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