Change. That’s the best way to describe the future for Dark Horse’s “Conan.”
The current Conan series will come to an end with February’s double sized issue #50, and then will be relaunched in May, 2008 as “Conan the Cimmerian.” The series will cover a new chapter in Conan’s life, as he moves from thief and pirate to his mercenary days, which will put him on the path to becoming Conan the King.
Along with the name change, artist Cary Nord is leaving the title, and being replaced by Argentinean artist Tomàs Giorello, who has plenty of experience drawing the strange and the wild from his seven years at Wizards of the Coast. Editor Scott Allie is also handing over the editorial reins to Matt Dryer. Tim Truman will be staying on as writer, and Cary Nord will continue as cover artist.
“We’ve closed a chapter – sort of closed chapters on multiple levels – so we want to give the book a fresh start, a fresh coat of paint. Conan’s career as a thief is over, and he’s heading into his mercenary days. We’re also wrapping up the Born on the Battlefield arc, which shuts the door on Conan’s childhood in another way,” Allie told CBR News about the future of Conan at Dark Horse. “That started in issue #8, and ends in #46, so that was real spread out. Also, everyone but the letterer has now changed since issue one. Kurt handed the reigns to Tim, Cary’s handing them to Tomas Giorello, and I’m handing them over to Matt Dryer. So it’s evolved, it didn’t happen over night, but it is a whole new book. These guys deserve the opportunity to lay claim to it, ground up.”
Nord’s departure isn’t a result of bad blood or burnout, but is due to the fatigue of working on the same project for more than five years; a long run by modern standards.
“He’s just burnt on the book,” said Allie. “Trying to keep to the monthly schedule was a real grind for him, and he’s been doing it a long time. Conan’s owned his every waking moment for the last five years. He needs a break. I’m amazed he stayed on this long. Seems like no one stays on work-for-hire books that long anymore. I’ll miss him, but I hope to keep working with him. We’ve talking about some other stuff for him.”
“Another big change, besides those I already mentioned, is that with the new artist, we won’t have fill ins every couple of issue. Tomas can keep the schedule. We’ll have fill ins again someday, it’s inevitable, but they won’t interrupt the story the way they’ve been doing lately. That’s one of the best things about the change-people are gonna get a solid, consistent book, and they’re only gonna have one story at a time to keep track of.”
The change will run deep, reflecting the growth and experience that Conan has gained over the course of the current series, and showing a deepening cynicism about the trappings of civilization.
“His perception of the world has been altered significantly,” explained incoming editor Matt Dryer. “He’s been exposed to ‘civilized’ society and seen the darker side of human nature, which will make him a bit more cynical and guarded. He’s also seen some pretty fantastic things in his early travels in terms of the supernatural realm. He’s been exposed to all kinds of creatures and sorcery for the first time and managed to come out on the other side. Now that he’s better aware of these things, he’ll have a better sense of how to deal them with when he encounters them again. I guess you could say he’s more worldly.”
Series writer Tim Truman, probably best known as an artist on titles like “Grim Jack” with John Ostrander and “Jonah Hex” with Joe Lansdale, replaced original writer Kurt Busiek on the title after Busiek left for an exclusive DC contract, and is looking forward to the relaunch:
“I think it’s a very cool idea,” said Truman. “Although he wrote Conan’s adventures in a non-chronological fashion, Robert E. Howard consciously divided Conan’s life into different ‘career’ phases or eras: basically, from thief and wanderer to mercenary, to pirate, to border raider, to scout, to king.
“In the comic series, we’re moving from the ‘thief’ phase to the ‘mercenary’ phase,” continued Truman. “One of the fascinating things about Howard’s writing is that, even though he wrote the stories non-chronologically, there are subtle differences in Conan’s personality during all these different phases.
“During his thief phase, he’s less experienced – a big strapping lad from a barbaric outback country who goes adventuring in the “civilized” cities of the Hyborian era. In those tales he tends to view the wonders of the outside world in a more wide-eyed fashion. REH even dresses him differently – generally he’s wearing just a simple loincloth, high-laced sandals, and a sword. In the mercenary and pirate stories he seems tougher, wiser, more confident, and is showing the scars of experience. He dresses more and more elaborately and tends to pick things up in different countries that he travels to.
“In short, the experiences of his life change him – sometimes subtly, sometimes quite dramatically, just like real folks.
“When people read several of the Dark Horse issues back-to-back, they’ll see that the character is accumulating experiences and knowledge that change him. This is a great way to mark his next phase.
“That said, I must admit that the relaunch hits a cool nostalgic note with me, too, as I’m sure it will other Conan fans who’ve followed the stories since the late 1960’s and early ’70s. It sort of reminds me of those great old Lancer paperbacks – ‘Conan the Conqueror,’ ‘Conan the Adventurer’ and the others. It fits with the legacy.”
The series so far has adapted a number of Conan creator’s Robert E. Howard stories while interspersing them with new stories, and the relaunch will refine and tighten this technique while continuing to follow Howard’s original stories.
“We’ve stated from the very beginning that our goal is stay true Robert E. Howard’s original stories and expand on the Conan’s world by showing how he gets from one of Howard’s adventures to the next,” said Dryer. “That’s a direction we want to keep going. Tim’s done a great job with that. He’s so familiar with those original texts and so immersed in that world, that he’s got the series mapped out pretty well… not issue by issue, mind you, but in terms of story arcs and how Conan gets from one situation to the next.
“And we’re going to be very consistent. A title like ‘Conan’ offers a lot of opportunities to work with lots of different people and tell all kinds of different stories, but it’s easy to get carried away, which we did in the first series. There were so many great creators to work with (John Severin, Bruce Timm, Rafael Kayanan, Greg Ruth, Eric Powell and many others) that we got to be like kids in a candy store-we wanted to work with all of them and put out these terrific stand-alone issues, but they started to get in the way of the canon story-line.
“It’s not going to be like that with this series. We’re going to stay focused on the main story and be more consistent. That’s not to say that there won’t be some special guest artist appearances from time to time, but when there are, it’ll be part of the story. For instance in the very first arc, there are a series of flashbacks that pertain to Conan’s grandfather as a young adventurer which will directly impact Conan in his own time, and those sequences are being done by Richard Corben! But the main part of the story will be drawn by the regular artist, Tomàs Giorello and there won’t be those stand-alone issues to break up the series.”
The same sentiment was echoed by Truman.
“My main goal is to keep the continuity going so that there’s no let-up in the story momentum,” said Truman. “For various reasons, we were having to schedule too many fill-ins. As a writer and as a guy who is interested in all phases of Conan’s career, they were fun to do, and getting the chance to work with Paul Lee is always a blast. However, it’s not the way that I like to approach storytelling.
“Ideally, like to tell stories chronologically, for the reason that I mentioned above: so that if one read all the stories back-to-back, we could see people in the series change and develop. From day one, I’ve very consciously injected a lot of continuing plot threads into the stories. For people who’ve been following the Dark Horse book, that will become very clear in the climax of the current series, Conan 47-50. The plots for the new series are being done just as carefully. You have to understand that even though they aren’t published yet, I’ve already plotted or scripted about 28 stories. I’m working way ahead of the printed book.”
Weaving the stories in and out of the series is both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward of the series for Truman.
“Howard’s Conan stories are one big puzzle. He put pieces together to form individual stories, but there are pieces of other stories mixed in there, too. The pieces extend outward into his other characters as well: Conan, Kull, Bran Mac Morn, and Solomon Kane are all part of the same universe, and there are little bits contained in their stories that tie them all together.
“Looking for connections within the Conan stories is a real treat,” continued Truman. “One of my jobs is to expand on the Conan universe, but I always want to do it with clues that Howard provided himself, in his own stories, story fragments, outlines, and letters. For instance, the last arc in the current series, ‘Hand of Nergal,’ is from a two-page story fragment that Howard wrote.
“To fill in the spaces and complete the story, I used evidence that the fragment provides, mixed it with things that Howard himself was obviously researching – specifically, Mesopotamian mythology – and stirred in plot threads that I’ve been weaving into the series since my first issue, ‘Conan’ #33.
“The first arc in the new series, ‘Cimmeria,’ arose out of a poem of the same name that REH wrote, plus line in a letter that Howard wrote to some fans in the 1930s. I combined this with things that Conan is going through in the last two arcs of the current series, ‘Rogues in the House’ and ‘The Hand of Nergal.’
“Howard was the chef, but I’m his cook. He specifies the ingredients and I try to mix them just right. Conan’s the ultimate alpha dog. Everybody wants to be an alpha dog. Conan points the way.
“When Robert Howard created Conan, he nailed it. He did what everyone who creates heroic characters wants to do: He found the seminal, primal, empathic heroic formula, and I doubt that he was even consciously planning it. He admitted it himself: Conan found him.
“Conan is a deceptively complex and intriguing character. When viewed as a sort of sound bite, he looks simple, but that’s wrong. By the same token, I don’t want to ape Howard. That would belittle both his writing and my own. I’m tending to look beneath the surface of his writing and his characters, and scrape up little bits that intrigue me. With Rogues, Nergal, and Cimmeria, there’s some carefully planned, escalating psychodrama that’s going on within the stories I’m writing. I have to juggle those insights with the proper Howard ‘feel,’ though. Otherwise, Conan is a different character.”
Truman also described what’s coming up next for fans of the series and its brutal protagonist:
“‘Conan’ #’s 43 and 44 of the current series wrap up the adaptation of Howard’s classic short story, ‘Rogues in the House.’ This one was both real fun and a real challenge to do. Howard’s original story flows like mercury, but when I sat down to adapt it as an illustrated graphic story, I saw that if I simply did it page-per-page, scene for scene, line per line as per the REH story the story flow would have highs and lows in it that would actually detract from Howard’s original pacing and narrative drive. This isn’t in the least a slight to the original tale. Quite simply, the visual story and the prose story are two different beasts entirely.
“I’d run into the same problem three or four years ago when adapting Joe R. Lansdale’s novelette ‘On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks’ as a comic book miniseries. Anyway, I had to rearrange the sequence of a few scenes, bring dialogue from different sections together, and do some juggling — not in an effort to rewrite the tale, but solely to put the adaptation across faithfully and in a powerful way.
“Also, in the original story, I was surprised to notice that for a big chunk of the tale Conan has surprisingly little hands-on action to do and actually doesn’t say much. He’s sort of in the background for the entire middle of the story, as the Red Priest sort of goes around describing things for him and Prince Murilo. This was a shock. It certainly isn’t the way I remembered the story. In fact, as a tribute to Howard’s skills, it’s not the actual impression that REH leaves when you’re finished reading his original version. However, when you break the story down scene-by-scene for pictures, you quickly find out that to keep Conan front and center in a visualized version, it’s essential to rearrange a few things to make it work best. It was tough to do.
“Thus it’s been gratifying to read some early reviews and reader reactions of ‘Rogues: Part 2’ (Conan #42) on the various message boards. The first post I read was from a fan who, in the past, has proved himself to be particularly discerning, hard core Howard fan, and he raved about how faithful the adaptation is, and how people who adapt movies ought to take cue from it. Then, one of the reviewers said something like ‘usually I go back and re-read the original stories to see how faithful the adaptation is, but I don’t feel like I have to do that this time.’ He raved about issue adaptation. In point of fact, if they did go back and read the original story, they’d probably be pretty surprised at the little things I did here and there. The fact that these good ol’ Howardian hardliners came away totally satisfied made me feel great– a real ‘mission accomplished’ moment for me.
“As for Issue #43, it will mark a little preview for folks of Tomas Giorello’s take on Conan. Cary is putting extra effort into Rogues and was falling a bit behind, but we thought it essential to keep the story momentum going full-tilt, so we asked Tomas to pinch-hit for that issue. It worked out great. Tomas adjusted his storytelling and rendering style a bit so that it would blend well with Cary’s when ‘Rogues’ is collected together, so it works amazing well.
“Issue #44 is the climax, but there are a few things for people to keep their eyes on. — some new scenes that lay the groundwork for the next arc. #44 is heavy on the action, but more importantly it gets to the philosophical core of the original Howard story.
“When people view the ‘Rogues’ arc in its entirety– including the prelude issues we did– I think they’ll see that the events that happen really affect Conan. He’s been betrayed, he’s seen his first real friend die, and he’s seen the selfishness and arrogance of civilized men. It opens his eyes in many ways, and toughens him up some. He’s about to begin the next phase of his journey.
“With Issues 45 and 46, we’ll take a long scheduled departure from regular continuity. Kurt Busiek finally wraps up the ‘Born on the Battlefield’ storyline. I’m as anxious to read it as anyone else.
“After that, issues #47-50 cap of the current series, and in a big way. Originally I’d planned to do the ‘Cimmeria’ adaptation here, but on closer examination we determined that adapting and expanding on Howard’s original story fragment for ‘The Hand of Nergal’ would fit much better here, and works perfectly with the generally accepted chronology. It provides a better way for me to wrap up some plot threads that we’ve been building on for the last 2 dozen issues– a true climax– and a bloody one– to the entire ‘first era.’
“As a springboard for a story, Nergal is really interesting. Howard’s Conan stories always have a strong horror element– he invented the genre by blending historical dramas with pulp horror, after all. However, even though he didn’t complete ‘Nergal’ it’s evident that he was toying with the idea of turning the horror element up to ’11.’ The story is part military drama, part supernatural sorcery tale, part ‘Reanimator,’ and part ‘Dawn of the Dead’– Mesopotamian style. Conan is still rug-burned by his first exposure to civilization and is just trying to make a few bucks on his way back to Cimmeria and gets caught up in some real nastiness. These events tie up the current title with a neat little bow, and set us up for the relaunch.
“As for the relaunch itself, as noted above, Conan returns to Cimmeria. This return was mentioned in some of his correspondence, as is the fact that young Conan was inspired to journeyed out of Cimmeria by tales that his grandfather told him. This opened some interesting things for me to consider: Conan’s grandfather left Cimmeria, had adventures, and returned home. Conan did exactly the same thing. For some reason, though, his grandfather never left again. Conan, on the other hand, did leave, and basically marched into legend. Why does Conan feel compelled to return home? Why does he decide not to stay? Why did these two men made different choices? The tale is told in seven issues, and it’s epic, by Crom. ”
Tim’s partner on this is newcomer to the series Tomàs Giorello. This isn’t Giorello’s first experience with Conan, though, as he was an artist for a Conan story when the property was at Marvel Comics. He might also be familiar to fans of the Dark Horse line of “Star Wars” comics, where he has worked on comics and covers for the past few years, and he’s going to make a big splash on Conan the Cimmerian.
“Tomàs is great! He’s such a talented artist,” explained Editor Matt Dryer. “I’ve been watching his stuff for a few years now. I used to have the office next to one of the Star Wars editors while he was working on those titles and when the pages came in I got to see his work first hand. Those pages were so beautiful. His line work is just breathtaking and his technique is really quite different than what you normally see in comics. He’s so good with a pencil. His name had come up a number of times as a possible Conan artist and when I got in touch with him, he was very enthusiastic about the prospect. He replied immediately and emailed me a batch of sample pages he had drawn a year or so before we’d ever even spoken-it was clear that he was a huge fan of the character-and the pages were great. It was a no-brainer.”
The artist himself couldn’t be happier to be working on a character he’s loved since childhood.
“It´s a great experience in many ways, it´s something I wanted to do since I was a kid, it´s very very fun to draw,” said Giorello. “It has a little bit of everything: action, horror, warriors, beautiful women, mystery, great landscapes, unique characters, etc. It´s a huge, dark and fascinating world to explore!
“It wasn’t easy to find the comics when I was a kid, so I treasured each one I could find. I remember the first time I saw Frazetta´s paintings (Man-Ape, The Destroyer, Chained, Berserker, etc but most of all The Barbarian of course) they blew my mind and gave me a better, more adult idea of how Conan should look! It was later in my 20s when I had access to more material and read my first two R.E.Howard story ‘The Queen of the black Coast’ and ‘The Hand of Nergal.'”
It’s going to be a wild new ride for Conan, and Truman summed it up best:
“From this point on, the spurs are dug in and it’s bared steel all the way. Nobody quits until the world is in flames.”
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