Conan the Barbarian has been in comics for 50 years. Roy Thomas has been alongside him pretty much the entire time.
Thomas is part of King-Size Conan #1, a 50th-anniversary special shipping from Marvel in December. Thomas writes and Steve McNiven draws one of five tales in the oversized issue. Kurt Busiek and Pete Woods, Chris Claremont and Roberto de la Torre, Daredevil writer/director/showrunner Steven S. DeKnight (writing his first Marvel story) and Jesús Saiz, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman (also writing and drawing his first Marvel story!) comprise the other creative teams. The cover is by Andrew C. Robinson.
Thomas was the writer on Marvel's Conan The Barbarian #1 back in 1970 and hung around to write the title for a staggering 115 consecutive issues. His tale in King-Size Conan takes Conan all the way back and then some.
"What I wanted to do is get from the first battle Conan had to a time just a few months later when he met the Aesir, which is really about where Conan #1 starts," Thomas says. "I thought it would be nice to show what happened just before Conan #1, at least in my mind, with some nice action along the way."
Thomas thinks the art completes the motif.
"There's some really nice stuff from Steve McNiven," Thomas says. "He's not slavishly channeling [original series artist] Barry Smith, but there's an approximation that really catches that spirit, and it's really good."
Thomas was a writer and editor at Marvel in 1970 and is often credited with being the guy who brought Conan into Marvel. Thomas shares that credit with Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee and fan mail.
"We started getting letters, dozens at least, suggesting things we should get the rights to," Thomas says. "A lot of them were sword-and-sorcery characters, Conan, Kull, Thongor, Elric, one or two others. So Stan called me in one day and said, 'We're getting these letters, and I don't know much about this sword-and-sorcery stuff. Let's see what we can do.'"
Stan asked Thomas to send a memo to Marvel publisher Martin Goodman and see what Marvel might be able to dangle for licensing money.
"So I wrote this little memo of two or three pages to Goodman and he thought it was fine," Thomas recalls. "He authorized up to a straight $150 an issue, no royalties."
Armed with a $150 war chest, Thomas made his selection: Thongor of Lemuria.
"I talked to [Thongor author] Lin Carter," Thomas says. "He loved the idea and he loved comics. But his agent was looking for more money, about $500 an issue. He was waiting for us to up the offer, and that wasn't going to happen."
Soon after, Thomas was reading the introduction to the Conan of Cimmeria paperback and noticed that the literary agent for the Robert E. Howard estate was a man named Glenn Lord, reachable at a post office box in Pasadena, Texas.
"So I figured I'd give it a try, dropped Glenn a line, and I upped the ante to $200," Thomas recalls. "We hadn't gone after Conan initially, figuring it would be out of our league, and I was a little embarrassed by the $150 offer. Glenn accepted. It wasn't a lot of money, but it wasn't nothing. $200 was a lot more back in 1970 than it is now."
Thomas overshot what he was authorized to offer, but he had a safety hatch: himself.
"That's the way I backed into writing it," he says. "If Goodman wanted his extra $50 back, I could just not voucher for a few pages. Without that, I don't know if I ever would have written it. Maybe it would have been Gerry Conway or someone."
Barry Windsor-Smith became a comic book legend on the original Conan as well, but his path to get there was twisted as well.
"Our choice of artist was John Buscema," Thomas recalls. "I sent him a Conan paperback. He read it and he loved it and he said, 'This is the kind of thing I've always wanted to do.' So I worked out a plot. But Goodman said that we couldn't have one of our top-paid artists like Buscema do it because he wanted to keep costs on the book low in case it didn't take off.
"Our second choice was Gil Kane, but Gil was out of the price range, too. Stan suggested Dick Ayers, Don Heck, somebody like that. But I wanted someone who would have brought some singular qualities that I felt the book needed, and I didn't think those guys were right. So it was up for me to find someone.
"So here was Barry Smith sitting there in England, just doing the occasional story here and there, and I offered it to him. The rest, as we say, is history."
Now, 50 years' worth of history.
The December oversized King-Size Conan #1 special features an all-new prelude to the original Marvel Conan story from 1970 by Thomas and McNiven; a tale of revenge by Eastman; a turning point in Conan’s career as a mercenary by Claremont and de la Torre; an early brush with sorcerous forces that will shape Conan’s destiny by Busiek and Woods; and Conan and Bêlit sail together again for the first time since the 2019 Marvel relaunch in a story by DeKnight and Saiz.
Check out a small preview gallery of images from the special.