The 2023 Free Comic Book Day issue of Conan the Barbarian is set deep within the grim, hilled land of Cimmeria, Conan’s homeland. After crushing three Cimmerian villages in the process, the expansionist Aquilonian empire has established the frontier outpost of Venarium. The Cimmerian barbarian tribes’ internecine feuds have left their lands ripe for colonization, or so the arrogant Aquilonians believed. Now the barbarians—temporarily united by their hatred for the foreign interlopers—scale Venarium’s palisades. Among their number is Conan, just fifteen years of age and already more impressively built than most fully grown men. It is at Venarium where Conan first bloodies his blade. Picking through the outpost’s loot he also, unexpectedly, finds himself afflicted with an intense curiosity about the outside world.
This Free Comic Book Day issue marks the first installment of Conan the Barbarian from UK publisher Titan Comics. It may sound strange to say this about a comic starring a bloody-handed barbarian, but it feels like this introduction to the new Conan the Barbarian series is about reassuring fans. While Conan is one of the most venerable fantasy characters in comics, his publication history has been rocky in recent years. The fledgling Titan Comics line appears to be an attempt to provide some welcome stability.
Excitement surrounded the return of the Conan the Barbarian comic book to Marvel in 2019. Conan’s 15 year stretch at Dark Horse was largely successful, but to long-time comic fans the original Marvel run beginning in 1970 is still the first incarnation of the character to come to mind. The one penned by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith and later John Buscema, with all of them operating at the height of their formidable powers. To many, the relaunch of the Conan the Barbarian and companion Savage Sword of Conan series felt like a homecoming.
It didn’t take long for cracks to appear, however. The flagship Conan the Barbarian series was well-received, but Marvel’s editorial decision-makers also wasted no time incorporating the venerable character into the greater Marvel universe. The Avengers: No Road Home (2019) story line saw him join forces with Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. Conan also took on a primary role in the subsequent Savage Avengers series, alongside Wolverine, The Punisher, Venom, etc. While crossovers such as these were not unknown during the classic Marvel era, they were largely confined to the non-canon What If…? title. Many readers—not limited to purist fans of Robert E. Howard’s original literary Conan, but also including fans from the crossover-light Dark Horse Comics era—opposed this sort of crossing of the streams.
Far more damaging, however, were the production and publication days that accompanied the pandemic. After the conclusion of Jason Aaron’s “The Life and Death of Conan” arc, writing duties on the core Conan the Barbarian title passed to fantasy comic veteran Jim Zub. Just two issues into Zub’s “Into the Crucible” story line, production was halted, with supply chain issues cited as the cause. There was a seven-month gap between issues, stunting the momentum the plot had accumulated. The mainline Conan the Barbarian series lasted ten more issues, and a six-issue King Conan miniseries followed, but by mid-2022 Marvel announced they had declined to renew the Conan character license.
With the Marvel experience still fresh in public memory, Titan Comic’s Free Comic Book Day issue of Conan the Barbarian seems like an attempt to satisfy and reassure three segments of the audience: neophytes, existing Conan comic fans, and fans of the original pulp fiction character.
Newcomers to the character are given an easily digestible origin story; they’re introduced to Conan during his very first battle and learn the motivation for his wandering life of adventure. There’s no exposition info-dump or dense setting lore, we meet the hero when he’s just starting out, see him in an action-packed situation, and receive some tantalizing hints about future adventures.
Readers already familiar with earlier comic book incarnations are given an immediately familiar-looking depiction of the character: Roberto De La Torre’s lines are strongly reminiscent of John Buscema’s classic Marvel portrayal of Conan. Jim Zub has been given another chance to write the character, and even the colorist and letterer (Jose Villarrubia and Richard Starkings, respectively) are veterans of the Dark Horse Conan series. When Conan’s future love interest Belit is glimpsed in a brief foreshadowing sequence, she appears in her classic Marvel furs. When Conan leaves Venarium behind in search of adventure, he even picks up and dons a horned helmet vaguely similar to the one given him by original Marvel artist Barry Windsor-Smith. The message seems to be that this is the comics Conan you know and love, delivered by people you can trust.
Finally, while they might not be the largest audience or the most impactful on comics sales, fans of Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s original pulp stories are also given some attention. The sack of Venarium depicted in this issue is adapted from a few lines in “Beyond the Black River,” a short story that appeared in a 1935 issue of Weird Tales magazine. When the reader is given a glimpse of Conan’s future exploits, situations from Conan’s other pulp appearances (“The God in the Bowl,” “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Rogues in the House,” “The Queen of the Black Coast”) are shown. The issue even concludes with a brief essay by Howard scholar Jeffrey Shanks that highlights the character’s long literary history and explores why Conan’s stories still resonate today.
While the Free Comic Book Day issue of Conan the Barbarian is only a brief taste, this fan has been duly reassured. De La Torre’s artwork is gorgeous and dynamic, and it hearkens back to some of the most beloved depictions of the character. Jim Zub has been vocal about his enthusiasm for Conan for many years, and there’s no other active comic writer I trust more to do the barbarian justice. Conan the Barbarian Issue #1 can’t come soon enough.