Which Conan Are We Celebrating, Again?
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
posted by Mark Finn
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Conan the Cimmerian–make that, Conan the Barbarian. Yeah, you had better get used to it right now, because hardcore fans of Robert E. Howard may find their collective knickers in a twist when the press gets ahold of the information. Expect to see clips from the movies, and maybe even a clip from the television show. You’ll of course see flashes of the Frazetta paintings, but you’ll also see stacks of comics and magazines. We may even get a taste of the highly-anticipated mmorpg, Age of Conan, too. But will we get a glimpse of the Conan that Robert E. Howard wrote in whatever media coverage is afforded this event? My guess is, unless someone from the Inner Circle is involved, the answer will be “No.”
This is bigger than Howard fandom. Conan is a pop-cultural touchstone, both evocative and iconic, and there are certainly more Conan fans than Robert E. Howard fans in the world. And by that, I mean, there are people who read the Conan comics and have collected every issue of Savage Sword of Conan (and they may even have the Ace/Lancer set of Conan paperbacks), but they have otherwise never read another word by Robert E. Howard in their life. Conan trumps all, to these folks, and I really can’t say anything detrimental to that, being intimately familiar with the collector mindset myself.
Robert E. Howard fans, by contrast, recognize the inherent power of Conan (since most of us came to REH through those stories), but also figured out early on that the inherent power was found in REH’s writing, and not just in the character. Oh, there’s a “lightning in a bottle” quality to Howard’s Conan that was talked about, even during REH’s lifetime, by the readers of Weird Tales. Specifically, there is a uniqueness to Conan and the way that Howard wrote him that belies Howard’s commerical aspirations.
So it’s a little ironic that the commercial Conan “product” would likewise tend to overshadow the literary version of the character. The Dark Horse comics are doing well and continue to generate interest in REH. But when Age of Conan premieres, there will be millions of people exposed to the Hyborian Age for the first time–and in doing so, will bring their own pre-conceived notions (mostly fantasy gaming notions) of how everything is supposed to fit together.
The gestalt of Conan fandom is such that we can’t even decide how our favorite barbarian is best portrayed. For some folks, it’s still Arnold in the furry diaper. For others, if you’re not talking about John Buscema, then you have missed the point entirely. There are even a few people out there (who need to be thumped) who think that Boris Vallejo’s Conan is as good as it got. Thankfully, none of MY friends think that.
And what’s worse, fans tend to personalize Robert E. Howard and his writings in a way that I’ve not seen with any other aspect of genre writing. We take it to heart and in it we see exactly what we’re looking for, and it answers our unaksed questions like the voice of a higher power. And so I find it amusing that, on the various message boards for such things, two fans will disagree with how a given issue of, say, the Conan comic, played fast and loose with the Conan character, and take the writer to task for not staying true to the character. As proof of how Conan “should have acted,” they will cite another pastiche to justify their ranting. It just makes me laugh to see “Conan would never…” at the front of a post. Since when did YOU, mister Internet message board person, become the voice of intention behind Conan? All of these discussions usually involve pastiche, so who can say (and really, who bloody cares) what Pastiche Conan would or would not do?
But is that a valid argument? Should Kurt Busiek have been villified by fans for having a sixteen or seventeen year old Conan slap a kid? Of course not. The comic book Conan has no relationship to what Robert E. Howard wrote, save in name only. No writer actually *has* to read Howard’s Conan to write a pastiche, though of course, everyone does, if only to know how far they have to reach to hit the mark. My point is, the pop cultural figure that is Conan the Barbarian is now really the bastard half-brother to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian.
The Howard Guerrilla in me wants desperately to start right now in pushing my fan-glasses up on my nose and saying, “Actually, it’s Conan the Cimmerian, and not Conan the Barbarian,” every time the topic of the anniversary comes up, but I think I’d just end up making a dent in the bridge of my nose that way. In the end, it’s the price of literary immortality. I suspect that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle isn’t sweating the movie, Young Sherlock Holmes, overmuch, since all of his Holmes stories are collected and routinely read in a number of different editions. On the other hand, there isn’t a mmorpg coming out called “Age of Sherlock” either. This fame, this enduring and constantly morphing pop culture conception, is part of what keeps REH’s name out there, and in the end, it will bring people over to Howard’s prose work.