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History 101: Kurt Busiek talks “Book Of Thoth”

by  in Comic News Comment
History 101: Kurt Busiek talks “Book Of Thoth”
“Conan: Book of Thoth” #1 & #2

As one of the big success stories in the last couple of years, “Conan” is another jewel in the crown of writer Kurt Busiek. The scribe is famous for his superhero work in “Marvels” and “Superman: Secret Identity,” as well as his trailblazing work in “Astro City” and “Arrowsmith.” But when he launched Dark Horse’s “Conan” series, which was faithful to the Robert E Howard novels, he showed that he was a master of yet another genre. With his DC Comics contract’s exclusivity clause, fans won’t see Busiek on “Conan” for too much longer, but in March he’ll tell an oft-requested story in the form of “Book Of Thoth.” Busiek briefly spoke with CBR News about the mini-series, with includes Len Wein & Kelley Jones as collaborators, and explained the premise of the series.

“Simply put, this is the origin story of Conan’s greatest foe, Thoth-amon,” Busiek explained to CBR News. “We’ll see Thoth’s childhood, what drives him, how he becomes a sorcerer, how he becomes so powerful, how he hooks up with the dread god Set, and more. Think of it as a big ol’ techno-thriller, except instead of ‘techno’ it’s ‘mystico,’ and instead of being set in the modern era, it’s set in ancient Stygia.

“It’s the big, bold rise to power of the ultimate villain.”

While we’ll see some familiar faces from “Conan,” Busiek says that the series will take place a bit earlier than some might expect. “We’ll see Thoth, of course. And Kalanthes, priest of Ibis. But most of the series takes place centuries before any of the main Conan cast has been born, so it’s largely the movers and shakers of ancient Stygia, who you mostly haven’t met yet. We do get to see at least one character who was only seen as, well, a skullbone, in the regular series.”

Though some fans say it’s harder to get readers interested in projects about villains, citing middle of the road sales on many super-villain books., Busiek explained why he disagrees with that notion and what makes Thoth so interesting to him. “Is it really that hard to get people interested in villain stories? I don’t know — Dracula’s been a compelling character for a long time now, and people are always itching for more Dr. Doom. And from ‘Thunderbolts’ to ‘Villains United’ and more, bad guys seem to intrigue readers these days.

“Conan: Book of Thoth” #3 “Conan: Book of Thoth” #1, Page 5

“In any case, Thoth is a powerful, exotic and mysterious character — he only turns up in one Robert E. Howard Conan story, and is mentioned in two more. He’s clearly a power in that world, someone who can make things move and shake even without setting foot on stage. Already, that makes him interesting enough for me to want to know more. Where’d he come from? What drive him? What does he want? What is it about him that makes him someone who crosses Conan’s path as often as he does (he’s the only Conan villain REH used more than once). That feels like a story worth telling, a character worth bringing into the spotlight. And with Kelley Jones bringing it to life, even better!”

In films and comics, there seems to have a been a resurgence in the popularity of fantasy, for which some would point to “Lord Of The Rings,” and it’s a testament to Conan that he stands so strong among the pack of fantasy properties. And for those who want to cite “Kull The Conquerer” as a Conan rip off, Busiek is happy to educate you. “Well, Kull is an ancestor of Conan’s — he too was created by Robert E. Howard, and his milieu of precataclysmic Atlantis has a fair number of similarities to Conan’s Hyborean Age. In fact, the very first Conan story was a rewritten Kull tale. I like the Hyborian Age better, largely because we see it through the eyes of a character who ranges all over it and sees it from very different levels, ranging from sneak-thief to king, and Kull’s a king the first time we ever meet him. And Conan appeared in more stories, giving Howard room to flesh out this decadent, decaying civilization, full of ancient magic and forces gone sour.

“When it comes to the Sorbo Kull, though, Conan kicks his ass — !”

With industry legend Len Wein sharing writing duties on “Book of Thoth,” Busiek said it’s been a lot of fun working on the book together. “Dark Horse wanted to do Conan side-projects, and I suggested Thoth as a worthwhile subject, but I didn’t have time to write it all myself. So I suggested Len — not only is he a friend, but as the creator of ‘Swamp Thing’ and the writer of a great run of ‘Phantom Stranger’ and enough ‘House Of Mystery’ and ‘House Of Secrets’ to be considered one of the progenitors of DC’s Vertigo line, both as a writer and later as an editor, bringing Alan Moore onto ‘Swamp Thing.’ I knew he could do the kind of solidly-structured semi-Gothic spooky thriller we needed for this story.

“It’s been a treat working with him — Len’s got a great sense of mood and structure, and he’s had a lot of practice being inventively spooky. I think our sensibilities are similar enough that we’re coming from a roughly similar place, and we quibble over how to best frost the cake, not how to bake it. If that makes any sense. We argue more about commas than about plot.”

“Conan: Book of Thoth” #1, Page 13 “Conan: Book of Thoth” #1, Page 32

And Kelley Jones? “Kelley was editor Scott Allie’s suggestion, and both Len and I both had no hesitation in saying ‘You bet!'” says Busiek of the artist. “Kelley’s absolutely a master of moody horror storytelling, so if he’s available, the only sane reaction is to snap him up.”

“Conan” has treated Busiek as well as he’s treated the titular character, but isn’t about to look back at his “legacy” quite yet, saying, “Right now, I’m still finishing it up, so I’m not in a position to look back on it yet. But it feels pretty good — I think I’ve managed a respectable batch of work that’s connected well with a readership, and done better with it, both creatively and commercially, than anyone had suspected.”

When further asked about his “mission statement” for “Conan” and the character’s world, Busiek smiles and replies, “I try not to have ‘mission statements’ — I’m a writer, not Jerry Maguire. My aim was simply to write good stuff, but I suppose there was an implied mission statement of relaunching and reintroducing Conan successfully to a new generation of readers. If that was it, then I think we succeeded, but it wasn’t all me by any means. Everyone, from Scott Allie to Cary Nord to the amazing Dave Stewart to Rich Starkings, who learned the principles of lettering from the Marvel ‘Conan’ and now gets to strike a perfect tone for the book, has gone the extra mile to make this the best book it can be.

“The great part is that we’ve all been pulling in the same direction, and I think it really shows in the finished work.”

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