Who "Made" Conan and Robert E. Howard? -- Part One

lin carter and l sprague de camp finished unfinished works of howard and made full stories out of them as well.they are worth having as if it was not for them there would be no conan movie no conan comics and would not be ass [sic] popular as it is today[.]
— Quoted verbatim from a proud member of the subliterati on Facebook circa late 2017

The view expressed above, after you puzzle out its quaint syntax and typos, is one often seen around the webz even in these supposedly more enlightened times. The part about "Conan comics" is especially laughable. L. Sprague de Camp considered comics to be "trash." Roy Thomas went to Glenn Lord and between the two of them, they made Marvel's Conan the Barbarian the bestselling comic of the 1970s. However, once de Camp saw the comics were a cash cow worth milking, he clamored to get in on it. 

In my view, Spraguey's "savior" role when it comes to Conan and REH has been very overstated. The Lancer Conans exploded in a perfect cultural storm. You had the Burroughs Boom, then the Tolkien Boom and then Frazetta coming into his own as an artist.  All three of those factors, plus the obvious inherent worth of the REH Conan stories, combined to make the Lancer Conans hit like a tac nuke.


The pump had to be primed and Donald A. Wollheim is the man who did it. He published "The Hyborian Age" in The Phantagraph way back in the '30s and obviously remained an REH fan during the following decades. Who published the first Conan paperback? Wollheim, as an Ace Double. Who first published Howard's Almuric as a paperback? Wollheim.  Wollheim brought Edgar Rice Burroughs back into the public eye and sparked the "Burroughs Boom" in the early '60s. He hired an artist named Roy Krenkel to do some of the covers for Ace. Krenkel recommended his buddy, Frank Frazetta. Wollheim hired Frank and gave him his very first gig as a paperback cover artist. Not just any paperbacks, but paperbacks in genres--planetary romance and lost race novels--which were direct progenitors of Howardian sword & sorcery. Damned good training for Frank when he later painted the Lancer Conan covers. Don then put out the "pirate" paperback Ace editions of The Lord of the Rings in 1964, setting off a cultural firestorm that still hasn't burned out.*

All of the factors mentioned above--all of which Wollheim had a direct hand in--converged to make 1966 a perfect year to release the Lancer Conans. You had a readership who'd just read thrilling tales by ERB, many of them for the first time. Tales of swords, exotic cities, strange monsters and savage protagonists.  Tall, black-haired, light-eyed protagonists. Some of those adventures featured gripping covers by some guy named "Frazetta." Even more recently, many of those readers had discovered a new paperback trilogy named "The Lord of the Rings." It boasted men with swords, strange beings, a vaguely medievalesque fantasy setting and a tall, black-haired, light-eyed man of the outlands who gains the throne of the mightiest kingdom in the dreaming West.

Yeah, the pump was primed and REH's Conan trod the glittering path of commercial glory. A path which none of the clones and imitators--despite badass Frazetta covers--were ever able to follow. That would include de Camp's The Tritonian Ring  and Lin Carter's Thongor novels. Hmmm. Where's the Spraguey magic touch? Why didn't Frazetta's visual sorcery work wonders for those other guys? If one man "made" the Conan Lancers the success they were, it would be Robert E. Howard and none other. After that, I would say Wollheim has as much claim as anybody. 

*In one of his REH United Press Association mailings from the 1990s, LSdC said that Wollheim later expressed deep regret for not publishing the Conan tales in the '60s. Doubtless a big part of it boiled down to the fact that de Camp was shopping the stories around without clear legal authority to do so. Lancer Books was not one of the upper tier publishing houses and it had possible Mob ties. Spraguey had to reach a legal settlement with Martin Greenberg from Gnome Press before the Lancer Conans could be published.