NYCC: Brian Wood Takes On "Conan the Barbarian"

With his long-running creator-owned Vertigo series "DMZ" and "Northlanders" soon coming to an end and his exclusive contract with DC Comics behind him, writer Brian Wood has begun to turn his attention toward new projects. "The Massive," which was announced at Comic-Con International in San Diego as a "Dark Horse Presents" serial, will get an ongoing series, it was revealed at New York Comic Con. Also announced in New York, Wood and "Demo" collaborator Becky Cloonan will launch a new ongoing "Conan the Barbarian" series from Dark Horse in February, following the conclusion of the current Roy Thomas-penned "Conan: Road of Kings" series.

Wood and Cloonan will adapt Conan creator Robert E. Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast" story, adding significant layers and details to Conan's life on the high seas with Belit. Comic Book Resources spoke with the creator about taking on "Conan the Barbarian," building out the Cimmerian's world and balancing his work on company-owned and licensed characters with developing his own creations like "The Massive."

CBR News: Brian, "Conan the Barbarian" strikes me as a pretty unusual project for both you and Becky. How did this come together?

Brian Wood: It came together over the course of some time, but Becky and I were not approached by Dark Horse as a team. I was, I think as far back as 2010, but I was still under my DC exclusive. When that was approaching its end, I checked back in with Dark Horse and the job was still available. I pitched for it, flew out to Portland to visit, talked it all over, and that was that. One of the most pleasant pitching experiences of my career. It felt like a perfect fit.

Once that was done, my editors Dave Marshall and Scott Allie and I started to talk artists. I deferred quite a bit, since this was not only a work-for-hire job but a licensed one as well, and I knew there were requirements from the license holders, as well as styles and directions DH were interested in going in. Becky's someone who is always in the back of my mind for any job that comes my way, but in this case I think Dave mentioned her first. For about ten seconds I wasn't sure about the "Demo" team on a book like "Conan," then common sense prevailed and it seemed like the stupidly obvious choice.

Becky's art, of course, is quite different from Conan's usual aesthetic. What do you think her style will bring to the character?

I dunno, its not that different. I think anyone who's seen Becky's self-published comic "Wolves," or her "Northlanders" story, or has followed her tweets and blog posts shouldn't be that surprised about this. It's true she is not like a lot of the other Conan artists that have come before, but I think she is a good match for Conan. All the prerequisites are there, but she brings a little extra humor. Very subtle, but its there in the faces. Some spark of life and energy to a genre that could very easily just be grim and overly serious.

So, what made you want to give your take on a Conan story?

Well, first, I was asked, and its always very flattering to be asked to pitch for a book like this, one with the weight of responsibility to its history and also a title so prominent in Dark Horse's catalog. Also, "Northlanders" I knew was coming to an end, so I saw an opportunity to continue to tell stories in this same general genre while giving my style of Viking comics a bit of a rest. It felt like a challenge, it felt like a way to grow as a writer.

When I pitched, I pitched something that was very "Northlanders" in tone, still staying very accurate and true to REH's world of Conan, but the sensibility is something any reader of Conan will recognize. And that's apparently exactly what both Dark Horse and the Conan people wanted.

Though you've done superheroes and the like in the past, you've built your reputation primarily on creator-owned comics. What sort of creative itch does working on a project like "Conan" scratch?

Well, like I said, its a challenge and a challenge is an opportunity for growth. But there's another aspect to this, one I've written about a bit on my blog and in other interviews. I'll try and be brief about it here: I'm coming off two successful creator-owned monthly books that have run for years, and in doing so, I feel like I reached a point where I can basically claim victory as a (almost exclusively) creator-owned-only writer. If only for myself, I claim it. I came up through the ranks, the hard way, and got to a point where I have a family, a house, a career on the strength of my own creations. I felt a weight lift once I realized that, and felt freer to take on company projects without feeling like I was undermining myself. In short, this was just the right time to do a few company-owned books, and so here I am.

Who is Conan, to your mind? Are there particular themes or aspects of his personality you're looking to explore?

One thing that we all agreed upon -- meaning me, my editors, [Dark Horse Publisher] Mike Richardson, etc. -- is that Conan is not a superhero. He is not infallible, here to simply slay a beast, get the girl and ride off into the sunsetT. He struggles, he overreaches and he fails, much more than one might think. He's really, really human. hat's what I'm focusing on and that's what, in large part, got me this job.
You'll be adapting Robert E. Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast" in this series. What can you tell us about this story and how you'll be fleshing it out for the comic?

I had to check with some friends who are better versed in the pulp world, and this is apparently a pretty famous story, arguably the most loved by Conan fans. It's the story of Conan's first love, Belit, and this period of his early life where he sailed with this pirate queen for a couple years. What was really appealing about this adaptation is the freedom I have. The source material, the original story, deals with how Conan and Belit met, and how their time together came to an end, but as far as those years they spent together, that is not in the story. All it says is, basically, they sailed together for two years. Those two years are the bulk of this adaptation, and its material I can generate from scratch. That's really appealing.

You mentioned "Northlanders," which is wrapping up soon, and "Conan the Barbarian" looks to be pirate-centered at this point in the Cimmerian's career. Are there ways in which these historical archetypes complement each other? How do you put yourself in a mind to write a pirate tale?

Well, there is virtually no difference between a pirate and a Viking. That said, I am not trying to turn "Conan" into "Northlanders." Not only would no one let me, I would not be so stupid and disrespectful to even try. And the world of Conan, while based in part of the real world, is really its own thing, a living, vibrant world with its own geography, rules and style. I'm writing within those parameters. But there are ways I can cross over a bit, find appropriate opportunities to flex those "Northlanders" muscles, which are the result of years of research. Conan and Belit spent plenty of time on ships, but those two years together is a long time and there's a wide variety of story I'll tell, some more "pirate," some a lot less so.
Your stories accomplish a lot of world-building while also honing in on character relationships. Do you see "Conan the Barbarian" taking a similar approach?

Absolutely, for all the reasons I stated above. Conan is a world that's already built, sure, but I look forward to making it a foreground element, like the way NYC was in "DMZ," and the land of the Vikings in "Northlanders." No generic backdrops in my Conan stories.

How many issues do you have planned?

I signed on to "Conan" for 25 issues (to start). "The Queen Of The Black Coast" is a 25-issue adaptation. I'm trying a new variation, format-wise, and that is 3-issue arcs, looking for a great middle ground between having more compressed stories than you perhaps have seen from me in the past, but with frequent jumping on points.

You also have "The Massive" at Dark Horse, which was announced as an ongoing at NYCC. We've already spoken a bit about the series when it was announced for "Dark Horse Presents," but I'd love to get a few more details now. First, when is the ongoing expected to launch?

June, I believe. The "Dark Horse Presents" stories will run from January through March, then we'll take a pause, build up the promotional effort, maybe some online-only material, and then launch the ongoing in June. I know that seems like a ways off, and it is, but by then Kristian and I will be so far ahead we can really focus on the stories themselves and not the deadlines. We're working on the series now.

Will this be your big creator-owned ongoing, as you round out your schedule with work-for-hire books like "Conan" and your Marvel project, or do you expect to add another series to your slate?

This is my big one, in the sense of a multi-year monthly book in the same mold as "DMZ" and "Northlanders." But its not the only creator-owned book I'm writing now. My ideal situation is to never drop below a 50/50 mix -- 50% of my output will always be creator-owned. At least.

Do you see "The Massive" as an open-ended series like "Northlanders," or is there an ending in mind, as I believe was the case with "DMZ?"

There is a very clear ending planned. I'm not looking to do a 72-issue series like "DMZ" again. You can semi-quote me on this, but I think it'll be around 30 issues. Five volumes on the shelf. And I know what the sequel's gonna be.

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