Conan the Barbarian is returning to Marvel Comics — after 18 years away at other publishers — but the real story might be Disney’s interest in the character, and his potential to become their next big franchise. Conan was created by the legendary (and eccentric) writer, Robert E. Howard, during the pulp era of the early 20th century. A roguish and sword-swinging anti-hero, Conan’s popularity exploded after World War II. He’s known to fans around the world through reprints of Howard’s pulp stories during the 50s, new paperback novelizations written in the 60’s, Marvel’s black-and-white Savage Sword of Conan magazines of the 70s, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian film from the early 80s.
Conan is essentially a nomadic warrior, mercenary, and thief who lived during the fictional “Hyborian Age,” which occurs sometime before the rise of humanity’s ancient civilizations. His various comic book iterations at Marvel and Dark Horse were graphically violent, subversive, and grim. More important, Conan represents a deep, pre-existing universe of characters, settings, and conflicts that would likely resonate with today’s movie-goers.
Unfortunately, Hollywood has struggled to recreate the magic of that first Schwarzenegger film, as its sequel (and also a 2011 reboot) failed miserably at the box office; animated and live-action TV versions of Conan also fizzled. That all changed in 2003, when Dark Horse Comics revitalized the property, via their beautifully-illustrated series of comics and graphic novels. Now Marvel is poised to bring Conan back to their stable in 2019 — a coup that could (eventually) leave a big mark on the entertainment industry.
Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski released this joyous statement, as reported by IGN:
From Barry Windsor-Smith to John Buscema to Neal Adams, a legendary lineup of amazing artists brought Conan to life in the pages of Marvel comics. It’s a legacy we’re now going to live up to with the talent we have lined up for the Cimmerian barbarian’s homecoming in early 2019. We’re excited!”
Conan was one of the many outlandish, outsized characters who debuted in the pulps — including Tarzan, John Carter, The Shadow, The Phantom, Doc Savage. Yet, most of these characters failed to resonate with modern audiences; each appeared in one or more limp movie versions from the 90s onward. And yet, somehow Conan keeps re-surfacing. There are likely two big reasons for his ongoing popularity: Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings — it’s pretty clear that fans love these lawless, ancient franchises, and Conan pre-dates them both.
Hollywood is, of course, always on the lookout for new franchises, and Conan certainly contains all the potential for the next GoT or LOTR… in the right hands. His film rights are currently owned by Cabinet Entertainment (formerly Paradox Entertainment), who allegedly holds all of Howard’s media rights, according to the Escapist. (Interestingly, Stan Lee unsuccessfully sued Paradox in 2011, claiming improper rights transfer.) According to SyFyWire, early last year Universal bailed on a follow-up to 2011’s Conan flop. With Conan’s future film and TV fate in-flux, Disney is in a great position to step in and take over — it makes sense, because Disney lacks a foothold in the sword-and-sandals space. HBO has big plans for the future of GoT, while Amazon is making a LOTR series for its streaming platform — it’s hard to imagine Disney failing to see Conan’s potential.
The scary thing is that Disney already possesses an incredible number of high-profile franchises through its ownership of Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm; the pending Fox acquisition adds even more to the artillery to their arsenal. However, to stretch this arm’s race metaphor at bit further, surviving the streaming wars requires firepower — lots and lots of firepower. Conan already has a deep niche following, he’s an immediately recognizable property with the mass market, and he stands apart from the more political-leaning GoT or the classic-fantasy tropes of LOTR. Disney should move quickly to secure Conan’s full media rights, if they haven’t already.