Archive for the ‘Expanded Universes’ Category

Yikes, this means my own 40th is just over a year away… Hm, let’s not think about that… Enjoy some of my Star Wars fanart instead! ūüėÄ

Inktober 10 24 16 Rey and Kylo by CallegoBut Star Wars! I loved Star Wars as a kid, even if I encountered the toys first, and then read the novelizations (in 2nd grade) before seeing the movies (I take this as contributing to my ability to still enjoy the spaceships and lightsabers of the prequels, however painful some of the writing–for me SW has always been more about stimulating my own imagination than spoon-feeding me Lucas’ vision). I wanted to be Luke Skywalker so badly (and will still brag occasionally about having the same MBTI type as Luke–INFP), and confess that I still have a few lightsabers lying around the house. Alas, my hairline no longer allows me to wear a Skywalkerian mop.

Jedi Birthday doodle by CallegoGiven how strong a driver Star Wars was of my personal fantasy life (and my creative ambitions–started writing my own science fiction novel in 3rd grade, though I never completed it), I had a complicated relationship to the Expanded Universe stuff when I first became aware of it with Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn series. I mean, sure, it’s great to see other people enjoy exploring that universe with the same passion as I wanted to, but it also suddenly made it all feel less personal (I had a similar crisis when I first realized Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was already super popular–I still tend to gripe about the movies, even if I do watch them…). But I came around, and even if the quality of the EU material varied wildly, I figured, hey, there seems to be some degree of canonicity in these from Lucasfilm’s perspective, may as well enjoy it. (nothing against fan-fiction, btw, but having something count as “canon” implies more coherence with the greater whole, and so lets it feel more substantial to me…)

Forest Moon Viking by CallegoAnd then they go and change it all. Argh. OK, I do agree that there was a lot in the EU that should never have been (I didn’t get all that far with the EU stuff, but saw a fair sampling), but I sympathize with those Star Wars enthusiasts, who got into writing or illustration because of the original trilogy, who were suddenly left out in the cold (and the feeling that the Star Wars Universe had suddenly become incoherent as a whole was not pleasant). I’ve met/corresponded with one of those authors, Kathy Tyers, a handful of times over the years, and appreciated hearing how Star Wars had inspired her to pursue her own writing career (I believe Kathy is involved with Lucasfilm in a different role now, but didn’t find any info on that online so won’t make any claims…). I’ve picked a bit at the new EU novels, and am not thrilled so far–but then again, most of what I looked at was written for the YA level, and I confess I tend to get quite frustrated with the quality of prose in that market. Similar gripes about the latter half of Episode 7–I love love love the new characters, and the story runs quite well for the first half, but once the plot gets caught up in the recycled McGuffin of Star Killer base the story becomes way more formulaic and way less interesting–same with the dialog which suddenly becomes abysmal even by children’s movie standards (Episode 1 all over). But ya know, that’s how it is with such a huge franchise, more so once the MBAs are given a say…

All in all I think I’ve given up a bit of the feeling that I grew up with that Star Wars was “mine”–maybe for the best. I’ve got too many of my own projects to pursue, and somehow never enough time for them all. As far as space opera goes, I would still like to pursue this project one day–should have done more on that this past year, but again, just too many things I’m trying to cover. :/¬† Meanwhile, whatever support you can send my way via my online shop would be greatly appreciated. ūüôā¬† Hopefully will have an Etsy shop or something like that up soon too for my traditional art. My fan art in this post is not for sale, alas–don’t want to get in trouble with the Jedi…

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IMG_2353I’m still ashamed that I never got around to writing a blog post about the first Thor movie–but now the second one is out, and I’ve got stuff to say! First, let me get my griping about pronunciation out of the way. The Shakespearean language bothered me, as it always did in the comic books as well (which I never read much, since I was more of a X-Men and Spiderman fan as a kid), but I figure this is a product of the awkwardly archaized English of the saga and Edda translations available in the first half of the twentieth century (incidentally, these are the versions that are in public domain now–you can find some on Northvegr). If you encountered the Norse gods in those versions, then of course you think they speak like they belong in a poor Shakespeare knock-off. But what really bothered me was the pronunciation of the names– “YOTE-un-hime” for “Jotunheim”, which should be “J√∂tunheim,” which is more like “YUTunhaim” (or “J√∂tunheimr”/”YUTunhaimur” if you want the nominative form that you would see in a Norse or Icelandic dictionary). OK, OK, I’m really not giving especially accurate guidance here, but it’s a bit more in the right ballpark–the beginning of the¬†New Introduction to Old Norse has a great section on pronunciation in both Old Norse (which is reconstructed–meaning, it’s an educated and scientific guess) and modern Icelandic (which is the pronunciation I’ve usually found used in academia when we read portions of the sagas aloud). A New Introduction used to be available for free online as a PDF, but that does not seem to be the case anymore–I guess they came out with a new edition and want folks to actually buy it. The wikipedia article on the Icelandic alphabet can also give you some pronunciation tips.

Anyway, sorry for the rant. I realize American audiences are not familiar with the o-umlaut, but the sounds aren’t difficult, and I feel like a proper name ought to stick at least somewhat to the original (and the fact that they used the German pronunciation of “-ei” instead of the Scandinavian is unforgivable. >:[ )¬† Also unforgivable–Laufey is Loki’s (goddess) mother in the myths, but becomes his giant father in the first movie (his giant father is¬†F√°rbauti in the myths), and Loki is bloodbrother to Odin, rather than adopted brother of Thor. Look, it just gets silly after a while… But I will get into Loki’s family and relationships another time. It’s complicated.

OK, that’s off my chest. Whew. Let me also confess that I just didn’t like the first movie as much. The romance, which is apparently supposed to be central to Thor’s redemption, just does not feel convincing, and the final fight felt pretty lame to me too. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman’s character) seemed to be in the movie primarily to make Thor look good (by falling for him and going wide-eyed in anticipation at appropriate moments)–but OK, I’ve seen several blog posts that argue that the movie actually passes the Bechdel test, so I’m willing to step back and let people make up their own mind about that. I’m still skeptical, but it seemed like they made a decent case (alas, not sure exactly which blog post it was that started it for me…).

The new movie is more of an unabashed space-fantasy, which I think is more fun. Well, OK, I think the first movie would have been a lot more interesting (maybe not necessarily better) if they had taken out all the space-stuff (that legitimates Thor’s story) until that moment at the end (spoiler alert) when he gets his hammer back and Jane et al. all see that he WAS telling the truth and is a super-being from space. But for Dark World, I really enjoyed just sitting back and watching the spaceships and stuff zoom around. Pretty fun. I like space stuff. Also, there are a few fun twists (at least one that really got me), and the dynamic between Thor and Loki is really played up a lot more, I assume partly in response to reception of the two characters among the fans and partly as a result of the ways the actors have filled out these roles so well. And I really like how the Thor franchise doesn’t take itself too seriously (not all the time anyway)–I really enjoy the humor at times.

IMG_2273Still have some issues though, so I will hit them one by one here. Spoiler alert, but oh well, you probably new that.

The Vanir are Asian? Kinda but not really, according to Snorri Sturluson, who derived the name √Üsir (whom Odin and Thor belong to) from “Asians” (for him, that would be Asia Minor–he was interested in convincing us that the gods were originally Trojans). The Vanir are another group of the gods who joined the √Üsir (after fighting with them), and Snorri’s etymology is BS but interesting in terms of how he worked it into his grand narrative deriving Norse poetics from Classical poetics. Once version of the truce that brought them together also covers the origin of poetry, but that is a tale for another day…

Minorities and Others. To continue on the above topic, race is a pretty interesting topic to get into w/ these movies. OK, you might say that race is not at all prominent as an “issue” here, so why bother stirring it up? But it is precisely the unintentional, taken-for-granted ways that race manifests itself in this movie that are telling (and interesting). There was a huge furor online (much of it blatantly racist, and much of the rest racist at the same time that its purveyors protested “I’m not racist, but…”) when it was revealed that Heimdall would be black in the movie version of the comics. Never mind that these are aliens anyway, and that they may as well be green (like the √Üsir in StarGate… which I still haven’t watched). Personally, I am more troubled by the way in which the overwhelming whiteness of these “aliens” (especially those ruling the 9 worlds) serves as an “as above, so below” justification for the situation here on earth the last 500 or so years, the imperialist and colonial programs of the West now written in the heavens and in the primordial past. As was pointed out by Karl Siegfried at the conference we met at, even Idris Elba’s version of Heimdallr becomes a liminal figure, a bodyguard who protects those on the inside from those on the outside, without being on the inside himself. With this new movie, we realize that the token Asian of the first movie is not really “from” the ruling community of the gods, but from the Vanir. I would assume that this also means that Elba’s character is from another community, although I believe I did see a token black person or two in the background among the other guards. The “earthly” varieties of “race” or ethnicity then, based on skin color and accent, stand in as “model minorities” (peripheral and not in charge, but apparently not bothered by that), while the monsters, whether the primordial Dark Elves or the barbaric looking figures with horns and stuff in the opening battle in Vanaheim, or the giants, stand in for the threatening aspect of the ethnic/racial Other (maybe not too different than in the Norse myths themselves–despite the name, the “giants” of the early texts are not necessarily gigantic, and whether they appear “normal” or “monstrous” will depend to a degree on just how much their Otherness needs to be emphasized in that particular story). The correlation between the celestial world order and that on earth becomes a bit eery and disturbing when we have Odin talking about Asgard’s peacekeeping role across the 9 worlds and the need to show these worlds that they are “strong.” The politics of power don’t differ too much across the 9 worlds, I guess. Anyway, this is not to make any of these actors feel bad for playing these roles, or to say that there is some nefarious purpose behind it all–but all this is still there, it is part of the movie, and it is better to be able to see these things (and to try to subvert them rather than reinforce them) than to be blind to them.

The Dark Elves. Not going to say much here, except that we really hardly know ANYTHING about the elves in Norse mythology, and the “dark elf/light elf” division may be an invention of Snorri, that incurable systematizer. I like the suggestion that “dark elf” or “black elf” is just a kenning for “dwarf.”

Women and power. So, Jane is great, and I appreciate that they’ve tried to portray her as a genuine scientist who really is interested in SCIENCE and not just muscles–but it seems to me that her thunder (haha) is really stolen by Thor’s arrival as one of those who really “possesses” the tech and science she is trying to just get a glimpse of. I mean, how can she ever pass the Bechdel test now if the subject she is a specialist in (SCIENCE… OK, more specific than that…) is now meaningful in the narrative only in so far as it relates to the main male character? OK, her tech is what finally defeats the bad guy, but that was just too silly for me (I mean, human home-grown tech… which her male colleague built, now that I think about it–against super-being apocalyptic tech. Not going to work). And one thing that I noticed here, and then saw paralleled in the X-men material (thinking of Jean Grey as Phoenix here)–power in these cases (the Aether for Jane) is something that possesses these women, rather than something that they possess, as is the case w/ their male counterparts. Haven’t thought further on this, but I’m curious how many other parallels there are in the comics world… Also, Jane’s impotence is really highlighted a LOT. Not just in her possession by this power, or in her out-of-placeness in Asgard (which is more of a legitimate plot-point that could have been explored more), but in the silliness of her physical violence–hitting Thor when he comes back after ages is kinda funny, sure, and we all laughed when she hit Loki, but the latter case really turns ridiculous when we really look and see her hit this man and say “That’s for New York.” Maybe it’s just me (and sure, we have Sif in this movie too, and she’s pretty bad-ass), but taken with the rest it just felt like a picture of the helpless woman juxtaposed with the competent male. And Sif or not, that is really the central relational image in this film (and of course, Sif’s place in the story is defined largely by the fact that she does NOT have the relationship with Thor that the weaker Jane has).

The Aether. OK, just going to point out that it isn’t really a Norse thing, but that’s fine. I didn’t really find it all that compelling (or well explained) a novum (or plot device) in this movie though.

Pectoral and boob plates. Yeah, just silly (always is–even if its Batman). Armor does not need to articulate that which it protects (and any articulation would just weaken it). That said, it’s nice that they don’t go for gratuitous chain-mail bikinis and the like, and really, the armor in this film is a step up from the stereotypically exploitive fantasy armor. Also check out this blog.

Mayans and Stonehenge and Ancient Conspiracies. OK, I just hate that stuff. Too many people buy into it. For a book that discusses WHY people buy into ridiculous conspiracies, ancient or otherwise, there is a handy chapter in this book (which I hope to review soon). At least it wasn’t a prominent theme in this movie.

The sneak-peak at the end. OK, who’s excited for a Infinity Gauntlet movie crossover?? ME!!!!!! I hope this means they are bringing back Silver Surfer. Honestly, I don’t know how they will do it though. The Marvel movie franchise may be big, but not THAT big. Still, I’ve been excited about this ever since the Thanos appearance at the end of the first Avengers movie. I haven’t kept up with comics for 20 years though, so who knows, maybe that whole storyline has been redone since “my time”…

I think I am missing some things, but oh well. Also check out Karl Siegfried’s interview about the movie at his blog. Karl’s interview is a lot more thorough and systematic in dealing with the connections between the “old” myths and their appropriation in the movies and comics.

And since it is that time of year, here is my pic of Thor and Loki from Christmas a couple years ago. Now available as greeting cards and posters on Redbubble, as well as on DeviantArt (where you can also get it on a mug!). The pen brush sketches from above are also on my DA acct, as well as on my tumblr.

Thor Santa Loki Rudolph God Jul_edited-1

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Forest Moon Viking

Well shoot, costumes can be complicated (and no, not just because “liberals” try to make things complicated). A friend asked me the other day whether it was cultural appropriation for someone to dress as a Viking. This came (whether coincidentally or intentionally) in the wake of several discussions on Facebook that I either witnessed or participated in about, for example, the furor over the names of sports teams (“Redskins”, “Indians”) and the (really unbelievable…) blackface costumes that have shown up online in the last week (I mean REALLY??? Not just blackface, but TRAYVON MARTIN??? How anyone thinks we are post-racial, I’ll never know…). I don’t want to get into a huge discussion about the history of racism, imperialism, and colonialism in our country/Western civ. (check here for an overview of colonialism and postcolonial theory), but I’ll note a few points that I think are fairly obivous (and yet overlooked), even if yes, things tend to be pretty complicated in the real world (and since Heritage Studies is something I dig into every now and then, I may revisit this topic one of these days).

For one, there IS a history of oppression that our society is built on, and however much you believe we are “past that,” our literature, cultural semiotics, tropes, etc, are all built up on the layers of everything that has come before, and YES, in a literate culture with the “long memory” that we have (a necessary element of what we call civilization), you ARE responsible for being aware of the history of representation that you draw on (and sure, we can change things despite this baggage–but not by ignoring the baggage). So no, you don’t get to make jokes about monkeys and lynching when you are criticizing prominent black figures (and holy smokes, I DID see this on facebook–still blows me away)–nor do you get to wear blackface.¬† To continue on to the parallel, or lack thereof, between dressing as a Viking and dressing as, say, an Indian: a community which is reasonably well established as or within the dominant group, which then creates a totemic icon (or a costume) from a barbaric figure associated with its own past, is NOT the same as the dominant culture creating a totemic icon based on a historically subjugated group–whatever other complicating factors there may be (I believe I’ve heard that the Redskins were named out of affection for a native american coach)–let’s keep the inherent difference between the two situations in mind. And while my family (for example) loves telling “swedish jokes” about our own heritage, let’s keep in mind that the Scandinavian American heritage is not something that is a disadvantage anymore–sure, go far enough back and you find a time when jokes about dumb, thieving (!) Swedes were told–and not by the Swedes themselves. And I’ve even found a letter quoted from over a century ago in which a “WASP” foreman complained that it was only him and a couple other “white men,” plus a dozen or so Swedes (!!!) out in the forest working (no joke–I knew about the Irish, but apparently Swedes were not “white” during the immigration before the turn of the century). But you know, we tell “ethnic” jokes about ourselves now because there IS no threat to (or rather, threat perceived in) our ethnicity. That said, in one discussion I followed online, a latina woman complained about how hypersensitive white people will make a big fuss when people like her would rather not stress out over something she perceives as not a big deal–and while I don’t agree wholeheartedly with her (I know folks with the same claim on the problem that she has who WOULD be offended, so who do I listen to?), her point was driven home by the fact that a “white liberal” (sorry for the scare quotes) initially talked over her a bit… until she noted that she was latina (the “white liberal” had been treating her as another white person till then), the (totally valid) implication being that she had more of a right to comment in that situation.

So yeah, it’s complicated, but it’s still worth thinking about–better to navigate this conscientiously, even if no absolute, self-evident ethical solution is available in all cases (but dang, it’s pretty obvious that you DON’T dress in blackface and mock the death of a young black teenager, whatever you think of the trial). I mean, dressing like a ninja, an indian, a cowboy, or a viking for halloween–to a certain extent the fact that all of those are equally “cool” and valid costumes for kids these days can certainly give us hope that, when we are at our best, we can both embrace the Otherness of our varied ethnic heritages as well as understand ourselves as all part of the same community, enjoying the cool stuff that comes out of our various pasts. That said, dressing in thick glasses, a bowl cut, putting in big fake front teeth and squinting is still a way of mocking “Asian-ness” that we would “get” (meaning, we would understand that someone who is not asian is dressing up in a way that turns asians into stock, stereotyped, comic figures)–there is no equivalent for Scandinavian Americans. OK, in my family, and the church I grew up in, we would “get it” if someone dressed up as Ole or Lena, and spoke with a cheesy Swedish accent–but that is not a stereotype available to (and used by) the culture at large. So no, it isn’t the same, and it won’t be for a long time. And liberals pointing these things out is not what keeps these stereotypes around. OK, off my soapbox…¬† (No wait, one more point: Really, wouldn’t we comment on it if an asian or black or hispanic kid dressed as a Viking? Like “Why are you doing that, kid?” Whereas we take it for granted that a white kid might dress as a ninja…or star as one in a movie, for that matter. Maybe I’m wrong here, esp. now that Thor is not just for comic book geeks any more…)

And finally, I hope you enjoy my illustration for today! The colonial subaltern in a galaxy both temporally and spatially distant (a long time ago and far away, in case that is not clear), oppressed by the (mostly white, now that I think about it…) humans, and seen as funny, stupid, cuddly, comic, and primitive in culture, religion, and technology (in other words, culturally invalid relative to us civilized, but certainly more interesting and spectacle-worthy because of it) even by their human allies–but the table is turned here! This speculative and creative fuzzy-wuzzy has hit on a new mode of narrative, one which creates entire universes with histories totally unlike the Real World, and so he (or she? I don’t know how to tell…) has come up with a universe (and an entire franchise, I’m sure) in which there is a human galaxy, both temporally and spatially distant, with a whole history, coming down to one blue-green planet, on which there is a largish peninsula far to the north, where humans lived in a barbaric warrior society, clothed in primitive metal armor, hacking each other to pieces, raiding the weak, and sailing the world in flimsy yet fearsome wooden ships… and for halloween, this fuzzy-wuzzy has decided to dress up as one of these fictional “Vikings.” Movies, toys, novels, and comic books to follow, I bet.

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Mr. Howard. A pretty canonical photo of him. I picked it up from Wikicommons.

Despite the lengthy title of this post, I actually only spent one day teaching two of Robert E. Howard‘s Conan the Barbarian stories: “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” (free version here) and “The Tower of the Elephant,” both out of The Coming of Conan, the first of Del Rey’s collections of the original Robert Howard Conan stories (valuable collections, since for so long one couldn’t be sure that one wasn’t getting a reworked, non-authentic Conan story by some later hack–or so the intro to the collection generously informs me).¬† I had taught several stories by Howard’s friend HP Lovecraft the two previous class days, including, of course, the classic “Call of Cthulhu.”¬† I think my students were pretty sick of all these escapist/titillating/creepy fantasies for teenage boys of the 30s… but I had fun!¬† Well, OK, it’s a bit depressing wading through all the racist and anti-immigrant paranoia in the Lovecraft stories, and Howard wasn’t exactly the most enlightened guy in the world– “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” is basically a rape narrative, a barbaric “Taming of the Shrew” in which the ultra-masculine hero conquers the haughty temptress who “has it coming”.¬† Sure, the girl gets away, because even Howard can’t let us become that complicit, voyeurs that we are–but it’s still one in a long line of such uber-patriarchal stories.¬† Well, I wouldn’t be in my field if I weren’t capable of appreciating cultural products at the same time that I find aspects of their implicit (or explicit) ideology noxious.¬† You have to try not to get carried back to your teenage-years too much, though…

Cover story for Conan! Queen of the Black Coast. Not the way we usually picture him, post Franzetta…

Apart from dissecting said noxious elements, I would say that the most obvious element to examine in these stories is the figure of the “barbarian.”¬† It is Conan, after all.¬† Who better to look to for the figure of the barbarian in the 20th century?¬† The introduction to The Coming of Conan is quick to point out that Howard was not a fan of the “Noble Savage,” whom he pictures living in harmony with others and nature, authentic wisdom dripping in pearls from his lips–but it is clearly the barbarians who come out at the top of the moral ladder in Howard’s view.¬† Just as Rousseau [whoops, NOT ROUSSEAU!¬† Sorry, my bad…], and later the Romantics, projected their ideals onto the “authentic” “primitives” of exotic lands, so Howard projects an early twentieth century imagination of an √úbermensch onto a figure of barbarism.¬† It is not so removed from the Romantics though– the National Romantics were as eager to found their constructions of Nationhood on their “barbarian” ancestors as they were to found them on the “authentic folk,” the native and contemporary rural “primitives.”¬† The Viking was a favored barbarian figure for all the Germanic nations of the time (not too different even now, really…), which is why I included “Frost Giant’s Daughter” in my course, with its pseudo-Norse and Old English names.¬† That said, let’s remember that the Norse and Anglo-Saxons would not have been eager to label themselves “barbarians.”¬† Think of Viking art, or Skaldic Poetry– baroque, artificial, and “barbaric”to us in its abstruseness, it was that very artificial character which marked it as “Culture” in opposition to the monstrous and dangerous world of “Nature” for the Viking age Scandinavians (or so goes one interpretation).¬† Some of Howard’s ideas of “barbarism” don’t quite fit, but are still interesting, when compared to these prototypical “barbarians.”¬† In “The Tower of the Elephant” we find the barbarians explicitly characterized as taciturn and polite, while “civilized” folk can get away throwing their words about in an extremely offensive manner–because no one is going to split them down the middle for being impolite.¬† Well, OK, the saga heroes can be fairly taciturn– but remember the proverb: “Only a slave gets revenge at once, a coward never” (OK, going from memory here– may be a bit off with my quote).¬† You may kill someone for an insult, but probably not right away, and it is likely enough that you will kill someone close to him– or even more likely, start circulating scurrilous verse.¬† The feud will have plenty of time to escalate to killings (for more info on how Bloodfeud works in the sagas, check out Bloodtaking and Peacemaking by Bill Miller).¬† How about the Old English poem Beowulf?¬† Well, the characters are anything but taciturn there.¬† Beowulf and Hrothgar seem inclined to go on for HOURS, if we trust the poet.¬† This eloquence (a true man is a master of both words and deeds!) has its roots in politeness, though (or is it that politeness has its roots in violence?).¬† We learn early in the poem that a good king is one who invades enemy halls, overturns their mead benches, takes tribute from others–and protects his own people from those same horrors.¬† When Beowulf comes to Hrothgar, he comes as an armed young man with a band of followers into the hall of a king who has clearly failed to protect his people.¬† All the wordy, round-about, and very public conversations are necessary to keep the swords in their sheathes, to convince the people that there is no reason for bloodshed (a point I believe was first made for me by the late Nicholas Howe).¬† So OK, there are some resonances with Howard’s vision of a martial, barbarian culture, but it is pretty different as well.

My Conan Library–minus the Renee Zellweger film “The Whole Wide World”, which I forgot about, and is more of a chick flick. But still part of the Conan complex!!!

I’ve been pretty interested in the emerging phenomenon (well, “emerging” over the last 20+ years…) of the so-called “expanded universes”, from Star Wars, to Star Trek, to Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer (I think “Expanded Universe” is a term coined by the Star Wars franchise, but I apply it indiscriminately, being the open-minded guy that I am).¬† We might see the Conan complex as an early example of this, especially considering the fact that for several decades it was only the “expansion” that was widely available.¬† Comic books, paintings, movies (including a new one), rewrites of Conan stories, and new original novels (including some by the author of the Wheel of Time series) made sure that everyone know roughly who Conan was.¬† Personally, I prefer the original stories, but the whole complex is pretty interesting.¬† This figure of the “barbarian” clearly holds a lot of power for us still– look at our movies, or heavy metal music!

A quick sketch I made of Conan a couple months back. Finally an opportunity to use it!

Well, I will likely post on Conan again one day– but for now I’ll end with a note about Howard’s writing of the stories and his inspiration in the idea of the “ancient world” that a bookish young man would have had in the 1930s.¬† The introduction cites Howard’s tendency to “lose” the character in his stories, in particular in the Kull stories (which I haven’t read), which had less of a pseudo-history surrounding them.¬† For Conan, on the other hand, Howard wrote out several pages of a “world history” (which you can find in the appendix to The Coming of Conan) which served to give him an “accurate and realistic” ground for his stories (check out the introduction to the book for a more thorough discussion).¬† I’m a big fan of “sub-creation” (Tolkienian or otherwise–though I suppose this isn’t the term Howard would use, is it?), so this is one of my favorite parts of the whole Conan corpus.¬† Apart from my predilection for “thick worlds” (to misappropriate some Geertzian terminology), I think the enabling effect of this “world creation” on Howard’s creativity is interesting in light of the stories that circulate about Conan’s own agency in the writing of these stories.¬† Authors often talk about characters who “write themselves”– I’ve been advised in writing courses and at writers conferences to develop my characters¬† sufficiently that, while writing the actual story, the characters themselves will surprise me with what they do.¬† There are all sorts of things we could get into here about subjectivity/agency, the divided self, etc, but I don’t have time for that (another time, maybe).¬† In any case, Conan was apparently an unusually virulent case of this phenomenon.¬† The version given in the “Making of” special on the DVD of the Schwarzenegger movie tells us that Howard was writing one night when he felt Conan behind him, telling him to write, or else he would cleave him in two.¬† This occurred night after night, until a whole bunch of stories were written.¬† Well, it’s colorful, at any rate.¬† I don’t know whether it is just a bit of apocryphal creativity, or actually from an account by Howard, but I’ll re-quote one version Howard gives, which I found in the intro to¬†Coming of Conan: “…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 typewriter– 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-telling.” (pp. xxi-xxii)¬† The history which enlivens the character and gives him agency is a pastiche of pseudo-historical bits (like the faux-Norse in “Frost Giant’s Daughter”)– but it is real enough, apparently.¬† Maybe we could think of it as the image of antiquity, or maybe discourse of antiquity, which Howard grew up with and was embedded in, speaking through him– a more explicit dramatization of the fact that, while we are the ones who “speak language” and who create texts, we are also “spoken by” that language and that intertextual world– since it pre-exists us, and we can only speak or create ourselves by virtue of that pre-existing system, which both enables and constrains.

Well, writing this went on longer than it should have, and I have midterms to grade, classes to teach, an abstract to write, and job applications to send out, so I’d better go.¬† The last picture (a sketch I did a few months ago) is available in various forms on DeviantArt (follow the link and click on the “buy print” button in the right top corner.¬† CONAN SAYS DO IT!!!!).

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