what makes Conan appealing. Is it the blood and violence? The Jason Momoa film is bloodier and more violent than the Arnold Schwarzenegger films… yet I find that I prefer even Conan the Destroyer to that. What I think makes Conan appealing is how the adventures are portrayed as epic and majestic, even if they take place in a world that generally primitive and unforgiving.
In fact… despite the concessions made for children, there’s a curious contingent of cartoon fans who will attest that Conan the Adventurer may be the adaptation that is closest to Robert E. Howard’s original stories. At least the person who wrote this “citation needed” wiki entry seems to think so: “The animated version was popular with fans and audiences alike, and also praised for staying largely true to Robert E. Howard’s material.” In fairness, the wiki also provides a link to the Mothership, where a dissenting opinion on a Gateway to Geekery and a “Where Not To Start” tag is provided by … Leonard Pierce?!?!?! Does this mean there’s a better than even chance he didn’t even watch the show? Here at Made Animated, I, El Santo, pledge that I will at least watch a sampling of more than ten episodes of a show I’m reviewing.
Look… there’s 65 episodes. I can’t possibly view them all. A full account will be provided at the end of this review.
Of course, everyone has their own opinion on what makes and accurate Conan. I’ve heard critics say that the Jason Momoa film is the most accurate portrayal. I haven’t read any of the books, so I can’t make a judgment call on whether it’s an accurate portrayal of the source material.
Conan is voiced by Michael Donovan. His take is to scream out every line. This might be a disastrous choice most of the time… except when the character you’re voicing is Conan.
A meteor storm hits his town one night. Conan gathers all the stones up and brings it home to his father. His father, a blacksmith, then forges all this metal into a variety of weapons. He saves the best for Conan. Ah, but Conan cannot just be gifted the sword. His father place the sword in a thick receptacle with a heavy stone lid. Only when Conan is might enough to lift the stone can he be worthy of wielding the sword.
That, my friends, is epic.
Also epic is the title of that first episode: “The Night of the Fiery Tears.” All the episodes actually have great titles that would totally be book titles I would have scooped up in paperback, going all the way from that to the three part conclusion, “A Serpent Coils The Earth.”
The rest of the show’s premise is explained neatly in the catchy title song that has been rattling around in my brain for the last thirty years. Great cartoon theme… or the greatest cartoon theme? Conan is a man of bravery and a warrior without fear who is more powerful than any man. His quest: to undo the spell of living stone cast upon his family by driving the evil serpent men back into another dimension an vanquishing their leader, the Serprentor-like cruel wizard, Wrath-Amon! Because another thing that Sunbow is good at: villians who are also snakes! He possesses a piece of flair that only Serprentor can only dream of having: a matching pair of dragon slippers. And also a chariot driven by a pair of pink dragons.
Wrath-Amon is but a high priest of the snake god. His mission is to bring Set from his dimension into our world. This involves building seven pyramids, each with a circular topper forged of Star Metal. Thus, Conan’s fancy Serpent Man detecting weapon is an object of great interest.
The show features another concession for the kids: there has to be an odious comedy sidekick. In this cartoon, it’s the form of a baby phoenix named Needle. He’s a sometimes annoying attention hog who talks like Jar-Jar Binks and who eats all the pomegranates. However, he turns out to be an incredibly useful sidekick. There are places where a big guy like Conan is too heavy or too conspicuous, and Needle will do in a pinch.
Fun fact: there was a sequel series to Conan the Adventurer called Conan and the Young Warriors. On that show, it’s revealed that Conan ate Needle. I’m guessing that Needle was forced on the show’s writers, and they must’ve found him equally as annoying as the viewers. Needle isn’t the only kid-appeal character, either. Our villain is joined by a sniveling little snake guy with arms and a human face named Dregs. He and Needle get into all sorts of wacky shenanigans for babies.
One of the nifty aspects of the cartoon: this Conan is a lot smarter than he appears. Typically, Conan’s antagonists see his buff, half-naked body and assume that he is, as his animal companion would way, a “dumb barbarian.” The nature of this show, though, means that Conan can’t solve his problems through brute force. He will often have to figure out a plan of attack or contact the right people to get the job done. In the Schwarzenegger movies, you imagine that this lumbering meathead Conan could only have gotten his throne through violent means. By his own hand, if you will. Not necessarily with Conan the Adventurer. You can imagine this guy bringing people together through his intelligence and charisma. He’s got a lot of Captain America in him.
Or… Captain Cimmeria, I suppose.
Conan is joined in his adventures by several other men with pecs of melon and knees of fringe. Truly this is a tradition that carries over in every adaptation. There’s Zula, the African prince who becomes Conan’s blood brother and who possesses Beastmaster powers; Greywolf, a wizard from a pseudo-Arabia with a flying carpet; Snegg, a Viking man who is basically Volstagg; and Falkenar, a guy with a bird who has a hilariously weird voice. There’s also Jezmine, a beautiful circus performer with a deep dark secret. They are all a grim reminder that Conan is not the only one who has experienced loss. Another cruel twist is that even some of the villains are motivated by pain and suffering. Parents being turned into stone starts to feel a little insignificant when the monster you are fighting lost his beloved two hundred years ago and is doomed to serve the villain because he has no other choice in life.
Each of our companions possess unique weapons also forged by Conan’s father from the Star Metal. They’re in places that are similar to tribal villages in Africa, steppescof Mongolia, and the bazaars of the Middle East. Conan’s father sure was a traveler, which I imagine was no simple task in the Hyborean Age.
The Star Metal may not be Conan the Adventurer‘s true secret weapon. What is the answer to the Riddle of Steel? I would suggest Christy Marx. The veteran writer (GI Joe, TMNT, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends) and creator of Jem was the show’s developer, sole story editor, and writer of the first three episodes. She establishes the tone that Conan the Adventurer is basically He-Man… only better. Many of the episodes were written by Jean Chalopin, a veteran whose work includes a creator credit for all iterations of the Inspector Gadget franchise and a writing credit for oddball TMNT-inspired cartoon T-Rex. Most important to the Avocado, though: Chalopin is listed as one of the creators of Heathcliff and the Cadillac Cats.
After a quick Google search, I discovered a tidbit that some episodes take their plots directly from Howard’s original story. I believe it. I’m assuming that “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” isn’t one of them, given how very silly the entire episode is. Wikipedia tells me that Conan’s intent was to ravish the daughter… which isn’t going to happen on a kid’s show. Let’s have him try to steal a flower from her garden instead! It’s actually much better this way!
“The Treachery of Emperors”, on the other hand, feels like it’s a completely different Conan. It takes plot elements from Howard story, “Black Colossus”. He’s promised to rule a kingdom if he can save the Princess. Conan, who all this time has been driven to save his parents from the spell of stone, is very pleased with the idea of becoming king. There’s even a prophecy that Conan is destined to be a king by his own hand. He has none of his allies with him except Needle in this episode. The episode is darker, too. At the beginning, the Princess is forced to view all the past lives were she has died. Burned to death, tossed off a cliff, eaten by a pterodactyl… a far cry from having a sword pointed at you and just disappearing into another dimension. Conan is betrayed by his employers as well, something we don’t normally see in his world that has a cartoonish view of good and evil.
The show can get a little dark at times. Conan time travels and ends up in a future where Set has conquered the world. All his friends are still around, but they bear the scars or time… and actually look all sorts of badass, to be honest. For the most part, though, they keep things G-rated.
There are times the commitment to non-violence hampers the show, though. Towards the end, we get Lord of the Rings scales battles for the fate of humanity. People are huddled in walled cities while waves upon waves of Serpent Men crash upon the walls. Our heroes sling into action! They swing their weapons in a pantomime of kills. The Serpent Men disappear and are vanquished! Only to reappear just beyond the city walls only to attack again. It’s slightly comical.
There are some dangling plot elements that the characters plainly state in the very last episode. Perhaps to be resolved in the next season of Conan the Adventurer? There wasn’t one, and they wouldn’t be answered in Conan and the Young Riders, either. You’re just going to have to accept the bummer that one of the characters will be running around with two domesticated wolves for the rest of eternity.
It’s pretty easy to imagine an animate series where the restrictions were lifted. Still, I’m also happy that this version of Conan provided a decently high quality adventure cartoon for kids in the early 1990’s. The challenges are treated with appropriate gravity, never tongue in cheek. Sunbow provided my childhood with some of its most nightmarish imagery, and Conan is no exception. The setting and tones feels operatic, too. Whenever Conan and his friends come across a large statue with a magic jewel buried deep within it, or when they battle a gigantic reptilian creature, or when supernatural nightmare creatures paralyze men with fear, you’re transported back to a simpler age. One of pulp magazines and purple prose of men who toil in blood and thunder.
And well… it’s better than the 2011 film. In time, Jason Momoa became a king by his own hand… But that is another story.
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!
Episodes watched: “The Night of The Fiery Tears”, “Blood Brother”, “The Star of Shadizar”, “Greywulf of Xanthus”, “The Terrible Torrinon”, “Windfang’s Eyrie”, “Seven Against Stygia”, “The Red Brotherhood”, “The Birth of Wrath-Amon”, “Queen of Stygia”, “Treachery of Emperors”, “Hanuman, the Ape God”, “The City of the Burning Skull”, “When Tolls the Bell of Night”, “Frost Giant’s Daughter”, “The Thorns of Midnight”, “Once and Future Conan”, “A Serpent Coils the Earth.” Also, all of these episode titles sound like they’re tracks on a heavy metal album.