Of course, the best way to learn about Conan is to read the stories written by Robert E. Howard. Howard completed 21 Conan stories between 1932 and his suicide in 1936. Although his writing style may sound somewhat stilted and some of the cultural attitudes about women and non-Europeans prevalent when he lived may be offensive to the modern reader, his work holds up remarkably well. Howard was an exceptionally evocative and imaginative writer with a marked ability to bring his extravagant settings to life. There's a reason why the creation of a pulp fiction author living in a small rural Texas town has not only survived for decades but has become so well known that it's the basis for a best-selling MMO from a game company based in Norway. The original Conan stories are well written and exciting. The problem has been finding them.
Most of the original Conan stories appeared in the pulp Magazine Weird Tales and have been reprinted many, many times. So why has it been so hard to find them? Finding any old story about Conan is easy; until recently, however, finding many of Howard's original Conan tales has been difficult or impossible. Throughout their history the Conan stories have been rewritten and rearranged to fit biographical timelines that Howard expressly wanted to avoid. Innumerable Conan pastiches have been written by other people and inserted into collections of Howard's work. Howard's stories about other characters have been rewritten as Conan stories. Original Conan stories have been rewritten to be about other characters. Story fragments that Howard didn't think worth pursuing while he was alive have been found among his papers and used as the basis for "posthumous collaborations" by lesser writers after his death. You think the adds in AoC can be a problem? Just look at what the original Conan had to deal with. Crom! What a mess.
Fortunately, Del Rey cleaned up that mess when they published all of the original Conan stories in three affordable, trade-paperback editions. Two of the three volumes were originally published as limited edition hardbacks by Wandering Star Books. The stories are presented in the order in which Howard wrote them without any additions or rewriting by well-intentioned but less talented editors and authors. Each volume also has a collection of ephemera such as early drafts, story fragments, Howard's hand drawn maps of Hyboria, essays written by Howard describing Conan's world and more. They are also profusely and lavishly illustrated by Mark Schultz (Volume 1, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian), Gary Gianni (Volume 2, The Bloody Crown of Conan), and Gregory Mancess (Volume 3, The Conquering Sword of Conan). The bad news is that some of the illustrations that were color plates in the original editions are reprinted in black and white and, in some cases, they did not translate well. The good news is that Wandering Star was never able to publish Volume 3 and it appears for the first time in the Del Rey edition.
If you want the unedited, uncensored, original Conans, the Del Rey or Wandering Star editions are the ones for you. However, there have been other noteworthy Conan reprints. The most famous is the series of mass market paperbacks published by Lancer in the 1960s. The Lancer Conans are renowned because of Frank Frazetta's terrific cover art. When they first appeared, the Frazetta covers were a sensation; no one had ever seen art like that on a paperback before. An untold number of people who had never heard of Conan bought the books for the pictures on the covers. Frazetta not only created the visual image of Conan that has defined the character ever since, he created a major branch of the entire field of fantasy art with the Conan covers. There are quite a few well-known contemporary artists whose whole career has been about producing Frazetta imitations that pale when compared to Frazetta's own work. Frazetta's Conan paintings have been reprinted many times in many formats and every fan of fantasy art will have seen them before. If you want the stories that originally appeared with the art, the Lancer paperbacks can be found for as little as $1 on out-of-print bookseller sites such as Abebooks.
If you like a lot of art with your stories, Conan has also had a long and successful life in the comics. During the 1970s Marvel Comics ran a very successful line of Conan comics under the title Conan the Barbarian and also printed Conan stories in large format titles such as Savage Tales and The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian. The Marvel Conans are usually known more for their art than for the quality of their stories many of which had virtually nothing to do with Howard's original tales. Dark Horse Comics is currently reprinting large black and white omnibus editions of the Marvel Conans. Dark Horse has also run their own very successful Conan series which came to its conclusion with the recently published issue #50. As I write this in early June, Dark Horse is planning a Conan relaunch under the title Conan the Cimmerian later in the month.
If you are interested in reference books about Conan and Hyboria there are two excellent choices currently available. Dark Horse has published a coffee-table sized hardback entitled Conan: The Phenomenon by Paul M. Sammon. It chronicles the history of Conan products from the original stories through Age of Conan (which only gets a brief paragraph as the game had not yet been released when the book was published in 2007). The book is readable and informative not only about Conan but also about many of the people who have contributed to Conan over the years such as Frank Frazetta and Roy Thomas who scripted most of Marvel's Conan stories. Conan: The Phenomenon is especially noteworthy for its artwork. Dark Horse has gone to great lengths to produce very high quality reproductions of a broad range of Conan art. Conan has always been associated with interesting art and I don't know that you'll see a wider selection that is reproduced better than you will find here. If you like fantasy art, Conan: The Phenomenon is worth the price for the art alone.
Perhaps the most useful single-volume reference for Age of Conan players is Roy Thomas's Conan published by DK Publishing. The DK Conan is something like a Conan atlas/encyclopedia that is chock full of snippets of information about the people, places and events that made up Conan's Hyboria. Some players may already be familiar with Conan because a short exerpt from the books was given away as a pre-order bonus. Conan is generally arranged by geographical area with an index and a terrific two-page map of Hyboria that can be very useful when playing the game and especially when reading the stories. Many of the people and places you meet in AoC's early game have entires in Conan. Tortage? Sancha? The Black Ones? Kalanthes? Valeria? They're all there. Conan is also filled to overflowing with Conan art although the artist and the source are usually not given and the reproductions, although good, are not of the superior quality found in Conan: The Phenomenon.
If all of this isn't enough, you can spend your down time with Conan movies, console games, tabletop role playing games, Saturday morning cartoons, . . .Oh, wait a minute, the servers are back up. Crom! Cya in Cimmeria.