Conan the Barbarian has been a vital part of American pop culture, heck, of American culture period, for a long time now. First appearing in the story "The Phoenix on the Sword" in "Weird Tales" magazine back in 1932, the man from Cimmeria hasn't left American consciousness in the seventy-five years since he first slashed across the page.
The barbarian has appeared in stories, novels, games, television shows and movies, renewing his popularity with generation after generation. My grandfather read Conan the Barbarian stories when he was a kid, and I watched the future Governor of California bring the man to life when I was a kid.
And, of course, there's the comics.
Marvel published a variety of Conan comics from the seventies on, including the long running "Savage Sword of Conan" magazine. He even crossed over into the regular Marvel universe from time to time, with a fairly memorable "What If" appearance where he was transported to the modern day and became a gangster.
The Conan franchise finally stalled out for Marvel in the nineties, but was resurrected a few years ago by Dark Horse Comics. The new series, written by comic veteran Kurt Busiek with art by then largely unknown artist Cary Nord, was a success straight out of the gate.
Busiek adapted Howard's classic stories for the comic page, giving life to the cunning ruthless Conan of the original stories, with Nord's raw, uninked art capturing the savage world he lived in. Busiek has since moved on to an exclusive contract with DC, but the Conan series continues with new writer Tim Truman.
In addition to the main series, Dark Horse has brought out a number of mini series featuring the character with various creative teams, as well as reprinting old and difficult to find comics. And if all that isn't enough for you, they're even releasing "Conan: The Phenomenon," a book described by Dark Horse editor Scott Allie as something between an art book and a comprehensive history of Conan in all his incarnations.
"It's about the entire history of the character - not Conan's fictional history, but the history of his existence in pulp culture," Allie told CBR News. "There is lots of Frazetta art, stories about Frazetta, Howard, all the people who've worked on or controlled the character over the years. Including the Governor of California, of course. It's by the guy who wrote the seminal book on 'Blade Runner.' He was involved in the Conan films, and has written and edited this sort of thing in the past, so he was the natural choice for this. It was originally intended as an art book, but as the story of the history of all that art emerged for us, we realized that was the book. So it is in part an art of Conan book spanning seventy-five years, and in part the history of all that creative work. Right down to the cartoons and the Mego toys."
This year marks the seventy fifth anniversary of Conan's first published appearance, but don't expect Dark Horse to make too much out of it. "We just celebrated Howard's centennial last year, and I hate when companies go anniversary crazy. But we do have something planned that we're doing not because of the anniversary, but maybe we'll make that a part of it," said Allie.
Not many characters stick around for the better part of a century. They need to represent something bigger, some part of the collective imagination to engrain themselves in people enough to whether the years.
"He's a true icon, the ultimate realization of a certain archetype," said Allie. "I believe that in Conan, Howard created an archetype. There were characters like him that preceded him, including similar characters from Howard," said Allie, "But none of the previous barbaric characters spoke so clearly to a certain kind of a male energy that Conan perfectly represented, a certain kind of idea or ideal that he embodies. There are plenty of other characters like him - including female versions - but they're all just shadows of Conan."
Getting Conan had been a goal for Dark Horse for a while, but it was only after Conan Properties, which now controls the character, began consolidating all the rights that it became possible.
"[Dark Horse Publisher] Mike Richardson had always wanted to publish Conan. He'd tried to get it before, but when new management took over the property, it led to the opportunity for us to do it, start a series from scratch, and reissue a lot of great stuff that we all grew up on," explained Allie.
Once they had it and assembled the creative team, there was no doubt that the series was going to be a success.
"I knew the market was out there, and that they were hungry for good stuff. It had the right history for a comeback - people had very fond memories of it from Marvel, but eventually the Marvel stuff petered out," said Allie. "Anyone who had bad memories of the later Marvel stuff, it was long enough ago that they didn't still have a bad taste in their mouths. Mostly they just remembered how much they loved the character in the first place."
Dark Horse is also hard at work preparing comics based on two other iconic, but lesser known characters, Kull and Solomon Kane. In the mean time, there will be plenty of Conan material coming out to keep your bloodthirst in check, including something big that, as is often the case, we can't really talk about.
"We're actually gearing up for something big in Conan that I can't really go into right now, but I can say that the next major storyline features him returning home, sick of civilization and ready to run like a dog in Cimmeria. Richard Corben joins the team to draw some flashback scenes of Conan's grandfather. Then we also have the launches of Kull and Solomon Kane to look forward to, but no firm dates are set for those right now," said Allie.
"Conan: The Phenomenon" will be available at bookstores and comics shops everywhere in September, and the "Conan" ongoing goes on monthly.