Saturday, November 12, 2016

Conan on the Cover of Weird Tales

On November 11, 2016, Mike Tuz wrote a comment on my article "Winged Creatures on the Cover of Weird Tales." I started to write a reply but it got to be too long and involved for the comments section of this blog. I also wanted to add some images as illustrations. In addition, I had planned to write a series on recurring characters on the cover of Weird Tales. This is the perfect opportunity to begin. So I'll start with Mike's comment and continue with my reply:

Michael Tuz on November 11, 2016 at 7:40 AM

Happy Veterans Day, you happy veteran!

One of the things that I find fascinating when looking at art from days gone by is noting the changes in people's perception of what made a man or woman physically attractive. On the cover of the May '34 issue, Margaret Brundage gives us a version of Conan who looks much like Francis X. Bushman in the silent Ben-Hur; quite different from the now familiar muscleman interpretation that Frank Frazetta created three decades later (and which, in turn, helped launch Arnold Schwarzenegger to movie stardom.)

Hi, Mike,

Thanks for remembering. I served eight years and eight months in the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard and in two war zones. People thank me for my service, but I should thank this country and the people of this country for everything that it and they--you--have given me.

I noticed the same thing about the appearance of Conan in Margaret Brundage's illustration. Part of that might be explained by the artist. Her men tend to look civilized, even over-civilized, and somewhat feminine. Margaret was an artist (in pastel!), a woman, and a lifelong city-dweller. So maybe the facts of her sex, biography, and technique have something to do with the way she drew men.

Hugh Rankin's interior illustrations of Conan are closer to our image of the character, despite the fact that Rankin was an urbanite. He was an only child and reared by a single mother (she was an artist, too), but Rankin had a more masculine take on Conan. Over all, though, I don't think that the popular culture of the 1920s and '30s was, in the main, up to the task of adequately portraying a barbarian or savage, at least as a protagonist or a sympathetic character.

Robert E. Howard was able to imagine and identify with the barbarian because he projected himself into the historical past to a time when such people existed. He was also not very much removed from the Wild West. And he thought of himself, I think, as an atavism, as a primitive man living in the wrong century. That may have been a conceit for him, but it appears to have been the foundation of his art: that civilization is merely a veneer laid over the heart of a savage humanity. (Lovecraft thought of himself as a man living in the wrong century as well, but he imagined himself as one of the Augustan Age, a time of high civilization. Lovecraft and Howard, despite everything that separated them, were friends.)

Frank Frazetta, younger by a generation, may have been a city-dweller, but he came up in an almost savage environment in Brooklyn. Though an artist, Frazetta was also physically active (like Howard). He was hard, muscular, an excellent athlete, and good-looking enough to have been a movie star. He was heavily influenced by Hal Foster and Prince Valiant, but he wasn't constrained by those influences. Prince Valiant, though son of Norsemen, is a civilized character. He was also somewhat feminine in Foster's treatment. (Just look at those red lips!) Frazetta turned things around by depicting Conan as a savage and an outsider. Frazetta may have seen something like that in himself. More likely, he saw it in the working men of Brooklyn and maybe the men around him living on the fringes: criminals, gangsters, mafiosi, thugs. Contrast that with Boris Vallejo's posed and wooden bodybuilders with their smooth, precisely chiseled, and depilated bodies. I think that the Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan, with his big and largely useless muscles, is closer to Boris than to Frazetta.

Frazetta was also influenced by the romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who, like Margaret Brundage and Hugh Rankin, was a Chicagoan. (Hal Foster was a Chicagoan, too, but not by birth.) Burroughs was a man of action, but his two most well-known characters, Tarzan and John Carter, are civilized men thrust into savage worlds. They themselves are not savages. Here is the same pattern: a man who is essentially an urbanite and thoroughly civilized creates a character who reflects his world. Robert E. Howard was different, and though Frank Frazetta was not in his youth a reader or fan of Howard's stories, I don't think there was a better or more appropriate artist to depict the world he created. And maybe it took the savagery of the Second World War to lay low the Victorian or nineteenth-century idea of an inevitable progression towards a peaceful and civilized world, one without barbarians. Maybe only after the war could Conan have been shown to be what he really is.

* * *

Robert E. Howard wrote seventeen Conan stories published in Weird Tales. The first was "The Phoenix on the Sword," from December 1932. The last was "Red Nails," a three-part serial from July, August/September, and October 1936. Nine of Howard's seventeen tales of Conan were cover stories, but Conan himself was only on the cover three times. You would be right in pointing out that the title of this article isn't quite accurate.

All nine of the Conan covers for Weird Tales covers were drawn by Margaret Brundage. The 1930s were, after all, not only the golden age of Conan but also the golden age of Brundage covers. You might think she was the wrong artist to have drawn Conan. But she was an artist of the feminine, and women--small, dainty, feminine women--were throughout Howard's stories. There were things beyond that in Howard's stories as well, things I think to be in very poor taste if not indicative of psychosexual problems in the author's life and mind. Margaret Brundage depicted those things, too, in two covers, in the process softening them and making them a little less pathological.

So there are nine Conan covers. Three show Conan himself. Significantly, all three show him in peril. Two out of those three show a female character intervening between Conan and that which threatens him, and one out of those two shows her actually rescuing him. This is not our image of Conan, but it's how Margaret Brundage first depicted him, and her interpretation is worth consideration and thought. (She was probably the first artist to depict Conan in color, at least for publication.)

Five out of the nine Conan covers show women only. Women were, after all, the cover artist's specialty and main subject of interest. Two show scenes from Conan stories that can only be described as lesbian/sadomasochistic/fetishistic. (These are the kind of scenes that have often turned me off of Howard's stories.) One more is marginally in that category. Two show a woman being threatened by something other than another woman. Only one--the first--shows a woman who is not obviously threatened.

As Mike Tuz pointed out, Conan here looks like a Hollywood movie actor. He has some muscles, but he is not heavily muscled. In two out of his three covers, Conan is somewhat passive. He is also pretty well groomed and not what we think of as a barbarian. (He doesn't have a beard, as Conan doesn't have a beard. Ironically, the word barbarian refers to men with beards, i.e., men who are uncivilized. In Boris Vallejo's paintings, barbarians don't even have body hair.) But these images are part of the history of Conan the Barbarian, and they deserve a look and no careless dismissal.

Weird Tales, June 1933. Cover story: "Black Colossus" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. This was the fourth Conan story in Weird Tales and the first Conan cover story. I have shown this image before in "Woman and God or Idol." 

Weird Tales, September 1933. Cover story: "The Slithering Shadow" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. The second Conan cover story and still no sign of Conan.

Weird Tales, May 1934. Cover story: "Queen of the Black Coast" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. Finally, Conan, but not as we imagine him: civilized, subordinate to a woman, somewhat passive, and practically shrinking from peril.

Weird Tales, August 1934. Cover story: "The Devil in Iron" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. This is more like it, at least for real fans of Conan. He still looks like a movie actor, but at least he is active, combative, and superior in position to the woman.

Weird Tales, September 1934. Cover story: "The People of the Black Circle" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. We're back to no Conan here, but the image is effective.

Weird Tales, December 1934. Cover story: "A Witch Shall Be Born" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. Another cover showing a woman whipping another woman. This might as well be the same cover as in September 1933.

Weird Tales, November 1935. Cover story: "Shadows in Zamboula" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. Some people loved Conan. Others hated him. I think Robert Bloch (an urbanite, a Chicagoan, and an heir to one of the oldest and highest civilizations on earth) hated him. Does that explain the absence of Conan on the cover of the magazine? I doubt it. Margaret Brundage liked to draw women and that was that.

Weird Tales, December 1935. Cover story: "The Hour of the Dragon" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. This was the last Conan on the cover of Weird Tales, and just look at him in his abject state. Locked up, chained, pretty unhappy, and so weak or despairing that he can barely reach out to get the key to his cell from his distaff rescuer. Margaret Brundage's husband was in and out of her life and didn't always provide very well for himself and his family. Eventually the two were divorced. It doesn't surprise me that she depicted men as she did. I wonder now if she ever showed a male figure in a good light, other than the Conan cover of August 1934.

Weird Tales, July 1936. Cover story: "Red Nails" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. Compare this human sacrifice cover to the painting by Frank Frazetta shown below. It's almost like something out of a Busby Berkeley movie.

In strong contrast to Margaret Brundage's covers, here is an interior illustration by Hugh Rankin for "Shadows in the Moonlight" (Apr. 1934). The figure of the woman is in no way like a Frazetta woman, but the ape and the man could easily have been an influence upon the artist who created images like those that follow . . .

Cover art for Conan (Lancer, 1967), illustrating "Rogues in the House."

Cover art for Conan the Conqueror (Lancer, 1967).

Cover art for Conan the Avenger (Lancer, 1968).

Again, in strong contrast:

A painting of Conan by Boris Vallejo, technically very well done but lacking in the fury, violence, action, and mystery of Frazetta's best work.

I don't think anyone has come closer to Howard's vision than Frank Frazetta, and I don't think anyone ever will. We can be happy that there was once this artist named Frazetta yet sad that no one will ever again be able to do what he did.

Revised Nov. 15, 2016. Thanks to RedFury (comment below) for his correction.
Text and captions copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley


  1. The ever-suave Robert Vaughn -- who just passed away yesterday -- appeared as the title character in a 1958 movie called "Teenage Caveman." Despite the title and premise, Vaughn was his familiar clean-shaven, refined looking self. Adorned in a "primitive"attire that looked immaculately tailored, he had more the aspect of a socialite at a costume party than a caveman.
    Popular entertainment, by definition, is a reflection of the time in which it is produced, and clearly the bulk of American audiences weren't ready for true representations of barbaric characters until the cultural revolution of the sixties which rebelled against our traditional European arrogance and egotism. (This revolution replaced the old arrogance and intolerance with a new, revised version... but that's another story.)
    For a long time, grit and grime were absent from the Hollywood cinema; westerns and tales of ancient cultures were acted out on antiseptic sets and stages; neither the cowboy's white hat nor the Roman's white robe ever showed an iota of dirt. The heroes were all clean shaven, and Tarzan was devoid of any body hair and never broke a sweat.
    Burroughs' writings are a perfect example of the European assumption of cultural superiority; the assumption that civilization is a product of heritage rather than of environment. Tarzan was raised by the apes, but rose to to meet his birthright through inborn traits despite his upbringing. Anywhere the male main character in a Burroughs story goes, they rise to hero status, if not dominant rule, by virtue of their Anglo-Saxon superiority to the lesser races they encounter. This is not a criticism of Burroughs. just an observation. Again, popular fiction reflects the time and culture in which it was produced.
    Margaret Brundage's Conan covers, I think, are clearly reflective of the cinema and waining art deco of the day. As you stated, they may not be accurate in capturing the essence of Howard's style, but the are delightful products of a very different time; a time that we have simultaneously risen above and fallen below...

    1. Mike,

      Thanks for bringing up Robert Vaughn. His suavity is one of his most memorable characteristics. It's hard to imagine him as a caveman.

      As for all the dirt, sweat, and grime: it seems like things have gone too far in the other direction. You're right, historical movies showed people in the past as being impeccably clean, well groomed, and well dressed. Now it seems like everybody is covered in filth. I don't think that's any more accurate than the squeaky cleanness of the past.

      You're right, too, about Burroughs: the Anglo-Saxon is always superior to whomever he encounters. Tarzan, seemingly a savage, is actually a British aristocrat. John Carter, on the savage world of Mars, is the American version of the WASPy aristocrat, the Southern gentleman. And so on.

      I might differ with you on where civilization comes from and on European civilization vs. other civilizations and cultures, but like you say, that's a discussion for another day.

      Thanks for writing as always.


  2. Very interesting read. I started out with Weird Tales trying to collect those nine Conan covers (yes, there are nine), then expanded to the 26 issues where he appears, and now I'm working on collecting the entire run of Weird Tales.
    The ninth Conan cover iis the July 1936 issue depicting a scene from Red Nails. Here's a link to a scan of my copy:

    1. Dear RedFury,

      Thanks for the correction. I thought I had images of all of the Weird Tales covers from 1923 to 1985, but there were two holes. That cover fell into one of those two holes. I'll make the correction. Thanks again.


  3. Terence,
    Yesterday I got a copy of the book "The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage" which contains all of her Weird Tales covers, including that one from the July '36 issue. I was about to write to let you know about the oversight, but I see that RedFury beat me to it. Anyway, it's a great book; one that I would highly recommend.

    1. Mike,

      Thanks for the recommendation. I'm glad to see that Margaret Brundage is getting her due. Now we need a book on the art of Hugh Rankin. (And another book on the Conan artists.)