Conan the Barbarian Marvel Comics Cover by Barry Windsor-Smith

The History Of Conan The Barbarian in Comics

While most think of Arnold Schwarzenegger when they hear the name of Conan the Barbarian, the character’s history is more closely tied to the world of comics than cinema.

Pulp Fiction and The Origins Of Conan

Created by sword-and-sorcery pioneer Robert E. Howard, Conan was originally a product of the pulps. Howard sold 18 novellas and novelettes featuring Conan to the magazines Weird Tales and Fantasy Fan between 1932 and 1936. Howard also wrote one Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon, and had three Conan stories published after his death.

While Howard was a prolific writer who wrote historical fiction as well as fantasy, Conan was easily his most popular creation. Howard’s stories were reprinted continually throughout the 1950s and 1960s, finding an audience among the same readers that enjoyed comic books. It was these readers who introduced Conan to the management of Marvel Comics.

The First Marvel Age (1970-1993)

According to comics legend Roy Thomas, who was serving as an associate editor under Stan Lee at the time, Marvel Comics first began exploring the idea of publishing adaptations of classic pulp characters in the late 1960s. This decision came after receiving letters from fans suggesting they might do well with comics based on Tarzan, Doc Savage, and John Carter.

Thomas reached out to the literary agent of Robert E. Howard’s estate, Glenn Lord. To his surprise, Lord was agreeable to Thomas’ proposed sum of $200 per issue. Unfortunately, this was more than Thomas had budgeted for Marvel’s first foray into fantasy comics. Thomas addressed the shortfall by writing the comics himself and hiring a relatively unknown Barry Windsor-Smith to handle the art.

Rather than only adapting the Conan stories, Thomas secured permission to adapt Howard’s other stories into Conan tales while writing his own stories, filling in the gaps between the classic Conan tales. This led to the creation of another famous hero, with Thomas inventing the amazon Red Sonja by adapting Robert E. Howard’s historical heroine Red Sonya of Rogatino.

Conan The Barbarian proved to be a smash hit, quickly becoming one of Marvel Comics most popular series and the winner of multiple Shazam awards. It is highly unlikely the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film would ever have been made, had it not been for the popularity of the Conan comics.

The Dark Horse Years (2003-2018)

Ironically, despite American comics becoming more violent during in the late 1980s and 1990s, fantasy as a genre fell out of favor and the Conan license lay dormant for a decade. Dark Horse Comics picked up the license in 2003, hiring Kurt Busiek to handle the writing duties and Cary Nord to provide the artwork.

For 15 years and through a number of rotating creative teams and titles, Dark Horse presented a darker, more visceral take on Robert E. Howard’s hero. The monthly Conan series largely unfolded in chronological order, using the timeline presented by P. Schuyler Miller and John D. Clark in their 1936 essay A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career.

Like the Marvel series before it, the Dark Horse Conan comics adapted Howard’s original stories, filling in the gaps with original tales. There was also a collection of spin-off miniseries, published under the King Conan title, in which writer Tim Truman and artist Tomás Giorello adapted the Robert E. Howard stories set during Conan’s reign as King of Aquilonia.

The Second Marvel Age (2019-2022)

Marvel Comics briefly reacquired the license to publish Conan comics in the United States in 2018. A new monthly Conan the Barbarian comic began running in January 2019, with scripts by Jason Aaron and art by Mahmud Asrar. There were also several one-shots and mini-series devoted to supporting Conan characters, such as the pirate queen Belit.

Unfortunately, these comics were not well-received by the majority of Conan fans, who preferred the darker aesthetic of the Dark Horse comics. It did not help matters that a time-displaced Conan interacted with the mainstream Marvel Universe and was briefly a part of the Savage Avengers. The series failed to find an audience with Marvel fans as well and were quietly brought to a close.

Ablaze Comics and The Cimmerian (2020-2022)

At the same time Marvel was trying to revitalize Conan in their own universe, Ablaze Comics was leaving their own mark upon the Conan legacy. After a brief legal battle, Ablaze was allowed to publish English translations of a series of comic book adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s stories published in Europe (where they were in the public domain) under the title The Cimmerian. While some of the adaptations were praised for capturing the primal spirit of Robert E. Howard’s prose, the Ablaze Comics printings were criticized for compressing the larger page size of European comics to fit the American standard.

The Titan Age And Today (2023)

A new Conan the Barbarian series, published by Titan Comics, is poised to premiere at San Diego Comic Con 2023. The new book received a soft premiere during Free Comic Book Day, with a #0 issue scripted by Jim Zub and art by Roberto De La Torre fueling fan expectations, and foretelling a new age of high adventure for Conan the Barbarian.