Since it's the birthday of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, I thought I'd re-present this essay, from a few years back, about my discovery of a certain Cimmerian. Enjoy!
One afternoon in the summer of 1970, I was sitting out in front of my apartment building, flipping through one of the many Marvel Comics I regularly devoured, when I saw an ad for a new title: The image featured a half-naked guy with a sword, rock star hair and a somewhat goofy helmet. I’d never heard of this Conan, nor had I heard of his creator, Robert E. Howard—although the fact that he was mentioned in the ad at all led me to believe I should have heard of him. My ignorance prevented me from being impressed; but what did impress me was the fact that this new comic book didn’t look remotely like a super hero title. In the preceding decade, Marvel had made its name revolutionizing and re-energizing the super hero. No one bought Stan Lee’s line of books for Patsy Walker (well, maybe your kid sister did) or Two-Gun Kid (okay, I occasionally read the Westerns, but only when I was desperate for a Marvel fix), you bought it for Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. But this Conan character wasn’t wearing a mask or a cape and that intrigued me.
(Although I didn’t realize it consciously at the time, I think super hero fatigue was settling over me. In the decade that followed, many, if not most, of my favorite series didn’t star super-types at all. Oh, they nodded in the genre’s direction—they had to—but books like Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, Tomb of Dracula and Master of Kung Fu broke new ground. Even Jack Kirby’s brilliant New Gods material, which, on the surface, looked like super hero fare, was far too specific to the unique cosmic universe inside its creator’s head to be lumped in with Superman and his spawn. But all those titles were yet to appear: at the time, Conan seemed utterly unique to my spandex-saturated eyeballs.)
In the weeks between that first ad and the appearance of Conan the Barbarian #1, I decided to learn more about this Robert E. Howard guy and his helmet-headed creation (after all, if he was good enough for Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, he was good enough for me). This required a mythical journey of my own—to a mysterious place called My Friend’s Book Store. Located on Flatbush Avenue, at the end of a long, dark, and disturbingly spooky, alley that deposited me just a few doors away, My Friend’s Book Store was the kind of place a Stygian wizard might have called home: cramped, moldy, thick with dust. Towers of books—many, if not most, of them science-fiction and fantasy—seemed to rise skyward into faraway dimensions, parallel universes. MFBS was also the only place I’d ever been in my entire life where you could actually see, and occasionally be allowed to touch, precious back issues of comic books. (A six year old Fantastic Four issue seemed so ancient, and so priceless, to me that it might might as well have come from King Tut’s tomb.)
The cigar-smoking owner pointed me toward the Lancer paperback editions of the Conan stories and it didn’t take long for me to fall completely under REH’s spell. It’s not hard to see how a sword-wielding, head-lopping barbarian with a taste for blood and willing women would appeal to an angry, frustrated, hormonally-imbalanced sixteen year old; but, for me, that was only a small part of Conan’s appeal. I enjoyed violent catharsis as much as the next guy, but this was the sixties (believe me, the date might have been l970 but it was still very much the sixties): I’d been raised on “All You Need Is Love” and “Give Peace A Chance.” I’d lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers—watched the horrific images of the Viet Nam War on the news almost every night—and realized, early on, that violence, while a great outlet for fantasy, was an extraordinarily bad choice for reality.
No, there was something else at work in Howard’s writing: his power as a literary shaman. Someone who could rip away veils of time and place, transporting the reader to antediluvian kingdoms—dangerous, mysterious, seductive, frightening—that seemed totally alien yet unnervingly familiar. Losing myself in a Howard story was like losing myself in a past incarnation. I felt as if I’d walked those streets before, seen those faces, encountered those awe-inspiring cosmic mysteries. Howard’s best work was wonderfully unsettling because it brought our assumptions about reality itself into question.
Hooked on Conan’s world, I eagerly anticipated the character’s debut in comic book form.
I wasn’t remotely disappointed.
I was already a huge fan of Roy Thomas’s work—he’d brought new levels of depth and poetry to the universe that Lee, Kirby and Steve Ditko created—but his work on Conan was something new. Free of the Stan Lee Template, inspired by Howard’s evocative prose, Roy brought his own distinct voice to these stories: His writing was muscular, lyrical and wonderfully atmospheric. Reading that first issue of Conan the Barbarian was unlike any comic book reading experience I’d ever had.
Thomas couldn’t have done it without the brilliant Barry Smith, who, more than any other Conan artist, had an intuitive, almost supernatural, ability to give visual life to the Hyborian Age. I bow to none in my admiration for the artists who followed Smith on Marvel’s Conan, especially John Buscema—whose Silver Surfer run I cherish—and Gil Kane—one of the brightest stars in my Comic Gods Firmament; in fact you could argue, convincingly, that their Conan—the character of Conan—was far more definitive. But the universe Conan inhabited? It belonged to Smith—who achieved something no other Conan artist ever has: He managed to simultaneously make the lands the Cimmerian journeyed through seem convincingly real and utterly unreal—as if we were walking through a haze of our own long-buried memories. As if one of the many wizards Conan encountered had exposed us to mystic vapors that unlocked heretofore unknown doors in our own psyches. Looking back, Smith’s early work may seem crude when compared to later efforts like “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” “Song of Red Sonja” and “Red Nails.” But his abilities as a visual shaman were there from the very first issue.
The Thomas-Smith Conan the Barbarian was a mold-breaker: an important turning point in modern American comics. Considering the series’ lengthy run, Barry Smith didn’t really last all that long on the title; but the fact that I’m writing, so rapturously, about his work more than forty years later is proof of its enduring value. After Smith’s departure, Roy Thomas soldiered on, accompanied for most of the journey by the aforementioned John Buscema: keeping the monthly Conan comic book, and its various spin-offs, consistently smart, exciting, literate, entertaining—and true to the Howard spirit. That Thomas did it, on a variety of titles, for a full decade is a striking achievement.
But the spells that Roy and Barry wove together were, for me, the most enchanting of all.
© copyright 2021 J.M. DeMatteis