NYCC: "ElfQuest," "Conan," and "Witcher" Creators Talk Epic Fantasy at Dark Horse

This past weekend was an eventful one for Dark Horse Comics, who announced a complete collection of Wendy and Richard Pini's "ElfQuest," a new writer for "Conan the Barbarian," and a new comic series based on the role-playing game "The Witcher." In the "Full Color Fantasy: Fantasy Comics Past, Present and Future!" panel on Friday at New York Comic Con, Dark Horse public relations and social media strategist Aub Driver led the panelists through the breaking news and then guided them into some shop talk about writing fantasy and creating new worlds.

Brian Wood and Fred Van Lente kicked things off with a discussion of "Conan the Barbarian." Dark Horse announced on Friday that Van Lente would be taking over the writing chores on "Conan the Barbarian" from Wood, starting with issue #26. Wood's "Queen of the Black Coast" story wraps up in issue # 25, and in #26 Van Lente will launch an adaptation of the next story by Conan creator Robert E. Howard, an unfinished tale that is usually referred to as "The Snout in the Dark." Van Lente is already writing another Conan story, the "People of the Black Circle" miniseries.

"Queen of the Black Coast," which launched in 2012 with art by Becky Cloonan and has featured a roster of other acclaimed artists since then, is based on a novelette by Howard in which Conan teams up with the pirate queen Bêlit. As Wood observed later in the panel, "Queen of the Black Coast" has a first act and a third act but no second act, so he has been able to create some original material for the middle of the story, but the final act will hew closely to Howard's original, which ends tragically. "I really feel like what it does is brings the entire 25 issues and makes it a whole unit -- this relationship Conan has with Bêlit, and all their ups and downs over the years, it all accumulates to this rather dark and supernatural story," Wood said.

Van Lente's current "Conan" project, "People of the Black Circle," is a self-contained miniseries based on another Howard story set in his version of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The story features the Devi (goddess) Yasmina, whom Van Lente regards as one of Howard's best female characters. "Conan kidnaps her for what he thinks are justified reasons and ends up drawing every chieftain, warlord, governor, wizard in that entire region of the Himalayan mountains coming to try to kill him," Van Lente explained. "It's kind of like 'It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World' where everyone is chasing after Conan, except there's less jokes and more stabbing." The series is illustrated by Ariel Olivetti, and the first issue is due out on October 23.

Turning to "ElfQuest," Driver announced that that Dark Horse will publish a complete edition of the classic fantasy comic by the Pinis. The first volume, which will contain all 21 issues of "ElfQuest: The Original Quest," will be 720 pages long and is slated for release in June, 2014. The second collection will include "ElfQuest: Siege of the Mountain" and "ElfQuest: Kings of the Broken Wheel" and will run roughly 552 pages. The collections will be black and white, with new cover art, and will be priced at $24.99 each.

Dark Horse had announced earlier in the day that it will publish a miniseries based on "The Witcher" video game series, written by Paul Tobin ("Colder," "Bandette") and illustrated by Joe Querio, with covers by Dave Johnson. Rafal Jaki, business development manager for CD Projekt RED, the creators of the game, explained how the comics will fit in with the game. Although "The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt" is due out next year, Jaki said, the comics will not tie in with it. "It is a stand alone story that actually will be canonical to the 'Witcher' universe, so everybody that knows and loves our universe and our book should read that," he said. The comics will feature Geralt of Rivia as the main character. "He is the protagonist of the comic book as well as the books and video games, and this is closely tied in with some mysteries in the world that we actually have that were not revealed yet," Jaki said.

Driver then turned the discussion to some more general topics, starting with a very broad one: Why did the creators choose to write epic fantasy?

"We have always seen fantasy as a metaphor for life," said Wendy Pini, "and we feel that in telling epic fantasy stories we are saying something about the human condition -- but in metaphor, so it's almost like a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down."

"The 'Witcher' series and fantasy in general, the books, the comic books, explore topics that are relevant to people," Jaki said in agreement. "Of course you have dragons, you have dwarves and swords and whatever, but still, the things that people do and people generate are the most important things."

Wood, who has written books set in real historical eras, said he was excited to be able to write about a fictional world that is as richly detailed as any historical era but also contains fantasy elements such as flying monkey apes.

"It's always awesome to create worlds," said Van Lente. "As a writer, that's what you are doing, even if it is set in the real world. It's great to conceive an entire mythology and polity, different races of people and humanoids and everything else, and to me that's the biggest appeal of fantasy."

And how does a writer start that world-building process?

"I let a guy named Robert E. Howard do all the hard work," cracked Van Lente. "It's not that different from creating worlds within the Marvel universe, he added: "You always start with a kernel of truth. As long as there's human emotion behind everything and people see the characters as real people, you can do any genre and go anywhere."

"I feel like that's the real trick, to start off with that thing that is going to allow the reader to access the emotions intellectually, find the point where it crosses over with our own world," said Wood. "Once you have established that you can layer on that more fantastical stuff but it still has that grounding that's real and that matters."

For Jaki, the story began with the details that Andrej Sapkowski, the writer of the original "Witcher" novels, left out. "He described many things, but he didn't describe many things as well, so this is when we came in," Jaki said. "The game explores some of the things that were not explored in his fantasy universe, and the comic book for us is somehow the same. It's like when you have the extended universe of 'Star Wars'; you make it broader and broader and broader and bring in new stories that are relevant to each other."

"As far as building the world itself, we have always thought of the world of two moons as a metaphor for Earth," Wendy Pini added. "The particular continent on which our lead characters, the Wolf Riders, live is certainly North America, and there is a strong Native American influence in the storytelling, as opposed to most fantasy, which has a European, often Celtic origin -- certainly Conan, which has a Celtic flavor."

She turned to Wood and Van Lente and asked, "In writing Conan, do you put your heads into how ancient people thought, or do you approach it from a modern mystic point of view?"

"The thing with the Conan world is that it's so clear what parts of the world Howard is basing it off of, and I'm a real history guy, so I always try to match it up and apply what I know about the real life," Wood said.

"It depends," Van Lente said. "My first arc is set in the Sudan version of the Hyborian age so I'm bringing in Sudanese and Egyptian folk tales, trying for the rhythm and some of the idioms of how people talk -- the thing about Conan is he's the guy who left his windswept homeland; he's basically a foreigner wherever he goes, so I guess I'm trying to figure out ways to make him Other."

Driver asked the Pinis about what Richard called "the infamous orgy scene" in "ElfQuest," and Wendy began by recalling one parent's reaction: "We also had a great deal of violence in that story, because that's when the war began," she said, "The orgy scene was the party the night before, and then the war started. I remember we received in a manila envelope of the pages containing the orgy scene torn into confetti by a parent who strongly objected, but they didn't send us the pages of violence, where people were getting their faces ripped off, that sort of thing, because the violence was fine for the children to see, but the pages of sex, no."

"The scene you are referring to was in the late 1970s. We were coming down off the cusp of the sexual revolution so we were feeling some storytelling oats there, " said Richard. "If you have followed 'ElfQuest' over three and a half decades, the focus of our concerns in the world has changed as well, things like racism, things like getting along with your neighbors whether they are different races or creatures or not."

Driver next asked the other panelists about "pushing the envelope" in their stories.

Because "The Witcher" is rated M, for mature users, it does have sex and violence in it. "If it's relevant to the story, we should show it," Jaki said. "We should show it in a way that is meaningful to the storytelling process. If you have a sex scene, it's to lead to something. Then it's OK. If it's just sex for sex, that is not something that we would do. When you talk or write about things that are difficult in terms of culture or a subject that is not widely discussed, you don't really think about it that way. You touch upon things you think are relevant, and you try to show how it is relevant to the world that you are creating."

"Everything I do has some level of social themes in it, so when I started on this 'Conan' series, I was looking for that," said Wood. "This is the story of Conan's great love of his life, and it became clear early on what I could really explore is the fact that they are a mixed race, mixed cultural couple. I keep finding ways to use that to reinforce actions or put them in bad spots. They each go to each other's homeland at different times and are discriminated against, they deal with the fact that they react to different things in different ways and have different beliefs about the afterlife. This is a couple, and I did treat it as if it was a living, breathing, real couple that could cause a lot of trouble."

"My run totally follows on that from what Brian is talking about," said Van Lente. "You meet Conan as a broken man. It's the emotional low point of Conan's life, and so it's how does he get himself out of this devastated place." In terms of social issues, Van Lente said "Snout in the Dark" is about a witch hunt, a metaphor that can be applied to any number of situations in which people are put into a state of fear so they can be manipulated.

Richard Pini pointed out another way in which he and Wendy push the envelope: Showing the consequences of the characters' actions. "There's a whole lot of entertainment in which characters do things but you never see the consequences, and oftentimes it is kind of implied there are no consequences," he said. "Everything that our characters do leads to something, whether it's the next panel or 30 years later. In 'Final Quest,' we are going to see some consequences of stuff that was laid down in the original quest. We don't shy away from showing [consequences], whether it's a happy consequence or, particularly with regard to violence, you do an act of violence and there are consequences that can be dire or violent themselves."

Before the question-and-answer session, Richard Pini invited a trio of elaborately dressed ElfQuest cosplayers to come to the front of the room to be photographed.

One attendee asked how the creators felt about being chained to the source material that came before.

"Since there was no 'before,' everything we have created we are chained willingly to," said Richard Pini.

"But we are chained," added Wendy Pini.

"We try to be respectful of the source materials," said Jaki, adding that what's important is that the creators are thoroughly grounded in the story: "Everyone that is starting from the comic books and going to the books or the video games, they can feel this is the same experience, the same characters, just a different approach to them because this is the media you are encountering."

For Wood and Van Lente, the opportunities for storytelling came from the gaps in Howard's original stories. "If you know the original book, you know it has a first act and a third act and no second act," Wood said. "The bulk of my 25 issues happens in that undefined, untold second act. I knew what ending to aim for, but aside from that it was like I was creating original material," Wood explained. Adapting the beginning and end of the story from Howard's novelette provided a different challenge, especially the end, which is almost wordless: "I have four issues in which no one really talks, and he is alone for most of it too so he doesn't have anyone to talk to," Wood said. "It was an interesting puzzle to solve."

"The Snout in the Dark" offers even more opportunities to Van Lente. "It is really just a page and a half outline," he said. "[Howard] only finished four or five chapters of it, so I do have a lot of freedom there, and then the arc following mine is based on literally two paragraphs in the next story. Howard did this great thing where he would always open up in medias res where Conan is in a crazy situation, and he'd give a little couple of sentence description of what army he was in or who he had just stolen from, and we can take these very vague descriptions and make six-issue arcs out of them, and they are just as exciting and awesome as the Howard stories themselves."

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Dark Horse Comics' fantasy titles.

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