Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Conan, Illustrated through the Ages

In anticipation of the new Conan movie being released in August of this year, my mind and free reading time has been occupied with the writings of Robert E. Howard. I have not been reading his Conan stories, per se; however, I did recently read his Kull stories and his Bran Mak Morn tales. Currently, I'm reading El Borak.

The character of Conan has always intrigued me, but (and here REH enthusiasts are free to hate me) my favorite media to enjoy Conan tales has always been in the medium of comics, be those stories directly REH inspired or not.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good Conan yarn written by the man himself, "Red Nails" and "The Tower of the Elephant" being two of
my favorites, but I'm quickly finding that REH's writing was more powerful with his other, lesser known characters versus with Conan. I believe this is because in Conan he found a marketable character that become more "bread and butter" for him rather then exploratory.

I did a quick search of Conan illustrations, and found it interesting to show case how the Barbarian has been depicted in illustrative interpretations throughout the years.

Pictured above is, as far as I know, the first professional attempt at illustrating the character of Conan. It is an interior illustration from the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. Consequently, "The Phoenix on the Sword" was Howard's first Conan tale successfully sold (and was of course a re-write of the Kull tale "By This Ax I Rule"). The illustration above is by Jayem Wilcox. I don't know much about Jayem Wilcox. A quick Google search didn't turn up a whole lot, but (as far as I know) he goes down in history as the first artist to render a drawing of Howard's Conan character.

Howard's Conan tales were granted "issue cover status" nine times in Weird Tales. All nine covers were by fan favorite Margaret Brundage. Brundage was known (and favored) for her images depicting bondage and flagellation of women, her women being soft, with a doe like innocence, their faces contorted with fear from the situations Brundage depicts them in. I find her illustrations charged with an undercurrent of repressed sexuality.

Of the nine Conan covers she painted, only three prominently featured the Cimmerian. Those were the May 1934 issue ("Queen of the Black Coast"), August 1934 ("The Devil in Iron") and December 1935 ("The Hour of the Dragon).

So from 1932 to 1935, these were the depictions of the Cimmerian.

The next time Conan would grace the cover of a magazine was in August 1948, issue 8 of Avon Fantasy Reader ("Queen of the Black Coast") then again in October 1949, issue 10 of the same ("A Witch Shall be Born").

Avon Fantasy Reader (hereby referred to as AFR) was published from 1946 to 1952 and ran for 18 issues in total.

AFR published (reprinted actually) works by REH, HPL, C.L. Moore and A. Merritt just to name a few.

I could find no information regarding who illustrated the covers for these two issues. While I find that I prefer the depictions of the damsels in Brundage's illustrations, I find the depiction of Conan on much the same mark as first Wilcox and later Brundage depicted him.

I find the cover of issue 10 interesting as it features a Conan without a "shaggy mane". Conan as depicted here has a decidedly Romanesque look to him, which I also noticed in Jayme Wilcox's interior illustration for "The Phoenix on the Sword". On another side note, I do dig the "target" bra worn by the damsel on the cover of issue 10. It is a bit, mesmerizing.

In 1950, Conan would move from magazine covers to his first collected book editions, the

hardback editions published by Gnome Press from 1950 to 1957.

GP would published seven volumes, collecting together not only those stories which first saw light in Weird Tales but also included previously unpublished tales. It was with Gnome Press that L. Sprague de Camp would begin his habit of rewriting Howard tales to "improve" upon them.

It was also in the final volume of these editions, The Return of Conan (1957) that the first Conan pastiche was born, written by Bjorn Nyberg.

Five of the seven volumes had Conan depicted upon their covers. 1950's Conan the Conquerer (AKA, The Hour of the Dragon) featured a simple drawing of another Romanesque Cimmerian by John Forte. Forte was primarily a comics artist best known for his work on Legion of Super Heroes.

The Coming of Conan, 1953, was for me the most interesting interpretation of Conan to date. The art is by Frank Kelley Freas. Freas was a Hugo award winning artist. He did illustrations for books, magazines, album covers and even NASA (more of his art can be found here).

It wasn't until Lancer Books published Conan the Adventurer in 1966, that Frank Frazetta would paint his character defining images that would influence every artist that depicted Conan after him.