‘Conan: The Phenomenon’ - Advance TPB Review

Conan: The Phenomenon from Dark Horse is a treasure trove of all things Conan, and once you’ve finished the book, you will feel like a regular “Howard Head” or Conan scholar, and believe me, both of these titles exist. The author, Paul Sammon, considers himself a “Howard Head,” which is someone who has a deep affection, connection, and respect for Conan creator Robert E. Howard and for his original Conan stories, of which it turns out there were only twenty-one, which included one serialized novel.  Seventeen of these stories first appeared in the popular pulp magazine Weird Tales from 1932-1936, and Howard only ever saw his work, from Conan and Solomon Kane to his lesser-known western stories appear in the pulps, as he committed suicide on June 11, 1936, at the age of thirty.  Indeed, I knew next to nothing about Conan’s creator, and Sammon sheds an amazing amount of light and pathos on the troubled life and mind of Robert E. Howard, affectionately known as REH by his admirers. 

The first chapter contains an in-depth history of Howard’s life, including personal photographs and letters (such as correspondence between Howard and famous writer H.P. Lovecraft), a plethora of facts about the context and creation of Conan, and also takes you through the short, sensational career of REH’s entrance and success in the pulp marketplace, which paints a picture of the time and environment in which Conan was born, and initially flourished.  This first chapter alone is worth the price of the book.  And, there are four more chapters, chock-full of knowledge, trivia, insight, facts, interviews, and artwork as Sammon perfectly documents the ebb and flow of Conan’s popularity over the decades and across nearly every entertainment medium.  Simply trying to decide what to focus on in this review was difficult, because there is so much incredible and interesting information in this book that I just want to share it all.  But, that is a task I will leave to Conan: The Phenomenon, which covers an astounding 100 years, from 1906, the year REH was born, to 2006, when the book was initially written, first published in 2007 as a hardcover, and now finally being made available in an affordable trade paperback version, which seems fitting, given Conan’s pulp origins.

Sammon covers the entire history of Conan’s development from 1930s pulp favorite to popular culture icon, and it is a story that spans across decades, and is still going now, six years after this book was originally published, with the new Conan the Barbarian film from 2011, and Dark Horse’s Conan comics still going strong, the flagship title currently being written by Brain Wood.  For those of you such as myself who first came to Conan through the two films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer, you are in luck, because Sammon worked as a publicist on the first film, and on the worldwide marketing of the second, which means that he has intimate behind-the-scenes knowledge, trivia, interviews, stories, and photographs from the making of both films, which is a treat for film aficionados.
Another aspect of Conan’s rise in popularity, before the films, was a Marvel Comics series starring the Cimmerian.  The initial comic, titled Conan the Barbarian, ran for 275 issues from 1970-1993 and helped sky-rocket Conan into the popular consciousness.  A companion black-and-white title, The Savage Sword of Conan, ran for 235 issues from 1974-1995, and in its early issues also continued essays on the themes found in the original Conan stories, as well as essays and facts about REH.  These supplements were written by comics legend Roy Thomas, who was responsible for bringing Conan to comics and also acted as the writer of Conan the Barbarian for 115 issues.  The beauty of Sammon’s book is that nearly all of the creatives involved in bringing the barbarian into comics and making him a rousing success are mentioned, and those who had a larger hand are discussed at length.  Sammon has done his homework and it shows on every page through his detail-infused narrative.  And, let us not forget the art.  Conan: The Phenomenon hosts a cavalcade of astounding artists, from the artists of the original Weird Tales pulp magazines, to the reprint and pastiche covers of Frank Frazetta, probably the most recognizable Conan artist of all time to the various talents from the Marvel Comics series, to artists such as Mark Schultz who were hired to illustrate premium, definitive editions of REH’s stories in the early 2000s, and the artists that helped Dark Horse revive the character’s presence in comics in 2004.  There truly are too many talented artists to name, and the book is absolutely overflowing with their gorgeous renditions of Conan, from pulp, book, and comic covers, to interior comic art, book illustrations, and paintings, and it is interesting to see all of the different iterations of Conan over the decades and across the various mediums.

Conan: The Phenomenon’s chapter breaks are perfect, dividing up the Cimmerian’s journey not just by time frame but also by subject.  Nearly every individual who has been a part of the Conan legacy receives at least a small biography, often including how they first came to discover REH’s warrior and the importance of their contribution, sometimes good and sometimes bad, which leads me to one of my final praises of the book.  Unbeknownst to casual Conan fans such as myself, there is a fair amount of contention in Conan’s long history.  This mostly comes from the creation of pastiches, which were stories that built on the existing Conan lore and mythology or used synopses or outlines for stories REH never got around to writing.  The writers that brought the most controversy were prose writers L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, the former who also heavily edited previously unpublished REH Conan stories.  These issues also arose in the comics, but the fervor against profiting off of the groundwork of REH was most often focused on the print stories and collections.  All of the original REH scholars and historians knew each other, or at least of each other, and Sammon deals with these real-life debates and these uncomfortable topics are not glossed over, but dealt with openly and with decency, as they are a part of Conan’s history. 

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the chronicling of just how difficult it is to keep a fictional character alive and active, while staying true to the author’s original vision.  The number of businesses, holders of the REH estate, book publishers, individual enthusiasts, and all of the legalities that come with them, as well as the creativity and drive needed to authentically repackage and uncover new facts about Conan and his creator, is staggering, and Sammon covers it all.  Conan: The Phenomenon could also be titled Conan: The Comprehensive, and it would be true.  No stone is left unturned, no facet of Conan’s cultural identity left unexplored.  My only wish is that there was an index at the end of the book, cataloging the interviews that appeared throughout, especially those that came from other sources, such as fanzines or newspapers. There are numerous subject-specific bibliographies in the book that are wonderful, and I understand that many of the interviews were probably conducted over a multitude of years and on varying occasions, but to be able to easily locate some of the more prominent external interviews would be an added bonus for any budding REH enthusiast, myself included.   

Finally, there is a segment on Robert E. Howard Days, a weekend celebration held in REH’s hometown of Cross Plains, Texas, started in 1991 in response to a consistent and burgeoning number of fans of the celebrated pulp author who came to visit his home starting in 1986, the fiftieth anniversary of REH’s death.  This segment comes near the end of Conan: The Phenomenon, and it provides a hopeful, though melancholy, bookend to the troubled life of Robert E. Howard, as many in the town did not even know REH was the creator of Conan, and also it is later revealed that though many did know, they did not regard his writing as a real profession or were off-put by the lurid subject matter of the pulps.  This directly correlates and contrasts to the photos in the first chapter that show Howard and his friends posing with spears and swords, young men enjoying their imaginations, and the fact that he was largely shunned because of his idiosyncrasies, no matter his success, speaks to something deep within me, and in some way, the whole of the Conan canon is tinged with this sadness, and with REH’s relative unhappiness with life in general.

Upon completing this book, I wished the second week of June was just around the corner, because I wanted to gather my fellow pulp enthusiasts and drive straight down to Cross Plains, Texas, for REH Days to pay tribute to a great writer who lived a hard life, but whose legacy lives on in his stories and all of the creativity they have inspired.  I also now have an insatiable desire to read all of the original Robert E. Howard Conan stories, and, hopefully, one day I will do both of those, embarking on my own adventure into the life of REH and the exploits of his greatest creation.  In closing, long live the imagination of Robert E. Howard and may we forever dwell in the Hyborian Age of Conan of Cimmeria.

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