Conan the Phenomenon

Review by C.J. Bunce

This month Dark Horse Comics is re-releasing the 2007 guide to the history of Conan the Barbarian, Conan The Phenomenon: The Legacy of Robert E. Howard’s Fantasy Icon.  Not in print the past few years and costly to obtain via online retailers in its original hardcover edition, this new paperback edition includes all of the original edition’s visually dense look at the history of Conan, which will appeal to longtime fans and new fantasy fans curious about this classic sword and sorcery character.

The overview of Conan begins with a prologue by Michael Moorcock that delves into the historical context of Robert W. Howard as creator of Conan the Barbarian in his very short time as a writer (he died at 30).  Moorcock explores why the character was an outgrowth of the times of the early 20th century.  The book then takes a unique look at the influence of living in bleak rural Texas on the young writer and how it came through in Howard’s creation of Conan’s world.

Conan by Frazetta

According to Conan The Phenomenon author Paul M. Sammon, many fans of Howard’s Conan writings in pulp magazines helped Conan stories to forge ahead despite the death of his creator.  Posthumous publications and a loyal fan following ensured that Conan would continue to be reimagined over the years.  Along with Howard’s own Conan the Conqueror (his only Conan novel, renamed by the publisher) Gnome Press published his stories (in now highly collectible books), and this was followed by new novels published by Lancer.  It was the Lancer paperback books that brought Conan to millions of readers.

One of the greatest influences on the phenomenon of Conan is the importance of artist Frank Frazetta as the visual counterpart to the outgrowth of Robert E. Howard’s writings.  His cover art on the Lancer books is now synonymous with Conan.  Would Conan be as pervasive today if not for Frazetta’s fantastical cover art?  What Conan fans will be happy with more than any other element of Conan The Phenomenon are the many painted covers by Frazetta included, along with covers and artwork throughout the history of Conan in books, comics, magazines and film.

Conan Marvel Comics Issue 1

The next great shift Sammon discusses is Conan finally introduced in both comic book form and in fanzines in the 1970s and 1980s.  Marvel Comics acquired the comic book rights from the estate of Howard and millions more of a new generation would encounter the sword and sorcery genre defined by Conan.  Sammon recounts the various comic book writers and artists that created the world most Conan fans know the character by today.

Conan The Phenomenon includes listings chronologically of the complete catalog of Conan works going back to Howard’s original stories.  A chapter is devoted to the struggle to get Conan to the silver screen with the film that would star Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, including details about the thoughts behind the swords created for the film and casting decisions.  Other modern novelizations are recounted as well as scholarship on Conan, including fanzines and useful websites.  The overview of Conan wraps with where Conan stories currently flourish–in the pages of Dark Horse Comics.

Conan The Phenomenon: The Legacy of Robert E. Howard’s Fantasy Icon is available in paperback in comic book stores September 18, 2013, and October 1, 2013 in other bookstores.  A discount edition is available at Amazon.com.

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