Thursday, March 26, 2009

Conan the Derivative!

I've said it before: has any fictional character ever been so poorly served as Conan the Barbarian? His creator, Robert E. Howard, gave him birth in a slapdash way, ping-ponging around a character chronology he kept largely in his head, and then abandoning that chronology when he blew that selfsame head off his body. The first Conan short story was a rewritten version of an earlier tale originally starring another Howard creation, King Kull of Atlantis (the Kull stories are fantastic in their own right, and although they tend to lack the signature vigor of the Conan stories - where Howard's heart very much resided - they do have something Conan never has: a steady, engaging supporting cast), and after Howard's suicide, the character passed from hand to creative hand like a church collection plate.

A thousand times as many people have seen the Conan movies and watched the various Conan cartoons as have ever actually read one of Howard's stories (the forthcoming big-budget Hollywood version will only multiply this), and for decades reading one of Howard's stories wasn't always as easy a thing as it sounds. Throughout the 1970s, a stream of Conan books were published (many of them "co-written" or "finished" by the great journeyman sci-fi writer L. Sprague deCamp, whose novel Lest Darkness Fall is well worth your time to find and read), many of the sporting now-iconic Frank Frazetta covers, and all of them making fine, fun reading - but they hardly represented Howard's character as Howard meant to write him.

That lack was finally supplied in 2003, when Del Rey began publishing its epic, incredible trade paperback editions of the works of Robert E. Howard, including three volumes of the Conan stories (in a wonderful nod to the pulp-fiction origins of the characters, every volume is heavily illustrated) presented in exactly the order Howard first presented them way back in the '30s.

Here you get the glories (slightly hyperventilating glories, but glories all the same) of some of Howard's best work, including such stories as "Rogues in the House," "Black Colossus," and of course "The Tower of the Elephant." Here you get that particular mixture of heady description and wry self-awareness that shines in even Howard's most, um, titillating passages:

Tanada shook back her long black disheveled hair and faced Conan. She was bleeding from a score of scratches on her breasts and thighs, her locks fell in confusion down her back, and she was as naked as the day she was born; but she stared at him without perturbation or uncertainty, and he gave back her stare, frank admiration in his expression of her cool bearing, and the ripeness of her brown limbs.

"Who are you?" she demanded.

"Conan, a Cimmerian," he answered.

"What are you doing in Shumballa?"

"I came here to seek my fortune. I was formerly a corsair."

These volumes do great work, but they fight an uphill battle against all the popular entertainment conceptions of Conan, most especially the atrocious movies that launched the "acting" career of a future American president. The problem is that Howard originally envisioned the Conan stories as shards of a single mosaic, random glimpses of one man's whole remarkable life - as freebooter, mercenary, corsair, general, husband, father, and king - but movies, cartoons, and comic books have tended to plop their derivative adventures down squarely in Conan's earliest days as the sword-wielding all-purpose barbarian the general public knows (a welcome exception in the comics world, "Conan the King," was short-lived and unenthusiastically received by fandom). The aforementioned Hollywood movie will continue this - the current rumored front-runner for the lead is Alan Richtson, an incredibly nice kid with lots of untapped screen charisma but who'll land the role for one reason: his muscular body (it's a risk I myself would be willing to run for the chance to get Richtson in the part, since he's especially good at the sardonic-humor-in-the-midst-of-action that is the quintessential Conan trait).

And what of books, you ask? What of the innumerable Conan spin-off pastiche novels that have come and gone since Howard blew his brains out? Well, as you can imagine, they've all stuck to the same formula mentioned above: their Conan is uniformly young, often in his early teens, and reading the books, you get the impression this is done in large part so the respective pastiche writers don't have to bog themselves down with mastering the detailed timeline that governs Conan's more adult life (was Belit after Zamora, or before? That kind of thing).

Robert Jordan's Conan novels are every bit as turgid and boring as his "Wheel of Time" books. The seasoned veteran hack Steve Perry became seasoned in large part through writing Conan books, and his are always reliably entertaining, as in a scene from the less-than-stirringly titled Conan the Formidable (guess Conan the Above Average was taken) where our young barbarian faces a group of would-be robbers on the road:

"Ah" [says the leader of the robbers]. Well, that sword you wave about so dangerously might be worth something. We could sell it."

"I am not disposed to give it up."

The man waved the morning star at his band. "There are six of us and but one of you. Give us the sword and whatever valuables you carry and you may leave here unharmed."

"Pardon me for not trusting you, but I think not."

"There are still six of us to your one."

"That can be changed."

But alas, most of these knock-off novels are ruinously dreadful. The ongoing Conan comic book series is a bright light in this regard, always excellent and well worth your time, but a truly great Conan novel has never been written, not even by the creator of the character himself. This is an odd but consistent failing Conan has in common with a surprising number of other characters from the pulp era - there's no one stand-out great novel of Doc Savage either, or the Shadow. Tarzan has both Tarzan of the Apes and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, but all three of Robert E. Howard's great creations, King Kull, Solomon Kane, and Conan, live most fully in the short stories he crafted for them. And until the creative bar is raised - until Conan comes to stand in the reading imagination for more than quaffing ale and beheading people - that's likely to remain the case. Maybe someday a visionary director will come along and make the great, exciting, heartbreaking movie "The Tower of the Elephant" begs to be, and suddenly the character will undergo a renaissance.

But in the meantime, the forthcoming movie has at least one thing going for it: Nicholas Cage won't be playing Conan.


Kevin said...

If the Steve Perry excerpt is supposed to represent good non-Howard Conan writing, I'd hate to see an example of the bad. Who would have thought there was so much waving going on in Cimmeria?

brian said...

"These volumes do great work, but they fight an uphill battle against all the popular entertainment conceptions of Conan, most especially the atrocious movies that launched the "acting" career of a future American president."

Atrocious movies? Really? While I grant you 'Conan the Destroyer' is awful (at least it's fun in its awfulness), 'Conan the Barbarian' still holds up today, in my opinion. The opening raid on Conan's village, Mako's narration, The woodenly beautiful Sandahl Bergman, the hilarious scene with Von Sydow, The snake pit, Thulsa Doom, Conan's crucifixion. Is it a good adaptation? Nope, not really. Milius probably wasn't too interested in Robert E. Howard. He just wanted a good sword & sorcery (with some T&A mixed in for good measure)picture. He succeeded. I was entertained.

brian said...

Also, it's way too in vogue these days to rip Nicolas Cage. This guy throws everything into his roles (and then some). For examples of his greatness, see 'Knowing' or 'The Wicker Man'. One review of 'Knowing' said that ONLY Cage could seem like he's overreacting to the end of the world. That's baloney. No one does Cage like Cage. I'm not even sure he's acting anymore...and that's not a criticism.

Ken said...

Make sure that you review the Kane books by Karl Edward Wagner. A good compare/contrast/influenced by article. It is good to have mighty thews.