Becky Cloonan is no stranger to the works of Robert E. Howard - she once sailed the seas of Cimmeria as the artist of an adaptation of the classic story "Queen of the Black Coast" - but now she'll cross swords with a very different Howard character in the upcoming Marvel limited series Dark Agnes.
Fresh off an appearance in Conan: Serpent War, Dark Agnes is a mostly unknown Robert E. Howard character whose adventures - unlike Conan's or Solomon Kane's - are mostly grounded in the reality of the Rennaissance period. Cloonan will team up with Luca Pizzari for Dark Agnes' Marvel Comics solo limited-series debut - and she'll pit Agnes against not just the best swordsmen of her day, but even the social norms of the era.
Newsarama spoke with Cloonan ahead of Dark Agnes #1's February 5 release to find out about how Dark Agnes fits into the tapestry of Robert E. Howard's mythos and bringing her rapier-sharp sensibility to a somewhat obscure character
Newsarama: Becky, you’ve got a history with the Conan mythos – and I want to ask you about that – but to start off, how does it feel returning to the works of Robert E. Howard with Dark Agnes? How did this book come together?
Becky Cloonan: It's no secret that I love Conan, and I've been a fan of Robert E. Howard's work for most of my life, so when Mark Basso over at Marvel editorial reached out and asked me if I wanted to write a Dark Agnes miniseries, my first answer was, of course "... Who?"
Nrama: As you just alluded, Dark Agnes is not as well-known as some of Howard’s other characters – what’s your read on who she is and how she fits into her 16th century setting?
Cloonan: I have no qualms admitting that I'd never heard of Dark Agnes before this. Howard only wrote three stories about the character, one of which was never finished. Agnes is an incredible character, and in only a few short stories Howard was able to create a compelling narrative, complete with lived-in setting and an incredible cast of characters to balance it all out. He left Agnes, frustratingly, at the cusp of her adventures - which is where I come in.
Nrama: To make the story feel real, I might have overdone it on the research into the 1520's (the only thing I knew about this time period was Henry VIII, really) so it was a lot of fun to dig in and see where the history took me. The real challenge was how to make it feel authentic to three time periods - the early Renaissance when the story takes place, the 1930's when Robert E. Howard originally wrote them, and now - how to bring this story to modern audiences without losing any of its original essence.
Nrama: And to that end, what’s she up against in this story? What’s at stake for her?
Cloonan: Agnes is a powerhouse of a character. She's strong-willed and independent, but she's still figuring herself out - a big part of that is coming to terms with abuse she suffered growing up. She doesn't trust easily, but she's made one stalwart friend in Etienne Villiers - a disgraced nobleman, spoiled and cocky - her exact opposite in every way. But the two of them find a balance in their strange companionship.
Writing them together is a lot of fun. Their friendship is as boisterous as it is tenuous; Etienne has bad habits and Agnes has trust issues. They'd make each other better people, if only they can learn to be patient and forgive each other! Their adventure of course leads them into trouble, where Etienne finds some old enemies and Agnes is forced to confront the misdeeds of her past- deeds she felt justified in, until they come back to haunt her.
Everyone is the hero of their own story, but what happens when you find out that you're the villain?
Nrama: You worked on Conan before, when the license was with Dark Horse – but as an artist, illustrating, among other tales, a version of "Queen of the Black Coast." How did that experience with Howard’s work inform your work here, as a writer?
Cloonan: I was lucky to be able to hop on "Queen of the Black Coast" as the first illustrator of the series, so I was able to visually set the tone for the series. I love that story so much and I had such a strong look for how I wanted the characters to appear - Conan was young, eager and panther-like, a thief destined to become a king- Belit was a force of nature, a sea witch, a siren made flesh. I was given the freedom to visually interpret the story as I read it. A liberating experience!
My approach on Dark Agnes is similar, only as a writer this time. I've taken the characters and the setting, and stayed as true to Robert E. Howard's stories as I could, while trying to tell what would be a faithful sequel to the story.
Nrama: How does being an artist as well as a writer – and often both in tandem – impact the way you create your scripts for other artists? What artistic principles are you keeping in mind as you craft the script?
In most cases I let the artist approach the page as they see fit, with what works for their storytelling style. I like a lot of freedom in a script to explore the emotional beats on each page, so I like to give that freedom to the artists I'm lucky enough to work with! Sometimes if I have a specific idea for a page I'll describe it, but I'm always open to what the artist has in mind.
I think just being an artist has given me a good idea of how much I can fit on a page, so breaking down scripts comes pretty natural to me. Dark Agnes is a particularly dense plot though - there's so much happening in each issue that often times I have to re-arrange each scene multiple times to get all the events and dialog to flow just the way I want it to.
Nrama: You’re working with Luca Pizzari on Dark Agnes. What makes Luca the perfect collaborator for this title? How closely have the two of you worked on developing the visual language of Dark Agnes?
Cloonan: Luca is knocking these pages out of the dang park! I don't envy his job on this book- he has to draw horse drawn carriages, sword fights during a public execution, masquerade balls with a sea of costumed party-goers, and a hedge maze? And that's just in the first two issues. He really is going above and beyond, and the fact that he's Italian - who better to draw a book about the Renaissance than someone who lives in a country that defined it? Right from the start we had the same touchstones, so I knew Agnes would be in good hands.
Nrama: You also created a variant cover for Dark Agnes #1. What was it like drawing a very different Robert E. Howard character? How has your knowledge of the other eras of his mythos informed your take on Dark Agnes?
Cloonan: I can't say I was informed by other Robert E. Howard stories for Dark Agnes - it's very much a historical fiction, not a shared universe, sword and sorcery story or anything like that, so my vision of the character, when not drawn from the original stories, is pulled either straight from history, or done with the spirit of the stories in mind.
Nrama: Dark Agnes is a very interesting character with shades of some real historical badasses. In a line populated by barbarians, monster hunters, magic users, and more, what is Dark Agnes’ niche?
Cloonan: Niche is the right word. Seriously, it's been as much fun as it's been a challenge.
Mostly I want people to understand that even though she lives in the 1500's, Agnes is a thoroughly modern character. Like, if she was around today she'd be non-binary with she/her pronouns. This is a woman who escaped an abusive father, cut off all her hair and renounced her gender, started dressing in a man's doublet and britches, and is trying to prove herself an equal match for any swordsman - have I ever related to a character as strongly as Agnes?
And what could be more relevant to today's world than striving for the recognition of your actions and deeds, but constantly being held back by a society that doesn’t recognize your personhood? This is what Agnes is railing against, and in that respect it's a very modern tale indeed.
Nrama: You’ve got five issues to tell this Dark Agnes tale. Once that’s through, could you see yourself sticking with more Dark Agnes or other Howard-mythos tales?
Cloonan: Dark Agnes is a character that writes themselves. At five issues, I feel like I left the story at a good ending point for now, but of course I have ideas for a hundred adventures - and I know how I'd end the series as well. I feel good knowing that I've given Agnes an adventure worthy of her, and left her and Etienne in a place where they could easily pick up their adventures again.
Nrama: Bottom line, what can readers expect from this not-so-typical fantasy story?
Cloonan: Action, adventure, poison and intrigue, lies, disguises and backstabbing, a painful past, a tragic love, an execution, a nemesis, a feast, a duel at dawn, and a 16th century humanist girl gang that practices radical empathy. It's all there if you want it!
Oh, and murder. There's always a murder.