A Catcher in the Pictish Wilderness

Most people are aware of Robert E. Howard through his character Conan the Cimmerian, even if they don’t know the author’s name. When I was young I dedicated myself to learning about the hidden recesses of popular culture, as a way out of the morass of public school and suburbia that surrounded me but was none too welcoming. In my opinion Howard’s most creative works are the Breckenridge Elkins stories, which have nothing to do with Conan or what passes for him in comic books and film. While dealing with matter akin to folktales, they’re innovative in the use of Texas vernacular patois and deal with the fantastic without horror or the somber moodiness of sorcerous fantasy, which is tricky. Many, including Howard’s peer weird fiction author and friend H. P. Lovecraft, have speculated that had Howard lived, he would have produced stunning historical fiction. Why not? Before The Bastard, The Patriot, etc. John Jakes wrote Brak the Barbarian and even plotted a few early issues of the Conan the Barbarian comic series. Part of my fascination with Howard is the continuing life of his most popular creations since he died in 1936. He wrote an enormous body of fiction for his short 30 year life. I’d like to rant and reminisce about what drew me to his work, and some of the lost world of the 1970s where that happened. This is probably as good a way as any to begin to examine the afterlife of an author’s work.

Like many I was introduced to Robert E. Howard by Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian (CTB). The other gateway you often hear about is Dungeons and Dragons, which I didn’t play until I was a high school senior in 1981. In fact, although Howard wrote his last story in 1936, it was my generation’s love of the comic book Conan that was responsible for giving Howard an enduring legacy. I became aware of his work at that weird moment in the early to mid 70s when Conan was out of print in the U.S. except for an occasional appearance in the periodical digest Fantastic Stories. This was also when the character started becoming a household word and was indelibly branded “the Barbarian” by Marvel. It was 1973, I was eight years old, and the specific vector was Conan the Barbarian 31. It featured the story “The Shadow on the Tomb” based on the de Camp and Carter pastiche “The Thing in the Crypt” from the paperback Conan (Lancer Books, 1967).

Vector of my word virus (Conan the Barbarian #31, Marvel Comics, October 1973)

Back in 1973, CTB 31 gave me a lot of food for thought. I was the grandson of a Swedish immigrant. That coupled with living in Minnesota where they are a football team left me quite familiar with the concept of vikings. My father pointed out that vikings  were more or less what Conan was about. So I identified with the character, and was gratified by the paternal approval of my choice in reading matter. But many questions remained. If Conan generally used or was on the make for a sword as in “The Shadow on the Tomb,” why did he have an axe in the cover logo? From other Marvel comics, I understood that the image of the character that accompanied the cover logo was supposed be typical of the character. I searched the inside of CTB 31 repeatedly for Conan with an axe. Without a copy in front of me now, I recall that in the portion of the story in which he mulled over his past history in the Cimmerian hills, he or his enemies had stone-tipped spears, but no axes. So I was faced with a progression from stone spearheads to steel swords, with neither bronze nor axe as an intermediate step as far as I could see. Understanding how comics indexed their content helped me turn the pastime of reading comics into a lucrative hobby as teenager. If you know how old a comic is based on cover price and publisher logos, you have what you need to quickly identify a valuable issue in a pile of others without looking at a dealer’s price guide, which will make any potential seller mighty suspicious. It was also a transferrable skill that helped me as an archaeologist in judging the age of prehistoric finds with nothing written to announce who made them. Some archaeologists used to lecture on identifying the age of cars by their tail lights, which is similar but more relevant if you lived when a greater variety of cars were on the street than today. Same principle.

Around this time, my grandfather explained to me the progression in prehistory from stone, to bronze, to iron and even that people in the Old Country believed that ancient stone and bronze axes they encountered from time to time in the countryside were made by lightning strikes. In CTB 31, technological evolution was apparently instantaneous or at least occurred in less than a generation for the Cimmerians, who skipped copper and bronze and moved straight from stone to iron. (Oddly enough, that appears to be more or less what happened in the Lake Victoria region of Africa, where iron was utilized long before copper—but that’s another tangent.)

The other thing that mystified me was that the portion of the story in which Conan hunts for a sword took place in a flashback, which was not something I was still unfamiliar with, at least beyond a little exposure to it on television. I was slow to connect CTB 31 to the structure of what I saw David Carradine experience as Kwai Chang Kane on the ABC television series Kung Fu. Conan’s remembrance of his wayward youth, including supernatural hazards which seemed to be commonplace for his world, is the part of the story that the comic’s author, Roy Thomas, adapted from “The Thing in the Crypt.” I pieced that together a few years later when I got ahold of Sphere’s British paperback edition of Conan from Shinder’s Read-More Bookstore in Minneapolis. Shinder’s (now defunct) was famed for out of town and foreign newspapers, comics of course, and also carried British editions of out of print American fantasy. In the case of the collected Conan stories as well as the novel Conan the Conqueror, it was for a steep $3.50 to $5 per book depending on how many were in stock. (For comparison, at that time some paperbacks like the Doc Savage and Avenger series retailed for under a buck, and the most expensive were about $1.25.) How I ever swung that as a 10 year old working class kid in the mid-70s, I don’t know. I must have saved every scrap of allowance, Christmas money, and birthday money that I possibly could. I can recall a twinge of concern when I first mulled over the price tag of the first Sphere paperback that I bought, Conan the Conqueror with the Frank Frazetta cover, but quickly decided that if this was the only way I could get it, I was going to pay.

Within two years or less I ended up with British editions of virtually all the titles that had been issued previously by Lancer and were reprinted later by Ace. And I devoured them all, sometimes in one sitting. Heady stuff for a grade schooler, and definitely forbidden fruit. Before scoring any of the paperbacks, the first prose story of Conan I’d managed to get ahold of, if all too briefly, was “Red Moon of Zembabwei” by de Camp and Carter in Fantastic Stories (July 1974). I was with my parents on a trip to the mall (at that time still a novelty) and was told I could spend my money on whatever I wanted. I was thrilled to see Conan on the cover of Fantastic, and immediately bought it. It was 75 cents, a lot more than the 20 to 25 cents I was used to paying for a comic like CTB 31. My excitement was already lessened when the cashier stapled the receipt to the cover of my new treasure, which they often did back then. You’re going to be in the store, better staple this on there to make sure you don’t steal anything. Saves a few pennies for us. Once I caught on I always requested a bag, but I was still eight years old and had never bought a book or magazine except a few comics. Then my mom looked it over and freaked out about some allusion to sex, or at least partial female nudity, that she found in the text, and angrily threw it away.


CONAN RETURNS! (Fantastic Magazine, July 1974)


Flash forward two years. I don’t know exactly what shifted. Perhaps it was my mother’s newfound tolerance for whatever fantasy world I wanted to romp in following my parents’ divorce a few months after the Zimbabwei incident. Maybe it was simply the realization that I just wasn’t going to give up. Or maybe it was just lack of attention. Within 24 months of my Fantastic Stories being shitcanned at the Apache Plaza shopping center, I had put together a set of the Sphere Conans. Within a year of that I turned in a book report on my second or third reading of Conan the Cimmerian to my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Shaver. I was careful not to bring the books themselves to school, knowing they’d be confiscated if one of my less discrete classmates grabbed ahold of one and was caught reading aloud from one of the more prurient passages from a story like “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”: “Her body was like ivory to his dazed gaze, and save for a light veil of gossamer, she was naked as the day” (Conan of Cimmeria, Lancer, 1969; first published as “Gods of the North” in The Coming of Conan, Gnome Press, 1953). I knew I was taking a risk by not doing the report on more standard fare like A Wrinkle in Time, and luckily, my teacher was amused. Later he told my parents that he thought I had a college level vocabulary that might even be greater than his own. If that was true I owe it to comics (most of all, Roy Thomas’s prosy and often pseudo-Shakespearian dialogue and captions), reading REH, and the tolerance or benign neglect of adults like my mother. And to Mr. Shaver, for not forcing me to write about something like Old Yeller.

Stepping back a few more years before I ever read it, Marvel’s CTB famously began with the writer-artist team of Roy Thomas, who started at Marvel scripting the X-men and Avengers in the mid-60s, and Barry Smith, who had drawn superhero books at Marvel and SHIELD agent Nick Fury in a style that was at first more or less a pastiche of Jack Kirby with a little Steranko psychedelia mixed in for variety. (I’ve often heard comic artists like Smith, Steranko, and Berni Wrightson described as “stylists,” which has the odd effect of making comics illustration sound like hairdressers. A little more off the ears.) Before long Smith came into his own. While he drew the book (1970-1973), CTB won five Academy of Comic Book Arts Shazam! awards. The Shazam! was something like the equivalent of an Oscar for comics. He also grew into his well known Pre-Raphaelite style, changed his name to Windsor-Smith, and not long after left comics and founded Gorblimey Press, capitalizing on the growing popularity of fantasy illustration with high quality prints. Especially compared to the tan and grainy wood pulp that comics were then printed on. There wasn’t a lot to complain about though. When I started reading them comics were 20 cents. Now they are generally the same length and $3-$5. All about the production values. Even online access to Marvel Comics is $69 per year. Depending on how many you read it’s better than $5 a crack but is far from being a sustainable kids’ hobby anymore. Kids have been priced out of the market unless they have relatively wealthy parents, and hopefully the ones that want to read have access to a decent computer or public library.

In many ways this proved to be a perfect storm for my growing appreciation of REH’s legacy, and eventually an ongoing interest in the whole Lovecraft Circle. By the tender age of nine, it had already led me back to the original pulp stories even though Conan was out of print in the U.S. and used book stores were rarer (and seedier) than they are now. If you’re unfamiliar with the early years of Conan the Barbarian and want to know more, the stories covering Smith’s tenure, including a color version of the moody adaptation of Red Nails from Savage Tales, are available in volumes 1 through 4 of The Chronicles of Conan. I’m not suggesting it will be everyone’s cup of tea, nor that it’s all great. It’s comics and for that reason you are probably either going to love them or hate them, depending on your interest. What’s significant is how comics helped get Robert E. Howard’s pulp writing back in print, have kept it there, and catapulted the character to the status of a household word worldwide even if Howard himself is still relatively unknown.

An earlier version appeared in REHupa (journal of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association), August 2015.

One thought on “A Catcher in the Pictish Wilderness

  1. Pingback: A Catcher in the Pictish Wilderness – Whispered in Stygia

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