Tomorrow is the big day that Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian returns to Marvel Comics. While it’s definitely a great time to celebrate Conan, I also want to take the time to give some of Howard’s other characters a share of the spotlight. And who knows, maybe (hopefully) some of these characters can make the jump to Marvel with Conan?
Robert E. Howard was an especially prolific writer given how limited his active writing years were in the end. Born in rural Texas in 1906, Howard would spend the better part of his life desiring to become a writer. His most creatively rich and lucrative period was from 1929 to his untimely suicide in 1936.
In those short seven years, Howard wrote for several magazines and created some of his most memorable characters. While most nerds may only remember Conan, Howard’s back catalogue of pulp heroes, brigands, pirates, and villains is remarkably deep. Here are a few of my favorites that I think are worth checking out.
1 Solomon Kane
Probably my favorite Robert E. Howard character besides Conan is his Puritan wanderer Solomon Kane. The first Solomon Kane story “Red Shadows” was published in Weird Tales in 1928. The story introduces the reader to the morose late 16th/early 17th century Puritan, dressed in all black and wearing his famous slouch hat.
Kane isn’t your typical Puritan, proselytizing to nonbelievers, burning witches at will (though he’s not fond of witches), and forcing church and state to work in unison. He carries a sword, brandishes flintlock pistols, and eventually comes into possession of the fabled Biblical relic the Staff of Solomon. His simple goal throughout all his stories is to vanquish evil wherever he encounters it in the world. Simply put, he kicks demonic and devilish a#$!
At the time of his death, Howard completed nine Solomon Kane stories – most published in the pages of Weird Tales – along with three poems. Howard left behind several unfinished story fragments, many of which were completed by other writers beginning in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Kane stood as one his most enduring characters, having been featured in comics from both Marvel and Dark Horse, his own feature film starring James Purefoy in 2009, and his own Savage Worlds RPG setting from Pinnacle Press. Here’s to hoping fans get to see more Solomon Kane in the future.
2 Red Sonya & Dark Agnes
This might be a cheat, but here are two characters for the price of one! Red Sonja is quite well known, but most comic readers and nerd aficionados incorrectly assume the metal-bikini clad She Devil with a Sword is one of Robert E. Howard’s creations. Those folks are only half right. While Howard did not create Red Sonja, he did create the redheads Red Sonya and Black Agnes. Confused?
As I mentioned in one of my earlier Conan articles, the Red Sonja created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith we all know and love today is really an amalgamation of two of Robert E. Howard’s creations, Red Sonya of Rogatino and Dark Agnes de Chastillon. Both characters have fiery tempers and red hair, but they share little else in common with the Marvel Comic book character Red Sonja. Both Sonya and Agnes adventure in the 16th Century as well, in the Ottoman Empire and France, respectively.
In 1934’s “The Shadow of the Vulture,” readers were introduced to the rough and tumble 16th century gunslinger Red Sonya, who appears in only this one story. She seeks revenge on the Ottoman sultan for his ill treatment of her sister. Though they wouldn’t be published until the mid-1970s, Dark Agnes would get three proper stories following the swashbuckling French damsel who, like Red Sonja, is master at the sword. Although these two characters have been dwarfed in popularity by their replacement, each of their stories offer a unique glimpse into the creation of their more famous sister.
3 Bran Mak Morn
To be sure, Bran Mak Morn, the last king of the Picts, is a lesser known character in the stable of Howard’s creations. However, Bran Mak Morn may be one of the most personally important characters to come from the writer. Robert E. Howard had a lifelong fascination with the Picts, a group of tribes in Scotland between the Iron and Middle Ages. So enthralled was he by this group that Howard wrote his own fictional history of the tribe, including links to Atlantis and his other character Kull. Bran Mak Morn was born out of that romantic fictional history.
Bran Mak Morn was featured in five Howard stories, three of which were published during his lifetime in the early 1930s. Only one of those stories, ”Worms of the Earth,” has Morn as the narrator. In 1977, The Savage Sword of Conan issues 16-17 featured an adaptation of this story. Morn appeared several other times in that classic Marvel title. Two of Morn’s stories, “The Dark Man” and “The Children of the Night,” don’t even feature Morn directly, rather focusing on a cult that has built up after the death of the Pictish king.
Dark Horse featured a couple of new adaptations of his stories “Kings of the Night” and “Men of Shadows” in their short lived anthology title Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword. With so few canon Howard stories, Bran Mak Morn is a character that has much potential for Marvel or others to expand upon.
4 El Borak
Though Howard is better known for his fantasy pulp fiction, he actually wrote a wide variety of tales ranging from sports stories to action adventures. El Borak is an example of the latter. The El Borak (Arabic for “the swift”) stories follow the adventures of Francis Xavier Gordon, a Texan gunfighter whose globetrotting escapades led him to settling in the tribal back country of Afghanistan.
Unlike his more famous publishing outings with Weird Tales, the El Borak stories were published in the pulp magazine Top Notch, which focused more on adventure stories than fantasy yarns. Though only five El Borak stories were published in Howard’s lifetime, over a dozen complete or story fragments would be published throughout the years. The grounded stories featured El Borak’s adventures in a savage land filled with tribal conflict, intrigue, and blood.
El Borak was a character that I was first introduced to in the pages of the aforementioned anthology book Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword from Dark Horse. The early issues of that series featured adaptations from this unusual Howard creation, with the first issue featuring rare non-cover art from Tim Bradstreet. Those issues are well worth your time tracking down, not only for the El Borak adaptations, but also for stories featuring many of the characters mentioned in this article!
Along with Solomon Kane, Kull is one of the more recognizable characters from the mind of Robert E. Howard. What most readers may not realize is that Kull predates Conan. In fact, Conan’s first story “The Phoenix on the Sword” is a near word for word rewriting of a Kull story! Kull and Conan share many of the same qualities, both having dark hair, great fighting skills, and becoming kings of foreign nation-states. Having read all of the stories from either character, I can easily see how each could be replaceable with the other with very little effort.
Kull the Conqueror saw his first story published in 1929 with “The Shadow Kingdom.” Though only two other stories were published in his lifetime, Howard had completed nine other Kull stories, which were published in the late 1960s. Many of the stories, along with several Conan tales, were not sent to Weird Tales in protest over his pay. Because these stories were completed and essentially ready for publishing, they represent some pretty entertaining reads among the posthumous output from Howard’s creations.
Kull was featured in three different series from Marvel in the 1970s and 1980s. After three entertaining miniseries from Dark Horse, Kull has recently landed at IDW with the title Kull Eternal. The miniseries is a sort-of adaptation of the excellent 1932 story “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune.” In the original, Kull becomes bored with being King and is told to visit the wizard Tuzun Thune for a pick me up. Once he arrives, Kull is literally and figuratively enthralled by the mirrors in Thune’s house, showing him visions of a great many things. Slowly, Kull’s soul is pulled into the mirrors until he is freed by his friend Brule.
The IDW series goes a step further by showing us what is in the mirrors. It is a cool concept that has been mired by a janky release schedule. Since the summer of 2017, only three issues have been published, with the fourth and final issue being punted further and further down the road. Marvel could do a better job with Kull…I’m just putting that out there.
Howard’s Conan stories are filled with many great and powerful villains. Unfortunately, being a foil for Conan usually means not sticking around long enough for a second story because, in the modern parlance, Conan don’t play. Thoth-Amon stands out as one the few foes in the original tales of the worlds greatest Barbarian that had some staying power. Thoth-Amon is a Stygian sorcerer (think ancient Egypt) who has many toys and tricks up his robed sleeves, including the famed ring Serpent Ring of Set, a ring of power that has acted as a McGuffin in both the Conan and the Cthulhu mythos.
Both Thoth-Amon and Conan first appeared in “The Phoenix on the Sword” in 1932. Despite being the first published Conan story, chronologically the story takes place late in the Barbarian’s timeline, after Conan has been crowned King of Aquilonia. In the story, like all three Howard stories featuring Thoth-Amon, Conan and the sorcerer never actually meet. Thoth-Amon is a master of evil from the shadows in Howard’s tales.
It wasn’t until the Conan revival of the 1960s and 1970s that Thoth-Amon was elevated to full super villain status, thanks in large part to the work of Lin Carter and L. Sprained de Camp in the 1960s and 1970s and the Marvel Conan the Barbarian comics of the 1970s. It’s in these stories that Conan and Thoth-Amon would have their first head-on interactions. Though not the major villain of the first Conan film, the character of Thulsa Doom is essentially a reskin of Thoth-Amon. The Stygian sorcerer also appeared in the Dark Horse books as well. Marvel would do well to keep Thoth-Amon somewhere in the shadows in order to keep Conan on his sandaled toes in their new run.