Swords and the Sorcerer: Busiek's Fantastic Worlds of 'Conan' and 'Arrowsmith'

[Conan #0]At this point, nearly every comic reader knows Kurt Busiek as a creator of noble superheroes, complex plots and, of course, as the architect of Astro City. But this November, he's leaving behind the Spandex and high tech gadgetry in favor of a battle axe and a loin cloth. He and artist Cary Nord are bringing Conan the Barbarian back to comics in a 25 cent Dark Horse comic.

"Since this is the big return of Conan, and since there haven't been Conan comics for a while now (and the last few years they were, they weren't all that good, with the exception of the few Roy [Thomas] did)," Busiek told CBR News, "We wanted to make a splash, give as many people as possible a taste of the new series before it actually hits the stands.

"So 'Conan the Legend' is a bargain-priced prelude with a 16-page story by me and Cary and Dave, setting up the series for newcomers and getting a few very odd but significant things in motion. There'll be sketchbook stuff to it as well, and an interview with me or something like that. And the whole thing will only be 25 cents -- the same price that the issue of 'Weird Tales' that introduced Conan would have cost you, if you'd bought it back in 1933. So it's cheap enough for anyone to afford it, and get a good taste of what's to come.

"It's not a story anyone has to read -- #1 will start at the beginning -- but it's a good prelude, and it'll show off the gorgeous art and plant a secret of two. I'm confident readers who pick it up will think it's worth the money ..."

Busiek's involvement with the Conan revival came about sort of by accident.

"I had dinner with [Dark Horse publisher] Mike Richardson at [Comic-Con International in] San Diego a couple of summers back, talking about some other projects. And he mentioned that Dark Horse was on the verge of licensing Conan. We spent a while talking about Conan, what we liked best, what we didn't, what our favorite periods of the comic were, or our favorite Robert E. Howard stories, and on and on -- I don't think Mike had any idea that I was as much of a Conan fan as I am.

"I assumed they'd be offering the job to Roy Thomas, which I would have been delighted by, since I've always enjoyed Roy's take on the character, so I didn't pursue anything. At the time, I don't think Mike was planning an ongoing series, though, and he asked me if I'd be interested in doing a Conan mini-series or special at some point. I said sure, yeah, that'd be fun. And a few months later, I called [editor] Scott Allie about something -- the 'Reveal' anthology, I think -- and Scott thought I was calling about Conan, because Mike had mentioned me to him as someone who might be good for the regular series. It turned out they weren't pursuing Roy -- and if they weren't going to get him, I figure I can compete with anyone else for the job.

"So we talked about the book and what it would need to be. I pitched some ideas -- including the 'Conan the Legend' one-shot and how it could kick off the series -- and Scott liked 'em, so he passed them on to Mike and Mike liked 'em, and he passed them on to Conan Properties, and they liked 'em ... so here I am, writing Conan!"

The most recent Conan comics -- Marvel Comics' revival attempt in the 1990s -- weren't pretty, by any measure. Despite that, Busiek is confident that the Cimmerian can work in the 21st century.

"Hey, let's not forget that Marvel launched Conan as a comic in the first place, and had a hellacious success with it. I don't think the problem with a lot of the '90s Conan was that Conan didn't have appeal, but that they were trying to make Conan all Image-y and trendy and flashy and empty and violent beyond even Conan's level, and it just didn't work. Conan works best when he's Conan, not when he's just generic muscle-boy in third-rate Image poses.

"So we're going back to what works -- to the character, the core idea. What makes Conan so compelling is the idea of the raw barbarian versus decaying civilization. Conan is powerful and fresh and bold and straightforward and passionate and all that, and the Hyborean Era is decaying and corrupt and cruel and nasty -- and putting that pure natural unfettered hero against that kind of background makes for a great clash, as Conan is disgusted by the corruption and venality, and the forces of civilization try to break or control or corrupt Conan, and it doesn't work. It's a primal appeal, and it's as appropriate today as it ever was.

"In fact, if you look at it historically, Conan was a character who hit during the Depression, a hero for troubled times, when people felt powerless. That fits today, when we're dealing with a few troubles of our own. Conan hit again in the late '60s and the '70s, when people mistrusted the government and reacted against what they saw as entrenched power that wasn't on their side. Conan's a symbol of freedom and individual power, and works very well any time people feel left out or ignored.

"Plus, in simpler terms, Conan is an internationally-famous character, with a huge wellspring of fans who want to see him back in good adventures they can enjoy reading. They want Conan stories, as long as they're good. If you say one of the trends these days is revivals of things like 'G.I. Joe' and 'Transformers,' well, Conan was even bigger than they were ... why not revive him? If you say that the trend is fantasy, well, Conan is the only fantasy hero big enough to compete with Tolkein. And if you say that the trend is Marvel's Ultimate line, going back to the roots of a concept and starting it afresh, well hell, that's what we're doing -- call us Ultimate Conan, I don't care.

"But ultimately (no pun intended), Conan's lasted as long as he has and been a success in many media, in many eras, because he's a great character that resonates with an audience. All we've got to do I think, is do Conan justice, and the audience will respond. So that's the plan."

The "Image-y" Conan revivals of the 1990s aside, the original Marvel Comics Conan comic series casts a very long shadow over other comic book takes on the character and the world. Readers of the classic books will find a lot in common when the new book hits the stands.

"We're essentially starting at the same place, with the same idea -- pick up the young Conan just as he leaves Cimmeria, and heads off on his long and varied life of action and adventure. We'll follow him in his life, adapting the REH stories as we reach the points where they happen, and moving on through chronologically. But of course, it's 30 years later, and comics are different and the audience is different, we have better printing, we can keep work available through trade paperbacks, and on and on -- so we're taking a more modern approach, doing a Conan that's faithful to the original, but taking advantage of everything comics can do now that they couldn't do then. We can give stories more space, we can do a Conan that doesn't need to wear the same clothes every issue to be instantly recognizable, we can give the art and the coloring the kind of printing it really deserves. None of this is said to knock the classic Marvel stuff, of course -- Dark Horse is reprinting that, too, giving it new coloring and a new presentation, and it's well-deserved.

"The other thing we're doing that's going to work out a bit different is that we're starting fresh, and we're building only off the original Robert E. Howard material. No disrespect intended to anyone who worked on Conan novels, comics, movies, cartoons, anything, but I think everyone would agree that the true Conan, the real Conan, the core Conan is the REH Conan. So we're putting everything else aside and building only on that. There'll be no continuity brought in from the Marvel books, or what L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter and other writers did. We've been asked to keep this as faithful as possible to the REH stories, and that's what we're doing. And even if we hadn't been asked, that's what I'd want to do."

Part of the appeal of Conan is that his saga runs such a long and wide road, from teenage raider to middle-aged conqueror king.

"I'd love to be around for the whole thing. Beginning to end, from the birth of Conan on a Cimmerian battlefield to the adventures Howard hinted he had after the last Conan story, 'The Hour of the Dragon.' It'd take years -- more than 20 years, I'd guess, to tell it all -- but I think it'd be a blast."

After three Marvel Comics Conan ongoing books, at least three takes on the sort-of spin-off Red Sonja, along with comic versions of other loosely associated characters, some Conan fans might be wondering what Busiek is offering to entice them back to the comic shop after all this time.

"The best Conan we can give them. Gorgeous art -- Cary and Dave Stewart work miracles together -- and faithful, compelling stories. There really aren't any gimmicks, any 'This is the new twist on Conan.' We think Conan's pretty damn cool without needing gimmicks, so we're just going to put our energies into doing the character right, doing him justice. It's as simple as that."

While Busiek's fans have seen him play with science fiction in the creator-owned "Shockrockets," this summer was the first time they saw him take on fantasy, in the sold-out WildStorm miniseries "Arrowsmith." In other words, after years of never doing a single published fantasy comic, this fall, Busiek will actually have more than one fantasy comic on store shelves at the same time.

Notice that we said "published" story.

"The first time I sat down to write a story of my own, when I was about six, what I started on was an Oz story, since those were my favorite books in the world. If that counts as fantasy -- and why wouldn't it? -- you could certainly say that I've always been interested in fantasy, from Oz to Narnia to Middle-Earth to Earthsea and beyond.

"I don't really think of 'Conan' and 'Arrowsmith' as all that similar -- they may both be fantasy, but fantasy is a very broad genre. 'Conan' is heroic fantasy, or sword and sorcery, where something like 'Lord of the Rings' is different, it's high fantasy. 'Arrowsmith' is way the hell on another end of the scale, with historical fantasies and alternate reality fiction, more aligned with [Robert] Heinlein's 'Magic, Inc.' or Poul Anderson's 'Operation Chaos' than with sword & sorcery.

"But it's just a matter of timing, I guess -- 'Arrowsmith' was a project [series artist Carlos Pacheco] and I conceived back in 1999, and it took until now to come about. 'Conan' was something I got offered without expecting it, and they're both projects I'm interested in, and glad to be writing. I'm actually writing another fantasy project as well, and it's even another sword and sorcery story, but it's not quite ready to be announced yet."

For those who didn't catch the blink-and-you-miss-it sold out two issues, Busiek explains a bit more about the weird world of "Arrowsmith."

"'Arrowsmith' is a fantasy-adventure-war-alternate-history series (how's that for crossing genres?) about a world where magic has been a part of society and culture since the time of Charlemagne, and now it's World War I. The war is being fought with magic and with the help of fantasy creatures, including trolls and vampires and more, as well as with conventional weaponry -- the world has undergone a Magical Revolution to go with the Industrial Revolution, and things are popping. Nobody knows what'll be next, or what the world will settle into being like after the war, but everyone's just doing the best they can.

"And in this world, there are airmen -- wizards who fly via magic rather than via airplanes -- and they're the daring pilots of this war, a parallel to the biplane pilots of history. They get trained fast in a few magic spells and thrown into battle to live or die depending on whether they can learn fast enough and be tough enough. Fletcher Arrowsmith is one of these young men, an idealistic young guy from Columbia (our version of the US), wanting to do the right thing but on the way to learning some brutal lessons about the difference between his dreams and reality.

"So on the one hand, it's a coming of age story for Fletcher, and on another, it's a coming of age for the whole world. And over all that, it's a fast-paced adventure series in an exotic world with plenty to explore. The first mini-series is six issues long, but we plan to keep doing them, and give ourselves the time and room to explore this world from pole to pole, and see what trouble Fletcher can get into, whether it's on the Western Front in Gallia and Lotharingia, in far-off Muscovy, in Cathay, El Dorado or anywhere else."

If this all sounds very unlike Busiek's usual work, it actually springs in a way from one of his more popular superhero books of the last few years.

"Carlos and I wanted to work together after 'Avengers Forever,' and I thought we should come up with something that would take full advantage of his skill at making a fantastic world seem utterly real and believable. Part of it came from thinking about 'Astro City' -- I used to argue that the superhero story is essentially a fairy tale, and if fairy tales all took place in shared universes it'd warp them out of shape; you'd see people entering into trading agreements with dwarves, conscripting wizards as part of the army, and on and on. And the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and wanted to play around with the idea. Plus, I'd been talking with my friend Lawrence Watt-Evans, the fantasy novelist, when he was casting around for the subject of a big, sprawling fantasy epic. I suggested that he do something with biplane pilots as wizards -- the whole idea of young wizards who are trained fast and used as soldiers in a bloody and destructive war, rather than the greybeards who spend their lives in study and contemplation we usually see. He went somewhere else with the suggestion, taking the idea of new magical technologies and turning it into his novel 'Touched by the Gods,' so I took the rest of the idea back, combined it with the other bit about a shared-universe of fantasy and fairy tales, and Carlos and I shaped it and built it into 'Arrowsmith.'"

Sharp-eyed readers of Busiek's "Astro City" know that he likes to pepper that comic with allusions and homages to classic comic book creators and series (street names are typically comic book creators, for instance). "Arrowsmith" readers should expect the same level of detail and, for history buffs, a sort of Easter Egg.

"Well, I don't like to share too much. I could talk about how Atlantis was destroyed, or the Turkish invasion of Europe, backed with djinns, or how the League of Grand Florida and the Republic of Tejas avoided being absorbed into the United States, but I'd rather save those for stories.

"I will mention that very little of Arrowsmith's world is a matter of whim. Lawrence Watt-Evans, who I mentioned before, helped us create the history of it, working out what changed and why in the years since the Peace of Charlemagne in 800 AD -- which countries survived, which died, which royal lines married into which, what happened to the mercantile empires and on and on. None of the new names are made up; they all come from history somewhere. What we know as Spain is four separate countries in 'Arrowsmith,' because of one person coming to a throne that didn't do so in our world. It all fits together and makes logical sense -- though I credit Lawrence with it way more than me -- so we hope to tell stories set in the history of the world, as well as following the development of the war. With any luck, it'll be as much fun for the readers as it is for us."

Now, if this sort of simultaneous output, along with "Astro City," makes you think that Busiek has finally beaten his long-running and much-talked-about health problems, unfortunately, that's jumping the gun a bit.

"Sadly, not yet. It took a long time to dig this deep into a hole, health wise, and it'll be a long time digging out. But I'm getting better and making progress -- as these projects show, I hope -- and I intend to keep going in the right direction 'til I'm completely healthy again."

Spawn #300: Image Comics Unveils J. Scott Campbell Cover

More in Comics