Oh, how I remember reading the Conan books of my youth! The mighty warrior we first see as a youth fleeing his captors, falls into a cave (or tomb), finds his mighty sword, and then sets out to conquer the Hyborrian Age! Other than knowing he’s a Cimmerian and worships a grim and wrathful god named Crom, I never really knew much about him, especially his younger years. I did go on to read probably a half dozen novels of Conan’s Chronicles, but his younger years were still very vague. I think that was purposefully done by Robert E Howard so he, or others, could embellish the legend afterwards to tie into new storylines. His story is in many ways like that of Marvel’s Wolverine. They are warriors with dark pasts. They seem to know everyone and have been everywhere. Everywhere they go, they are welcomed by friends and feared by adversaries. While rugged by nature and possessing that stare, wanting someone to make trouble just so they can vent some of their hurts, they always seem to know the right thing to do and don’t have a problem doing whatever unsorted thing it might be!
The Conan I Remember
The Conan I remember is more of a true barbarian who was indeed naïve of the “ways of men” but certainly was no “country bumpkin.” He almost instinctively understood the ways of the natural world and the rules of combat and war. Due to his “barbarian” status, he had not been schooled in the ways of people who lived in cities because the Cimmerians were more of a nomadic people. He was a kind of early literary “cowboy-wanderer” type of figure. A man of his own morals who didn’t have any qualms about standing up for himself and others, Conan had been everywhere, seen everything, and was feared or, at least respected by all! He was sort of like a Flash Gordon (the not-so-intelligent athletic type always at odds with some sort of magician, sorcerer, or something) crossed with a Wolverine (a warrior without the sentimentality of a left-wing liberal)!
Conan of Dark Horse
When a recent set of review books became available to us SBC reviewers, I willingly jumped on the new Conan series by Dark Horse. I had heard such high praise that I just had to take a look. I was sent issues #15-17. Issue #15 was a recollection from Conan’s youth when he became a man of his tribe after saving one of his fellow tribesmen from certain death by killing the leader of a wolf pack with his bare hands. The last two issues were a tale of when Conan has come from Cimmeria into the “civilized lands” and was given quite an education about the ways of men. Basically, he gets drunk, some women take his money, he goes after them, runs into some old demons attached to a dead sorcerer who needs his body, steals a few trinkets in the next town, makes back his money and then goes back to the tavern where he got taken advantage of and busts a few heads.
I can’t really say that I like the artwork in this series, even though Nord satisfactorily depicts emotion and movement very well. (Besides, who can go wrong with perfect women walking around in sheer gossamer fabric material draped upon their otherwise nude figures!?) I guess it’s not a “mechanics” thing that I have trouble with but more of the aesthetic qualities. The storyline does move right along, but I found myself almost not being able to relate to the character because he doesn’t seem like the Conan from Howard’s books, the various movies, and Marvel’s comics. It’s definitely not a bad couple of stories. In fact, these are far from it. I guess, Busiek is really trying to “show off” his writing ability with foreshadowing, different POVs, history interacting with the current timeline, etc. It probably doesn’t help that I haven’t read a single Conan book in over 20 years, and my “image” of Conan could very well be faulty.
Conan of Marvel Comics
Even some 20 years after receiving the issue, I can remember how Conan defeated a giant spider, reminiscent of the spider in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. He was a larger-than-life figure who was able to use his might, his sword, and his instinct to get the job done. He rode from kingdom to kingdom with the soul of a warrior trying to make his fortune any way he could. Well, I’m so obsessive about getting the details right, I scoured the comic stores and bought a couple of issues that looked interesting. (I’m still kicking myself for not holding onto the last issue of Conan The Barbarian #275!) I came away with issues #226 (written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Jose Delbo and Mark Texeira) and #264 (written by Roy Thomas and drawn by John Watkiss). These were more of the style of character that I remember! The whole overall atmosphere had more “weight” and intensity. The character, while somewhat predictable, had depth and emotion (including fear), and was overall just more committed to being himself. What impressed me even more was the historical/literary note on the letters page about how this story had been adapted from another author’s story (not Howard’s). The writers even put in the issue number(s) where the two characters should have met, based on the Marvel issue chronology.
I’ve presented my ideas and recollections, but let’s give you a chance to compare the two side by side. I have found a couple of comparable graphics from the “old Conan” and the “new Conan.” Let’s see if you agree with me. Remember “new Conan” is on the left and “old Conan” is on the right. Which one would you be scared of?
I just don’t remember or relate to the Conan in Dark Horses series. I’m sure the facts of the stories are right, but it’s just not him. This is the Conan I remember: Dark, mysterious, deadly and always right in the middle of whatever action was to be had; never smacking around kids, having an argument with others, taking his frustrations out on women and kids, and generally acting like some sort of a moron (can’t think of a better term but moron works for tonight).
If you’ve read any of my reviews and/or rants, you know that I’m a sucker for continuity and dedication to the works that laid a foundation that future creators could stand upon. (Hell, I even scoured several bookstores and websites just to get a couple of excerpts from an actual Conan book written by Ron E Howard to prod my memory.) When asked about his work on Batman, Frank Miller summed it up best…He said that when writing for Batman (as opposed to his Sin City work), he was “playing with other people’s toys.” Just because you’re the currently contracted writer/creator for a series or charac
ter doesn’t mean that you’ve been given the license to rework the history of that character as you see fit. On the other hand, you are not imprisoned into narrowly defining the character and telling the same stories over and over again.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes being true to the character is more important than being true to the story. There will always be those very few individuals who will bemoan the changing of any fact or storyline as a defiling of a character or his/her original creator, but you usually can’t keep them happy and the rest of the world at the same time. I think Marvel did it right and was more true to the character and essence of Conan, even if their chronology and basic facts were not. For all of you guys over at Dark Horse, loosen up on the facts a little and take that hot-rod character Conan out for a spin. Put his top down, let the wind blow through your hair, do a few burn-outs, and have a little bit of fun. I think you’ll be glad that you did…