Let’s continue our foray into famous pulp characters from the early 20th century with another widely known and still alive and thriving creation, Conan The Barbarian.
Conan is the creation of Robert E. Howard, who is credited with founding the entire genre of ‘Sword & Sorcery’ in 1929 with his Conan precursor Kull, a barbarian from Atlantis. Howard was writing a number of pulp stories and playing with a number of virile, uber-male characters, one of my favorites of which is Solomon Kane, the stern, humorless, violent Puritan who encounters all sorts of evil and mystical shenanigans and slays them all Old Testament style.
Howard wrote for the big pulp magazines of the day, most notably Weird tales, delivering to pimply faced boys imaginative tales of bold male archetypes encountering all sorts of bizarre dangers and inventions in imaginative lands. He finally hit immortality in the early 30s, when culminating his ideas to that point, he decided to out-and-out create his own mythical ancient world as a background for a character derived and expanded from his earlier Kull, this time a Cimmerian barbarian named Conan.
The Cimmerian theme he got from his fascination with the old Celts (from whom your present blogger is descended). Indeed, Howard was fascinated by history and had up to that point incorporated a lot of his knowledge into his stories, which was one of the reasons his stories did well. They had a depth his audience could lose themselves in. Howard however was tired of being constrained by historical detail and the occasional necessity of getting his facts straight, and figured it would be easier and more fun to simply create a world from scratch: The Hyborian Age.
In this mythical age he placed his new protagonist, Conan The Barbarian. It was a smash hit. He wrote over 21 Conan stories, 17 of which were published in his lifetime mostly in Weird Tales. And of course we all still know the character well today. Many, many stories have been written by other authors after Howard’s death and he has branched out into comics, movies and games.
Conan’s original popularity isn’t hard to comprehend. Naturally, the character is an uber-male, the type of fearless, ass kicking, womanizing (and let’s be honest, utterly and completely misogynistic) badass awkward teenage boys fantasize about being. Furthermore Conan is a wandering barbarian, free of the taint of civilization, another idea young, constrained teenage boys envy. He meets many cultures in many areas, but he is not constrained by the decadence of civilization, he is something free and pure. Not only is this a reflection of the same themes that underlay Tarzan, Conan is more immoral, more badass, his stories more imaginative and his enemies way more dark and fearsome.
Indeed Howard and Lovecraft were friends. Howard used some of Lovecraft’s monsters, with Lovecraft’s delighted permission, setting them in his Hyborian Age and having Conan go up against them. They are not hysterical, vaudevillian villains, they can be unfathomable things from outside the world, using blasphemous magic to make their way in or dark sorcerers playing with nihilistic forces. While they do not assume the same breadth and utter cosmic mind blowingness as Lovecraft’s treatment, they are truly worthy things of evil, and lend Conan’s badassery a lot more credence.
However, far more than this, Howard also created an entire magical, medieval fantasy world. In fact, he was the first to do so.
Decades before Tolkein’s Middle Earth or Narnia, two generations before Dungeons & Dragons, Robert E. Howard was there first. The same thing that worked for kids in the 60s, the 80s, the 2000s worked 80 years ago in the 1930s and in fact was fresh and unheard of.
World building is one of the best ways to help an audience become immersed in a work, and indeed fans collecting the Conan stories would attempt to put them into a geographical and historical timeline across 40 years of Hyborian history.
A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career is a famous one by fans P. Schuyler Miller and John D. Clark. Howard himself approved of it and said it was very close to his timeline. This outline was later reworked by Clark and aspiring author L. Sprague de Camp who ended up writing a sizeable number of Conan stories himself after Howard died. This newer outline, An Informal Biography of Conan the Cimmerian is usually the timeline most writers of Conan stories follow.
The character has had a wealth of other writers which has played a huge part in the character’s staying power. For the next 40 years new tales were added to the Conan lexicon, so much so that the original Howard tales went out of print and it wasn’t until 1977 that the original, unedited versions were finally recollected, put into book collections and republished.
It was in Junior High that i stumbled across them, hormones and pimples starting to course across my body, with a love of comic books and fantastic and creative tales. And indeed, there was a lot to pick up. One of the best additions to the Conan mythos was a large magazine sized comic put out by Marvel beginning in the 1970s called Savage Sword of Conan. I found piles of these dirt cheap at a flea market one day, bought them, took them home and had my little edge of pubescent mind blown.
The artwork was stunning, the stories, many of which were illustrated rendition of Howards’ originals, at least until they ran out of them, a wealth of fantasy and adventure and of course, though i didn’t reflect on it at the time, the mighty uber badass a 12/ 13 year old boy aspires to be. (although in truth, the only real role model i had as a kid was never the actual heroes, it was the heroes’ creators. Stan Lee is really the only man i ever remember aspiring to be when i grew up.)
The misogyny angle is hard to avoid, and one must be an utter moron not to notice it. That, or a hormone laden 13 year old male. Eventually other writers attempted to introduce stronger, self reliant female characters but this has been rather up and down and don’t even mention Red Sonya. Red Sonya was an attempt to introduce a strong female character, and to make her so, she has a rule about having romantic relationships. In order for a man to have a chance to bed her, he must defeat her in combat. Surely i don’t need to spell this out for you.
Pulp is not high art. The space it occupies and the crowd it attracts often says much. It succeeds because it is more than its obvious prejudices and ignorances, but they are there nonetheless and it is the responsibility of the creators who come later to evolve these ignorances. However, i am firmly against going back and “editing” or cleaning up the source material. Firmly against. Produce educated and enlightened youth and let them see prejudices clearly and work them out. Conan can indeed occupy an area of testosterone wish fulfillment for young males and there is no point in pretending Conan’s initial popularity didn’t contain this aspect. It should be discussed frankly and seen clearly.
So, we have the original stories followed by 40 years of additional pulp magazine stories by other authors. These stories are then collected into books. Then we have the amazingly awesome comic series by Marvel, two of them, actually. Then in the 80s the movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name: Conan The Barbarian. I know of almost no boys in the 80s who did not think that movie was the most (expletive) awesome thing in the world. Not Star Wars level awesome of course, but still, (expletive) awesome.
Then began a minor dry spell that has lifted in the past few years. Marvel comics has started another, very well done comic series starting with the original Howard stories, the stories themselves have been collected into a new anthology, a massive multiplayer online RPG game Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures was released in 2008 and is doing quite well. (no i don’t play those things. Doing stupid stuff like this blog takes up enough of my time. If i were 14 years old again i would probably never leave my room and be one of those MMORPG addicts.) A new movie is coming out later this year.
Conan is alive and doing as well as ever, better in fact than any of his pulp counterparts. Tarzan is still in the public consciousness, but a Disney film and Broadway musical based on said film, while pretty impressive, does little to the character’s creative mythology. But the other greats, Doc Savage, The Shadow, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, The Spider… you may recognize their names, some of you anyway, but they are not living characters with stories still being created, and which young kids are devouring and immersing themselves in. Somehow Conan is. It is through not just the imaginative quality of the original stories (we’ll ignore the literary quality. It’s pulp fiction, they’re well written enough to be exciting tales) but because the character was picked up on by many other creative minds and played with across the years and decades. Just as we saw with Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan, this is essential to the long lasting life of a popular character.
In 1936, 4 years and 21 stories after creating Conan, Robert E. Howard’s mother died after a long illness. He held vigil at her side and when she finally died, he walked outside, got into his car, and shot himself in the head, killing himself.