Conan the Barbarian #1 (Marvel)

CREDIT: Marvel Comics

Rating: 5/5 – Marvel’s Most Successful Licensed Property Ever.
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Shawn Hoklas.

During the 1970s, Marvel Comics licensed a wide variety of properties. They covered the toy category with titles like the Micronauts and ROM. They dove into science fiction with Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and 2001: A Space Odyssey. They even licensed Godzilla and Shogun Warriors, covering Japanese monsters/kaiju and giant robots. All had their successes, but none had quiet the success of their licensing agreement with the Robert E. Howard estate for Conan. After premiering in 1970, the title found amazing success and ran for 275 issues inspiring an influx of the sword and sorcery genre books like Kull, Red Sonja and even lesser known titles like Atlas’ Iron Jaw. All of these came after Conan proved his popularity. Conan number one could also be considered one of the books that kicked off what is known in the comics world as the Bronze Age, as multiple genres including horror and Kung Fu started to rise in popularity after this premier issue was published.

In 1970, Marvel Associate editor Roy Thomas approached the Robert E. Howard estate looking for permission to license the character since Conan was the number one property that fans were most asking for. When Marvel was awarded the license after paying a little more than what they intended, Thomas had to then find an artist. Marvel’s first choice was John Buscema, who would be a perfect fit for the book and would eventually come to work on it, but not until later. Since the licensing fees were too high, Marvel had to look elsewhere and they “settled” on Barry Windsor-Smith. Smith’s art on this first issue is exquisite. You can see the heavy Kirby influence in his work, but also a style that shows the uniqueness in what he’ll eventually become know for. There’s a smoothness to his line, and Conan’s physique isn’t blocky or too thick. Yes there’s Kirby dots, and in a particular scene that flashes to the future, you see technology that’s absolutely in the Kirby style, but you also see the way he uses blacks and shadows, and the way Smith gives motion to his characters. And the cover…a truly iconic image that sets the stage for this significant series.

Readers will also be surprised at how well this first issue holds up despite the age. Although it’s paced rather quickly as you get a whole story in this one issue, it still delivers on a satisfying tale. Conan encounters a battle being fought between two warring people. This fight leads Conan into aligning with one and infiltrating the others’ camp. That camp just happens to lead into an area where a sorcerer has taken control, combining the sorcery elements into the war elements that will be a staple of this series going forward. Although the plot seems simple, Thomas does a great job of making you care about the characters involved and surprising you with the story’s dire consequences.

If you haven’t read this series before, I’d encourage you to give it a try. The first few issue aren’t cheap, but they are readily available in trades, including a great collection by Dark Horse called the Chronicles of Conan that features fully restored text, and completely remastered colors at an affordable price. This is a series that spans over two decades, with Thomas’ singular written vision for the character over the series’ first 100 issues. There’s a reason that this was Marvel’s most successful licensed property, because it combined talented writers and artists, with a character that has proven to stand the test of time and this first issue is just the beginning.

Reviewed by: Shawn Hoklas
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