For Your Consideration: Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian Omnibus Volume 1

Robert Greenberger

Robert Greenberger


by Robert Greenberger

All my life’s a circle, or so sang Harry Chapin. Nearly fifty years ago, Marvel Comics surprised its readers in the summer of 1970 with the release of Conan the Barbarian. His four-color arrival kicked off a sword and sorcery fad that burned brightly for a few years before sputtering and fading away. But Conan, living in the Hyborian Age, endured, moving from publisher to publisher.

Conan the Barbarian Omnibus Volume 1

Conan the Barbarian Omnibus Volume 1


Marvel has regained the rights to the Cimmerian and in 2019 will produce a brand new library of previous material, beginning with Conan the Barbarian Omnibus Volume 1. Under a new John Cassaday cover, it will collect Conan the Barbarian #1-26, material from Savage Tales #1 and 4, a story from Chamber of Darkness #4 and material culled from Conan Classic #1-11. The volume will include not only the covers and stories, but also the original letter columns.

Texas writer Robert E. Howard was selling stories to the various pulp magazines, which were in their hay days. He noticed that recurring characters, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan and John Carter, were gaining in popularity. He already had his Atlantean Kull, but sought a second hero. The seeds for Conan were born in “People of the Dark”, its narrator talking about previous lives including one as Conan who fought in the name of the deity Crom. The story was written in fall 1931 and a few months later, he gave this barbarian hero a great deal of thought, his ideas coalescing in the poem “Cimmeria”. He rewrote a rejected Kull story and sold “The Phoenix on the Sword” to Weird Tales and he had his new hero.

In the 1960s, Lancer Books rereleased Howard’s Conan output under brilliant covers by painter Frank Frazetta. The strong visuals and fully realized world and chronology appealed to Roy Thomas, who lobbied Stan Lee to acquire comic book rights.

Thomas poured through the 21 stories written by Howard before his suicide, along with subsequent revisions and rewriting by authors L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter plus Howard’s 8000 word essay that showed how fully realized his Hyborian Age was.

For a continuity buff like Thomas, this was catnip and fresh territory to explore as a writer. As an editor, he saw a chance to broaden the comics market beyond just superheroes. He somehow convinced publisher Martin Goodman to pay a licensing fee and they gambled, winning big.

Conan the Barbarian #16

Conan the Barbarian #16


He selected English artist Barry Smith (not yet Windsor-Smith), who had started working for the company but seemed to struggle with super-heroics. His Conan was young and leanly muscled and over the course of the issues he drew, you can watch an artist blossom and find his style. He was mostly inked by Sal Buscema (#2-4, 6, 7, 9-11, 13, 23, 25), who added a nice slick look to the work. Other inkers throughout the collection include Dan Adkins (#1, 7, 23), Frank Giacoia (#5), Tom Sutton and Tom Palmer (#8), Chic Stone (#23), and John Severin (4-5). However, when Smith began inking himself you see the beginnings of his art nouveau look.

Thomas freely adapted the classic Howard stories, mixing in some original works as well, keeping the pulp feel to the narration and dialogue while Smith’s imagination made Conan’s world feel vividly fresh.

Savage Tales #1

Savage Tales #1


The book was certainly different and distribution woes meant the first issue became hard to find but a hot commodity on the burgeoning back issue market. Marvel happily watched the sales grow and when Lee wanted to experiment with black and white magazines, put Conan on the cover of Savage Tales (a John Buscema painting hinting at the future) and Smith beautifully drew “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”. Later, when the magazine became regularly published, Conan was in the lead.

As interest in sword and sorcery figures grew, Thomas reached a deal with author Michael Moorcock for his Elric to meet Conan in a two-part crossover that Moorcock helped co-plot.

Conan the Barbarian #24

Conan the Barbarian #24


This collection will not only let you watch Smith grow as an artist, but you will also enjoy these retellings of Howard’s adventures. In issue #23, Thomas blended two Howard heroines from other works, Red Sonya and Dark Agnes de Chastillon, into Red Sonja, the flame-haired swordswoman and a match for the Cimmerian. Smith’s final issue, “The Song of Red Sonja”, was a fitting way for the artist to leave.

The final stories in the collection bring John Buscema to the series, who thrilled at drawing this genre and it showed from his first story. His barbarian was thickly muscled, solid and imposing in appearance, a dramatic change from Smith’s interpretation and the one that seems to have endured.

Conan the Barbarian #17

Conan the Barbarian #17


Another fan of the source material was Gil Kane who provided several of the covers and asked Thomas for a crack at illustrating at least one story. His two-parter, giving Smith a break, was nicely inked by Ralph Reese (#17) and Dan Adkins (#18).

This volume includes “The Sword and the Sorcerers!” by Thomas and Smith about a novelist intending to kill off his sword and sorcery protagonist, although his fictional creation has other ideas.

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