The Escapist Re-Visited

The Escapist Re-Visited
Conan's B-list Problem - And Ours

Ray Huling | 19 Feb 2008 12:15
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The magazines folded with the advent of mass-market paperbacks and television. In the paperbacks of '50s and '60s, Conan found his creator's epigones, the "posthumous collaborators" L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, as well as his definitive illustrator, Frank Frazetta. At the same time, smart B-movies began to appear. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Night of the Living Dead provoked a reassessment of the possibilities of B-grade budgets. Low expectations granted artists freedom to be original and challenging.

In the '70s and '80s, the money rolled in. Disaster films, sci-fi and war movies, even revivals of serials attained respectability. More than respectability; since the early '70s, B-movies have dominated the box office. The biggest film of all time, in cost and in revenues, belongs to the disaster genre. Titanic descended from The Poseidon Adventure and spawned Armageddon.

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In the same period, Marvel Comics, in the black-and-white Savage Sword of Conan, delivered the richest explorations of the character since Howard. They took this shit seriously. Savage Sword featured 3,000-word essays on Howard's fiction. The '80s also put Conan in the movies. Conan the Barbarian used the character to express a Nietzschean revision of martial history, intended as a brickbat for beating '60s-era hippies and peaceniks.

Then came The Silence of the Lambs. This was a "B-movie" that not only had hit status, but won five Oscars. The five Oscars, too: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. Only two other films have done this. What artists and scholars had long known - that lowbrow subject matter could attain highbrow quality - the public now accepted. A movie featuring a guy who eats people and a guy who skins people stood on level ground with the highest art. The same year, a comic book, Maus, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Today, going back to the Howard Conan means participating in the prestige of the B-list tradition. Dark Horse has done precisely this in their many Conan comics, all of which conclude with a strip, The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob, that depicts Howard's life.

Conan the game tries to do the same, but it runs into the strange B-list problem endemic to videogames: A superabundance of cash, rather than a lack of it, put videogames on the B-list. Game developers complain about the pressures of big game budgets, but before resigning themselves to applying the latest formula, developers have another problem. They have to find something to do with all of that money.

"Step forward, and join your sainted mothers in dog heaven!!"
You can't make Geometry Wars for $10 million, nor can you sell it for $60. The new economics of videogames demand that a game be more than just a game. Yet, in games, everything outside of gameplay - plot, acting, dialogue, subject matter, even graphics - looks sub-par compared with other media. Unfortunately, game developers don't have training in anything else. Thus Conan seems like the result of a panicked effort to throw as much Conan-like crap at the wall and see what slides down. Nearly all games seem this way.

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