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Late Night With Conan O’Barbarian

March 21st, 2008

I’m in the midst of rediscovering Conan, the bronze-thewed barbarian hero created by Robert E. Howard. On a whim, I’d picked up the first trade paperback collection of Conan comics from Marvel’s old black-and-white magazine The Savage Sword of Conan. I’d read Marvel’s regular color Conan comic book for some years back in the day, but never bought the magazine (which, as it didn’t have to adhere to the Comics Code, featured more graphic content). I found myself enthralled by the book and its heady mixture of gut-spilling action, palace intrigues and mostly-naked wenches. Roy Thomas, who was responsible for Marvel’s involvement with the character, did a helluva job adapting Howard’s stories and adding his own.

Here’s a choice page from the book: a surprisingly well-timed bit of humor. (Yes, it’s a bit misogynistic, especially the last line, but in context of the story it’s not undeserved.)

I’m not certain how I first encountered Conan. I saw both of the feature films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger on their initial release. (Who’d’ve thunk that Conan the Barbarian would’ve had such a profound influence on California politics?) I also owned at least some of the popular paperbacks, which I’ve subsequently learned were barbarously rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp. And, as I mentioned, I read the comics for years, mostly during the long period featuring the pirate queen Belit. (Belit appeared in only one Howard story, but Thomas took advantage of a gap in its chronology to greatly extend her involvement in the title.) I’m not certain why I started buying them; it may have simply been part of my Dungeons and Dragons phase. However, I do recall that Conan was the one comic I followed that my mom also read. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve pondered the implications of that.

After plowing through the first volume of The Savage Sword of Conan, I decided to go back to the source material and purchased one of the newer trade paperbacks of Howard’s original texts. I have not been disappointed.

One thing that has struck me about the short stories is just how much they have in common with the horror work of H.P. Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft were contemporaries and correspondents, and it’s obvious that Howard started off aping him, especially whenever he refers to “cyclopean ruins” and “the nighted gulfs of space.” (However, so far in my reading he has yet to use the words “rugose” or “squamous.”) While Conan’s foes are often giant snakes or ape-like creatures, a great many of them are straight from the Cthulhu playbook: shapeless horrors derived from degenerate civilizations or from beyond the stars. However, Howard is a much better wordsmith than Lovecraft, and he does a terrific job bringing the lusty Hyborian world to life.

Conan himself is a curious figure. Make no mistake, he’s a mercenary, a thief and murderer a thousand times over, but he also adheres to a moral code and inevitably defends the weak against the strong. It’s also clear that Howard sees his barbarism as morally superior to the behavior of so-called civilized men. But man, you do not want to piss him off. As Howard notes in “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

I’m about halfway through the first short story collection, and have waiting for me a second volume of The Savage Sword of Conan. By Crom!

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