January 14 will mark the first time in over fifteen years that Conan and Red Sonja – two icons of the fantasy genre – will cross paths in world of comics. Leading this inter-company crossover charge is the head writer from Dynamite’s current Red Sonja series, Gail Simone, along with veteran fantasy writer, Jim Zub, in Conan/Red Sonja from Dark Horse Comics.
Dynamite CEO and Publisher, Nick Barrucci, who holds the Red Sonja half of the licenses described the crossover saying: “Red Sonja and Conan are the power-couple of fantasy comics. They define the genre together, the iconic figures by which all others are measured. Their history is intertwined, and I suppose it was only destiny that would lead them together again. […] We couldn't be more pleased to see the Robert E. Howard legacy made whole again with two Hyboria-shaking crossover events.”
In advance of the release of the first issue, Newsarama sat down to talk with both Simone and Zub about their personal interests in these two heroes of old, their working process, and their thoughts about Conan and Red Sonja’s continued appeal decades after they were first introduced.
Newsarama: Before we talk about your collaborative work together, I’m curious what your personal history is with these two characters?
Gail Simone: I have talked about Red Sonja a lot. She's a red-haired ass-kicker who does what she wants, and that was the element that always felt very powerful to me. My entire run on the character is really about that. I dearly love her. She's one of my two or three all-time favorite characters. I originally agreed to do six issues of her story, but I can't seem to let go, and I keep signing on to do more.
With Conan, it's a different thing...I didn't read the books until much later, my introduction to him was in back issues of Savage Tales I would find at garage sales. I fell in love with the genre and the character, even though, to be fair, they weren't really aimed at a female audience, which is fine, but could be very off-putting to someone who wanted to like the stories.
But the art, and the monsters, and the settings, and Conan's take-no-crap attitude, you can see a lot of that in my writing to this day.
Jim Zub: As I’m sure most people know I grew up heavily invested in sword & sorcery – reading a slew of novels, playing lots of Dungeons & Dragons, watching movies, just all around immersing myself in the genre. Conan, in comics, prose, and movies has always loomed large for me.
Red Sonja was always on the periphery in the Conan comics (I wasn’t reading them in order back in the day, just whatever I could get my hands on), but I distinctly remember Marvel Team-Up #79 where she teamed up with Spider-Man and that was extra cool – my favorite super hero crossing into fantasy stuff was epic stuff.
I’ve written two very different Red Sonja comics so far - the blood-soaked and intense Red Sonja and Cub and the kid-friendly L’il Sonja, both for Dynamite. Digging in and reading Gail’s run and other Red Sonja comics from the past few years gave me a much greater appreciation of the character. She’s Conan’s equal in so many ways.
Funny enough, my first ‘professional’ comic credit was as a colorist on the re-released Barry Windsor-Smith Chronicles of Conan books Dark Horse put out in 2003. I started at the UDON studio as a colorist and that was the first project that fell into my lap. If you check out Chronicles of Conan Volume 2: “Rogues in the House and Other Stories” you’ll see my name in there.
Nrama: It seems pretty clear the powers-that-be picked creators with the right pedigree! How did this series come about? Originally, it was slated to have you [Gail] working alongside Brian Wood, but things changed. How did you and Jim come together to work on this series?
Simone: Brian is a brilliant writer but things happen beyond our control. It just happens like that. There's no hard feelings, it was amicable on all sides.
Fortunately, I thought of Jim Zub, who is a favorite of mine, and someone I have known for many years, who also has real expertise in the fantasy genres.
It was my idea to have two writers. I thought it'd be fun to have a fiercely female writer and a decidedly male writer as well, just for the spice of it. And I think it really sang, because it's one of my favorite projects ever. Jim elevated everything.
Zub: Gail contacted me in late 2013 and asked if I might be interested in collaborating on this mini-series and I jumped at the chance. Two of my favorite characters, a legendary team-up, and a creative dream team – how could I not?
Nrama: Now, it’s clear that the working relationship that develops between a writer and his or her artist is different from project to project. With this series, however, there are two writers on board. Can you talk through your creative process not only with one another but with artist Dan Panosian and colorist Dave Stewart?
Simone: I didn't actually have a lot of contact with Dan directly, that was mostly through our editor, Dave Marshall. But when we saw the first page came in, I think we all agreed to step back and let Dan do what he does, because holy crap the pages look amazing. I swear, I have been ranting about this on and on for ages now, and it's because every page that came in took the top of my head off. And then Dave colored it and added an entirely new level.
It's not hyperbole, it's one of the best looking books of the year. It's stunning.
Zub: Yeah, Gail and I have been collaborating closely and Dave Marshall, our editor at Dark Horse, has been handling the art management brilliantly. He put together a killer art team and let them loose on our script.
As far as the story goes, Gail and I brainstormed elements we thought were essential to making this a real epic tale and then started bouncing it back and forth, pacing it out, refining those elements until they worked as a whole. We wanted to tell a big sprawling sword & sorcery tale that spanned years as Conan and Sonja meet at different key points in their lives.
In terms of scripting, it’s been a ‘tennis match’. After the overall story pacing is worked out, each of us writes a full script section and ‘serves it’ over to the other, who writes the next part while making small refinements to dialogue or pacing as it moves forward. It’s been a creative challenge, but one that I think is bringing out some great qualities from both of our writing styles.
Nrama: Recent depictions of Conan have varied widely from more traditional renditions with Kurt Busiek and Timothy Truman up to Fred Van Lente along with more contemporary re-imaginings with Brian Wood's run on the series that looked to play to a wider range of readers. Which Conan can readers expect to see in this four-part series?
Simone: We did a fun thing. The story takes place over several eras of the characters, from young and inexperienced, to the period at the height of their powers. So it really spans several versions of the characters. Conan's been lucky to have such great writers and we wanted to incorporate all of them.
Dark Horse has been asking me for years to write Conan, but I've never had room in my schedule, or I was exclusive to DC. They knew this was the project I couldn't resist. First Conan/Sonja team up in fifteen years? Yes, please!
Zub: Seeing the characters evolve and their relationship change in turn, is one of the most satisfying aspects of working on this project. We didn’t have to pick a favorite age, we got to play with them all.
Gail told me up front that we were here to make it epic and that she wanted some Robert E. Howard/ Roy Thomas-worthy bombast, which was a ton of fun. The gravitas that comes through in the narration, that’s classic Conan to me.
That said, in the same way that Gail and other modern writers have balanced the classic feel with more nuanced storytelling I feel like we’re delving a bit deeper into the relationship of these two fantastic characters. It’s a really cool balance of new and old approaches.
Nrama: For readers who are less familiar with Red Sonja - aside from the iconic image of the sword-swinging, chain mail bikini-clad warrior - how have you re-fashioned her so that she defies the stereotypical depiction of women in fantasy?
Simone: I honestly haven't spent ten minutes thinking about it, to be blunt. Sonja already had a lot of power and impact, my goal was just to set it free. I don't have to deal with some of the nonsense in her past - I get to cherry pick the good stuff.
She sometimes doesn't wear much, sure. But I think this past year shows that she can be incredibly powerful anyway.
Zub: Yeah, agreed. Sonja carries herself with authority and power first and foremost, but she’s not just a one-note warrior. Sonja is capable but headstrong, quick to anger but quick to lend aid as well.
Nrama: Now, we live in a world where it’s becoming not only acceptable but outright praised when creators redesign female heroes so they look less like objects of the male gaze and look every bit as professional as their male counterparts. Gail, you made some notable and positive changes to Sonja’s origins, what are your thoughts about whether it is (or is not) time for Sonja to undergo a similar redesign?
Simone: I think the bikini is iconic, it doesn't bother me. There were many cultures where they didn't like to wear heavy armor, and some cultures fought basically in the nude. The time period she represents is not the Knights of the Round Table. That said, we have her in different outfits all the time. She wears the bikini maybe half the time.
She can be redesigned, but it's a bit like Black Canary without the fishnets: She still has to be recognizable.
Nrama: Gail, I've read that it was your idea to show Conan and Red Sonja over the course of years they've known each other. What can we expect to see when these two forces of nature come together?
Simone: Issue one, they are very young and they act it. That's one of the funnest parts!
Nrama: Jim, you are particularly well-known for your fantasy-comedy series, Skullkickers, though you’ve certainly done other work such as Dynamite’s Pathfinder series as well as IDW’s Baldur’s Gate series. How do you see this work differentiating itself from your past work in the genre? Will readers see some of your trademark humor?
Zub: This is probably the most serious fantasy comic I’ve written, but that doesn’t mean there’s no humor to be had, just that the stakes and action are really intense. The humor comes from the friction between these two legends. They’re both big enough to front their own series and those kinds of egos don’t back down easily, even when they’re both working towards the same ends.
More than comedy, action has been a big part of almost every comic I’ve written, and this mini-series definitely flexed those creative muscles; Staging huge fight scenes in exciting locations, pushing these characters to their limits. It’s been a blast.
Although there are some aspects that are definitively “me” in there, I really wanted to pay tribute to the incredible work that’s been done with both of these characters. If I did my job people should enjoy a sweeping Conan/Red Sonja story, not feel like Gail and I are pushing them out of character to do our own thing.
Nrama: As I understand it, this series is going to take place not only in this title, but also in a separate series published by Dynamite, correct? What level of involvement will either of you have in that series and what is your vision for the crossover event?
Simone: Our book is from Dark Horse, and there will be a Dynamite series later on. We are not involved, except as actively cheering them on.
Zub: From what I know, Dynamite and Dark Horse will each be doing their own crossover mini-series. Our Dark Horse one arrives first and I hope that the creative team who puts out Dynamite’s takes what we’ve done as a challenge to deliver something just as big. We rebuilt the relationship between these two larger than life characters and I hope it doesn’t take another 15+ years to see that realized again.
Nrama: Ah, okay. Thanks for the clarification on that.
Now, you have both made your love of the fantasy genre clear to your fans from your professional work to your presence on social media. What is it about the genre that captures your imagination to such an extent that you wanted to write your own stories?
Simone: I like the lusty, bawdy, toughness of it. I love the morality plays you can write. Give me a blood-soaked desert and a giant snake and I'm happy.
Zub: Exactly that. Sword & Sorcery is raw and uncompromising. Survival, exploration, and intensity are its hallmarks. The nature of the stories drives characters to take big risks and, if they succeed, to relish in their triumphs. It’s pure adrenalin-pumping escapism. You can’t beat that.
Nrama: Final question: Any chance we’ll see the two of your team up for future Conan/Red Sonja mini-series?
Zub: This mini-series was written with the sense that if this is the only chance we get to do a crossover between them, then it's the best and most epic one we can put together. It's a sprawling story with tons of action and emotion that spans years as Sonja and Conan grow into the legends we know and love. I hope readers respond strongly to it. If it goes well, anything's possible.