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Staying Pure for Conan: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pastiche

Conan purists, let’s have a chat. Can we take a moment to loosen (but not lose) our loincloths and sip humbly of our ale while we chat about Conan and his creator Robert E. Howard? Grip your bastard sword tightly and listen.

It’s time to lighten up.

In January 2019, Conan the Barbarian made his triumphant return to Marvel Comics. The adventures of the mighty Cimmerian had been published by Dark Horse for the better part of the 21st Century. It was a bit of a nostalgic homecoming for Conan since Marvel Comics had been at the forefront of the Conan renaissance of the late 1960s and 1970s. 

The Dark Horse books had been very entertaining and many were true to Howard’s characterization of the character. Hardcore Conan fans and Howard purists were generally happy with Dark Horse’s output. That happiness never translated into huge sales numbers, nor did it translate into attracting a slew of big name creators to the title. 

That’s no slight to the creators involved, all of whom produced quality material. I will go to my grave doggedly fighting any Conan fan that doesn’t believe Tim Truman and Tomas Giorello’s various Conan books are the best Conan comics ever published. Fight me, bro. Fight me. 

Thus far, Marvel has published three main titles and a few miniseries since the Barbarian’s return. Conan not only returned to the House of Ideas, but he has also been firmly integrated into the Marvel Comics universe with The Avengers: No Road Home miniseries and the subsequent Savage Avengers title. It’s a bold move on the part of Marvel to so thoroughly assimilate a licensed character into their own continuity. Conan’s incorporation into the Marvel Universe has been an entertaining, action packed, and often humorous romp for many fans. Who doesn’t want to read Conan rubbing shoulders with Wolverine or having a buddy team-up with Frank Castle?  

Yet, it’s 2020 and the internet exists. Predictably, there are cries from the four corners of the internet that Marvel is destroying the integrity of Conan. That’s right, you heard it on the internet first: Marvel is destroying Conan the Barbarian! Marvel isn’t respecting the vision of Robert E. Howard! Have they even read the original material? Howard would be mortified by what Marvel is doing to his beloved character! 

Pfft. Let’s take a breather from the hyperbole, folks. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love Robert Howard’s work dearly. As a high school student, his work was some of the first sword and sorcery/fantasy work outside of Tolkien or Lewis that helped broaden my view of the genre. There hasn’t been a month in my adult life where I haven’t pulled a Howard collection from my bookshelf to read a story about Conan, Solomon Kane, Kull, or any of the other amazing characters he created. Howard’s writing has an electric energy to it that cannot be denied. That’s why for almost a century fans have sought his writing.  

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the idea that Howard’s Conan stories are the only true “canon” Conan stories. Howard created the character. However, it wasn’t like Conan was a popular or well-known character of fiction during his lifetime. Much of Conan’s fame comes from the fact that there were dedicated fans who kept the character “alive” for years, even decades, after Howard’s death. It’s through their hard work and own pastiche writing that Conan would survive, be rediscovered, and thrive as a character today.    

While there is an especially strong current in the Conan community espousing R.E.H. purity when it comes to Conan stories, Marvel is hardly the first to color outside of the lines when it comes to everyone’s favorite Hyborean warrior. Robert E. Howard wrote some fantastic Conan stories, but those are not the only Conan stories. Marvel is simply continuing a proud tradition of bringing Conan to a new generation of fans; a tradition, mind you, that they contributed to mightily. 

Robert E. Howard wrote professionally from the mid-1920s to the time of his suicide in 1936. Howard wrote almost exclusively for the pulp magazines of his time. The Pulp magazines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries laid the modern foundation for many of the genres nerds love including fantasy, sword and sorcery, horror, and science fiction. The pulps didn’t produce highbrow entertainment. These magazines were seen as the gritty, lowbrow reading of the time. You know, kind of like comic books! 

Howard constantly tinkered with his characters, Conan included. Conan was a staple of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, who published seventeen complete tales from December 1932 through October 1936. His first published story “The Phoenix on the Stone” was a rewrite of an earlier Kull story. If Howard was allowed to tinker with his own creations, I would squarely say writers in the past, present, and future should be given that freedom too! 

And yet… from the beginning, Howard fans have insisted on writers being a bondservant of Howard. After his death, Conan languished for a couple of decades before Gnome Press republished all of Howard’s material in the 1950s. Even at this early stage in the Conan/Howard revival, writers like L. Sprague de Camp and Björn Nyberg were already tinkering with the written Conan canon by altering non-Conan Howard’s tales into Conan stories, heavily and, let’s say, creatively editing the Howard stories, or finishing fragments of unfinished Conan stories. These alterations were met with disdain by the purists too.  

By the late 1960s, the Conan revival was in full swing. Once again, de Camp and Nyberg were joined by Lin Carter in producing the Lancer/Ace editions of the books. This included material written by Howard and new material written by the three writers. Intended to give a complete picture of the life of Conan, these new non-Howard stories were meant to fill in the blanks of Conan’s life. Many in the fan community completely ignore these stories today, writing them off derisively as gaudy pastiche and nothing more. 

Marvel got in on the Conan renaissance too in 1970 when it began publishing the Conan the Barbarian comic, and Savage Tales thereafter. While these books certainly adapted many of Howard’s stories, they also featured new adventures for Conan that weren’t rooted in the Howard canon.

At this point, Conan has been handled by far more writers and certainly over a longer period of time than Howard ever had with the character. That doesn’t mean the creators making comics using Conan don’t have to show respect or even a degree of reverence for Robert E. Howard. Far from it. However, the creators that are making Conan today should not be slaves to the past. 

Marvel is doing a great job of bringing Conan to modern comics. It has a bevy of ace creators who are more than up to the task of making Conan great again. I for one am glad we’re not reading more rehashed Howard adaptations. Marvel is publishing both their old material and that produced by Dark Horse Comics. If one needs to read an adaptation of “The Tower of the Elephant,” they have abundant options. Marvel is the only place where I can read Jason Aaron killing it on an amazing story arc about the death of Conan. 

It doesn’t take Robert E. Howard to make a great story. Just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s inferior. It’s time to stop complaining about what Howard would and wouldn’t do with the character. He’s not here anymore. It’s time to stop shaming people online for having the audacity to seek out Conan stories beyond the Howard canon. 

By Crom, Conan cannot and should not be contained! The dubious fantasy that creators should endlessly adapt Howard’s work in comic books is insane. If all writers are doing is adapting the Conan works of Robert E. Howard, there’s only so much growth that can happen for our beloved barbarian. Being subservient to Howard’s work limits Conan as a character. There are new, different stories that can be told with the character. Telling those stories does not negate nor replace what Howard gave to the world. 

One thing Howard made perfectly clear: Crom does not care. Why do you? 

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