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'Roamer, wanderer, nomad, vagabond... call me what you will...' goes the song by Metallica.
Three icons from different genres.
Conan the barbarian - created by Robert E. Howard, has spawned an empire of content in short stories, novellas & novels, comics (Obama is a collector), video games, film and television. His gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth have taken him across the lands of the Hyborian Age. Conan was born a Cimmerian in the age after the sinking of Atlantis but before the advent of the Aryan people, and his time as a thief, warrior, mercenary, leader, king and all-round-adventurer have pioneered the sword-and-sorcery genre of fantasy fiction. Of the three itinerants on this list Conan has the largest number of authors; Robert E. Howard's creation has become a canvas and a licensing cash-cow. Not only are his stories told in so many mediums and by so many writers, but they have inspired brilliant artists in creating amazing covers for novels that were written by Robert E. Howard, and also for the many other authors (like The Wheel of Time's Robert Jordan).
The first Conan tale is a short story titled The Phoenix on the Sword published in 1932 in Weird Tales; Conan is already a king, middle-aged and at or past his prime. The events of Phoenix allude to a storied past, and immediately gave rise to the publisher asking Howard for more. Violence, women, crime, adventure and general badassery are what Conan is about. Robert E. Howard didn't leave a detailed physical description of Conan; but is described as 'black-haired, sullen-eyed', and as 'a giant'. Conan is the opposite of an armchair adventurer, he is a Roman among Greeks, a doer among thinkers and his capers have worn out more than one pair of sandals.
Cover art for The Hour of the Dragon - Vol. 2 of The Conan Chronicles.
Jack is the next giant and the occidental world is his Hyborian land. Reacher was born on a military base in Berlin right in the middle of the Cold War, after which the US military is downsized and he is left without a job. Reacher's redundancy introduces him to the reading public. His stories are divided into three arcs - the third, final and main storyline begins after he leaves the army and centers on his adventures as a knight-errant; whereas his formative adventures as a boy make up many short stories, and the novels based during his time as a recalcitrant military investigator are excellent palate cleansers (The Affair, The Enemy).
Lee Child never lets us forget how large Reacher is, even going to the extent of having one of his most capable adversaries being a brilliant midget who almost bests Reacher in close combat (61 Hours) just to create an almost baroque contrast. Before Tom Cruise and Alan Ritchson gave us a visual manifestation of Lee Child's imagination, the author pictured British rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio as a close physical proximation to Reacher. We are constantly reminded of this beast of a man who dresses badly, almost looking like a homeless person. And then there is a dominating sense of geography in the books with Reacher landing up in a different small town or megacity at the beginning of each book, and making sure to leave after killing the bad guys, bedding a woman and never needing to wear a watch.
Lee Child pictured rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio as a close physical proximation to Reacher.
Despite the size and legend of Conan & Reacher, neither compare to the menace of Cormac McCarthy's Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West. Blood Meridian is an anti-western, subverting the readers expectations. Judge Holden is an apex predator, almost timeless; brilliant in any setting; he is comfortable stranded in the desert pissing into a pit to create explosives while surrounded by a hostile Comanche tribe, or courting cultured company in the presence of a dancing bear, he is a manipulator, accomplished artist and observer, philosopher of war and the prime mover of the book; he is also a rapist, completely hairless and has small hands.
The wild west of America and its frontiersmen provide the canvas for Blood Meridian, and Philipp Meyers' brilliant introduction to the Picador edition gives apt context to the setting with European Americans hunting down and exterminating Native American tribes like to Comanche who themselves wiped out other Native American tribes. The Judge is a haunting presence, often compared to Moby Dick. He is violent with his sexual targets, with Native Americans and anyone he pleases whether they are in his path or not. As a member of the Glanton Gang of scalp hunters it is easy to mistake him for the de facto leader, whereas he is actually a parasite who joins and uses the gang till it suits him. In stark contrast to Conan who has appeared in so many media, and Jack Reacher who is immensely movie friendly - Blood Meridian is notorious for being unfilmable because of Cormac McCarthy's style and also the violent content.
Does Lee Child fantasize about Jack Reacher dying at the hands of McCarthy's Judge Holden? The Sentinel (2020) was co-written by Lee Child and his brother Andrew Child. Lee Child seemed to have tired of his creation, much like writers before him. Before choosing to pass the baton to his brother, Lee Child considered killing Reacher and concluding the series. Off hand he said Reacher would be tough to kill, and the Reacher code of honour would demand he give himself up rather than the one he's protecting on that particular adventure. Child described Reacher as dying by bleeding out on a dirty bathroom floor in a motel, which brings up the same mental picture as the end of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.