by Mike Baron
Conan is hot, thanks to Dark Horse. They took the moribund property and revitalized it with fresh art and stories that went back to the original Howard. What makes a property hot? Three things: quality, crossover appeal, and word of mouth. A company can insure the first two, but the third, arguably the most important, is a function of timing and luck. But I'm redundant. When Roy Thomas convinced Marvel to option the Howard properties, he had a vision in mind - to adapt the classic Conan stories as they'd appeared in Weird Tales and other pulps. I don't think Roy knew that Barry Smith was going to explode over the stretch of four comics into his unique and dynamic style.
"Actually, Stan and I both decided it would be a good idea to license a sword-and-sorcery hero for Conan (why he didn't just have one of us make one up, I'm not sure - probably 'cause readers were requesting REH). But, after a 2-3-page memo I wrote (at Stan's request) convinced publisher Martin Goodman to let me go after a sword-and-sorcery character, it was Lin Carter's Thongor that Stan wanted me to go after first, because he liked that name better than Conan or Kull. I had read a Thongor book first myself (one with a Frazetta cover, which I later owned for a while), so that was fine... but though Lin liked the idea, his agent Henry Morrison dragged his feet... and one night, when I bought the latest Conan paperback, Conan of Cimmeria, I saw in de Camp's intro the address of Glenn Lord, ID'd as the literary agent for the Howard estate."
"I wrote him, convinced him that it was worth accepting the pittance Marvel offered because it might add to Conan's audience, and that was that. Oh, and I had to write the first issue or so myself because, though Goodman had authorized me to offer $150 per issue, I was so ashamed of the fee that I'd upped it to $200... so I figured if Goodman made a point about it, I'd take $50 off my rate (which at that would've been 2-3 pages' worth of writing, at least). Thus did I back into doing all those hundreds of Conan stories, the movie, the comic strip, etc.,etc. Weird how things work out. And here I hadn't even read the first few Conan books I bought (for the Frazetta covers) after I read a few pages of the first one and was disappointed because, with a mention of Atlantis, I was looking for something more like John Carter of Mars."
The Marvel Conan arrived with the first wave of young talent who would change comics forever. Jim Starlin, Val Mayerik, Berni Wrightson, P. Craig Russell. But no one was doing work like Barry Smith. I visited Smith at his Brooklyn apartment in 1973. Barry was perfectly cordial if a little exhausted, having been up all night working on a page. To gaze upon his pencils was to gaze upon an astonishing masterpiece. That page sucked me in in a way that a fully inked and colored page couldn't. It was like one of those visual puzzles where you attempt to unfocus and see a hidden image. Only the trick was this - I could see pencil lines but when I gazed at the whole I was sucked into a three dimensional world.
Conan number one goes for fifteen hundred bucks in top graded condition (actual sales can be researched here on Nosto of course). It's safe to say the comic's success led to the movies, and to an explosion in marketing that continues to this day. One of the more abstruse marketing efforts can be found at Albion Swords, manufacturer of good-old fashioned swords. Go here to see the Conan swords. McFarlane Toys has launched a new Conan line. Like everything McFarlane does it is instantly collectible.
My own modest contribution to the lexicon can be found in Marvel black and white Conan the Savage #8, "Ivory", illustrated by Val Mayerik. Go to Val's site. Look at the Western paintings. Like Frederick Remington, Val knows horses.
Dark Horse will not repeat Marvel's mistake, continuing to publish Conan without direction or feeling for the source material. Like Star Wars or Batman, Conan has become a quality brand and long-lasting franchise. On a trip to Madison recently I visited Joe Comstock, who sculpts for his own amusement. Joe was the artist on Image's Badger #3. Here is Joe's version of Barry Smith's Conan:
© Marvel Comics
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