By the time I picked up my first Conan the Barbarian paperback, Robert E. Howard had been dead by his own hand for at least 35 years and Frank Frazetta was in the neighborhood of my current chronological count. Howard’s novels were enjoying a resurgence of popularity in the 70’s and Frazetta’s art was to be found on book covers, movie posters and music albums. I have to admit I have no clear memory of the story itself nor did I have a bolt out of the blue revelation moment that I recall to this day about the artwork. All I do know is that I was hooked and over the course of several years, bought the novels and the calendars and the posters. They graced my shelves and walls through many years and many moves, to my mother’s evident disgust, and somewhere along the way got left in boxes and garages and faded from my provenance.
The psychologist half of my mother’s brain said that anyone who could surround themselves in such violent and dark depictions, let alone read the accounts of a berserker barbarian who splattered brains and hearts with equal abandon had to have a screw loose. I couldn’t argue. I am still not prepared to self-examine the mind of that teenage girl in Austin, Texas during her family’s post-military life navigating as a civilian where it was finally okay for a girl to wear pants to school. Racism was prevalent at my high school - it had only recently been integrated - and the percentages were not in my favor.
The population was predominantly teen aged kids who were not caucasian. There was a small but strong contingent of ‘shit-kickers’ – the cowboy Texans - that didn’t mind being as obnoxious and violent as they could manage and not go to jail. The rest of us were just scared of the fights that were scheduled for every Friday so we could get out of school early. Everybody was angry being assigned to schools outside of their neighborhoods and basically annoyed because they were immersed in the underlying current of rage that seemed to taint everything about this time in history. We were living in the nasty here and now between the change in the laws and a change in the attitudes. Looking back, it seems noble and brave and ground-breaking. In reality, it was scary as hell. The only segregation I had experienced as an Army brat was between the ranks, not the races, and that was mandated by service and commendation, not genetics and social status.
All that to say this: the fascination for Conan has endured for 40 plus years and it would make my brain and heart splatter to try and suss out why at that point in time I favored author and artist. They are both gone now and the cost of owning a small part of their original works would involve the illegal sale of more than one of my internal organs on the black market. It makes me think, painfully, of whomever got their hands on those moving boxes marked ‘books’ and ‘posters’ in some forgotten garage.
Recently I was discussing how to frame a wrinkled movie poster with my grown fan-girl daughter, and I remarked, for the nth time, that my all-time favorite work of art is Apparition by Frank Frazetta. She told me she knew that so why didn’t I have it? So, I ordered a print. Don’t ask me why of all the fantastic images he wrought by ‘painting with fire’ I prefer this one. I really can’t come down on anything that sounds artsy and critique-y. I just know that when I look at it, I feel powerful and brave.
It depicts a side view of Conan himself, almost naked but for harness, boots, and helm, with a sword in one hand and shield in the other. Every defined muscle is bulging and flexed astride a massive warhorse illustrated to perfect proportion and feature brought up short by brute strength and reins. The reason for this abrupt posture is a vision of shadowy monsters and a manifest sorceress, scantily clad, wreathed in white with spells or sex on her mind and the implied attitude that she’d be satisfied with either. I may not know overall what draws me to the piece, but I always appreciated the fact that his head is turned away. Some details are better left undefined for my internal mythology to operate, and once facial features are distinguished by an external source it changes my perception somehow.
I find it highly amusing now that his character is much more inclined to kill the temptress than succumb to her obvious physical charm. I whole-heartedly endorse his ability to think with a war-mongering heart rather than a raging libido. It speaks to me of self-control and doing what is necessary to survive despite our desires and drives. It is striking how so much imagery from this genre displays lush, full-figured women in very little clothing. It recalls the soft-core misogynist who is drawn to the sight of magnificent women while being slightly repelled by their subtle threat of power. The analyst would probably say that the witch represents all the evil women in my world at that time – cheerleaders, prom queens and the homecoming court most notably – and he represents what I wanted the men to be – unswayed by the obvious, ample attractions that mask the malevolence of such spawn; too busy bringing justice and death to be side-tracked by mere lust. But since I personally consider psychology a pseudo-science and too subjective in its conclusions to include us all, I say no. I think (and really, what I think is all that matters for this treatise) that symbols and archetypes mean what we think they mean to each of us. And I really do think that I was enthralled because Apparition mirrored the image in my own imagination what Conan looked like without the perception shift of facial feature. I am now even more impressed by it because in this age of technology – where an artist can choose colors digitally and manipulate images by scale and contrast with the aid of computers – Frazetta did this all with his own hand and eye using the tools available to him at the time. That is remarkable on a Conan-esque scale.
I laughed out loud yesterday when I received this print in yesterday’s mail. I had to unbox and unroll it to get a good look and I once again feel empowered. I am looking forward to framing it and finding the perfect place in my house to display it. I find myself longing for a maternal visit, anticipating the look on her face when she renews her acquaintance with the Barbarian; resplendent as a king robed in ermine and mink, all the while wearing nothing but his skin and boots. Painting with fire, indeed.
About the Creator
I write. Some days it just falls out of my head. Others it has to be wrung from my brain like a towel through and old-fashioned washing machine. Most times I stare at the blinking cursor while I ponder why I do this. It helps.