Sunday, June 5, 2016

Awesome Swords & Sorcery Covers I: Frank Frazetta's Conan

I just meant to put up a batch of my favorite S&S book covers for a quick post, and instead found myself hunting down Frank Frazetta's Conan covers. It's not that there aren't other covers I like and affected me growing up, but I suddenly realized how deeply these helped build my visual interpretation of the genre and decided to focus on them.

Part of me, the overly-intellectual part that channels dime store (really, shouldn't that be dollar store now?) Freudianism, assumes my adolescent self was jazzed by the pictures' blatant power fantasy imagery. There's Conan with a nubile woman curled up, subserviently, at his feet. There he is, teeth exposed in a primal grimace with his arm around Thak's neck and a giant dagger raised up high. With sword and shield held high, he rides through his enemies, trampling them under hoof.

The main part of me, though, says "pshaw!" to all that. I like these covers because they're cool. Yeah, there's a bit of a power trip inherent in Frazetta's artwork. Conan's the biggest, baddest guy around and nothing can stand in his way for long. What's not to like?

And they're darkly gorgeous. You can smell the smoke, gore, and sweat seeping off these covers. These are some of the most viscerally exciting S&S artworks ever done, and I am forever grateful to Frazetta for creating them.

Thak and Conan, Conan and Thak. The young Conan rampaging on rampaging monkey-man. I've always felt bad for Thak. Some priest's dank dungeon shouldn't be his home, he should be running free in the wild, plucking bananas and wooing some monkey-woman. 

Cool as this is, it always struck me it's too cold for Conan to go around pantsless. I don't demand verisimilitudinous perfection in S&S, far from in fact, but, dang, Conan's never struck me as too stupid to wear dress for the weather.

I think this is the most iconic Conan picture ever created. I can almost see his chest and shoulders heaving after just having killed all those creatures he's standing on. The swirling mists and skulls hovering behind over the flames are the forces still arrayed against him, but we know Conan will prevail.

I'm as indifferent to this picture as Conan is to the man he's throttling. That look on his face makes me thinks he's thinking back on his youth, or maybe remembering he's got to pick up milk after work.

Not the best, but the first one I saw. I first dug this out of one of my dad's legendary book boxes in the attic. I knew the name Conan, but nothing about him. Then I read "Red Nails," and was hooked for life. I assume this for "Beyond the Black River." 

UPDATE: I love this one. We don't see Conan's face, because he's too busy facing off against the world, despite being manacled in place. But seriously, what's with the peanut gallery on the steps? Are they waiting to see who wins, for scraps? What? And that snake. Seriously, it took the time to slither through the Cimmerian's legs instead of just eating him? Seems a little unbelievable, if you ask me. 

Looking at this picture with a critical eye it kinda stinks. What the heck is that Conan's wearing, a barbarian girdle? And why isn't his chest protected? Whatever. The horse, bucking and screaming as it smashes Conan's opponents is intense. I do really like the band of pink sunlight piercing the blue and black of the shadows.

Great cover for a poor book. The picture distills S&S to some of its essential salts: muscled barbarian, evil wizard, slimy, slithering monsters, and nubile damsel in distress. While I love the feeling of movement implied by the swinging censer, and bits of Conan's man-necklace, I also love it's the snapshot effect. Conan's in mid leap, one unseen foot balanced on the altar, his hands prepared to throttle the sorceror. The latter, arm outstretched is ready to swing downward, ripping open his helpless victims. Looking at all these together, this might be my new favorite.

There you go, some of the best and most influential S&S covers. I love that they are so unabashedly violent and masculine. There's no doubt what sorts of stories you're going to find behind those covers. Thank you, Messrs Howard and Frazetta (and De Camp, Carter, and what the heck, Nyberg, too).

The rest of the Ace Conan covers were done by Boris Vallejo. You can look them up on your own, because I don't like them and am not putting them up.


  1. essential. Also, I have a huge collection of Savage Sword of Conan and Conan Saga that are great. You really can't go wrong much with a Conan cover. Even the pastiches have some great artwork.

  2. I never really liked the Conan comics, but man, are their covers great. As to the pastiches, I think I'll track down some of the best of those next.

  3. Hmm, your take on the cover of Conan the Conqueror is a bit different than mine. Where you see sunlight peeking through the clouds, I see flames rising. No matter which it is, it's still an iconic Conan image from Frazetta.

    The only one missing (and I understand these are covers that made an impression on the younger you and so might not be here for that reason) is Conan the Usruper. For some reason, that's my favorite. I think this was the Conan cover that made the most impression on me when I was young. For me, the giant snake captures the undercurrent of horror that pervades much of the best S&S.

    Anyway, thanks for a great post. Just the thing to get me in the mood for Howard Days later this week. It is, after all, the 50th anniversary of Frazetta illustrating Howard.

    1. I REALLY am a bad editor! I had included Usurper and written something goofy about it. Somehow it got lost in the posting and I didn't actually look at the final product. Got to fix that, 'cause it really is one of the best.

      And, yeah, the pink band could easily be flames. Either way, it hits you right between the eyes.

  4. Sorry WASP but I have to disagree about the worst Conan cover ever. Those were the Lancer ones for The Wanderer and The Freebooter by John Duillo.

    With any luck he found a job in accounting somewhere.......

  5. Good Lord, those really are terrible. Fortunately, those editions predate the ones I bought, and I wasn't scarred for life.

  6. I decided to do some digging and it seems Mr Duillo had quite a prolific career as an illustrator, he spent most of the 60's doing the covers of the old Mens Adventure Pulp magazines. You know, Nazi's, semi-naked women and such. He was actually pretty good at the semi-naked women LOL!!

    Finished up his career in the 80's doing the covers of western novels. He even did quite a few for Louis Lamour.

    Go figure!

  7. The rest of the Ace Conan covers were done by Boris Vallejo. You can look them up on your own, because I don't like them and am not putting them up.
    Ha,ha. Right on.