First Published: July 2000
Contents: Conan the Barbarian #1 (October 1970) to #25 (April 1973)
Key Creator Credits: Robert E. Howard, Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, and others
Key First Appearances: Conan the Barbarian, Fafnir Hellhand, Thoth-Amon, Kulan Gath, Elric, Red Sonja
Overview: Meet Conan, a sword-for-hire from the land of Cimmeria. He wanders the southern lands looking for the next job or quest, which will pay him gold, which he uses to pay for alcohol and women. When times are tough, Conan is not against resorting to thievery to survive. But given his skills with a sword, he very rarely is looking for work – the work comes to him.
Most of these stories are based on the original tales from the 1930s by Conan-creator Robert E. Howard and are adapted by Roy Thomas. The art duties were given to a relatively young artist, Barry Smith, who shot to fame based on this work. After two years on the title, Smith left the book, with the art being handed off to John Buscema. Smith would take a break from comics, trying to put himself into the fine art world. (It was at this point that he added Windsor to his name.) Windsor-Smith would eventually return to comics in the 1980s.
In the issues collected in this volume, there are two additional characters that stand out to me from their initial debut:
- Kulan Gath was a magician who crossed paths with Conan. Because he was created by Marvel, and did not come from the work of Robert E. Howard, Kulan Gath was incorporated into the Marvel Universe. I first encountered Kulan Gath when he battled Spider-Man and the X-Men in Uncanny X-Men #189 to #191, which can be found in Essential X-Men Vol. 5.
- Red Sonja was created based off of a Howard character, Red Sonya. Red Sonja quickly became the female counterpart to Conan, one who could stand on her own against the Barbarian. Red Sonja would later move into her own title, and eventually even be featured in a movie. While the Conan rights are currently held by Dark Horse Comics, the Red Sonja rights are held by Dynamite Entertainment. (And to make things even more confusing, a version of Kulan Gath has appeared in the current Red Sonja title.)
What makes this Essential?: OK, full disclosure, I am not a big fan of the sword & sorcery stories. Never. I remember a next door neighbor of mine growing up was a huge fan of the Conan comics and the Elric novels by Michael Moorcock. Steve was always trying to get me to read them, but I would politely decline and ask if I could read some more of his Iron Man and Avengers issues. Maybe I should have tried them back then, or maybe I was better off sticking to what I knew and liked then. Reading through this very-hard-to-find Essential (check out the Dark Horse Comics Chronicles of Conan reprint books if you can’t track down this Marvel book!), I enjoyed the art from Barry Smith, as he went by in those days. I know that a lot of these stories came over from the Marvel black & white magazines of the time (edited to hide the nudity, naturally), so their inclusion in the Essential series makes them look spectacular. I haven’t read the original stories from Robert E. Howard which Roy Thomas used quite faithfully to develop this book, but it’s my understanding he did well with the adaption. I think what makes this “Essential” is that the comic book look of Conan came to be the definitive look of the character going forward. Prior to the comics, the cover images from Howard’s Conan collection show a more fully clothed man holding a sword with short hair. The comic book look of Conan helped inspire the movie franchise of the 1980s. Anyway, this is worth reading for a Conan fan, and from a historical perspective. But for me, I would rather get back to reading about heroes in capes.
Footnotes: Conan the Barbarian #22 is a reprint of Conan the Barbarian #1. The cover to issue #22 is included in this volume.
If you like this volume, try: the 2013 Red Sonja series from Dynamite Entertainment. I recommend this solely on the basis that Gail Simone is writing it. A lot of people will say that Simone is the best female writer in comics. Other people will say that Simone is the best writer of female characters in comics. Personally, I say Simone is one of the best writers period. Do not define her by her gender. No one cites Kurt Busiek as one of the best male writers in comics, or recognizes Chris Claremont as one of the best writers of male characters in comics. Anyway, back to Red Sonja. This is a fun, adventurous romp featuring the early adventures of the She-Devil with a Sword. If you are a fan of good comics, you need to be reading this title.