Conan is returning to Marvel in January 2019. That’s so, so, so very close. I’m excited! Are you excited? There’s only one right answer, so choose your next words wisely.
Marvel began publishing Conan the Barbarian in 1970. I’ve heard Roy Thomas tell the story numerous times at HeroesCon of how they landed the rights to the property (and he has great stories, including one about an ocelot eating fried chicken). Essentially, the story boils down to this: Marvel wanted a licensed fantasy comic book! After talks fell through to get Lin Carter’s Thongor (who it is said that Stan Lee wanted because he thought it was a super-cool name), Roy Thomas made a bid to Conan’s literary agent, who accepted… and the rest is comic book history.
The original series lasted an astounding 275 issues with 12 annuals to boot. That’s a pretty hefty run for any title. I can almost guarantee the new Marvel title will never get to such lofty numerals due to their favored trend of renumbering every couple of years.
Personally, I only need around 20 issues to finish my collection of the original Conan the Barbarian from Marvel! I obtained a copy of the first issue back in January. I cannot tell you how excited I was to finally get a very nice copy of that first issue! Getting that issue was the defining moment of my comic book collecting hobby, which I have done for over thirty years now.
Though the main series would be cancelled in 1993, Marvel would publish Conan books through 2000, with Conan: Flame and the Fiend being the last miniseries published. Many of those hampered attempts at starting ongoing books and miniseries were awesome, but today I want to focus on the core Conan the Barbarian series.
With Conan returning to the House of Ideas, I wanted to offer up some Conan the Barbarian suggestions for curious readers or Conan fans wanting to take a trip down memory lane. I could give a blanket recommendation to read them all, but that’s lame. Most of these stories can be found in the Chronicles of Conan collections from Dark Horse, though some of the early volumes can be harder to find these days at affordable prices. Marvel also plans to collect the comics in omnibuses as well. Plus, Conan back issues are actually very affordable. Outside of those first few issues and a couple of others in between (specifically issues 1, 23, and 275), most Conan books can be found for around $1 Hit those back issues bins and make Crom proud!
1 Conan the Barbarian #1 (The Coming of Conan!)
“My life is for me to give… not for you to take! And I do not choose to give it!”
It’s only natural that my first recommendation starts at the beginning. The first issue of Conan remains to this day a gut punch of energy, excitement, and bravado. It has all of the elements anyone would ever want from a Conan story. The action starts immediately with a deadly fight between the Vanir and Aesir. There’s sorcery, scantily clad women, and, by issue’s end, Conan walking sullen and alone in the moonlight.
It’s a rousing introduction to the world’s greatest pulp character. Everything just clicks in this issue: art and words mingle to present everything you need to know about Conan. It’s beautifully illustrated.
After being unable to afford his first choice John Buscema for art duties (though he would later have a long, long run on the title), Roy Thomas landed on the young, talented British illustrator Barry Windsor Smith. Together, the two would make the early Conan title legendary! Their collaboration during the first couple of years of the title were essential to bringing a higher profile to Conan in the 1970s.
2 Conan the Barbarian #4 (The Tower of the Elephant)
“There is always a way… if the desire be coupled with courage.”
The Conan title plugged along releasing every other month, but there were some concerns from Marvel that the series wasn’t working after a dip in sales for the second and third issues. Fortunately, the series began to pick up readers starting with issues 4-6 and would eventually get the greenlight to go monthly. The early issues were primarily self-contained, giving readers an awesome chance to get into the young comic. Those picking up the fourth issue were in for a treat! Issue #4 features the adaptation of one of Robert E. Howard’s most cherished stories, “The Elephant of the Tower.”
Thomas and Smith craft a visually amazing adaptation of this gem-heist yarn. Naturally, everything goes wrong, leading Conan to show his true heart. He’s not just a barbarian! There are hints of Lovecraftian lore and alien “magic,” deepening the rich history of the fantastical Hyborian Age. It’s a tale that mixes bravado, courage, and compassion in one nice, tidy package.
3 Conan the Barbarian #16 (The Frost Giant’s Daughter)
“Not in Vanaheim, but in Valhalla, will you tell your brothers that you met Conan of Cimmeria.”
As mentioned in my previous article, reviewing 7 Dark Horse Conan comics, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” is arguably the most beloved Robert E. Howard Conan story. It’s just a perfect tale of the glory and hell of battle and the mysticism of the Hyborian Age. It’s been adapted four times for the funny books, each of which are worthy of checking out. The original adaptation comes from, you guessed it, Thomas and Smith.
While I love the DH adaptation by Busiek and Nord, the original Marvel version comes in a close second place in my reckoning. Barry Windsor Smith is a great artist, but he truly outdoes himself here. From the opening shot of a desolate, frozen battlefield, the readers know that they are in for a treat. It’s an amazing adaptation of Howard’s best.
4 Conan the Barbarian #s 23-24 (The Shadow of the Vulture/The Song of Red Sonja)
“Red Sonja? Aye, she’s a devil that one. Drinks the strongest man under the table and out-swears a Zingaran! She’s all men’s delight and no man’s love. Forget her, Cimmerian, and drink your ale.”
Created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith, Red Sonja is perhaps the most recognizable character from the Conan canon outside of the barbarian himself. As I mentioned in an earlier article on Damsels Not in Distress, Sonja is a quasi-original creation from Marvel Comics.
Robert E. Howard had written a non-Conan story featuring a character named Red Sonya (and they give a rather fun wink to this appropriated spelling in in issue #23), but she bears little resemblance to her scantily clad comic book counterpart. Conan is completely confused, flummoxed, and impressed by this peerless warrior.
These issues are filled with humor (the dog constantly barking at Conan still gives me the chuckles!) and manly/womanly sword and sorcery action. From the beginning, Conan and Sonja have such a humorous rapport with one another that it’s an absolute pleasure to read almost any book where they are together. I hope Marvel doesn’t forget that today! By the end of issues #24, Conan has finally met his match, with Sonja riding off into the night having stolen the loot they fought so hard to obtain, and Conan without so much as a kiss by the flame-haired She Devil with a Sword!
5 Conan the Barbarian #100 (Death on the Black Coast)
“And so passes the Queen of the Black Coast… As, leaning on his red-stained sword, Conan stands silently until the red glow has faded, far out in the blue hazes, and dawn splashes its rose and gold over the trackless ocean.”
I think that I have mentioned this comic book in all my Conan articles thus far. I don’t mean to repeat myself, but it’s an important issue to me. Issue #100 was one of the first Conan comic books that I read, having lifted out of a quarter bin somewhere in 1997 or 1998.
The story features the iconic death of perhaps Conan’s one true love, Belit, Queen of the Black Coast. Thomas and Buscema sculpt a near flawless death issue for Belit. The cover itself encapsulates the tragedy of Conan, destined to roam the earth alone with his sorrows heavy on his brow. You can feel the pain and rage oozing from the pages in this issue as Conan hunts down those responsible for the death of his queen. It’s quintessential Conan reading, not of for its impact, but for its stunning presentation as well.
6 Conan the Barbarian #s 187-200 & Annual #12 (The Devourer of Souls)
“My sustenance is made up of the loathing, trembling, weak-willed men of this world. My throne lies above the sky, within the inky blackness of the stars. The myriad kingdoms of this world are my footstools. For I am… the Devourer of Souls!”
For lack of a better term, I’m calling this the Devourer of Souls. Comics haven’t always had snazzy names for multi-issue arcs lie they do these days. There’s nothing particularly special or flashy about this story. It’s just a solidly entertaining multi-issue tale of sword and sorcery awesomeness.
The Devourer of Souls, an enemy of Conan’s who had been featured in Marvel’s Savage Sword title up to that point, is brought back to life by the mysterious Council of Seven after his death over in Savage Sword. As you can probably guess by his name, the Devourer of Souls is an extra-dimensional demon who just so happens to enjoy munching on essence of humans. Sounds delicious! The story adds in fan favorites Thulsa Doom and Red Sonja, giving the story all the star-power one could expect from a Conan tale.
7 Conan the Barbarian #232-240 (Young Conan)
“Know, prince, that in my life I have encountered many unusual things, both of this world and beyond. I have seen more than nearly any other man! There is much that is not yet known to you – nor to any other alive. But, it is only fitting that you should know. This is your heritage! I tell you so that you might learn from my errors as well as my triumphs and glories. It’s a tale that begins, rightly, on the bloody field of battle…”
Thus begins my very first introduction to Conan, way back in sixth grade! I didn’t even buy it on my own. A classmate let me borrow it in science class to read while I was probably supposed to be doing something else. I was blown away. At that point in my young comic book reading career, I had consumed an exclusive diet of superhero comics. This was much different than the spandex set I was accustomed to running with! It was a game changer. I don’t remember a specific thing I learned in that science class (though I assume that I did learn something), or even the teacher’s name (sorry Mrs. Such-and-Such), but Conan definitely stuck with me.
Much like the Born on the Battlefield issues produced by Dark Horse for their original Conan title, “Young Conan” is a nine-part origin story for the Cimmerian. It’s an arc that followed the trend of many Marvel books in the early 90s of acting as a soft reset for the title. The story features King Conan of Aquilonia telling his son Prince Conn of his early days, from being born on the battlefield to the death of his parents, Conan relives the important moments of his past that shaped him into the King of Aquilonia. Conn better pay more attention than I did in sixth grade science class! Conan doesn’t strike me as someone willing to suffer those kinds of shenanigans in his own classroom.