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Been There Done That: The Multiverse Before it Was Even a Thing

by Lo Terry on June 20, 2024
  • Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DC Extended Universe captivated audiences around the globe, before Tolkien’s Middle-earth or Lucas’s galaxy far, far away, there was one visionary writer who dared to dream of a world beyond the confines of a single story – a man named Robert E. Howard.

    Born in the early 20th century in the heart of Texas, Howard was a prodigy of the pulp era, a self-taught,  master of sword and sorcery who created some of the most iconic characters in the history of fantasy fiction. From Conan the Barbarian, the indomitable Cimmerian warrior, to Solomon Kane, the dour Puritan adventurer, Howard’s creations have lasted for nearly a century, thrilling readers with their tales of heroic deeds and eldritch horror.

    But Howard’s true genius lay not merely in his ability to spin a ripping yarn or conjure vivid, unforgettable characters. No, what set Howard apart from his contemporaries was his uncanny ability to weave a vast, interconnected mosaic of myths and legends that spanned tens of thousands of years and countless civilizations.

    So buckle up. Whether you’re a die-hard fan of sword and sorcery or a casual admirer of fantasy fiction, there’s something here for everyone – a timeless nod to the power of the human imagination to create worlds that live and breathe beyond the printed page.

    Simple Ideas, Genre-Shifting Payoffs

    The concept of interconnected worlds has long been a tantalizing prospect, a canvas upon which the grandest of narratives can unfold. From the interplanetary expanse of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom to the eldritch horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, the notion of a shared universe has captivated the imaginations of readers and writers alike. 

    Yet it was Robert E. Howard, the visionary architect of sword and sorcery, who would elevate this concept to unprecedented heights, weaving a patchwork of history and myth that would span millennia and reshape the very foundations of the genre. What sets Howard’s shared universe apart is its audacious yet seamless integration into our own world’s history and mythology. The Hyborian Age, the stage upon which his most famous creation, Conan the Barbarian, would carve his bloody path to glory, was not merely a fantastical realm, but a precursor to the ancient civilizations we know today.

    In Howard’s masterful hands, the Stygians become the proto-Egyptians, the Cimmerians the proto-Celts, and the distant land of Khitai the proto-China. This intricate tapestry extends even further into the mists of time with the Thurian Age, where Kull and the Atlanteans establish themselves as the progenitors of the Cimmerians, while Brule’s fierce Picts lay the groundwork for their descendants’ struggles in the age of Conan and beyond.

    The true genius of Howard’s creation lay not just in its scope, but in the intricate web of connections that bound its disparate elements together across the ages. In Howard’s hands, history became a palpable force, a current that flowed through the veins of his characters and shaped the destinies of nations. The rise and fall of empires, the clash of civilizations, the eternal struggle between the forces of order and chaos – these were the threads that Howard wove into the fabric of his universe, imbuing it with a sense of epic grandeur and timeless relevance.

    At the heart of this grand tapestry lay a fundamental tension, a dichotomy that would come to define the very essence of Howard’s work: the battle between civilization and barbarism. It was a theme that resonated through the very marrow of Howard’s heroes, larger-than-life figures who embodied the primal fury of the barbarian and the cunning intellect of the civilized man. In Conan, this duality found its ultimate expression,a product of the untamed wilderness who would one day claim the throne of the mightiest empire of the age.

    But Conan was far from the only hero to stride across the stage of Howard’s vast and varied universe. From the mist-shrouded Pictish Isles at the dawn of mankind to the sun-baked sands of ancient Stygia, from the bleak, unforgiving hills of Afghanistan to the haunted moors of Puritan England, Howard’s imagination roamed free, conjuring a host of unforgettable characters, each a reflection of the unrelenting human struggle against the forces of darkness and entropy.

    This was a struggle that had its roots in an age even more ancient than the Hyborian Age, a time when the very foundations of the world were still shrouded in mystery and myth. In the dim and distant past of the Thurian Age, a time of sorcery and savagery, of lost civilizations and forgotten gods, Howard found the seeds of the conflicts that would shape the destinies of his later heroes.

    The Thurian Age: Kull & Brule

    Conan The Barbarian Been There Done That: The Multiverse Before it Was Even a Thing

    In the mists of the Thurian Age, we find Kull, the brooding Atlantean warrior-king, a figure whose adventures would lay the groundwork for the tales of Conan to come. Exiled from his homeland for the crime of showing mercy by death, Kull’s path would lead him from the shackles of slavery to the throne of Valusia, his reign marked by a ceaseless struggle against the machinations of the serpent-men and the intrigues of his own court.

    Yet it is in the existential and philosophical themes of the Kull stories that we find the true depth of Howard’s vision. In Kull, Howard created a character who grappled with the very nature of reality, a king who questioned the foundations of his own existence and sought to pierce the veil of illusion that shrouded the world. Through Kull’s eyes, we glimpse a universe in which the boundaries between the material and the spiritual are blurred, where the line between dream and waking is a fleeting and uncertain thing.

    It is a theme that would find echoes in the tales of Conan and the other heroes of Howard’s grand vision. For in Kull’s people, the ancient Atlanteans, Howard found the progenitors of the Cimmerians, the hardy race of warriors from which Conan himself would spring. In the tales of Kull, we see the seeds of the Hyborian Age taking root, the first stirrings of the great migrations that would shape the world to come.

    But Kull’s saga is more than a prelude to the adventures of Conan. It is a tale in its own right, a vivid and compelling exploration of the human condition, set against a backdrop of sorcery and intrigue. At Kull’s side stands Brule, the fierce Pictish warrior whose loyalty and cunning would prove invaluable in the battles to come. 

    Brule is a character whose principles and unwavering sense of honor would set the standard for the Pictish heroes to come. In Brule, we see the first glimmerings of the Pictish archetype that would find its fullest expression in other tales of the Picts, both during the Hyborian Age, and later with the stories of the last Pictish king Bran Mak Morn.

    The Hyborian Age: Conan, Brissa & Beyond

    Conan The Barbarian Been There Done That: The Multiverse Before it Was Even a Thing

    Conan the Cimmerian—the name resounds through the Hyborian Age like the clash of steel against steel. From thief to mercenary, pirate to king, Conan’s adventures craft a collage of blood, magic, and intrigue that has captivated readers for generations. Howard’s original tales, like “The Phoenix on the Sword,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” and “The Devil in Iron,” each stand as a window into a world where strength and cunning reign supreme.

    In this savage landscape, Conan stands tall, a force of nature unbowed by the whims of fate. Through his eyes, we witness the unending struggle between civilization and barbarism, the eternal dance that shapes the destiny of nations. Yet even a legend like Conan does not stand alone. 

    Enter Brissa, a Pictish scout whose fierce loyalty and uncanny skills prove invaluable on the battlefield. While Brissa is not one of Howard’s original creations, her character was carefully crafted by the comic’s creative team to embody the spirit of the Picts and to help connect the Picts to the ancient Atlantean warrior Brule. Brissa carries the torch of her people’s legacy, a living embodiment of the Pictish spirit that has persisted since the misty days of the Thurian Age. 

    And what an intricate history it is; for the Hyborian Age is a realm of unparalleled richness and depth. Its heroes and villains, its sorcerers and savages, all play their parts in a grand, ceaseless. Soon, in the pages of “The Battle of the Black Stone,” this epic saga will reach new heights as Conan joins forces with champions from across the Howardverse to confront a threat that could unravel the very fabric of reality.

    But the Hyborian Age is still but one thread in the vast Howardian weave. To truly grasp the scope of the writer’s vision, one must follow the trail of the Picts, those enigmatic warriors whose story spans millennia.

    The Rise & Fall of the Picts

    Conan The Barbarian Been There Done That: The Multiverse Before it Was Even a Thing

    Amidst the swirling tapestry of Howard’s epic vision, one thread gleams with a fierce and tragic brilliance: the saga of the Picts. 

    In Brule, we found the embodiment of the Pictish soul in its original glory, a savage warrior whose bond with King Kull would become the stuff of legend. Yet it is in the twilight years of the Picts that their legacy burns brightest, in Brule’s descendant: Bran Mak Morn, the last king of their fading realm.

    Bran’s tale is one of Ozymandian melancholy, of a ruler fighting to stave off the inevitable decline of his people. Faced with the encroaching might of Rome and the slow decay of Pictish pride, Bran stands as a beacon of defiance, his spirit unbroken by the cruel whims of fate. It is this unyielding will, this refusal to bow before the gathering storm, that defines Bran as a hero for the ages.

    In “Kings of the Night”, Howard gives us a tantalizing glimpse of the Pictish saga’s place in the broader timeline of his universe. Here, in this strange and haunting tale, Bran’s path intersects with that of Kull himself, the two rulers united across the ages by the bonds of sorcery and desperate need. It is a story unlike any other in Howard’s canon, a dreamlike melding of eras that hints at the deep roots of the Pictish race.

    Yet Bran’s tale does not end with his passing. In death, he attains a new immortality, his memory enshrined in the statue of the Dark Man, a cult idol that will loom large in the lives of Howard’s other heroes. From the Gaelic reaver Turlogh O’Brien to the 20th century occult investigators Conrad and Kirowan, the specter of Bran Mak Morn casts a long shadow, a reminder of the power of a legacy forged in blood and sorrow.

    This, then, is the story of the Picts, a tragedy writ large across the canvas of Howard’s imagination. For theirs is a saga of unbreakable spirit in the face of inevitable doom, of a people’s pride that remains steadfast even as their world crumbles to dust.

    And yet, the Pictish thread is but one among many in the vast array of the Howardverse. 

    Swords & Sorcery Across the Ages

    Conan The Barbarian Been There Done That: The Multiverse Before it Was Even a Thing

    From the faraway isles of the Picts, our journey through the Howardverse carries us to the wretched streets of Renaissance Europe, where a new breed of hero stalks the shadows. Enter Solomon Kane, the dour Puritan adventurer.

    Kane emerges as a figure of brooding intensity, a restless wanderer compelled by an insatiable hunger for justice. Armed with rapier and flintlock, he navigates the most sinister recesses of the world, a somber avenger sworn to eradicate evil in all its manifold forms. Through Kane’s exploits, we witness Howard’s vision at its most unflinchingly philosophical. Most importantly, Kane’s realm journey is intricately interwoven with the broader canvas of Howard’s shared universe. On one quest, Kane chances upon the crumbling vestiges of ancient Atlantis, an unsettling echo of the Thurian Age. Kane also frequently confronts entities that bear an eerie affinity to the abominations faced by Howard’s other protagonists like Conan. This alludes to the idea that there are ancient, shared horrors that lurk beneath the veneer of the world.

    In the pages of comics like Marvel’s Serpent War and the forthcoming Black Stone saga, this Elizabethan titan stands fearlessly against the forces of darkness. Through Kane, Howard’s vision reaches new heights of psychological depth and unfettered emotion. In his struggles, we see the human condition laid bare, a mirror held up to the darkest recesses of the soul. And yet, for all the bleakness of their world, there is a glimmer of hope that shines through, a sense that even in the face of overwhelming odds, the human spirit will prevail.

    As we consider the tales of Solomon Kane, we find ourselves drawn inexorably forward, pulled by the threads that bind Howard’s heroes together across time and space. And so, we turn our gaze to the next stage of our journey, to the far-flung corners of Howard’s world where new heroes await, their stories still being written.

    The Modern Age: Kirowan, Conrad, & Allison

    Stepping out of antiquity, we find ourselves in the realm of Howard’s modern-day champions – figures of unyielding will and peerless skill whose adventures span the globe.

    Among these heroes stands Professors John Kirowan and John Conrad, two men of learning whose thirst for knowledge leads them into realms of cosmic terror. In one of their most remarkable adventures, Kirowan stumbles upon the Ring of Thoth-Amon. This powerful artifact not only links them to one of Conan’s most formidable adversaries, but also underscores the intricate connections that bind Howard’s universe together. Pitted against the malign forces of the malign forces of cosmic horror, Kirowan and Conrad are soldiers in a secret war for the soul of humanity, their arcane wisdom and unflinching valor the only bulwark against the encroaching darkness.

    But perhaps the most enigmatic of Howard’s modern heroes is James Allison, a man living in the 1930s who is haunted by vivid visions of his past lives. In one such vision, Allison finds himself as an Aesir warrior fighting alongside a Pict in the crumbling ruins of a fallen Hyborian kingdom.

    And yet, even as we marvel at the exploits of El Borak, Kirowan, Conrad, and Allison, we cannot help but feel a sense of melancholy, a bittersweet recognition of the man behind the legends. For in each of these heroes, we catch a glimpse of Howard himself – a man torn between the call of adventure and the demons of his own psyche, a visionary genius whose life was cut tragically short by the very forces he sought to exorcize through his art.

    The Lasting Legacy of the Howardverse

    Conan The Barbarian Been There Done That: The Multiverse Before it Was Even a Thing

    As our journey through the Howardverse draws to a close, we find ourselves marveling at the sheer scope and audacity of Robert E. Howard’s vision. At the heart of this legacy lies Howard’s unparalleled gift for worldbuilding. With each keystroke on his typewriter, he conjured forth a universe of breathtaking depth and complexity, a realm where history and myth intertwined in an eternal dance of blood and thunder. 

    It is this depth of characterization, this uncanny ability to speak to the simple, resonant truths of the human condition, that has earned Howard his place in the pantheon of great American writers. For all the tales of swords and sorcery, Howard’s true legacy lies in his unflinching exploration of the human heart, in his unwavering commitment to the dignity and worth of the individual in the face of an uncaring universe.

    As we ponder the enduring impact of Robert E. Howard’s vision, we cannot help but marvel at the countless writers, artists, and filmmakers who have drawn inspiration from his work. From the sword and sorcery epics of Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber to the cosmic horrors of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, Howard’s influence looms large over the landscape of modern popular culture, a testament to the raw, unvarnished power of his imagination.

    And now, as we stand on the cusp of a new era of exploration and discovery in the Howardverse, we can only imagine the wonders that await us. With Heroic Signatures and Titan Comics at the helm, the stage is set for a bold new chapter in the ongoing saga of Howard’s immortal creations, a chance to plumb the depths of his vision as never before. Whether in the pages of comic books or on the silver screen, the Howardverse beckons us onward, a clarion call to adventure that no true fan can resist.

    So let us raise a toast to Robert E. Howard, the grandfather of the shared universe, the visionary genius whose words have set our imaginations afire for nearly a century. May his legacy grow for generations to come, a shining beacon of creativity and inspiration for all who would dare to dream of worlds beyond the veil of the mundane. Long live the Howardverse, and all who sail her savage seas!

  • Lo Terry

    In his effort to help Heroic Signatures tell legendary stories, Lo Terry does a lot. Sometimes, that means spearheading an innovative, AI-driven tavern adventure. In others it means writing words in the voice of a mischievous merchant for people to chuckle at. It's a fun time.

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