Conan the Barbarian -- A Comics History
by Michael Tierney
Michael Tierney -- August 31, 2010
"It was an Age undreamed of."
That line was often used to describe the Hyborian Age; an ancient time before the cataclysm that created the world as we know it today. It was the Age of the bloody-handed barbarian named Conan.
The only problem with that statement is that it was dreamed of -- by a prolific writer living in Depression Era Texas; Robert E. Howard.
The Hyborian Age that Howard created was filled with glittering cities and ancient races, all of which he vibrantly described in details full of both life and history.
Equally well envisioned was Conan himself. Howard's stories tell episodes from along Conan's journey from barbarian to thief, from mercenary to pirate, and ultimately into kingship of the most powerful nation in the world.
Through all of his adventures two elements were constant; foul sorcery was dangerous, and in the direst of circumstances Conan would call out to his god Crom, even though Crom was a God who never listened.
Very few writers get to create their very own genre. Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle combined to create the modern mystery. With Conan, Robert E. Howard single-handedly created the Sword and Sorcery genre.
A prolific Pulp writer, Robert E. Howard wrote many different types of stories under many different names. Collecting his complete works in their original Pulps would not only be difficult, but very expensive. During Howard's lifetime, Conan stories were all published in one place.
Most sought after are Thirties Era Weird Tales magazines with Conan covers by Margaret Brundage (shown right), most of which don't even feature Conan. Out of nine covers, he only appeared on three. And when he is shown, he's not the larger than life adventurer that Howard describes. Nowadays most comic readers think the Bad Girl craze started in Nineties comics. Brundage was doing Bad Girls, along with bondage, 60 years earlier.
After Howard's death, his first hardcover collection of stories was released in the now scarce British edition of A Gent From Bear Creek (Howards backwoods adventure humor stories), and in 1946 horror specialist Arkham House published Skullface Omnibus -- featuring beautiful jacket art by Hannes Bok (shown left).
Howard's creation of Conan was lost for a time, until brought back to life in the Fifties with a series of First Edition hardcovers from Gnome Press and edited by L. Sprague de Camp.
Also in the Fifties was the Ace Doubles release of Howard's only Conan Novel: Conan the Conqueror (shown left).
De Camp continued his work with Conan into the Sixties, when a highly successful paperback series was published by Lancer. This series was a perfect combination of content and covers, the majority of which featured work by fantasy artist icon Frank Frazetta (shown below). A 1975 Frazetta Treasury featured the Conan of Aquilonia cover (shown right) that was lost during the bankruptcy of Lancer Books.
Then, in 1970, comics artist Barry Smith began to illustrate Conan scripts by Roy Thomas (issue #1 shown left), and their subsequent success launched the genre of Sword and Sorcery into the comics arena. The Marvel run lasted several decades, and Conan comics are still published today by Dark Horse.
In fact, most of Howard's heroic writing has enjoyed a long life in both comics and book form. Cataloging them all would take a list as long as that of Howard's work in the Pulps, but one feature that was fairly consistent about most of them was the vibrant artwork on the covers. One early form of a graphic novel was the 1976 Bloodstar hardcover with art by Richard Corben, from Morningstar Press. Corbin and Morningstar would team up again that same year to release a book of Howard's poetry in Night Moves (both shown below), which also featured a Frazetta cover..
With interest in both Howard and Conan at an all time high in the Seventies, publisher Donald Grant began the ambitious project of collecting all the original Robert E. Howard Conan scripts, without editing, in deluxe hardcovers. Using easy to read type, because he was basically taking short stories and giving them book length treatments, Grant's volumes were lavishly illustrated by different top artists. While the interiors were beautiful, Grant went away from his normally colorful jacket wrappers and instead opted for uniform exterior packaging. The collection (shown left) was never completed.
Not long after, another writer/editor named Karl Edward Wagner released a three book Conan set (shown right) through Berkley Putnam, which were featured in Science Fiction Book Club editions for many years. With wraparound jacket art by Ken Kelly and interiors illustrations pulled from the original Pulps, they were more compact than the Grant books, but still didn't include everything.
Over the last decade, publisher Wandering Star finally released the definitive, unedited Robert E. Howard Conan in a series of top quality, deluxe limited editions. Everything is included in these illustrated editions, even incomplete works (shown below along with the matching, regular edition of ". . . And the Memory Was a Bitter Tree . . " by BlackBart).
Howard's words were no longed diluted. While L. Sprague de Camp had kept the property alive, he also had a penchant for taking non-Conan Howard stories, plus new Conan work by others, and weaving them into the barbarian's history.
De Camp wasn't the only one who used this technique.
In the Marvel Conan comics, writer and later editor Roy Thomas did the same thing. In fact, he didn't stop with Howard stories, but also incorporated the licensed work of other authors who had the same colorful flair for other worldly adventures.
After nearly being canceled by Stan Lee because of low sales on the first few issues, Thomas and artist Barry Smith would soon see sales pick up as they took the series to heights it would never achieve again.
Barry Smith's last issue on the series was #24 (shown right), featuring the Song of Red Sonja, who was originally a Howard creation from one of his historical adventures.
Red Sonja resonated so well with readers, that she quickly had her own Marvel series (her 1st solo appearance in Marvel Feature shown left), and is still published today by Dynamite Comics.
The domain of Conan comics grew even more when the 1st issue of the black and white Savage Tales magazine (shown right) was released in 1971, which featured Barry's pencil work on the Frost Giant's Daughter (later reprinted in color in Conan #16). What was perhaps Smith's best work on Conan followed with the Red Nails adaptation in issues #2 and #3. Red Nails would later be collected and presented in color for the first time in the oversized Conan Treasury Edition #4, and again in the Special Edition #1.
Conan's success in magazine form continued when Marvel Comics launched the Savage Sword of Conan magazine (shown left) in 1974. The series would ultimately run for 235 issues, until 1995. Earlier issues of Savage Sword, the Conan color comic, and even the spinoff Kull comics, were reprinted in Conan Saga magazine, that ran for 97 issues between 1987 and 1995. A few months after both Savage Sword and Saga were canceled, Conan the Savage magazine followed with new material, but lasted only 10 issues.
Roy Thomas would enjoy a long career as the chronicler of Conan's adventures. In the color Conan he had a continuity plan, and each year of the comic was a year in Conan's life. But in the black and white magazines the settings would jump around to different times in Conan's adventurous life.
After Barry Smith left, comics veteran John Buscema produced a long run of art for both the comics and the magazines. One notable guest artist was Neal Adams in color Conan #37 and Savage Sword of Conan #14, #60, and with a reprint in #83.
After Roy Thomas left the books, all continuity went out the window. Still, Marvel's color Conan the Barbarian comics managed to run for a total of 275 issues, before being canceled in 1993. Marvel did bring the color comic Conan back for a a pair of limited series in 1997.
During the Marvel run, another spin off of Conan was set in his years as King Conan, later changed to Conan the King. These combined for 55 issues.
After that came the age of Dark Horse comics, who still publish Conan today. They've produced several different series, both long and mini.
Of particular note is the current, Conan: The Frazetta Cover Series, which features adaptations of original Robert E. Howard stories with covers by the artist who best captures the barbarian's volcanic essence; Frank Frazetta (most recent issues shown at the very top).
Crom would be pleased.
If you enjoy the high adventure of Conan the Barbarian
, and stories that include travel to exotic locations, then you'll probably enjoy the Wild Stars!
Click here to learn more about the Wild Stars History.
Next up in the tour of Comics History:
Walt Disney and The Good Duck Artist
If you'd to learn about the career of the man who, because he worked in an age before printed credits, was simply known as The Good Duck Artist, all you have to do is click this link: Disney Ducks!