Of all the possible announcements Marvel Comics could have made to kick off the new year, I certainly didn’t expect the news that they’ve reacquired the rights to Conan the Barbarian. Outside of Star Wars and Dark Tower, Marvel hasn’t focused a great deal on licensed properties in the last couple decades. This new acquisition suggests that Marvel’s publishing strategy may be shifting in 2018. And honestly, that may be for the best. A little Conan could be just what Marvel needs right now.
Marvel is sort of a strange publisher in the sense that they put out more monthly comics than any other company in the US, yet their publishing focus is so single-minded. Nearly everything they ship in a given week is a superhero series set in the Marvel Universe (or one of its multiversal neighbors). Compare that to DC, which offsets its traditional superhero fare with quirky imprints like Vertigo and Young Animal, or publishers like Image and Dark Horse that don’t cling to any one particular genre. Sales of Marvel’s individual superhero series have generally stagnated or declined in recent years, causing them to pump out more new books and relaunch old ones more often in order to compensate. The end result being that there’s too much content and not enough variety.
At the same time, the Star Wars line has been the one real area of growth for Marvel since 2015. It offered readers something exciting and different entirely removed from the Marvel Universe. History is practically repeating itself here. Former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter famously credits Star Wars for saving the company from financial disaster in the late ’70s. And the success of the monthly Star Wars comic influenced Marvel to focus more heavily on licensed properties going forward, adding everything from Battlestar Galactica to G.I. Joe to Rom: Spaceknight to its lineup.
The impression I get is that Marvel has looked at the success of Star Wars and decided to test the waters with another big-name licensed property. Slowly but surely, the company seems to be shifting back towards the Marvel Comics of the ’70s and ’80s. And like with Star Wars, they’re doing so with a franchise with which they already have a proven track record. Marvel published hundreds of Conan comics over the course of several decades, crafting some legendary stories, elevating the careers of creators like John Buscema and Barry Windsor-Smith and keeping the character in the public consciousness before Arnold Schwarzenegger came along. The hope is that Marvel can recapture the glory of those good old days just like they have with Star Wars over the last three years.
The challenge for Marvel is going to be finding a way to exploit the Conan franchise in ways that haven’t already been done. Between the classic Marvel books or the current Dark Horse run, most of Robert E. Howard original stories have been adapted multiple times. It’s not enough for Marvel to simply lead with a new ongoing series that faithfully adapts all the classic Conan tales in chronological order. Dark Horse has been doing that for the past 15 years, and doing it well.
To a certain extent, Marvel can probably coast by on the strength of the creators they’ll be able to bring to the table. One reason 2015’s Star Wars #1 sold as much as it did is that it featured writer Jason Aaron and artist John Cassaday, the true definition of a superstar creative team. Aaron himself is a well-known Conan fanatic, and I’m willing to bet right now that a Jason Aaron/Esad Ribic-helmed Conan #1 will wind up being one of the top-selling comics of 2019. There are plenty of Marvel creators I’d love to see take a crack at the character, from Donny Cates to Kelly Thompson to Stuart Immonen.
But even a great creative team can only carry a book so far without a compelling story direction. And as we’ve seen with Star Wars, superstar artists come and go with regularity. I’d argue that the real strength of Marvel’s Star Wars line now is that it has a clearer and more meaningful place in the larger franchise. In the Expanded Universe days, the novels and comics largely were free to do their own thing, but you can count on one hand the number of EU elements George Lucas ever acknowledged in his movies. Even before those stories were relegated to “Legends” status, it often felt like they didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. By comparison, Lucasfilm now works closely with Marvel to ensure that these comics have a clear and valid place in the larger saga. Marvel’s books have made real contributions to the Star Wars universe, spawning characters like Doctor Aphra and depicting pivotal, previously unseen moments like Darth Vader discovering Luke is his son.
Granted, there’s no singular, cross-media Conan universe Marvel has to contend with a la Star Wars. There’s the original Robert E. Howard material and the various multimedia adaptations and offshoots. Marvel can’t suddenly craft stories that are “more” official than the ones that came before. It’s not like Howard is around to give his seal of approval. But I do think Marvel’s editors and creators need to put a lot of thought into how this Conan saga is going to be different from the ones that have been done before. Again, if I want to read a lavishly illustrated, ultra-faithful, chronological account of the life of Conan of Cimmeria, I can just fire up my iPad and read the Dark Horse omnibuses.
One option would be to actually integrate Conan and the entire Hyborian Age mythology into the fabric of the Marvel Universe. The Mike Deodato-drawn teaser image already hints at the possibility of a Conan/Avengers crossover. Why not take things one step further and reveal Conan to be a distant predecessor to Earth’s modern-day heroes? That opens new doors for both Conan and the Avengers and makes the larger Marvel Universe that much denser and richer a place. There are certain drawbacks to the idea, particularly if Marvel winds up losing the Conan license again and the character leaves another Rom-sized hole in the Marvel U. But it’s one way to give readers exciting, unpredictable Conan adventures they haven’t seen before.
However Marvel chooses to handle the Conan license, this acquisition looks to be a critical step in the company’s transition away from such a superhero-dominated lineup. Will the success of Conan inspire Marvel to keep pulling in more licensed properties? Could we eventually see other big names like G.I. Joe and Transformers make their way back to Marvel? Heck, will we see Marvel finally start to take advantage of some of the other properties Disney owns, like Pirates of the Caribbean or Indiana Jones? Here’s hoping. If Marvel is going to continue putting out this many comics per month, a little more variety would be a great thing.
“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly column from Jesse Schedeen that focuses on the world of comics. You can see more of his thoughts on comics and pop culture by following @jschedeen on Twitter, or Kicksplode on MyIGN.