We all know what Conan looks like—ferociously muscled, scowling, a barely-contained dynamo of steel-hard flesh and savage energy. It can come as a bit of a shock, then, for those of us in the post-Frazetta, post-Savage Sword, post-Schwarzenegger era to meet Conan in his earliest depictions on the covers of Weird Tales magazine.
Howard sold seventeen Conan stories to Weird Tales, the character appearing in twenty-five issues and making the cover story nine times. All nine covers were by Weird Tales’ most prolific and popular illustrator of the 1930’s, Margaret Brundage. Indeed, Brundage illustrated every single cover of Weird Tales during the period that Conan was making the cover story slot, starting with the June 1933 cover for “Black Colossus” below and running through to August of 1936. She was pulp fiction’s first female superstar.
In an interesting contrast to today’s depictions, Conan seems more librarian than barbarian, but more to the point he’s essentially of secondary importance on his own covers. In nine covers, Conan only appears three times, and he’s the focal point in only one of those.
Lurid and titillating pulp covers lent the magazines an unsavory air in the public imagination—and no doubt also helped sell copies like hotcakes. Jockeying for the vaunted cover story slot, many Weird Tales regulars made sure to ‘sex up’ their stories by including the sorts of scenes that editor Farnsworth Wright and his go-to artist preferred. Howard himself lamented the need for bodice-ripping and cats-o-nine-tails in every story, but, like any working writer, he was not above the dictates of commerce.
Just like the writers for the pulps, Brundage produced these pastels at an amazingly fast rate—and like the fiction between their pages, the covers she did for Weird Tales range in quality from serviceable to iconically superb. As with the best writing of that era, much of her work is now considered classic.