I’ve talked about my childhood comic book heroes before, but over the past week, I have been getting reacquainted with a character who really stood apart from the spandex-wearing do-gooders, a character whose particular notion of justice was extremely particular, and whose solutions for most problems involved a fair amount of blood-letting and whose treatment of the fairer sex was very much not approved by the Comics Code people.
I’m talking about Conan, dear reader, and for the past few weeks, I’ve begun to realize just how much I love that barbarian, mostly because I picked up The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol 1 last month. While poring over these black and white pages, I remembered times when I was a kid, seeing ads for this comic in other books and thinking, “that’s a grown up comic” — and would imagine just how insane that comic would be, a book that was literally too out of my grasp, being shelved so much higher in the stacks than the regular comics I was reading.
Of course, the book today is still mature, but the violence and sexuality pale compared to modern books. But still, there is something just wonderfully genuine about these stories. I don’t read a lot of “old” comics–I don’t have time for “new” ones–but when I read these reprints, I am struck at how much creative oomph are in these stories, from the wonderful line quality in the legitimately beautiful art to the painstaking lettering that adorns the opening pages to the various stories. Story-wise was the adult version of the regular Conan comic in the 70′s and 80′s (it was a $1.50 compared to the 35¢ regular comics were priced around) and as close to Heavy Metal as I was ever going to be able to grasp at that time of my life.
What I am struck at is how creative the stories were, despite what I would imagine was a pretty small audience. The creators who worked on this book really worked, and you get the sense these stories were as much about honoring Robert E. Howard as they were delighting Conan fans. The artists in this first volume are like a who’s who of comics, including John Buscema, Walt Simonson and Jim Starlin, whose work I knew from “regular” comics but I was actually not aware that they worked on these stories.
But what is it about these classic Conan stories? Honestly, I hadn’t thought about these books in years, but just remembering the title, The Savage Sword of Conan — I mean, what a title! There’s a refreshing arrogance about this book that really matches the arrogance of Conan himself. I get the feeling that the people working on this book really understood their audience and wanted to make them happy, and didn’t give rat’s ass about anyone else. If someone was offended by their book, great—go buy Mickey Mouse. This Conan is a barbarian. If he needs to kill, he will. If wants to bed some wench, there will be bedding of that wench. When I think about the books I have read now, the only characters that come to mind as being half as, well, simplistic, are Jonah Hex and Parker. Ruthless men for ruthless times, looking out for themselves and no one else.
Reading these stories from thirty years ago reminds me of the more sinister, more gritty aspects of comics that I would assume older fans of the genre still miss. With The Avengers now battling aliens on the big screen, with their bright costumes and perfect teeth, comics–or at least comic book characters–are more than mainstream; they are every day. It is worth remembering that it was not all that long ago that the comic book market could be split into two groups: kids reading comics and adults reading comics. Characters like Conan were appealing to both adults and kids (hence the variety of titles designed for both audiences), so there was, at least for me, always this question, “What goes on in Savage Sword?”
Well, not much more, to be honest. The art was better, and there were probably a few more scenes that took place in harems, and, for sure, Conan was a bit more violent and a little bit more rough around the edges compared to his more mainstream version, but the stores were basically the same: Conan, apparently a barbarian, would use his strength and instincts to win the day, but just as often, he would use his common sense to deal with situations that nobles and “sophisticated” types just couldn’t deal with, or just wouldn’t deal with because of social customs.
Conan was an individual who attacked life head on, who engaged people, danger and women with boundless enthusiasm and gritty determination.
And as a kid, that was exactly how I wanted to live. Heck, to this day, I read these stories, with Conan hacking at knights or being tempted by sorceresses, and I just think this is living. This is adventure. Part of this, of course, is thanks to the wonderful work that Roy Thomas did to make sure that Robert E. Howard’s visions of Conan’s world, the different gods, the monsters, the sorcerers…they are wrought with such specificity and detail that the world feels wonderfully lived in and familiar, so much so that I still chuckle knowingly when someone swears, “By Crom!” You bring Crom into the equation, the shizz is real.
It’s been really interesting comparing these old Conan stories to the current Conan books penned by Brian Wood and drawn by Becky Cloonan. I’ll tell you, I was really excited when I heard this was coming out; being a huge fan of both their work, and it seemed like a natural move for the two of them. However, Wood seems hell-bent on making sure that we remember that these stories came from Howard originally, down to the distractingly out-of-place narrative text rendered in an aged typewriter font, as if we were half reading an old manuscript while looking at Cloonan’s pages. Becky Cloonan is a wonderful artist, and I am a huge fan, but this modern Conan is so clean, so stylized, completely lacking of any grit and sinew that made the Conan of my youth so compelling and scary at the tame time. The Conan of Buscema and Barry Windsor-Smith was an imposing mass of muscle and rage, tamed only by battle and sex, his glowering eyes barely masking his contempt of those around him. As much as I want to enjoy Cloonan’s toothy version of a younger Conan, he just seems too clean cut and fun loving—which is a totally fine and reasonable way to go about things, just not the rough hewn Conan that I want to read about. And while Thomas definitely leveraged Howard’ text in the incessant narration (one vestige of older comics I am happy we have moved away from—let the art do the work!), it was part of the comic itself and not overly distracting from the dialogue and the action.
To be sure, Conan is pretty much a nightmare of a role model and I still find it kind of odd that my parents let me read these books in the first place, with their sometimes racy, sometimes violent, covers. But there was something about Conan that I needed as a kid. I was a nerdy little kid who played D&D, wore glasses, had braces and, while pretty good at sports, was certainly not destined for glory in anything overtly physical. There was something about Conan, though, that I knew was inside everyone, a barbarian just waiting to get out, that I found really comforting. I am sure I fantasized more than once that if anyone bullied me, I’d get all “barbarian” and turning into swirling, kicking, punching machine, howling for battle, calmed only by Holly-in-fourth-grade’s soothing words. That never happened—but it was fun to imagine.
Even now, as I sit here on this computer after a day in a cube working under fluorescent lights, I realize that I still have the same fantasy—with some of the specific parameters changed a bit. There’s something very inspiring about some brute just walking through the world, shirtless, with a savage freakin’ sword, just going about his business, that I still find really alluring and awesome. Perhaps that’s why I picked up that trade. I thought it was a total whim, but now I think I understand what it really was—I just needed to watch Conan swear by Crom again and fight off some ice giants. In this age of high concept superhero movies and summer comic book events, that kind of purity is increasingly hard to come by.