LIVE BY THE SWORD
By Ed Sanchez
December 1932 saw the first appearance of Robert Ervin Howard's first Conan story, "The Phoenix and the Sword," a rewrite of the previously rejected Kull yarn, "By This Axe I Rule!" Over the next several years, seventeen Conan stories would appear in Weird Tales pulp magazine that would see the barbarian progress from thief, adventurer, pirate and mercenary to the throne of the mythical kingdom of Aquilonia. The stories were set some 12,000 years ago, between the sinking of Atlantis and the beginnings of recorded history. During the next 50 years, Conan stories gave birth to literary fantasy appearing in comics, abd were the subject of some of world renowned painter Frank Frazetta's greatest works. Conan also went on toe conquer the silver screen, becoming one of the most popular literary characters of the last century.
Conan first appeared in comics in 1971 at Marvel, and would have a lengthy run in both comics and the Savage Sword magazine. While most of the best stories were written by comics legend Roy Thomas, a good many of Howard's earlier pulp tales were adapted and remain some of the best comic stories in the last 30 years. The character still strikes a chord with fans today with his own comic once again being published by Dark Horse. Robert Ervin Howard's Conan tales have also recently been collected in a quality hardcover, and of course, there are ever present rumors of a new Conan film.
What made the character so popular? Howard's barbarian was an amalgam of several personalities that Howard found fascinating. Part Boxer, part Cowboy, part blue-collar worker, Conan was an idealized version of qualities Howard had himself, and others which he aspired to. Conan was honest, simple, straightforward and uncomplicated. These qualities were in short supply during the depression era, when desperation and disillusionment could be found on almost every face.
Conan was confident, daring and tough as nails in a fight, the perfect heroic figure not because he was smarter, but because his black and white code of ethics could never be swayed. To Conan's mind, there was right and there was wrong. End of story. Right meant ale and women, wrong meant a sword in the gut or a boxing of the ears. Conan would suffer great hardships in stealing a jewel from a rich fat-cat prince, or switch sides as a mercenary if he decided one side was wrong, as long as his pouch was full of enough coin to get him as far as the next kingdom in his journies.
In later Howard tales, Conan became a king, and realized that with that responsibility, he lost his freedom and joy. For more on Howard, see the 1996 movie The Whole Wide World, with Vincent D'Onofrio as Howard and Renee Zellweger as his love. Also check out the novel One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price Ellis.
Thrill to the adventures of Robert E. Howard's timeless Conan the Barbarian in comics and literature and see if you don't find yourself dreaming of an age when "shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars," and when the ultimate essense of being was "to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentation of their women."
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