NYCC Exclusive: Fred Van Lente Takes on "Conan the Barbarian"

It's been known for a while that writer Brian Wood is wrapping up his "Conan the Barbarian" run at Dark Horse Comics with issue #25, scheduled for February 2014.

What hasn't been known, until now, is who's following Wood on the book with March's issue #26: As revealed Friday at New York Comic Con, it's Fred Van Lente, currently writing multiple diverse projects including "Archer & Armstrong" at Valiant Entertainment and "G.I. Joe" at IDW, and already in the Dark Horse/Conan loop with the "People of the Black Circle" miniseries.

CBR News has the exclusive first interview with Van Lente on his new "Conan the Barbarian" gig, and talked with the writer about his own Conan fandom, the first story he's adapting and the character's place in comic book history. No artist has yet been announced for Van Lente's run; the art in this story is from "People of the Black Circle," illustrated by Ariel Olivetti.

CBR News: Fred, it's now official that you're taking over as writer of "Conan the Barbarian" with issue #26. What attracted you to taking on the ongoing series? You're already writing the "People of the Black Circle" miniseries, so presumably you're feeling quite comfortable in the Conan zone (Conezone?) at this point.

Fred Van Lente: Honestly, I'm as excited to be taking over "Conan" as I was when [Marvel senior editor] Steve Wacker invited me to come write "Amazing Spider-Man." This is a huge franchise rich in history, adventure, and one of the great classic solo heroes. I was thrilled when I was asked to adapt the "People of the Black Circle" with Ariel and I'm now even more thrilled I get to stay in the Hyborian Age for the foreseeable future.

How much of a Conan fan were you before landing on these Dark Horse projects? In what ways do you see the character and his world as a good match for your sensibilities?

My favorite thing to do is to mix myth and history and "Conan" is perhaps the most classic example of that in world literature. I've read almost all the original tales, classics like "The Hour of the Dragon," "Black Circle," "Red Nails, Queen of the Black Coast," et cetera, and I've read every single page of the Dark Horse trades, beginning with Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord, so I am definitely prepped and ready to go.

The Howard licensors also use a lot of the sourcebooks from the Conan RPG that came out a while back and they provided me with those, those are great resources for the nations and religions of Conan's world.

Looking at the arc starting with #26 specifically, you're adapting a story that Robert E. Howard began but was eventually finished by L. Sprague de Camp & Lin Carter under the rather uniquely titled "The Snout in the Dark." How did you arrive on this story to adapt?

The Dark Horse "Conan" series follows a very specific chronology of the original stories exhaustively laid out by Howard scholar Dale Rippke commonly called "Dark Storm." So there's not a lot of choice involved. [Laughs] I'm following the same path followed by Kurt, Tim Truman, Mike Mignola, Roy Thomas, Brian, the rest of the DH writers. What Carter and Camp called "The Snout in the Dark" follows out of "Queen of the Black Coast."

That said, I'm not going to follow the Camp and Carter story -- I'm sticking with Howard's original story outline, which is a page and a half long, and the few chapters he finished, which takes us about to the halfway point of what he mapped out. The rest will be me.

I agree "Snout" is a... unique name? I'm currently lobbying for the arc to be called "The Witch-Hunter" or "Witch-Finder of Kush," the reasons for which should be obvious from the first page of "Conan the Barbarian" #26, but trade titles are fluid until publication dates are assigned, so we'll see where we end up by the end.

For "People of the Black Circle," you've made it clear that you're staying very close to Howard's original text, but just by the nature of your story in the ongoing series being adapted from a fragment, there appears to be a lot more room to add your interpretations and additions in this story. Is it a similar challenge to, say, working on a shared universe superhero character -- you want to put your own spin on things, while still staying within the boundaries of what people know and expect with the property?

Right. I mean, what happens at the end of the "Queen of the Black Coast" -- not to give too many spoilers away for a story that was first published in 1934 -- is comparable to something like the "Red Wedding" in "Game of Thrones." It's the lowest ebb in Conan's career to that point. He's lost everything he's built up for a couple years. To ignore or gloss over that would be untrue to the character and violate the spirit of the series that, as [Dark Horse president] Mike Richardson often says, is basically the story of Conan's life.

So Conan in our first couple issues is trying to rebuild his life after this devastating blow. He winds up in Shumballa, the capital of Kush -- which, not coincidentally, was where the ship Argus was heading when the pirate queen Bêlit captured it in the first place. Conan being Conan, he doesn't stay a broken man for long, and becomes drawn into local intrigues involving the Kush ruling class, the implacable witch-hunter, Agara, and the fog of fear and paranoia riling up the city with a series of murders caused by a dark sorcerer hidden in their midst -- and one of the more horrible monsters in the Howard canon.

You're someone who has studied the history of comics closely, and Conan has had a very important relationship with comic books in the past 40-plus years; with some of the biggest creators of all time contributing to the character. Of all the characters who originated from a different medium before being adapted by the comic book medium, what do you think has made Conan such a good (and lasting) fit for comics?

Oh, it's hard to take anything away from Roy Thomas, but gosh, those first few years with Kurt Busiek on the Dark Horse title were pretty amazing. Kurt has written a lot of great comics over the years, but his "Conan" really is my favorite. And Cary Nord was born to draw Conan! It's so cool to be working with him over at Valiant now, too. That whole first run is some of my favorite comics published this millennium.

Speaking of history, Roy Thomas wrote an essay in one of his DH trades in which he said he didn't know anything about Conan until Marvel fans wrote in asking them to adapt the stories. If I remember correctly, the company was going to create an original barbarian character or license another, but Thomas read the Howard tales and was like "Heck no we're doing this."

After being closely associated with Marvel superheroes for several years, in the past year and a half or so, you've really branched out to some diverse territory at a number of companies. How much are you enjoying this phase of your career? It seems like you're in a fairly rare (especially in comics) position of being able to write in a lot of different genres at the same time.

Thanks! Yeah, it's pretty amazing and I couldn't be more grateful. Conspiracies with "Archer & Armstrong," science fiction in -- uh, "What Is the Key?" -- that Dynamite title I think that's been announced already but I'm not sure ["Magnus: Robot Fighter"] -- military in "G.I. Joe," horror/comedy in "Mocking Dead," espionage in "Brain Boy."

It's a very awesome time to be a comics creator, and I'm lucky to be experiencing it to its fullest.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Van Lente's upcoming "Conan the Barbarian" run.

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