Before You Go: Conan the Barbarian

Welcome back to “Before You Go,” the segment where I prep you on whatever big nerd movie is opening tomorrow. Just don’t use the word “nerd” around Conan.

I should have my brother do this but he’s about as fond of computers as Conan, so I’ll do my best to muddle through.

Know, O Prince

Conan is the creation of pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard. The first Conan story was published in 1932 in Weird Tales magazine.

The tales are set in the Hyborian Age (Don’t bother looking it up in your world history timeline. It begins sometime after the sinking of Atlantis, whenever that was.), a time when swords and sorcery reigned supreme. Conan is a wandering thief/pirate/mercenary from the harsh northern land of Cimmeria.

Conan is typically a loner but he does team up with others from time to time. Basically he roams the landscape and has adventures usually involving half-naked women, evil sorcerers and giant snakes. He worships the god Crom — well, worship is too strong a word — he shouts out Crom’s name a lot.

I once had to do a dramatic reading for speech class and I read an excerpt from a Conan book and the teacher was surprised and somewhat impressed. I’m sure it’s the only time Robert E. Howard was read aloud at Stockton High School. I suspect you’d get banned for that today.

Hither Came Conan 

In 1970 Marvel Comics acquired the rights to publish a comic book version of Conan. Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith, the book became one of Marvel’s big hits of the ’70s, spawning a number of spin-off comics and magazines.

For myself and many others, the initial appeal of the Conan comic was the artwork of Barry Smith.  Smith had a unique style that was unlike anything else in comics at the time (He also drew my first Avengers comic around this same time, one of my favorites). And his work improved from issue to issue as he became more intent on putting fine detail into his drawings. Eventually the monthly comic grind became too much and he left “Conan” after the 24th issue.

Which is where I come in. My first exposure to Conan the Barbarian was my brother’s copy of “The Song of Red Sonja” — issue 24. It’s one of my favorite comics. The story was unlike any superhero comic I’d read. Conan wasn’t a hero — he was a brawler and a thief. In the story he gets talked into sneaking into the king’s treasury by Red Sonja, a fiery redhead and master manipulator — of Conan.

And Conan’s not in this gig for the loot — but the (false) promise of sex afterward with Sonja. Like I said, not like any comic book I’d read before. My brother never got that issue back, although the copy I have is so torn and ratty I guess I should just give it back to him.

“The Song of Red Sonja” was your quintessential Conan story, complete with barroom brawl, Conan being suckered by a lovely woman, and a giant jeweled snake that must be slayed. It also featured Barry Smith’s ornate art at its very best.

Marvel published Conan comics through the mid-1990s. Dark Horse Comics took over the license in 2003.

Conan! What is best in life?

To crush your enemies,
see them driven before you,
and to hear the lamentations of their women.

By 1982 Conan was popular enough to make his big screen debut. It was also an important moment for a certain bodybuilder turned actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I remember enjoying the film back in ’82 but I recently watched part of it on AMC and found it pretty ponderous. It has some great lines. It was certainly much better than the sequel that came out two years later.

The new film features Jason Momoa as the Cimmerian. I know nothing about Momoa and little about the new film. I’ll have a review tomorrow but they’re not advance screening it in St. Louis (not a good sign) so the review will be late in arriving. Depends on when the first matinée ends.

Read More About It

You can find dozens of Conan books in the sci-fi/fantasy section of any bookstore. I don’t know which ones are any good. I emailed my brother for assistance with this section but haven’t heard back. If I do, I’ll update. My advice would be pick up anything with Howard’s stories in it. Oh, and it has to have a Frank Frazetta cover.

As for the comics, I have two to recommend. First is The Essential Conan, which collects the first 25 issues of Marvel’s run. It’s out of print, though, and I hear it’s hard to find. I might sell my copy if the price is right.

But if you can only afford one Conan comic collection, make it The Chronicles of Conan Volume 4: The Song of Red Sonja and other stories. This Dark Horse produced book of early Marvel stories includes my two favorite Conan comics.

The first is “Song of Red Sonja,” which I spoke of earlier, and the second is “Red Nails,” the final Thomas-Smith collaboration. After leaving the monthly title, Smith came back to Conan one final time to draw this three-part story for one of Marvel’s spin-off Conan magazines. The art is fantastic, the story is really creepy, and it’s all in glorious color.

And that’s all you need to know — Before You Go.


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