Conan the Carbarian

     The recent Conan the Barbarian movie, though I haven’t yet seen it, has
caused me to recall my own relationship with the Conan character. (Eh, not that kind of
relationship.) So now it’s time for you to be bound, gagged, and dragged along on one
of my voyages down memory lane. Stockholm Syndrome, anyone?

Conan — Years 1969-1974

     I was born decades after the death of Conan creator Robert E. Howard. He killed
himself in 1936. I first became aware of Conan through the anthologies edited and
added to by writers L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, published beginning in 1966
by Lancer Books (and continued by Ace Books after Lancer’s demise).

     These editions
had gorgeous cover paintings by Frank Frazetta. My recollection is that I was first drawn
in by the cover for Conan of Cimmeria, illustrating “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” but I
could be wrong — that paperback is long lost from my library (it fell apart from re-reading ca. 1980).

Books, Books, Books

     Which brings me to a side road branching from Memory Lane.

     I bought Conan of Cimmeria and a vast number of other SF&F paperbacks at a
bookstore in Denton, TX, called Fultz’s News Stand.

     Fultz’s, despite its name, had far more books than magazines, most of them laid
out in sturdy standup wire racks, face-out. It also had slightly uneven, creaky wooden
floors. The whole place was suffused with the smell of pulp paper. In the back along the
right side was, by the standards of the 1960s, an extensive science fiction and
fantasy section.

     At Fultz’s, at various points in my childhood and teen years (my family moved
around quite a bit prior to the early 1970s), I harvested Ace Doubles, got to know the
Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, accumulated Heinlein juveniles, and was floored by
covers by Frank Frazetta and Jim Steranko, not to mention the contents under those
lovely pieces of art.

     Fultz’s is long gone, but I remember bits and pieces of it with crystal clarity. Nor
am I the only one. From time to time I run into others who lived in Denton, many of
them one-time students at North Texas State University or Texas Women’s University
(which later mated to form UNT, the University of North Texas), and they all seem to
remember Fultz’s, generally with wistful appreciation.

     But, yes, I digress.

Back to Our Story

     Anyway, I bought those Lancer editions of the Conan saga, read them, enjoyed
them. Not long afterward, Marvel Comics acquired the rights to do comic books based
on the Conan character. In 1970, they released the first issue of Conan the Barbarian,
with art by Barry Smith (later called Barry Windsor-Smith) and words by Roy Thomas.
The Smith/Thomas collaboration worked quite well, and the early issues of the title were
eerie and memorable. Smith’s version of Conan, except for the dopey horned helmet he
wore, closely matched my mental image of the character, and the version of Red Sonja
introduced later in the series visually made a lot more sense than the chain-mail-bikini
creature the character eventually became.

     But Barry Smith left the series and was replaced by John Buscema. Buscema
was a good artist, but his interpretation of Conan was different — bigger, more massive,
more glowering, more brooding. In the comic book and especially with the debut of its
black-and-white, magazine-sized sister publication, The Savage Sword of Conan, the
character seemed to become more silent and insular.

     I didn’t like him as much. Eventually I stopped buying the comics. But the
popularity of the two titles increased throughout the decade.

     Which brings me to the whole point of this post.

Bigger and More Sullen Is Better?

     The Conan of the comics did, in fact, turn into someone who could be
appropriately portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1982 film, Conan the
Barbarian
. And it took me a while to figure out why a more sullen, less interactive
Conan would become more popular with fans than the lithe, more vulnerable version of
the early issues.

     Here’s my theory:

Conan became a car.

     No, bear with me. Let’s say that you’re a teenage boy, pimply and
disenfranchised, full of rage at the way the world treats you, desperate to be attractive
to girls. And you are convinced by the advertising geniuses of Madison Avenue that if
you climb into the right sports car, you can cruise around, outrace your enemies (who,
obviously, drive lesser cars), and pick up girls even though you don’t quite know how to
talk to them. The sex appeal of your wheels will do all the work for you.

     Similarly, from the perspective of that teenage-boy demographic, Conan would
cruise to a new place, kill everyone who gave him back talk, and pick up chicks without
even needing to talk to them
. It’s that last bit that makes him superior to many other
iconic characters of the 1960s and 1970s. Sure, James Bond could have any woman
he wanted, but he still had to talk to them — to say actual words that would initiate the
seduction process. Conan just had to flex, and every teenage boy knows how to flex.

     So that version of Conan was a car. A muscle car, obviously.

Jason Voorhees, Defender of Justice

     This conclusion, in turn, led me years later to think about Jason Voorhees — the murderous
maniac of the Friday the 13th movie series. (Though, curiously, he wasn’t even the killer in two of them. But again I digress.) The same sort of reasoning leads to a
possible explanation for Jason’s popularity. He’s not a car, but he stands in for the rage
of disenfranchised teenage boys, and he does this by killing everyone who makes them
unhappy.

     Officious camp counselors, local sheriffs and deputies? Authority figures. Stand-ins for parents, in fact. One chop and they’re down. Pretty but snotty girls? Chop. The
handsome guys who get the pretty but snotty girls (instead of you)? Chop.

     Who survives until the end of the movie? The likeable, not-snotty girl who might
give you a chance some day. So it is at that point in the movies, over and over again,
that (sadly) Jason must be put down — before he kills the one nice girl who might show
you the time of day.

     I’ve heard fans of the Friday the 13th series complain bitterly that Jason X was
the worst movie of the series. (This is the series entry that takes place a couple of
centuries in the future; Jason is found in cryosuspension and thawed out, and naturally
goes on another murderous rampage.) These fans get emotional on the subject, as if
they were personally betrayed by that movie.

     Well, they wre. Jason X did the unforgivable. It presented the viewers with a
cast of interesting, mostly likeable characters, the majority of whom did not represent
the traditional tormenters of the teenage boy — and then killed them one by one. Never
mind that the movie’s acting, production values, and dialogue were generally head and
shoulders above those of other entries in the series: Jason killed the wrong people.

     Thank heavens he got back to killing all the right people when the series was
rebooted. Right?

Iconic or Ironic

     So, anyway, Conan has become a car and Jason Voorhees has become a
defender of the little guy.

     I will get around to seeing the new Conan movie and its sequels, if any. I hear
that Jason Momoa does a good job and presents a more pantherish, thiefly, Robert E.
Howard-esque Conan.

     Now we need another series relaunch to wash the taste of the 1997 Kull the
Conquerer
out of our minds.

Last Thoughts

     The novelization of the new Conan movie is by Michael A. Stackpole. I’m glad
Mike got that assignment. He shares with me an appreciation of the pulp writers of the
1930s and the characters they created. And though I haven’t read his novelization yet, I
suspect that he did not portray Conan as a car.

6 thoughts on “Conan the Carbarian

  1. I’ve read the novelization and it was solid. It felt like the hyborian age. The end, saddled with the silly visual gimmicks was the only point the story broke down. Michael has said he is going to do two or three more, and I’m really looking forward to what he does free of the movie script.
    Strangely, the closest thing to a Conan movie I’ve seen is the Riddick movies. Put pitch black on a ship and a haunted island and you’ve got a Conan story. Chronicles of Riddick is the story of his ascension to the throne, all seen through a much different prism, but closer than any of the actual movies based on REH have gotten.

  2. Aaron, I too read the pulp era Conan, thanks to my dad who was a great Howard fan. Thanks for such an interesting take on the evolution of his character. I see him as a Cobra SS.

  3. Yes, I enjoyed reading the Conan books and comics through my teens. Barry Smith’s art was beautiful. Never much was into Franzetta’s work, although I always respected his obvious skill.

  4. This is a really interesting post, thank you, Aaron. I first encountered Conan when my father bought copies of ‘Conan the Adventurer’ and Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’ for me when I was sick with some childhood illness. I’ve been hooked ever since. I only recently read the Marvel incarnations in the Dark Horse reprints. The new film seems to owe much more to these, I thought, than to Howard’s work. And its narrative seems patterned very much like that of a computer game – episodic levels, bosses and even a platform sequence. Mike Stackpole’s novelization is much better, though Momoa is a creditable Conan.

  5. I wonder if Fultz’s was still around when I began attending the University of North Texas in 1987. There was an old newsstand and bookstore on the county square that ended up renting videos.

    Although I like the story that TWU and NTSU made a baby that became UNT, TWU is independent of all other state colleges in Texas. NTSU simply adopted the new name UNT (though campus radio station KNTU did not change its call letters for some reason).

    • You probably are indeed remembering Fultz’s. If I remember correctly, it was on the east bank of storefronts facing the courthouse. I’m told that, later, the address became an antiques mall or something similar.

      My mistake about TWU. I haven’t lived in Denton since 1979, and had been told that TWU and NTSU had merged. Toward the end of the years when I was living there, you could take courses at TWU toward an NTSU degree plan, and vice versa, and rumor had it that they would be merging some day.

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