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Shared universes, tie-ins, crossovers, swords, sorcery December 22, 2013

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Life in general.
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Star Trek and Doctor Who are the big multimedia fictional universes for me these days, but one of the first to demonstrate to me how this kind of thing could work would have been the world of Robert E. Howard’s characters. I first encountered Howard back in 1978 when I picked up a used copy of The Hour of the Dragon at the base library paperback exchange.

The Hour of the Dragon was the first of three Conan books edited by Karl Edward Wagner and published by Berkley books back in the 1970s. As Wagner was at pains to point out in his introductions, these books were the real, unadulterated Conan as written by Robert E. Howard, not a bunch of pastiches and posthumous collaborations like the twelve-volume series of Conan books from another publisher (originally Lancer in the 1960s, but Ace in the 1970s — and Sphere in the UK).

Well, I really enjoyed The Hour of the Dragon, and sure enough I went looking for the other two Berkley editions, but I think my second Conan book was Conan the Freebooter, in the Sphere edition. (The fun of being Canadian — we often got both UK and US editions of books, but that could get confusing when the editions were different or, as in this case, the numbering of series books was different. Collecting Moorcock’s Elric books was especially entertaining in that regard, if by entertaining one means frustrating, and one does.)

So I looked around for any Conan-related stuff. Two different series of books, one by Howard only, one more epic series incorporating revisions of Howard stories about other characters to make them Conan stories along with totally new Conan adventures, primarily the work of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. And the Marvel comics by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. And Savage Sword of Conan, the black and white comic magazine. I also managed to discover Marvel’s Kull and Red Sonja comics just before they were cancelled. Bantam published collections of Howard’s Solomon Kane and Kull stories. Then Ace published two new Conan novels by Andrew J Offutt just before de Camp and Carter started editing a new series of six Conan books from Bantam (including, ironically, a Conan novel by Karl Edward Wagner), and Grosset & Dunlap or Ace did six mass market paperbacks reprinting the early Marvel comics by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. Then came the novelization of the first Conan movie (I was unimpressed) to end Bantam’s run and the first Robert Jordan Conan novel from a new publisher, Tor. Cormac Mac Art six novel series. Red Sonja six novel series (I think I only got the first two). More Marvel comics, including King Conan and more attempts at Kull and Red Sonja.

And all of this in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when there were precious few original Star Trek novels.

It wasn’t all one coherent universe the way Star Trek or Doctor Who would (mostly) be. Howard’s characters existed in different eras, Kull millennia before Conan, Conan millennia before Bran Mak Morn or Cormac Mac Art, and them centuries before Solomon Kane — but Howard was willing to cross over between them, even having Kull meet Bran Mak Morn. And the later writers who expanded the Hyborian universe were even more eager to introduce crossover elements. The villain of the first Conan movie was actually Kull’s nemesis.

One of the coolest things was Michael Moorcock allowing Marvel to use his character Elric in a couple of early issues of the Conan comic. That might have been my introduction to Elric, and if I thought Howard and his successors liked making connections between his characters and series, just imagine how much I got into the whole Eternal Champion thing.

I dropped out in the late 1980s. I’d lost interest in the comics, and the Tor Conan novels by Jordan et al were just too formulaic, with little of the variety of Howard’s stories. But I’ve come back, a bit, thanks to the Dark Horse Conan comics and the Del Rey REH collections.It doesn’t — and can’t — hit me now the way it did when I was 15, but there’s still something there in Howard’s writing and characters. Haven’t bothered with the new Red Sonja comics, though — that chainmail bikini is just too damn silly.