Since his creation by Robert E. Howard nearly a century ago, first appearing in Weird Tales magazine in 1932, the Cimmerian hero known as Conan the Barbarian has captivated fans with his escapades of high fantasy and adventure. His appeal is far-reaching, as a bevy of other creators after Howard have taken the hilt of the sword to carve their own mark on the wide universe of Conan. And it’s no wonder that creators and fans alike gravitate to Conan: the Barbarian’s mythos tap into our love of sword and sorcery, all featuring a rich world starring a character whose very name has become synonymous with adventure.
Recently, after a period of Marvel Comics’ holding the rights to publishing his tales, it was announced that Conan’s further adventures will be told at Titan Comics, in partnership with Heroic Signatures. Taking the reins of the Barbarian’s flagship title is writer Jim Zub, the prolific and gifted creator behind comic titles ranging from Avengers to Rick and Morty to Thunderbolts. Zub is no stranger to Conan, writing comic tales that span the last two decades, most recently wrapping up Marvel’s run with the character with the company’s last story.
In our comprehensive interview with Mr. Zub, the writer is kind enough to give a clear and insightful view into what we can expect from his version Conan the Barbarian, the winding road to becoming the flagship writer of Titan Comics and Heroic Signatures’ Conan, where find Conan at the beginning of the debut issue of Conan the Barbarian, and what makes a great Conan story. When talking to Mr. Zub, his enthusiasm for Conan is infectious—his love for the Cimmerian’s world is unabashedly uncontained. It’s clear that Conan has a perfect steward in Jim Zub.
FreakSugar: Before we get into the new series, what is your history with Conan the Barbarian?
Jim Zub: As a kid, my older brother got me hooked on sword & sorcery in a big way – especially reading a slew of fantasy novels and playing Dungeons & Dragons. Conan always loomed large. The classic Frank Frazetta covers on those Conan paperbacks promised visceral adventure and I couldn’t get enough of them. The fact that Conan was splashed all over comics too, the classic monthly series and the darker and more violent Savage Sword of Conan magazine, made the Hyborian Age even more exciting to me.
Believe it or not, my first professional gig in comics was Conan-related. When I started working at the UDON studio in the spring of 2003 I recolored some old Conan the Barbarian stories in a reprint series Dark Horse put out called The Chronicles of Conan.
12 years later in 2015, I was an established comic writer building my career when Gail Simone asked if I wanted to co-write with her on a Conan-Red Sonja mini-series co-produced by Dark Horse and Dynamite Comics, the first time the two characters had teamed up in over 15 years. We worked with artists Dan Panosian and Randy Green to deliver a sword & sorcery epic that spanned across the lives of both characters. I thought it would be my only chance to ever write Conan and it was a blast.
In 2019 I worked with Mark Waid and Al Ewing on a second Avengers weekly storyline called Avengers: No Road Home. Conan the Barbarian was returning to Marvel and we were asked by editorial to bring him into the mix for this Avengers story. I did my damnedest to weave classic sword & sorcery elements into this superheroic tale and, once again, it was a ton of fun and I thought this would be my last chance to write Conan.
I pitched a Conan solo story to editor Mark Basso at Marvel and that led to a 3-part story in the new Savage Sword of Conan anthology series, a story I called Conan the Gambler.
The Conan rights holders liked the Gambler story so much that they asked if I could team-up Conan with other Robert E. Howard characters, which became the Conan: Serpent War mini-series that brought together Conan, Solomon Kane, Dark Agnes, James Allison (and Moon Knight) into a wild time-spanning tale.
I didn’t realize Jason Aaron was wrapping up his run on Conan the Barbarian and so, once again, what I thought would be my last chance to ever write Conan turned into yet another opportunity. In late 2019 I was offered the chance to write Conan the Barbarian, the flagship title. It was an absolute bucket list project for me, something I never thought I’d get the chance to do.
I took over the monthly book, we released one issue, and then the pandemic shutdown comic production across the industry. We had a 7-month gap between Conan the Barbarian #13 and 14. By the time issues were coming out again with some regularity, a lot of momentum had been lost and business deals had changed. Marvel would finish their license to publish Conan stories and I wrapped up the series at issue #25.
At that moment, as you’d imagine, I thought that would be the end of it. I’d written a several Conan stories, had a great time with it, and walked away.
FS: But now you’re the flagship writer of Conan the Barbarian with Titan in 2023! How did that come about?
JZ: The whole time I’ve been working on these various Conan stories, I’ve stayed in touch with Fred Malmberg. Fred runs Heroic Signatures, the company that controls the rights to the Robert E. Howard character library. We chatted online regularly. Fred really liked my sensibilities for the characters and passion for the myth-making inherent in the original Robert E. Howard tales.
As the Marvel-Conan deal was wrapping up, Fred asked if I was still interested in telling Conan stories and, of course, I was. Taking over the flagship title at Marvel only to slam into the pandemic, a situation no one in the industry could have foreseen, threw things off course. I was proud of the work we produced, but also wished I could have built something more long term.
More chatting with Fred led to him telling me that they were looking to team up with Titan, start fresh and go big. We talked about finding the right art team and planning stories out long term. Ideas became proposals, proposals became negotiations, negotiations became signed contracts, and now, incredibly, we’re launching Conan the Barbarian in July 2023 with an absolute dream team.
*whew* As you can see, it’s been a real journey.
FS: Where do we find Conan at the beginning of your story?
JZ: In our Free Comic Book Day Conan the Barbarian #0 issue we are rolling things back to the start so as many readers as possible can jump in – Conan is an untested warrior heading into his first real battle – a bloody conflict at a fortress called Venarium where soldiers from the south tried to set up a new colony in Cimmeria and the scattered barbarian clans of the north finally come together to drive them out. It’s a formative moment for our hero that will lead him outside the borders of his home country for the very first time.
That leads to our first issue. Conan has been traveling for some time when our monthly series begins, but a bit of unexpected business from Venarium ties into a new conflict against a foreign army and a mysterious ancient evil. It’s bombastic sword & sorcery adventure and the whole creative team is pouring their blood and sweat into it at every stage.
FS: Conan has had a wide and varied cast over the years. Can you tell us anything about who we can expect to meet in your new run?
JZ: Conan is steady as a rock, but the people around him constantly change. In this first story arc we introduce a scout-hunter named Brissa and, without tipping my hand too much, she ties directly into this new conflict. She doesn’t trust the Cimmerian because of the intense circumstances when they meet, but they need to find a way to work together.
FS: In your mind, who is Conan? Who is he at his core? What are his motivations?
JZ: For me and many readers, Conan has three distinct stages of his development:
There’s Conan near the beginning of his journey, young and impetuous, seeking out new experiences and testing his limits as a hunter, soldier, thief, pirate or mercenary.
There’s Conan in his prime, an experienced adventurer with a keen mind and powerful body, a warrior learning how to lead men and deal with the lies and politics inherent in the civilized world and its many kingdoms.
There’s Conan the King, the man who took a crown by his own hand. He’s powerful and capable, but being bound to the responsibilities of a kingdom change him in ways he is not always satisfied with.
FS: Conan’s tales have been adapted several times over the years, building on Howard’s stories. What makes a great Conan story in your eyes?
JZ: Building a Conan story is about understanding where he’s at on that larger journey and weaving in the youthful exuberance or world-weary elements as needed.
It’s also about putting the character into situations that channel iconic sword & sorcery ingredients, but aren’t just well-worn tropes people have seen countless times before. On top of that, the threats need to be powerful and strange, things he can’t just casually run through with his blade.
Contrary to the clichés that have sometimes overshadowed the character over the years, Conan is incredibly smart. He could not survive all this time and conquer all these challenges if he wasn’t. He’s far more than a brute and his most memorable adventures speak to larger concepts around ‘civilization VS savagery’, a theme that still resonates to this day.
FS: You have had a wide and varied writing career. How does your past and current work inform how you approach a Conan story?
JZ: Sword & sorcery was a formative part of my reading experience when I was growing up and the key traits inherent in the genre – exploration, danger, wonderment, mythmaking, a bit of philosophy, and visceral conflict – are at the heart of what I love about storytelling.
Writing the original and best sword & sorcery hero is an honor and I’m doing everything I can to channel the excitement I’ve had for these stories and put that on each scripted page. If I do my job well, then Rob De La Torre and colorists José Villarrubia and Dean White will feel it coming through and deliver something to match. Based on how it’s going so far, I think it’s working in a big, big way.
FS: Absolutely. Early released pages of the book look stunning. What is the collaboration process like with the art team?
JZ: Rob De la Torre is a brilliant fully formed artist with finely honed instincts for storytelling in a classic Conan style. He was my number one choice to draw the series, so getting him on board was a victory right from the start. Not to take anything away from any of the incredible artists I’ve collaborated with previously on Conan stories, but Rob’s linework has a special power that, to me, just feels like the Hyborian Age. It’s pulpy and powerful in all the right ways.
When Rob and I talked about how we could work together, he really wanted to cut loose on the storytelling and, based on the jaw-dropping Hyborian-themed commissions and covers he’d already done, I was happy to go that route – We’re working old school plot-style instead of me writing full script.
I outline the issue using a few paragraphs to describe the main action and key dialogue bits on each page and then Rob uses that as his guide to rock out as many or few panels as he wants to represent those story beats. Once the art comes in I put together a separate lettering script with dialogue or captions as needed, busting out the best damn prose I can to live up to his striking visuals. It’s a way of working I haven’t done very often before, but the results have been extremely dynamic and organic. I think readers are going to be surprised at how well it flows across the page.
From there, Jose and Dean color up the pages to stunning effect and the legendary Richard Starkings letters it all beautifully while Matt Murray, our intrepid editor, keeps our quest on schedule and makes sure we’re delivering stories compatible with the established Howard canon.
FS: Conan has been a fan-favorite character for years. What do you think the appeal is of Conan, both for fans and for you as a writer?
JZ: Like so many icons, Conan’s core is simple to understand. In a mad world full of mystery, danger, and duplicitous bastards, Conan is a survivor and a slayer. We all strive to withstand hardship and be courageous. We all want to be like the Cimmerian and laugh in the face of danger.
FS: Are there any other projects you have coming down the pike you’d like to discuss?
JZ: The trade paperbacks for Murderworld and Rick and Morty VS Cthulhu are coming out soon, and I’m incredibly proud of both projects.
Murderworld is a twisted take on Arcade, the infamous gameshow-assassin of the Marvel Universe.
Rick and Morty VS Cthulhu is an epic conflict between nihilism and narcissism as Rick Sanchez tries to stop the infamous Cthulhu mythos from infecting his home dimension and ruining his family.
FS: If you had one final pitch for your new Conan the Barbarian series, what would it be?
JZ: There will be blood. Blood and steel and seductive stories in an age undreamed of.
The fun begins in May on Free Comic Book Day to get your first taste of high adventure and then drink it all down when the monthly series launches in July.
Conan the Barbarian #1—written by Jim Zub, with art by Roberto De La Torre, colored by José Villarrubia, and lettered by Richard Starkings—goes on sale Wednesday, July 26th, from Heroic Signatures and Titan Comics. Be sure to check out our TikTok page for another conversation we had with Mr. Zub about all things Conan!
From the official issue description:
Robert E. Howard’s legendary Conan is back in a new tale of bravery and heroism!
Years after the battle of Venarium, a weary Conan returns to his homeland to seek rest and solitude. However, a mysterious scout rides in to warn the Cimmerians of an imminent threat on the march from the Pictish wilderness. Will Conan and his new ally be able to hold off this new horde of invaders?