Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Department of Lost Barbarians: Brak

John Jakes' Brak the Barbarian isn't quite as lost as some of the characters I've showcased here at the DoLB. Most people with more than a passing knowledge of the sub genre of sword & sorcery will at least be familiar with Brak. However, since the Brak books have been out of print since the 1970s, there's a good chance that a lot of folks haven't actually read any of them.
Now before you ask, yes this is the same John Jakes who is now a famous historical novelist. He hit the big time in the mid 1970s with his Bicentennial blockbusters The Kent Family Chronicles. Since then he's turned out quite a few well received and best selling historical novels. (His latest, The Gods of Newport, is just out in paperback.) But if you jump back to the early 1960s, Jakes was working as a copywriter in the advertising field and selling stories to the ever shrinking supply of fiction magazines. Jakes wrote whatever was selling. Crime stories, westerns, science fiction and fantasy. Then in 1963, with the encouragement of editor Cele Goldsmith, Jakes began writing a series of Conan style adventures for the SF/Fantasy magazine Fantastic Stories. Goldsmith should perhaps be considered the patron saint of Sword & Sorcery, because she also coaxed new Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories out of Fritz Lieber and published the early works of Michael Moorcock.
Brak is basically a blond Conan, adventuring on a parallel earth with a technology level roughly equivalent to the early Roman Empire. Brak lacks Conan's savage nature, but he's still a barbarian in a civilized world so his adventures follow the Conan mode pretty closely. He fights the usual assortment of evil wizards, demons, and monsters. Jakes makes no bones about this. In reply to an early letter to Fantastic he has this to say.
"The reader's letter expressed the opinions that Brak was but a pale imitation of mighty Conan, and what was worse, had probably been conceived either out of ignorance of Conan, or with full knowledge and therefore out of sheer cupidity. To the first part of this charge I plead delightedly guilty."
Beginning with 'Devils in the Walls' in the May 1963 issue of Fantastic, Jakes would continue to write of Brak into the late seventies, when presumably, his success as a historical novelist caused him to concentrate his efforts in that genre. There are three Brak novels and two collections of short stories. I find the short stories to be more readable than the novels. Jakes prose is certainly very solid but the Brak stories are short on characterization, so they don't hold up well in the long form for modern readers. I recommend the collection 'The Fortunes of Brak'.
Brak also made it into comic books, though very briefly. His first appearance was in Chamber of Chills #2 in 1973 in a tale called Spell of the Dragon. The story was scripted by Jakes but plotted and with layouts by artist Dan Adkins. The finished art was by Val Mayerick and Joe Sinnot. That story was reprinted in Savage Tales #5, then Jakes' short story The Unspeakable Shrine was adapted over two more issues of Savage Tales. I keep thinking that some enterprising comics company should get the rights to do a new Brak comic and steal some of the readers of Dark Horse's Conan and Dynamite's Red Sonja.
The last new Brak story, 'Storm in a Bottle' appeared in the Lin Carter edited anthology Flashing Swords #4 in 1977. In an introduction to one of the Brak books, Jakes mentions that he has plotted the final Brak tale and locked it away, but I doubt we'll ever see it. I interviewed Jakes several years ago, and while he was more than happy to talk about his days writing Brak, he had no interest in ever returning to the character. Fantasy was a genre he felt he'd left behind.
Still, the Brak stories were written as pure genre entertainment and taken as that they are a lot of fun. They are easily and cheaply available in used bookstores and online, and well worth tracking down if you're up for some light escapist adventure.

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