Actually this piece should be titled Conan by M. D. Jackson as it will culminate in my portrait of the iconic hero, something that I have been attempting to do without much success for quite a few years now.
Robert E. Howard’s iconic sword and sorcery hero (and not many would argue that the genre of sword and sorcery was really invented by Howard himself) made his first appearance in the pulp magazine Weird Tales back in December of 1932 with the publication of Howard’s story The Phoenix on the Sword.
The story carried a black and white illustration by pulp artist J. M. Wilcox. It was likely just another assignment for Wilcox and no real special effort goes into depicting Conan as the fierce barbarian that we know today. Wilcox gives Conan a vaguely Roman appearance with rather unremarkable features and a somewhat effete gesture at the large brutish snarling creature that is threatening him.
However, Conan’s first appearance on a Weird Tales cover was painted by Margaret Brundage in May of 1934.
Brundage was an amazing artist and her covers for the pulp magazine are. for the most part, astounding, but here her depiction of the mighty barbarian is a little underwhelming. His muscles look smooth and a little slack and he is holding a winged creature at bay with a knife in a rather unconvincing manner. He also looks like he is using the woman in the picture as a human shield against the threatening monstrosity.
Howard’s death in 1936 by his own hand put a stop to the hero for a time, but the character’s mystique would not let go. In the 1950’s Gnome Press published a collection of Howard’s Conan stories which featured a dust jacket illustrated by Ed Emshwiller, then a mainstay illustrator of the early science fiction magazines. Emshwiller’s Conan has a cartoony quality and a very palpable “Prince Valiant” influence. Emshwiller did three covers and only one depicts Conan wearing the iconic loin cloth and the traditional physique and sword swinging. Any resemblance to the actor Victor Mature is, I am certain, purely coincidental.
After these three editions Conan remained dormant until the 1960’s when Lancer/Ace began looking for properties to reprint for the mass market paperback market. Howard’s Conan stories were a natural fit as was one of their cover artists, Frank Frazetta. Their first edition of Conan stories was Conan the Adventurer and it featured this image on the cover.
This was a game changer. No more quasi-Roman garb. No more flaccid muscles. This was a depiction of raw brute power with lurid hints of sex and death. If one man can be said to have jumpstarted the Conan character back to life, then it has to be Frank Frazetta with this depiction.
This ain’t your father’s Conan.
This image and the others that Frazetta painted became the touchstone for all depictions since. Other artists depicted Conan in the comics, most notably Barry Windsor Smith and John Buscema, but these depictions do not stray far from Frazetta’s. Even the movies, first with Arnold Schwarzeneggar in 1982 and then again in 2011 with Jason Momoa. The Frazetta influence is never far away.
So, what is it that I think I can add to the Conan legacy?
Not much, as it happens. I am content to depict Conan as other, better artists have done so, with a fierce look and a brawny physique. I have not added anything new or different. I only present a portrait of the character that at the very least cannot be mistaken for anybody else.
This also represents a success on top of many failures. I have tried depicting him before but have been daunted while doing so and have never managed to produce a finished work until now.
Maybe next time I will try something different.