What Do I Know About First Impressions? The Art of Conan
I mentioned when I did my line overview article on Modiphius’ Conan line that way back when the line started, I purchased the “get all the PDFs” bundle, so I’ve been watching the line progress. I received another PDF, but this was sent to me as a review copy from Modiphius.
This product is a little different, because it is a collection of the artwork that has appeared in the Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of RPG line. This is just titled The Art of Conan, and while it has the 2d20 logo on it, there aren’t any game rules in the product.
I’m going to do this particular article as a First Impressions article. I’ve looked through the artwork and have seen how the chapters are structured, but I haven’t done a front to back read through of the content.
The book is a full color PDF that is 120 pages long, and it has the same style and formatting as the RPG releases for the line. There are introductory paragraphs that are usually excerpts from Howard’s stories, two column formatting where the chapter discusses the product where the art originally appeared, and then sidebars about the artists and their thoughts on the images that they produced.
There is an introduction, and then a separate chapter for each of the books that has be released for the line so far, with the exception of the cross promotional books which had RPG material from the Monolith board game and the Conan The Exiles MMO. The front and back of the book contains the two page spread of the Hyborean era map that has appeared in several of the RPG products before.
The individual chapters include the quote from Howard, a description of the product from which the art was derived, and the artist’s discussion of the two-page spread that served as the cover piece from the book in question. Some of these pieces are representational works, not taken from any specific story, but just portraying Conan in some iconic situation. Other cover spreads, like the image of the Frost Giant’s Daughter, where Conan is pursuing a woman while fighting her brothers, are taken from the various stories written by Howard.
The introduction to the chapters often has an image taken from one of the character type illustrations for the player options in that book, and after the two-page spread that served as the cover of the book, the rest of the chapter is often a half-page illustration and two quarter-page illustrations, or occasionally a full-page image taken from a particular book.
It is interesting to contrast how the different artwork in the books evokes different feelings. The individual characters that are presented in the books as example character types often look like strong, competent, respectful representations of the cultures from which the Hyborean era has “borrowed.”
This character archetype artwork often portrays female and male presenting characters almost equally, and the ethnicity of the characters in the given sourcebook usually determines the degree to which the book presents people of color. For example, it’s hard to find any people of color in the Conan the Barbarian sourcebook, because it is depicting cultures that were drawn from Celtic, Germanic, and Nordic sources, and despite Conan’s own travels, apparently he’s the only person that visits other cultures as an adventurer in the Hyborian age.
So, let me take a moment here to say, I like the character archetype artwork. While its not as varied in some of the sourcebooks as it could be, the people portrayed in the archetypes across the whole line tend to be a bit more diverse, not overly sexualized, and not framed in a derogatory manner. I wanted to point out that in this instance, I’m talking about the archetype artwork.
What I mean by “sourcebook images” are the images that are meant to be scenes from various locations that are being detailed in the individual books. In other words, in Conan the Barbarian, once you get past the archetype images, you are seeing barbarians from the northern Hyborean age regions. Once you get into Conan the Brigand, you are seeing the lower middle nations that are drawn from middle-eastern cultures, etc.
These images can vary greatly and can play into a lot of stereotypes. Because the middle eastern-influenced Hyborean nations are detailed in Conan the Brigand, most of the Mediterranean presenting characters in the artwork are thieves, bandits, or merchants. Because Conan the King deals with the nations that are drawn more of medieval cultures, the white European presenting characters have architecture pulled from a later period in history, so have more intricate castles and homes, plate armor and steel.
In this case, it’s a matter of the artwork mimicking the problems that Howard introduced into his setting by creating a patchwork world where some influences were drawn from the bronze age, others from medieval era sources, and we see those disparate cultures as contemporaries in the Hyborean era instead of seeing the actual nations that were present with one another in history.
Conan the Wanderer, which touches on the Hyborean version of Asian cultures, seems to indicate that only China, India, and Mongolia exist beyond the European influenced cultures that we see, and the Hyborean east is a lot more pan-Asian than the west is pan-European.
It is also noteworthy that Conan the Adventurer, the book that portrays the “Black Kingdoms” of Hyborean, has a cover that defaults to featuring Conan and Belit, rather than any Black characters.
The exceptions to this are the chapters not based on the “Conan the” theme, which included the sourcebooks dealing with magic, cults, monsters, and Atlantis. These don’t portray real-world analogous cultures, so much as they portray themes. Kull of Atlantis was a different style, regarding the artwork, however, as Justin Sweet’s art is used throughout the book.
The Male Gaze
There are many images of female-presenting characters that are not overly sexualized, nor framed in a way that sets them to the side of the male presenting characters. There are female-presenting warriors with similar weapons and armor to the male presenting characters in these images, that look like component and dangerous adventurers. Unfortunately, there are a lot more images that just don’t feature female-presenting characters at all. In mass battle scenes, everyone appears to be male presenting. Many of the “cultural context” images show male presenting characters are armed and female-presenting characters as more passive.
This disparity skyrockets if the image includes Conan himself. Everyone wants to emulate Frazetta, and by that, I mean that if its an image with Conan, and there is a female-presenting character, odds are she has fewer clothes than in any of the other artwork. If she’s got a weapon, she’s probably not aggressively using it, but brandishing it passively. Conan is probably standing between her and danger, unless it’s the Frost Giant’s Daughter image, in which case, he’s the danger to her.
I know that the covers and the Conan specific images have a lot of pop culture inertia, but it feels very strange to go from the character archetype artwork to the Conan-centric spreads and look at the differences.
But Do You Know If Its Art?
The maps of the Hyborean Age are gorgeous. I love the archetype artwork in these books, and a lot of the atmospheric pieces do lovely things light lighting and color. Orange and yellow booths in taverns, unnaturally lit blues and greens when undead rise, and muted greens and yellows swirling around unnatural tentacled creatures all look great.
As much as the story is very fraught, from a “we’re suppose to be rooting for a guy chasing a naked woman because he’s obsessed with her” angle, I love the two page spread of The Frost Giant’s Daughter, as its clean and cold, and the greys and whites contrast sharply with the reds and browns in the images.
Ironically, the images that capture my imagination the least tend to be the images of Conan. Everyone wants their turn at being Frazetta, and I’ve already seen Frazetta. Some of the most compelling images of the man himself for me are the ones that play against type. Shirt, armor, pants, using local weaponry instead of a sword that looks like it can straight out of Arnie’s movies.
I really want to like the image pulled from “Beyond the Black River,” as it’s one of my favorite of Howard’s Conan stories, but there is one too many images in the book that is Conan standing in a mound of bodies that are all people of color, and the Picts in these stories are at least partially analogous to the indigenous people of North America.
There really are some gorgeous long view images of countrysides, castles, and cities in these sourcebooks as well.
Checking for Danger
There are a lot of quotes that get picked for these chapter headers that make me wonder why that particular passage had to be reproduced. The descriptions of the Zamorians, the framing of native people afraid of their own environment before Conan comes to tame it for them, comparisons of the Picts to beasts, and the constant reflexive use of “black” for anything ominous . . . in all of Howard’s body of work, there have to be some illustrative quotes that don’t showcase his worst aspects, right?
Conan is such a twisted heap of emotions for me. It’s such a foundational element of modern fantasy, and I have fond memories of many of the stories that I read, but there are also so many problems, problems that have gotten embedded in modern fantasy. The artwork in the books is often gorgeous, but it is very much entangled with themes and tropes that Howard established.
This book, not entirely like modern fantasy, replicates a lot of the problems of the past, under the aegis of reverence and nostalgia. I wish more of the book looked like those archetypes.