THE COMMENTARY TRACK: Brian Wood's "Conan the Barbarian" #1

This week, comic readers were reintroduced to Robert E. Howard's "Conan The Barbarian" in the first issue of a new 25 issue Dark Horse series by writer Brian Wood and artist Becky Cloonan. In 2011, CBR was the first to announce word of the "Demo" co-creators reuniting for "Conan" to comic readers with an exclusive interview with Wood and Cloonan, revealing details about their adaptation of Robert E. Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast" short story. After months of anticipation, "Conan The Barbarian" #1 is now in stores, allowing fans to experience the first installment of Wood and Cloonan's tale, adding new layers and details to Conan's life on the high seas as he clashes with beautiful pirate captain Bêlit.

Here, Wood shares his insight on some pivotal story pages in a special COMMENTARY TRACK, speaking to the challenge of adapting Howard's original work, his process, Cloonan's artistic talent and how his experience writing "Northlanders" came into play.

Brian Wood:Starting off on this page for a reason, to talk about the process of adapting. The original "Queen of the Black Coast" novelette (I would call it a short story, personally), is just that -- short. Quite short, and also pretty lean on dialogue overall. And the comics form is, as we all know, something that is all about dialogue.

The section of the original that matches up to this page here is utterly devoid of dialogue, so all of what you see here is gleaned from descriptions. Tito, the bearded fellow, is describing to Conan what Robert E. Howard wrote to his readers, like so:

Nor did master Tito pull into the broad bay where the Styx river emptied its gigantic flood into the ocean, and the massive black castles of Khemi loomed over the blue waters. Ships did not put unasked into this port, where dusky sorcerers wove awful spells in the murk of sacrificial smoke mounting eternally from blood-stained altars where naked women screamed, and where Set, the Old Serpent, arch-demon of the Hyborians but god of the Stygians, was said to writhe his shining coils among his worshippers.

You can see how I used it, and also how I didn't. Early on I was faced with the decision on how to adapt this, and there is an argument to be made (I know because lots of fans made it to me) that the best way is to literally adapt, use no words that aren't Howard's, to cut and paste from the original. But the parameters of the job, common sense, and the need to actually put dialogue on these pages made this impossible. It was necessary to take the prose, and rework and reframe it into scenes and conversations. This page here is one of my favorites -- It's quiet, but I like how with each revelation by Tito, Conan is sinking deeper into a "What the hell...?" mind state. Becky nails the expressions -- Conan in panel 4, Tito in panel 5.

Okay, this is my favorite page of this issue. I remember this is when I finally felt like I nailed the writing of the narration, presented here in a pulpy typewriter font as if from Robert E. Howard's machine itself. These passages do not exist in the original story as presented, but they do exist, in bits and pieces, scattered all over the first half. I scoured the story for anything I could find that described Bêlit, gathered it together, and worked it into a nicely pulpy series of descriptions. What you see on this page was sourced from:

The wildest she-devil unhanged...She is a Shemite woman, who leads black raiders. They harry the shipping and have sent many a good tradesman to the bottom.


On the raised platform in the bows stood a slim figure whose white skin glistened in dazzling contrast to the glossy ebon hides about it. Bêlit, without a doubt.


She turned toward Conan, her bosom heaving, her eyes flashing. Fierce fingers of wonder caught at his heart. She was slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous...Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian's pulse...Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back......She was untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-panther...Her red lips parted as she stared up into his somber menacing eyes....

He realized that to these men Bêlit was more than a woman: a goddess whose will was unquestioned.


Rising on tiptoe, arms stretched upward, a quivering line of naked white...

And so on. Forgive the edits. This is some explicit stuff, and really great material to work with. These physical descriptions of Bêlit (and, later, of Conan's hot bod too) are plentiful and very detailed, and so important to Howard and to the story. I left no stone unturned! The first caption in the third panel is not from the original, and is an example of the few times I've made use of my "Northlanders" experience in this series, drawing parallels from Conan's Cimmerian upbringing and the real-life Viking or Viking-era mythology. Later in the story, both in the original and in my script, it's noted that Bêlit's pretty into this, fascinated by Conan's heritage, dudes from the snowy North, basically, almost as a fetish. Well, exactly like a fetish. And in the interests of fair and balanced and equal play, I don't scrimp on those descriptions either.


In the original, there is a short passage dealing with Conan and Tito and the crew of that ship coming across evidence of Bêlit's brutal piracy.

So they beat southward, and master Tito began to look for the high-walled villages of the black people. But they found only smoking ruins on the shore of a bay, littered with naked black bodies. Tito swore."I had good trade here, aforetime. This is the work of pirates."

This felt crucial, as a scene, Conan's first exposure to Bêlit and what she is and what she does. I also saw opportunity to build out his growing friendship with Tito and explain, in a fuller way, why he's sticking with them past this point (he was only on the ship originally to hitch a fast ride out of Messantia).

A bit about location, here. Hyboria, the world of "Conan," is fictional but very clearly based on the real world to the point that you can overlay a map of both and see where it lines up. Kush is in North Africa, roughly Algeria, hence the landscape and the architecture you see here (Cimmeria, Conan's homeland, is not quite Viking Scandinavia but close, more like northern Scotland). In this series I am, with Becky and Dave of course, making a big effort to take care with the background, not just have generic, genre-y backdrops. This is something I do in all my books, so no exception here. The world as a living, breathing character.

(show pages 4-5, maybe smaller in size, two next to each other, as an aside)

This is Messantia, in Argos, roughly matching up to the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Different trees, different types of buildings, different clothing for the locals.

This is a further example of what's involved in adapting from the original, again where it's pretty lean on description and devoid of dialogue. This sequence of Conan and Tito going back and forth does not exist in the short story but is implied, if loosely.

So they beat southward, and master Tito began to look for the high-walled villages of the black people. But they found only smoking ruins on the shore of a bay, littered with naked black bodies.

This describes Conan and Tito and his crew coming across evidence of Bêlit's piracy. When you all read the full issue, as I know all of you will (heh), the page immediately following these will show a ship's crew slaughtered and baking in the hot sun, also courtesy of Bêlit. But in this sequence here, I felt I needed to prep the reader, as well as Conan, for that, and build her up in Conan's head. Creating anticipation, creating some mystery and, as we come to find out, the first stirrings of attraction.

Tito's inability to properly make a living is hampered by Bêlit, but what is left unspoken in the original story is how Conan using him as a way to escape the law in Argos could affect his trade there as well. I felt that needed mentioning.

As an aside, Becky can draw the hell out of water. It's really one of the reasons I was excited to work with her on this, and if any of you scour the shops or eBay for her fantastic Tokyopop book "East Coast Rising," you will be rewarded with a couple hundred pages of ships and sea and monsters and flooded postdystopian New Jersey.

Adapting "Queen of the Black Coast" was, is, an incredible creative exercise that is more pleasure than work, and solving these sorts of puzzles where I had to construct and infer and deduce results in an adaptation of this story that goes far beyond the others I've read, which are done in a much shorter, much more literal way. My number-one goal is to tell this story properly, with equal respect to the source material and to the medium of comics, and also to the intelligence of the reader. One issue down, twenty-four to go.

"Conan the Barbarian" #1 is on sale now.

Bury the Lede
REVIEW: Bury the Lede Is a Compelling But Undercooked Crime Story

More in Comics