Those Were Books!

Over at You Tube there is a clip available of actor/comedian Joe Rogan giving a spirited defense of Robert E. Howard and Conan. The Fear Factor host gives a hyper-macho somewhat humorous speech about the greatness of REH and Conan. What makes this important to this article is his summary statement: “… you’d buy the paperbacks, with the Frank Frazetta oil paintings on the covers!  Holy Shit!  Those were books!”

While fans can argue over his comments about REH’s sanity, you can’t argue with his conclusion. The Lancer paperbacks are totemic. They’ve become a distinctive and venerated symbol of sword and sorcery.

Let’s rehash the familiar story. REH died in 1936 and Conan seemed a goner as well. There was talk of other authors continuing the adventures of Conan but Farnsworth Wright put the kibosh on that idea.

The Conan stories remained uncollected except for a few that were reprinted in Arkham House’s Skull-face and Others. Derleth said jokingly, the complete stories would need to “printed on blood-colored paper.”

Then publisher Martin Greenberg, whose reputation seems to be one of avoiding royalty payments to authors, along with longtime REH fan John D. Clark editing the first few volumes, began the Gnome Press editions. Author Fletcher Pratt gave a copy of Conan the Conqueror to L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp became an instant fan and took over the character for the next 40 years.

Gnome Press went out of business in 1962 and de Camp gambled on taking the books to another publisher. Legal wrangling between him and Greenberg came out in de Camp’s favor and Lancer editor Larry Shaw made the decision to start publishing Conan paperbacks.

Lancer Books existed from 1961 – 1973. Irwin Stein and Walter Zacharius were the men behind the curtain. Stein was a former magazine publisher who was betting paperback publishing was the better horse. Zacharius (also an author) was more the financial backer and when Lancer went bankrupt in 1973, he continued on with Zebra and Pinnacle Books.

Larry Shaw, a science fiction writer, was no stranger to SF/Fantasy fandom and publishing and was aware of Frazetta and Krenkel’s art for Ace Books and their successful Edgar Rice Burroughs’ line. According to Arnie Fenner, writing in Icon, Shaw was astute enough to offer Frazetta “twice the pay rate he was getting from Ace and a provision that the original art would be returned to him.”

According to Fenner, again from Icon, “Upon publication of the first cover, Conan the Adventurer in 1966, long-time friend and fellow illustrator Wallace Wood clapped Frank on the back and asked, “How’s it feel to be the world’s greatest cover artist?””

Conan the Adventurer sold well and was followed with more great Frazetta covers. Sometimes, it is said by the more Frazetta oriented fan, that his covers sold the books. It is, of course, axiomatic that an editor chooses art that sells books. Farnsworth Wright paid Margaret Brundage to sell Weird Tales, publishers paid Robert McGinnis to sell sexy thrillers, Bantam Books paid James Bama to sell Doc Savage and so on.

But REH’s fiction and the Conan character kept fans buying the books and turning them into million sellers. REH and Frazetta were the perfect combination. Other series with Frazetta covers did not sell as well and Frazetta’s own concepts like Death Dealer and Fire and Ice did not have the impact of Conan.

Did Lancer Books know that Frazetta was such a hit?  Even though Larry Shaw hired him and knew he was a talent, they hedged their bets in 1968. Five Conan books were published that year and three of the books featured cover art by John Duillo.

Who knows the thinking at the time?  Paying Frazetta for five covers might have been too expensive for the art budget (Frazetta was definitely asking for more money) or maybe they figured the books would sell anyway without Frazetta, or maybe it was an intentional decision to try another artist?

De Camp apparently had criticized the Frazetta look in some fanzines. I’m unaware of any specific criticisms but de Camp’s final words on the subject appeared in his autobiography Time and Chance. Sounding like your cranky grandpa de Camp writes:

Conan the Adventurer had a cover by Frank Frazetta, who painted covers for most of the Lancer Conans. Frazetta’s work was superior to that of most illustrators, but he gave Conan something I have objected to ever since. Robert Howard described Conan’s hair as a “square cut black mane,” implying a Prince Valiant bob. In 1966, however, the rage among rebellious youth was to let one’s hair grow long. So Frazetta gave Conan hair down to his solar plexus, and long-haired Conan has been ever since.

The Lancer Books were easily available in most cities but rural consumers relied on other means. Jim Warren, publisher of Eerie, Creepy, and Vampirella had used Frazetta covers on his magazines. Jim Warren said he found advertisers avoided his “monster” magazines and he needed revenue from other streams other than newsstand sales. He created Captain Company to sell genre products to his readers. Rubber masks, TV tie-ins, posters, etc. The Captain Company ad for the Conan paperbacks had the iconic Frazetta barbarian but they did not overly stress Frazetta. Two of the four illustrations in the ad are of Duillo art. So, the thinking at the time favored the Conan name over Frazetta.

Frazetta was back for Conan of Cimmeria in 1969, so maybe the Duillo books did sell less as Frazetta supporter’s claim. But printing history for the books does not really support this. Conan the Wanderer (Duillo) went through more printings than Conan the Usurper (Frazetta). So most likely there were letters and fanzine articles that simply clamored for Frazetta’s return and the books in total sold well enough to give the fans want they wanted.

Lancer obviously realized the popularity of Frazetta since they released a Conan poster in 1971 and it sold over 100,000 copies. Frazetta’s wife, who had a head for business, realized they should have a poster business of their own to sell Frazetta’s work. In the early ads for Frazetta posters they featured the Conan name prominently.

According to Icon, business acrimony developed between Lancer and Frazetta over the Conan name being used in ads for the posters. The posters began appearing under new names. Conan the Conqueror became Berserker, Conan the Adventurer became Barbarian and so on.

Despite the Conan phenomenon, Lancer went bankrupt in 1973, it took a while for the Conan books to be scarce but once they were the British Sphere series began appearing in the United States. They were heavily advertised as featuring the Frazetta covers.

With the Lancers out of print Frazetta began overshadowing REH, leading some Frazetta fans to credit Frazetta’s art as being the most successful element in the Conan series. But REH fandom was growing as well and the Marvel Comic was huge. Out of the ashes of Lancer, came Zebra Books. They placed their faith in REH and Jeff Jones.

When Ace Books republished the Conan series, they had Boris Vallejo do the new volume Conan of Aquilonia and Vallejo later did new covers for the Duillo volumes but Frazetta remained the premiere artist.

REH and Frazetta are forever linked. Both have their own fandom and intermingling, of course, exists. After Frazetta, Conan’s popularity continued to rise with scores of new books from Bantam and Tor, two successful movies, and the continuing comics.

Frazetta received his own volumes of illustrations. The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta published by Ballantine Books sold over 300,000 copies!

Today Frazetta’s original Conan art has been sold for record prices. His repainting of Conan the Buccaneer sold for 1.5 million. Conan remains a popular character with graphic novels, planned films, and gaming modules.

REH’s stories are pretty much vacant from the newsstand though. The book industry changed big time after the Thor Power ruling, so now paperback publishers no longer keep an inventory of classic SF/Fantasy authors unless their names are Tolkein, Heinlein, and Dick.

Conan books are currently mostly available online through the remaining stock of the Del-Rey volumes. Will we see a revival if the next Swarzenegger or whatever future Conan movie hits big?  It is impossible to know. Conan is available in millions of old books, public domain collections, and even on-line pirated and non-pirated formats. We most likely will never see a groundswell like the Lancers ever again.

But Joe Rogan was right. Those were books!