In honor of Robert E. Howard‘s birthday, here’s a little demonstration and an attempt at a quantification of what his legacy as a popular/pulp/genre/trash writer means. And an object lesson in how many people you can reach, how many dreams you can touch – and how much wealth creation you can enable – by sipping at the poison chalice of popularity.
Let’s take two writers born roughly the same time, one “popular,” one “serious,” and their most successful single property. I’m going to focus on one Howard creation only: Conan. (Never mind the Solomon Kane movie and other offshoots.) And in the serious corner, we have a writer I have a guilty enthusiasm for: Evelyn Waugh, and probably his most famous and popular novel, Brideshead Revisited. How do they stack up against each other?
For starters, leaving aside for the moment the continuing sales of Howard’s own 20-odd Conan stories, we have Conan books by collaborators and other authors. An awful lot of them. And let’s leave aside for the moment the continuing sales of Howard’s own 20-odd Conan stories. In fact, three entire books and 16 entirely (or mostly) original stories in the Lancer/Ace paperback Conan series of 1966-77. Then there’s seven entirely non-Howard Bantam editions published 1978-82. Then four new Ace volumes in 1979-81. And later, a mere 43 volumes of original stories from Tor, published 1982-2004. And that’s only one official listing, compared to god knows how many other unofficial spinoffs and Conan-inspired titles. How much do you think the aggregate sales of all those add up to, in dollar and in volume terms? A fair amount, I’d guess. Compared to, well, as far as I know, zero spinoff, follow-on, or otherwise derivative works based on Brideshead Revisited.
Then there’s comics. We have nine complete Marvel series and three Dark Horse series of Conan, plus eight Dark Horse mini-series. And who knows how many other non-US and unofficial variants. Probably quite a few sold, right? Likely. Brideshead Revisited: The Graphic Novel? No sign.
But wasn’t that Brideshead Revisited thing made into a TV series, and even a film? Yes, and sadly I can’t find figures for total sales of the series. But I can for the film. It netted just over $13.4 million in global box office. And as for Conan, so far there have been two Conan films and two more reportedly still under development, as well as two animated and one live-action TV series. Conan the Barbarian, released 1982, netted $130 million in worldwide box office – yes, ten times the Brideshead Revisited figure – as well as visiting pre-Terminator Arnie on us. The follow-up Conan the Destroyer earned another $100 million.
Then there’s action figures. And toys. And RPGs. And computer games. Roll a D20 on Charles Ryder, anyone?
You get the picture: Conan has made literally unquantifiable amounts of money in uncountable different formats, and Brideshead Revisited has managed a mere trickle by comparison. Sensitive suffering art crushed by the brutal wheels of commerce? Well, if that galls, try running the same experiment on a different Conan – Doyle – with Sherlock Holmes. And remember that Howard shot himself aged 30 and enjoyed little to none of the Conan profits, while Waugh survive to a well-fed and fatuous old age on the proceeds of his bestellers. And recall, above all, that even if we’re talking intellectual snobbery, Brideshead Revisited has been branded ever since its publication as too much of the snobbery – and too little of the intellectual. Billions for fun, but not one cent for snobbery.