“What Makes You a Strange Kid?” #7 featuring Reis O’Brien
My Life with Conan the Barbarian – Written and illustrated by Reis
I discovered Conan, the legendary bronze-skinned warrior from the North, the slayer of enemies and the taker of women, at the age of 10, in the Summer of 1983, thanks to the repetitious scheduling practices of a young HBO and parents who just didn’t see the need to police what their over-imaginative child watched. In fact, it was on one of those nights when my parents went out, leaving me well supplied with Cheeto’s and red licorice, to spend the evening on my own, free to play outside for as long as I wanted with the other kids on my block until they were all called inside at which point I would go home as well and revel in the rare, glowing moment shared by few kids my age; being in charge of the TV.
It was on such a night that I stumbled onto Conan the Barbarian, John Milius’ sword and sorcery masterpiece based on the classic Robert E. Howard pulp stories. The movie had me transfixed from the opening credits, projected over mesmerizing images of molten steel being hammered into three feet of instant death. At first, I was drawn to the gory spectacle of it all; the spattering blood, the gleaming weapons, the screams of the dying, the half-snake sorcerers and, of course, the boobs. I was 10, after all.
The deeper story was lost on me the first couple of times I watched the movie that Summer, having made all of my friends watch it with me, in order to share the unbelievable and terrible thrills of massacres and giant serpents. But later, I would begin to look a little deeper into the movie.
As my childhood continued, I would periodically catch the flick on cable TV, and, time willing, would gleefully sit down to watch it again and again. Unbeknownst to me, with each new viewing, I was shaping myself into the person I was going to be, soaking in Conan’s barbaric code, stewing myself in the lessons of the Hyborian world.
Later, I would discover the Marvel Comics Conan books (Conan the Barbarian, Conan the King, Savage Sword and Conan Saga). I bought them up and collected them ravenously, ever craving more tales of sword fights and treachery, wizards and piracy. At the height of my comic book collecting, I was known in my circle of fellow collectors as “The Conan Guy,” being the only one in my crew remotely interested in anything that wasn’t a spandex-clad superhero. They often said it with a sneer, but I had been baptized by the King of Aquilonia long ago, by blood and fire, and would not waver in my fandom.
By the time I had reached my early 20s, my love for Conan and his adventures had finally exposed its deeper meaning to me. I began to understand that what I was soaking in since I was 10 years old was far more than mere gory spectacle; it was guiding my life, in quite positive ways, as positively as any Superman fan could look up to and be guided by their son of Krypton.
I looked around at my friends (especially my best friend Eric) and thought of Subotai, the loyal and honest cohort. The kind of guy to debate the gods with you over a campfire, to climb a dangerous tower by your side, or to pull your ravaged body from a tree, and to help you live to fight another day.
I looked at the women I had loved and thought of Valeria, strong and relentless. Eyes shining with fearlessness and courage, standing tall and acting fast. The kind of woman who knows when to let you ride off to find your vengeance and is there to wrap you in bandages when that quest has taken its toll.
I looked at my mentors, my teachers and my father figures and I thought of the wizard, laughing at Thulsa Doom, wisely finding balance in the wind and casting away demons from his wandering and reckless young friend.
I even looked at my enemies and knew that they were already beaten, because I had become the type of man who would take things to the end, among the stones and the sand dunes of Conan’s last stand, with the taking of a head no matter how shattered my sword.
This respect for true friendship, this appreciation for strong loves, this lesson on trusting your mentors and this fearlessness in the face of enemies, came from a “swords and sandals” movie shown over and over again on HBO. A trivial thing in the eyes of most people, but a keystone in how my life was constructed.
And as silly as it sounds, there have been literally thousands of moments in my life, when I have found myself hesitating at some task, only to instantly be drawn back to the quote at the beginning of the movie; That which does not kill you makes you stronger. It took years to understand it, but it has paid off for me a thousand fold.
Sure, in the legacy of Howard’s barbaric creation, there have been follies; poorly written pastiches, a horrendous movie sequel, a laughable cartoon and more. But none of these things, mere renditions to be taken or left as each fan chooses, have torn me away for my love for the original motion picture, nor has it tarnished the lessons that I took from it.
With the new movie coming up, I’ll admit, I’m approaching it carefully, after being let down by so many other Conan projects in the past (anyone remember that absurd TV show?), yet bolstered by some of the great ones (such as Cary Nord’s Dark Horse books).
But I am also keeping a small flame of hope alive. I am hopeful that this movie is, if not an accurate depiction of Howard’s character, at least a faithful take, in spirit at least, of a man guided through the world as though it has no walls, no boarders and nothing whatsoever to fear. And perhaps, I can only dream, that if that spirit is revitalized and sent back out into this world, then another kid will one day see it, drink it in, be tantalized by the spectacle and be exposed to the harsh but powerful lessons of this less-than-conventional hero.
And if the new movie sucks? So be it. It won’t kill me… it’ll only make me stronger.