Robert E. Howard Days 2013: Celebrating Two-Gun Bob in the Comics Essay
Another Howard Days has come and gone, leaving behind a bevy of great memories - Robert E. Howard Days 2013: Celebrating Two-Gun Bob in the Comics Essay introduction. This year the theme was “Robert E. Howard in the Comics” and the guest was, appropriately enough, Tim Truman. Tim is a veteran comic artist and writer, who has been the creative cornerstone of the Dark Horse Conan series for the better part of the last decade. He is currently writing the King Conan series, and along with the spectacular pencils of Tomas Giorello and gorgeous colors of Jose Villarrubia is producing a sequence of adaptations that are a magnificent tribute to the original yarns of Two-Gun Bob. The choice of Truman as this year’s Guest of Honor was very timely as it coincided with the release of the first issue of King Conan: Hour of the Dragon the long-awaited and highly-anticipated twelve-issue adaptation of Howard’s only Conan novel. But as you will see below, Tim Truman was not the only high-profile personage to show up in Cross Plains this year and this led to one of the more memorable Howard Days in recent years.
This year I decided to make the long drive from Florida to Cross Plains rather than fly. It’s a grueling trip, but it gave me the opportunity to not only bring lots of goodies from my collection, but also to stay the night in Mississippi with my friend Richard Olson. Rich is a comic book collector and historian who co-owned one of the first back-issue mail-order comic businesses back in the 1950s. I always love seeing the amazingly rare goodies Rich has acquired over the years as well as hearing his great stories about the early days of fandom. This year he put me in touch with a friend of his and fellow collector who was a big Howard fan when he was younger and even a member of the now-legendary Hyborian Legion, the first organized Howard fan club in the 1950s and 60s. I’m looking forward to learning more about this poorly-recorded period of Howard fandom.
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The following day the road trip resumed with my epic journey across the Lone Star state. The McGuffin on this particular quest of mine was a bottle of the now-legendary but hard-to-find John L. Sullivan Irish Whiskey. After a Sullivan-induced debauch at the PCA/ACA conference in the nation’s capital earlier this year with Mark Finn, Chris Gruber,and Rusty Burke, I felt like it was time for the Great John L. to make his Howard Days debut. After calling ahead to every liquor store from Pensacola to Mobile to Biloxi to Shreveport, I finally found a bottle in Dallas — and by Ishtar’s teats it was the 10-Year! Game on.
I rolled into the 36 West Motel in Cross Plains in the early evening on Wednesday and saw several Howardian comrades-in-arms: Barbara Barrett, Rob Roehm, Bill “Black Indy” Cavalier, and of course Al Harron with his entourage of Scottish beauties — Les Girls! After a quick bite to eat, Barbara, Al, Indy, and I hung out in my room for a while checking out some pulps and comics that I had brought as visual props for one of the panels I was on. I believe the John L. made an appearance as well.
The next morning Barbara, Al, and I set out on a mission to pick up our former Cimmerian blog colleague Deuce Richardson halfway between Cross Plains and Dallas. With the old TC gang reunited — and Al properly introduced to that most-decadent of American commercialized confections: the Dairy Queen Blizzard — we returned to Cross Plains just in time for the early opening of the Howard house and museum. This gave me a chance to walk through house and see Howard’s room without the hustle and bustle of the throng that would be there the following day. After that, I hung out at the pavilion as more of the REHupa regulars began to show up, including Mark Finn and Rusty Burke. While we were all catching up, we had a real surprise as the unannounced guest to whom I alluded earlier came sauntering up to the pavilion. It was none other than Joe R. Lansdale!
In case you’ve been living under a pop culture rock for the last couple of decades, Joe is a well-known author of numerous horror and mystery novels, including Bubba Hotep and Dead in the West. He has done a good deal of comic book work as well, perhaps best known for his collaboration with Tim Truman in revamping Jonah Hex in the 1990s. He and Truman also worked together on Conan and the Songs of the Dead for Dark Horse. He has listed Howard as one of his more important influences on several occasions and has written a number of introductions for Howard-related publications, including Mark Finn’s seminal biography Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard. Joe was very down-to-earth and approachable and it was a real pleasure to get to meet him and speak with him on a number of topics from weird westerns to Edgar Rice Burroughs to martial arts.
With most of the regulars (and a few newcomers) assembled it was time to head to Brownwood for the traditional Thursday night dinner at Humphrey Pete’s. Deuce, Al, and I grabbed newly-arrived REHupan Tim Arney, piled in the van, and headed for Brownwood. At Humphrey Pete’s we saw more familiar faces including Dennis McHaney, Lee Breakiron, Jim Barron, Ed Chaczyk, Keith West, Todd Vick, and Russell Andrew. After dinner a small group drove out to see Howard’s gravesite. For a couple of the new guys this was the first time they had done so and I’m sure it was as moving for them as it was for me. Afterward we adjourned back to Cross Plains and the pavilion where we found Chris Gruber waiting for us. While my memory is a little hazy, I believe Mark, Grub, Deuce, and I ended up back in the motel room that night with a bunch of Fight Stories pulps being passed around and some glasses of John L. being raised.
The following morning was the official start of Howard Days 2013. I cruised over to the pavilion in search of coffee and doughnuts, picked up my name badge, and dropped off some stuff with Project Pride president Arlene Stephenson for the Friday night auction. I also brought along my laptop so I could work on the Power Point presentation I had planned for the “REH in the Comics” panel later that morning. As I tried to plug away at the presentation, the pavilion was suddenly invaded by a gaggle of Google folks. I’m still not sure what that was all about, but they were setting up tents, and waving at Google Earth planes doing fly-overs, and excitedly talking up some sort of game they were promoting. This game appeared to be some combination of an X-Files alien conspiracy LARP and geocaching. It actually sounded kind of intriguing, but I really couldn’t pay much attention to the nice Google lady chattering away in my ear while I tried to find images of Kull and the Barbarians. I did, however, steal some of their bandwidth, when one of them set up a mobile hotspot — that was nice of them.
I was further distracted (and pleasantly so) by the arrival of the guest of honor, Tim Truman. He had just gone through the house and in speaking with him briefly, it was clear that seeing Howard’s room with the typewriter was a moving experience for him. Tim is a true Howard fan through and through. He gets it. He is one of us.
At 11 o’clock I headed over to the Cross Plains Public Library with fellow panelists Mark and Al to get set up. I brought along a bunch of REH-related comics to use as visual aids during the presentation — including a number of copies of the rare La Reina de la Costa Negra collection I recently acquired. As we were joined by the fourth member of our panel — Tim Truman himself — and the audience began to filter in, I realized we had a serious technical difficulty: the large screen monitor didn’t have a VGA cable to connect to my laptop. So much for the Power Point presentation. But what the hell — we had lots of the real thing to pass around anyway. Hey Kids! Comics!
And for the next hour, it was all comics as Mark, Tim, Al, and I geeked out over nearly six decades of four-color REH goodness. I had a lot of fun with this panel and I had several people tell me afterward that it was one of the best ones they had seen in long time.
We all returned to the pavilion for chilidogs, and then it was back to the library for more panels. The first afternoon panel was on Tim and his career. Joe Lansdale graciously offered to join in and serve as a moderator asking Tim pertinent questions and basically turning the panel into an intriguing interview session. This was an unplanned adjustment that I believe very much enhanced the experience. Joe knows Tim very well and knew just which points to bring up and which questions to ask. Listening to Tim talk about his career and how important Howard’s works were to him was one of the highlights of the weekend. In particular he told about encountering his first Howard book, Conan the Conqueror (a.k.a. The Hour of the Dragon) as a youngster, which really drove home the point about how his career has come full circle with the current Dark Horse series.
Following the Truman panel, Rob Roehm and his father gave an interesting panel on their various travels around the southwest as the visited all of the sites that Howard himself visited many years ago. They had a lot of great photographs and somehow they managed to get a VGA cable! Dammit, man!
After the panels it was time to clean up a bit and head to the Community Center for the Friday night banquet and silent auction. The yummy fare was chicken-fried steak (shocker!) and I hungrily devoured it while sitting with Chris Fulbright, Angeline Hawkes, and their wonderful family. Grub, Mark, and I were demonstrating our arrested development as we had a good time drawing gorillas and barbarians with the kids. After dinner Tim gave his Guest of Honor speech, which touched on some of the things he had mentioned earlier and once again reaffirmed how much of a true Howard fan he is. It was a heartfelt speech and I believe he was truly touched by the support and praise we fans continue to give him. The speech was filmed by Ben Friberg (who has become the quasi-official Howard Days videographer these past few years) and is now up on his YouTube page.
Once Tim’s speech concluded everyone rushed to get in their final bids for the silent auction and then Indy announced the winners of this year’s REH Foundation awards. The big news this year was that REH: Two-Gun Raconteur founder and publisher Damon Sasser was inducted into the Black Circle — the highest honor in Howardom. Also, I was very pleased that Tomas Giorello won the Rankin award for best artwork. This was a cause I had been championing on the various REH email lists, Facebook groups, and the Conan.com forum and I’m very glad so many of you voted to show your support for the comic series that is staying true to Howard’s original vision. Other winners included Mark Finn, Jonas Prida, Barbara Barrett, Patrice Louinet, and me (I am seriously humbled and honored). The full results are available here.
With the banquet over, the next stop was the ice house for the REH Boxing panel by Mark and Grub. But as I walked out to the van, Deuce pointed out that we had a flat tire. Arrgh! Fortunately we were able to hitch a ride with Tim Arney to the ice house. This year the panel was a true victory lap for these two as we know have the Collected Boxing Fiction finally coming out. Mark and Chris have been championing the boxing stories for so many years and must be a great feeling to finally see their hard work come to fruition. As Mark and Chris gave a brief rundown of Howard’s boxing stories and amateur career fighting at the ice house, I passed around some original copies of Fight Stories for the audience to look at, as well the two copies of the Ring Magazine that Howard had contributed too. Tim Arney produced a real treasure: A period photograph of a boxing match at an icehouse from a nearby town — a very cool piece of history that really helped visualize what this special place would have been like in Howard’s day. Mark concluded the event with a special announcement: he, Chris, Brian Leno, and I are all collaborating on a new boxing project. We are working on a supplement to the four-volume boxing books — a gazetteer of Howard’s boxing universe that will hopefully be out later this year.
And with that, the crowd returned once more to the pavilion for the traditional drinking of Shiner Bocks and swappin’ of lies. A number of folks headed over to the front of the house for the poetry reading. I made the rounds for a bit, found Rusty, Chris, and Mark and finished off the rest of the Sullivan with a toast (Slainte!), then settled down to some good conversation. The highlight of the evening of course was the now-legendary no-holds-barred, rough-and-tumble set-to between REH boxing guru Chris Gruber and hall of fame martial artist Joe Lansdale. It was a grueling, brutal display of the manly art against the gentle way as the two locked horns and strove against each of other in a titanic battle of strength and technique. And who was the victor in this magnificent struggle? Well, the onlookers of course, as those of us who witnessed this spectacle will no doubt, never see its like again.
Saturday morning required a bit of effort to crawl out of bed, but it was well worth it to see the first panel. This was the “REH and Dark Horse” panel and was originally scheduled to have Tim, Mark, and Jay Zetterberg from Paradox. Jay was unable to make it, but it just so happened that we had someone present who had also worked on a Dark Horse project — so once again Joe stepped into the breach and joined the panel. While the conversation inevitably covered more than just Dark Horse, it was fascinating to hear the back-stories behind Joe and Tim’s various collaborations over the years, including Jonah Hex, The Lone Ranger, and Conan and the Songs of the Dead.
After the panel we walked over to the local Tex-Mex joint for the REH Foundation Legacy Luncheon. This is a special event for those whose contribute at the highest level and gets you some special perks and goodies. If you are regular attendee to Howard Days or the big pulp cons I highly recommend taking the plunge. And every Howard fan should at least join as a supporting member — it’s tax deductible and it’s truly a worthy cause.
The afternoon panels followed soon after, but I had to skip out in order to meet the tow truck and get my tire fixed (thanks to Al’s grandmother Margaret for the lift!). If it had been my own vehicle I would have just changed the tire myself, but it was a rental so I wait two hours for a service truck. When he got there the conversation went a lot like the dialogue between Chevy Chase and the mechanic in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) — “How much yoo got?” But finally, with a patched tire, I made it back to the pavilion for the tail end of the “What’s New for the REH Foundation” panel.
With the completion of the final panel, it was time to caravan out to the Caddo Peak Ranch for the final official activity of Howard Days. As always it’s a bittersweet moment as you realized that another Howard Days is coming to an end. As always the food and hospitality was wonderful. I sat with Ben, Paul Herman, and Todd Woods, and was able to discuss some of my upcoming publishing projects with Paul. This year I finally made the hike up Caddo Peak. In the past I was usually wearing Birkenstocks or flip-flops (aging hipster that I am), but this year I brought some appropriate shoes and the view was well worth it. As the sun began to set, we lined up for the traditional REHupa group shot and then said our goodbyes to those who would not be going back to the pavilion.
Back at the house we had another great night of conversation and comradery, though perhaps a bit more subdued than the night before. I had to turn a little early — 2:00 am or so — as I knew I would have a long drive the following day. Sunday morning brought one last round of goodbyes over breakfast at Jean’s Feed Barn, and then it was time to hit the road. I dropped Deuce off in Dallas and headed for home. This was a truly wonderful Howard Days — Joe and Tim made it a very memorable event. But most importantly, it was a chance to hang out with the new friends I’ve made in Howard fandom over the last few years — friends that I know I will have for life. Thanks to everyone who made Howard Days 2013 such a great experience.
Photos courtesy of Russell Andrew and Jeff Shanks.