The original Conan the Barbarian was created by author Robert E. Howard in 1932 and published in the pulp magazine, Weird Tales. Conan was a strong muscular character but in the early 1930s he couldn’t have been envisioned as a bodybuilder as we know them today because bodybuilding as we know it today didn’t exist. Early bodybuilder Eugene Sandow had been in the physical culture scene since the late 1800s and Charles Atlas sold his first body building course in 1922 but the Mr. America contest wasn’t even invented until 1938. Even steroids were in their infancy:
To trace the history of steroids as we know them today we must first go back to 1931, to a German chemist Adolf Butenandt. By this point it was understood, largely thanks to Berthold the importance and effects of male hormones but it was Butenandt who first found a way to pin-point and purify the hormone androstenone; he did so by extracting the hormone from a mere few liters of urine. This was a groundbreaking achievement and only the beginning of the breakthrough, as the next several years would see anabolic steroids truly birthed and evolved.
The earliest artist’s depictions of Conan can be seen on the covers of Weird Tales magazine. These illustrations were based on the descriptions of Conan given by his creator Robert E. Howard. Howard described Conan during his reign as king of Aquilonia as:
… a tall man, mightily shouldered and deep of chest, with a massive corded neck and heavily muscled limbs. He was clad in silk and velvet, with the royal lions of Aquilonia worked in gold upon his rich jupon, and the crown of Aquilonia shone on his square-cut black mane; but the great sword at his side seemed more natural to him than the regal accoutrements. His brow was low and broad, his eyes a volcanic blue that smoldered as if with some inner fire. His dark, scarred, almost sinister face was that of a fighting-man, and his velvet garments could not conceal the hard, dangerous lines of his limbs.
In the 1950s, fans of Howard’s Conan began compiling the original stories in small press hardback books with print runs of a few thousand copies. Conan of the 50s physical appearance was apparently adapted from the original Weird Tales’ artists depiction with an added Roman flare.
In the 1940s there had been a few bodybuilders like John Grimek and Steve Reeves who had the foundation of the modern bodybuilder. In the 1950s more developed bodybuilders like Reg Park, Earl Maynard, and Bill Pearl were growing in number. In the 1960s bodybuilding hadn’t exploded like it would in the late 1970s but it had certainly come of age and steroid use was spreading. Now there were more than just a few real people that physically looked beyond the fantasy version of Conan depicted in the 30s and 50s. It wasn’t until the late 1960s when illustrator Frank Frazetta envisioned Conan for the Lancer/Ace paperback editions of Conan the Barbarian that Conan’s appearance dramatically shifted to a more muscular, meaner, brutal looking character. Frazetta reportedly didn’t read the books whose covers he painted but rather went with the feel of how he thought the characters should look based on what he knew about them. Frazetta is known for his muscular characters and animals as well as voluptuous women or “Frazetta girls”.
It wasn’t until the 1970s after Conan broke into the comic books that his look started to evolve somewhat but Frazetta’s 1960s vision was strong enough to be the basis of how Conan is envisioned to this day. More on the development of Conan through comics, movies, tv and onward in a future article.