Aquilonia finds itself in turmoil with a barbarian king on the throne, as Conan metes out justice early in his reign while threats from within and outside the kingdom conspire to unseat him. When Robert E. Howard first published “Phoenix on the Sword” in “Weird Tales” magazine back in 1938, readers met the hero who would become one of the pulp writer’s most iconic creations.
Howard would later fill out Conan’s history as a rogue, thief, mercenary and more, in stories that would later be adapted and expanded first at Marvel in the 1970s and more recently in Dark Horse’s “Conan” and “Conan the Cimmerian” ongoing series, the latter of which was written by Timothy Truman and illustrated by Tomas Giorello for its duration. Following the conclusion of the “Cimmerian” series, Truman and Giorello leapt forward in Conan’s chronology to the barbarian’s time as king in “The Scarlet Citadel.” Now, the pair continue through Conan’s reign while looking back to his earliest appearances, adapting the original Conan story “Phoenix on the Sword” in a four-issue miniseries launching in January from Dark Horse.
Comic Book Resources spoke with Truman about the series, the progression of Conan’s character and the Cimmerian’s complex relationships with his foes.
CBR News: Tim, you and Tomas Giorello are reuniting to adapt Robert E. Howard’s first Conan story, which, of course, is set well into Conan’s career. Having written the core “Conan” series for so long, followed by “The Scarlet Citadel” earlier this year, is “Phoenix on the Sword” something of a milestone for you?
Timothy Truman: You bet. As a fan of Robert E. Howard, the stories that he wrote about the latter part of Conan’s career were always my favorites. â€¨â€¨They’ve all been milestones.
It’s been great to have been so involved with Dark Horse’s re-imagining of Conan — bringing the Cimmerian to a new generation in comics form, as the old adage goes. When I was a teenager in West Virginia in the ’70s, reading the Howard Lancer and Belmont editions and Marvel comics, if someone had told me that I’d someday be doing Conan comics — and that I’d be involved with the character for a longer period of time than any other title I’d ever work on — I’d never have believed them. I’ve been a Conan fan for a long time and will always be. So folks will just have to believe me when I say it’s quite an honor.
“Phoenix on the Sword” is set early in Conan’s reign, at a time when the people of Aquilonia have begun to turn against him. In your telling, is there a particular event or subterfuge that undermines his rule? Or is Conan simply unsuited to kingship at this time?
He’s not unsuited to kingship at all. He’s very good at it. According to Howard’s letters, he was a big fan of FDR, so you can see a lot of populist “New Deal” approach to Conan’s reign. Most of the subterfuge comes from aristocrats who are jealous of Conan’s rule. They view him as an unwashed upstart — a usurper and dictator who has insinuated himself upon the throne and upset their own supposed right to rule. The idea of someone ruling by “right of blood” always creeped me out to no end. Obviously it did REH, too. So, anyway, they have been going around stirring up the populace, seeding and funding dissent, making things bad for Conan. Making common people protest against their own interests — sort of a Hyborian Era version of the Tea Party thing, I guess. It all culminates in a final — and rather fantastic — assassination attempt against Conan in his own palace.
So this story involves political machinations, an assassination plot, and some wizardry. How do these elements coalesce together?
They all work hand-in-hand. The story is heavy on action and melodrama. The main threat is the minstrel Rinaldo, one of the key members of the conspiracy in the story. For some reason, Conan seems very forgiving of the guy. He knows that the other conspirators are motivated by greed and jealousy. However, Rinaldo’s motivations strike him as somehow “pure.” The minstrel is a true dissident. A true rebel. Conan seems to respect that. The relationship is really interesting. It sort of plays against the grain of any stereotypical notion of what Conan is all about. So the final confrontation between the two is quite interesting. It’s an aspect of the story that’s always intrigued me — so much so that I’ve laid threads for it not only in the previous “Scarlet Citadel” arc but in the “Conan the Cimmerian” title as well. It felt good to bring it to a climax.
You’ve had a lot of experience now adapting Howard’s Conan stories — are there any particular challenges associated with “Phoenix on the Sword?” Are there any stylistic/narrative devices you found helpful to convey the story in comics?
Storytelling-wise, the main problem involved wizard Thoth-Amon’s involvement in the story. Howard has a real interesting storyline going on with Thoth-amon. For some reason — probably due to the Marvel comics — Thoth is the most famous of Conan’s antagonists. Thus, you think he’d have appeared in more Conan tales, built he actually appears in relatively few of the original Conan and non-Conan stories, and is usually only mentioned in a few paragraphs. “Phoenix on the Sword” was the only tale where he gets a lot of time on stage. However, in Howard’s original story, he sort of drops off the map after a certain scene. In the adaptation, I try to provide a little more follow-through. (something I also did with one of the fill-ins that Paul Lee drew some years back on the original “Conan” title ). It’s not anything that interferes or alters the original story, though. REH fans need not despair. It just ties up a few loose ends that Howard, for whatever reason, left bare. â€¨â€¨
Howard was an amazing writer, but he tended to do that from time to time. I’ve run into the situation on other occasions when doing the adaptions. It’s always a fun challenge — staying faithful to REH while giving the reader a little something more to work with.
You have previously expressed a fondness for the older, harder Conan, as opposed to the younger version of the “Cimmeria” series. What, to you, is the greatest appeal of Conan during his days as king?
He’s restless. More cynical. Harder-edged. More experienced. More of an anti-hero — a Charles Bronson/Clint Eastwood type of guy. One of the great things about Howard is that he was so consistent in the portrayal, even though, as he wrote the tales, he often went back and forth in Conan’s career chronology. His younger Conan always has a different feel than his older Conan, as though REH was actually there to observe him as Conan’s career progressed and the Cimmerian matured. It’s pretty fascinating, and proof positive that Howard had a very keen grasp about what the character was all about. (Not that any proofis needed!)
Are you planning any more King Conan stories after this miniseries wraps up?
That’s all up to Dark Horse and Conan Properties, but I’d love to. I just finished up the script for the final issue, so I’m still waiting on word. If we continue, I’d really like to do “Hour of the Dragon” — my favorite Conan tale (along with “Beyond the Black River”), and the first one I ever read. Or maybe even an original King Conan tale — I’ve a few ideas along those lines. In any case, we’ll see. Plenty going on in the meantime. â€¨â€¨Right now, with the final “Phoenix on the Sword” script all wrapped up, I’m jumping full swing into drawing “Hawken,” the violent horror-western comic I’m doing with my son, Benjamin. Really having a blast with it.
“King Conan: The Phoenix on the Sword” is on sale January 25, 2012
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