They’ve been through NYC in turmoil, superhuman strife, and the era of Vikings, but now Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan venture to the Hyborian Age: The Age of Conan.Announced at New York Comic Con, the two long-time collaborators are joining forces yet again to plot the next chapter in Dark Horse’s long-running Conan comics franchise with an all-new Conan The Barbarian series. Set to debut on February 8, 2012, this new Conan the Barbarian story adapts and expands upon one of the most revered (and requested) Robert E. Howard stories ever: Queen Of The Black Coast. This sprawling story shows Conan leaving dry land behind for adventure aboard the feared female pirate Bêlit, who proves to be more than a match for the hero both in battle and in matters of the heart.
Newsarama spoke with both Wood and Cloonan about this dramatic new chapter in both their careers, and what it’s like to wield the sword of Conan in this expansive 25-issue epic.
Newsarama: Taking a classic decades-old story and adapting it to comics can’t be easy. Tell us Brian, Becky, how’d you get started guiding Queen Of The Black Coast to what would become this new Conan The Barbarian series?
Becky Cloonan: I read Queen of the Black Coast while I was in college. It's such a bad ass story. For the adaptation, a lot of my research has been looking into where the Hyborian map coincides with which countries, and trying to get a feel of the geography and places. Setting is such a big part of Howard's world, and I'm trying to incorporate that into the art.
Brian Wood: In my case, what was involved was reading the original story about ten times, thinking about not only how to adapt it but what material to come up with for this couple of years that Conan and Bêlit spent together... I get to make all that up, since it’s barely mentioned in the original story. I wrote a pretty detailed pitch for a 25-issue run, flew out to Portland to talk to my editors Dave Marshall and Scott Allie, as well as Mike Richardson, and that was pretty much that.
When I actually started scripting, that original story came out again and lived in a window on my screen. It's a really short story, and requires some expert information mining to build entire comic book arcs out of it. It’s not just about what Robert E Howard said, it’s also what he meant. I studied that book like the Zapruder film.Nrama: I remember Bêlit as being Conan’s first real love. Although Conan’s far from a romance book, I’ve seen you handle that deftly in Northlanders while not getting mushy. How big a role will Conan’s feelings take for this arc?
Wood: Well, I was hired on for a lot of reasons, one of them being the way I handle some heavy emotional stuff within genres like Northlanders and Conan, and for the fact that I really take to heart the famous line about Conan's "gigantic mirth and gigantic melancholies". He has feelings, something a certain population of diehard Conan fans do not like to acknowledge (I peeked at a couple message boards). Conan is also a young guy at the time of this story, in the early twenties. This is formative time, emotionally speaking. His relationship with Bêlit was some seriously, seriously turbulent stuff, lots of highs and lows and exciting times and crushing blows.
Nrama: This is an adaptation, but Howard left a lot of things vague regarding the two years Conan spent at sea with Bêlit. Adapting this, how are you expanding it without diverging from Howard’s original vision?Wood: Just by staying true to the characters, and building off what Robert E. Howard left as clues. If you can understand the nature of their relationship, you can easily predict how they will act in any given situation, especially situations you also get to invent. And since the end of their story is already known, I can write in a way that builds towards that goal, adding layers to what's already there. Nrama: What would you say are your key inspirations for understanding Conan and the tone of Conan stories? Wood: I just try and keep it really simple. In addition to whatever I knew about Conan before taking on this job, I read the story I'm adapting, ask a lot of questions of my editor, and refer to maps. Writing Conan is also not THAT dissimilar from Northlanders, at least not in the broad strokes. What interests me about Vikings is something I can also find within the world of Conan.
Cloonan: I'm not really sure how to answer this- visually I'm taking most of my cues from how Howard describes certain things about the world and characters. Although that said, I'm also trying to make this as much my Conan as anything else – I hope that I'm able to add to the mythology, and that our take on Conan surprises and excites people.Nrama: Becky, I’m excited to see in your art a leaner, less body-building Conan here. Can you tell us about working in the shadow of Arnold Schwarznegger’s portrayal (and the artists before and since) and how you pinpointed just how you would (and wouldn’t) draw Conan?
Cloonan: I had a feeling that when Dark Horse tapped me on the shoulder for this job they weren't looking for a beefy Conan; I'm not exactly known for drawing muscle-bound dudes. My Conan is actually rather pretty. I figure, here's a guy who likes to kick ass, but he also knows how to have a good time. Women love him. All his homeboys probably have man-crushes on him. Howard describes him as being panther-like, which always makes me giggle a bit. I love Schwarznegger's Conan as much as the next (I quote it on an almost daily basis), but it wasn't hard to put out of my mind. We're doing something completely different. Besides, how could I even touch that film? It's a classic.Nrama: There’s a variety of different breeds of pirate. How’d you go to pinpoint just who Bêlit is and what she’d be like?
Wood: I think its safe to say that Bêlit is in a category of her own. Also, I am not writing her as any sort of pirate stereotype. There is actually so much information in the first part of the source material, especially when you are poring over every line like a crazy person like I am. Every adjective is a clue, a piece of the puzzle, and there is a huge amount of subtext there. But again, it’s a short story and we have 25 issues to fill, so the real trick is to build Bêlit out from what she is already into something much more well-rounded and complete. It seems like sacrilege to even say such a thing, but it’s true.
In her, you have a pretty cutthroat pirate; you also have a demanding queen, and an incredibly sexual person. She draws a bead on Conan (and to a degree finds a way to fetishize his ethnicity, which is a fascinating thing as a writer to play with) and goes after him hardcore. But that's just the first step. How do they, as a couple, evolve over some two years? What is it about her that makes him want to stick around for that long, and vice versa?
Cloonan: Bêlit is a little tricky, visually- she's this tough as nails pirate woman who runs around topless and kills people. At first you think, how can this not be awesome to draw? But she could easily turn into a character who's only purpose is to be cheesecake, the chick who is clinging to Conan's leg. I think the real trick with Bêlit is to really show her as the driving force of this story. She is the most feared pirate in the waters surrounding Kush. She is frightening and powerful and sexy, and I'm trying my hardest to make her all of these things. Without Bêlit, this story would be nothing.Nrama: Either by luck or plans, you two have become frequent collaborators going back to Channel Zero: Jennie One in 2003. Can you tell us how approaching Conan The Barbarian now, together, is different than doing it with a less familiar collaborator or earlier on in your work together? Wood: Well, the way it always is with Becky is there is a high degree of trust, both as pals and as collaborators. And also familiarity, so as I write the script I know in my head how Becky is going to draw it, and I can trust she won't go off-script or anything like that. We can also hit the ground running, having worked so much together in the past. There's no warming-up period, we can just get the assignment and immediately start producing comics.
Cloonan: I love working with Brian. Everything he talks about in the script I get excited about. Like little side notes about the characters or the plot or the setting, I'm consistently saying "YES!" to myself as I read them. Brian and I were a good combination from the start. I think we just have similar ways of approaching the work, and now that we've developed such a history, we know what to expect from each other and basically leave each other alone to do the work. I trust him completely – what more can you want from a collaborator?
Wood: As far as Conan specifically, we had the good luck to have done a 2-part Northlanders story less than a year ago, which is not the same as Conan but not too far off, either. I suppose if we DID need a warm-up, that was it. But again, trust comes into play because I have my hands full working with the adaptation and making sure what I do passes muster not only with Dark Horse but with the Howard estate people. So I can just leave it to Becky and know she'll knock it out of the park.
Nrama: Before I let you get back to it, let me ask Becky one last thing. This isn’t the first time you’ve done pirates – back in 2006 you did the graphic novel East Coast Rising. Although that was more Mad Max than Conan, what’s it like to return to the high seas with swashbucklers?
Cloonan: Oh, I love it. Swashbuckling and the high seas are two of my favorite things. I'll never get sick of drawing this stuff.