The Canon of Conan

A column article by: Zack Davisson

Ah, another Conan movie. It has been a long time. I haven't seen the film yet, but from all reports it looks like they got it wrong…again. So another generation will grow up thinking they know Conan when all they know is a cheap knock-off. Just like Sherlock Holmes…

Conan and Sherlock Holmes

I have always thought that Conan has a lot in common with Sherlock Holmes. You don't think so? Maybe not in terms of personality, but in a more meta-sense, they share several bonds. Both Conan and Sherlock Holmes were created by men who are better known as "Creator of…" than as writers in their own right (Quick! Name another Sir Arthur Conan Doyle character! Can you do it?). Both Conan and Holmes are extraordinarily well known by a mass of people who have probably never read their original adventures. And in consequence, both characters have a literary image and a popular image. But for each character, those two images are almost opposites of each other.

The Sherlock Holmes the general populace knows -- he of the plaid deerstalker hat and cape, calabash pipe, fat and bumbling assistant Dr. Watson, and occasional retorts of "Elementary, my dear Watson" -- does not exist in the original Doyle stories. Likewise, the Conan the public know -- the muscle-bound, violent, sword-swinging, loincloth-wearing, "crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women" grunting oaf -- does not appear in the original Robert E. Howard stories. The true Conan is an intelligent, instinctual, primal figure; a complex, multi-layered individual who can establish ranks and lead armies into battle as well as grapple bare-handed with some beast from the dawn of time. Far from a mindless, violent brute, Conan is decisive but not cruel. He may kill men but rarely if ever goes out of his way to hurt them. He would never keep or be kept as a slave, nor would he take a woman against her will (though he has no problem buying one). He loves a good joke, and his oft-repeated credo (but not by Conan, who only said it once) of "I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content" can be seen as analogous to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

Pastiche and Canon

I blame pastiche for this disparity. Both Holmes and Conan were too popular to be contained by their original stories. Howard and Doyle just didn't write enough to satisfy the audiences' huge appetite for their characters.

And when both Howard and Doyle were conveniently dead, other, lesser writers were happy to step in and start cranking out schlock; the end result is that you have many more thousands of words of un-authentic Holmes and Conan stories than you have authentic one penned by the men who understood them best. And to add to the confusion, Hollywood and television has distorted things even further and with greater impact.

Holmes fans have always dealt with this neatly. They make a distinction between The Canon, the true Holmes, versus the numerous imitators. With Conan, defining The Canon has been more difficult.

Due to complicated copyright complications (that I admit I don't entirely understand), the unedited and unadulterated Robert E. Howard Conan stories were not available in the U.S. until 2003. I only had a set earlier because I ordered them from the U.K. where copyright laws differ. The Conan most people know comes either from Hollywood or from the series L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter edited. Alongside Howard's original stories, Carter and de Camp published their own Conan stories and adaptations under Robert E. Howard's name. Carter and de Camp sometimes took uncompleted fragments by Howard and finished the story for him, or they rewrote non-Conan Howard characters, changing the names and settings so that they were all Conan. If you picked up a Conan book prior to 2003, chances are you were only getting a percentage of true Howard. And thus, a different Conan.

For the most part, comic book writers stuck closer to Howard's Conan than any other adaptation or pastiche. And the closer an adaptation is to Robert E. Howard's Conan, the better it is.

Roy Thomas deserves most of the credit for this. A devout Howard fan, Thomas worked hard to ensure that the Marvel Comics 1970 Conan the Barbarian comic was as true to the originals as the Comics Code Authority would allow. Thomas had the perfect partner in Barry Windsor-Smith, and together, they adapted several of Howard's stories to comics. Most importantly, they kept true to the tone and characterization of Howard's Conan. Unfortunately, Windsor-Smith's run on Conan the Barbarian was not long-lived.

In 1974, Thomas was able to break away from the Comics Code Authority with the magazine Savage Sword of Conan. With artists John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala, Thomas adapted Howard's stories even more directly, including the sex and violence prohibited by the Code. This black-and-white magazine remains one of the high points for Conan in comics.

Marvel had a good run with Conan. Conan the Barbarian lasted for 275 issues, ending in 1993, and Savage Sword of Conan ran for 235 issues, ending in 1995. Like many stories that drag on too long, the series never really lived up to its glory days of the original Roy Thomas collaborations with Windsor-Smith and Buscema, but the series was (almost) always essentially true to Howard's creation.

In 2003, Dark Horse Comics took over the Conan license and produced some magnificent series. Writer Kurt Busiek stuck even closer to Howard's original stories, and created story arcs based on some of Howard's most famous Conan adventures. Busiek also had the perfect collaborators in artist Gary Nord, who drew the Hyborian world with a cinematic splendor, and colorist Dave Stewart, whose magical coloring was the perfect complement to Nord's art. Busiek stamped his permanent mark on Howard's mythos by introducing us to the first time to the Prince from the famous stanza "Know, O Prince…"

Nothing so good lasts forever, and Busiek and Nord eventually left Conan in the hands of writer Tim Truman and artist Tom Giorello. The duo continued the formula of adapting and filling in Howard's original stories, and while they have had some success, they haven't quite lived up to the promise of Busiek, Nord, and Stewart.

Creating Good Conan Adaptations

Sherlock Holmes had a singular, spectacular, note-perfect adaptation -- one worthy of officially being added to The Canon. The 1980-nantoka Granada TV series starring Jeremy Brett remains the gold standard by which all adaptations are judged, and all true Holmes fans will have a copy in their library. (Except of course, the episode about the vampire…we don't like to talk about that one.)

Conan has not been so lucky. I have a soft spot for the 1983 Arnold Schwarzenegger flick -- even though I will be the first to admit that it isn't a true Howard adaptation. Or even close to one. For all of its flaws, the film stands head and shoulders above later drek like the sequel Conan the Destroyer, or the TV series, or the various children's cartoons. Hollywood and television have traditionally treated Conan poorly.

With Conan, out of all of the numerous novels, TV series, and films, the only genre that really got it right was comic books, specifically the Roy Thomas/Windsor-Smith/Buscema runs and the Busiek/Nord series. Out of everything, those are the only series worthy of being added to the Canon of Conan, able to sit on a bookshelf with pride next to Howard's original volumes.

And the sad thing is, it really isn't all that hard to get Conan adaptations right. The blueprints are all there. The world and characters are laid out in full. You just need to remember a simple formula. The amount of Robert E. Howard in each adaptation is directly proportionate to how good the project will be. 10% Robert E. Howard = 10 % Good. 90% Robert E. Howard = 90% good. If you are planning a Conan adaptation, and follow that simple rule, you are guaranteed a good product.

Now go read a Robert E. Howard Conan book!

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