There’s one thing that Conan doesn’t like: magic. But in the upcoming adaptation of the Robert E. Howard classic story People of the Black Circle, Fred Van Lente and Ariel Olivetti are taking the fabled barbarian down into the depths of black magic – and straight through the Khyber Pass.
Conan: People Of The Black Circle takes Conan into a Hyborian era version of India, Afghanistan and Pakistan with a story that REH fans have called arguably one of the author’s best. In this story, Conan is blackmailed into helping an exotic queen claim revenge on a sect of sorcerers called the Black Seers of Yimsha. As fans know, Conan isn’t one much for blackmail but does end up helping the female ruler but ends up at odds with magicians and tribal warlords.
Before we jump into our chat with Van Lente about this miniseries which debuts in October, let’s share some words on magic Howard wrote in the other excellent Conan story, The Hour of the Dragon: “Better if steel and bowstring prevail without further aid from the arts, for the constant use of mighty spells sometimes sets forces in motion that might rock the universe.”
Newsarama: What can you tell us about Conan: People Of The Black Circle, Fred?
Fred Van Lente: Well, “People of the Black Circle” is one of the best of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories – and also one of the longest; it’s basically a novella. Dark Horse gave me the option of a couple Howard stories to adapt, and after reading all four of them I enjoyed this the most because it has the most interesting female protagonist, Princess Yasmina of Vendhya.
Vendya is a Hyborian age version of India, and the Devi is looking to avenge the death of her brother, the king, from the Black Circle group mentioned in the title. And to do this, she attempts to blackmail Conan into helping her by arresting some of the hillmen from a tribe that Conan has fought his way to become chief of. The Devi’s plan goes horribly awry, and she and Conan are eventually chased through the Hyborian version of the Khyber Pass and Kush Mountains, with wizards, monsters, tribesman and rival kingdoms chasing after them.
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with Conan; only with way more stabbing and less Spencer Tracy.
Nrama: Unlike most of Howard’s Conan stories, this goes deep into the intricacies of magic here beyond them just being pretty effortless.
Van Lente: Yes. Howard worshipped H.P. Lovecraft, and you can see a Lovecraftian influence in Howard’s work. You definitely see it here with the Black Seers of Yimsha, the Black Circle.
I’m working closely with Ariel to depict the magic in interesting ways instead of that video game, Saturday morning magic missiles shooting from your hand. With this, it’s like the dark fantasy of magic, one step away from being in the horror genre, making it really scary and creepy. The people who practice it are physically warped. It makes clear why not only Conan would hate magic, but why pretty much everyone in the world is frightened by it.
Nrama: You mention Conan here as the leader of a tribe. Now we’ve seen him as King Conan before, but he’s still best known as a loner. How’d he get on top of the heap here?
Van Lente: You know, there’s not a lot of explanation in the story. You get the impression that Conan achieved it through sheer force of will and trial by combat, to get his way and take over the tribe for his own personal goals. He breaks from them early on and gets saddled with the princess and an unexpected ally by halfway through the story.
You’ll see in the story that Conan isn’t 100% effective, personality-wise, to keep that grasp on power.
Nrama: As you said at the beginning of our conversation, this is based on one of Howard’s original stories – probably one of the greatest if you ask Conan fans. Did you have any apprehension on taking it on?
Van Lente: One of the reasons I took this job is because I’d never adapted anything prose-wise before, and wanted to try my hand at it. The gold standard for me is Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. So I set out wanting to do a word-for-word adaptation, but not all in narration – a little bit of the prose is sprinkled in the chapter headings. But 98% of all the dialogue is straight from Howard’s own words. That’s something I felt strongly about preserving, and I felt my job was just to take his story and put it in the best light possible in comic form. The main changes made were where I took things described in dialogue and dramatized it and fleshed it out, and then trimming some dialogue exchanges.
For the most part, I’ve been super faithful to the original story. That, to me, is the fun of it.
Nrama: This is set in Howard’s Hyborian version of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was basing it on that area back when he wrote it 79 years ago, but now it’s become even more of a interest to American audiences. Did you draw any inspiration from how things are now when telling this story?
Van Lente: It’s sort of amazing; Pakistan wasn’t even a country when Howard wrote this story. I tried to keep modern politics out of it and stay true to the story written in the 1930s.
What’s incredible to me is that there are locations in the story that match up with real life places like a palace or a fort near what is now the Khyber Pass. All the locations and all the different tribes Howard talks about in his story have real world analogues. It’s been fun to try to track them all down. I’ve sent Ariel some references from that, but cautioned him that he doesn’t have to make it “accurate” because it’s the Hyborian age, but I definitely wanted to do my best to make it not look western or generically Western/European. I wanted it to look Indian, to look Pashtun.
Nrama: Years ago, Roy Thomas and Ernie Chan adapted this story for Savage Sword of Conan. Given those huge names involved, did that earlier adaptation weigh at all on you while doing this?
Van Lente: I consciously chose not to look at that, as I didn’t want it to influence me. I wanted to stay directly attuned to Howard’s original version and go from there.
Nrama: Finally I wanted to talk about the artist here, Ariel Olivetti. We’ve mentioned him in passing, but I have to ask -- he seems like an ideal Conan artist, so what’s it like working for him?
Van Lente: Yeah, he’s awesome; he’s doing everything here, from penciling and inking to colors. When we call for scrolls, he’s there drawing them on the page himself. It’s interesting to see the evolution of the page from humble pencil beginnings to the final form. People may not know this, but Ariel’s uninked work has a Gil Kane-y type look, and then he builds on that with inks and then paints. He uses a lot of photo-collage and Photoshop work to transpose things too. His work is super smart, and it’s clearly a dream project for him.