Thursday, April 8, 2010

More Like "What the ...?"

Back in 70s, Marvel Comics launched a series called What If ...?, which imagined all sorts of alternate realities featuring their characters, such as "What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?" and "What if Captain America became President?" As is often the case when imagining history turning out other than it actually did, What If ...? almost always presented a world that was worse than the one we know, even those where tragedies of the mainline Marvel universe -- such as the suicide of Jean Grey, to cite one example -- don't occur. Not all the issues were dark; some were even humorous. Still, there was a strong "be careful what you wish for" Twilight Zone-ish vibe to the comic that was hard to miss.

And then there were oddities like issue 13 (February 1979), which asked the question I'm sure we've all asked at one time or another: "What if Conan the Barbarian walked the earth today?" After running afoul of an evil sorcerer, who hurls him into the future, the Cimmerian finds himself in New York City, surrounded by definitive proof of REH's thesis that civilization ain't all it's cracked up to be.

Needless to say, even jaded Carter era New Yorkers take notice of Conan, although they're not quite sure what to make of him. Pay attention to the third panel and remember this comic is from 1979, three years before Milius' film.

Despite his unfamiliar surroundings, Conan is undeterred, quickly -- I kid you not -- hailing a cab in order to begin his quest for a way back to the Hyborian Age.

No, I've never seen a cabbie who looks like that either, but I guess New York in the 70s was an odd place. The reference to lightning bolts in the boxed text is because this story takes place during the chaos of the New York City blackout of July 1977. It also ties into Conan's plan to get home by using an inverted "ziggurat," namely the Guggenheim Museum, that, when struck by lightning, will somehow open a portal to his own time. Don't ask too many questions.

Conan being Conan, he manages to bridge the communication gap between himself and the cabbie, whose name, we learn, is Danette.

Conan eventually makes his way to the Guggenheim, where he discovers that modern art is at least useful when fighting the police. He then leaves behind the 20th century and returns to the sanity of the Hyborian Age.

Definitely not one for the ages, is it? Truth be told, there's an earnest silliness here that, in my biased opinion, makes it more enjoyable than many of the DeCamp/Carter pastiches, even if its portrayal of Conan leaves much to be desired. And yet Marvel saw fit to do a sequel to this comic in issue 43 (February 1984): "What if Conan the Barbarian were stranded in the 20th century?"

This issue of What If ...? works on the premise that the lightning bolt at the end of the earlier issue failed to send Conan back to his own time, stranding him in our era. He's captured by the police and thrown into jail, which he, of course, promptly escapes, taking to the streets, where his old skills as a thief and a reaver come in handy. He becomes involved in organized crime, sticking his barbarian mitts into anything that'll make him rich and powerful, including -- again, I kid you not -- drug dealing. In short order, he's commanding his own criminal empire, made up of these guys:

Not quite the same as being king of Aquilonia, is it? But, hey, it was the 80s, back when gang members regularly wore Pickelhaube and horned helms. Of course, what good is being a drug lord if you don't have your lady by your side? Conan fancies himself up and decides to pay a visit on Danette, the cabbie from issue 13.

There are no words.

Alas for Conan, Danette's none too impressed by his new digs (or his pet leopard), but he moves on, having bigger fish to fry -- like Captain America. When Conan and his posse decide to break into a museum to steal the Cimmerian's old armor and weapons, which are conveniently on display, it sets off an alarm that alerts the Avengers. Cap answers the call and goes mano-a-mano with the barbarian.

Conan salutes Captain America for his bravery and skill at arms and, rather than kill him, he challenges him to single combat by tossing a sword to his star-spangled opponent. For his part, Cap tells Conan that he doesn't believe him to be an evil man and asks, "Why do you fight against society, instead of for it as we do?" The Cimmerian replies, "By 'we' you mean your city guards, your police, your gangs of mercenaries, all of whom 'keep the peace' by oppression and extortion! Civilization! In all the ages it hasn't changed!"

Some cops show up and ambush Conan and his gang while he's parleying with Captain America. Conan's right-hand man (the bald black dude in the picture above) takes a bullet and Conan vows revenge. Just as the cops are about to put some lead in Conan too, Cap throws his shield to stop them, allowing Conan to escape and musing on the fact that, under different circumstances, perhaps an honorable man like Conan could have been a hero like him too -- a possibility Conan himself ponders as the comic ends.

Despite Uatu the Watcher's promise to one day continue the story of Conan stranded in the 20th century, so far as I know it remains untold. Whether that's a good or a bad thing I leave to you to decide ...


  1. Conan dealing drugs doesn't seem greatly out of character for the amoral thief we see in Howard's stories. He'd never use drugs himself, of course, and dressing like a pimp seems a stretch.

    But it seems more plausible Conan would join the Army, muster out and hire on with Blackwater, develop connections among Afghan warlords, and finally rise to President of Afghanistan.

  2. Pimp-daddy Conan. Love it! He must've gotten fashion lessons from Huggy Bear.

    As for the cabbie, the hot female cabbie is a recurring character in films, usually used for a brief comedic moment. The earliest example I can think of is from a brief scene in "The Big Sleep," starring Humphrey Bogart.

    And no, I've never seen a cabbie like that in real life, either.

  3. I got that second one when it came out. I was... 9, 10 years old?

    At the time I thought that Captain America fight was epic.

    And when one guy thought he was being mugged by the Hulk... :D

  4. I had the second one, too. I still think it was excellent, and fi tin well with Conan as I had come to know him.
    And the fight with Cap was fantastic. The guy beats Captain America.
    I also liked Cap's speech to Conan, where he asserts that if the world was really the way Conan thought it was, Cap would be out there with him.
    I would have loved to see a follow-up: "What if Conan had joined The Avengers?".

  5. Have them and love them both, no matter how stupid they are. Don't forget that Thoth-Amon also appeared in X-Men #s 187 and 188.

  6. I had a What if? collection, but missed these.

    C'mon, Cap would beat Conan's ass shield or not.

    I had a great Marvel calendar in the 70's, and one month featured Conan fightig the English in the RRevolutionary war. Way cool.

  7. That was Kulan Gath, not Thoth-Amon.

  8. I read at least part of one of these. Doesn't Conan get shot and survive? And realizes that guns are just fancy slings that throw lead bullets?

  9. I love the scene where he mugs a guy... and ignores the dollar bills in favor of the change the man was carrying, since the idea of paper money had never occurred to him before.

    Also, Red Sonja once teamed up with Spider-Man.

  10. "What if?" are almost always fun reads, thanks for the flash back. I just recently read a Conan comic where he is joined by Elric of Melnibone. has a wide collection of great comics.

  11. I'll tell you one thing: if Conan were alive today, he'd really enjoy some delicious Hostess Fruit Pies.

  12. I thought these Conan What If's were awesome back in the day, course I also enjoyed the Conan comics generally.

    They were a real kick and I think Conan as a gang leader isn't too far off.

  13. I loved the "What If" series and while I don't remember the Conan of today issue (as comics were expensive in my my paper route only yield up Cnd$9.00 for two weeks of work).

    It reminds me of all the pastiche AD&D adventures that we would have running in the 1980s... What would later be called Modern.

    Like it or not, this violent outletting and comic book violence is very much part of our hobby. However, I wonder sometimes, if our hobby is capable of more?

    As a GM, one visualizes fantastic vistas, epic ballad romances, shadowy politics and intigues which all get wiped out with the swipe of a vorpal blade.

    I am somewhat disheartened by the state of our hobby. Rather than encouraging collaborative storytelling, we still seem to be drawn back into more primative narratives solved by the Hack 'n Slash and even the Old Skool has not remedied that.

    I know the cure is a Campaign.

    But I find that most companies only want to produce adventure. Where has some of the wonder gone... If left only to imagination of the GM, I fear only stunted growth will be the next generation of gamers longing to encapsulate the last feat or skill that they performed on beyond (meta)physics of the X-Box.

  14. I remember my friend getting this way back in grade 6 and telling me how Conan mugs some guy and then goes through his pockets. He throws away his wallet but keeps all his spare change, because they are the only valuable coins he has. We thought that was super cool.

  15. Warriors! Come out and play!

    I had a comic a long time back, I think it was an X-Men but can't remember now. During a fight they ended up in a long-forgotten chamber in the tunnels of New York, that contained some old mad scientist equipment and a mummified dolphin.

    They never explain it in the story, and the reference blurb pointed to an issue of Conan. I was never able to find the issue, and have wondered how Conan ended up in a mad scientist lab under New York, and how a dolphin was involved.

  16. "I am somewhat disheartened by the state of our hobby. Rather than encouraging collaborative storytelling..."

    Stopped reading comment at this point.

  17. What if...

    Conan became the governor of California?

    Oh wait....


  18. My antipathy for comics has been renewed...

  19. Knightsky, yes, as I recall, Mary Jane is at a museum when some cosmic doohickey occurs and the spirit of Red Sonja jumps forward in time and possesses her (because they're both redheads, obviously), and then she teams up with Spidey to restore things to how they were. It was a Marvel Team-Up rather than a What If?, so it's canon too.

  20. Oh, and Conan later met both Wolverine and Thor in two separate What If? issues.

  21. "Needless to say, even jaded Carter era New Yorkers take notice of Conan..." Real Carter era New Yorkers probably wouldn't have paid much heed to a loincloth wearing muscleman in Washington Square--he's probably just a dude in costume for a visit to a West Village sex club. But these are Marvel New Yorkers: when strange dudes pop into being in Marvel Washington Square, there's a good chance that a car is going to be tossed, a building leveled, and a team Of NY's finest will be humiliated. And then the Avengers or FF or Spidey might show up!

  22. The weird thing about Conan was unlike many other licensed titles, Marvel implied that the Hyborean Era was part of Marvel's own universe and there were occasional references to characters. Marvel's Set seems based on the Conan interpretation as a serpent god, and there are some characters that get shared.

    Interestingly enough, the most famous was Kulan Gath, who was actually created by Michael Moorcock with the very early CtB comic where Elric met Conan. He probably would have faded into obscurity had not Chris Claremont wrote two stories featuring Gath's move into the modern day.

    I was very surprised Marvel didn't keep the license. Kulan Gath, who ironically became better known as a Marvel Universe villain went with Conan Properties (and was licensed to Red Sonja owners I guess). Marvel published Conan books for almost 3 decades.

  23. Damnit James, just as I'm about to riff on that Ken St. Andre quote about Marvel and LotR you do a Marvel post. That's twice this month.

    Now I gotta wait a week again.

  24. @Delta
    [quote]"I am somewhat disheartened by the state of our hobby. Rather than encouraging collaborative storytelling..."

    Stopped reading comment at this point[/quote]

    Why? You don't support RPGs as collabourative storytelling devices?

  25. JRT, Kulan Gath appeared as late as 2000 as an Avengers villain, long after Marvel relinquished the Conan licence, so I'd guess that he's still one of their properties.

  26. Kelvin, he's not. In 2000 they still had the license--in fact after Busiek's avengers Story they got a 3 issue mini-series featuring Conan vs. Kulan by Roy Thomas.

    I got confirmation from the people who write the OHOTMU. They were not allowed to use any Kulan Gath since it reverted to the original owners. I added a link to that thread on the KG wiki entry (in the discussion tab), but I think the Comixfan forums had lost some threads so it's a dead link.

    Conan was still part of Marvel in Early 2000, but at some point between 2000 and 2003 the license was picked up by Dark Horse (for Conan) and Dynamite Entertainment (for Sonja). Which means Conan properties is the only one who can use or license that character.

    Dark Horse

  27. Although the Exiles was published in 2004. Since OHOTMU was told KG was "off limits", I'd have to assume Marvel can't use the character, in a similar method as ROM or toy-named Micronaut characters can't be used.

    This is why it's not really good to mix your continuity with licensed works.

  28. > There are no words.

    Cause Pimpin Conan's awesomeness transcends mortal tongues!

  29. What Norm said...this is all awesome in my opinion.

  30. JimLotFP:
    Re: Kulan Gath=/= Thoth Amon:
    Whoops. That fact must have been squeezed out when I stuffed my brain with Green Lantern trivia over the past few weeks.

  31. JRT I stand corrected. I was under the impression that Marvel's Conan licence had long-since expired by 2000, but apparently not!