REH’ll See Ya’ in the Funny Pages
Sunday, March 28, 2010
posted by Jeffrey Shanks
Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane — three of Robert E. Howard’s best known characters have all had great success in the comics medium over the past few decades. Bran Mak Morn, Esau Cairn, and Cormac Mac Art have been adapted in graphic narrative as well. Two-Gun Bob himself is even the star of Jim and Ruth Keegan’s ongoing back-up strip in the Dark Horse Conan series. Howard’s larger-than-life characters and fast-paced action-oriented prose seem well-suited for translation to the comics page, but what would he have thought of all this? Did he read comics? Would he have written for the comics, as many other pulps writers did, if had lived longer? A recently-bumped thread on the official REH forum has been discussing this topic off-and-on for the last several years and some of the contributors such as Don Carter, Rusty Burke, Rob Roehm and Mark Finn have all added to our knowledge of Howard and his interest in the medium of sequential art.
There is no doubt that Howard read comic strips and this should not be a surprise — the newspaper “funnies” were a major form of entertainment in the days before television. They were read by everyone — children and adults alike — and they often sold newspapers on their own. Many of the popular strips took up a full page on Sunday, unlike the comics today where even the Sunday strips get two or three lines at best. The earliest comics were humor strips, referred to as “gag-a-day,” but in early 1929 the adventure strip was born with the appearance of both Buck Rogers and Tarzan (both characters that were created in the pulps). They were soon followed by Dick Tracy, Captain Easy, Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, and others.
One of the earliest examples of Howard’s interest in comic strips, comes from one that he created himself. In a 1923 letter to Clyde Tevis Smith, he included a crudely-drawn, but funny strip depicting a caveman’s attempt to win over his sweetheart (who is playing hard-to-get) in typical stone-age style. One can already see the teenage Howard developing his sense of comedic timing and his affection for slapstick violence that would later make his Breckinridge Elkins stories so successful.
Rob Roehm has recently noted more early evidence that Howard read comic strips. In 1923 and 1924, REH wrote three stories featuring the character Hawkshaw the Detective taken from the popular strip of the same name by Gus Mager. Hawkshaw the Detective appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s newspapers, The New York World and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, from 1913-1922. Both papers were widely distributed in their regions and it is possible that that the latter might have been available in Texas during that period.
In making notes for his never-published memoir of REH, Tevis Clyde Smith wrote the following:
“His affection for Bunker Hill – “Youse is a viper, Fagin.” Kept up with the strip, and retold it in a charming way. Liked to talk Brooklynese, and once entered a local dry goods store, and asked to see a shoitel.”
The “Bunker Hill” strip to which Smith referred remained a mystery to Howard scholars, until several years ago when Don Carter, posting on the REH forums as “Ghost Writer in Disguise,” identified it as Bunky by Billy DeBeck (best known as the creator of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith). The Keegans also seem to have made the same discovery independently and will be featuring Howard’s affection for the strip in an upcoming episode of The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob.
Originally titled Parlor, Bedroom, and Sink, the strip first appeared in May 1926 as the topper for the Barney Google Sunday page. The main protagonist of the feature was the precocious and intelligent baby, Bunker Hill, Jr. or “Bunky” for short. Bunky’s father, Bunker Hill, Sr. was often absent, leaving the infant son to function as the “man of the house” and as the protector of his mother Bibsy. The character Fagan (or Fagin), mentioned by Smith, was the main villain of the strip and was first introduced in 1928. Many of the stories would revolve around Bunky foiling Fagan’s nefarious plots and saving his mother. It is difficult for anyone familiar with Howard’s life to fail to note the similarities between the strip and his own domestic situation. It is easy to understand how Howard might have identified with the erudite youngster Bunky (even if only subconsciously) given his own role as his mother’s primary care-giver in the absence of his often-traveling father.
So far, this appears to be all of the evidence for Howard’s interest in comic strips. It would be fascinating to know if he read some of the non-humor adventure strips that began appearing in the early 1930’s, as many of them looked to the pulps for their inspiration. Howard is well-known to have been a fan of Burroughs, so he no doubt would have enjoyed Hal Foster’s Tarzan strip. If he did, he would have had to have had access to a newspaper other than one in which he was following the Bunky strip. Bunky was distributed by Hearst’s King Features Syndicate and all of the strips in that paper (the Fort Worth Record-Telegram has been suggested as a possibility) would have been as well. The Tarzan strip, on the other hand, was distributed by rival United Features Syndicate. Some of the King Features properties to which he would have had access included Popeye, Mandrake, and Flash Gordon. Had he lived a little longer he would seen the first costumed hero, the Phantom, as well as Foster’s magnificent Prince Valiant strip, which I suspect he would have greatly enjoyed.
But what about comic books — the format in which so many of Howard’s characters would have later success? The modern, saddle-stitched, magazine-format comic book did not appear until 1933, and the first true newsstand comic, Famous Funnies, did not hit the shelves until the following year. It was not until 1936, the last year of Howard’s life, that there were more than one or two titles being published and most of these were poorly distributed in the south, especially in rural regions. Almost all of these early comic books contained reprints of newspaper strips. Only a handful of early comic books, like New Fun, Comic Cuts, and Wow – What a Magazine! published original material and it generally consisted of material that was not good enough to make it in a newspaper. Original comic book fare at this time was the equivalent of straight-to-DVD movies.
So given the circumstances, it is very unlikely that Robert E. Howard ever read what we think of as a comic book, and even if he did, it probably would have been simply a collection of newspaper strips like Famous Funnies. Now, that said, there were earlier comic publications in other formats such as tabloids and hardback books that Howard might have seen. Again, these were usually newspaper strip reprint collections. The fact that REH was clearly familiar with Hawkshaw the Detective, a strip that appeared in only two papers, in St. Louis and New York respectively, may indicate that he had read the 1917 hardback Hawkshaw reprint collection published by the Saalfield Company rather the actual newspaper strip. But, ultimately Howard died a few years before the real comic book fad took off with the appearance of Superman in 1938.
But what if he had lived? Would he have written for the comic books? Would we have a seen a Conan comic first appear in 1940 instead of 1970? This is of course the realm of pure speculation, but I think it is not out of the question that REH might have contributed material to the comics of the Golden Age. Since the adventure strip had become popular in the 1930’s, some of the comics had already begun to resemble the pulps in content. The earliest superheroes and costumed adventurers of the comic books like Superman and Batman certainly had their origins in the hero pulps such as Doc Savage and The Shadow. By 1939, it had become clear that Superman was a hit and a number of pulp publishers, such as Street and Smith and Martin Goodman, the founder of Timely (Marvel), started jumping on the comic book bandwagon over the next couple of years. Likewise, many pulp writers and illustrators began moonlighting for the comic books.
Among the pulp publishers that turned to comic books was Fiction House, publisher of Fight Stories and Action Stories in which most of Howard’s Steve Costigan yarns had appeared. Fiction House’s comics often took their titles from their pulp counterparts — Jungle Stories became Jungle Comics, Planet Stories became Planet Comics, and Fight Stories became Fight Comics. I think it is not at all unlikely that had Howard lived, there might have been a Steve Costigan feature appearing regularly in the pages of Fight Comics. Two characters that were regulars in that series, Shark Brodie and Kayo Kirby both have similarities to Howard’s pugilistic sailor.
I think Howard might have contributed to the comics in other genres such as Westerns as well. A Breckinridge Elkins strip might have done quite well. A Conan or other sword-and-sorcery series that early probably would have been unlikely, however. While there were a few Golden Age series that had fantasy or mythological elements, it was not until 1950 that the first true REH-inspired sword-and-sorcery comic feature appeared. This was Garder Fox and John Giunta’s Conan knock-off, “Crom the Barbarian,” who first appeared in Out of this World #1. Crom only lasted for three stories before disappearing into four-color oblivion and it would be another two decades before real sword-and-sorcery would return to the comics.
Unfortunately we know very little about what Howard thought about the comic strips of his day, and to speculate on what he might have thought about the comic book medium that would take off in the years following his death, and in which many of his characters would find a comfortable niche many decades later, can never be more than a fun exercise. But, I would like think (and perhaps this is my bias as a comic book collector) that he would have had an appreciation for the art form and perhaps would even have made contributions to the industry as a writer. Just one more item to add to the long list of “if only’s” that accumulate due to a life that was cut far too short.