Comics, FYI

By Graeme McMillan

With Or Without Crom

#38・
51

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Comics, FYI
With Or Without Crom
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #38 • View online
Just what is going on with the comic rights to Conan, anyway?

It was, I admit, the formatting of the PR email that initially caught my attention. On Monday afternoon, Marvel sent out an announcement headlined “Dive Back Into Conan’s Epic Stories in the Final Issues of King Conan and Upcoming Trade Collections.” So far, so good; the headline was even in all-caps in the email, as is Marvel’s tradition. By the opening of the announcement, though, it was clear something was… off.
As I commented on Twitter at the time, “Marvel Comic’s” is a hell of a typo for someone who works in PR for Marvel Comics to miss, and the line break between “epic” and “KING CONAN” was similarly eyecatching. It wasn’t alone, though; the entire announcement has unexpected mid-sentence line breaks throughout. That there was literally no art attached for either King Conan or any of the collected editions the announcement was promoting was, additionally, unusual. The entire thing had an air of either being rushed out the door, or perhaps being accidentally sent before the press release had been properly finished. 
It was commonly assumed that this was evidence of Marvel trying to get out in front of a story that they weren’t fully in control of – and, in fact, Bleeding Cool had broken the news that Marvel had lost the rights to Conan just days earlier
“We, and Marvel, were a bit upstaged by the rumor mill,” admits Fredrik Malmberg, president of Heroic Signatures, the company that controls the Conan property, via email. While the timing of the news going public might not have been what either company was expecting, it turns out that Marvel and Heroic Signatures have known about Conan’s departure from the House of Ideas for some months, and both have been planning for it appropriately.
The current era of Marvel’s Conan comics was announced back in Jan 2018, a full year before the company officially started publishing Conan projects again. The news was described by no less a luminary than Marvel editor-in-chief C.B. Cebulski as a “homecoming” for the character, and accompanied by art from Mike Deodato Jr. featuring Conan flanked by Thor and Wolverine seemingly created specifically for the press release.
It would take six months for actual details for what Marvel was planning to do with the license to emerge, with announcements starting with two separate reprint lines of previously published material – the hardcover Conan the Barbarian: The Original Marvel Years Omnibus series, and the paperback Conan Chronicles Epic Collection books – before, in late August, the company announced the ongoing Conan the Barbarian series by Jason Aaron, Mahmud Asrar, and cover artist Esad Ribic scheduled for launch in January 2019.
A month before that series appeared in stores, however, Marvel also announced the launch of Avengers: No Road Home, to debut in March 2019. A quasi-sequel to the earlier Avengers: No Surrender storyline, the miniseries would team Conan with a collection of the Marvel-owned Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and lay the groundwork for the ongoing Savage Avengers series that was announced on Valentine’s Day 2019, a series described by Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort in the official announcement thusly: “The only scenes in Savage Avengers that involve a table is when somebody is being thrown through one.”
After a successful launch – Conan the Barbarian #1 sold around 100,000 copies in North America alone – Marvel expanded its plans to include spin-off material including Savage Sword of Conan, Age of Conan one-shots, and Conan: Battle for the Serpent Crown, a five-issue series where Conan went to Las Vegas, before announcing in September that it would also publish comics based on other characters created by Robert E. Howard. The first of those titles would be Dark Agnes, a five issue series announced in October 2019 for a February 2020 launch*.
In another world, Dark Agnes might have been a success, or at least enough of one to have kept Marvel’s hopes of a Robert E. Howard line alive. In this one, it was a sales disappointment – its first issue shipping somewhere in the region of 23,000 copies to retailers in North America even with a publisher overship, with its second shipping around 7,000 less – that ended two issues in, as the industry shut down for COVID and the title went on a temporary hiatus that eventually became permanent, as Marvel reassessed its publishing priorities.
Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian series was canceled with #25, released August 2021, and replaced by the six-issue miniseries King Conan**, announced the following month and launching that December. Notably, the announcement of the series has an air of finality about it, talking about how it takes “the story of Conan further than has ever been revealed in ANY media to date” and features a danger that “threatens to end the sage of the Cimmerian once and for all!” It’s almost as if Marvel was planning for the end, isn’t it?
According to Malmberg, Marvel decided late last year not to extend its agreement with Heroic Signatures for the Conan license past the end of 2022. “The message we got was that they decided to not pursue licensed characters,” he explains, a detail with potential implications for Marvel further down the line***. 
Knowing that Marvel was stepping back from Conan duties, Heroic Signatures decided to re-assess how it approached Conan as a comic book property, with the result that it will take over the creation of Conan comics itself when the Marvel license ends, working with partners to publish the books across the world. According to what Malmberg told ICv2, Heroic will be working with Panini outside the U.S., but in terms of a U.S. partner, he’s playing his cards a little closer to his chest: “We have one partner that we have been discussing details with, and are close to conclusion in my view,” he tells me, suggesting that “summer sounds about right” for the timing of any upcoming deal. 
Whoever the U.S. partner ends up being, they’ll be getting more than just Conan as part of the deal. Malmberg told me that Heroic Signatures’ plan for its comic line extends far beyond the most famous of Robert E. Howard’s characters. “Our IP portfolio is quite large,” he writes, adding that the company “would like this opportunity to feature less commercial and unknown characters than perhaps a licensee would.” Malmberg also intimated that the creation of all-new concepts and characters for the comics line was a possibility. 
As for Conan’s immediate comic book output, that’s actually far rosier than it might seem. Ignoring the fact that Ablaze Publishing’s mature readers title The Cimmerian continues unabated – reprinting European adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories, it’s been assumed that these books exploited some legal loophole in terms of copyright by avoiding the name “Conan” on their covers; the truth is, they’re also a licensee of Heroic Signatures – Marvel has an aggressive collected editions program for the character throughout the remainder of this year, with no less than eight collected editions scheduled before the company loses the license at the end of 2022, including the final two volumes of Conan the Barbarian: The Original Marvel Years Omnibus, as well as Conan the King: The Original Marvel Years Omnibus and Savage Sword of Conan: The Original Marvel Years Omnibus Vol. 9. 
While King Conan #6 – currently targeted for a July release, paper shortages notwithstanding – is the last new Conan-only material Marvel will release before surrendering the license, the character remains at the center of the Savage Avengers relaunch, which releases its first issue today – and even after Heroic Signatures takes over comics publishing for Conan, that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of Conan’s adventures in the Marvel Universe, according to Malmberg.
“Marvel retains reprint rights to [Savage Avengers and Avengers: No Way Home] and we hope that we can have Conan be a guest star at the House of Ideas in the future,” he shares. “No such plans at the moment, but we had a great time working with their editorial team.” (Sorry to everyone wondering if Marvel would have to quietly pretend a chunk of its last three years worth of comics didn’t actually happen.) 
As unlikely as it seemed as recently as Monday, Conan fans might be looking at a future filled with even more barbarian-ing than before, in a multitude of different locations… including the Marvel Universe. What is best in life, again…?
* Also named in the original “More Characters” announcement was Solomon Kane, who didn’t get a solo series after all, although there was an expensive reprint of Marvel’s 1980s comics featuring the character. 
** Yes, the same King Conan comic that got Marvel into hot water over basically fan-fic-ing Pochahontas in, in the worst way possible just a couple of months ago. 
*** It’s worth bearing in mind that, technically, Star Wars, Alien, and Predator, all of which currently figure in Marvel’s publishing plans, might not count as licensed characters given that they’re owned by other subsidiaries of the larger Walt Disney Company. Is Marvel going to concentrate on only Disney-owned properties going forward – and, if so, would that really be a problem given just how much Disney actually owns these days? This detail feels like something that’s worth paying attention to in the future, outside of any Conan connection.
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Graeme McMillan

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