How Conan the Barbarian Became a Marvel Comics Phenomenon

Marvel recently announced that it has regained the license to publish comic books starring Robert E. Howard's classic character, Conan (beginning in January 2019), after Dark Horse maintained the rights to the character since 2004, while Marvel had the rights to the character from 1970-2000, but they last published a Conan ongoing series (Conan the Savage) in 1996.

Why, then, is it so significant that Marvel is regaining the rights to a character it hasn't published since 1996? Well, for over a decade, Conan was one of Marvel's most popular characters. Read on and we'll fill you in on how Conan came to become a comic book phenomenon in the 1970s.

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Creator Robert E. Howard initially published his Conan stories in the pages of the pulp magazine, Weird Tales, throughout the 1930s (when Howard passed away in 1936, he had a number of unpublished Conan stories as well as some unfinished Conan stories). After Howard died, other writers still told new Conan stories. It was not until the 1950s, though, that Conan's adventures were put into actual book form, as Gnome Press began a series of hardcover collections of Howard Conan stories from 1950-1957. Gnome Press did the novel approach of putting the stories in order of Conan chronology rather than in the order of publication. Howard, you see, told stories all throughout Conan's life and they were not originally chronological. Even at the time of the original release of the stories in Weird Tales, readers were fascinated in the chronology of Howard's Conan stories, so it made perfect sense for Gnome Press to put the stories in that order.

In 1966, Lancer Books decided to do trade paperback editions of Howard's Conan stories, only they would also supplement the works with new Conan stories. These stories were written by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, who would do some new stories while also finishing Howard's unpublished works and even refining Howard's original stories. These paperback books were very popular, especially due to their stunning Frank Frazetta covers...

As the 1960s ended, Roy Thomas was looking into licensing other characters for new Marvel Comics series, now that Marvel was finally free of their restrictive distribution deal that they had with Independent News (who were owned by DC Comics, who therefore restricted how many titles Marvel could release every month). Thomas was not some big Conan fan at the time, but he knew of the series due to the Frazetta covers and he knew that they were popular. So popular that when Martin Goodman gave Thomas $150 an issue to offer as a license to acquire a character, he thought that there was no way that the Howard Estate would accept such a paltry licensing sum.

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