Friday 6 July 2012

A Word on Female Fans, Femininity and Fandom

 Yes, this is an actual cover for an actual upcoming monthly for Conan the Barbarian. My thoughts? It's the most amazing troll I've seen since the Darrow cover. Fantastic job, Dark Horse.

I've been holding off on "80 Years of Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter" because I've been wrestling with one of the key issues with the story.  I've been conversing with a number of individuals I believe to be more experienced and authoritative in said issue, because while I really don't want to talk about the deeply unpleasant subject, I also think it's important to acknowledge it. In any case, I'll be providing links to places that do talk about it, even if my take is going to be quite limited. However, there's another reason.

There's a really insidious undercurrent of misogyny going around many popular culture circles. We have certain components of the fighting game community arguing that misogyny is inherent to their world; an outspoken and controversial feminist is bombarded with hateful screeds for simply proposing a series of videos (jings, you could at least wait until she's made the videos before going straight for the screeching); the ubiquity of the Make Me A Sammich and Get Back In The Kitchen resulting in some people using such phrases with no sense of the crushingly ironic self-defeat connotations of those phrases.* I've already talked about how much I hate what they're doing with Lara Croft, and how I feel it could be symptomatic, or at least reflective, of gaming culture - and this is a cause of concern for me, since there's a lot of overlap between gaming and literature.

So we come to Conan, a character who, rightly or wrongly, represents the Alpha Male: the muscular warrior who conquers all the foes, takes all the treasure, drinks all the grog, slays all the monsters, and wenches all the wenches.** It's a grossly simplistic view of Conan that has many contradictions to that supposed formula in the original stories, but it's one some people refuse to let go of - both those who criticize Conan, and those who celebrate him for exactly the same things. Therefore, any new take on Conan which eschews certain aspects, or simply highlights other pre-existing ones, is going to make someone unhappy. Just look at all the folk who thought Conan was too "smart" in the 2011 film.

The response to Brian Wood & Becky Cloonan's/James Harren's Conan the Barbarian series has me very worried. I have major issues with the series in terms of fidelity to the source material***, but the reaction to the comic by some longtime Conan fans bothers me too. Sometimes it's minor: "Conan the Emo," "Conan the Barista," whatnot. While I agree that Cloonan's Conan is not at all my Conan, nor do I think it's particularly supportable as faithful to the text, I'd be willing to overlook it so long as his character was right. However, there have been some comments from various parts of the 'net which go beyond stating the obvious, that this Conan is altogether different from previous iterations, and actively suggesting that the character is being feminised. I'd disagree: the character is, by the artist's own admission, designed to appeal to women - or more properly, the women who happen to find that sort of thing attractive (i.e. people like her.) Which is not the problem in and of itself: it's that this contradicts what Howard described that is.

Wood has elsewhere been defensive of the project. Of his omission of Belit's mating dance - something which I think is so important to the story that you cannot leave it out - he says:

And by risky I mean, the risk of not pulling it off visually, Like I said, drawing a mating dance is, in the best of situations, incredibly difficult to pull off.  Give it a shot yourself, see how it goes!  The last thing I wanted was anything to come off corny, or contrived, or just plain awkward.  Adaptations of prose into comics is tricky business.  You say "just do it", and I don't think you really know what that entails.  

His replacement was a gentle sex scene intercut with visual metaphors straight out of Hitchcock. Frankly, if you want to talk cheesy, contrived, or just plain awkward, nothing is more those things than a gentle sex scene intercut with ridiculously blatant visual metaphors straight out of Hitchcock.


Things came to a head recently (salty language replaced with colourful substitutions):

Anyway, I get that most of you hate what I'm doing, think I'm ravishing REH's ghost, and so on and so forth.  It's wrong - no one involved in this book, as we are accused here - is out to delegitimatise Conan for money.  The book is selling better than before, but how much money do you guys think is in comics, anyway?  Yeesh.  Also, its a Richard thing to say.

But in the space of a few posts here a bunch of stuff is getting misconstrued.  Here's one:  I only read QotBC before writing this book.  WRONG.  I'm only using that book for reference in writing the comic... I've read loads of Conan, in comics and in novels (Zack knows this, we talked about it in person, even if he claims surprise here).  I'm not an idiot, or a rookie.  But, just yesterday, when asking my editor a question about continuity, I got this back:  "there's no continuity you need to follow aside from the original REH Queen of the Black Coast story."  If you all are hell-bent on finding reasons and explanations for my inherent balderdashery, here's a little nugget for you to grab ahold of and run with.

And yes, Conan is not dumb, as in ignorant.  He's dumb as in the common expression "young and dumb", which is to mean brash and headstrong and impulsive and passionate (as in a lust for life, in case you wanted to misconstrue the word "passionate").  That interview was done over the phone - something I'll happily state is not my strong suit and I'm never as clear and concise as I should be - and even as I gave my answers I knew people would be waiting to take it out of context.  Sure enough.

I get annoyed at posts like this that seem to gleefully pile on me and my partners supposed flaws, and I know a bunch of you have contacted Dark Horse about removing me from my job.  Which is appalling to me.  What's happening to you here is there is a comic book in existence that you don't like.  That's the extent of the "damage" to you in regards to QotBC.  The damage to me in you guys trying to threaten my job is THIS IS MY JOB, my income, how I feed my two kids.  So, thanks for that.  And I'm doing my job, as charged, the way I'm supposed to.

I would love to be here in a normal fashion and talk and answer questions.  But the personal attacks bother me, the homophobia bothers me, the taking out of context bothers me and the assumptions and words-put-in-my-mouth bother me.  It's a minefield, me coming here, and honestly I don't think anyone actually wants me to be here.  I think you have a lot more fun slagging off the book than hearing reasons and explanations for things that seem out of place.  Honestly, so be it.  I've been doing this long enough to know when someone's mind cannot be changed.

To be frank, I've been finding Wood's handling of the whole thing more and more problematic, but as anyone who's read the blog knows, I've been trying my damnedest to give the comic the benefit of the doubt despite my reservations. And even with all that, I still think the greater readership is a Good Thing, even if it runs the risk of blurring the lines between Howard and Wood. For example, this podcast, "3 Chick Review Comics" (around 18:30):

If you had told me a year ago I would be reading Conan, and it would have been one of my favourite books, I would have slapped you in the face, I would've been like "you're a liar!

So already, Wood's done some good in gaining at least one new Conan fan, if not necessarily a new Howard fan, more on that later. She never does explain why she'd do that, but it's easy to presume its because her knowledge of Conan is limited to the films, and thus she has no idea of the wealth and depth of Howard's work. This is later confirmed (around 45:00):

Brian Wood: Conan's a lot of... I feel I can relax on that because I feel like so much of that world is already built, and I feel like I can let go a bit and allow myself to be a little - this sounds bad, but almost to be a little corny, in a way? In a fantasy world, where I can be ornate with the dialogue, stuff like that, and how I can have a little fun with that. But I feel with a lot of my other stuff I tend to be a lot more serious about - here I can let go of that here.

3 Chicks Review Comics: Correct me if I'm wrong, my knowledge of Conan is nothing, but you're adapting stories, right?

BW: Well the original novel doesn't really have a second act, the original novel has this first part of the story, and then it skips ahead a couple of years: what happens in those couple of years isn't talked about -

3CR: So you're able to fill in the gaps.

BW: Right, so the first three issues of my Conan were directly adapted from the novel. And so now, for the next twelve issues I'm making it up. It's all original stories, the last couple of arcs...

3CR: Comes back to adaptation.

BW: Back to the source material.

3CR: Well I think that's really cool, and a real compliment, that I couldn't tell the difference, you know what I mean, between the adaptation and the created? Also, "The Argos Deception"? Really great title.

Since this individual hasn't read the original story, she has no reason to think that the reason Wood's original work is difficult to discern from the source material is anything other than because Wood was faithful - rather than another explanation, that being Wood has changed so much in his interpretation of the source material to better fit his style. Again, that's fine, if you say that's what you're doing, but I think it's simply impossible to claim that you can't be more faithful when you have Kurt Busiek, Roy Thomas and Timothy Truman sometimes transcribing entire passages from Howard in their adaptations. It's amazing that he's so openly critical of Zach Davisson for the latter's criticisms in regards to the source material, given that Zach is one of his most vocal and enthusiastic supporters. Also, he keeps saying novel, when "Queen of the Black Coast" is only about 27 pages long. (Pedant mode, deactivate!) All the same, even though I'm concerned that he's conflating genuine criticism with the sort of nonsense that should really just be ignored, he does have a point. There are some criticisms of the comic which I don't agree with, and some of them suggest reasoning I'm opposed to.

I'm not going to deny that, given the time and nature of Conan's first big push in popularity, a number of the character's fans are from a culture, generation or background which is more traditionally patriarchal than current western society. Nothing wrong with that. That's part of the wild patchwork which makes up Howard fandom: people of all manner of political views, faiths, ethnicities, nationalities and marmite preferences all find something in common they love. I strongly reject the idea that any one group of people just won't get Howard, since there are so many exceptions to the rule. Certainly there are likely many fans of Howard who hold views with which I resolutely disagree, some I've covered on the blog, but I'm the sort of guy who thinks intolerance of intolerance is in itself intolerant,*** so I come over all Evelyn Beatrice Hall when that happens. I mean for crying out loud, we're the sort of fandom that get into heated debates over whether Aquilonia was inherently Roman or inherently Medieval, how do you think we'd get when you get big social issues involved?

So from the start, I don't want to say that some "types" are "unwelcome" or "unsuited" to Howard fandom because of their beliefs, otherwise we'd get more types of Howard fans than Megalosaurus has homonyms. We already have something of a schism between "Conan fans" (those who love Howard because he writes Conan) and "Howard fans" (those who love Conan because it's written by Howard), along with myriad subdivisions like comic fans, movie fans and videogame fans. It doesn't take much for any divided fandom to dip into No True Scotsman territory when a divisive issue comes up.

Because make no mistake, despite Howard being a very masculine writer, a feminist reading of his work isn't just possible, it's remarkably easy. One doesn't need to look far to see the tone of approval in rebellion against the patriarchy in "Sword Woman" and "The Isle of Pirate's Doom," the positive depictions of non-sexualised women in "Beyond the Black River" and "The Hour of the Dragon," powerful and competent female leaders in "The People of the Black Circle" and "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth," to more subtle examples like "Stones of Destiny," "Swords of the Northern Sea" and "Spears of Clontarf": plenty of good meat for those of a feminist mind to chew on beyond the cheesecake and mind's eye-candy. Certainly a good portion of feminists and non-feminists don't share such an appraisal of Howard's work, but that just shows that there is a debate: that Howard can be considered a proto-feminist writer as much as the sort of writer feminists may despise. Just adds to the complexity, I think, that two completely different mindsets can appreciate his work without one disproving or invalidating the other.

Art by Daniel. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander, and all that.

There's a subset of fans who think that the advent of all these Strong Female Characters is against type for Sword-and-Sorcery, that all women are nubile slaves, haughty nobles or evil sorceresses to be dealt with in earthy manners. Sorry, folks, but that doesn't fly: the emergence of powerful and compelling female characters in Sword-and-Sorcery happened practically since the very inception of the genre. The feminine aspect beyond the detached objectivity as a prize or a temptress was present when Jirel donned harness and Valeria took up her sword: it may have taken a while for her sword-sisters to join them, but they came in force. The fruits of the feminist revolution may have seen more join their ranks in recent years, but they are not outside invaders threatening dominance of a masculine genre, because the seeds for feminist Sword-and-Sorcery were always there. And so, anyone who responds to those aspects deserves to be welcomed into the fold, even if they never pick up a Conan story, or openly disparage Howard's other work with which they disagree.

I suppose I'm being pre-emptively jittery. Sexism is on people's mind a lot, especially in fantasy: just look at the various arguments about Game of Thrones' depiction of gender politics. I just don't want Howard fandom to be perceived as "part of the problem," because it most assuredly isn't. It must not be. The great amount of praise and examination of Howard's heroines, the continued presence of female fans on the Forums and other online venues, and the active influence of female scholars like Barbara Barrett - we know we're in good shape. But all it takes is one individual with an out-of-context quote to poison the well, and for people not intimately aware of Howard fandom to get a completely skewed perspective. I don't want people to perceive Howard fandom as hostile to feminists any more than I'd like it to be seen as hostile to people of other stripes.

So I say to any feminists out there looking at this post and shaking their heads in bewilderment: give REH a chance, at least read some of the links I've mentioned above. To any women who think Howard and Conan are exclusively the domain of manly men and boys: pick up The Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures, give it a go. To anyone of any walk of life who thinks Howard "isn't for them": give him a try. In fact, why not comment here? Tell me your preferences and why you don't think you'd like Howard, and I'll give you suggestions: Howard wrote a great deal of literature, and I'm certain there's something for everyone to some degree. If I can't, go over to the Robert E. Howard Forums, lurk around the threads.

We've experienced the great publishing boom for Howard, and are now ushering in a new scholarship boom. No better time for new friends.

*My take on these phrases is this: if you're a true chauvinist, why would you let a woman make your sandwich? Surely she, with her inferior female brain, would make a mess of it? Better for a Real Man to make a Real Sandwich. As such, the Make Me A Sammich/Get Back In The Kitchen routine should be viewed not as an attempt to put women back in their place, but as essentially an admission of defeat: that the sort of man who has to demand anyone - let alone a woman - to feed him, is no man at all. He is a pathetic creature, insecure, self-entitled, and generally worthless. Unfortunately, this reading is increasingly rare, and when it is used by exactly that sort of snivelling keyboard warrior as shorthand for "I cannot or will not continue this debate, but I wish to get a rise out of feminists by taunting them with chauvinistic ideas," they're usually completely clueless about the irony.

**Now I need to do this as a meme...

*** In short: I think if they actively set out to reimagine Conan, explicitly state this is a new interpretation, "not your daddy's Conan," a lot of my disagreements would be moot - but Wood, Dark Horse et al maintain that their adaptation is faithful to Howard. While the team do get some things completely right, I'm also going to call them on what I disagree with. I should point out that I also have major disagreements with several of Kurt Busiek's, Tim Truman's, and Roy Thomas' adaptations, some of them just as pronounced as my problems with "Queen of the Black Coast" - however, I really think that this arc has more problems than the previous ones. And, lest anyone think I'm impossible to please, there are several adaptations I flat-out adore - Thomas' "Kings of the Night" and "Worms of the Earth," Scott Hampton's "Pigeons from Hell," Busiek's "The Tower of the Elephant," - so it isn't as if there aren't comics I can point to and say "there, more of that, please."

****Yo dawg, I heard you dislike intolerance.... OK, OK, that's the last meme.


  1. I've been ignoring the Conan comic mostly for the last few years, so I've missed most of this dust up. I have to say that when I scan a copy at the shop from time to time they don't feel like Conan comics (whatever that is), but if sales are up then Dark Horse has little incentive to switch back to the old status quo.

    I am fascinated though by that wonderful riff on the classic Frazetta pose for Conan the Adventurer. Who is the artist for that outstanding spoof?

    Oh and all Howard is good by me. I'm one of those folks who got into Howard by way of the Conan comics decades ago, and stayed for the whole show.

    Rip Off

    1. In the end, money talks, and QotBC's money is talking. Evidently they're doing something right.

      I'm afraid I don't know the artist for the Frazetta parody: I've seen another one before on the Conan forums from a different artist, but I can't find it again.

    2. BUT WAIT! After some searching on the 'net, I think I've tracked down the source and artist:

      There you go!

  2. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of feminity and fandom.

  3. "The unexamined life is not worth living". --Socrates

    So allow me, for amusement's sake, to offer a syllogism:

    Social constructs exist.
    Social constructs are affected by the culture from which they spring.
    Social constructs are affected by changes in the surrounding culture.
    Social constructs consist of individuals.
    Therefore, the individuals in a social construct must singly and collectively, decide how to react to the changes in the surrounding culture, in order to determine the direction and attitude of the social construct.

    Fandom is a social construct.
    Our surrounding culture contains several subcultures struggling for equality.
    Therefore, the individual fans must, singly and collectively, decide how to react to these subcultures -- whether to welcome them, or to reject them.

    1. Good point, J, and well worth consideration.

  4. I still have not read any of woods Conan, been laying low with comics for a couple of months (for no real reason), but im eager to read is soon beacause im sure it has lots of qualities even if its not kosher in strikt Howard fandom.

    Ofcourse, any kind of debate it kan generate is as good as a load of new Conan readers. The general fear among Conan fans is that people just wont get the greatness on their own.
    Well, you cant give people answers and facts, all you can do is give them directions to where or how they might find the answers for themself.

    Great post Al!

    PS. I would also like to know the painter/context behind picture 3 of 3. Looks a bit like Broom, but the background colours look like current DH Conan.

    1. I still have not read any of woods Conan, been laying low with comics for a couple of months (for no real reason), but im eager to read is soon beacause im sure it has lots of qualities even if its not kosher in strikt Howard fandom.

      Oh, it most assuredly does, if the many great reviews are any indication: the artwork has some real points of excellence, and Wood hits on a few good points of his own. The issue for me is, again, this is Wood's Conan, not Howard's, and the difference needs to be explicated.

      The general fear among Conan fans is that people just wont get the greatness on their own.

      Related to that: I'm concerned that I'm missing out on a really great comic precisely because I cannot separate it from the source material.

  5. Food for thought...

    Jeez, a writer himself comes down from the mountain to talk to you guys and he got a bad impression of your corner of the fan base thanks to some? They should at least be grateful he even bothered to come to ground.

    1. I can see that point of view, Martin: at the same time, though, I feel Wood should surely have expected this. He's an experienced writer who's dealt with some seriously divisive stuff in DMZ, so I would expect he's experienced some severe criticism for his handling of politics simply because of the nature of political discussion.

      Other writers have come down from the summit to converse with us lowly fans. Heck, some writers are active members of the community (John C. Hocking, John Maddox Roberts). I really hope Wood sees the distinction between honest - if passionate and intense - criticism, and ad hominem.

  6. Like you, I wanted to give QotBC a good shot, but I've actually bailed on the series after issue #4, because I disagree with Woods handling of Conan. However, I still think Woods is a good writer. I'm somewhat amazed by folks who can't seem to dislike something a writer is doing without feeling the need to demonize that writer. Sales wise I'm waiting to see more figures. If the statistics Diamond Distributors publish are correct, the series has lost close to a quarter of its readership from issue #1 to issue #4. Reportedly issue #1 sold 20,569 copies and issue #4 sold 15,689 copies. Haven't seen figure for #5 yet.

  7. Interesting numbers there, Charles: wonder what proportion of that 5,000 or so lost copies were longtime Conan/Howard fans.

    I still think Wood's a terrific writer, I've just been sorely disappointed with what I've seen from Conan, precisely because I've read some great stuff from him.

  8. this is a very informative article but what about Frost giant's daughter?

    1. Despite being the shortest of all the Conan stories, I believe "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" is one of the deepest and grandest of them all, which means a LOT of research and detail. It shouldn't be too long now, though I may have a few other posts in-between.

  9. There was a comic strip in the back on one of the issues of Dark Horse's "The Phoenix on the Sword" adaptation that detailed a story Howard told in one of his letters about how he cried at a movie, not because it was so touching but because he hated how the female lead, who he described as a strong, smart woman, gave herself to a man who he thought was no good for her. Kind of similar to what people say about Edward and Bella's relationship in Twilight. So at the very least we know he hated romances where the man was in charge, to put it simply.

    1. Yup, here's the part:

      “Back Street” was powerful, to my mind, and most damnably harrowing. I wept bitterly. That’s no lie. While weeping some yegg in front of me turned around and gave me an incredulous look, and thinking he was about to make a smart crack, I gave him a murderous glare, wiped away my tears and drew back my right to mash him for the insect he was, but he made no comment and turned around again. Maybe he was weeping too. I wish I hadn’t seen that show. It really tore me up. The thought of an intelligent and talented woman wasting all her years on a low-lifed son-of-a-bitch and sacrificing herself and living in the shadows, it gave me the jitters. I felt like taking a club and wading through the populace like Samson through the Philadelphians.
      - Letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, September 1932

      Unfortunately the film isn't out on DVD as far as I can find, but you can find it on Youtube. Rob Roehm has an excellent write-up on the film here: