Conan is a rapist. Or he is when he's starring in Savage Sword of Conan, a magazine sized book Marvel published from 1974-1995. Savage was also unique among Marvel's Conan material in its black and white format and its unabashedly adult content. Hence the rapist bit.
Dark Horse owns the rights to Conan now and just started collecting this classic material in (regular sized) trade paperback form. I've always been curious about these "Conan Uncensored" tales, so I picked up Volume 1.
I couldn't help but chuckle to myself when I got to the panel you see above this column. Conan bumps into the pirate warrioress Valeria and declares his intentions to bed her.
"But that's enough talking for one day...
I want you, woman...
And I've not come this far just to turn around and ride off empty-handed. So be sensible, wench. I'm not going to harm y--
Keep back, you barbarian dog--or I'll spit you like a roast pig!"
Like I said, I started to chuckle, and then I thought twice. Is it really that funny that Conan won't take no for an answer? It seems pretty clear to me that if Valeria were a little less handy with her blade, she'd end up being a sheath - whether she liked it or not. Conan is a rapist. How should we feel about that?
For those of you ready to rail about this sort of material appearing in comic book format, might I recommend you get over yourself. Wertham is 50 years gone now, and he wasn't in the right when he was in the now. Savage was constructed and marketed to adults. So I won't find fault with these comics showing us a sexual predator without further contemplation.
One massive and correctable problem we have in this country is our mistaken belief that representation = endorsement. The cute and fuzzy bunnies have taught us that if we show anything unpleasant (death, violence, rape, Paula Poundstone) that we are automatically saying that these are good things.
We need to get over this, please. We need to be deeper thinkers as consumers of the arts. What is the comic really telling us about Conan's behavior?
I can think of a couple of reasons not to like this portrayal. It appears to be just another drop in an all too large bucket of male heroes who like to make women behave properly by giving them a good rogering. I distinctly remember one Clint Eastwood western (somebody help me here)where he turned a feisty woman who didn't know no better into a love struck submissive with a little bit of the forced in-and-out. It was like a magic tonic. It made me want to throw up.
There are several other stereotypes in this particular tale. Conan ends up physically carrying off Valeria to escape a dinosaur at one point. (Too helpless to keep up with a real man) And damned if Valeria didn't end up chained up by a witch at one point so that we incorrigible males could have our lesbian and bondage fix satisfied on one stone altar.
The feminine does get short changed here and there. It's lazy thinking and lazy writing. But life is never simple, and neither is Savage. Let's look at everything before we pass judgement.
In the first place, this is a piece of ficition and not reality. These stories were not created as guides to morality, and it would be foolish to read them as such. Also, Cimmerian culture is not the overly sensitive wussland that America has become in 2008. Conan is a barbarian, a well-documented uncouth bastard. So it's difficult for me to say that Conan's courting behavior should be read as a "how to" guide. He's a goddamn caveman.
But he's also the hero of the story. He may not be perfectly moral, but his actions have weight. We are rooting for him, aren't we? We are being asked to take Conan seriously. So making him a rapist can be slightly problematic.
There are a few more items to add to the scale, though. For one, no actual rape occurred. If Conan had his way, there was certainly one in the forecast. But Valeria was too strong. So that's one positive.
And while I did cover some of the minuses of Valeria's depiction in this story, she does have some plusses as well. She's a certified formidable warrior. She talks back to Conan, has a mind of her own.
She does need to be rescued from time to time, but she is also shown fighting successfully on her own while Conan is off taking a nap during parts of the story. And a funny thing happens at the end. While wrapping up the big "boss battle", it's Valeria who saves Conan from an untimely death.
The story actualy closes with a Conan monolgue essentially declaring Valeria an equal, and they go off to plunder the world together as one. Very romantic.
So yes, we have some less than ideal notions about womanhood in Savage, but we also see most if not all of those ideas subverted in the book as well. Life is complicated, and so are comics. It's why me like them.
In case it matters, I'm enjoying the living hell out of these Savage reprints. I highly recommend picking up Dark Horse's Savage Sword of Conan Vol 1. It's a smarter, sexier Conan than you're used to. And the art is gorgeous. 544 pages of rape-hungry Conan for $17.95??? By Crom, how could you pass it up?!