He’s hardly Robert E. Howard’s most well-know character (that would be Conan), but regardless, in September, Solomon Kane is returning to comics, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.
Written by Dark Horse’s original Conan Editor, Scott Allie and illustrated by Mario Guevara, the initial five issue miniseries is an adaptation of Howard’s “The Castle of the Devil,” and finds the character, a Puritan soldier, in the Black Forest of Germany fighting against an ancient evil.
The character himself has a complicated literary history, as some of the stories featuring Kane in Africa have clear (and viewed through modern eyes, occasionally shocking) racist overtones which came across in both the narration of the stories as well as in Kane himself. For some, Kane’s attitudes (as well as those coming from Howard in the narrative) have been a stumbling block in regards to a true and faithful adaptation of Kane for a contemporary audience.
We spoke with Allie about this, just who Solomon Kane is, and what went into the decision to bring him to life at Dark Horse.
Newsarama: Scott, even though this was announced a year ago, the decision to bring Solomon Kane to comics probably still has some people scratching their heads, given how faithful you’ve been with Conan, and how being as faithful with Solomon Kane is…challenging, given his reputation and stories…
Scott Allie: Exactly, which is part of what’s interesting to me about the character. There is a streak of racism in Solomon Kane that’s probably more clear than in some of Howard’s other characters, because he takes place in real historical time, and so when he’s being derogatory about black Africans, they’re Africans, not some fantasy race that Conan is going up against. It’s something that I really worried about at first, but when I read, and re-read and re-read the Kane material, I realized that there was a way to handle it that would be true to Howard and true to what he wrote, but at the same time, something that I could feel good about.
And I should add that even though this is what a lot of people point out about the character, none of this actually comes up in the series for a while because at first, his adventures are all in Europe. Eventually he does get down to Africa.
But as far as the racism goes, part of my personal experience with racism is that people who don’t have any direct interaction with other people form a lot of judgments in their minds, and they stick with those judgments and act on those judgments. But if placed in the right circumstances, people can get over that and grow out of those opinions. The thing that you see in the Kane stories is that as he spends time in Africa, he very quickly starts to recognize that some of these warriors have a lot of valor and are every bit as worthy as any of the men he fought alongside in Europe. So, not completely, but you sort of see the racism slip away a little bit as he starts to befriend a lot of African characters.
NRAMA: But what about Howard’s descriptions? Cities clearly built by superior races that are now inhabited by inferior ones?
SA: That’s true - there’s still an implicit racism in some of the narration, but I’m not going to be using Howard’s narration – I’m going to be using the action and dialogue from Howard’s stories. The worst racism that comes up is in Howard’s very visual descriptions of characters – it makes you cringe when he’s describing say, a black warrior, but I don’t have to do any of that – I just have to tell Mario what to draw, and he’ll draw it. So there will be no textual comparisons between Zulu warriors and gorillas at all. It’s unfortunate that that’s where Howard was coming from, but it doesn’t have to play into the action or the character.
But if you look at Kane and what happens to him over the course of his life, he befriends a lot of people down there, and makes really strong connections with people. To me, that means that he must have overcome the prejudices that he brought with him from England.
NRAMA: Taking things back with the character, a lot of people are familiar with Conan and his origins and how he was fueled by a streak of revenge to start with, but with Solomon Kane – what’s his spark? What got him to be the way he is, and how much of that have you had to extrapolate from Howard’s original materials?
SA: There’s a lot of extrapolation needed. Howard only wrote about half as many Kane stories as Conan stories, and a lot of the Kane stuff only exists as fragments. The first miniseries I’m writing is an adaptation of a story called “The Castle of the Devil,” and it’s based on a story fragment from Howard. I’m doing a five-issue miniseries. Howard only wrote about six pages of a story – which is Kane meeting another character and then the two of them walking through the woods together, talking about some stuff. Almost nothing happens – and from what does happen and what they’re talking about, you really have no idea where things are going. What that means is that I had tons of room to decide where it’s going, and what it’s really all about.
So yeah – in the case of “The Castle of the Devil,” there was so much that I needed to figure out. With others – there are complete – and long Kane stories, so the adaptations will be a lot closer. But for this first one, there was a lot to extrapolate.
NRAMA: And mixed in with there being fewer stories is that Kane’s history is largely unknown?
SA: Right. We don’t really know how he came to be or have a clear idea of his chronology. With Kane, Howard didn’t put a date in the front of his stories, or give you much information about which came in which order. There’s a certain amount that you can figure out, though.
NRAMA: As a side note, Conan’s different in that regard, correct?
SA: Right. With Conan, the only reason people have such a good idea about the order of Conan stories is because during Howard’s life, some fans put together what they thought was the chronology, presented it to him, and then he gave them some feedback. So at least with Conan, there was a basic roadmap – it was incomplete at the time, but it was still a pretty good roadmap. With Kane, there’s nothing like that. We know that he had some kind of history in the military and certain details about his past that way, but how he ended up where he is now…that’s a mystery.
It would have been possible to start this Kane series very early in his career, when he’s just starting to have his seafaring adventures as a merchant soldier and as a soldier for the Queen, but I chose to skip all of that stuff and instead focus on his later, supernatural career.
NRAMA: Clearly, Howard had a fleshed out view of Kane in mind when he wrote, but you’re not privy to that. So how do you put the character together, in terms of motivation?
SA: Basically, there’s so much room to interpret and decide what went on with him, why he’s doing what he’s doing and more. One big cue from me is that we know that he’s a Puritan, but the way that he talks about God is real Old Testament, and really vengeance-focused, and not very Biblical. He’s not spouting Bible verses – partly, I think, because Howard wasn’t very familiar with it himself. So Kane’s a very weird kind of Christian, and a very weird kind of Puritan. One of the things that I did pick up on Kane in my research on the character is that how Puritans believe that God has a purpose for them, and the best things that you can do as a Puritan is to discover what your purpose is, and act on it.
So to me, the early part of the Kane comic books will be him trying to determine his purpose, and getting the initial idea about what his purpose is and then narrowing it down a little bit. Initially, he’s looking to stop evil men, and realizing that the military is not the best way for dealing with evil on an individual basis, and then he narrows that focus down over the first two or three miniseries.
But you’re right - Howard didn’t spell that stuff out. Howard didn’t talk about what Kane was thinking or where he was coming from. You have to infer a lot from the little bits and pieces.
NRAMA: So when you do have to put in pieces that Howard didn’t write…I’m thinking that your time editing Conan has built a foundation where you feel a little more comfortable than perhaps another writer coming in fresh and trying to read Howard’s mind and guess at what he was thinking and where he was going?
SA: Yeah – that’s a part of it. Kurt Busiek and I worked really closely on Conan, and he and I have talked a lot about Solomon Kane – and Mike Mignola’s favorite Howard character is Kane, so he and I have talked a lot about it, and I’ve read the stories backwards and forwards – literally.
So yeah, while I have no thought that I’m detecting Howard’s hidden meaning behind this stuff, I feel that I’m picking up on a lot of his cues and making sure not to contradict anything as best I can. That’s a big thing – there might be a throwaway line in one of the longer stories that could completely refute my approach to “The Castle of the Devil,” but I think I’ve been pretty careful about my approach.
I think I have a sense of what Howard was doing, and what his basic vibe was on what he was trying to get across in his fiction, and the way that he saw heroes. I think there’s a place where my ideas about adventure fiction synch up nicely with his and that’s where I feel like I can do something with Kane. That’s a lot of why I didn’t personally go after Kull, and never really went after writing Conan, because I didn’t feel like I got it quite enough for me. I felt like I knew how to edit Conan really well, but I didn’t see myself placing my head in that character the same way I can with Kane.
NRAMA: We’ve covered the character pretty well, but let’s step back in time a little - how did the ball get rolling with Kane at Dark Horse in the first place?
SA: We’d made the plans to do Conan, and then the Conan Properties guys got all the other Howard properties – Kane, Kull, and everything else. They said that they wanted to do more comics, and we agreed, and said we wanted to do a Kull series and a Kane series. Kull was supposed to be first, and I started reading Kull stories and thinking that the way we approached Conan from the get go was that we tried to understand what Conan was, and then make a book that was all about that – a book that was totally true to what the character was all about.
So I tried to understand what Kull was all about, and specifically, what makes him different from Conan, which can be tricky as the first Conan was actually a rejected Kull story that Howard changed the name from Kull to Conan, changed the title and some other stuff, and saw that published, and people liked Conan. So Conan literally came out of a Kull story. So in a sense, they are the same character in a sense.
So I started reading Kull stories and thinking up what the book should look like, and came up with the creative team on Kull – Arvid Nelson and Wil Conrad. Then, I went to tackle Solomon Kane, and instead of having names of creators pop up in my head, I started thinking, “Okay, this is how you need to approach it…” and my ideas started getting more and more narrow and specific until I felt that I knew exactly how I wanted the series to work, but I didn’t want to hire a writer and give them such a specific set of marching orders so they had no room to do their own thing.
So my feeling of what a Kane comic should be was a comic that I felt I should write. So I pitched that vision to Mike Richardson, Randy Stradley and the guys who own the Howard properties, and everybody went for it.
NRAMA: Broad stroke your selling points of the pitch.
SA: In Kane, I saw this vision of historic horror adventure. That’s what I love about Howard – his stuff doesn’t feel like fantasy to me. It feels like adventure stories with a really heavy horror atmosphere to them – no more so than with Solomon Kane. So I felt that this was the thing for me – I get to do an adventure story that’s heavy on horror.
Solomon Kane #1 (of 5) is due in stores in September. Plans call for both Kane and Kull to be presented as a series of miniseries from Dark Horse over the coming years.