I'm rather sad now.
I kind of got the impression that Alan Moore wouldn't have liked Robert E. Howard. Moore, for all his undoubted genius and coolness, was one of those people would've been likely taken in by the myths and misconceptions regarding Conan's creator that were riddling the world 25 years ago. This was the age of Dark Valley Destiny, after all - and just a year after the appearance of Conan the Barbarian in cinemas.
So we come to Sexism in Comics, a 1983 article by the man himself. Before I get stuck in, I want to make the point that outside of the Howard stuff, this is a really good article. Sexism and Feminism is something I'm very interested in, as you'll no doubt have noticed. However, just because something was written decades ago doesn't exclude it from discussion now that the facts are more fully known: if anything, it means that they need to be addressed even more. Just because "Epic Pooh" was written decades ago doesn't mean Brian Murphy wasn't right to critique it. Man, I miss The Cimmerian.
Take for example the home-grown rape fantasies that populate our very own Sword-and-Sorcery genre. How many times have you opened up a copy of Savage Sword of Conan to find some barbarian forcing a lithe Kothian dancing girl back into the hay, ignoring her feeble half-hearted complaints and taking his cue from the delirious ecstatic look that the artist has drawn onto her face, showing you that she doesn't mind really. In fact, she likes this sort of treatment. Sure she does. Anyone would enjoy being sexually assaulted by an illiterate musclebound oaf who stinks of bear grease. That's most people's idea of a good night out.
The message of this sort of story is that women enjoy rape and that they say "No" when they mean "yes". When one reads in the papers about some of the astonishing proclamations made by judges presiding over rape cases, one wonders if our entire judicial authorities were not given copies of "Conan the Rapist" to read during their formative years. The other message contained in this material is that real men are good at drinking, reducing people to dog-food with their broadswords and interfering with tavern wenches.
I have to say, I really think Moore's looking into things in this section. Breaking open even one of the lesser Savage Swords, I see the women with expressions not of "delirious ecstacy," but abject terror. Either Moore is a poor judge of facial expressions that borders on the Autistic, or he's trying to paint this with the same brush used by John Norman. I'll give him points for mentioning "Kothic" though, it proves that while he might not have understood the comics, he may at least have read them. Or skimmed them. Or asked someone for a Hyborian name he could steal to prove a point.
Oh, and by the way, earlier Moore compares Sword-and-Sorcery to Japanese Rape Hentai. No, Alan. Just no. John Norman's Gor, maybe; Heavy Metal, at a stretch; but Sword-and-Sorcery in general? Not in even the wildest fantasies of the average comic author will you find anything that compared to the depths of some horrors I've encountered (though mercifully only in synopsis form: I haven't the courage to experience them first hand). In hindsight, it's rather hilarious to see Moore criticizing S&S's more lascivious side considering what he got up to less than a decade after writing this essay. Or are the sexually explicit, exploitative adventures of characters from beloved children's fantasy stories exempt from this sort of denouncement? Or is it just when you write them?
As well as that, as we shall find, all the criticisms Moore levels here are, by proxy, levelled at Howard. Moore apparently has no idea of just how feminist Howard was even judging by his strong female characters, let alone letters he couldn't possibly have access too. But frankly, a badass like Valeria from 1936 alone is worth a score of Wonder Women from 1959. A shame Moore doesn't bother to note that, or mention how a sword-woman from 1936 was a more positive feminist role-model than anything in the decades that followed - certainly in comics. But I guess that doesn't fit into his worldview, as we shall see.
Strange that Conan's creator, Robert E. Howard was in reality a rather sad and lonely figure who never managed to sever his intense emotional bond with his mother. When she died he drove out to some waste land and blew his own brains out. Conan and all his other heroes were unashamed escapist fantasies of the way he would have liked to have been.
It is a great pity that he couldn't have diverted his undoubted energies into something a bit more positive and healthy. It's a greater pity that he has doomed the following generations of his fans to endless reruns of his hopelessly insecure dreams of brute sex, white slavery and mindless violence.
Though it chagrins and infuriates me to do so, I'm willing to give Moore a certain amount of slack on the woefully inaccurate, borderline libelous, and frustratingly facile depiction of Howard and his most famous creation. After all, if the official biographies and the man considered by many at the time to be the top authority on Robert E. Howard were coming up with lines like "maladjusted to the point of psychosis," what hope is there for anyone else? How could he possibly know that Howard had a fairly interesting and action-packed life, that his depression was far more complex than simply missing his mam, and that there's so much more to Conan than Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment? Certainly it makes for an attractive dichotomy, and since Moore is a writer, he'd probably lap up the idea of the author of one of the mightiest warriors in fiction to really be a little small-town geek. Many people do. It's classic Scooby-Doo material: "Why, it turns out the mighty barbarian was really just an insecure, lonely man in a suit!" So though it disappoints me that Moore was misinformed, I cannot blame him considering the climate of the time, any more than I can blame Howard for his views on geography or evolution.
Moore also shows a lamentable lack of familiarity with Howard's other work, especially non-fantasy. Now, I can afford a little bit of slack on Moore not knowing that Howard wrote anything other than Sword-and-Sorcery - I don't think many of them were even in print until the '00s - but jings, it still chafes that he seems to completely ignore A Gent from Bear Creek. The first Robert E. Howard novel ever published, and it wasn't Sword-and-Sorcery, but a comedy western. The idea that all of Howard's heroes were "unashamed escapist fantasy" flies in the face of the larger body of his work - what of fallible mortals like Steve Harrison, Conrad & Kirowan, Steve Allison and others? What's "escapist" about the dark, bleak fatalism of Bran Mak Morn, or the uncaring dark cosmos of Solomon Kane, or the many Cthulhu Mythos or Southern Gothic horrors? Must do better, Alan.
It's particularly that jab about Howard not directing his energies into something "a bit more positive and healthy" that grinds my gears. Alan, the single most commercially successful and probably most numerous of all the fields Howard wrote in during his lifetime was comedy. Not epic Swords-and-Sorcery, not historical fiction, not horror, comedy. Comedy westerns and boxing yarns outnumber every one of his fantasy series combined. These comedies are light-hearted, rambunctious and ultimately harmless. It's hard to think of anything more "positive and healthy," relatively speaking, than the delightfully whimsical adventures of Breck Elkins or the loveable Steve Costigan. I'm willing to give Moore some slack, since the boxing comedies were undoubtedly quite unknown at the time he was writing, but it's still poor form to characterize Howard's work on what is a comparative fraction of his corpus.
That said, Moore brings up one good Howard-related point, though it requires a bit of qualification.
It's a greater pity that he has doomed the following generations of his fans to endless reruns of his hopelessly insecure dreams of brute sex, white slavery and mindless violence.
It may be true that Howard's successors were doing reruns of "brute sex, white slaver and mindless violence," but you certainly can't blame Howard for that. Most of the Conan pastiches Moore is clearly describing here are a result of that old chestnut of Conan being nothing more than - wait for it - Puerile Adolescent Wish-Fulfillment. All that's required is for Conan to bash some heads in, rescue a voluptuous damsel, and for a beastie or two to appear in the proceedings. This gross caricature of Howard's creation has led to the mockery of Sword-and-Sorcery as a genre, and it's utterly infuriating to see Howard blamed as the origin, when the true origin quite clearly lies in the mass-market, production-line pap which became the Conan Franchise.
Ah well. The piece was written in the '80s, and as I said, it is a very interesting article nonetheless. As was the case with my disagreements with Michael Moorcock's criticisms and Bob Silverberg's atrocious Howard/Gilgamesh slash fan-fiction, it doesn't affect my opinion of the man's best work. I still think "Kings in Darkness" is one of the ten finest Sword-and-Sorcery stories ever written, and "Our Lady of the Sauropods" one of my favourite ever science fiction stories. The man has still written some of the most important comics... ever. V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Killing Joke, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Supreme, Promethea (my personal favourite), Tom Strong, his work for 2,000 AD and Swamp Thing - any one of those works would be enough to assure his place in the Pantheon of Comic Deities. 'E's a bluddy genius.
So he's unfortunately ill-informed about Howard - nobody's perfect. If anything, it just makes him more human. Kind of like REH: I may vehemently disagree with the racist elements in his fiction, but as with Moore's dismissal and mischaracterisation of Howard, it's as symptomatic of the time and place as much as it is their own fault. They're both wrong, but for reasons beyond simple personality flaws, and it doesn't take away from their genius. Crom knows Moore has his fair share of... interesting views, and given his almost otherworldly aura, I think he kind of needed a bit of humanizing in my eyes. Maybe one of these days, if I ever meet him at a convention, I'll pluck up the courage to suggest he incorporate more Howardian elements in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen beyond Crom and a vague reference to the "Amra Period" in The Black Dossier, and hopefully not make the "Conan was Swedish" mistake again.
Speaking of which, I can't believe I forgot to point out that the idea of Cimmeria being Welsh "Cymru" or Danish "Himmerland" is hilarious, since the otherwise erudite and scholarly folk seem to have completely missed the historical Cimmerians. That's quite an oversight. Even the guy writing in noting the real Cimmerians didn't know about Howard's "The Hyborian Age," and you'd think people would at least read up all they could on his fictional Cimmerians in order to determine where he was going with them, rather than come up with weird theories based purely on speculation. That's like wondering where Tolkien got the idea for the Rohirrim without actually reading The Lord of the Rings. Another thing I notice which is not exclusive to Black Dossier is the "Amra is another word for lion" theory - frankly, I have sufficient cause to doubt this, which I'll talk about in an upcoming post. Ah well, since the death of Geocities their site has vanished from the 'Net: maybe a new iteration will be more accurate.
Anyway, I highly encourage everyone to read "Sexism in Comics" - just skip most of the fifth page.