Snows meeting with CPI
I believe this article by David Snow may be from around 1996. It was posted on my old Conan website.
Part I – CPI/Kull Fiasco
Back in the summer of ’97 at the San Antonio WorldCon, I got an up-close-and-personal peek into the machinations of Conan Properties Inc. The experience may help the faithful to account for the perpetually sorry state of all things related to Conan (save for the recent efforts of the good folks at Wandering Star), and why ANY change in the “property’s” management can only be for the better.
I drove there from Dallas with a friend (Webmasters note: Charles Keegan) who’d painted a few Conan covers for TOR. We’d been Howard freaks since our teens, trading our Conan drawings & playing in the woods with doublebit axes, tomahawks & machetes, so you could say we were a part of the Hyborian Hardcore. At San Antonio we met a CPI rep whom we’d dealt with earlier that year in NYC. Those initial meetings had raised suspicions that were later confirmed at San Antonio, specifically: no one at Conan Properties (except, perhaps, the literary agent) had ever read any of the original Conan tales (they only knew the character from the movies), were entirely unfamiliar with any of Howard’s other major characters (we had to explain the difference between Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, etc.), and, consequently, cared absolutely nothing about the quality of any projects based upon Conan or other characters. One guy actually told me that. There seemed to be a standing policy to siphon off talent and funnel it into ventures more lucrative than the trash heap of Conan. Hence the horrible pastiches. There was no sense of preserving Howard’s legacy, no concept of laying a quality foundation upon which to build a future, no vision for anything other than whoring out the “property” for the fastest buck possible. Yet they peppered us with questions completely divorced from the reality they’d created— “Why isn’t Conan as popular as Star Wars?” “Why won’t licensees pay more for merchandising rights?” “Why did we lose our publisher?” “Why doesn’t anyone want to make another Conan movie?” Ya reap what ya sow, morons. Each contact we had with these people was a real New York Moment, I tell ya. We’d meet in a nice office on 35th St. (across from Macy’s), but the atmosphere was as unreal & slimy as a Lower East Side heroin score and as loony as a conversation with a homeless schizophrenic on the Broadway local. It was as if the “property” had just fallen off a truck— “Yo, Vinny, you think we can get some money for this?”
Tomorrow: Part II— New York Comes to San Antonio or My Dinner With the Howard Heirs
Part II – CPI at San Antone
So we met the CPI rep at the San Antonio WorldCon in August of ’97. As previously arranged, he arrived a day into the con & stayed the weekend, which surprised us. Given CPI’s historic disinterest in Conan and the gradual revelation of the company’s true exploitative nature, we didn’t really believe he’d bother to show up at all. But this guy seemed genuinely intrigued by our insane passion for Howard’s work (“You’re like that guy in The Whole Wide World!”) and had arranged a meeting with the heirs (who didn’t live far from San Antonio— at least, not far by Texas standards). Again, we’d believe it when we saw it. The immediate goal was to use the con to hammer various points made back in NYC regarding the perception of Conan within the industry & among fans and illustrate the need to rehabilitate the character’s reputation.
It was the CPI guy’s first con and he was taken with the fact that so many fans were decked out in fantasy garb— especially all the chicks dressed up like Xena or Gabrielle. There were several booths dedicated to all things Xena & we told the CPI rep that it was inconceivable that CPI had never maintained any official presence at the cons; that at the very least, Conan should be actively promoted at all of the major cons. We went off on our favorite riffs— current authors of the series (if not ashamed of their work) should make appearances at booths staffed by Hyborian babes surrounded by torches, weaponry, music, Frazetta paintings, etc.— in order to offer fans a whole Conan experience which would make the character living, dynamic, relevant. Most importantly, the original Howards should be available. We’d browbeat the guy unmercifully: “You’ve got one of the most famous fantasy characters ever created and nobody knows about him!”
To prove our point that entire generations of fans were growing up ignorant of Conan we accosted people at random and asked their opinion of the character. Predictably, the responses ranged from “Huh?” to vague indifference to overwhelming negativity. Most knew Conan, if at all, from the cartoons, movies & pastiches. A few, a very few, mainly older fans, made the distinction between the Howard character & later imitations. Of this minority, all spoke positively of REH. The CPI rep was convinced— “How do we do it?” he asked. We could only stare at him. “Whaddya asking us for? We’re only starving artists— you guys are the business types. Make it happen!” We told him it was pretty simple equation— CPI had to come to the realization that they had to invest in their “property” as well as profit from it. Moreover, if it was evident that CPI had no respect for Conan; if they were only interested in gutting the “property”, why shouldn’t everyone else— fans, publishers, movie producers— be equally contemptuous of the character? All the while, we’re wondering why we have to tell this guy any of this. It was kind of stunning.
At this time, the Conan series had just lost its publisher. TOR had broken off negotiations with CPI earlier that year, sensibly rejecting the demand for more money for the same old lousy product. That pastiche Conans as well as Howard Conans now had no publisher, we felt, indicated that something was very wrong with the management of the character. Before contacting CPI, we made several assumptions about the company that, in hindsight, were incredibly naïve. This especially stung, because, after working in NYC publishing for 13 years, I’d figured that any naivete would’ve long been beaten out of me. At any rate, we initially believed that CPI had the best interests of Conan at heart and had only produced crap because that’s all they’d ever had to work with. We imagined the midtown CPI office as a shrine to Howard, staffed by conscientious caretakers dedicated to the stewardship of his creations. Perhaps a vault in the Federal Reserve Building in Lower Manhattan housed the comprehensive CPI library of Howard’s works. The truth was that there was no central office, just a loose affiliation of accountants, lawyers & an agent who worked at their main gigs, and handled CPI affairs on the side. There certainly was no library or shrine. A further mistake when dealing with these people was assuming they had a working knowledge of Howard & his works. We found early on that we had to constantly explain references to Howard or the Conan saga. At the San Antonio con, I took the CPI rep to various back issue booths and picked out a complete set of Lancer/Ace Conans for him. There were several copies of Gnome Press hardcovers available, and, again, one might assume that the organization dedicated to managing the character would be interested in acquiring as wide and varied a library as possible. Such was not the case— this guy would only spring for the paperbacks and he griped that he was paying more than the original cover price.
Hokay, this post’s getting pretty long. I promise that next time, we’ll watch KULL, dine with the Howard heirs and watch the CPI guy twist slowly in the wind.
Part III – CPI, Kull & Moi
The power’s been on & off all weekend as the trees thaw, re-freeze & limbs crack under stress. Saw a 50-yard power line spark, catch fire & shoot 15 foot flames onto the roof across the street. Transformers are exploding everywhere. Oh well, I got my wife, my dogs & plenty of beef jerky (not to mention swords, axes & a Marlin 45-70 in case the palisade falls).
Hey, Grey One— thanx for the kind words, but if I were truly as barbaric as I’d liked to be, the CPI guy’s head would’ve been nailed above the doorway of his 35th Street office in Manhattan as a warning against further encroachments onto Conan’s turf by a greedy, decadent civilization. Kind of a mini-Sack of Venarium. During the San Antonio WorldCon, I actually found myself in the perfect position to effect such an extreme statement. CPI guy visited our hotel room ’cause we had “something to show” him. I’d brought along a three-foot Del Tin Viking sword for “demonstration purposes” and as I drew it from its scabbard, CPI guy’s life flashed before his eyes. Really! For a coupla seconds he quailed and doubtless envisioned the screaming NY Post headlines: “New York Shyster Slain by Bizarre Texas Headhunter Cult!” As it was, I simply placed the wire-wrapped hilt in his hand. You could tell he felt ridiculous, standing there in his polo shirt, awkwardly holding a shining lump of death & he made nervous wisecracks & idle banter hoping for the moment to mercifully pass. We waited for his chatter to stop. He tried to put the sword down, but we said no. “Just hold it.” Gradually, he began to feel comfortable with the weapon. “Think about what you could do with that.” Finally, he uttered a slow “Yeahhh….” as he visualized the power of the sword. Or maybe he was just faking so we’d leave’im alone. I think such close encounters with the Real Deal should be imposed on anyone— an editor, author, artist, producer, whatever— who embarks on a Conan project, immediately followed, of course, by beheadings of those that don’t get it.
Anyway, I guess it was about halfway through our first day at the con with CPI guy, that it dawned on my buddy and I that we were pretty much wasting our time. Despite the wishful thinking of the previous months, we realized that nothing we said would change the way CPI operated. As cheap and small-time as it was, CPI was still an institution, a bureaucracy, a machine that functioned a certain way and would continue to do so unless there were some major structural changes (that would hopefully involve creative mayhem). But there was no incentive for CPI to change— they could always be assured of wringing a profit, however meager, from Conan’s carcass— there were always shoddy projects to foist off on unsuspecting investors. Why go to the trouble of actually putting forth an effort to produce something of quality when there’s a world full of suckers lined up to hand their money over to a sharp shyster? We concluded CPI guy was a mere flunky in the overall scheme of things, basically a gofer with no authority within the organization. At times we suspected that he might be picking our brains & would eventually shuffle back to the Apple to profit from our vaunted Hyborian insight. Ultimately, we knew it made no difference. To begin with, he wasn’t the kind of person anyone would take seriously. We couldn’t see any of the CPI bigwigs lending an ear to his blather— and the prospect of improving Conan’s lot would always be blather to them. Most importantly, there was absolutely no danger that our policy recommendations would ever be implemented because, in order to do so, CPI would have to love the character. And if they already loved Conan, they wouldn’t require any advice on his management. Another simple equation, but one to which we’d been blinded by a brief eruption of enthusiasm & optimism. Once past this prolonged stage of denial, the natural pessimism of the long-suffering Conan follower returned & there we were— back in the hooded hills of Cimmeria. Save us a space around the council fire, bros, should we wander off again.
By a timely twist of fate, the KULL flick was released the weekend of WorldCon. Ordinarily we would’ve passed, certain that its dazzling video debut lurked just around the corner. But there we were, in the company of one of the trespassers responsible (however indirectly) for further insulting REH. It was a no-brainer. There was a multiplex near the con hotel & we caught a feature attended by a lot of fellow conventioneers. They hooted & hollered at the screen like it was the Rocky Horror Picture Show, only without the good humor— this was nasty humor with an edge, humor intended to wound. Ah, yet another nail in the coffin of Howard’s legitimacy. CPI guy didn’t get it at all and seemed put off by our frosty Cimmerian silence afterward. “I thought the effects were good,” he said. Yes, the last refuge of scoundrels and asswipe movies— FX. We didn’t mind wasting more breath— CPI guy was just basically sitting in on a ranting conversation we would’ve had anyway. After we shredded the flick for all the obvious reasons— Sorbo is not a badass, the fight choreography was a snooze, the story wasn’t Kull, but a vague “Hour of the Dragon” rip-off (yes, I’ve since read the interview with the unfortunate screenwriter on the REHUPA page)— we pointed to the flawed theme which underlies all of CPI’s failed ventures— going only for the quick buck. Hey— you can go for the quick buck and still offer a decent product. It doesn’t require any added expense to do it right, it only takes a little thought. Again, we cited D’Nofrio’s cornfield evocation of the Hyborian Age— a modest scene devoid of lavish sets, costumes & bombast yet more savage and thrilling than any overblown Conan or Kull flick. The difference is that in one movie the filmmakers cared enough to actually think about what they were doing; in the others, free rein is given to galloping stupidity. This applies to everything from movies to pastiches to comics & cartoons. All of these endeavors could succeed commercially AND artistically if only there were some thought behind them. In fact, the case could be made that knowledgeable artists, since they understand their subject matter, could accomplish this success with greater economy since they can recognize those elements that should be accented and others which only need be hinted at.
The CPI rep decided to retire after his pummeling. As he scurried away I believe he felt he’d gotten off lucky— he still had his head. After all, he continued to serve a useful purpose— having arranged a lunch date for us and the Howard heirs for the next day. We urged him to read his Conan books. As for us, we vented our frustrations by blowing out the brains of invading aliens at the video arcade.
Next: Howard’s Heirs, Goodbye CPI Guy & Poignant Epilogue
Part IV – Howard Lunch Scenario
Some background info to set the stage for Our Dinner With Howard’s Heirs: The year before, I was proud to shake hands with Glenn Lord in Cross Plains, Texas. I told him I was honored to meet him because more than any single person he was probably most responsible for bringing REH to the attention of a wider audience. He smiled & offered a cryptic response, “Well… I appreciate that, but there’s some that’d disagree with you.” A buddy of his— some geezer in overalls & a Farm Supply ballcap— laughed & said, “Yeah, and I bet they all live in Plano, don’t they?” I asked what they meant, but Lord only chuckled and patted my shoulder. Flash forward a year to the spring of ’97and NYC. The CPI agent tells me the heirs have read my stuff and really like it— especially the fact that the title page is boldly preceded with the line “Robert E. Howard’s Conan of Cimmeria.” However, I hear from CPI guy something that the agent omitted: the de Camp faction is mightily pissed about the REH reference. Mightily. My reaction is swift & sure— Huh? Whaaa? They’re also pissed that in my correspondence with the agent (which was circulated amongst the various CPI parties) I committed the grave faux pas of praising Karl Edward Wagner. I’m totally clueless now (but am getting clued in every day).
A month or so later, my wife & I escape from New York with our lives & move to Texas. Her NYC employer has an office in Dallas and sets us up in a suburb north of the city— Plano. CPI guy mentions that de Camp lives in Plano. I conclude that life is one weird, capricious bitch. I feel that everything’s turning full circle somehow, a spiritual vortex was whirling round me— or maybe it was just all the Mexican food. I open the phone book & sure ’nuff there’s de Camp’s number & address. I spend the next few months trying to speak with de Camp, but to no avail. The woman on the phone is nice enough & very polite— she’s read my stuff & likes it (but says nothing about the REH line). She sets up various meetings with de Camp, then his son & other family members, but it all comes to naught. de Camp had a fall & wasn’t doing very well and wouldn’t be able to make the San Antonio WorldCon as scheduled. This doesn’t keep me & my wife from driving by the de Camp address for a look-see. Now we’re stalkers. Anyway, I begin to learn about the festering animosities between the different CPI factions— over the years most of the pastiche stuff was provided by the DeCamp people who then submitted it to the agent. I think if an author wasn’t approved by de Camp, he was SOL. Through the decades, the succession of Howard heirs had little, if anything, to do with this process beyond cashing royalty checks. This all changed dramatically when the Howard estate changed hands once more and a new, activist element entered the fray— namely, the team of Jack & Barbara Baum.
Okay, ready for lunch?
Part V – CPI’s Naked Lunch
I must admit my friend and I were certainly excited about meeting the heirs! Despite everything, we had to hand it to CPI guy— he came through in the clutch. We slapped his back & told him he Done Good. We met in an open-air restaurant overlooking one of those San Antonio canals… it was a gorgeous Sunday… the Texas sun was mild & pleasant considering we were running with the dog days of August. Ah, like Camelot, the passing promise of hope wafted in the air…
Jack and Barbara Baum impressed the hell out of us. They are both professionals (he, a retired dentist; she, a school teacher), intelligent, friendly, good-natured & grounded. At the risk of offending them, should they ever chance to read this, I’d place their ages at around 50. They seemed vibrant & in the best of health. They hailed from the south Texas town of Uvalde (but have since moved in-state), about halfway between San Antone & Del Rio on the Mexican border. It’s basically a decent-sized desert town (home of actor Matthew McConaughey)— the hill country surrounding San Antone gives out and flattens westward into an expanse of scrub, mesquite, cactus and sage. (I grew up in San Angelo, on the edge of the West Texas desert, & always had an affinity for this type of country.) We clicked immediately.
Man, my buddy & I were so relieved! To finally meet these good, solid, decent people after wandering for months through the shadowy labyrinth of CPI— never getting a straight answer, suspecting the worst while hoping, probably futilely, for the best— was like an oasis in the desert. It was so refreshing to finally meet a pair of straight shooters. I blurted to’em right up front that I’d been terrified for months that they’d turn out to be trailer trash and, confessed that two weeks earlier my wife & I had applied our amazing stalker/detective skills to their case. (Before we left NYC, the CPI agent mentioned where the Baums lived.) We took a leisurely Texas-sized drive from Dallas to Uvalde & once there, again unleashed the awesome power of the phone book. Hmmm, nice house, nice nabe, now I can relax. Perhaps such confessions were not the most politic of ice-breakers— but dammit!— this was Conan! This was a link, however tenuous and convoluted, with Robert E. Howard!
The Baums were equally forthright, patiently answering our questions with good humor and without hesitation. We asked how they came to inherit the Howard estate. Completely out of the blue, it turns out. One day, a letter arrived addressed to Jack from, I believe, the Kuykendalls’ lawyer. Somehow, and, I’m not sure if they were distantly related or what, the estate came to him. He and Barbara had been vaguely aware of Conan through pop culture, but, Crom love’em, they immediately began reading and researching everything by and about REH. They praised Howard’s writing— which, I think, is particularly meaningful coming from a teacher. They didn’t care for the movies (they rented) at all and stated outright, “That’s not Conan.” They had very definite PURIST ideas about how Conan should be portrayed and were complimentary about my work. They voiced their appreciation of that title page header “Robert E. Howard’s Conan….” Here’s how the ownership of the property was divided as of Aug. ’97: the Baums owned a sizeable percentage of Conan, maybe upper 30s to mid-40s (sorry I can’t remember the exact figures) a good percentage of Solomon Kane, and several lesser Howard characters outright, including Bran Mak Morn, El Borak, Cormac Mac Art, the boxers Dorgan & Costigan, and some (hell, maybe all) of the western characters like Breckenridge Elkins. The bottom line as far as Conan went, was that they had no real say in how the character was handled— whatever objections they might have voiced would be consistently overruled by de Camp & the shysters. (I believe one of the NYC posse actually owned a block of Conan points.) The previous heirs had allowed their stake in Conan to be whittled away over the years, selling off points to the opposing factions as it suited them.
CPI guy could barely get a word in edgewise. The excuses he offered for CPI’s mismanagement were so lame & inadequate & transparent as to bring the conversation to a screeching halt. We’d exchange glances with the Baums & then forge full speed ahead, leaving CPI guy in the dust. I kinda felt sorry for him— the dynamic of the conversation subtly indicted him, as a rep of CPI, at every turn. No one was overtly inconsiderate or rude, but clearly he was being scapegoated while the true transgressors were smoking stogies back in Manhattan. I don’t think it was totally undeserved, but it wasn’t fair that he should have to account for decisions that he really had nothing to do with. He soon lapsed into sullen silence as lunch spiraled out of control. I believe what disturbed him most was that he thought he was going to hold court and assert CPI’s authority over the rabble, but, man, was he ever wrong!
How wrong? My buddy initiated a mutiny with Baums right there at WorldCon that threatened to overthrow the CPI regime. The next day he and I had breakfast with the people at Baen Books who informed us that they were negotiating independently with the Baums, effectively bypassing CPI. A tentative agreement was reached that Baen would publish the Howard Conans (sans de Camp) with my friend painting the covers. This agreement lasted nearly month before it was torpedoed by the NYC fun bunch.
Next: A second heapin’, helpin’ of Howard heir hospitality. Sorry about the length of this ongoing account— I’m not trying to drag it out. Hang in there, it’ll all be over soon.
Part VI – CPI exits stage left
The lunch lasted about two and a half hours with the CPI rep fleeing the scene after an hour or so. I guess he’d wearied of all the excuse-making— none of us were buying it anyway. Every time he opened his mouth, the Baums looked right through him. It was a case of the city-slicker-flim-flammed-by-the-supposed-yokels and, by the time he left, he was pretty much blubbering into his chimchangas. He was especially reeling after a coupla real doozies caught him flat-footed. These were two instances of CPI’s gross mismanagement that were particularly flabbergasting (& continue to astound, 3 1/2 years later)— namely, the ongoing effort to divorce Howard from his creation, and the deliberate funneling of talent away from Conan.
In addition to the lack of participation in cons, there had never been a CPI presence at Cross Plains during Howard Day (celebrated every June 11), which, you’d think, any reasonable person would find incomprehensible. In fact, CPI had nothing whatsoever to do with Howard Day— no sponsorship, no promotion, not even a fact sheet. Howard Day was solely the result of the initiative of the Cross Plains Chamber of Commerce and that grand old dame of the plains, Billie Ruth Loving, town librarian. Of course, this makes no sense until the de Camp interests are considered. For some reason (and I’m confident the scholars on this board as well the REHUPA site could explain), his faction (& thus, CPI) always pushed to disassociate Howard’s name from his work whenever possible. Conan was to be perceived as strictly a de Camp entity. Hence the long disappearance of Howard Conans from the shelves (not to mention the hell raised in Plano with the REH reference in my manuscript and the fact I had the gall to actually praise that degenerate Howard purist, Karl Edward Wagner). Never mind that it makes absolutely no business sense to keep the genuine product from consumers & offer only a weak, diluted imitation. The Baums didn’t seem to take this very well—- the fact that the company supposed to serve their interests was actively working, every single day, against them. (Thus, they weren’t too surprised when CPI later nixxed the Baen deal.) Meanwhile, CPI guy blew cheese dip bubbles from his nostrils.
A further, more insidious example of CPI working against the interests of the Howard estate was the practice of diverting talent from Conan and into whatever projects these guys had on the side. Back in Manhattan, the CPI agent (who represented some fantasy industry Biggies in the real world) told me & my buddy up front— “You’re too good for Conan.” He didn’t grok that we could never be too good for Conan, that we felt it was our duty to Howard to be the best we possibly could be for Conan. He had other ideas— “Read these, write the first 50 pages of a trilogy & I’ll sell it!” He dumped out a pack of what I call “fairy fantasy” books— politically-correct crap that dominates the industry these days— gutless, spineless pabulum for fat-chicks-with-cats, in which differences are resolved with “problem-solving skills” rather than by swordedge. I’d slash my wrists before I’d write such swill. But, I digress. The point is that this is the likely reason for the gawdawful quality of the pastiche novels & may well account for the fact that the Conan series has not had a publisher in nearly four years. Considering the contempt the CPI agent had for the character and that the product was undermined from conception, I couldn’t imagine him negotiating in good faith with a prospective publisher: “You know it’s crap, I know it’s crap— whaddya gimme for it?” It made me wonder how many good authors had been excised from the series. As a Conan fan this was heartbreaking, as a(n immigrant) New Yorker, it was to be expected. Even CPI guy was working his own crooked angle. I didn’t mention this to the Baums, but he was trying to set himself up as an agent on the side & scam us away from the regular CPI agent. He had no client list, credentials, or experience, but man, he wanted IN.
After hearing all this, the Baums weren’t disposed to look kindly upon anyone from CPI no matter what their intentions. CPI guy excused himself and, splattered with mole sauce and gore, was quickly lost in a passing throng of Xena & Gabby lookalikes. It was the last time I saw him. We continued our conversation with the Baums, and with CPI guy out of the way, could speak freely. They revealed their pending deal with Baen & expressed their desire to have my friend to paint the covers. (He secured his place in the deal the next day during the Baen breakfast.) He tends to think strategically & urged the Baums, as a matter of long term policy, to try to win back Conan points whenever possible. Their goal should be to always secure a percentage of the character in lieu of any monies or royalties from whatever further prostitution CPI happened to engage. He also recommended that they employ the ultimate power of any artist— the ability to simply say “No” and walk away from any deal, no matter how lucrative, if it should prove untrue to Howard. To insure the health & ongoing rehab of the character they had to somehow retain veto power over any project. (Have it written into the contract.) He’d worked with the Burroughs people and understood that it is indeed possible to safeguard the integrity of a fictional character. Not all fiction is necessarily dragged through the mud & slime of a NYC gutter. We had other nuggets of advice and the way Jack and Barbara would silently smile at each other, we knew they’d already considered our recommendations. Other times it was clear they agreed with our sentiments but that was to be expected— we were speaking Conan fan to Conan fan. It was muy simpatico. But, ya know, we had the feeling the Baums really didn’t need to hear any of this from us. They already loved Conan.
NEXT: Poignant Epilogue
Part VII – CPI Epilogue
Shortly after WorldCon, we took our own advice and walked away from Conan Properties Inc.
Though there were several reasons for the termination of our fledgling relationship with CPI, the debut of the Conan TV show delivered the final, mortal blow. We believed that the damage inflicted on the “property” was simply too great to overcome. Only time could heal such a massive, devastating assault on Conan’s credibility. Earlier that year, in New York City, the first thing we advised CPI guy (later repeated to the agent & the Baums) was “stop the bleeding— immediately!” We had no idea that the KULL movie or a Conan television series was on the way (nor were we warned). KULL was bad enough— but it was an isolated lump of diseased tissue that would, hopefully, like a well-behaved tumor, fade & be quickly forgotten. The Conan TV show, however, was a runaway outbreak of the Ebola virus with massive hemorrhaging from every orifice. It went beyond CPI’s usual smash’n’grab mugging of Conan into weekly character assassination. While we were certain it would soon fail, we felt the show would contaminate anything remotely connected with Conan, regardless of quality. We figured it’d take years for the character to recover— before any Conan project would ever have a fair chance of success.
I sent a letter to the agent formally withdrawing our project from CPI’s consideration, but I don’t think he was accustomed to rejection. He went from chummy to ice-cold pissy in a heartbeat. He’d just lined up negotiations with Harper/Collins and now had nothing to show’em but CPI’s backlog of low-rent pastiche crap. I tried to reason with him, pointing out that with Conan shelved, I could continue to develop my own characters as he’d requested. But CPI agent came back that he didn’t like the original stuff I’d written anyway— it wasn’t fairy enough. “It’s too much like Howard,” was his main complaint. Hey, man, I’ll take that compliment any day.
So I lost my big-time agent. I suspect I’d also pissed him off with a letter intended for another writer he represented— Charles Barnitz, author of “The Deepest Sea.” This was the best heroic fantasy I’d read in years— a ballsy, meticulously researched historical saga with nary a fairy or elf in sight, just masterful use of mythological elements at pivotal points in the story. CPI agent was supposed to deliver the letter to Barnitz, but I think he intercepted it to eliminate the possibility of any further mutinies. Of course, this was pure speculation, but it demonstrates that my buddy & I no longer trusted anyone affiliated with CPI and were allowing our natural dark cynicism to finally reassert itself. We knew that Conan’s health would continue to suffer unless something drastic happened. We fantasized about a succession of NYC tragedies wiping out the entire CPI regime— stampedes of taxi herds, A/C units dropping from the sky like thunderbolts, the anonymous push from the subway platform, a midtown bus with CPI’s name on its grill, the failed brakes of a sanitation truck, a brick in the hand of a homeless schizo— any of an infinite number of divine avengers would suffice. Until such heavenly intervention, we decided to drop out of the race.
We’d been determined from the beginning to extend the benefit of the doubt to CPI at every opportunity and then respond accordingly if they eventually proved corrupt. Believe me, these guys were small fry compared to the denizens inhabiting my usual environment. For 13 years, as editor of the NYC-based biker magazine, Iron Horse, I was all-too familiar with the corruption that permeated certain aspects of New York publishing. Everyday, I rubbed shoulders with murderers, convicted felons, petty criminals— and these were my employers! I was used to being exploited and ripped off, but it was a conscious choice I made in order to do what I loved— riding & writing about custom motorcycles (I still ride a rigid Harley chopper). I was comfortable keeping company with the heaviest outlaws— the kinds of people that cause normal folk to wet their pants. If you weren’t hip to the hardcore bike culture you could quickly find yourself in the deepest, darkest kaka. For over a decade, I routinely crossed the figurative & literal turfs of warring clubs— dangerous territory where most sensible magazine types feared to tread, ’cause they knew they were way out of their element. The ignorant found out the hard way. The editor of Outlaw Biker, a crosstown rival, was beaten into a coma by irate bat-&-pipe-wielding members of an outlaw club whom he’d inadvertently dissed. Outlaw retribution could be swift & terrible— cycles were stolen or vandalized, stompings meted out, ultimatums issued, people were run out of town or went into hiding. And this is the mild stuff. Several times I’d heard that a stomping was headed my way, but instead of running scared, I rode straight into the lion’s den to hash things out. I’d been set up more than once, but because I acted like a man & not a chickenshit, I not only survived, but thrived. I credit much of this to the fact that over the years, beginning when I was a kid, I’d internalized a lot of Robert E. Howard’s writing. To me, this is the primal function of true heroic fantasy— to sustain one in the face of adversity. It goes all the way back to the Iliad and beyond, into prehistory, when there’s no reason to persevere except for the chants of heroes in your ears. Hey, bros, when you’re leaning on the bar in a bullet-ridden Bronx clubhouse while mean-ass Spanish bikers cut lines of coke on the counter with Bowie knives, and you decline an invite to snort ’cause you don’t believe in civilized sedatives & have never done drugs in your life thanks to the influence of a long-dead pulp author who had somehow tapped into an ancient heroic tradition, it’s not fuckin’ fairy fantasy that gets ya through. No, I don’t consider myself a badass, but I did spend most of my adult life writing about’em, so I know one when I see one. And I know Howard’s tales ring true. The reason I bring all of this up is to make the point that my buddy & I were purposely naïve in our dealings with CPI— we could have just as easily chosen to enter the CPI fray as the most jaded, cynical, pissed-off bastards on the planet. We wanted to give our effort every chance for success so that, if it came to it, we could walk away with no regrets. I will admit that, at times, we allowed our optimism to run riot & I’m still miffed about that. However, once we were satisfied as to CPI’s true nature, we withdrew (though we were ready for battle had we been ripped off). We weren’t willing to be exploited by CPI or participate, however indirectly, with the further prostitution of the character. Although we’d suspended disbelief for months, the first instinct of our reptile brains turned out to be correct. We should’ve thrown the entire CPI crew out the window.
There’s an interesting parallel between what’s happened to outlaw culture over the past 20 years and Conan during the same time. It has to do with the redefinition of a specific commodity for marketing purposes. I’d like to discuss this at length on a separate post, but the gist is that both Conan & the outlaw culture were sanitized for mass consumption. The difference is that while Harley-Davidson co-opted, redefined & sanitized outlaw culture as a matter of savvy long-term policy, Conan was victimized, not by any coherent strategy, but by blundering incompetence. The bottom line is that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the public— people are only too willing to buy into any fraud or massive con as long as it’s attractively packaged. You only have to check some recent posts (hi, Fletcher) on this board for confirmation. Evidently for some people Conan is nothing more than just another oafish muscleman-in-loincloth bumbling from one disaster to the next. They’ve accepted CPI’s redefinition of the character & think any corrupt bunch of hacks and cheats who manage to place their “version” of Conan before a wide audience have somehow achieved anything other than a monstrous fraud. Bait’n’switch, like any street con, works best with willing suckers. Such people understand neither Conan nor heroic fantasy. Rolf Mueller prancing around in a leather diaper does not Conan make (any more than a black leather yuppie accountant posing on a Harley makes him a biker). There is only one correct “version” of Conan— the Howard version. Any movie, pastiche, comic, etc. that doesn’t strive to remain consistent with Howard has absolutely no validity. Simply put: it’s not Conan.
So, yes, aguaman, we are all aware that works of fiction are often rudely forced onto the silver screen, and creativity in general suffers mightily in the grasp of corporate groupthink, which leads, almost invariably, to cliched conclusions like “the book was better.” The key word is “almost” & there are exceptions to every rule & cliche. Initially, we weren’t sure who was responsible for the crummy state of Conan— was it CPI, the publisher, the fantasy industry in general? Although it became clear to us that CPI bears 99% of the blame for ruining Conan, no one can deny there is an agenda at work within today’s industry that marginalizes ALL heroic fantasy. While the publisher can’t be blamed if all they ever received from CPI was crap, suspicious activity still occurred long after CPI had exited the process. My buddy was instructed to change certain elements of his paintings because they were “too threatening.” For instance, Conan could not be perceived as “dominating women.” My friend was also informed that Conan’s sword in one painting was “too confrontational.” These are ludicrous restrictions that had nothing to do with CPI. The novels whose covers he was painting were not just awful Conan books, they just plain stunk, period. Not only was there little or no understanding of the character (some actual scenes: Conan washing dishes, Conan kneeling before a weakling, Conan concerned about “geopolitical” consequences of an asskicking, Conan, worried, in the midst of a fight about whether a wound would scar), but the writing ranged from poor to downright illiterate. Where were the editors who could have brushed up the CPI product once it was delivered into their hands? (Or better yet, rejected it outright?) I think the series was deemed untouchable from the get-go & allowed to wither & die— to the point where no self-respecting fan or publisher would touch it with a 10-foot pike. The industry could then point to yet another failed Conan endeavor & say, “See, nobody likes that outdated stuff anymore.” In fact, the audience for heroic fantasy hasn’t been served since the ’70s. The virtues of the genre— heroism, strength, will, individuality, perseverance— are portrayed as simplistic & inferior to such wussy themes as the Reluctant Hero.
At any rate, my friend & I are grateful for our experience with CPI. It was like summiting Everest only to find a sleazy, trashed-out theme park at the top. But the view was priceless, the perspective enlightening, and there’s a certain beauty in truth, no matter how distasteful. My buddy has since commented, “If the wind had been blowing from the south instead of the north, we’d have Conan.” It was that close. We went straight to the top, conferred with all the major participants, reached an informed decision and returned with our integrity intact. Our only regret is that we live in a world where merit and quality count for nothing & form is valued over substance.
Lest anyone think that all I can do is bitch, I’d like to close this rambling epilogue on a positive note. If you’d like to see someone who’s keeping Howard’s spirit alive, check out www.keeganprints.com.