When I introduced To Kill A Mockingbird to a new class of juniors at the start of this semester, I overheard one student mumble, “Oh boy, here come the hard R’s.” That comment stuck with me and have forced me to reconsider how and why I am teaching this novel. To Kill A Mockingbird is my favorite American novel. Comparing it to other works from its era, I still think it holds up incredibly well. The prose strikes the perfect balance for a high school classroom of being accessible, enjoyable, and surprisingly complex in its purpose. Yet this one comment reminded me that the passage of time necessitates reevaluation, even for something I held dear. The almost 60 subsequent years since its release have made To Kill A Mockingbird a far more complex and vexing text. Approaching it through the lens of 2019, rather than the initial response of 1960, has been a boon for myself and many of my students.
This time-based reassessment of fiction is useful for all domains, not just the classroom. As it becomes easier to store and maintain past works and publishers become increasingly interested in long-term franchise opportunities, we are more likely to encounter new works that reflects the values of past eras in one way or another. Marvel Comics’ relaunch of Conan the Barbarian, the comics series adapted from Robert E. Howard’s novels, is a perfect example of this.
Conan was first brought under the Marvel Comics banner in 1970 by Roy Thomas and Barry Smith. This first Conan the Barbarian series received critical acclaim and a sustained run, capturing a new generation of readers, ones far removed from Howard’s pulp novels of the 1930s. Eventually, Marvel would lose the license to Dark Horse Comics who continued to produce adaptations and original works. Now, after more than 20 years, Conan has returned to a new team of all-star creators, all of whom have loudly proclaimed their love for both the early comics and the prose which inspired them. Writer Jason Aaron, artist Mahmud Asrar, colorist Matthew Wilson, and editor Mark Basso have published two issues in the newest Conan the Barbarian series, both of which have been met with general acclaim.
It’s important that Aaron, Asrar, and the rest of the team are producing new stories, as it allows them to provide their own interpretation of concepts that are almost a century old. Any serious evaluation of the Conan canon must consider the troubling politics of its originating era and author; elements that are pervasive in the early novels and cannot be easily overlooked.
Racist ideas permeated Howard’s fiction, both in his Conan stories and elsewhere. While investigating the origin and extent of Howard’s racism would require an altogether different (and much longer) essay, his story “The Last White Man” provides a perfect example for those unfamiliar. In this short story he illustrates a dystopian future in which a single heroic white man (bearing many similar traits to his other heroes, like Conan) fails to oppose the black race as it threatens to conquer the civilized world. This story is not an anomaly in Howard’s work, but an examine of a common trope, one that would be continued with the Picts (based upon the Algonquin tribe) in his Conan stories.
Howard possessed a less discriminatory attitude towards women, but their depiction in his work is far from egalitarian. Specifically, in the Conan stories women were treated as things to be used and rarely possessed equal footing to the hero. This imbalance was only exaggerated in subsequent adaptations where even seemingly powerful women were left with only the skimpiest of coverings and were widely depicted as sexual fantasies.
These racist and misogynistic beliefs in older novels and comics featuring Conan the Barbarian can be discussed and critiqued within the context of their era, and the influences upon their distinct creators and audiences. The creators of 2019 have freed themselves from these undesirable elements by launching a new series, one that will not adapt Howard’s original works. They have invented a place in which they can capture the soaring elements that inspired their own careers and challenge (or dispose of) the very worst pieces. Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian is an opportunity for a new generation to discover the sword and sorcery genre which Howard helped create in the moral framework of a very different century.
This is what makes their subsequent failings so very disappointing.
Conan the Barbarian #1 features one named role for a woman: The Crimson Witch. She features as the primary antagonist of both this issue and apparently the story to come. When she first appears, she does not seem antagonistic at all, wearing only a robe and enough armor over her breasts and groin to ensure comics shops won’t consider stocking the issue behind their counters. Her appearance is not dissimilar from almost all other women in the first two issues of the series in this regard, though. Women, as a whole, are drawn to be sexually attractive and with sparse wardrobes.
The only counter-example of this trend comes when the Crimson Witch reveals her true form, a centuries old crone with flapping skin, hanging breasts, and a lolling tongue. In this transformation she distills the maiden-crone dichotomy, revealing women in Conan the Barabarian to be either beautiful (i.e. sexually desirable) or horrific. Even as women have remained absent from other speaking roles, they have continued to populate backgrounds and bedroom scenes, each of them adhering to a mainstream American standard of sexiness.
Before revealing herself as a powerful adversary of Conan, and therefore an ugly companion, the Crimson Witch first shows herself to be capable during an attempted rape scene. As she approaches the hero, two men approach her and claim they will take “whatever sweet little surprises you’ve got hiding under those robes.” She quickly dispatches both men with a knife, but remains defined by her sexuality. It is the primary reason Conan and other men in the story seek to spend any time with her.
The creative team has maintained almost a century of misogynistic tropes throughout the first two issues of Conan the Barbarian in this way. Women are portrayed as ornaments for the backgrounds of panels. They are all striking in their beauty, while the men who populate the backgrounds present a great range of body types, faces, and types of sexual attractiveness. When a woman does present herself as being important to the story, the focus is on obtaining her as a sexual prize, only to transform her into a hideous crone when she cannot be had.
Elements of race are brought to the forefront of the new series in Conan the Barbarian #2 and are equally disappointing. In this issue Conan is depicted hunting down Picts after they have slaughtered some of his comrades. The narrator makes sure to mention that one of those comrades was a dog to make clear how little Conan values Pictish lives. While there has been some disagreement on how much the original Picts were based upon Native Americans or other sources, Asrar clearly draws the members of this tribe as being akin to their Algonquin sources. Long black hair, war paint, and feathers in the hair all code with typical depictions of Native Americans. Even Wilson’s coloring helps to clarify this connection, while Conan is made to be as plainly European as possible.
The opening scene of the issue features Conan slaughtering multiple Picts before unforeseen circumstances leave him in the care of a local tribe. It is with this tribe that both Conan and the tribe members, who hate him for his extended hunting of their people, slowly gain a begrudging respect for one another. In a far from original narrative they come to see one another as more alike than different and overcome past conflicts. While this could be seen as an improvement upon Howard’s own sentiments, it plays upon centuries of racist mythology in order to arrive at its conclusion.
Conan the Barbarian #2 embraces the concept of the noble savage from romantic literature, revealing those who despise civilization to have their own unique charm and morality. This concept does not extend a shared humanity to the Picts, but continues to treat them as outsiders who possess surprising qualities. Conan’s revelation in the course of the issue is simply that the Picts are also human beings who should not be hunted and slaughtered like dogs. In Howard’s original writing this might have shown some complexity in the racist thinking of a writer in the 1930s. However, this story is delivered in 2019 and falls far short of any modern form of progressivism.
Any examination of Conan the Barbarian is bound to bring about complications. Howard’s original stories from the 1930s, the Thomas’ comics of the 1970s, and the Busiek adaptations of the early 2000s all bring value to the table and help explain an enduring Conan fandom. Each of them can be critiqued against the era and circumstances under which they were produced. What makes the newest Conan the Barbarian series so disappointing is that it seeks to be a part of these various pasts, instead of becoming a new story for a new era.
The various creators attached to this series are either unable or unwilling to recognize the problematic nature of sex and race found within Conan canon. Instead of examining or altering what is clearly misogynistic or racist, they continue these same problems in new stories. Unlike an adaptation, these new stories possess no reason for retaining these elements as they are only inspired by past tales.
Just as it was a choice to tell new Conan stories, it was a choice on which elements to maintain and which to update. No matter how much we might love the stories that inspired us as young readers, whether it was To Kill A Mockingbird in a classroom or Conan the Barbarian in a comic book store, they are not owed any loyalty. Fiction is only as useful as the era in which it is read, and this new series has failed to make Conan significant for the 21st Century. As long as it holds onto these outdated ideas, it will remain a story best suited to back issue bins.