Co­nan in comics

ImagineFX: Sci-fi & Fantasy Art magazine - - Contents - Ar­ti­cle by Gar­rick Web­ster

Hither came Co­nan, the Cim­me­rian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand…

J ust that line, taken from Robert E Howard’s very first Co­nan story, The Phoenix on the Sword, is enough to set the heart of a comic or fan­tasy artist rac­ing. And, since the char­ac­ter first ap­peared in the pulp mag­a­zine Weird Tales in 1932, dozens of artists have drawn or painted him – in­clud­ing many of the greats.

The lat­est to ren­der the great bar­bar­ian is Span­ish artist Ser­gio Dav­ila. He’s on board with Dark Horse to draw its brand new se­ries. The artist is rel­ish­ing the free­dom he has to vi­su­alise the Hy­bo­rian age. “I’m hav­ing great fun work­ing in this fan­tasy world. It al­lows me to in­vent things, overdo some char­ac­ters, and take some of the ac­tion to the limit in a way you wouldn’t be able to in real life. And all in my very own style,” he says.

Ser­gio’s Co­nan has a meaty, mus­cu­lar look to him, rem­i­nis­cent of Marvel’s Co­nan of the 1970s and 80s. In ti­tles back then – like Co­nan the Bar­bar­ian and The Sav­age Sword of Co­nan – the pen­cillers Barry Wind­sor-Smith, John Buscema, Gil Kane and Pablo Mar­cos ex­pe­ri­enced a sim­i­lar kind of ex­u­ber­ance. The world Robert E Howard imag­ined was full of war­fare, sor­cer­ers, mon­sters and vil­lains, and Marvel gave its artists lots of scope.

Like Ser­gio, but with 45 years of ex­pe­ri­ence draw­ing Co­nan, the Peru­vian artist Pablo Mar­cos rev­elled in the same sense of pos­si­bil­ity. “He’s a fic­ti­tious hero, and that gave me all the free­dom to cre­ate a lot of ac­tion,” says Pablo. “Ex­otic girls are al­ways around him. I like Co­nan’s sur­round­ings, and it’s easy to cre­ate scenery, mon­sters, an­i­mals and fighters. There are no lim­its. I re­ally en­joy do­ing it.”

sav­age sword

Pablo still paints Co­nan com­mis­sions, but back in the 70s he drew the comic strips that Marvel syn­di­cated to news­pa­pers all over the US. His work ap­peared in Sav­age Sword of Co­nan for many years, and he also inked the pen­cils of an­other Co­nan great, John Buscema.

“The story I en­joyed draw­ing most was The White Tiger of Vend­hya,” says Pablo. “It had two fan­tas­tic el­e­ments: an

It’d lost all con­nec­tion to the source ma­te­rial. I re­mem­ber see­ing him drawn with ridicu­lous gi­ant bat­tle axes

ag­ile fe­line, and a strong war­rior with big mus­cles.”

Dur­ing the same era, an­other breed of artist was help­ing de­fine Co­nan’s im­age. While those pen­cilling the comics told of a world of weapons, women, war­riors and won­der, oil painters like Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo and Ken Kelly showed us Co­nan’s bat­tle rage on the can­vas. Their paint­ings ap­peared on book and comic cov­ers in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and their vi­sion was of a sin­gle-minded war­rior ca­pa­ble of great strength and bru­tal­ity.

Boris Vallejo painted the very first cover of Sav­age Sword of Co­nan in 1974, then pub­lished by the Marvel im­print Cur­tis. “I was very much into body­build­ing and mus­cu­lar war­riors, so paint­ing cov­ers for the Co­nan comics and books was very ap­peal­ing to me,” he re­calls. “Most peo­ple, es­pe­cially males, like the sim­ple con­cept of a guy who can take care of him­self and de­feat any foe.”

Per­haps it’s the oils and the Renaissance-in­spired tech­nique that gave cov­ers by these artists such a vis­ceral feel. Some­times they show Co­nan suf­fer­ing in bib­li­cal fash­ion. In one fa­mous Frank Frazetta work he’s chained to two col­umns – like Sam­son – and faces a gi­ant ser­pent. For is­sue five of The Sav­age Sword of Co­nan, Boris painted him cru­ci­fied in the desert to ac­com­pany the clas­sic story A Witch Shall Be Born.

It was through his work that Boris met his fu­ture wife Julie Bell, an­other pain­ter, who later be­came the first woman to paint Co­nan for book and comic cov­ers. Bright and fan­ci­ful, her work brought with it a spe­cial tech­nique. “I was ex­cited to do the Marvel cov­ers where they wanted ac­tion,” says Julie. “They wanted me to use the ‘me­tal flesh’ look that I was be­com­ing known for and had painted in Heavy Me­tal cov­ers.”

feed­ing imag­i­na­tions

Marvel’s Co­nan fed the imag­i­na­tions of teenage boys for three decades, but it’s worth not­ing that Robert E Howard only wrote 21 sto­ries fea­tur­ing the char­ac­ter, though five fur­ther in­com­plete pieces are

part of the pan­theon. Only so much could be done with Co­nan in the Marvel style. The colour comic Co­nan the Bar­bar­ian ended in 1993, fol­lowed by its black and white sis­ter, Sav­age Sword of Co­nan, two years later. “It’d lost all con­nec­tion to the source ma­te­rial,” says Cary Nord, who later re­vived Co­nan for Dark Horse. “I re­mem­ber see­ing him drawn with ridicu­lous gi­ant bat­tle axes and he was given that Jim Lee-style crosshatch­ing treat­ment.”

Co­nan comics re­turned to mind-blow­ing ef­fect in 2003. In the early 70s, artists such as Barry Wind­sor-Smith had won sev­eral Shazam Awards, and with the fresh work he pro­duced in Co­nan is­sue 0, Cary Nord won a 2004 Eis­ner Award.

The look and feel of the books was en­tirely dif­fer­ent, with Cary

cham­pi­oning en­hanced pen­cilling, plus the dig­i­tal colour­ing of Dave Stewart. More than that, they ap­proached the char­ac­ter and his world in a more re­al­is­tic way. With im­pos­si­ble mus­cles and weapons, a lack of hu­mour, and con­stant re­course to vi­o­lence, Co­nan had lost his way by the 90s. Dark Horse dug down to find the depth his orig­i­na­tor Robert E Howard had given him.

bright eyes

“Co­nan is an in­tel­li­gent char­ac­ter, which is easy to over­look. I al­ways tried to have some­thing go­ing on be­hind his eyes a lit­tle deeper than just angst or rage or lust,” says Cary. “The first book fea­tured a young Co­nan who had just left his home­land, so in a lot of ways Dave Stewart, the writer Kurt Busiek, me and Co­nan were all grow­ing to­gether. I think Co­nan learned to be less rash, that think­ing his way out of trou­ble was as ef­fec­tive as us­ing his fists.”

Cary Nord’s won­der­ful art on Dark Horse’s first Co­nan se­ries brought a level of de­tail and tex­ture that was hard to sus­tain month in and month out. Ev­ery so of­ten, an is­sue drawn by Greg Ruth was dropped into the se­quence telling more of Co­nan’s back­story. Born on The Bat­tle­field is as rich as Cary Nord’s work, but feels looser and more ges­tu­ral. And it’s pretty bloody, too.

The book was a step away from the hor­ror comic Freaks of the Heart­land, which Greg had been draw­ing. “I knew they wanted a more vividly colour­ful pal­ette, which was new for me, and they wanted a high fan­tasy, gritty re­al­ism,” says Greg. “I had to do the first is­sue of

I tried to have some­thing go­ing on be­hind his eyes… some­thing a lit­tle deeper than angst, rage or lust

Deep in­side all of us lives the de­sire to be just like Co­nan

Co­nan while also do­ing the fi­nal is­sue of Freaks, and a lot of Freaks bled into Co­nan in a way that wasn’t work­ing. Co­nan needed to be crisper, Co­nan was ac­tion.

“When I look back at Born on the Bat­tle­field I see it as a kind of crazy ex­per­i­ment that some­how worked. It’s all be­cause of Kurt Busiek’s mas­tery of the story and the char­ac­ter. I learned more about comics and sto­ry­telling work­ing on that book than any other time in my life.”

The suc­cess of the Co­nan ti­tle grew, and Dark Horse has run sev­eral dif­fer­ent Co­nan se­ries, each look­ing at a dif­fer­ent era in Co­nan’s life. They’ve all been kept close to the orig­i­nal Robert E Howard sto­ries, with some bridg­ing and im­pro­vi­sa­tion here and there. Tomás Giorello drew Co­nan the Cim­me­rian, about Co­nan’s mil­i­tary feats, fol­lowed by King Co­nan in which he’s an older, bearded leader. Brian Ching has re­cently fin­ished draw­ing Co­nan the Avenger af­ter 25 is­sues. His Co­nan looks an­gu­lar and lithe.

qu ick and ag­ile

“Howard de­scribes him as be­ing pan­ther like,” says Brian. “He would need to be quick and ag­ile in his world. Yes, he’s strong but not the type of mas­sive mus­cu­la­ture that looks like he could tear the limbs off his en­e­mies. I drew Co­nan with a lit­tle smirk. My take was that he loves who he is. That there’s a free­dom to be­ing so fear­less.”

Like many other Co­nan artists, it’s the char­ac­ter’s mirth rather than me­lan­choly that Brian iden­ti­fies with most. “This has been the best ex­pe­ri­ence in my pro­fes­sional life,” he says. “My art­work took a huge shift when I be­gan this book – I started ink­ing my own work, tried ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques. It’s such a lib­er­at­ing feel­ing.”

Look­ing back across all the great Co­nan art­work as we pre­pare to savour a new chap­ter of the bar­bar­ian’s artis­tic story, it’s a lit­tle eas­ier to ap­pre­ci­ate why the char­ac­ter is so en­dur­ing. “Co­nan is such a spe­cial char­ac­ter that his ad­ven­tures will never fin­ish. Deep in­side us lives the de­sire to be like him,” says Pablo.

BERSER K! Cover art­work for is­sue two of Co­nan the Slayer, by Ser­gio Dav­ila. A lit­tle ex­ag­ger­a­tion never goes amiss mid-bat­tle, says the new Co­nan pen­ciller.

CRU­CI­FIED This clas­sic Co­nan im­age by Boris Vallejo ap­peared on is­sue five of Sav­age Sword of Co­nan.

GOLDEN GANES H Julie Bell’s im­pres­sive ‘me­tal flesh’ tech­nique ap­peared on the cover of Sav­age Sword of Co­nan.

PRO­TEC­TOR Boris Vallejo loved paint­ing a mighty, mus­cu­lar Co­nan de­fend­ing a sexy woman.

CON­QUER OR Comic artist Cary Nord cites Frank Frazetta as the defin­ing Co­nan pain­ter. Frazetta painted this paper­back cover in 1966.

RENDI TION Cary Nord is the most re­spected of the Dark Horse Co­nan artists. Here he’s re­coloured his cover to the graphic novel The Blood-Stained Crown.

ORIG­INA L Above, the orig­i­nal cover to the graphic novel that Cary Nord re­coloured (above left). WAN T SOME ? Brian Ching wanted to show Co­nan’s ‘gi­gan­tic mirth’, but he’s never shy of slay­ing a foe. BIR TH OF CO­NAN Greg Ruth lit­er­ally showed the world how Co­nan was born on the bat­tle­field in is­sue eight of Co­nan.

© Everett/REX/Shutterstock

THE AVENGER It’s a lithe-look­ing Co­nan that Brian Ching drew in Co­nan the Avenger, with pan­ther-like qual­i­ties.

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