There are few characters as classic as Conan the Barbarian, and few writers have had more experience with Robert E. Howard’s seminal hero than Timothy Truman. Truman began writing “Conan the Cimmerian” in 2006 and continued to come back to the character over the years. Truman’s latest endeavor with Dark Horse Comics is “King Conan,” a series of miniseries that follow the classic hero through Robert E. Howard’s later work. The latest upcoming series, “King Conan: The Conqueror” adapts the second half of Howard’s “Hour of the Dragon” novel from the 1930s. Along with series artist Tomas Giorello, Truman will take Conan to the end of his quest to regain his throne starting in February 2014.
CBR News spoke with Truman about “King Conan: The Conqueror” and his approach to adapting Howard’s final novel, as well as his years of experience with the character, what to expect from the newest miniseries and why Conan continues to be one of the most compelling adaptations in comics.
CBR News: Tim, “King Conan” just wrapped “Hour of the Dragon,” which saw the barbarian king of Aquilonia fighting his way to a mysterious gem. As Conan heads into “King Conan: The Conqueror,” what’s in store for him on his quest to regain his throne?
Timothy Truman: The 6-issue “King Conan: The Conqueror” miniseries adapts the second half of “Hour of the Dragon” novel, which Robert E. HowardÂ completed just before his death in the 1930s. Conan is still an outcast and renegade, having lost his throne in the first miniseries. He’s on the trail of the Heart of Ahriman, a gem that will help him overcome Xaltotun, a resurrected wizard whose powers led to his overthrow.Â He also remembers his promise to return to Zenobia, a woman who saved him when he was a prisoner and who will later make his queen. Conan has known a lot of women during his escapades, Crom knows, but there’s something about Zenobia that captivated him like few other women ever have. Along the way, we amplify a notion that Howard dropped into the story here and there: That at times doubts sneak into Conan’s mind about whether or not his mission is worth all the blood and trouble. The farther he travels from his kingdom, the more he remembers the freedoms he enjoyed when he wasn’t tied to the throne. However, the Cimmerian is like a wolf that’s caught whiff of a chunk of steak. He knows he can’t quit, and the memories of Zenobia is one of the main things that keeps him on track. He’s going to get what he’s searching for no matter what. And when he does, he’s going to make some folks regret they ever crossed him.Â It’s one of the things that make him such an enduring, iconic character: Conan don’t quit.
Conan’s not alone on his quest for the Heart of Ahriman during “The Conqueror.” What can you tease about the others that also seek the power of the gem?
If anything, there’s even more mysticism and action than was seen in the kick-off miniseries. He heads southward, among friends and foes that he knew from his younger days.Â At a seaport, he runs afoul of a guy he used to fence goods to when he was a member of Belit’s pirate crew and ends up getting shanghaied aboard a slave ship.Â As fate would have it, he discovers that some of his old Black Corsair compatriots are among the enslaved crew. After leading a ship-board revolt, he and the Corsairs end up taking over the ship and heading into Stygia, the dreaded empire ruled by devotees of the evil serpent god, Set. And all along the way, he’s being pursued by four mystical assassins from the oriental kingdom of Khitai. So we have all this going on, plus resurrectedÂ mummies and a hot female vampiress, too. It’s really great stuff — quintessential Robert E. Howard, showcasing everything that makes Conan great and proving why Howard’s original tale provided a springboard for the entire heroic fantasy genre. “Hour of the Dragon” created a template that fantasy writers have followed for seventy-five years. Being able to adapt it is a special treat for me due to the fact that it was the first Howard story I read when I was a kid back in the 1970’s. The Lancer paperback version of the tale (published as “Conan the Conqueror”) and it’s Frank Frazetta cover sliced through my brain like a bolt of lightning. Reading the book literally changed my life and made me want to create stories of my own.Â I was really pleased when Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson and my editor Phillip Simon decided to title the second 6 issues of the Adaptation “King Conan: The Conqueror.” It seemed like a great tribute to the old Lancer edition.
What about supporting cast? Any chance of seeing some old familiar faces from the past “King Conan” miniseries?
Long-time Conan and Robert E. Howard fans will be most eager to see The Black Corsairs, I’m sure.Â Artist Tomas Giorello has done some of the most incredible pages of his career in that particular issue. The illustrations are amazing.Â It’s as though Tomas was determined to show folks that it he wasn’t about to rest on the laurels received as best Illustrator at the Howard fan awards last summer. As spectacular as the visuals were in “Hour of the Dragon,” Tomas cranked the amps up to “11” this time out.
The Stygian vampiress Akivasha is another character that Dark Horse Conan fans might recognize. Akivasha has always been one of my favorite Howard characters. I’ve always found her really fascinating and rather tragic — a Stygian princess who sought eternal youth and beauty and ended up paying a nightmarish price. She received the immortality she desired, but has to spend it roaming alone in sunless catacombs beneath a Stygian temple. When I was writing the ongoing Conan comic, Paul Lee and I did a fill-in issue (co-plotted with my son Benjamin) where we explored the Akivasha episode from her side of the tale. It ended up being one of the most well-received installments that I worked on and Dark Horse got fan mail about it for months. So it was pretty cool to get to go back again and do those scenes “straight up,” the way that Howard originally played it.
As Conan continues through “The Conqueror,” how much closer will he get to reclaiming his throne?
Well, therein lies the tale, my man. Gettin’ there ain’t easy. Every time he’s been within hands-reach of the Heart of Ahriman, its been been wrenched away from him, and that makes him angry. He’s not used to that. It’s one of the subtexts that makes the original REH tale so interesting. Also, he keeps remembering that the witch woman Zaleta, whom he met in the first miniseries, told him that he must seek “The heart of his kingdom.” Did she mean the Heart of Ahriman? Zenobia? Or was she speaking about something else?
“The Conqueror” is your fourth series in Dark Horse’s “King Conan” modern library. How has your approach to the character evolved both since your start on “King Conan” and from your time adapting the character in “Conan” and “Conan the Cimmerian?”
Yeah, hard to believe, but it’s been almost nine years now. When I first started working on the series, I have to admit I was pretty star-struck. I still am, really — I’m such a die-hard Howard fan. I’ve always wanted to get it right — to really do the character justice and try to translate translate to the comics medium everything that I find so inspiring and exciting about the tone, color, and feel of Howard’s work. As far as any stylistic evolution goes, I’d say the biggest has probably been the way I handle the dialogue. It’s a little less “biblical” or whatever. I’ve tried to make it a little more conversational for modern readers who might not Howard’s work as well,Â yet I try to retain key textures and nuances that make things “Howardian.” It’s tough sometimes, because there’s a poetic cadence to Howard’s writing that just has to be there. Some writers really get it, but some don’t, and it’s something I get can really picky and snobby about. For me, when that cadence isn’t there, what’s supposed to be a Conan story just isn’t a Conan story anymore and might as well be any routine, unrelated swords-and-sorcery jaunt. Howard’s writing is about language and poetry as much as it is action and characters.Â If you don’t nail it halfway right, it’s like changing the melody on a well-known song.
That said, when I re-read some of the early adaptations and original stories I did, the things that I’d usually like to go back and change are mainly little dialogue things — things that would give the tales a bit more of a modern directness, yet still get across that Howardian “thing.” After so many years of doing it and studying the man’s tales, I think I probably have a more natural feel for it now. Of course, nothing ever compares to the real thing.
With comics like the “Conan” series, which has always been so tied to Robert E. Howard’s original work, what’s the challenge in writing a story that stays true to the original while still bringing your own voice to the characters?
Every time, the biggest challenge is to remember I’m not serving one master, but two: not only Howard’s original work and intent and but this strange and marvelous communication form we call sequential storytelling. The prose medium and the visual storytelling medium are two entirely different animals. If we were to do a scene-by-scene, line-by-line, beat-by-beat adaptation of “Hour of the Dragon, we’d have needed fifty or seventy five issues. And guess what — it might have made for some pretty uneven reading for comics fans. Not because Howard’s original story is boring — far from it.Â It would be because the strengths and drawbacks and intrinsic differences between the two mediums are so vast.Â So despite the fact that I’m such a Howard snob and die-hard devotee, I’ve sometimes had to make some pretty difficult choices, whether it’s condensing dialogue, juggling scenes, altering sequences here and there, or whatever. I just try to make the right choices — things that will drive the story forward with the same momentum and intent that the original stories possessed. Knowing that there is a big audience of long-time Howard fans out there who love the man’s work as much as I do is a thing that’s both kept me on track and kept me up at nights.Â That said, one of the greatest things about going to Cross Plains last year as guest of Honor for Robert E. Howard Days was getting the chance to meet all these Howard scholars whose work I’ve read and admired for a long time. These were folks who’ve dissected every aspect of the man’s work. Almost every one of them made it a point to tell me how much they liked what I’ve done and that I’m “one of them.”Â It was a pretty great feeling.
Adapting “The Hour of the Dragon” has been particularly tough. Howard wrote it really late in his career, and really as pretty much a draft, after he’d already completed most if not all of his Conan short stories for Weird Tales magazine. Because he was writing the story with an eye towards selling it to an entirely different market, he ended up using variations of some of the best scenes from his short stories. Since we’ve already adapted some of those same short stories in the comics, we didn’t want fans to feel that they’d seen it all before. So we tried to find ways to give readers the feeling they were seeing something different while stayingÂ faithful as possible to Howard’s original novel. In the end, it was kind of a fun exercise.
Now that I’ve finished all the scripts for the second miniseries, though, I can tell you that one of the main challenges reared its head at the very end of the tale. In the original novel, Conan actually disappears from the story entirely for several pages in the last quarter of the story. A lot of Howard scholars I’ve conferred with feel pretty sure it’s probably something that REH would have fixed in a second draft, but he died before he got a chance to do it.Â Anyway, for the big pay-off issue, we had to come up with ways to make sure that Conan stays in focus and front-and-center for the ending and that everything comes to a rip-roaring, satisfying conclusion.
What keeps you coming back to the world of Conan? As a writer and artist, what’s the biggest draw of Conan’s mythology?
Hard to say. Early on, discovering and reading Howard’s work was as important to me as learning to walk. It instilled in me a basic attitude that became part of my creative DNA, affecting every character I’ve ever done — “Scout,” “Grimjack,” “Hawkworld,” “Prowler,” even my frontier graphic novel, “Wilderness.” I think anyone who’s my characters in those books would agree that none of them are Howard clones. Yet they all share this basic attitude and air about them that I think REH would recognize and hopefully appreciate.
Also, the more I learned about Howard over the years, the more of a kinship I felt with him personally. We share a lot of the same circumstances in regards to the places and culture we came from. That was something that really struck me pretty hard when I was in Cross Plains over the summer. In so many ways, Cross Plains is just a hotter, flatter version of the West Virginia where I grew up.Â I stood in the doorway of Howard’s little back porch bedroom studio and thought “Wow, man. I’ve been here.” I have to admit, it was a pretty emotional experience for me.
“King Conan: The Conqueror” #1 is on sale February 26, 2014.