Oggi Aquilonia has ottenuto la pace a caro prezzo e il Barbaro ormai è un vecchio stanco Re pieno di rimorsi, sognando il clamore della battaglia e l’adrenalina dell’avventura… questi sono tempi in cui il fuoco e l’acciaio potrebbero dettare le nuove leggi dell’uomo.
Today Aquilonia has obtained peace at a great price and the Barbarian is now a tired old King full of remorse, dreaming of the clamor of battle and the adrenaline of adventure … these are times when fire and steel could dictate the new laws of man.
— The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate
Dead pulp authors can eternal lie, and in strange aeons many of their works may still be under copyright or have certain characters trademarks depending on the intellectual property laws of any given country. In Europe, the works of Robert E. Howard may be in the public domain, and because of that they are fair game for reprinting and reimagination. This applies both for prose works like the novel The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, and for comic books and graphic novels like French publisher Glénat’s gorgeous series of new adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s original stories of Conan the Cimmerian.
Comic books and graphic adaptations of the Cimmerian are intriguing because from 1970 to 1993 Conan (and other Robert E. Howard characters) were licensed to Marvel Comics, which provided a distinctive and iconic interpretation of the character—all the more so because the Conan comics were translated and published everywhere from Japan to Turkey. Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian was the most successful sword & sorcery comic of all time, with tie-ins to the 1980s Arnold Schwarzeneggar films, merchandise, and the lore of Robert E. Howard became intimately entangled with the Marvel Universe—including the Serpent-god Set, the Serpent Men, the eldritch entity Shuma-Gorath, the sinking of Atlantis, and by extension the Hyborian backstory of Varnae the Vampire and Kulan Gath, the villain of a popular X-Men event.
Marvel wouldn’t be the first to publish a Conan comic—La Reina de le Costa Negra in Mexico has that honor with its blond barbarian—nor the last, as Dark Horse held the license for many years. Yet Marvel’s Conan remains distinctive in fixing the barbarian’s appearance and some of his mannerisms and the development of his world. Even Dark Horse’s Conan under various artists and writers looked a bit more like the Marvel Conan than it did the original illustrations in Weird Tales, although the Frank Frazetta covers for the Lancer paperbacks in the 60s had their influence on both. Both Marvel and Dark Horse worked to both adapt Robert E. Howard stories and to publish new adventures of the barbarian, woven in and around his published career.
Which makes it really exciting to see how different creative teams handle the character.
The Barbarian King is an Italian-language series of fumetti (comics, equivalent to perfect bound graphic novels in the United States) from publisher Red Dragon and Leviathan Labs. The creative team for the first volume, Le Spade Spezzate (“The Broken Swords”) is Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi (script); Luca Panciroli, Federico de Luca, & Alessandro Bragalini (pencils, ink, & layout); Marco Antonio Imbrauglio (colorist); Enrico Santodirocco (editing); Mattia Gentili (letterer); and Lucrezia Benvenuti (logo & map design).
In adapting Conan to comics there are traditionally two routes to take: adaptation of the original stories or the creation of new works that are based on past works and/or the same characters—Marvel also had a habit of adapting some non-Conan Robert E. Howard stories, non-Robert E. Howard Conan stories, and even some non-Conan sword & sorcery stories as Conan comics. One reason Marvel could “get away” with this is because they took a very different approach to continuity than Robert E. Howard did.
By the time Marvel got Conan, essentially all of his adventures had been published. These were initially written and published out of chronological order; Robert E. Howard was not setting out to create a single sprawling epic novel like The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey, the adventures of Conan were written and published out of order, telling different stories from different periods of Conan’s life. This freed Howard from any strict timeline of events, much as the Hyborian Age—as a prehistoric hodgepodge of different places and eras—allowed him the freedom to shift setting and tone. Conan could be in a young thief in police procedural one story (“The God in the Bowl”), then an experience adventurer in a pirate story (“The Treasure of Tranicos”), then a king of a mighty nation overthrowing usurpers in a medieval war (The Hour of the Dragon), and it was up to the fans to piece together a probably outline of Conan’s career…which a couple of early fans did in the 1930s, and which other fans have added to or revisited ever since.
Marvel and to a degree Dark Horse would use these outlines as the skeleton on which to build their own storylines. By starting more or less linearly from the beginning of Conan’s career, they could intersperse Robert E. Howard adaptations with original storylines, follow the trace of Conan’s journeys and develop additional characters and plots—sometimes expanding on what Howard and others had written, sometimes adding new elements, even borrowing from the Cthulhu Mythos or staging crossovers. As a method, this has the advantage in that the Conan comics often had a kind of narrative flow that is usually missing from monthly comics in the United States: you can often literally trace Conan’s travels on the map of the Hyborian Age.
It also allows the development of series characters—sidekicks, reoccurring antagonists, etc.—which are almost entirely absent from Howard’s stories. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is not like Michael Moorcock’s Elric to have a Companion to Champions along for the ride for several subsequent adventures, neither does he have the same lover or enemy. Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon as Conan’s arch foe is entirely a creation of later writers; they never even meet in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” or in any other Howard story (although Conan runs afoul of the wizard’s deeds in “The God in the Bowl”). Conan’s habit of killing every wizard he meets and always ending the story with a different girlfriend was one of the major critiques laid against the pulp hero—but in the comics, many more encounters could be planned and carried out, more tension built up, relationships would have more lasting impact because they lasted longer from issue to issue and story to story.
The Howard’s Conan chronology ends, effectively, with The Hour of the Dragon. There he is king, he has survived multiple attempts on his life and rule, and he is going to take as queen the young woman Zenobia. No Howard stories are set after this point, though other authors and comics picked up at this point because it is a natural gray area: anything can happen, because nothing more is written after this point! Conan could even die—an impossibility in earlier tales, because of course he has to survive for the next adventure that is already planned out.
So after the events of The Hour of the Dragon is where The Barbarian King picks up.
King Conan is conspicuously different in this incarnation than the Marvel or Dark Horse versions: heavier, hairier, with grey streaks in his beard and scars on his face. While Conan comics have often been a bit more mature than others on the stands, able to get away with more gore and nudity than most comics, The Barbarian King leans into both more than most, but less for exploitation than because this is a very different, darker, more mature story than more readers will be familiar with and occasionally gritty, multi-media artwork fits the tone.
If acid sword & sorcery is a thing, this might be it.
When Roy Thomas and other writers began to adapt Conan to comics in the 1970s, they did so in part with the guidance of L. Sprague de Camp; de Camp had inserted himself into the editing of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and had written several Conan pastiches, finished various fragments and synopses, and expanded the outline of Conan’s career. He didn’t do this for free or even directly, and Roy Thomas is frank about their relationship in his great memoir Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, but de Camp’s influence was still strong on the series. Dark Horse’s comics, on the other hand, were published after a revolution in Howard studies & publishing had strongly emphasized the publishing of the original, unedited Robert E. Howard texts and the decline of pastiche—so show fairly less influence from de Camp—but they still follow Campian certain trends, like the emphasis on Thoth-Amon as an archvillain.
The Barbarian King ignores de Camp more or less entirely. Rather than setting Thoth-Amon up as the villain, they turn to one of the most iconic Conan stories of all time: Yara from “The Tower of the Elephant,” who has escaped from his prison and is now in command of new and inhuman powers from the Cthulhu Mythos to revenge himself on the barbarian king. This crossover isn’t the first time the Mythos have entered a Conan story (Robert E. Howard himself included explicit refrences to Lovecraft’s Mythos in the first draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but it set the tone for the series as it develops: this is sword & sorcery with a strong blend of horror into the mix.
If The Barbarian King avoids de Camp and Marvel’s legacy for the most part, the influence of the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian is still very obvious, in theme, language, and occasional artistic flourishes that call back to the iconic Atlantean sword. Perhaps some of the costuming and nudity may also be reminiscent of 1980s Italian Sword & Sorcery films that were inspired by Conan, such as the Ator series or Sangraal…or perhaps not; the artists and writers on this project are obviously keen on the genre, but this is a Robert E. Howard project through-and-through.
Il desiderio era fondere il Fantasy Eroico Howardiano con un qualcosa di quasi Lovecraftiano e Barkeriano, cosa che immaginai quando lessi i VERMI DELLA TERRA con Bran Mak Morn la prima volta, nonché flavour che ho ritrovato da poco in Britannia di Milligan e Ryp, ad esempio.
The desire was to blend Howardian Heroic Fantasy with something almost Lovecraftian and Barkerian, which I imagined when I first read WORMS OF THE EARTH with Bran Mak Morn, as well as the flavor I recently found in Milligan and Ryp’s Britannia, for example.
—Massimo Rosi, “Intervista a Massimo Rosi a cura di Italian Sword & Sorcery” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate
The story is brutal enough in some places to edge toward grimdark, although I don’t think the story is amoral or dystopian in that sense. It is definitely less reminiscent of Howard’s more high-hearted hero and more Conan in his darker and broodier moods, pushed in directions that Howard would never have dared take him in the pulps—and in that respect, I think, the series is highly reminiscent to the new Elric graphic novel adaptions being published by Titan books beginning with The Ruby Throne. Comic storytelling can be grittier and more explicit now than ever before, and in revisiting these characters these writers and artists are pushing the limit a little, going beyond just the words in old paperbacks and pulp magazines…and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Questo è il Re Barbaro! E sono sicuro che lo riconoscerete nell’albo che stringete ta le mani, perché gli autori che lo hanno realizato sono figli di Cimmeria e hanno compreso da temp il segreto dell’acciaio; ad animarli è la passione per le battaglie e per le donne; a contraddistinguerli uno lo spirito libero, sprezzante della censura e del politically correct. Chi sono io per dirlo? Son il cronista delle loro imprese e brindo alla loro gloria. Ma ora, bando alle ciance, è tempo di tornare nel mondo hyboriano.
Buona lettura cimmeri!
This is the Barbarian King! And I’m sure you will recognize it in the book that you hold your hands, because the authors who made it are sons of Cimmeria and have long understood the secret of steel; to animate them and the passion for battles and women; to distinguished by a free spirit, contemptuous of censorship and political correctness. Who am I to say? I am the chronicler of their exploits and I toast to their glory. But now, no more chatter, it’s time to go back to the Hyborian world.
Happy reading Cimmerians!
—Enrico Santodirocco, “Introduzione” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate
A preview of the first few pages of The Barbarian King can be read for free on Issuu, and there is a video trailer on Facebook. While The Barbarian King is not yet available in English, the series and its art volumes can be purchased from Leviathan Labs, and some translations into other languages are available; O Rei Bárbaro (2019) for example is in Brazilian Portuguese and printed in black and white.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
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