Wednesday, September 5, 2012

His Character Precedes Him

I was visiting my local Lone Star Comic Book shop today, picking up the zero issues of my favorite DC New 52 hero comic books. While waiting to check out there was a guy at the opposite register checking out at the same time. The cashier and this guy struck up a conversation about Conan comic books. My ears perked when I heard the name Conan. The cashier and the customer began comparing notes about what they enjoyed about the character Conan and the various line of Conan comic books.

They began chatting about the recent line of Conan the Barbarian comics published by Dark Horse (Wood, Harren & Stewart). Nearly in unison they launched into a formal laud of the series. I cringed inside because personally I'm not fond of it. I think the artist (Becky Cloonan) ruined the character by making him look like something from a Manga book. After a few seconds the customer mentioned the name, Robert E. Howard. He declared that he had been looking for a particular work since the early 90s, unfortunately I did not hear the name of the work. At this point the cashier at the register where I was checking out told me my total and I handed him my payment. I had every intent of asking the other customer a few questions about his interest in Conan and Robert E. Howard, but by the time I paid for my items and looked up, he was gone. So I simply left the store thinking about the situation.

This circumstance is not new to me. I'm used to the fact that a single character of one of my favorite writers precedes his own reputation. REH is not the only author who suffers from this. He joins the ranks of several greats such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (e.g. Sherlock Holmes) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (e.g. Tarzan). This being the case, I'm used to people knowing who Conan is but not really knowing about other REH characters. Now, I'm not saying this particular customer fell into that category of knowledge, but hearing his discussion made me think about the character Conan in the larger scope of culture.

In my experience, many Conan fans know that Robert E. Howard is Conan's creator, but few know that Conan was merely one small character in Howard's repertoire. Howard's other characters always pale by comparison. There have also been times when I have asked various Conan fans if they were aware that Howard wrote westerns, or ghost stories, etc. This is usually followed by stunned disbelief. It's this stunned disbelief that has constantly reminded me that Conan's reputation will probably always precede Robert E. Howard's. I have to admit that it was via REH's character Conan that I was introduced to the writer behind the character.

Because of this phenomenon Conan is a bittersweet character for me. While I like Conan, he is certainly not my favorite Howard character. But, his cultural popularity is overwhelming with three movies, tons of comic books, several television shows, action figures, video games, and loads of books. And even though much of what I listed above has in various ways distorted Howard's most popular character, the phenomenon of this character remains.

Personally, I've come to view Conan as Howard's "gateway" character. It is through Conan that perhaps someone who would otherwise not know about REH can be introduced. But, it is also necessary to take that introduction a step further. To me it's a given that if someone enjoys Conan they will more than likely enjoy a few of Howard's other characters. Also, the fact that Conan is so popular at least keeps REH's name in the general public, such as the discussion I heard today at Lone Star Comics. But this does have a downside—as I mentioned above, Conan is bittersweet for me. In my experience, Conan has also caused people to develop a stereotypical view about Howard's writing based on this one character. I've heard many tell me that REH only writes stuff like Conan, wild barbaric characters who do nothing but womanize and destroy. Granted this is not even a good description of Conan, but as mentioned earlier, larger culture is being fed a particular character through various media. Sadly, Howard has written so much more than Conan, but due to current cultural manifestations of this one character, all of REH's writings tend to get lumped into this genre. Another reason why I attempt to spread the word about the genuine diversity of Howard's work.

Mentioning Howard's westerns, ghost stories, boxing stories, and even his poetry is something I always try to do. It was the very thing I wanted to do while at Lone Star Comics this morning. I'm always glad to hear people discuss Conan, but I'm always happier if I know they understand that there is way more to REH than this one character. Had I had the opportunity to discuss Conan and REH with the guy at the comic shop this morning, I wanted to ask him if he'd heard of other REH characters. Additionally, anytime I run across someone who enjoys Conan in light of cultural experiences such as the movies or comics, I invariably tell them about Paul M. Sammon's book.

When Sammon's book was published in 2007 I was beside myself. Here was a book that took the cultural phenomenon of Howard's character and placed him in a correct light. Moreover, Sammon gave his reader a proper history of Howard and how Conan has been viewed and "used" culturally over the past five or so decades. This was a godsend for me and my encounters with culturally minded Conan fans. And, to this day I always recommend this book.

Given the fact that Conan will always be in the spotlight amongst all of REH's characters, my lesson from this is to merely use that to introduce the real Robert E. Howard and other Howard characters. As I have said a million times, Howard's writing is so much more than merely one character.


Steve Miller said...

Like many others, I came to Robert E. Howard from secondary sources. In my case, it was the Conan comic books... graphic novel reprints of the early Thomas/Windsor-Smith issues. My very favorite Marvel Comics's period of Conan was in the late 1980s with Jim Owlsy writing and John Buscema drawing the stories. Those still remain my favorites, although the material reprinted in Dark Horse's "Savage Sword of Conan" Vols. 4 and 5 comes close to replacing them. I similarly have a love of the Louise Simonsen scripted Red Sonja series--the one where she ditched the bikini manufactured from silver dollars.

But when it comes to actual Howard fiction, the Conan stories are way down the list when it comes to listing favorites. I love the comics inspired by them, but I am generally only luke-warm on the original sources.

I enjoy the Solomon Kane stories. I adore the King Kull stories. I absolutely LOVE the comedic action of the Steve Costigan and Breckinridge Elkins stories. And the cinematic power of the mass combat scenes in Howard's historical fictions blow my socks off every time.

I wish everyone who appreciates Conan comic books or movies and then decides to check out the original sources would move onto other material Howard did, because so much of it is so good.

These days, it's even available for free online at the Gutenberg Project... although over the past year I've been making an effort to make the stories available in a somewhat more organized fashion, in low-cost PDF anthologies (with proper ebooks to follow, once I find a decent processor). I would very much like Howard to be moved out of the footnote status of "originated the sword and sorcery sub-genre" and into his proper place of respect among America's great authors.

I may be preaching to the converted here, but in case someone HASN'T looked at Howard beyond Conan, I encourage you to take a look at The passing of Robert E. Howard and what he left behind, which lists some of the anthologies I've produced through NUELOW Games.

Or you can go straight to

(And I hope our kind host doesn't think I'm trying to spam his blog. I really am just trying to "spread the gospel." :) )

Todd B. Vick said...

Hello Steve,

You declared, "I would very much like Howard to be moved out of the footnote status of "originated the sword and sorcery sub-genre" and into his proper place of respect among America's great authors."

There are efforts currently in progress to have that very thing occur.

And, like you I too love the Solomon Kane tales and Steve Costigan stories. Cheers!

Taranaich said...

I can identify, Todd: that thrill of hearing someone mention Conan, followed by the guarded "wait, are they talking about Ahnold or, you know, the original Conan?" It's rarely the original Conan, and if it is, it's usually through the lens of '60s/'70s/'80s nostalgia for Frazetta and Vallejo covers. That's fine, but it's also an exceedingly small view of Conan, let alone Howard.

Wood's Conan is definitely a mixed bag. As an adaptation, I feel it has a lot to be desired, yet at the same time, Wood's clearly gotten SOME things right. I just wish he could've gotten those things right, and combined them with the things Roy Thomas got right in the Marvel run. As it is, I'm concerned that anyone seeking to read the original stories may feel a dissonance between what they read in Wood's comic, and what Howard wrote. I'm sure some will find Wood's take superior. But it's very much Wood's creation inspired by Howard, not Howard's creation as interpreted by Wood, if you get me.

Todd B. Vick said...

Al, it is rarely the original Conan. But, alas, what's a fellow to do? Wood's Conan is a mixed back for me too, he's hit and miss. I'll read it, but I do not prefer it. Thanks for the insights. Cheers!