Posts from July 2012

July 26th, 2012

The Tower of the Elephant!

Our story today is the best thing “Conan” creator Robert E. Howard ever did, his 1933 short story “The Tower of the Elephant,” which features a barbarian who’s little more than a boy – an entire lifetime younger than the grizzled old king readers first met in the debut Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword.” This Conan is fresh-arrived in a Zamoran city of thieves, still naive in the ways of men, and when he overhears a lout in a bar talking about the fantastic treasure (called the Elephant’s Heart) held high atop the mysterious smooth-glass structure called the Tower of the Elephant, he wonders why none of the city’s thieves has ever stolen the thing. He’s rudely informed that Yara, the sorcerer who inhabits the tower, has invested the place with guards – both human and not.

Conan isn’t impressed, and after some requisite bloodshed (the boy is destined never to have a peaceful drink in a tavern), he makes his way to the temple district (thinking of his own native deity: “It was useless to call on Crom. He was a gloomy, savage god and hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies. Which was all any god should be expected to do”), hops the garden wall, and heads toward the tower itself. Before he can reach it, he encounters another thief intent on the same quest, and the two of them scale the tower to the top. Once there, the other thief tells Conan to wait while he explores an inner chamber. He stumbles out an instant later, gasping – and falls down dead. Undeterred, Conan enters the inner chamber – and confronts an enormous poisonous spider, which he barely manages to kill (ironically enough, by squashing it with a chest full of treasure). He travels deeper into the tower.

… and stumbles across a horrible story that was old long before he was born. He finds a large green idol with a vaguely human torso and the enormous head of an elephant – only a moment later, the idol opens its eyes! The thing is alive!

The creature’s name is Yag-Kosha, the last survivor of a band of spacefarers who came to Earth on star-spanning wings long before mankind evolved. One by one, this band of nearly-immortal beings died off, until only Yag-Kosha was left, and now he sits in the chamber helplessly, tortured, blinded, and imprisoned by Yara’s dark sorcery. He senses that Conan’s arrival is destiny at work, and he urges the young barbarian to kill him:

Now strike, wanderer – for the life of man is not the life of Yag – nor is human death of Yag. Let me be free of this age of blind and broken flesh. And I will once more be Yogah of Yag, morning-crowned and shining, with wings to fly, and feet to dance, and eyes to see, and hands to break! Strike, I say!

Conan does, and then he follows the creature’s last instructions, cutting out its heart and soaking the enormous gem called the Heart of the Elephant in the strange blood. He brings the pulsing gem to Yara, who is immediately snared in its magic. The evil sorcerer shrinks and shrinks (the whole time calling on his dark gods to save him) and is finally pulled inside the Heart of the Elephant – where for an instant Conan could swear he can see the man running in terror from a restored and vengeful Yag-Kosha. Conan barely has time to escape the place before the Tower of the Elephant, no longer sustained by Yag-Kosha’s magic, comes crumbling down.

In our furtive little Cimmerian ‘Stravanga of 2012, we can dream about “The Tower of the Elephant.” We can dream that “Conan the Barbarian” was a surprise hit movie last summer, and its star Jason Momoa was summarily catapulted to the A-list of young action-movie stars. We can fantasize that he signed on to play Conan for many more movies – one of which would certainly have to be “The Tower of the Elephant” (this is an actor who can morph with almost disconcerting ease to play significantly younger or older characters – in fact, he’d be fantastic as the aforementioned grizzled old King) – with GCI lions and giant spiders and oh! The Yag-Kosha we might get from some especially talented special effects wizard!

And in the meantime, the story certainly hasn’t lacked for comic book adaptations. In 1970 the great Roy Thomas was writing Marvel Comics’ full-color new Conan comic book, and he and artist Barry Windsor-Smith gave readers a “Tower of the Elephant” in which some things work well (the coloring especially, by an uncredited Glynis Wein) and some things work less than well (Smith’s ability to produce exciting action-sequences flickers in and out of existence). The pathos of Conan’s executing strike to Yag-Kosha’s heart is so perfectly orchestrated by Howard that I sometimes think it could survive any interpretation, and the thrillingly satisfying moment when Conan glimpses Yara fleeing from Yag-Kosha is an open invitation for an artist to rise to the occasion. Smith’s main innovation is to make Yara naked:

Seven years later, Thomas got the chance to adapt the story one more time – now in the black-and-white pages of Marvel’s Conan pulp magazine, “The Savage Sword of Conan.” Here he has 40 pages of room to do his work (after the painted Earl Rorem cover in which a hyper-muscled Conan fights an oddly floating spider while the requisite half-naked and terrified young woman cowers in the background), so much more of Howard is quoted and paraphrased. And here he’s teamed up with artist John Buscema, whose feel for action-sequences is usually superb (with one or two screaming exceptions, which we’ll get to by-and-by here at Stevereads) and whose ability to convey the weird and the exotic is at this point, in 1977 (and hugely aided by the fabulous, Gustav Dore-esque inking of Alfredo Alcala), at its peak. For his panel depicting the long-delayed vengeance of Yag-Kosha, he chooses to highlight Yara’s terror:

Thirty years after that great issue of “Savage Sword,” we find “The Tower of the Elephant” being adapted again, this time by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Cary Nord. They spread their adaptation over a few separate monthly issues, which rather spoils the headlong effect Howard clearly meant it to have, but Busiek’s grasp of the story’s core of tragedy is very nearly as strong as Thomas’ was, and Nord opts for a psychedelic vision of Yara’s eternal punishment:

How nice it would have been, to see this old familiar story played out on the big screen, with Jason Momoa perfectly capturing a stolid young barbarian who’s got not experience in the world but is already perfectly willing to be the instrument of any sorcerer’s downfall! Alas, the fickle American movie-going public didn’t make it happen – but we’ll always have our Cimmerian ‘Stravaganzas here at Stevereads!

August 18th, 2011

Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza: Dawn of a New Era?

It might seem anachronistic and hopelessly optimistic in the all-digital-all-the-time 21st century, but it still happens: studios still release actual printed-pulp books as part of the advertising onslaught that precedes most big-budget movies. The assumption that there’s any real connection between movie-goers and book-readers, between the experience of movie-going and book-reading, is bizarre on its face, but quixotic and charming even so. And if that kind of connection was tough to credit back when Alan Dean Foster was cashing a quick paycheck by adding participles to the “Clash of the Titans” script, how much more tenuous must it seem today, when movies cost hundreds of millions of dollars and hurl themselves at their hapless audiences in 200-mph sensory-enhanced 3-D with scratch-n-sniff vibro-massage? Once upon a time, perhaps, reading a book and watching a movie were roughly analogous: in both cases, you were the passive recipient of someone’s creative output. But there’s nothing passive about watching big-budget special effects movies anymore – with their Dolby eviscero-sound systems and their compulsory sensory overload, going to one is like having a rectal exam while tripping on LSD: you’ve never experienced anything like it, yet it leaves you stunned, sore, and vaguely unsatisfied. With high-resolution video games playing on every personal electronic device in the world, movie studios can no longer rely on anything so quaint as audiences actually paying attention, so they do their best to reach out of the big screen and grab movie-goers’ faces between thumb and pointing finger, like Great Aunt Estelle zeroing in for a holiday kiss.

Surely the divide will soon be so great that studios just won’t bother with the whole book-thing, but right now, they still do – especially if the original source of their movie embarrassingly happens to be literary. Such is the case with the new Lionsgate movie epic “Conan the Barbarian” starring Jason Momoa: it was born, as we’ve seen in the course of our Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza, of Robert E. Howard’s cheesy, heartfelt pulp stories almost a century ago. And let’s give Lionsgate credit where it’s due: facing the dilemma of producing and liscensing boring old printed books, they did the job right.

First, they commissioned somebody to do the aforementioned participle-sprinkling to the screenplay. That somebody was veteran sci-fi writer Michael Stackpole, a merry old hack who’s never written a bad sentence in his entire professional career. No idea if Stackpole is, like most other sci-fi geeks, a Conan fan of long standing, and no idea what strictures the studio placed on him in the task of adapting the final screenplay, but the end result speaks for itself: his novelization, Conan the Barbarian, is that rarest of rare birds: an adaptation that can be read with enjoyment just for its own sake, without reference to (or even knowledge of) some gallumping-great movie in a google-plex near you.

Stackpole has always excelled in adding that one keen little twist, the little detail that suddenly humanizes even the most inhuman characters (this knack is on full and continuous display in his quite enjoyable Star Wars novel I, Jedi). In his Conan novelization, he slips it in at the end of a villain’s rant, seen from the viewpoint of his equally-villainous daughter:

Khalar Zym began pacing, his face tightened with fury but his eyes focused distantly. He began to spin for the monks a story – yet telling it more to himself. Marique had heard it many times, told many ways, with her father in moods that ranged from the depths of despair to the heights of triumph. He spun it as a great tragedy – the defining moment of his life. It was the reason he was born and the reason he continued to live.

And yet in every telling, he forgets that I was there.

But the most intriguing sub-aspect of Stackpole’s book is the string of hints he adds about our main character’s past. One of his present-day fighting companions alludes to that past and gets only a guarded reflection from Conan himself, with a classic bit of Stackpole business added on at the end:

“I do wish I knew of your previous life as a corsair, for it was there you changed. Not unexpected, the loss of carefree youth … but something replaced it.”

The Cimmerian stared at the distant horizon. “I was born to battle. Courage and cunning are what Crom gives us, and I have made the most of them. Of comrades and companions I have had legions. Most have died. Many I have mourned. A few, however …” One …

Conan fans won’t be surprised to read in Stackpole’s book that one of the tales being sung about our young hero is called “The Song of Belit.”

That same rich sense of the character’s past is caught best in the companion paperback sporting a new movie cover: Del Rey has issued a neat little mass market paperback reprinting six of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories – easily the six best: “The Phoenix on the Sword,” “The People of the Black Circle,” “The Tower of the Elephant,” Red Nails,” “Rogues in the House,” and  “Queen of the Black Coast.” This is a great way to introduce those mythical movie-motivated readers to delve directly into Howard’s work – including that last-named story, which features Conan’s time serving as a corsair with the legendary pirate-queen Belit whom we’ve met before (especially in John Buscema’s great visual of her coming back from the dead to protect Conan from a marauding winged ape). It’s in this story that Conan comes the closest to outlining his life’s axioms, in a little speech I’m pleased to see carried over to the movie, since it makes a much, much better anthem for the character than some droning lines about “the lamuntashun of dare vimmin”:

“Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content.”

Fitting enough that we bring our summer’s Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza to a close with those lines! All that’s left is for America to go to the movie theaters this weekend and make “Conan the Barbarian” a hit. I’ll cross my fingers and hope that it’s the number 1 movie in the country come Monday – it’s hugely talented young star deserves it, and more importantly, this great enduring character deserves it too.

August 17th, 2011

Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza: The Knock-Off Novels!

In the wake of two successful Hollywood movies, the literary estate of Robert E. Howard opted for a little looting and pillaging of their own: the book-market flooded with Conan pastiche-novels. We’ve dealt with this phenomenon – and some of these novels – before here at Stevereads, but of course their name is legion. Conan Properties, Inc. got rather excessively glad-handed with its permissions, and they weren’t exactly super-vigilant about vetting the manuscripts that were no doubt pouring into their mailbox – and the result was teeming multiplication of titles that usually managed to share only one thing in common: they should never have been written. The irony is that most of these books burst onto the American book market at at time when the average reader walking into a retail bookstore would have been able neither to find the original Howard stories on the shelf nor to order them … for copyright reasons rather to abstruse to parcel out here, a decades-long period opened up in American bookstores during which the pastiches were the only game in town if you wanted to read about Conan and the Hyborian Age.

The reading wasn’t very good. In fact, most of these pastiches were gawd-awful, such stiff exercises in freelance paycheck-harvesting that you almost want to offer to pay the authors to stop. One of the earliest such cases was Conan the Swordsman, a 1978 pastiche by Bjorn Nyberg, who got ample scripting, plotting, and writing help from our old friends L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter, with less than stellar results:

Conan shook a somber head. “I, too, have changed my plans. I’ll head north, to see my native land once more.”

The queen studied Conan’s solemn mien. “You do not sound as if you liked the prospect. Do you fear to return?”

Conan’s harsh laugh rang out like the clash of steel on steel. “Save for some sorcery and certain supernatural beings I have met, there’s naught I fear. I may come home to trouble with an ancient feud or two – but this does not disturb me. It is just … well, Cimmeria is a dull country after the southerly kingdoms.”

Of course, not all was sheer misery. As we’ve noted before, such reliable hacks as Steve Perry could sometimes turn in a passably enjoyable C-rate Conan, although Perry wrote so many Conan novels that even generous readers can’t expect him to be on his game all the time. His lines are devoid of art, but they’re at least commonly readable, if slightly funny in an unintended way. The Cimmerian in his 1984 novel Conan the Fearless certainly wasn’t afraid to talk in cliches:

That is your plan?” Conan shook his head. “I am to scale a giant mountain, enter a castle, search perhaps thousands of rooms until I find our quarry, defeat the forces that might be mounted by a powerful wizard inside as guards, and return with three children?”

“That is my plan, yes.”

“Ah. And here I had thought there might be some difficulty in this undertaking. How foolish of me! It will be simple!”

“Sarcasm does not become you, Conan. I am open to better suggestions.”

The Cimmerian shook his head again. “Nay, your plan suits me well enough.” He touched the hilt of his sword. “I would rather rely on my blade than on complicated posturing in any event.”

“I shall go with you,” Kinna said.

Conan chuckled. “Nay. I said before I work better alone.”

Even an innocent reader will look at that line “I work better alone” and start conjuring parodies, and such readers will be delighted to know that their best efforts along those lines were excelled way back in 1972 by the perennially enjoyable author John Jakes (who later went on to national best-seller status for his novel The Bastard). Jakes was one of the original fans of Howard’s Conan, and for all those hours of reading enjoyment, he repaid the author’s memory with the highest tribute of all: rich, hilarious parody. In his novel Mention My Name in Atlantis (shamefully out of print), the ancient continent of Atlantis is rich and prospering – until it’s visited by Conax the Barbarian of far-off Chimeria. Conax his huge, hairy, and hilariously hot-tempered – and he’s read way too many Robert E. Howard Conan stories:

“And you come from the far north?”

“That’s right. I sailed out in command of my goodly band of reavers, our dragon-sail craft bound to plunder the shipping lanes. However, that storm I mentioned caught us by surprise. Our stout vessel foundered, then broke apart. In the midst of the screaming, squalling, storm-lashed holocaust of hell -” There he went again with his heroic phraseology. But prudence prevailed; I merely nodded in an attentive way.

Fingering the hilt of his mighty sword, he went on: “- in the midst of that wailing, thundering, thrice-cursed maelstrom, we sighted the monster.”

“Monster?” I replied, starting visibly.

“Indescribably phantasmagoric! A creature from time forgot! A sea-swimming dragon of them most baleful appearance. It loomed amidst the crashing waves and fixed us with its damned glowing eye. Had I been near enough to pierce it with my stout broadsword, it would have, I am certain, gushed pustulant ichor from hell!”

“That’s very interesting. But are you sure this monster wasn’t some figment of your imagination?”

He whipped up the sword so that its point distressed my belly. “If you’re questioning my veracity, Crok knows that I’ll send you shrieking to the nether fires!”

Our hapless narrator might watch his p’s and q’s, but the continent of Atlantis doesn’t prove so circumspect, and disaster soon follows. It should almost go without saying that in terms of imagery, pacing, and mood, Mention My Name in Atlantis is by far the best Conan pastiche of them all, achieving its quality even while it’s bashing its source. Like so many Conan pastiche novels, it’ll make you laugh – but in a good way.

But what’s the state of Conan-books now, in the present day, right on the eve of the big-budget Jason Momoa movie from Lionsgate? Our Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza concludes tomorrow by answering just that question!

 

August 17th, 2011

Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza: The Comics – Part 3!

The great heyday of the Roy Thomas/John Buscema era of Conan comics dwindled, no matter how fervently fans like myself wished that weren’t the case. Buscema’s pencils eventually degenerated to sleepwalking outlines, and other artists – even the legendary Gil Kane – could step in and shake things up for a bit, but the fire was gone (curiously, Thomas and Buscema’s last truly fantastic Conan story wasn’t even set in the Hyborian Age – it was an issue of Marvel’s alternate-reality “What If?” series in which Conan finds himself transported to present-day Manhattan; he overturns a Volkswagon, thwarts a robbery at the Guggenheim, and beds a comely cab driver before he goes home – in other words, a fairly standard German tourist in the Big Apple). The series – in one form or another – limped on for years and spawned spin-offs (“Kull the Conqueror,” “Red Sonja,” “King Conan”), and Conan was still a viable property in book-form, as we’ll see, but the marriage of the character and the comics medium seemed to have gone stale permanently.

Part of the problem was success. More than one pop culture commentator has mentioned that we shouldn’t underestimate the medium-wide effect Thomas’ dissemination of Conan had on young creators. Here was a character who possessed only his own raw animal vitality to make his way in the world – no pristine super-powers, no invulnerability or heat vision (or web-spinning and wall-crawling). And making his way in the world was pretty much all he wanted to do: he looked on selfless heroics with a sneer. Thomas (and Buscema’s pencils) captured this nature perfectly and then expanded on it, to the point where, as noted, it struck some of us fans that any other comic book adaptation of the character would be akin to blasphemy.

One of the later generation of comics creators who caught the Thomas-Buscema bug was current fan favorite writer Kurt Busiek, and in 2004 he teamed up with artist Cary Nord and delivered the impossible: a comic book re-invention of Conan that both respected the character (and its comics tradition) and revelled in a completely different interpretation.

Busiek’s Conan, it should be admitted right away, is by far the truest interpretation of the character that’s ever been done outside of Howard. Roy Thomas was a meticulous and adoring Howard fan – but he was first and foremost a superhero writer, and he could never fully shed those habits when he turned to the Hyborian side of his writing duties. Buscema too, for all his frequent grousing about spurning the superhero genre, most often couldn’t help himself in his physical design of the character: his Conan, no matter how rough-hewn, wouldn’t have looked out of place in spandex.

Cary Nord tore all that down and re-worked it from the basics. In the first few issues of Busiek’s re-launch of the character for Dark Horse Comics, Nord’s Conan is virtually an anti-superhero. He’s a much younger Conan than any we’ve seen (even Smith’s big-haired boy spent half his panel-time looking like Ted Nugent), and he’s decidedly non-iconic: a slope-browed, jut-jawed troglodyte. Nord (at Busiek’s urging, I’d guess) is utterly unafraid to make his Conan look by turns homicidal and oafish, and that’s exactly how Busiek writes him. This is a Conan who gets just as drunk as Buscema’s – but looks ridiculous when he does it, not noble. This is a Conan who punches bartenders, women, and children just as readily as Buscema’s (or more so) – but in this case they’re innocent, and he’s just being, well, barbaric. Readers of these fantastic issues teeter between thrilling to the young Cimmerian’s exploits and deploring his small-town boorish ways. It’s great, great stuff – and great fun.

Busiek is clearly having a ball in these issues. His pace is more leisurely than Thomas could ever get away with, of course – Thomas didn’t write in the Age of the Inevitable Trade Paperback, but that age has now engulfed the comics market; creators tailor virtually everything they do with an eye toward the trade paperback collection that will spring up a day or two after their latest story-arc is finished. I doubt I’ll ever be a complete fan of this tailoring – I’ve found it often erodes a writer’s willingness (or ability) to engage in long-term storytelling or continuity, tends to lock them into fairly purblind six-issue cycles. But even I have to admit it’s served to increase the issue-by-issue quality across the entire superhero comics spectrum; writers who are now thinking about the books their issues will soon comprise tend, I think, to do sharper and bigger work than writers who are just plugging away issue by issue, with no square-bound immortality in sight. There are exceptions of course, and Busiek has written a couple of them – but it hardly matters in this case anyway, since his heart is so clearly in the project on an issue-by-issue basis.

He tackles some of the same epic stories Thomas famously did – “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is here, as is “The Tower of the Elephant” – but in completely different ways. This Conan’s smile is quicker, his temper is shorter, and, thanks to the rather bloodthirsty house standards over at Dark Horse, his sword-work is far more gruesome (Nord excels himself at decapitations). There are still beautiful women, evil sorcerers, and disgusting nightmare-creatures, and the work that’s gone into differentiating them from the sprawling comics tradition that came before them is evident on every page. This is a Conan for the 21st century – post-heroic, intensely human but still fundamentally noble.

The Busiek-Nord Dark Horse Conan trade paperbacks are must-haves for any Conan fan, and their run brings us to the end of our look at Conan in the funny books – although surely not the end of the subject! Conan will certainly continue to be interpreted and re-interpreted as long as comics survive in some form or other. But it’s nice to close out the subject on such a high note.

Up next: the glut of non-canonical Conan novels as our Cimmerian Stravaganza continues to count down to the new movie!

August 15th, 2011

Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza: The Comics – Part 2!

“Conan the Barbarian” (the phrase is synonymous with the character, and yet, in classic “Elementary, my dear Watson,” or “Beam me up, Scotty” style, it was never actually used in the original material) became a modest, surprise hit for Marvel Comics shortly after its debut. Fans responded not only to the whole sword-and-sorcery sub-genre but to Roy Thomas’ specific vision of the Hyborian Age created by Robert E. Howard for the pulp market decades before. The four-color comic sold well enough, in fact, to sustain a spin-off: “Savage Tales of Conan” was another great Thomas idea, a larger-format black-and-white magazine designed to showcase longer and more visually opulent stories than the regular comic book would usually do. And both “Conan” and “Savage Tales” drew sustained life from the pencilling talents of the same man: Marvel Comics’ heavyweight fan favorite, John Buscema.

Buscema was already a legend when he came to the “Conan” titles, but they gave him a range usually unavailable in super-hero comics. In the pre-historic world Thomas was fleshing out from Howard’s writings, Buscema was free to let his considerable imagination soar, without needing to conform to the super-strength and eye-beams norms of titles like “The Fantastic Four” or “The Avengers.” He was far less meticulous than his predecessor Barry Smith had been, but he also never ran the risk of stylized, static lapses into which Smith’s art could sometimes fall. At the height of his powers, Buscema could scarcely draw a cup sitting on a table without viewers worrying it would spill on them – his panels virtually vibrated with movement.

The result was the visual conception of an entire world – and of a character. Gone was the epicene rock star of Smith’s run on the title. In his place stood a far more solid adult man, broad in the chest, wide in the waist, less the lithe superhero, more the thickset tavern-brawler. This Conan might still at certain angles have looked young, but he was unquestionably seasoned – he sported a shaggy Prince Valiant haircut, a fur loin-cloth, wide lips, and a broad, oft-smashed nose. He was a stoic, no-nonsense man of violence, and the visuals Buscema came up with issue after issue helped Thomas to refine his idea of the character to an immediate perfection seldom achieved by other writers with other characters (instinct and luck play a certain part too, and timing – think of Claremont and Byrne’s Wolverine, or Miller’s Daredevil). To most of us reading these issues eagerly every month, this was Conan.

The world Thomas and Buscema helped to create (the working partnership between these two was an amazing fluke on its own – both imperious control-freaks who fundamentally disliked collaboration, and yet here they were working in what seemed to be perfect tandem) was an enormous elaboration on the one Smith had begun to sketch. Monsters roamed everywhere – Buscema’s talent for drawing most animals stood him in good stead as Thomas’ scripts called for a veritable Noah’s Ark of gigantic bears, moths, rats, lions, eels, squids, lions … as well as the perennially-popular dinosaurs. Conan fights sabre-toothed tigers, pterodactyls, slugs the size of rhinos, and even, in a breathlessly-paced sequence, a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

And through it all, Buscema’s Conan is as far away from Smith’s virginal quester as possible. This is a man much closer to Howard’s original conception (and, with any luck, the version we’ll see in only a few days when the new movie adaptation opens in a theater near you): a boisterous creature of huge appetites – some of them frankly sexual. Buscema was able to indulge to the fullest his oft-announced affection for drawing sultry women – including every kind of evil-eyed seductress imaginable (one of them ends up being made of sea weed), a stunningly re-imagined Red Sonja (Buscema replaced the jerkin-and-skirt Windsor had given the character with … nothing much at all), and, in a long and satisfying story-arc, the corsair-queen Belit, whose death and brief resurrection marked the 100th issue of “Conan the Barbarian.”

The run was immensely successful, and it defined the character for an entire generation. Even when the vogue of sword-and-sorcery started dying out, those Marvel issues kept coming: “Conan the Barbarian,” “Savage Sword of Conan,” “King Conan,” and countless stand-alone specials and spin-offs (Thomas and Buscema spent less than a year on an adaptation of one of Howard’s other great creations, King Kull, for instance, and it was a joyous event for fans of the character). Conan was drawn in this same period by other great pencillers – Gil Kane, Jim Starlin, Gene Colan, and many others tried their hands at the Cimmerian – but he belonged to Buscema, and of course to Thomas. When their time with the character finally petered to an end, it seemed almost like a Hyborian funeral was in order. Those of us who’d loved the era thought: there might be crappy knock-offs in the future (done more to keep the copyright alive than out of love or craftsmanship), but this kind of genius won’t come again.

We were wrong, of course. But we had to wait a while.

August 14th, 2011

Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza: The Comics – Part 1!

Our Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza of 2011 kicks into high-gear this week in anticipation of the new Lionsgate spectacular premiering on the 19th and starring Iowa’s own Jason Momoa in the role that made a certain once and future California governor a star. And the most natural place in the world for our ongoing ‘stravaganza to, um, go next is the medium where the character, the world, the very concept of Conan the Barbarian flourished – comic books.

And when we enter that medium, one thing becomes glaringly obvious: with all due respect to creator originality and meaning no disrespect to Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian as he exists in the popular consciousness has a fully equal co-creator, and that co-creator’s name is Roy Thomas.

Thomas will be familiar to the more nerdy among you (and to those of you who dote on my frequent comics-postings here at Stevereads)(i.e. the most nerdy among you). He was the organizational and conceptual workaday genius who pretty much inherited the mantle of Marvel Comics from Stan Lee when the company was bought and Lee was promoted to Publisher. Thomas took all the bursting creativity of Lee and his artistic collaborators, added a much more intuitive and comprehensive grasp of inter-title continuity, and almost single-handledly created the next great age of Marvel titles. And in 1970, he managed to convince Glenn Lord, the literary manager of Howard’s estate, to allow Marvel to put out a comic titled “Conan the Barbarian.”

Despite a significant amount of reader demand, publishing a sword-and-sorcery literary adaptation in 1970 was a bit of a risk for a mainstream company like Marvel, so Thomas originally had a tight budget – too tight, in fact, to allow him to have the company’s first choice of artist, the fan favorite (and correspondingly expensive) John Buscema. And in retrospect, this was a blessing: it forced Thomas to ‘settle’ for a sexy young Brit named Barry Smith, whose pencilling work (especially when he handled his own inking) was only just starting to show signs of the lavish, unique brilliance it would achieve in part because of the leeway Thomas gave the artist on this book. As Thomas remarked at the time when presented with the choice of artists, if he’d gone with Buscema in those early days, he’d have sold more issues and won fewer awards.

Looking at that initial Smith run on the book, it’s utterly amazing how fast he throws off the unconvincingly Kirbyesque style he was using in issue #1. In a remarkably short time, Smith starts to show readers the sinuous, glittering detail for which he would later become famous. Most artists mature more slowly, but even by issue #4, the landmark “Tower of the Elephant,” there are clear foreshadowings of Smith’s more mature look.

Those earliest issues give us a very young Conan – lithe, boyish (indeed, many of Smith’s ’70s big-hair panels make the character look like the baddest-ass Bee Gee of them all), savage but inexperienced, and as such they make the perfect companion to this new movie, which features a Conan just at the beginning of his incredible career. He’s not yet the preposterous monolith we were given in the last movie adaptation, and let’s hope he never becomes it: the real Conan was far more than a simple strong-man – he’s much more a lion than a bulldozer.

And magnificently sustaining Smith’s evolving visuals was the scripting of Roy Thomas, who took a personal love of the character in Robert E. Howard’s stories and re-created that character and his entire world for a much, much broader readership than Howard had ever reached. Long before the original movie and long after, mention of Conan was as likely to conjure the world Thomas created as visions of Austrian weightlifters. That world, like Howard’s is full of torch-lit taverns and fantastic creatures who’ve survived from even earlier eras in Earth’s troubled history. And more: it was Thomas who perfected the driving tension in the background of Howard’s stories – the tension represented by Conan himself, a mortal man without super-powers who encounters all these fantastic creatures, these stubborn hold-overs from earlier times in which even Conan the Barbarian would not have survived … encounters them, and defeats them. Not for heroism’s sake (Thomas’ Conan, like Howard’s, is usually indifferent to heroism), but because he insists on dominating his own world. As paradoxical as it may seem, this Conan was both a representative of Everyman and an avatar of the ‘modern’ world.

For all his genius, Smith was never cut out for regular comic book series work, and everybody knew it (it’s precisely this quality in his work that makes his frequent forays into the genre so instantly memorable). Luckily, as “Conan the Barbarian” sales blossomed, Thomas was able to acquire an artist who was not only cut out for regular series work but gloried in it, and that artist would go on to create as definitive a visual of Conan as Thomas had created a mental one. That artist of course is the aforementioned John Buscema, and we’ll look at his contribution in our next chapter!

July 29th, 2011

Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza: The First Novels!

Like most Conan fans, I eagerly await the new movie opening on August 19th, and like most Conan fans, I first encountered the character not in Robert E. Howard’s short stories but in the dozen or so novels by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. These novels came out in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had titles like Conan the Warrior and Conan the Adventurer, and featured gorgeous, game-changing cover illustrations by Frank Frazetta (those cover illustration have gone on to far greater post-publication renown than the books themselves, all of which are out of print). Those fabulous covers were guaranteed to pull in readers who were browsing the creaking metal spinner-racks to which sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks were once consigned, but like me, those readers stuck around because the books served up heaping helpings of action and suspense that was long on derring-do and short on contemplative philosophy.

Those novels told a story – one long, multi-chaptered, story of a barbarian youth from Cimmeria (Conan of Cimmeria) who slowly rises in the ranks of mercenary service (Conan the Freebooter, Conan the Wanderer, Conan the Adventurer, Conan the Buccaneer) until he has a chance to become a real power-player (Conan the Warrior, Conan the Usurper, Conan the Conqueror) and eventually claim the throne of an ancient kingdom and rule it while founding a dynasty (Conan the Avenger, Conan of Aquilonia, Conan of the Isles). Along the way, readers got dozens of close shaves, hundreds of buxom maidens, and numberless supernatural lurkers and growlers. But what exactly was it those readers were getting?

Turns out, as we’ve already seen in this series, it wasn’t really Conan, despite the presence of Robert E. Howard’s name on the covers right alongside L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. Those two authors used a premise here or a poem there from the master, but the stories they were spinning were entirely their own, rather unabashedly admitted in several of their introductions, like this one from Conan the Avenger:

The incomplete, open-ended nature of the Conan saga presented an irresistible temptation to add to it as Howard himself might in time have done had he lived. Besides editing unpublished Conan stories, I undertook, in the early 1950s, to rewrite the manuscripts of four other unpublished Howard adventure stories to convert them into Conan stories. This did not prove difficult, since the heroes were very much like Conan, and I had merely to delete anachronisms and introduce a supernatural element.

Of course, the new generation of Conan purists who’ve been doing such spectacular work in the last decade would squint in suppressed rage at the idea of any self-respecting author succumbing to that “irresistible temptation.” There’s a natural grievance when the pastiches are not only claiming provenance equal to the originals (de Camp talks of finding Howard manuscripts in attic boxes and the like) but supplanting those originals in the minds of most readers. especially when those pastiches – like all pastiches – lack the particular zing that gave the originals their immortality. Even at his most hurried, it’s doubtful Howard would have written an exchange like this:

 “What is it, yellow dog?” snarled Zarono, fear making him vicious.

The Stygian turned wild eyes upon him. “A protective spell,” he whispered. “One of very great power. Were any man fool enough to enter the precincts of the temple without the counter-spell, his presence would awaken that which sleeps within.”

“Well? Have you this counter-spell?”

“Thanks be to Father Set, I have. Little is known of the pre-human serpent-men of Valusia. But, from what little I know, I can weave a counter-spell, albeit I cannot maintain it for long.”

“Long enough to loot that black thing, I hope,” growled Zarono. “Best you set about it, man.”

Which isn’t to say these novels don’t contain lots of good stuff – I’ve read my way through the whole set many, many times, and it’s worth remembering that de Camp was a thorough professional with a greater than average share of creative talent quite apart from Howard (Lest Darkness Fall is one priceless hoot of a novel, for instance). In Conan the Avenger, for instance, in a scene where a disguised Conan eggs on the bandit-captain who wronged him earlier (promising to take him to a nifty brothel), we get a glimmer of Conan’s wry sense of humor, something all too often forgotten by pastiche-writers:

“Lead me there, man! I have wandered too long over the cursed desert without a woman.”

“Were you with the party that ambushed the Zuagirs?”

“With them? I commanded them!”

“Good for you!”

“Aye; that was a noble fight. But the only wench in the caravan was a yedka Thanara, may the gods smite her haughty body with boils!”

“She refused you?”

“Worse! She slapped me when I tried to kiss her in her tent!”

“The insolence of her!” said Conan.

But entertainment aside, it’s hard to know what to think of these novels now. Ground-breaking canon-setting work has been done to establish and promote the stripped-down and completely authentic Conan writings of Robert E. Howard himself, and that work casts these novels into a weird limbo in which they look like what perhaps they were: acts of effrontery, desperate lunges to cash in on a boom in sword-and-sorcery fantasy.

It’s the presence of Howard’s name in the title-slot of these books that’s the main problem, I think, and that suggests and easy solution: reprint them in attractive trade-paper omnibuses (like what’s been done so beautifully for Glen Cooks’ “Black Company” books) with de Camp’s and Carter’s names given the prominence they still very much deserve, over some kind of “based on the character created by Robert E. Howard.” Dodgy back-story notwithstanding, these novels are too good to languish out of print – and obviously, they don’t need new covers.

 

July 5th, 2011

Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza: The Stories!

Our 2011 Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza continues! In this instalment, we turn to a Conan-question I’ve been asked many dozens of times over the many decades in which I’ve been recommending this character to readers of high fantasy: where to start? Those readers are confronted with a staggering array of choices – there are movies, TV series, cartoons, novels, and a mountain of comic books, all featuring some creator’s take on Conan.

Until comparatively recently, it’s been a tough question to answer. Of course my first inclination has always been to look to the printed word, but in this regard the character of Conan has had a rough time of it: for decades, while adaptations of the character flourished, there was nothing resembling a ‘canon’ to which I could direct curious readers, short of combing through musty back-bins at misbegotten fantasy conventions in order to find old copies of Weird Tales.

That all changed in 2003 when Ballantine began publishing the original Conan short stories – in their original order and unadulterated form – in a series edited by Patrice Louinet and Rusty Burke. While being as diplomatic as possible, Louinet makes the key, clobbering point about those ‘adaptations’ that flooded the market in the 1970s:

While there is nothing inherently wrong with establishing a character’s “biography,” no Sherlock Holmes scholar ever entertained the idea of repackaging Conan Doyle’s original stories in the order of their occurrence in Holmes’ life rather than in the order in which they were written, or inserting pastiches amidst the established canon. This was, however, exactly what was done with the Conan stories; not only were they presented following someone else’s reconstruction of the character’s “biography,” but pastiches of arguable quality (to say the least) were interpolated among Howard’s tales.

Robert E. Howard wrote a great many stories for the burgeoning pulp market, including a long slate of stories for Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright. Howard usually wrote quickly, and he was perfectly willing to take a rejected story, pull it apart, and stitch it back together along other lines. He’d already given Wright two of his most famous creations – Kull the Conqueror and Solomon Kane – when in 1932 he introduced the character of Conan in “The Phoenix on the Sword” (itself a re-worked version of an earlier Kull story), and it’s a sign of how completely Conan was later co-opted by other writers that most readers, taking up that first story, would hardly recognize the Conan they think they know. We meet the world’s most famous barbarian as an old and weary king, worn down not by wizards and warriors but by paperwork and legislation. It’s only in the course of the story that he’s forced by events to shake off his civilized veneer and awaken his inner barbarian – it’s an intensely satisfying short story, full of gaudy violence and laconic reflections on the dubious value of polite society, but it features a Conan most fans would never visualize.

Howard’s own vision of Conan matured rapidly in the next couple of years. Instead of simply churning out more Conan stories in response to the sudden popularity of the character (well, instead of only doing that – Howard’s partisans sometimes overlook the fact that, for deadline and money, he himself often produced “pastiches of arguable quality”), he began to conceive an entire world in which those stories could take place, a highly-detailed world full of semi-mythical kingdoms and fantastic creatures, a world in which a man (and more than a few warrior-women) could fight with sorcerors, battle prehistoric monsters, and topple corrupt kingdoms – if his arms were strong enough and his nerve never faltered.

That world unfolded gradually, and Howard wrote his stories as extremely varied, almost random, glimpses of it all, seen from different times in Conan’s life and different stages in his career. Thief, freebooter, mercenary, warlord, king – this is only a settled, linear progression in later reconstructions. In Howard’s original view, we encounter Conan at many various points along his life, not necessarily in neat chronological order.

That view is magnificently restored in these three Ballantine volumes, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, The Bloody Crown of Conan, and The Conquering Sword of Conan. Here, for the first time, readers get all of Howard’s original stories in their original order, in three handsome trade paperbacks. And if that weren’t boon enough, the volumes are lavishly illustrated (in the manner of the late, lamented pulps): the first by Mark Schultz, the second by Gary Gianni, and the third by Gregory Manchess.

In these three books, we thrill again to the greatest Conan stories, “Red Nails,” “Beyond the Black River,” “Black Colossus,” “The Tower of the Elephant,” and “The Queen of the Black Coast,” featuring Conan’s own summary of his life’s philosophy:

Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion, I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

It remains to be seen whether or not the new Hollywood movie coming on 19 August will do justice to that philosophy, this character, and these wonderful, full-throttle stories. In one sense, it’s unlikely: the one thing Conan never quite is in any of his various original stories is a hero – not in the disinterested, altruistic style so common to Hollywood incarnations. True, he rescues damsels from monsters – but he usually then beds them, whether they’re enthusiastic about it or not. True, he beheads pompous, oily villains – but usually because they’ve refused to pay him. He’s a murderous soul, mostly motivated by greed, lust, and revenge (all things Howard considered more ‘primal’ – and therefore more pure – than the emasculating ‘civilization’ he affected to hate so much). If the Conan in this upcoming movie leaps into peril without hope of profit, we’ll know we’ve got another pastiche on our hands.

But if he doesn’t – if, through the eye-opening special effects and the director’s restraint and actor Jason Momoa’s portrayal (he’s easily got the ability to do it – the question is whether or not it’ll be in his script), we actually get the ‘real’ Conan up on the screen – well, that’ll be cause for grog-quaffing celebration indeed. Because editor Louinet has an excellent point: it’s a pretty damning case of nervy effrontery that this character has been so consistently censored from the reading public. True, movies usually traduce their pulp heroes into unrecognizable states (see the execrable Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes movie, or the complete absence of an accurate Tarzan movie, or the upcoming “Three Musketeers” movie featuring dirigibles), but surely this need not always be so, especially in our extra-cynical, post-heroic age? In the recent, fan-acclaimed TV adaptation of Game of Thrones, Momoa expertly plays a character closely modelled on Conan – and there was no last-minute melting into simple heroism. Surely it’s time for a movie to have the courage of its small-screen cousins?

We’ll have to wait a couple of months to see, but in the meantime, our Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza will continue!

June 6th, 2011

Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza: The Saga Begins!

As some of you will already know, August 2011 marks the return of Conan the Barbarian to the movie screens of the world, in a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza starring Jason Momoa in the role that Arnold Schwarzenegger made famous.

Conan fans will rejoice at any new attention their beloved character receives, but science fiction fans are, let’s strain a couple of euphemisms here, long-memoried and detail-oriented, and they’ve already raised a squawk-storm of objections to the new movie, mostly based on the fact that the 70-year-old Schwarzenegger isn’t playing the title role. Glance at any of the innumerable comments-fields-for-idiots out there in the wilds of the Internet, and you’ll immediately see quotes like “It just isn’t Conan without Arnie.” This makes about as much sense as saying “It just isn’t Tarzan without Elmo Lincoln,” but sci-fi fans aren’t exactly known for the sense they make.

A more telling objections is that in the trailers for the movie, Conan sometimes appears to be lapsing into Hollywood hero-mode: opposing tyranny because he loves freedom, saving damsels because he espouses a pre-Cambrian style of chivalry, etc. I agree: this would be bad. But it’s what a great many movie-goers will expect for their $20, and it occurs to me that a main reason for this expectation will be the public’s unfamiliarity with the character. When most people think “shirtless barbarian,” they picture Matthew McConaughey. At the end of their $200 million special effects display, they expect a plush toy who maybe grumbles from time to time.

The real character is radically different from such a conception. The way Robert E. Howard wrote him in the original stories he sold to Farnsworth Wright’s Weird Tales in the early 1930s, Conan is as far away from being a simpering do-gooder as you can get: he’s a thief, a slayer of men, an indomitable opportunist who comes from the barbarian hinterland of Cimmeria and takes Howard’s Hyborian Age by storm. He’s Howard’s answer to what he saw as the emasculating tendency of his era – a giant who makes no apologies for his appetites and angers, a man who is a force of nature. In his ground-breaking debut story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard sets out a proem that perfectly summarizes the character:

“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

Howard was an excessive writer – the pulp market he supplied demanded it – but he had a way with quick phrases as well, and that summary says a great deal more than it appears to … and it mentions nothing about heroism. It mentions mirth (the Austrian Executioner model is an invention of the Schwarzenegger movie), but it doesn’t mention a freakishly-dimensioned body-builder. In Howard’s stories, Conan is most often likened to a panther, not one of the statues at Easter Island. This is just the first of many reasons why Momoa is a better choice for playing the character as Howard actually wrote him, and it’s a cause for hope that the people creating this movie intend to bring the character back to its sword-and-sorcery roots.

In tribute to that character – and the immense amount of creativity it and its supporting fantasy-world have inspired in lots of other creators over the last 80 years – I’ll be doing periodic entries here on Stevereads in the ramp-up to the movie, starting something I’ve praised here before: the absolutely stunning “Issue 0″ prologue writer Kurt Busiek and artist Cary Nord gave the character back in 2004. They thought up a setting for Howard’s “Know, O Prince” introduction – a bored prince of a much later era discovers a toppled old statue of Conan and instructs his vizier to learn all he can about this mysterious barbarian from a bygone era. It’s a quick, utterly masterful introduction to the character and the world that sprang from Howard’s hard-working imagination.

In that world, the fabled realm of Atlantis has already sunk beneath the waves, but the ancient civilizations we know from history have yet to arise; it’s a brilliant stroke of plotting on Howard’s part, since it allows him to situate his fantasy-realm squarely in the world of Earth as we know it, but it also frees him to warp that world just as he pleases, introducing supernatural horrors and pre-historic beasts and beast-men who’ve survived in the corners of Conan’s world (but of course won’t survive into recorded history. The key to the appeal of this set-up is its simplicity: for every pseudo-mythical creepy-crawly Howard and his successors get to invent, they also get to haul in something we know from our ‘Life on Earth’ textbooks – cave-bears, pterodactyls, dinosaurs, etc.

And through all that stalks Conan himself, sword and axe at the ready. Half the joy of the Conan character is watching him take what he wants from the world he finds outside his dark Cimmerian valleys, and we’ll just have to hope that something of such a scenario is preserved in this new Hollywood movie (can you imagine if it were all preserved? If just this once, a big-budget major-release movie featured a main character just exactly like this original Conan? A figure noteworthy for the honest enormities of his rages and lusts, rather than for his last-minute conversion to altruism?). The ‘real’ Conan makes later nominal anti-heroes like Wolverine look like Girl Scouts, and it would be refreshing to see something of that character up on the big screen.

But even if that doesn’t happen, we still get a major movie (and Jay Momoa gets the break into A-list status that he so richly deserves! “Conan”‘s casting directors have picked one of the gentlest-soul’d human beings on Earth to play this merciless barbarian freebooter, and who knows but there might be magic in that contradiction?), and here at Stevereads we get a chance to delve into the riches of the character and its various interpretations throughout the decades. We’ll start next time with the stories themselves!