Lessons Learned From King Conan

This isn’t something that I set out to do. 

One of the sellers at a recent Toy Fair had cheap copies of old Conan comics available, so I took a flyer and picked up a series of five of them.  I’ve been on a Howard kick lately, and have discovered that a great many of the older things I’ve been told are terrible are actually pretty darn good.  At ten bucks and an hour or so to read them all, it was worth a shot.

Good call, Jon.

The writing doesn’t rise to the level of Howard’s work and the art isn’t up to the level of the black and white Conan comics that introduced me to the character, but those are both really high bars.  The stories are classic sword and sorcery tales.  They may be a bit workmanlike, but for some reason I’m a lot more forgiving when comics use Conan for stories than I am when writers use him that way.  There’s something about the transition to a new form of media that puts my mind at ease.  It may be that Howard’s writing is just so dang good it feels cheap when anyone else writes about Conan, but the change in media wipes the slate clean and doesn’t automatically lead me to compare the tale with one of Howards.

The first issue features Conan’s standard nemeses in a trio of sorcerers, one each from Khitai, Ophirea, and Shem.  They plot and gamble to determine who shall slay Conan and claim the power behind the throne of Aquilonia.  They lure him to their lair – three towers on a magic isle and hijinks ensue.

It has also been instructional for me as a D&D guy*.  One thing I’ve always struggled with was high-level adventuring.  Once the characters hit domain level and bought castles and cathedrals and such, figuring out ways to get them back into the dungeon can be a bit tricky.  With armies at their disposal, the normal grind of leveling breaks down into, “Send in the marines. His Majesty has no intention of missing Taco Tuesday at the castle.”

We usually just broke kayfabe and ignored the kingdom while the party headed out on a little jaunt.  In these stories, Conan might be the King, but he’s still the only one who can solve the problem.  Either he is the only one who knows about it, or it is a threat that targets him directly.  These solutions might be old hand for many, but seeing so many examples back to back to back really helps get the juices going and expands this DM’s repertoire.

The art is standard early-80’s comic book fare and features the standard early-80’s style.  That is to say, while it features a strong sense of fantasy, the fashions and hairstyles are firmly founded in 1980 standards of beauty.  While they tend to run towards the workmanlike end of the spectrum, this is an end of the spectrum that I cut my comic-milk teeth on, so it feels right to me.


Best of all, my three year old loves them.  She asked me to read them to her, and it has been a real pleasure to introduce her to the magic and heroism of King Conan.  Reading Howard’s prose to a three year old never would have occurred to me, but the inclusion here of the bright colors, and the tactile feeling of pointing to the word balloons to help her follow the action keeps her engaged.

As a casual comics fan, this has been a fun little jaunt for me.  I’ll have to keep an eye out for more cheap thrills like this at the next convention/toy fair.

*This is incidental, but worth a mention.  For the record, I’m a big D&D guy, but try to post most of my gaming material over on a blog written by a pseudonym.  Seagull Rising is more political, and I try not to mix politics and gaming if I can help it.

About Jon Mollison

Jon Mollison was weaned at the literary knee of Tolkein, Howard, Moore, and Burroughs. He spent decades wandering in the wilderness of modern genre fiction, wondering when the magic and wonder went out of the world of dragons and space ships. In his darkest hour, he encountered a wise man who handed him the open secrets to crafting works that emulate the stories of the great authors who built the genre. They are easily summarized in but two words: Regress Harder. Now one of the twelve champions of the Pulp Revolution, his self-published works represent a more direct lineage to the tales of action, mystery, romance, virtue, and pure unalloyed adventure than the bland imitations churned out by New York City publishing houses in recent decades.
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One Response to Lessons Learned From King Conan

  1. On the gaming side, perhaps something from Leiber's "Bleak Shore"?

    "It is said you two came close to death in the Forbidden City of the Black Idols, and in the stone trap of Angarngi, and on the misty island in the Sea of Monsters. It is also said that you have walked with doom on the Cold Waste and through the Mazes of Klesh. But who may be sure of these things, and whether death and doom were truly near? Who knows but what you are both braggarts who have boasted once too often? Now I have heard tell that death sometimes calls to a man in a voice only he can hear. Then he must rise and leave his friends and go to whatever place death shall bid him, and there meet his doom. Has death ever called to you in such a fashion?"

    Fafhrd might have laughed, but did not. the Mouser had a witty rejoinder on the tip of his tongue, but instead he heard himself saying: "In what words might death call?"

    "That would depend," said the small man. "He might look at two such as you and say the Bleak Shore. Nothing more than that. The Bleak Shore. And when he said it three times you would have to go."

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