Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cimmerian 'Stravaganza: The Comics - Part 1!

Our Cimmerian 'Stravaganza of 2011 kicks into high-gear this week in anticipation of the new Lionsgate spectacular premiering on the 19th and starring Iowa's own Jason Momoa in the role that made a certain once and future California governor a star. And the most natural place in the world for our ongoing 'stravaganza to, um, go next is the medium where the character, the world, the very concept of Conan the Barbarian flourished - comic books.

And when we enter that medium, one thing becomes glaringly obvious: with all due respect to creator originality and meaning no disrespect to Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian as he exists in the popular consciousness has a fully equal co-creator, and that co-creator's name is Roy Thomas.

Thomas will be familiar to the more nerdy among you (and to those of you who dote on my frequent comics-postings here at Stevereads)(i.e. the most nerdy among you). He was the organizational and conceptual workaday genius who pretty much inherited the mantle of Marvel Comics from Stan Lee when the company was bought and Lee was promoted to Publisher. Thomas took all the bursting creativity of Lee and his artistic collaborators, added a much more intuitive and comprehensive grasp of inter-title continuity, and almost single-handledly created the next great age of Marvel titles. And in 1970, he managed to convince Glenn Lord, the literary manager of Howard's estate, to allow Marvel to put out a comic titled "Conan the Barbarian."

Despite a significant amount of reader demand, publishing a sword-and-sorcery literary adaptation in 1970 was a bit of a risk for a mainstream company like Marvel, so Thomas originally had a tight budget - too tight, in fact, to allow him to have the company's first choice of artist, the fan favorite (and correspondingly expensive) John Buscema. And in retrospect, this was a blessing: it forced Thomas to 'settle' for a sexy young Brit named Barry Smith, whose pencilling work (especially when he handled his own inking) was only just starting to show signs of the lavish, unique brilliance it would achieve in part because of the leeway Thomas gave the artist on this book. As Thomas remarked at the time when presented with the choice of artists, if he'd gone with Buscema in those early days, he'd have sold more issues and won fewer awards.

Looking at that initial Smith run on the book, it's utterly amazing how fast he throws off the unconvincingly Kirbyesque style he was using in issue #1. In a remarkably short time, Smith starts to show readers the sinuous, glittering detail for which he would later become famous. Most artists mature more slowly, but even by issue #4, the landmark "Tower of the Elephant," there are clear foreshadowings of Smith's more mature look.

Those earliest issues give us a very young Conan - lithe, boyish (indeed, many of Smith's '70s big-hair panels make the character look like the baddest-ass Bee Gee of them all), savage but inexperienced, and as such they make the perfect companion to this new movie, which features a Conan just at the beginning of his incredible career. He's not yet the preposterous monolith we were given in the last movie adaptation, and let's hope he never becomes it: the real Conan was far more than a simple strong-man - he's much more a lion than a bulldozer.

And magnificently sustaining Smith's evolving visuals was the scripting of Roy Thomas, who took a personal love of the character in Robert E. Howard's stories and re-created that character and his entire world for a much, much broader readership than Howard had ever reached. Long before the original movie and long after, mention of Conan was as likely to conjure the world Thomas created as visions of Austrian weightlifters. That world, like Howard's is full of torch-lit taverns and fantastic creatures who've survived from even earlier eras in Earth's troubled history. And more: it was Thomas who perfected the driving tension in the background of Howard's stories - the tension represented by Conan himself, a mortal man without super-powers who encounters all these fantastic creatures, these stubborn hold-overs from earlier times in which even Conan the Barbarian would not have survived ... encounters them, and defeats them. Not for heroism's sake (Thomas' Conan, like Howard's, is usually indifferent to heroism), but because he insists on dominating his own world. As paradoxical as it may seem, this Conan was both a representative of Everyman and an avatar of the 'modern' world.

For all his genius, Smith was never cut out for regular comic book series work, and everybody knew it (it's precisely this quality in his work that makes his frequent forays into the genre so instantly memorable). Luckily, as "Conan the Barbarian" sales blossomed, Thomas was able to acquire an artist who was not only cut out for regular series work but gloried in it, and that artist would go on to create as definitive a visual of Conan as Thomas had created a mental one. That artist of course is the aforementioned John Buscema, and we'll look at his contribution in our next chapter!

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