Roy Thomas, the writer who first brought pulp writer Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian to comics forty years ago, returns to the character once again this December. Announced at the Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo (C2E2), Thomas will be writing the twelve-issue “Conan: Road of Kings” with Mike Hawthorne on art, following the conclusion of Dark Horse’s current “Conan the Cimmerian” ongoing series, which ends with issue #25. The current “Conan” creative team of Tim Truman and Tomas Giorello will move on to a King Conan miniseries. CBR News spoke with Thomas about his return to Conan and what to expect from the series.
Thomas, recounting a story he has had cause to repeat often over the years, described his role in bringing Conan to Marvel Comics back in 1970. “I was the associate editor at the time, and people would send me all these letters from readers that we should bring characters from books and things into comics,” he began. “There were four things that kept coming up: one was Robert E. Howard’s ‘Conan,’ or something like it – Howard was the author most often mentioned. And the other three were Tolkien, Doc Savage, and Edgard Rice Burroughs, stuff like ‘Tarzan’ and maybe ‘John Carter of Mars.’ We tried for all of them, eventually, and got all of them except Tolkien. I put together a memo for publisher Martin Goodman saying why we should [license a character] – I don’t know why we didn’t just make up a new one. The idea Stan and I had was to just license a sword and sorcery character that already existed. I think it was because Stan didn’t really know what sword and sorcery was, and I hadn’t read a lot of it at that time myself. I hadn’t read a lot of Howard, I bought a couple of the books for the Frazetta covers but I’d never really read them.
“When Goodman gave us permission to license a character, we figured we couldn’t afford Conan because that was the top character coming out. By that time, there’d been about half a decade of Conan coming out in Lancer paperbacks, so we figured no sense going after that, there was no way we were going to get it. I knew Lin Carter slightly, who had authored a character called Thongor, who was half Conan and half John Carter of Mars – as a matter of fact, that was the first sword and sorcery book I ever read, because it, too, had a Frazetta cover, and for many years I owned the original art to that cover. Lin was great, but his agent kept wanting us to offer more money than the $150 per issue that Martin Goodman had magnanimously said we could pay for rights. Then one day I picked up the latest book that had just come out, called ‘Conan of Cimmeria,’ which had another Frazetta cover. I’d started to read them at this stage, the Conan stories, and I liked them; they were obviously better than the others that were coming out. And strangely enough, in L. Sprague de Camp’s introduction, he gave the name and the address of the literary agent for the Howard estate, Glen Lord. I thought, well, that’s the person to write to, and I did. I said, we can’t offer much money but it might increase Conan’s audience and so forth, what do you think? I didn’t have much elasticity, but I was so embarrassed by the $150 that I upped it to $200 without thinking. So that when Glen agreed, I didn’t know what I was going to tell Martin Goodman – I’d basically added 33 1/3 percent. So I decided I’d have to write the first issue or so, so that if Goodman objected I could knock a couple pages off my rate to even things out.” Though it never came to that, Thomas added, the extra expense for licensing meant that hiring one of Marvel’s top artists for the series, such as John Buscema, was out of the question. “That’s how Barry Smith got the job, which worked out very well for everybody – for me, for Marvel, for Barry, for all of us.”
Though many of Thomas’s “Conan” stories from the Marvel years are now collected in archival editions by Dark Horse, this will be the first time Thomas has written the Cimmerian for the current publisher. “I’d always sort of wanted to write Conan, but they felt they wanted to go with new art, writing, kind of a new direction, establish their own identity,” he said. “And then recently, Mike [Richardson, Dark Horse publisher] and I began to talk about the possibility of me doing something with one of the Robert E. Howard characters, one that they hadn’t done a series for, and I made a few suggestions. Sounded OK to Mike, but then suddenly he and some of his editors came up with this fact that in 1970, forty years ago this summer, was the debut of ‘Conan the Barbarian’ #1. We decided to do a series that’ll run about a year and begin as a fortieth anniversary thing. ‘Conan’ #1 was October 1970, but it came out in July or August – it’ll be more or less the fortieth anniversary. So when they made that offer, I said it sounds like fun!”
Thomas explained that his series will bridge the gap between Truman’s Howard-inspired final arc, “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” and the next of R.E. Howard’s stories, “Queen of the Black Coast.” “There’s only one little weird problem with it,” Thomas said of the period between the two existing stories, “that I don’t think anybody ever thought about: the story [of ‘Road of Kings’] begins when Conan has just taken over a pirate ship on the Vilayet Sea, which is on the easternmost end, or just about, of Howard’s map of the Hyborean Age. And he has to end up at the exact western point of the Hyborean Age kingdoms! This is, I don’t know two or three thousand miles away, so I had to come up with a story or a series of episodes that would lead him from one end to the other. I had twelve issues, though logically it might have taken me a little longer. It occurred to me that, running not too far from where the Vilayet Sea is, and running not too far from Argos, is the Road of Kings, which is a road that wound around some of the Hyborean kingdoms. Karl Edward Wagner had written a novel a couple decades ago called ‘Conan: Road of Kings,’ but it just occurred to me as being a logical title and a way to tie things together almost from the farthest east to the farthest west.” Thomas clarified that his story is not related to Wagner’s in any way.
Given that Thomas might be said to know Conan better than anyone, CBR News asked the writer whether there remained any mystery to the character for him. “Conan’s almost a blank slate on which you can write any number of things,” Thomas noted. “I see examples that the various writers at Dark Horse have written – Kurt Busiek, Tim Truman and I, we all have somewhat different takes on the character. Everybody who reads the character sort of figures out what Conan’s like. We take the traits that Conan has and we give our interpretation of those traits. It’s not that hard to flesh him out, and you have to. Because whereas Howard wrote a couple of dozen stories, in the course of writing a regular book you’ve got to fill in all those gaps.”
Thomas also discussed the dearth of physical description for Conan in the source material. “Howard didn’t even really describe how Conan looked. There’s not one real description, except for the general ideas of scars. He never describes the shape of his nose, or I don’t know if he even ever hints at that square jaw. He has long black hair, although it doesn’t say exactly how long, and he has blue eyes,” Thomas said. “There’s really not a lot of other description. He sort of allowed any male reader (and maybe female readers, too) to kind of put themselves in Conan’s shoes. Your face goes here. You can do things with his personality, too. I did things in the Marvel version of Conan that I might disown now, or some people might say, ‘well, that’s Marvel, that’s not Conan.’ But I might see other people’s version of Conan and say, ‘well, that’s not what I think Conan is.’ Robert E. Howard has had his say, the rest of us are now just seeing what we can come with that will reasonable match up with what Howard had and still give us a chance to get our jollies.”
Though still very early in the process – Thomas told CBR he is currently plotting his first issue – the writer praised artist Mike Hawthorne based on sample art Dark Horse has shown him. “I’ve always liked to work with artists who are storytellers rather than just illustrators. People like Barry [Smith] and later John [Buscema] and Gil Kane, the best Conan and the best comics artists have been.” Thomas also said that their collaboration would involve Thomas writing “Marvel Style,” that is, providing a plot for an artist to illustrate and then scripting dialogue after that. “One of things that Mike [Richardson] and I agreed when we talked about this stuff was, if it’s going to be Conan, it has to fit in to what’s gone before [in the Dark Horse series],” Thomas said, noting that his new tales would disregard any work he’d done for Marvel. “At the same time, I didn’t just want to do – and Mike didn’t want me to do – their Conan, exactly. He wanted me to do my take on Conan in this period. And that was really the only way I would have been interested in writing it, at this stage in my career. I wanted to do stories the way I wanted to do them, and that included doing them ‘Marvel-style,’ doing a plot instead of a full script. It was a more detailed plot than I ever gave to Barry Smith or John Buscema or Gil Kane or anybody for ‘Conan’ in the ’70s or even in the ’90s when I wrote him again, but still, a plot gives them and me some wiggle room later on. They can pace it a little differently from what I had in mind and I change emphases and so forth when I write it. I find that seeing the art inspires me to think of lines much more so than a blank piece of paper. I’ve written movies and so forth, but I just don’t find it that interesting to write a comic script, any more than I find it to read one.”
As for his plans for Conan beyond “Road of Kings,” Thomas said that it’s too soon to discuss. “It’s possible I might write something else after that, either with Conan or something else. It depends on how they like and how I like what happens in these 12 issues. I’m not thinking that far ahead,” he said. “One year’s worth of work, that’s fine. I’ve got so much other stuff to do that writing about one comic book a month is about all I can do without having to violate my wife’s unwritten rule that I only work about four days a week, instead of the usual seven-plus.”
If previous patterns are anything to go by, though, the writer may have a few more years of writing “Conan” before hanging up his axe. “It’s really interesting to me, that writing ‘Conan’ seems to be an every second-decade thing,” Thomas said. “I started writing him in 1970, and I wrote it for ten years, a couple hundred stories, until 1980 when I left Marvel. Then from 1980 to 1990 or so I didn’t even read a Conan comic book, although I continued to read Robert E. Howard. In the ’90s, I wrote ‘Conan’ until Marvel gave up its license near the end of the 20th century. Then the last decade has been another Conan-less one for me, and now at the beginning of a new decade, in year 2010, I find myself writing ‘Conan’ again. It’s some weird, strange connection, that every ten years someone wants me to write Conan.
“I’m very much looking forward to it. I hope that it will be interesting and I still have something to say about Conan.”