When it comes to sword and sorcery tales, none have the legacy to match up to Conan the Barbarian. To many, the first taste of this ferocious fighter came from the film in the 1980s. While Arnold Schwarzenegger’s involvement in the film helped cement its place in film history, the character earned its reputation much earlier.
Back in the 1930s, Robert E. Howard could not get the character, Conan, out of his head. He consistently wrote short stories that starred the ferocious warrior that appeared in the pulp magazine, Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, and later in Weird Tales. Throughout his tales, Conan embodied many things, from a pirate to a king. However, the man consistently fought against mythical powers like ghouls and wizards. The warrior’s exploits also often featured violence and gore with fast-paced action. Unfortunately, despite producing twenty-one completed tales, Robert E. Howard cut his life short in 1936.
Despite the passing of his creator, Conan’s legacy lived on as his copyright passed to new publishes. By 1967, Lancer Books set forth to collect all of Howard’s stories into a new series. As L. Sprague de Camp edited and collected the stories, he found inspiration to add his own tales into the mix. Using the notes from Howard’s unfinished works, he expanded on the Conan mythos. Thus, the stage was set for Conan to make his debut in visual media.
Join us as we look back at the media that cemented the legacy of Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Comic’s Conan the Barbarian (1970-1993)
While Conan appeared in unofficial comics back in the fifties, the first series that helped build his popularity appeared in the seventies. Staying true to Howard’s original lore, Marvel set Roy Thomas to write the new series with the assistance of Barry Windsor-Smith, who illustrated the first few comics. Thus, they recreated the frenzied battles that Howard originally wrote about in the 1930s.
Despite the literary legacy of the character, this series was a huge gamble for Marvel Comics. First, they bought the rights for more than they initially planned for. Thus, the man who set up the purchase, Roy Thomas, felt obliged to write the first issue to cut the costs. Then, the property had little to do with the established Marvel characters. Not to mention, he was not a superhero. To further cut costs, Thomas signed on Barry Smith to provide illustrations for cheap.
Luckily, this gamble proved to be a massive hit, hooking adult readers to the comics. While Thomas initially intended to only write the first few issues, Conan entranced him into continuing to write for the series. Meanwhile, the series success led to an even more adult series, Savage Sword of Conan, in 1974. Furthermore, Conan became an official part of Marvel’s universe, existing in a time before the modern era of superheroes.
As Lancer Books fell under in 1973, Marvel Comics became the only publication to create new tales for Conan the Barbarian. Meanwhile, the popularity of the comics gained the attention of Hollywood.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
As Hollywood became interested in bringing the adventures of Conan the Barbarian to the silver screen, they encountered a significant issue. The rights to the character were in a legal hellhole, with no clear owner. In the end, Glenn Lord and de Camp joined forces to form Conan Properties International, which handled the licensing for the character. Thus, Edward R. Pressman bought the rights for around $100,000.
In the early stages of the production, Oliver Stone wrote an extravagant script that would have led to a long series of films. Unlike the final product, Thulsa Doom played a minor role, even though he remained the greatest threat to Conan. Instead, Taramis was set as the film’s main villain. Moreover, Conan had a large vocabulary and was a Catholic.
Seeing the script as absurd, John Milius took matters into his own hands after becoming the film’s director. Partially because of Schwarzenegger’s ability to speak English, he opted to significantly reduce Conan’s speaking lines. He also steered the script to be more faithful to the original stories. So, the film no longer existed in a post-apocalypse future.
In the end, Conan the Barbarian kick-started Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting career. However, the film contained many R-rated elements, like nailing Conan to a cross. So, Mattel backed out from a planned toy line. Luckily, the work they placed into creating toys for Conan led to the creation of one of their most popular toy lines to date.
Conan the Destroyer (1984)
After the financial success of the original film, which netted around forty million dollars domestically, Universal quickly green-lit a sequel. However, John Milius did not return to direct the sequel. Instead, Richard Fleischer sat in the director’s chair. Luckily, Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to reprise his role as Conan, helping to connect the two films.
Despite violence being a defining trait of Conan’s literary and comic history, the sequel’s producers felt that toning down the violence for the sequel would lead to more profits. Even though the original cut for the sequel would have earned an R-Rating, Fleischer followed the studio’s advice and recut the film so that it would receive a PG rating. This led to the film gaining a humorous tone that was not present in the first film.
This time around, Conan agreed to take on a quest from Queen Tamaris in hopes of resurrecting his lost love. So, he escorted the queen’s niece, Princess Jehnna, who would wake the god, Dagoth, once sacrificed. Even though Princess Jehnna became attracted to Conan during their journey, Conan remained true to his original love, Valeria. Even after she became queen and offered Conan a place by her side, he refused her advances.
Dark Horse’s Conan series (2004-2018)
Years after Marvel Comic’s Conan series came to an end, Dark Horse Comics swooped in to continue the adventures of the barbarian. Beginning in 2003, Dark Horse introduced Conan to their comics line-up with Conan: The Legend. Initially, Kurt Busiek signed on to author the story for Conan’s newest exploits. Meanwhile, Cary Nord penciled the art for the books.
Following his successful introduction, they began a fifty-issue run of the barbarian’s new series: Conan. Even though this series ended in 2008, a new series took its place, Conan the Cimmerian. In 2010, the series shifted gears as a new mini-series began: Conan: Road of Kings, which continued the barbarian’s exploits until 2012. Then, Dark Horse published Conan the Barbarian from 2012 to 2014. Following that run, Conan the Avenger took over from 2014 to 2016. Finally, Dark Horse’s run of Conan comics ended with Conan the Slayer, which ran from 2016 to 2017.
During this time, Dark Horse created multiple one-shots and mini-series that also featured Conan. Notably, they also created a King Conan series that ran from 2011 to 2016.
Even though Dark Horse’s run had no connection to the series from Marvel Comics, the company released several re-colored collections of the classic Marvel comics. Overall, they aimed to continue the stories in the same vein as Robert E. Howard’s stories. So, they happily welcomed in the fans from the original works.
Conan the Barbarian (2011)
Despite the small success of Conan the Destroyer, the film franchise died off for several decades. However, for a time, Hollywood considered moving forward with a third film in the franchise that would feature a King Conan. As talks continued through the 2000s, the project became even less feasible as Schwarzenegger became the Governator of California.
As the years passed, Paradox Entertainment regained the rights to auction off to a new studio. Thus, Millennium Films became the new home for Conan’s on-screen exploits. For a time, they considered Brett Ratner as the director of the new film. However, his busy schedule made it impossible for him to join the project. In the end, Marcus Nispel signed on as the director for this new take on Conan the Barbarian.
Meanwhile, they required a new man who could awe audiences with rippling muscles as Schwarzenegger did. Luckily, they landed on a rising star, Jason Momoa, who later became famous as Aquaman. To prepare for the role, Momoa went through a six-week training program in martial arts and stunts. He also aimed to add ten extra pounds of muscle to his frame.
Unfortunately, Momoa could not salvage this film. Even during its opening weekend, the film flopped into fourth place, earning a little over ten million. Overall, reviews indicated that the film’s gory spectacle could not make up for the lack of realistic characters.
The Return of Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian (2019-Current)
As Dark Horse’s Conan the Barbarian run came to a close in 2018, the license returned home to Marvel Comics. Fans of the original run celebrated as Marvel once again took over the reins. The character once was an integral part of Marvel’s comic universe. So, he easily slid back into the publications.
Unlike the original series, Conan no longer remained in the comic universe’s historical tales. Instead, he entered the modern world, especially as he joined the Savage Avengers. His tales also frequently featured other Marvel heroes, like Thor and Wolverine.
To date, Marvel has produced twenty-five issues of the new Conan the Barbarian main series. While the series gained a new number one, it also picked up from the original series and kept the legacy numbering. Originally, Jason Aaron took on the daunting task of writing for the series. However, Jim Zub has written the more recent issues.
Moreover, Marvel has produced two mini-series since regaining the rights. From 2019 to 2020, they published “Conan: Serpent War”. Then, in 2020, Conan starred in “Conan: Battle for the Serpent Crown”.
The future of Conan the Barbarian
The works of Robert E. Howard has remained strong throughout the decades. Even though his character showed violence atypical for the 1930s, his character struck a chord with the public. Thus, Conan the Barbarian remains a strong part of popular culture.
Even though the last movie became a terrible flop, fans of the franchise still dream of a new movie that would highlight the Barbarian’s power. To many, the return to Marvel Comics has given them hopes of the character joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, there have been no definitive plans to produce a new film.
So, only the future will tell what is in store for Conan. For now, fans will be happy to know that the ongoing comics are going strong.
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