Fred Van Lente, despite seemingly leaving his Marvel days behind, has been busier than ever lately. He has Archer and Armstrong at Valiant Comics, about to enter its third year. He was announced recently as helping Dynamite out with their Gold Key revival, bringing new life to Magnus: Robot Hunter. Meanwhile, just a month into his mini-series Conan and the People of the Black Circle, he was announced as taking over the Conan the Barbarian ongoing series at Dark Horse.
We borrowed some time from the busy writer, though, to talk about his newest ongoing assignment, working for smaller publishers, and what makes Conan so endearing.
Newsarama: Fred, you were recently announced as the new writer of the Conan ongoing series. So you’re finishing off Conan and the People of the Black Circle in January, then taking over Conan in March, is that right?
Fred Van Lente: That sounds likely! I’ve been kind of going by as previews of Brian Wood’s run come out, I can go, “oh, #22 is out I have this much time!”
Nrama: Well he tweeted out today that he has turned in his final script.
Van Lente: Excellent. Well I turned in my first one about a week ago! So we’re on the same level there.
Nrama: Black Circle is a direct adaptation of a Robert E. Howard Conan story. What are you planning for Conan The Barbarian? Will you be going back to the original tales, or trying to move forward a bit on your own?
Van Lente: Well, a little bit of both, actually. The way the Conan ongoing is structured, is that it’s the story of Conan’s life as set by Robert E. Howard. We’re using a specific chronology called “the Dark Storm Chronology” that was set up by one particular Conan scholar, that orders all the stories of Conan in chronological order of his life.
Nrama: That is awesomely nerdy!
Van Lente: it is awesomely nerdy! But we’ve been following that, since the ’05 series that Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord launched with their incredible run, that was the beginning, Wood continued, and I’m continuing the tradition.
As Conan readers know, Brian’s entire run has taken place in one short story called “Queen of the Black Coast,” that takes place over two years of his life. The story that follows that is not even a story at all – it’s an outline that Howard wrote and never finished. He did about six or so chapters, another half or so of it outlined, but never finished the whole thing. Lynn Carter and L. Sprague de Camp in the 60s finished the story and they called it “The Snout in the Dark,” which is a title I do not like. So I am doing it and titling it…
Nrama: “The Nose in the Shadows!”
Van Lente: (laughs) Yes, very nice. “The Night Nose!” Beware the night nose! No, I’m calling it “The Witch Hunter of Kush,” named after one of Howard’s characters in the story.
In this book, a heartbroken Conan, not to give away any spoilers for Queen of the Black Coast, which was published in 1934, so I don’t feel too bad about that (laughs) – but a heartbroken Conan winds up in Shambhala, which is the capital of Kush, on the Black Coast, and finds himself embroiled in a witch hunt. An evil sorcerer is terrorizing the town, and everyone is after this person, specifically, the Witch Hunter of the title. It intrigues Conan. One of the great things about Conan is he’s had every job under the sun. So now he gets a new one: captain of the city guard in Shambhala, which means he also has to keep one eye out for this witch. There’s monsters and wizards and slave girls and slavers and witchcraft and sword fights, and I’m very happy! (laughs) I’m very happy doing it!
Nrama: Well it’s interesting to hear so much of the occult and arcane in this story, because I think that’s something people usually associate with Howard’s other property Solomon Kane.
Van Lente: Yeah, there’s a lot of crossover. There’s also a later story that I’ll get to, hopefully, if I’m not fired, called “The Witch is Born” which is also about, shockingly, witches. But this is more about the African style of witchcraft, so I’ve been doing a lot of research into that, and into Sudan.
I didn’t really know this until I started working on the series, but Conan’s world is simply a mirror image of our own, and Howard took from a whole bunch of sources. Shambhala is really Meroë, as the capital of Kush, which is really Nubia, which was south of what we traditionally think of as ancient Egypt, so I’ve been doing a lot of research on that, which is super awesome.
Nrama: You are an interesting character, that you are an Atheist, correct?
Van Lente: Yeah! I am an Atheist.
Nrama: Yet you write a lot of stories that are centered very heavily on religion, and on specific peoples and nations’ religions and mythologies. What is it that appeals to you so much about the history of religions?
Van Lente: Well, I have a personal answer and a vulgar answer.
The personal answer is that I was very religious as a kid. I was a pretty hardcore Christian when I was a teenager, and that informed a lot of my beliefs and actions. I got my first girlfriend in the Church, and was a part of Church groups, built houses in Biloxi and West Virginia. But I lost that when I went to college. My own personal background, I like to explore the origins of things, and that’s very much rooted in my own origin. It’s something I feel I have a kinship to, I can relate to.
I think that, the vulgar answer, I’ll use an old saying from I think Roy Rogers, which is “It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, but what you think you know is true but isn’t.” We live in a world where humans are embroiled in various conflicting belief systems, and many of those belief systems are just to benefit us personally – and they don’t even have to be about religion. Climate change – perfect non-religious example: some people say it’s real, some people say it’s a hoax, some people say it’s real but not man-made so we can’t do anything about it so let’s not! I can go that way with almost any hot-button issue, not even talking about religion, just where the fight is in many cases between atheists, and show how often irrational belief systems are at battle with each other.
At some point, one would hope, rationality prevails and preserves the best outcome for as many people as possible. That’s not to pain everyone who is religious as irrational, or as causing problems, but I do think that whether you’re talking about you and your family or you and some person you met on the Internet, you have a conflict of belief systems. That’s just the way life is.
The other thing I don’t want to get into in my writing is “Good versus Evil.” In my mind, that’s an unhelpful concept when looking at the actual conflicts that plague the world, both internationally and in our own personal lives. I try to give everybody equal time to be utterly horrible! (laughs) That’s just how I see the world!
Nrama: So there are those that try to see the good in people and there’s you… (laughs)
Van Lente: Well I see the good and bad in everyone. I think Conan – to bring it back – Conan is a perfect example. He is someone who is in many ways extremely selfish, and greedy, and sexist. We could name all sorts of terrible things about him, but he is also someone who acts impulsively for the greater good. And he can be very kind, and generous, and heroic to individual people even though he has this gruff exterior where he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve.
Nrama: Does it make it hard for you as the person writing stories in that way to cheer for your own protagonists sometimes?
Van Lente: Sometimes! Yeah, definitely. But, I guess as a writer, I don’t really get into it the way a reader does – I like a character that makes me look good, that can say or do things that people will take notice of, or will endear them to that character. Characterization is one of the great joys of writing.
It’s hard to root for a character when you control their destiny. When you know the outcome, it’s hard to be thinking, “Go for it!” when in your mind you’re thinking, “You’re f*cked! Too bad!” If it’s going to work out, it’s because I engineered things to work out.
It’s the old cliché that in real life there are no villains, and hero is not a job description, it’s something you did at a specific point and time where you made the right decision and put yourself at risk. But it’s not something, unless you’re a firefighter or something, you can’t really put it on your tax return.
Nrama: Well, for those looking forward to your run on Conan the Barbarian, would you say People of the Black Circle is a good place for them to start off?
Van Lente: It doesn’t hurt, it’s more of a straight-up adaptation than “Witch Hunter of Kush” is going to be, but People of the Black Circle is one of the top three Conan stories, maybe top 5. And Ariel Olivetti is just born to draw Conan.