Interview: Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan on Conan
Dark Horse starts a new Conan series next month with Conan #1, by Channel Zero and Demo collaborators Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan. Based on Robert E. Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast,” the comic will weave new adventures into Conan’s two-year journey with the notorious female pirate Bêlit, a period barely touched on in the original short story. Comic Book Resources has a preview of the first issue.
I spoke with Wood and Cloonan about their plans for the series, using the classic Howard tale as their framework, and the dynamic between the young Conan and Bêlit.
ROBOT 6: How did each of you first encounter Conan — in the novels, the movie, or the older comics?
Wood: I’m sure it was the Arnold movie that was my first exposure, but not in a really meaningful way. I was 10 when it came out, so I wouldn’t have seen it, but we all played it at recess anyway. Later on, as I started to become more aware of comics, I became aware of Conan as he was drawn by masters like BWS and Frazetta. Funnily enough, the novels came last.
How has writing about him and drawing him forced you to reexamine your initial impressions?
Wood: Well, it was more of an education than a reexamination. I knew, rationally, what Conan was as he appeared in the novels, and I knew that had nothing to do with the 1982 film. When I got this job, I read a few of the novels — not just the one I’m adapting but some others as well. In a way I think all this is helping me. … I don’t have this powerful preconception of the character getting in the way of my writing.
Brian, I’m astonished that you will be building a 25-issue series about a period that is barely touched on in the original story. How did you come up with ideas, and what guidelines did you set for yourself?
Wood: Yeah, it’s simultaneously a great thing and a really difficult challenge. Looking at the original story and breaking it into three parts, I have Conan and Bêlit meeting up in the first three issues of my 25-issue run, and the end of the story will likely take up the last six issues. So that leaves me 16 issues of adventures to basically invent. Five story arcs. In coming up with the stories, I had two things helping me out: mining the original story for any clues I could find, anything I could extrapolate out, any character quirks that might suggest a story or at the very least a scene I could build a story around. And then there’s Northlanders, my Viking series that was, in part, an incredible exercise in constantly generating new ideas out of thin air. In the space of 50 issues, I created 14 discreet, unconnected stories. I became good at it, so I used that for Conan. I have my characters, my world, a few concepts and rules guiding me … but beyond that the sky’s the limit.
Becky, your visualization of Conan is a bit different from what has gone before. How much comes from the original source material, and how much did you draw on secondary sources (the comics and the movie) for this new version?
Cloonan: One of the biggest things I try to keep in mind while drawing Conan is the world-building! We are doing something completely new so none of it is informed by the film adaptations — I’m going by descriptions in Howard’s original stories, and filling in most of the blanks by looking back at historical costumes and settings that correspond to the maps of Hyboria!
How much did the two of you collaborate on the visual details of the characters and the setting?
Wood: I have to leave most of that up to Becky, for the most part. She and I are both reading the same original story for reference. I think I did send over some notes, basic stuff, on ships and weapons and maps and architecture, holdovers from my time on Northlanders, but beyond that its all been Becky. And its a tough task … the world of Conan is fully realized and established, and I’m determined to make the environments and cities be as detailed and real as possible in this series.
Cloonan: Brian gives me some notes on stuff like setting and costumes, ships and and weapons — it’s really helpful! Through the design process he pretty much let me run wild with them. We’ve worked together so many times in the past that I’d guess by now if Brian asks me to draw something, he probably has a good idea of how it’s gonna turn out!
Conan is usually a strong protagonist, but in Bêlit he seems to meet his match, or maybe his complement. Do you see the balance of power shifting in this story, compared to the previous incarnations — will it be more of a team story?
Cloonan: Bêlit is a lot of fun to draw — from the books she basically spends her time running around topless, which could easily become just more cheesecake to add on to the dessert cart. I try hard to make her not just sexy, but dangerous, calculating and enigmatic — Bêlit is very much a character that has a lot of layers, and I try to bring as much of that as I can to her.
Wood: Conan is young here, so while he has strength, he is not the seasoned man he will later become. He’s a guy in his early 20s who is, in some significant ways, in way over his head with Bêlit. She is his match, and he’s totally in love with her. Maybe she has the advantage? We’ll see. But with them its not about power, or teaming up or anything like that. They are lovers, partners in crime … compliments like you said. One of the great things about writing a young Conan is this chance to show him acting unsure, making mistakes, losing fights, acting dumb at times. It’s all part and parcel of coming of age, and can only make him more likable, more real, more relatable. An infallible Conan who gets every girl and wins every fight is a boring Conan.
Will there be any continuity with the previous Conan comics?
Wood: My story picks up literally seconds after the arc that’s currently being published, so readers of that will be able to seamlessly transition, but one of the points of bringing me and Becky onto the book, starting with a #1, and adapting this classic story is to create a jumping on point for anyone, so new readers will not needs to know anything. I made sure of that. But as far as continuity in the superhero universe sense … only in that the novel is a chapter in the overall life of Conan, and so this series will be as well. It’s really an amazingly well crafted timeline, what Robert E. Howard created.
Brian, back when the big digital discussion was going on, a few weeks ago, you mentioned trying to add some features to the print comics to make them “luxury items” that are worth the higher price. Do you have any plans to do this with Conan, or to put extras in the single issues that won’t be in the eventual trade?
Wood: I honestly couldn’t say … that would be Dark Horse’s call. My comments were more for my creator-owned projects, where I have more leeway to make decisions like that.
Finally, just from looking at forums, I would say that you will be bringing in new readers who are fans of your work but may not be familiar with the world of Conan. What will you be doing to make this comic friendly to new readers?
Cloonan: I have no idea what percentage of Conan readers are women, but I can say that I think girls will really like this series. Not only because it’s a great point to jump on, but the story is romantic, exciting and character-driven — and it doesn’t hurt that I try to draw Conan really cute!