Conan the Barbarian

Late to the Party: Conan the Barbarian

Welcome to a Late to the Party of a selection of Conan the Barbarian’s adventures. Robert E. Howard created the character in 1932 for pulp magazines but eventually Conan would escape prose and expand into comic books, movies, tv shows and more. But I never really cared. The only thing I’ve paid attention to was the ‘90s cartoon Conan the Adventurer (reviewed a year ago by our own El Santo). But even then, it was more of a timeslot hit for me than the character’s appeal. Beyond that, I’ve got a few random comics with him I bought for other reasons like when he crosses over with Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, or Groo. But I like the artist of the original Conan comics and wanted to go back to them to see his artistic growth, but I thought I’d get more out of it if I started with Howard’s original material. Oh, and after that there’s a popular movie, right? So I’ll sample Conan’s first appearances in three different mediums: text, comics and movies.

The Original Stories (1932-1936)

Robert E. Howard grew up amid the oil booms of Texas to love writing, history and boxing. His parents’ marriage was unhappy but his mother was devoted to him. He found a home writing for the pulp magazines with varying adventure settings with successful recurring characters like Kull the Conqueror, Solomon Kane, Sailor Steve Costigan, Bran Mak Morn. He became friendly with his fellow writers and a part of the Lovecraft Circle (H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, August Derleth and Frank Belknap Long). In 1932, at the age of 26, Howard was inspired to create Conan who was immediately successful though Howard never stopped hustling in other genres. In 1936, after being told his mother would not wake from a coma, he killed himself at the age of 30.

In deciding what to read, I chose Conan’s first appearance and then three others that repeatedly showed up in best-of lists.

“The Phoenix on the Sword” (short story; originally published December 1932)
“Conan the King survives an assassination attempt thanks to intra-conspirator squabbles and mystical support.”
I was surprised that Conan is a king in his first story after opening with a poem that explains his long and eventful life. Research tells me Howard reworked this story from one of King Kull for his new character. I suppose one never knows when a particular character will be a hit. Still, I don’t get a great sense of who Conan is in this story. He’s a great fighter and knows how to measure and handle threats around him. Conan only fears one of the five conspirators prior to their attempt to kill him; he’s imperfect but still competent. That’s well done.

Conan is introduced drawing a map and mentioning countries that aren’t well known by the people around him which gives it lived-in feel without it making you think this is important. Howard balances this by moving the story at a fast pace and only introducing characters and elements that will have an impact later. When Toth-Amon says “if only I still had my magic ring,” you know that he’s gonna get that ring before the story is over. There’s Chekov’s Gun and Howard’s Magic Ring.

Howard’s text is peppered with adjectives and adverbs. There are many Serious Writers who talk about avoiding adverbs and rules for how frequently one may use them. This is perhaps the best example of why to avoid them. They aren’t out of place here in the pulps but once you start using them, it’s easy to slide into self-parody. Nearly everything gets an additional, unnecessary descriptor.

“The Tower of the Elephant” (short story; March 1933)
“Conan the Thief hunts a treasure, briefly makes a friend, and keeps a promise.”
This is my favorite of the stories I read. Research tells me this is the youngest Conan story by Howard. Here he’s scrappier but no less competent in a fight. He’s bold and takes risks but is not utterly fearless. This was a pretty fun story with a twist at the end I did not expect.

The previous story had mentioned characters’ skin tones but nothing jumped out to me as particularly objectionable. But here, on the second page, members of a crowd are described and one of them is defined by an antisemitic facial feature. I exhaled and took a second before continuing on.

The adverbs I mentioned before are still ever-present. Take this passage: “the crushed black body lay among the flaming riot of jewels that spilled over it; the hairy legs moved aimlessly, the dying eyes glittered redly among the twinkling gems.” I’m on board for most of that but “glittered redly?” That’s too much. On the flipside, there’s this line that bothered me: “The hook curved upward and inward in a peculiar manner, hard to describe, and vanished over the jeweled rim.” I’m fine with “peculiar manner” but I don’t like being told that something is “hard to describe.” You can just skip this. It doesn’t sound more impressive. Just don’t draw attention to it. Is this maybe something Howard picked up from his friend H.P. Lovecraft?

“Queen of the Black Coast” (short story; May 1934)
“Conan the Pirate follows his lover to a lost city.”
I did not like this one and could not get past the sexism and racism.

Conan shares the spotlight here with Bêlit, the titular pirate queen. She’s commanding and deadly, a fearsome presence driven by her passions, and someone Conan is subservient to and will take direction from. Bêlit is supposed to be a strong female character but I think she’s more like Kate Beaton’s Strong Female Characters. Howard emphasizes that she dresses in just a skirt and belt, perpetually topless. When Conan first comes aboard her ship, Bêlit declares he will be her king and she strips and dances before him until they fuck on the deck of the boat in front of her crew.

Only two of the crew are named while the group are collectively referred to as “the blacks.” Howard describes them as “painted and plumed, and mostly naked, brandishing spears and spotted shields.” Just staggeringly offensive. None of them have personalities, they have only strength or tasks to perform. The racism is not exclusive to the crew who are African through Howard’s Hyborian prism of lost history; Bêlit is described as “Shem” which is Howard’s term for Jewish and Arabic people of the Middle East. Howard explains her ethnicity is the reason her two exclusive motivations are lust and greed. Howard doesn’t employ any physical stereotypes for her though instead he focuses on her bright white skin so she stands apart from her crew. It is impressive that someone who lives at sea and wears little to no clothes in an era before sunscreen can maintain “the ivory globes of her breasts.”

Two recurring patterns in the Conan stories are that Conan bristles at so-called “civilization” and everyone around Conan dies when crazy shit happens. The end result is that life is cheap. Conan goes to sea at the start of this story because he killed a bunch of city folk and escaped justice on a boat. Then he and Bêlit command her crew who are disposable tools for Bêlit and Conan to obtain wealth. The crew are confirmed as slaves which I doubt Howard would have avoided saying if they were. There is a reference to Bêlit recruiting more men when they are running out of crew because they keep dying. The end result is that roughly a hundred, interchangeable, mostly-naked black men blindly serve to their dying breath the two white people on the ship. It’s very gross.

At the climax of the story, Conan stands alone killing wave after wave of the villains’ mutated minions. One could draw a comparison between the waste of life of Bêlit’s crew and the minions… if not for everything else in the story. Conan certainly doesn’t become that introspective though he does mourn Bêlit, a victim of her own greed.

“Red Nails” (novella; July, September, October 1936)
“Conan the Wanderer follows a woman he wants to have sex with to a lost city.”
This one is trickier to pin down. Conan has a real co-star here, Valeria, who fares better on the strong female character to Strong Female Character scale than Bêlit. Valeria is a tough fighter and smart who begins the story on the run after murdering a man who sexually assaulted her (the details are kept vague). Though she is repeatedly a formidable fighter, Howard never lets Valeria stop being a sexual object. The third paragraph of the story describes Valeria as “full-bosomed” and the 17th mentions her “splendid breasts.”

Conan is following the fugitive Valeria because he wants to have sex with her and, despite her rejecting his previous advances, is hoping she’ll change her mind in time. Spoiler alert: she does! The climax of the story has Conan rescuing a nude Valeria from a stone slab where she was to be sacrificed. After the two of them kill everyone else in the room, she “[stood] tall and splendid before him. The old blaze came back in his eyes, and this time she did not resist as he caught her fiercely in his arms.” So Conan achieved his goal at least. This is not to say Valeria is always a victim, there’s also a scene where she strips another woman nude, ties her to a couch and whips her.

The writing was what I’ve come to expect from Howard. It speeds along, is generally clear and evocative. There are a few run-on sentences which get a little convoluted. But it entertains. One thing I like is Howard ties everything in a neat bow. Characters will often make explanatory assumptions “the so-and-sos must be attacking because this happened!” that are given enough weight to seem official. If Howard plans something or sets it in motion, he’s thought it out and wants the reader to know it’s not happening by chance. I think as a result of how fast Howard must have written these, he gets into a habit of repeating himself. There are four instances of someone yelling “Slut!” in this book. I imagine Howard must have heard or said the word before he sat down to write and it just kept circulating in his head.

The setting is unique, most of it takes place in a city-sized building of interconnecting rooms lit by green gemstone windows. It feels creepy and claustrophobic and the characters are never safe as Conan and Valeria find themselves in the midst of two groups engaged in a drawn-out war in the city/building. I first got the impression this had been going on for generations as the living characters were born in the city and never left it. But I was disappointed when it’s revealed the war was only 50 years old.

The people engaged in the war by the way are Hyborian South/Central American tribes who… somehow got lost over here. As you might expect, it’s still pretty racist. There are lots of comments about the madness in their eyes or their low intelligence. It’s rough.

In the end, I get the appeal of these stories and their hero. They are exciting and straight-forward, grisly and tantalizing. I’d never deny their allure. If you want some action and sex, these will deliver. But they’re also racist and sexist to varying degrees of intensity and longevity. And that can be hard to surmount.

I still don’t care about Conan. In this admittedly small dive into Howards’ stories, Conan is the craftiest and strongest guy around but there’s nothing motivating him other than wanting to get out of trouble, get rich or have sex. He has an awareness of his surroundings and is able to identify immediate dangers and get out of trouble but beyond that he doesn’t think about what he encounters. I didn’t see him changed or transformed by his experiences. An otherworldly monster or magic doesn’t trouble him any more than any difficult fight would. He never rethinks his goals or his behaviors.

These four stories jumped around in his timeline but I don’t see that old King Conan is much different from young Conan. As a king, he has different burdens and understands dreaded civilization but is that growth or merely an adaptation of his situational awareness? Conan will always be Conan. He is the strongest, most resilient guy in a fight motivated only by his desire to survive and base instincts. There’s a purity to that. He’s like a shark.

I’m not immune to the charms of an arc-less character like this. I enjoy my fair share of long-running, corporately-owned superheroes, wandering cowboys and samurai. But those characters tend to encounter a community with a problem, resolve it and leave. The protagonist may not have changed but they’ve made an impact on the people around them. But two of these four stories end with Conan alone surrounded by bodies and a third ends with every character in the story past the introductory scene dead. There’s a depressing emptiness to how these stories repeatedly end in extermination.

The Original Comics (1970-1972)

Roy Thomas left Missouri for New York City in 1965 to transition from his comic book fanzines to comics. After eight days working at DC, the 24-year-old decamped to Marvel where he became Stan Lee’s protege writing the books Stan was willing to let go. He’d go on to be an editor and Editor in Chief. Thomas had a good eye for licensed properties and genres that fans were interested in; he’s the reason there would be Star Wars comics after all. In the late 1960s, he saw a market opportunity for sword and sorcery comics. Thomas wasn’t a fan of Conan until he managed to snag the rights cheap. With those secured, Thomas put the work in and read all he could. His first choice to draw the book was John Buscema but the budget couldn’t afford him so he went for his second choice.

Barry Windsor-Smith is a British cartoonist/artist who first mailed a sample of his work to Marvel and then showed up in person. His first work there would come out in 1969 when he was 20 years old. His style at the time was an impression of Jack Kirby with softer curves and Stan Lee could always use more Kirby. BWS did the odd issue here and there without a permanent assignment while couch/park bench surfing before Immigration found him and returned him to England. When Thomas approached him with the Conan proposition, BWS was able to legally move to the US.

Working in the Marvel Method, Thomas would give BWS a short synopsis to draw from. The one synopsis I’ve seen is for the first issue and is only 2.5 pages but makes references to Howard and his successors’ prose stories which Thomas sent to BWS to read. From that, BWS expanded the story into 20ish pages of comic art. Thomas would then ask for art changes and write the dialog and narration. Various inkers, colorists, letterers would then do their part to get it ready for the printer.

Before getting started on Conan proper, the pair first produced a Kull story as a story in an anthology book to test the waters. Then they launched Conan the Barbarian, originally coming out every two months, the book would be ramped up to monthly by issue #5. Chafing under the Marvel Method and corrections, BWS quit after issue #24 (he didn’t draw #17-18 and #22 was a reprint) though he’d do a few more Conan projects over the years.

I read the first 13 issues of the series and enjoyed them. I’d say the best issue is #9 where Conan battles an ancient, winged monster. Some issues are based on existing Conan stories and some are original creations by Thomas to fill in the gaps and move Conan along in his journey chronologically. This has an advantage of creating an illusion of progress. Conan still isn’t changing but now he might hang around a town for more than one issue. This allows the characters Conan meets in one issue to show up a few issues later. It’s not quite a supporting cast but more interaction lets Conan lower his guard for deeper relationships and dramatic betrayals.

There’s a fun panel in one issue where Conan is getting together with three friends: Jenna, who has traveled with Conan for a few issues; Burgan, a thief Conan met once; and Igon, a younger thief. The four of them have been hanging out for a few days and Jenna and Igon arrive late, both sweaty. It’s a subtle thing not remarked upon by the characters or the narration but by the next issue, Jenna betrays Conan so she and Igon can be together. The only thing as inevitable as their betrayal is Conan’s revenge.

Everything in these books is toned down from Howard: the gore, the sex, the racism. The Comics Code limits the first two but there’s no lack of action or scantily clad women. It’s a typical fantasy where characters can wear little clothing or heavily, accessorized robes or anything in between. Nothing pinged as particularly exploitive to me. The comic avoids the usual racism of defining people by their ethnicity and avoids sweeping judgements about entire peoples. This is easy to do of course when there are no non-white presenting characters in the first 12 issues. I would imagine it was not a conscious decision to avoid racism but instead a reflection of inherent bias. But even this won’t last as in #13 Conan comes into conflict with a Middle Eastern society, the people of whom are all colored grey. Despite the inhuman coloring, they are depicted the same as any other group in the books.

I took this plunge because I wanted to see BWS’s style evolve. He starts with his Kirby impression but with each issue you can see him approach the style he refined during a few years away from comics in the ‘70s before returning in the ‘80s in complete control of his line and method. Each issue here, he adds more panels per page and more detail per panel. BWS trades bombast for slivered moments and heightened mood and more subtle emotions.

Of course, BWS is not alone here. He has someone else inking all but one of these issues, mostly that’s Sal Buscema who I’ve always considered an underappreciated talent in his own right who similarly used a thin line. Many of these issues feel like a weird meshing of Kirby’s influence, BWS’s potential and Sal Buscema bridging the two. The issue without another inker has its own issues as the lines are not printed well and fade into the colors. The coloring is well done, except for those grey people; they hold their own magic and heighten the otherworldly elements while still allowing these cities to seem vibrant and alive. Many of the issues are colored by Mimi Gold who was dating BWS at the time and they could collaborate on the best approach.

In the end, does it make me like Conan? Not really. He’s not that different than what I got from Howard. Despite me liking the continuous story approach, the character’s appeal hasn’t changed. You’re on board or you’re not. And I’m not.

The Original Movie (1982)

After a suggestion from director Edward Summer, film producer Edward Pressman got the film rights to Conan in 1975 after paying for several years to iron out several licensing legalities. In the meantime, Summer teamed with Roy Thomas to draft a script. With the rights in place, Pressman reached out to Arnold Schwarzenegger believing him to be the perfect Conan on the strength of seeing a roughcut of the documentary Pumping Iron. John Milius wanted to direct it but no deal was made. Oliver Stone was brought in to draft a new script as he was “a name” and, coincidentally, a fan of Conan from the comics having even involved BWS in his comic artist horror movie The Hand. Designer Ron Cobb briefly worked on the movie before leaving and later returning with Milius who rewrote most of Stone’s script which was set in a post-apocalyptic future. Milius was supposed to work for producer Dino De Laurentiis next, so a deal was made that allowed Pressmand and De Laurentiis to coproduce. Milius brought along his friend Basil Poledouris to score the film. The full cast and crew was assembled and filming took place in late 1980 and early ‘81. Due in theaters for Christmas, the studio delayed it for additional editing to tone down the violence. After a few preview showings, Conan The Barbarian was released in US theaters on May 14, 1982, 39 years ago this week.

I had fun with the movie. It covers a wide span of Conan’s life thanks to the magic of narration and montages before establishing him in the world where he has a series of short adventures making friends, getting into scrapes, and inquiring about the people who killed his family. It gives Conan more of an origin and a long-term objective than he usually has. The internet tells me these are lifted heavily from Kull, again! But the movie doesn’t over do it by making Conan obsessed with his revenge on Thulsa Doom. He’s still dealing with his immediate needs and surroundings while casually asking around for the snake cult.

Conan is given time to be contemplative and less talkative than normal. I presume this was done more for neophyte-actor Arnold’s sake than an artistic vision of Conan as a strong and silent type. Arnold looks the part but struggles in scenes requiring him to convey Conan deep in thought. His best acting is when Conan’s slave masters keep him in a zoo where he is being taught martial arts and to read but ironically, Arnold moves around his enclosure like an ape.

The movie in general looks good. The sets and real locations hit a balance between believable and unreal. The costumes are evocative and I appreciate that Conan’s outfit changes nearly every scene. It gives a lived-in feel, that he’s wearing clothes, not a uniform. His clothes, and those of his companions, all have the look of being whatever they could grab or buy cheaply so it’s natural that he’s always changing. The wigs are frequently distracting.

Conan’s female companion in the film is Valeria though the movie character is a blend of Valeria, Bêlit, and Taurus (a man who burgles the Tower of the Elephant with Conan). Here she’s as an equal and partner of Conan. She never becomes a damsel in distress or becomes an object or sacrifice to motivate Conan.

This is the least racist Conan material yet in that it’s diverse and avoids stereotypes. While most of the cast is white, the characters played by James Earl Jones, Mako and Gerry Lopez are not made to stand out. They are not defined by their ethnicities and no attention is called to it. It’s not much but at this point I’ll take it. A case could be made that the people of the East (Hyborean Chinese or Mongols) are a negative depiction but they aren’t any worse than every other society in the movie.

This is probably the best a Conan movie could be. Well… I’ll bet it would have made a great 1930s movie serial.

My Final Thoughts

I came into this with a limited understanding of Conan. He’s more than I thought but, based on this, not much more. I’m still not interested in Conan himself. I don’t think I’ll pick up anymore Robert E. Howard. I will read the remaining Conan comics drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith because they’re drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith. And I think I’d like to watch the Conan the Destroyer film to see if/how success went to the studio’s heads; I’m guessing it did and they meddled around and killed their golden Cimmerian since they never made a third movie.