But it wasn't all blades, biceps and boobies in Bacofoil bikinis. There were some convoluted, intelligent storylines. There was political intrigue. And not all of the female characters were swooning stereotypes. There were powerful, dangerous women who could equal Conan's brawn (and definitely his barbarian brains) like Belit, Valeria and Red Sonja. There were as many witch queens as there were wizards and any number of mad or egomaniac princesses too. Robert E Howard created an entire world - the world of the Hyborean Age he called it - and peopled it with characters acting out stories with strong moral messages. In this, he was simply mirroring the vogue for romantic imaginative adventure fiction that was popular in the first half of the 20th century.
His contemporaries were people like Edgar Rice Burroughs whose many books were filled with much the same formulaic pulp fiction; heroic man/woman carves a place for him/herself in the world by being noble and strong and always gets the girl/boy. His most famous creation was Tarzan, of course, but he also created complete, highly detailed worlds on Mars (called Barsoom by its peoples), Venus (Amtor) and deep within the Earth's core (Pellucidar), and established a new genre of fiction - the so-called 'Sword and Planet' canon.
His 11-book Martian Series (which began with A Princess of Mars in 1912 and ended in 1964) starred Captain John Carter, a US civil war veteran who is mortally wounded and somehow finds himself transported to the red planet. But it's not the Mars we know; he has travelled as far in time as he has in space and ancient Mars is a world of advanced humanoid peoples, weird technologies, terrifying beasts and strange, alien races like the six-limbed warrior green men. He eventually wins his princess, often described as 'the incomparable Dejah Thoris' (seen above in another of Frank Frazetta's memorable book covers) and becomes the most influential man on Barsoom. In later books we meet another human migrant, Ulysses Paxton and the series follows his adventures. Then, the narrative baton is passed to the children of John Carter and Dejah Thoris - the unimaginatively named Carthoris and his sister, Tara. The books have slipped in and out of movie production hell for decades but I'm encouraged to read that Pixar are currently in pre-production on a film based on the series. It's tentatively called John Carter of Mars and will using a mix of live action and CGI - a new departure for them. I can't wait to see it. For forty years I've been aching to see Ulysses Paxton fighting the multi-limbed great white apes, or Tars Tarkas riding his mighty war thoat at the head of the armies of Thark, or the scary spider-like Kaldanes and their headless symbiotic Rykor bodies.
Burroughs is believed to have been inspired by an earlier story - Lieutenant Gulliver Jones: His vacation (1905) by Edwin Lester Arnold - in which the aforementioned Jones is taken by flying carpet to a less well-defined ancient feudal Mars. But just as Burroughs was inspired by Arnold, so he himself later inspired works by Michael Moorcock, John Norman, Lin Carter, Leigh Brackett and Andrew J Offutt. Even E C Tubb's huge 32 book Dumarest Saga could be said to be the natural descendant of Burroughs with its galaxy-spanning hero, Earl Dumarest, knife-fighting and romancing the ladies in his endless search for the lost planet Earth - his home world. I should also add that Gullivar Jones and John Carter both make an appearance in Alan Moore's and Kevin O'Neill's amazing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. You see? Even the talented Mr Moore recognises the value of this stuff. He'd appreciate the collections on my groaning bookshelves.
Conan and his big chopper are providing me with hours of mindless escapist joy. Great stories, great art, and a real nostalgia trip all in one trade paperback.
I've already ordered Volume 2.