"Conan the Barbarian" (the phrase is synonymous with the character, and yet, in classic "Elementary, my dear Watson," or "Beam me up, Scotty" style, it was never actually used in the original material) became a modest, surprise hit for Marvel Comics shortly after its debut. Fans responded not only to the whole sword-and-sorcery sub-genre but to Roy Thomas' specific vision of the Hyborian Age created by Robert E. Howard for the pulp market decades before. The four-color comic sold well enough, in fact, to sustain a spin-off: "Savage Tales of Conan" was another great Thomas idea, a larger-format black-and-white magazine designed to showcase longer and more visually opulent stories than the regular comic book would usually do. And both "Conan" and "Savage Tales" drew sustained life from the pencilling talents of the same man: Marvel Comics' heavyweight fan favorite, John Buscema.
Buscema was already a legend when he came to the "Conan" titles, but they gave him a range usually unavailable in super-hero comics. In the pre-historic world Thomas was fleshing out from Howard's writings, Buscema was free to let his considerable imagination soar, without needing to conform to the super-strength and eye-beams norms of titles like "The Fantastic Four" or "The Avengers." He was far less meticulous than his predecessor Barry Smith had been, but he also never ran the risk of stylized, static lapses into which Smith's art could sometimes fall. At the height of his powers, Buscema could scarcely draw a cup sitting on a table without viewers worrying it would spill on them - his panels virtually vibrated with movement.
The result was the visual conception of an entire world - and of a character. Gone was the epicene rock star of Smith's run on the title. In his place stood a far more solid adult man, broad in the chest, wide in the waist, less the lithe superhero, more the thickset tavern-brawler. This Conan might still at certain angles have looked young, but he was unquestionably seasoned - he sported a shaggy Prince Valiant haircut, a fur loin-cloth, wide lips, and a broad, oft-smashed nose. He was a stoic, no-nonsense man of violence, and the visuals Buscema came up with issue after issue helped Thomas to refine his idea of the character to an immediate perfection seldom achieved by other writers with other characters (instinct and luck play a certain part too, and timing - think of Claremont and Byrne's Wolverine, or Miller's Daredevil). To most of us reading these issues eagerly every month, this was Conan.
The world Thomas and Buscema helped to create (the working partnership between these two was an amazing fluke on its own - both imperious control-freaks who fundamentally disliked collaboration, and yet here they were working in what seemed to be perfect tandem) was an enormous elaboration on the one Smith had begun to sketch. Monsters roamed everywhere - Buscema's talent for drawing most animals stood him in good stead as Thomas' scripts called for a veritable Noah's Ark of gigantic bears, moths, rats, lions, eels, squids, lions ... as well as the perennially-popular dinosaurs. Conan fights sabre-toothed tigers, pterodactyls, slugs the size of rhinos, and even, in a breathlessly-paced sequence, a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
And through it all, Buscema's Conan is as far away from Smith's virginal quester as possible. This is a man much closer to Howard's original conception (and, with any luck, the version we'll see in only a few days when the new movie adaptation opens in a theater near you): a boisterous creature of huge appetites - some of them frankly sexual. Buscema was able to indulge to the fullest his oft-announced affection for drawing sultry women - including every kind of evil-eyed seductress imaginable (one of them ends up being made of sea weed), a stunningly re-imagined Red Sonja (Buscema replaced the jerkin-and-skirt Windsor had given the character with ... nothing much at all), and, in a long and satisfying story-arc, the corsair-queen Belit, whose death and brief resurrection marked the 100th issue of "Conan the Barbarian."
The run was immensely successful, and it defined the character for an entire generation. Even when the vogue of sword-and-sorcery started dying out, those Marvel issues kept coming: "Conan the Barbarian," "Savage Sword of Conan," "King Conan," and countless stand-alone specials and spin-offs (Thomas and Buscema spent less than a year on an adaptation of one of Howard's other great creations, King Kull, for instance, and it was a joyous event for fans of the character). Conan was drawn in this same period by other great pencillers - Gil Kane, Jim Starlin, Gene Colan, and many others tried their hands at the Cimmerian - but he belonged to Buscema, and of course to Thomas. When their time with the character finally petered to an end, it seemed almost like a Hyborian funeral was in order. Those of us who'd loved the era thought: there might be crappy knock-offs in the future (done more to keep the copyright alive than out of love or craftsmanship), but this kind of genius won't come again.
We were wrong, of course. But we had to wait a while.