Friday, January 9, 2009

Conan The Designer: Redeeming an Icon

As professional creatives, most of us have, at one time or another, faced the thorny challenge of refreshing or otherwise reinvigorating an established brand. But only the most fortunate among us have ever had the chance to tangle with truly ubiquitous cultural brands – a shame because cultural icons are often exciting subjects and because a great deal can be learned about how reinvention and research inform such a challenge.

Case in point: the monumental challenge presented by established cultural icons such as Conan the Barbarian. For nigh on 77 years, the burly Cimmerian has prowled American pop culture at nearly every level – from his 1932 genesis in Weird Tales to generations of short stories, comics, novels, films, and, inevitably, a whole subgenre of satires. And I'd wager that if you surveyed a sample of the American public, you would find a fairly concrete but simple perception of the character as a one-dimensional, stupid barbarian.

It is into this environment that Wandering Star and Del Rey invited a series of artists – including Mark Schultz, Gregory Manchess, Jim and Ruth Keegan, Gary Gianni – to reinvent the character Conan for a new series of Robert E. Howard's original stories.

The challenge is not unlike that regularly faced by creative professionals the world over – to take an established brand and breathe new life into it. Only most of us, even when dealing with titanic corporations and organizations, rarely have to confront a icon of such ubiquity – much less one associated with as iconic a celebrity as Schwarzenegger or so long and storied a public career.

But as a recent series of posts at Tor's blog recently demonstrate (both about the nature of the icon and the illustrators who refreshed it) the answer to this challenge isn't an impossible one. Indeed, the team of illustrators who recovered Conan from the character's public image found the answer by going back to the source – the original tales of Robert E. Howard.

This exercise is an excellent analogue for any creative project that seeks to break the inertia of a long-running but stale brand. Rather than mire themselves in the legacy of second or third generation characterizations of the Conan icon – or even the classic depictions of the character by Frank Frazetta – the illustrators each turned to a portion of the original short stories and novellas with which Howard invented the barbarian.

What the illustrators found, and brought to life for Del Rey, was a character far more complicated than than a simple savage – or even a shirtless Austrian. As artist Mark Schultz told Irene Gallo at Tor:

Conan has achieved a sort of iconic status which unfortunately carries with it a gross simplification of the complexities of the character as originally written by his creator, the massively talented Robert E. Howard.

Howard created Conan, and the genre that later came to be called "sword and sorcery," not simply as venues for bloody action, but as expressions of his views on life, history, and society. That he could disguise his philosophical musings within rousing good adventure and compelling character was but one aspect of his talent.

The one-note depiction of Conan as snarling, mindless killing machine has become short-hand for the character and, unfortunately, the only aspect recognized by the wider public. It's a powerful, dramatic aspect in a commercial sense—and one too easily returned to by illustrators aping their predecessors—but does a disservice to the richness of the character as written by Howard.

I've tried in my depictions of Conan to always refer back to the descriptions of his creator. Howard wrote him as a triumph of pure merit over established societal mores. Conan has a genius for rising above his circumstances and improving his situation: he comes from Cimmerian poverty to become king of the greatest nation of his time, and that doesn't happen merely because he is the most physically imposing warrior. Howard depicts him with plenty of smarts, curiosity, empathy, adaptability, self-depreciation, charisma--in short, all the factors needed to make a superior leader. He grows and changes throughout Howard's stories. I'm always attempting to keep that in mind as I draw Conan.

Such research – in this case going back to the original depression-era stories – mimics the professional creative who discards trendy campaigns and inherited messaging and goes back to a brand's source – to the meaning, the culture, and the core message of the brand in question. And in such an activity, the opportunity to reveal the lost quality of a simplified or wayward brand is enormous. Consider the simple warrior brought to life by Arnold Schwarzenegger compared to Howard's layered and complex version of the Cimemrian, as described by Tor's Douglas Cohen:

We should also consider the predominant theme in most of Howard's original tales: the triumph of barbarism over civilization. Howard saw a certain noble beauty in the simple ways of the barbarian, and considered them superior to the decadence of the civilized world (he and H.P. Lovecraft actually exchanged a series of renowned letters that debated the virtues of barbarism vs. civilization). Conan was by no means a philosopher or a man of deep thoughts, but when the story came back to Howard's predominant theme, Conan proved himself more than capable of elucidating his thoughts on what he wished from life. Conan was never stupid; he lived life through his body as opposed to his mind because that's what appealed to him. When he needed to use his mind though, he was more than up to the task.

Let's hope, as designers, we're up the task as well. FB


Pop-Monkey said...

Excellent article. I've thoroughly enjoyed what those artists have brought to the recent collections of REH's work. I've also very much enjoyed the faithful Dark Horse Comics series that is currently ongoing. Perhaps an article focusing entirely on REH interpretations in comics is in the works?

Brit Columbia said...

Thank you. I've been a fan of Conan for 36 years. Sometimes newer fans forget that in addition to being a strong and skilled warrior, he was also intelligent and capable of strategy.