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Have You Seen This Barbarian?

Longbox Graveyard #10

Crom, count the dead!

The numbers are in and it was a first-round knock-out — Conan the Barbarian could muster no better than ten million dollars in its opening weekend. Finishing fourth in what should have been a one-horse race, Conan failed to vanquish two box-office hold-overs and a Spy Kids sequel that wasn’t screened for U.S. critics (and the primary virtue of which is that it smelled like dirty diapers).

Barely a week has passed since the launch of this prospective franchise, and Conan already feels like old news. But the Cimmerian is a favorite here at LongBox Graveyard, so I will give his latest film outing a post-mortem before throwing a spade-full of dirt on the poor brute’s face.

My Conan biases were outlined in last week’s column, but for those arriving late — I love and admire the pulps; enjoy the Roy Thomas run of the comics; dislike Arnold Schwartzenegger‘s movies; and I believe Conan is a more sophisticated character than he first appears.

Yes, I am a true believer, and I turned out with my son Miles and a scant few other believers to see the movie last Saturday. The problems with the picture were legion — the action was largely incoherent, the dialogue lacked snap, the plot was uninvolving, the villains barely rose to the level of a desultory Marvel comics script, and Jason Momoa had bigger tits than his female lead.

But one problem put everything else in the shade.

Where was Conan?

Someone needs to put Conan’s face on a milk carton. I keep going to his movies, but the Conan I know still hasn’t shown up.

Drama is all about the character, never more so than when we are transported to some distant world full of monsters and alien gods. The growling savages, leaping sand demons, topless dancing girls, and writhing snake monsters of Conan the Barbarian haven’t a hope of holding our attention absent believable characters struggling to overcome meaningful internal struggles. It’s a real shame, because the film has decent cast and all the blood, blades, and boobs you need to make a Conan movie … they just whiffed on the “Conan” part!

Since the Barbarian’s screenwriters keep getting the character wrong, I thought I’d offer some pointers about what makes Conan special, and how the character might be better realized on the screen.

CONAN THE LIBRARIAN (Read The Books!)

Job One is to get to the library and read a couple books by Robert E. Howard. He wrote barbarian fantasies about this hero you may have heard about — guy by the name of “Conan,” as in, “Conan the Barbarian.” Howard was no Hemingway but the worst of his original Conan stories are head and shoulders above the hack screenplays that keep getting sold in his name.

Read those tales and you won’t find the One Ring (I mean a squid mask) held secretly by the Elves (I mean the barbarian tribes) to keep it from falling into the hands of Sauron (I mean what’s-his-name with the perfect teeth). Instead of raiding old D&D modules for story ideas as did the screenwriters of Conan the Barbarian, consider adopting some of the better original tales, like “The Phoenix in the Sword,” “Beyond the Black River,” “Red Nails,” or “Queen of the Black Coast.”

(And rather than reference “The Tower of the Elephant” in a throw-away scene the way they did in Conan the Barbarian, you might try actually making “The Tower of the Elephant.” It’s a pretty cool story. Check it out.)

CONAN THE REPITITIOUS (Enough With The Revenge Stories!)

To make their hero relateable, the screenwriters of the new Conan the Barbarian spend their first act showing us Conan’s childhood. As was the case in the tiresome 1982 John Milius film, this new Conan is a revenge story, with orphaned Conan remorselessly hunting down the Big Bad who killed his father.

Here’s the problem — Conan doesn’t a shit about his dad.

not THIS again!

If Conan thinks about his father at all, it is probably the same way he thinks about Crom — a distant, unfathomable figure who gave him courage and life, then left him to find his own way in an uncaring world. Conan is pragmatic and impulsive and so surrounded by blood and monsters that he knows every day could be his last. He’s an adventurer with a lust to live life to it’s fullest. This is not a man with a plan. The brooding, doomed, revenge-driven storylines now twice handed this character ill suit him (THREE times if you count Arnold mooning over Valeria in Conan the Destroyer. Enough already!)

CONAN THE CONTEMPORARY (Understand The Character)

It seems Conan’s screenwriters can’t get past the cliches to understand the living character at the heart of Robert E. Howard’s tales. There’s so much more to Conan than the grunting, one-note musclemen Hollywood keeps putting in his place. Conan’s writers need to see the Barbarian as a real person before they have a hope of giving him decent things to say and do. Might it help to think of him in present-day terms?

If Conan were alive today, he’d be the buddy you call to help move a couch, play wingman on a trip to Vegas, or help collect a debt. He would be perpetually broke, but he wouldn’t take your money. He’d seem both penniless and he richest man in the world. Jason Momoa’s screen presence hints at some of those qualities — Conan should be a regular guy, only more so. Keep that character in mind as you write Conan’s adventures in the Hyborian Age.

NOT the contemporary Conan I had in mind!

CONAN THE CONTRASTING (Let Conan Stand Out In A Crowd!)

The best way to appreciate Conan is through juxtaposition and contrast, but this newest film makes Conan just one brute among many, distinguished only by his lack of deformities and facial scars. When everyone is a mud-caked savage, it is hard to see Conan as a rustic outsider. He should stand out like a lion in a petting zoo.

But instead of plunging Conan into the civilized heart of darkness at the center of Howard’s Hyborian Age, the screenwriters of Conan the Barbarian (doubtless with one eye on the budget) throw our hero into Bulgarian forests and (worst of all) the mud-hut Cimmerian villages of Conan’s childhood — a place so dull that Howard’s Conan left it at the first opportunity. Put Conan in fish-out-of-water situations where we can see how his barbarism is both a blessing and a curse, and the character and the world will both feel infinitely more interesting and engaging.

courtly graces, Conan-style!

CONAN THE CATHARTIC (Make The Violence Fun!)

Conan is an outsider in his world, unschooled in the ways of civilization. It’s OK to make the character a little innocent and vulnerable. We’ll like him better that way, and we will get on board with Conan when we see he is inherently decent and misunderstood. The present screen Conan is far too comfortable and in command of his world to elicit audience sympathies.

We need to see Conan take the wicked kings and merchants of the civilized world at face value; we need to see their betrayal coming well before does our hero; and we need to see Conan turn the tables on the fools who underestimated him with a cathartic outburst of violence that sets things right.

Everyone wants to punch their boss in the mouth. Let Conan do that for us and we will love him for it!

anyone could have seen that coming … except Conan!

CONAN THE METAPHORICAL (Make The Violence Meaningful!)

Like the screenwriters of this and past Conan films, Robert E. Howard set his barbarian at war with sorcerers determined to enslave the world with their dark magics, but unlike Conan’s filmmakers, Howard understood those villains were metaphors for the corruption and false civility of modern life. Conan’s enemies aren’t the wizards or kings or computer generated monsters that filmmakers throw in his path — Conan’s enemy is anyone who has surrendered their freedom to corrupt authority, or is complicit in injustice, large or small. Conan’s enemy is the boredom and frustration of modern life — the gatekeepers, ribbon clerks, shysters, and con-artists that hide behind the rule of law to stick it to the little guy. Conan’s violent outbursts needs to topple kingdoms and right cosmic wrongs — he should wipe clean the stench of evil like a force of nature.

The bad guy in Conan the Barbarian is intent on becoming a god and destroying the world, but his inevitable death at Conan’s hands didn’t seem to have any meaningful impact on the world. Raise the stakes! When Conan kills the Big Bad it should be like blowing up the Death Star. In Conan the Barbarian, he just knocked a dude off a bridge.

long odds and meaningful outcomes

CONAN THE DIMENSIONAL (Let The Character Change!)

Jason Momoa’sConan is impossibly powerful, strong, and handsome, but without flaws or foolishness there’s no place for the character to grow. We watch Conan have an adventure, but we don’t go on an adventure with him, because he is obviously so in control of the movie that there’s no room for the audience to join him. Worse, Conan’s interior world is so ill-developed that meaningful character change is impossible.

Aside from weakly coming to terms with guilt over his father’s death, our new Conan has no character arc. He’s the same guy in the final scene as his first (and neither is there a change in his world). There are no stakes, no journey, no beliefs that are challenged, no character changes, and no point to his story.

Howard’s Conan begins his life as a penniless adventure and winds up crowned a king, along the way becoming a thief, soldier, pirate, and mercenary — that character is constantly growing and changing. Let cinematic Conan grow on screen, and the audience will grow with him.

Conan is not unaffected by his world

CONAN THE BARBARIAN, DAMNIT!

There’s a scene about a third of the way into Conan the Barbarian where Conan’s pirate pal describes what Conan is really all about — that he looks like a savage, but that he has the heart of a king, that he’s loyal to his friends like a bloodhound, and that unlike civilized men, he does not sacrifice his children to gods or enslave his fellow man. That’s Conan, and it’s encouraging the screenwriters knew him that well enough to write that dialogue!

If they had remembered Screenwriting 101 and shown us that character, instead of telling us about him, we might have had a decent Conan picture, about an adventurer we could believe in and cheer for and watch grow wise before our eyes.

Conan could have been a contender. He could have been a franchise!

Instead, Conan the Barbarian is a tedious, seen-it-before, violent fantasy spectacle long on cliches and short on character, which means two things.

First, I wasted my money taking my lad to see the picture last week.

Second … the clock is now running on the next Conan reboot! Check back here at LongBox Graveyard in 2021 for my review … and if you do see that barbarian on the milk carton, tell him to get out to Hollywood and split some skulls! They’re making a fool out of him out there!

NEXT WEEK: #11 Captain Not-So-Marvelous

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Nemedian Chronicles

Longbox Graveyard #9

Our big summer of comic book movies comes to a close this week as a new version of Conan hits the theaters. It’s been a good run, with most of the films being decent or better, and if nothing else I have all those superhero movies to thank for jump starting this blog. My previous post linking comics with the Captain America movie has been one of the most popular entries here at Longbox Graveyard, and although this week’s column also has a current movie angle, I will resist the cheap CHRIS EVANS NAKED linkbaiting that drove so much traffic for that entry, and make no mention at all of JASON MOMOA NAKED in this header.

No mention at all.

Aside from Green Lantern, I don’t think I’ve been genuinely let down by a spandex movie this summer (and I knew fell well what I was getting into with GL), but I must admit I view release of this new Conan with trepidation.

About the best that I can hope for is that it will be “stupid good.” Conan is a tough one … it will take a deft hand to take this character back to his roots and exhume the good stuff, a task made all the more difficult for the decades of crap that have been piled upon the Cimmerian’s shoulders. But I will raise my hand and pledge my good-faith intention to see the movie opening weekend at the theater, because I am an unabashed fan.

I owe much of my affection for Conan to comics.

I recently finished the fourth volume of the Dark Horse Chronicles of Conan reprint series, getting me through issue #25 of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, and marking the end of Barry Windsor-Smith‘s run on the book. It’s a watershed moment for the series and with the movie coming out it’s also a good chance to write about my quasi-uncomfortable relationship with Robert E. Howard’s “mighty-thewed” barbarian.

(Pause here for homo-erotic snarking).

Before we can consider the comic book Conan, we have to go back in time to the pulp magazine Conan … but before we can consider the pulp magazine Conan we have to stop in the 1960s to consider the single most influential artist in Conan history — the man who put an Austrian bodybuilder in the California governor’s mansion and transformed Conan from this …

… into THIS!

Setting aside the gender politics evoked by juxtaposing these images, and concentrating strictly on how Conan is depicted, there’s no question in my mind that Frank Frazetta rescued Conan from the dustbin of history. I do think Howard’s stories are a cut above, and they may have found a modern audience even without Frazetta’s considerable talents, but there’s no question that Frazetta’s covers for the Lancer series reprints in the 1960s were the critical flashpoint for the popularity Conan has enjoyed this past half-century.

(I won’t write further about Frazetta here, but I hope you’ll read the Frazetta appreciation I wrote over at my Appy Place blog following the great man’s death ).

Among the creators introduced to Conan via those Frazetta covers was Roy Thomas, who would go on to scribe the Conan the Barbarian comic for a decade (and that was just his first run on the book). Conan was a consolation prize for Marvel (they originally wanted Lin Carter’s Thongor the Barbarian!), and reflective of their diminished expectations for the book, Marvel paired Thomas with an inexperienced Barry Windsor-Smith for a scandalously low page rate. Despite these humble origins, or perhaps because of them, Conan the Barbarian quickly developed its own voice, and not just because it was a sword & sorcery book on a rack dominated by four-color superheroes.

What set Conan apart from other comics — even more than its sorcerers, monsters, swordplay, and exotic settings — was the book’s attitude and scope. Attitude, because here was a genuine anti-hero — a Marvel comics hero who stole things, got drunk, and killed people (no wonder I liked him!). Scope, because Roy Thomas worked loosely from the chronology of the original pulps in scripting the book — right from the earliest issues, we know that Conan has an unrevealed history ahead of him, a saga that will someday see him crowned a king. These elements immediately gave Conan a presence and a direction that helped keep the book on track through the critical early issues where Thomas and Windsor-Smith were finding their way.

It helps that Howard wrote so many of his Conan stories using the same template. Howard’s formula of the noble barbarian versus corrupt civilization, seasoned with monsters, wenches, and wicked sorcerers translates well from pulp magazine story to twenty-odd page comic script, and there are several issues of Conan the Barbarian where those elements are mechanically on display. It’s a one-note song, but it helps that it’s a really good note … and even if we know instantly what will become of the girl, the wizard, and the legend introduced in the first eight pages of an issue, it is still a fun ride getting there. That master plan of Conan’s life promises even the most insignificant issue will fit into a larger whole. And of course we enjoy the great character of Conan even in the middle of the most familiar plotline.

Ah, Conan. A genuinely misunderstood character.

I had an email argument about casting the new Conan movie the other day — because that’s what nerds do — and was dismayed to see my friend advance this opinion about Conan:

Conan does not need to really act, he just has to be a physical anomaly in musculature, look ripped as he’s crushing armies, and just give pensive stern looks and one word monologues. Find the physical icon for Conan, and then spend six months to teach it to speak.”

I’m sorry, that’s not Conan. That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnold put such a stamp on the character that for most people, Arnold is Conan. We have Arnold to thank for helping to popularize the character, but Arnold’s limitations as an actor did the character a disservice. Conan is more nuanced as written by Howard. He’s primitive, but not unsophisticated. Largely without guile, but not simple. Direct and thuggish at times, but also noble and with a greater range of emotion than Arnold could bring to the screen (“… gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth).

Whether or not we’ll ever see Howard’s Conan on the screen is beside the point. What’s relevant is the Marvel Comics Conan was developed years before Arnold would strip to the waist and hear the lamentations of the women. The Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith Conan was different from Howard’s original take, but much truer in spirit to the original than Arnold’s film version.

It was also, first and foremost, a comic book, meaning it got to the point more quickly even than the fast-paced pulps on which it was based. When Thomas and Windsor-Smith adopted Howard’s “The God in the Bowl” in issue #7, they dispensed with Howard’s who-dunnit talking heads as quickly as possible, and gave us six pages of Conan fighting the evil Stygian serpent. Years later, Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord would take the better part of two issues to tell the same tale, which does justice to Howard’s original dialogue, but doesn’t make for a better comic. Thomas was respectful of Howard, but he also had an editor’s eye, and he knew what his audience wanted — plenty of swords, blood, action, monsters, and sex (to the degree that the Comics Code allowed).

Barry Windsor-Smith delivered those things, too, though at his own pace and with his own emphasis. As the new kid on the block, Windsor-Smith colored inside the lines laid down by Thomas for the first few issues, but by issue #4’s “Tower of the Elephant”, you can see Windsor-Smith asserting himself as a storyteller, and by “Devil Wings Over Shadizar” in issue #6, it seems that Windsor-Smith is setting the tempo, and Thomas is filling in the words. The plot/pencils/script process of the “Marvel Style” makes it hard to tell exactly who does what when examining artist/writer collaborations, but as Thomas’ superhero plotting is more slam-bang in style, I think we can attribute to Windsor-Smith the more contemplative tone that characterizes the later issues of his run.

A pleasure of reading these first twenty-five Conans is watching Windsor-Smith grow as an artist, both in terms of confidence and in skill. His strengths were his anatomy, his storytelling, and his mania for detail (particularly in architecture) which helped bring the Hyborian Age to life. Windsor-Smith’s characteristic “film strip” style also emerges over time, first glimpsed as the slow gathering of a supernatural thunderhead in #3’s “Twilight Of The Grim Grey God,” then coming front-and-center for the tavern boasting and creature reveal in “Tower of the Elephant,” and reaching it’s peak in #10’s “Beware The Wrath of Anu,” when Conan arrives too late to save his friend from hanging.

By the time they were adopting “Red Nails” for Savage Tales, Windsor-Smith was driving the train, and the work suffered a bit without Thomas’ plotting. Thomas admits things came off the rails here, describing Windsor-Smith’s storytelling on pages 2-3 as “… Valeria does nothing but ride a horse slowly up to a pool, dismount, look around, climb a small outcropping, and look around, until she returns to ground level …” By a later age’s self-indulgent pinup-driven standards, though, these two pages from Windsor-Smith tick right along, and the story, as a whole, is strong, and laps ahead of other books in 1974.

Thomas is also very good in this run. My favorite story of this era is his eight-part “Hyrkanian War” arc from issues #19 to #26, which sees Conan fighting as a mercenary (on both sides!) in a religious war, both at sea and in the exotic and brilliantly rendered seaport fortress of Makkalet. Thomas’ plot gives Windsor-Smith plenty of room to show action from the siege of the city, but we also witness Conan’s loyalty toward his crippled friend, Fafnir, and his hot-headed disregard for the authority of the Turanian prince, Yezdigerd, whom Conan slashes across the face before leaping overboard and swimming through a rain of arrows (taking one in the side) to try his luck with his former enemies in the besieged city.

Along the way we get to see Conan wrestle to the death with “The Black Hound of Vengeance,” and we meet Red Sonja, too … all-in-all a terrific run, and a great climax to the Windsor-Smith era on the book.

This isn’t to say the first twenty-five issues of Conan the Barbarian are without warts. The two-part Elric story in issues #14 & #15 is a missed opportunity — there is some strong characterization, but Elric looks goofy and the plot is a mess. Throughout the run, Windsor-Smith struggles with drawing animals, and he’s not at his best when drawing faces and emotions. The two stories drawn by Gil Kane are utterly forgettable. I confess I don’t really “get” Kane — I appreciate his sense of movement, but when I look at his art mostly what I see are chins, nostrils, and abnormally arched backs. Not a fan.

It’s also a shame that deadline pressure meant Windsor-Smith could not finish the final two issues of the Hyrkanian War story, but John Buscema would prove an able substitute, and Buscema would of course go on to become the definitive artist of Marvel’s Conan.

Reading between the lines, Windsor-Smith may have worn out his welcome by this point, so his time was likely coming to a close on the book no matter what. At the time, Windsor-Smith’s slow drawing pace and idiosyncratic style probably drove everyone crazy — Thomas says that when Buscema took over the book, he expected to “… win fewer awards and sell more comic books” — but the years have washed away such temporary troubles and left us with a real gem of a run, where brilliant art and solid scripting come together to cement Conan as one of the great fictional heroes of the century.

Even if you can’t afford to collect the original books, check out the digitally recolored reprints from Dark Horse. They deserve a spot in your comics library.

(And lets all hope the new Conan movie has more Thomas/Windsor-Smith and less Schwarzenegger in its DNA! Unfortunately, that Rotten Tomatoes score is looking more daunting by the hour …!)

NEXT WEEK: #10 Have You Seen This Barbarian?

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