Thursday, January 22, 2015

Happy 109th birthday Robert E. Howard!

The Great Comic Book Heroes usually writes about comics but today we are going to celebrate the birthday of the great writer, Robert E. Howard, who is considered to be the father of Sword and Sorcery with his work on such stuff as Solomon Kane, King Kull and Conan!

Happy Birthday
Robert E. Howard!
(January 22, 1906 – June 11, 1936)

Robert E Howard, born on January 22, 1906, was raised in rural Texas by a country physician. He once wrote, “I took up writing simply because it seemed to promise an easier mode of work, more money and more freedom than any other mode of work I’d tried. I wouldn't write otherwise.” 
He got his start writing pulp fiction for such magazines as Weird Tales. Weird Tales published supernatural, fantasy and horror stories that focused on the weird, the bizarre and the unusual, like those stories written by their most famous contributor H. P. Lovecraft. 

Margaret Brundage was responsible for most of the covers of Weird Tales Magazine while Howard's Conan stories were being published. She was known for her provocative covers of scantily clad women in peril.
He was a big fan of historical adventure stories like those printed in Argosy but it was much too big a magazine to publish an unknown author like Howard. Howard would take his historical adventure stories that he wrote for Argosy and add just enough supernatural horror and black magic elements to satisfy the editors of Weird Tales.  

King Kull's The Shadow Kingdom is considered by some to be the very first Sword and Sorcery story ever written. It was started in August of 1926 but wasn't published for another 3 years, in August of 1929.

Kull had a good run of comics in the 70's at Marvel. Here is Roy Thomas and Mike Ploog's version from Kull the Destroyer #11, Nov. 1973.
Kull is an Atlantean born barbarian who conquers Valusia and becomes their king. In the Shadow Kingdom, Kull discovers a plot against his life and his kingdom from an invasion of lizard men disguised as his confidants and guards.
Writer Roy Thomas, and brother and sister team, John and Marie Severin adapt Howard's The Shadow Kingdom for Marvel's Kull the Conqueror #2, Sep. 1971.
Though the Shadow Kingdom was probably written first, Solomon Kane's Red Shadows (started in 1927) was the first Sword and Sorcery story to ever actually be published in August of 1928, a full year before Kull's the Shadow Kingdom.
Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane is an English Puritan who fights the dark forces of the supernatural and satanic creatures.

Writer Don Glut and artists Will Meugniot and Steve Gan adapted Howard's Footfalls Within in Marvel Preview #19, Oct. 1979.
In Red Shadows, Solomon Kane finds himself chasing a criminal from France to the darkest Africa to enact his revenge over a young girl's death.

Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin adapted Solomon Kane's Red Shadows in Marvel Premiere #34, Feb. 1977, though for some reason Chaykin didn't want to draw him in his archetypal Puritan slouch hat.
Howard wrote about the creation of the genre of Sword and Sorcery, “I recently sold a story to Weird Tales, a Solomon Kane story marking a distinct transition in my development as a writer, a sort of half way mark between pure action stuff and the cosmic horror tale. My style of handling this new theme is bound to be clumsy and amateurish, but I feel that I may eventually gain some recognition in that field. Of course, I’ll never equal Lovecraft, but I believe I can do at least as well as most of the other Weird Tales writers do in that line. Not that I mean to drop my action stuff, not in the least.” REH letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, ca. Dec 1930 – The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, vol. two. REH Foundation press, 2008.

Howard must have been inspired when he came up with kull because he wrote 9 complete stories which he sent to Weird Tales. Of the 9 only 2 were accepted. This must have discouraged Howard from writing any more stories of Kull because he was shelved for good.
Solomon Kane fared a little better fate. He had 7 stories appear in Weird Tales over the next 5 years. Once Conan hit the scene though, Solomon Kane was a thing of the past.

In 1970 Roy Thomas and Marvel bought the rights to Conan and began a highly successful series that was kicked off with legendary artwork by Barry Windsor Smith.
Robert E Howard wrote about Conan to his friend and fellow writer, Clark Ashton Smith “While I don’t go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existing spirits of powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything) I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present – or even the future – work through the thoughts and actions of living men. This occurred to me when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series especially. I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen – or rather off my type writer – almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story writing. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn't do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the facts remain. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters.”

Conan's first appearance, the Phoenix on the Sword, was actually an old Kull story, By This Axe I Rule, that he pulled off the shelf and reworked. It appeared in Weird Tales of December 1932. In it Conan is a king and he must fight for his life against conspirators.

Roy Thomas adapted the Phoenix on the Sword for Conan Annual #2, in 1976 with the help of Vicente Alcazar and Yong Montano
Howard would throw in a supernatural demon that was summoned by one the conspirators into the story in order to fulfill the supernatural requirements of Weird Tales. Having Conan overcome supernatural beings like this added greatly to demonstrating his legendary, primordial strength.

With the Phoenix on the Sword, Howard sent off two other stories to Weird Tales, The Frost Giant's Daughter, a take off of the famous Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne that takes place when Conan is a young man...

Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith did a stunning adaption of the Frost Giant's Daughter first in Savage Tales #1, May 1971, in black and white and then reprinted it in Conan #16, July 1972, in color
And the God in the Bowl, a murder mystery where Conan, the young thief, is shown to be more virtuous than the more 'civilized' city officials. 
Thomas and Smith did an early adapted the God in the Bowl for Conan #7, July 1971. In it you can see Smith, though still not at his peak, beginning to come into his artistic powers.
The Frost Giant's Daughter and the God in the Bowl were rejected by Weird Tales but the Phoenix on the Sword was said to have "points of real excellence". It was a big hit in Weird Tales and he had no trouble selling future Conan stories to them. 
Next Howard went ahead and wrote up a history of Conan's world in the essay, the Hyborian Age. 

Roy Thomas and Walt Simonson's adaptation of Robert E. Howard's "The Hyborian Age". From Savage Sword of Conan #15 (Sep. 1976)
Howard had 17 Conan stories published between 1933 and 1936, one of them, the Hour of the Dragon, was even a novel length story.
Here are just a few of the great adaptions of Howard's Conan that Roy Thomas wrote in the 70's; top row; Rouges in the House, drawn by Barry Windsor Smith from Conan #11 (Nov 1971); The black Colossus drawn John Buscema by from Savage Sword #2 (Oct. 1974), Hour of the Dragon drawn by Gil Kane, from Giant Size Conan #1 (Sep 1974), Bottom row; The Slithering Shadow, By John Buscema from Savage Sword #20 (July 1977), Queen of the Black Coast, By John Buscema from Conan #100 (July 1979), Tower of the Elephant, by John Buscema from Savage Sword #24 (Nov 1977)  
 The last Conan story that Howard wrote was also considered by some to be his masterpiece, Red Nails. In it Conan and his female warrior friend, Valeria discover an amazingly richly decorated city that at first seems abandoned but is actually inhabited by two tribes of strange people that are at war with each other. There is also a supernatural being that lives in the catacombs underneath the city. These are the kinds of themes that Howard revisited in his stories time and again; ruins of grand ancient cities and mysterious supernatural beings not unlike the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft.
Red Nails was Barry Windsor Smith's masterpiece as well. Smith is famous for exponentially improving his art with every issue of Conan. Red Nails was his swan song, his greatest and last Conan story that was serialized in Savage Tales #2 (Oct 1973) and #3 (Feb 1974). Presented here is a reprint of it that was colored by Smith himself. 

By the time Barry Windsor Smith drew Red Nails, he had created this highly detailed and original style, so much so that he was not able to produce a monthly comic book and satisfy his creative interests so he left comics for about a decade to pursue an illustration career.
Robert E. Howard died on June 11th 1936. He had just been informed of his mothers impending death and must have felt he couldn't live without her so he took a pistol and shot himself in the head leaving his father his sole surviving relative.

Roy Thomas and Sandy Plunkett did a comic of the tragic suicide of Howard for Epic Magazine #34 (Feb 1986). You can see the entirety of it on Shades of Gray blogspot.
Marvel had a highly successful run of Howard related comics in the 70's headed by Roy Thomas which revitalized the whole Howard franchise. When Thomas left Marvel in the 80's, the franchise waned a bit and petered out in the 90's but it has since been taken up by Dark Horse this last decade. In addition there has been many movies made of Howard's works like Conan, Kull and Solomon Kane so it doesn't look like the franchise will end any time soon. This is pretty amazing when you think that it was all started by some country bumpkin from rural Texas.

Robert E. Howard
you are remembered!

Weird Tales covers and their content.

Here is an exhaustive pictorial of Conan in Comics.

Some pages from Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith's Red Nails as presented in the giant Marvel Treasury Edition #4 which were also colored by Smith.

 Robert E Howard and his illuatrators

Nice article on collecting Robert E. Howard for the Cimmerian

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