Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian (Volume One)

Charles R. Rutledge is the co-author of three novels in the Griffin and Price Urban Fantasy series, written with James A Moore. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, and he sometimes writes about his own barbarian hero, Kharrn.


At Christmas in 1973, a favorite aunt gave me ten comic books as a Christmas gift. She chose them at random from a drugstore spinner rack in the rural Georgia town where I grew up. Of the ten, seven titles were from Marvel Comics and three were from DC Comics. My aunt knew that I liked comic books, but what she didn’t know was that at that time I only read DC Comics. If it didn’t have Superman or Batman in it, I wasn’t interested. She meant well, but I imagine I was pretty disappointed that Christmas day.

A couple of weeks passed before I got bored enough to drag out and read the seven Marvel Comics I’d left sitting. There was a Captain America, a Fantastic Four, a couple of issues of Avengers, etc.  And there was a weird looking title called Conan the Barbarian.  The cover of issue #36 showed a guy who looked kind of like Tarzan fighting a big living statue. Oh well, my eleven year old brain thought, it’s not Batman, but how bad can it be?

I have never been the same. I became utterly obsessed with the Conan comics and with the character himself. Over the years I would go on to collect all the works of Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard, an author who became a major influence on my own writing. But as much as I love Howard’s prose, it is the Conan the Barbarian comic that rests still at the heart of my mania.

I tell you this story so that you can have some understanding of why I am so thrilled with the new book, Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian (Volume One), by Roy Thomas. In this book, Roy shares not only his memories of writing the first 53 issues of the comic book (Volume Two will cover the rest of his more than 100 issue run), but his own obsession with Conan and his creator.


In the introduction, Roy explains how the Spanish company, Forum/Planeta, set out a few years back to reprint the first 100 issues of Conan el Barbaroso, the Spanish language version of the Marvel comic, and they asked him for an article for each issue, explaining how he came to write that particular story and the input of the other creators, artists, editors, and such. The material in this book was previously only available in the Spanish language. Roy has taken those articles and expanded them to include even more information.

The entries are fascinating. We learn how Roy came to adapt Conan to comics to begin with. How he tracked down the rights holders and made the deal. We see how classic Conan artist John Buscema was the first choice for the book and how he was deemed too expensive by publisher Martin Goodman, so we ended up with a young unknown named Barry Smith (no Windsor at that point).

Roy talks about how he wasn’t really a fan of the sword & sorcery genre, but became a huge fan of Robert E. Howard, and how he was dedicated to keeping as much of Howard’s prose as possible in each story he adapted. Also how he eschewed the sound effects and thought balloons that were common in superhero comic books of that era. Roy saw Conan as something special in comics.

As a writer, I find Roy’s detailed explanations of how he plotted the Conan stories which weren’t adaptations fascinating. He worked hard to make the non-REH material ‘feel’ like Howard. I think he often succeeded admirably, producing some of the best Conan pastiches out there. My first issue, number 36, was one such tale. It sure as Crom hooked me.

The specter of L. Sprague de Camp rears his head, of course. He originally wrote Roy a rather scathing letter about ‘going behind his back’ to get the comic book rights for Conan. Roy replied that he had gone to Glenn Lord, who was, you know, actually the literary executor at the time. Later they smoothed things over and Roy was able to adapt the Conan stories Sprague had written with Lin Carter, for better or worse. Lord would also allow Roy access to rare and unpublished non-Conan REH stories to adapt as issues of the comic.

And speaking of adaptations, Roy tells how he approached other writers of sword & sorcery and invited them to supply plots for the comic. Thus, John Jakes, creator of the Clonan, Brak the Barbarian, plotted an issue, and we ended up with a memorable two-issue crossover between Conan and Elric of Melniboné, plotted by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn.

(Note to Deuce: I bugged Mike and Roy for a lot of info about that crossover and I really need to write an article about it.)

We also get to see how Roy created the she-devil with a sword, Red Sonja, basing her partially on a character named “Red Sonya of Rogatino” from Robert E. Howard's historical fiction yarn, “The Shadow of the Vulture.” We all know how that turned out.

One of the coolest things about the book, though, has little to do with Conan. I was very interested in all the background information about Marvel Comics in the 1970s, and especially the involvement of the late Stan Lee. When Roy began writing Conan, Stan was still editor in chief at Marvel, and he took a very ‘hands-on’ approach. A savvy editor and a man who usually knew when to step in and when to stand back. Anyone interested in the history of comic books will enjoy this material.

Anyway, if my rave review hasn't convinced you to run out and get a copy of this book, it should have at least convinced you that I am a dyed in the wool fan of the Marvel Comics version of Conan the Barbarian. This year Marvel has reclaimed the license to create new Conan comics. I've read the first issue, written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Mahmud Asrar. I liked it a lot and it began fittingly, with a two-page spread montage of illustrations from the original run of Conan the Barbarian, featuring art by, among others, Barry Windsor Smith, Big John Buscema, Gil Kane, Alfredo Alcala, Ernie Chan, and so many of the Marvel stalwarts who made Conan great.

Now Marvel just needs to let Roy Thomas write a story arc or mini-series.

‘Nuff said, and Crom count the dead.