Marvel’s latest Avengers spin-off, Savage Avengers, takes a ragtag bunch of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes into the Savage Land – and into a team-up with the one-and-only Conan the Barbarian.
Yeah, that’s right, Conan – the literal and literary Conan – is joining an Avengers team (in fact he's joining two, as he'll also play a role in the weekly Avengers: No Road Home).
The idea of Conan setting foot in the Marvel Universe may seem like a modern-style gimmick – but the roots of the team-up go back all the way to Conan’s Marvel Comics heyday of the 1970s, when his title was a Marvel newsstand staple.
In fact, Conan was actually offered Avengers membership way back in 1984 (more on that later). And this isn't his first time teaming up with Wolverine either (we'll get to that as well).
Though the team-ups halted when Marvel relinquished Conan’s comic book license in 2000, this new ongoing Avengers/Conan mash-up Savage Avengers is just the inevitable legacy of a long-running comic book tradition.
So where did it all start?
What If? (Vol. 1) #13 – 1979 The first time Conan crossed over with the Marvel Universe was outside of the main timeline in one of the first incarnation of What If?’s splinter realities.
In that story – titled "What If Conan the Barbarian Walked the Earth Today?" - Conan is transported to a version of the modern Marvel Universe where he saves a woman from some muggers. But the only Marvel character he encounters is Mary Jane Watson, who makes a brief cameo in the story.
What If? (Vol. 1) #39 - 1983
Conan’s next What If? appearance, in June 1983 (just after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian made them both household names) brought the barbarian in direct contact – and conflict - with a Marvel superhero, in the story “What If Thor of Asgard Had Met Conan the Barbarian?”.
In this story, Thor and Loki encounter Conan in the Hyborian Age in a clash that ropes in frost giants and snake men – and during which Conan even lifts Mjolnir.
What If? (Vol. 1) #43 – 1984
Just a few issues later, What If? #43 picked up threads from Conan’s debut in the title in #13, stranding him in the present day and bringing him to the attention of Captain America.
After first fighting Captain America alongside a gang of thieves, Conan and Cap eventually teamed up - leading to Cap actually offering Conan membership on the Avengers, though the one-off story never presented the actual team-up.
Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #11 – 1989
In this story, actually set in the mainstream Marvel Universe, Doctor Strange travels back in time to the Hyborian Age to find the secrets of the Darkhold.
Not only does Conan show up here, so do Kull, Red Sonja, Thulsa Doom, and many more Marvel characters contemporary to the in-story era.
And that’s not Doctor Strange’s only connection to the Conan mythos. Strange’s arch-foe Shuma Gorath takes his name from a Robert E. Howard story, and in Marvel continuity has roots in the Hyborean Age. Oddly enough, Shuma Gorath is also loosely based on the Elder Evils of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos – itself canonically (Conanically?) connected to Howard’s Conan tales, thanks in large part to Howard and Lovecraft’s real world friendship.
What If? (Vol. 2) #16 – 1990
In 1990, Marvel took its Conan team-ups to the next logical level by sending Wolverine into the past to meet Conan – a team-up made in comic book heaven.
The resulting story didn’t stop at sending Wolverine back to the Hyborian Age. See, the Wolverine in the story wasn’t just any ol’ version of Logan – this was Logan plucked right from the climax of the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” And when he got back to the moon, just in time to watch Jean Grey die, he brought Conan with him.
And Conan, being the guy he is, wasn’t interested in sitting quietly by and watching the X-Men’s drama unfold. Instead, he chucked a rock at Cyclops, knocking him out and altering the course of Jean’s saga as the Dark Phoenix – culminating in the destruction of that entire reality at her hands.
So that maybe explains why, after that, there weren’t any official Marvel/Conan crossovers for a long time (that and Marvel losing Conan’s license).
But unofficially, things didn’t stop there.
Writer Kurt Busiek was fond of using Conan in background cameos. The Conan from What If? #43 showed up in a key scene in Avengers Forever #12 where an army of Avengers from across time and various realities team up. And around the same time, Busiek pitted the Avengers, whose core title he was working on with George Perez, against Conan foe Kulan Gath in a contemporary story. Busiek went on to write numerous Conan comic books at Dark Horse, who picked up the license after Marvel.
Conan (or someone who, for legal reasons, merely resembled him exactly) also had cameos in Excalibur #47, Fantastic Four #405, Doctor Strange #26, and Thor Corps #3, all in unnamed but implied minor roles.
So there you have it – Conan joining the Avengers isn’t just Marvel fulfilling a 35-year-old promise, it’s making good on something Captain America himself (well, a Captain America… it was technically an alternate reality) offered all the way back when.