My earliest childhood ambition was fairly straight-forward: be Red Sonja or She-Ra. I had a horse and my mom humored me with a fake plastic sword from the circus, but I was not allowed to wave said sword around the horses because horses will freak out over the most innocuous things, like plastic bags. I did, as an alternative, have one of my saddles laid over the back of the couch in our living room where I could practice my sword wielding. It wasn’t quite the same.
While I no longer ride a saddle sitting on the back of a couch, I have maintained the interest in barbarians in other ways: like monopolizing all the Red Sonja content for WWAC. Recently, a pitch for a barbarian comic called By Crom! caught my eye. I reached out to the creator, Rachel Kahn, about our mutual love of the barbarian and eventually got my hands on a physical copy. (So, the usual disclaimer: this review is based on an advanced copy from the creator.)
By Crom! is a collection of Kahn’s autobiographical comics that feature her interacting with Crom, a barbarian explicitly based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Crom acts as an inner aspect of the creator and a no-bullshit life advisor. The collection includes By Crom! comics from Weald Comics, unpublished comics, occasional commentary from the creator, and some fun features like Crom paper dolls in the back matter.
Throughout the series, Comic Rachel deals with mental illness, the death of her beloved dog (it’s beautiful, and I cried), identity crises, careers, and bra shopping. It sounds intense, and it is, but with the stoic barbarianism of Crom, there’s a hilarity in the refreshing lack of sentimentality. This same lack of sentimentality only gets better when later in the collection, Crom shows up awash in watercolors.
The collection deeply resonated with me because Kahn’s use of Crom as a foil to her mental illness highlights my own deep-seated identification with the barbarian character who is, as she puts it, “both an aspect of my inner self, and an aspirational figure, at the same time.” She elaborates:
“There’s a part of me that wants to be constantly pragmatic, coldly logical and calmly self-sufficient; and then there’s a part of me that often feels trapped, frustrated by and aggressive towards a lot of the day to day elements of real life. I found that it was a trope I could use to give form to some of my more antisocial feelings of frustration and aggression, and also a trope that could wield cold logic as a foil for some of my intense anxiety and frustration. I think more than anything, this barbarian tapped into a deep desire I had at the time to control my emotions and the frustration I felt at being unable to do so.”
This tension often makes for hilariously absurd scenarios, such as the following:
Kahn uses the unsentimentality of the barbarian to great effect throughout the comic, particularly when tackling issues related to her personal struggles with mental illness. It is a fine line to walk, but important to see when representing mental illness, so I asked her:
Ginnis: “There’s also in this cold logic and self-sufficiency [of the barbarian] a sort of existential humor that you really tap into in the comic, especially in regards to mental illness. Can you talk a little more about that and the fine line of you have to walk with humor and the seriousness of mental illness?”
Kahn: “I think one of the fantasies I can obsess over as someone living with mental illness is the dream of being emotionally invincible, or perhaps, invincible to my own emotions. The futility of that, the reality that I was not a hugely resilient and self sufficient person, was either going to crush me or become something I could laugh about and thus accept, and drawing the comic really helped me choose laughter. In the end no real person can achieve the kind of simple purity of intention that Conan has, and by juxtaposing it with my own experiences I think it shows some of the absurdity of both approaches.
In terms of the fine line, well, while I made myself the butt of most of the jokes, I hope that the honest expression of my frustrations and struggles and concerns communicated a sort of self-acceptance. If I can write and draw a comic about a rage-tinted panic attack in a bra shop, I have to be able to accept myself as someone who lived that. I hope that while the comic has a sense of humour about these anxieties, anyone else who is familiar with living with them senses the acceptance and fellow-feeling, and does not feel like the butt of the joke. However, when you make something like this you have to accept that your intentions don’t dictate the results, so I don’t pretend to think the comic is invincible to other perceptions.”
One of the ways in which Kahn thoughtfully deals with this is via the addition of a running commentary throughout the collection. The commentary adds another layer to the autobiographical nature of the collection. Kahn explained:
“I added the commentary for a few reasons—firstly, because there are a few strips where I wasn’t sure, in retrospect, if I felt the same way now as I did when I wrote them, and I wanted to clarify things. Secondly, because a few folks had asked specifically for more insight into the strip and I thought this was a nice way to add it. Thirdly, because I wanted to make this collection special, and give it something that made it stand out from the earlier zines and books I’d made of parts of By Crom!”
Kahn’s ability to tap into the appeal of the barbarian character has not gone unnoticed. By Crom! was nominated for a 2015 Black River award by the Robert E. Howard foundation. When I asked Kahn about how her comic came to the attention of the foundation, she explained:
“They’ve been incredible supporters, and I was honoured to have their encouragement almost right from the get go. I believe I can credit Mark Finn, Robert E. Howard scholar, for connecting my work with the REH Foundation—he’s been a fan since my first By Crom! zine of 25 strips back in 2012, and honoured me with a blurb for this complete collection. Even without writing Conan on the cover, I think everyone who is a Conan fan gets the reference pretty quickly and some of my most passionate fans have been ones who love Conan in all his incarnations. I would also like to add that everyone I’ve met through the REH Foundation has been incredibly welcoming, supportive and enthusiastic. I think it’s a group that has a real passion for the complete media legacy of Howard’s work, and they are eager to discuss and share every aspect of it. They’ve been amazing.”
I was also curious as to whether or not licensing was an issue since Kahn acknowledges that Crom is Conan:
“Regarding licensing, Conan as a character is 84 years old. While his cinematic, videogame, board game and comic book incarnations are all owned by corporations, and each owner has grown the world, the cast and the lore of Conan, the original stories that Howard wrote are beginning to pass into the public domain, and as such there is a grey area around ownership of the core lore that I think has let me carefully create By Crom! without any serious issues. I’m really grateful for this.”
This grey area leaves an increasingly wide opening for a variety of interpretations on Conan, which is particularly important in consideration of the fact that the sword and sorcery genre is heavily coded for men. Between the continuing work that Dynamite is doing with Red Sonja, seeing how women relate to the tropes of the barbarian is crucial to the evolution of the Conan character and its lore. There’s a significant group of women out there who find appeal and even feminism in the barbarian character. When Gail Simone first signed on for Red Sonja, several women approached her about being “secret” fans of the character. While a quick look at the historical representation of Red Sonja indicates “not for me” to most women, the appeal of the barbarian is still there: the invincibility, the stoicism, the cold pragmatism.
However, like Simone, Kahn challenges these characteristics of the barbarian. By situating Crom the Barbarian in day-to-day scenarios, Kahn brings a humanity, even an aloof tenderness, to the barbarian character. For example, at one point when Comic Rachel says: “I don’t think of myself as brave,” Crom responds “Stubbornness and determination will be sufficient.” At the same time, these tender moments are also juxtaposed with the delightful absurdity of scenes such as this one:
“In my other life, I’m a fantasy illustrator and I spend a lot of my time working on tabletop and videogames set in iron or bronze age societies. So I have this huge folder now of costume reference from a wide variety of world cultures at those times, and I love learning about and drawing all that stuff. Once I realized that Conan was a sort of fantasy bronze age hero, I knew I had to combine these two passions! And so the paper doll was born.”
Finally, I had one last question for Kahn—one I thought would resonate with a lot of creative folks out there who deal with mental illness:
Ginnis: “You are a boss lady for freelancing and dealing with mental illness. Any tips for others in a similar position?”
Kahn: “I don’t know if freelancing with mental illness is guaranteed to be easy or hard for anyone—I think for some people the flexibility of the schedule, the autonomy of defining your own working environment and routine, can be a huge boon. But certainly the stress of unstable income and the constant hustle can be additional stresses and for some of us the potential isolation of freelance can aggravate or further foreground anxiety or depression. That said, everyone living with mental illness has to find their own best scenario. For me, what has helped has been having a rigid routine, respecting my down time, and finding spaces to do my freelance work around other people, whether in a shared studio space, cafe or library. Not everyone needs what I have, so I guess my most important tip is to take the time to find out how best to support yourself as you work. No one else can set up that routine for you, and you know best when you work most effectively, what surroundings suit you best, and most importantly, how much work is a reasonable amount to expect from yourself from one day to the next. You need to be your own best friend and respect your health and feelings first and foremost.”