Sunday, 16 October 2011

Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan take on "Queen of the Black Coast"

Hey, at least it isn't *technically* "What is best in life?"

Oh, gigantic happenings are afoot.  The new team for "Queen of the Black Coast" will be Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan (hitherto referred to as Clood) working together with a 25-issue story arc!

If you never thought of picking up and reading Conan because it just wasn’t your style, then think again!
Dark Horse Comics is proud to announce a new era of Conan. Conan the Barbarian is a perfect jumping-on point for new readers—a bold, fresh take on the Cimmerian from the visionary creative team of writer Brian Wood (DMZNorthlanders) and artist Becky Cloonan (DemoPixu)!
Wood and Cloonan will have Conan breaking hearts . . . and breaking faces!
In this sweeping adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast,” the most-requested Conan adaptation, Conan turns his back on the civilized world and takes to the high seas alongside the pirate queen Bêlit, setting the stage for an epic of romance, terror, and swashbuckling. This is Conan as you’ve never seen him, and with the combination of one of Robert E. Howard’s greatest tales and the most dynamic creative team in comics, there has never been a better time to start reading!
Conan the Barbarian is on sale February 8, 2012.

This is pretty big news for a number of reasons. First of all, 25 issues is the longest arc I can recall Dark Horse's Conan ever undertaking, and likely to stretch across multiple trades.  Secondly, Clood are Indy darlings: both are famed for their work in decidedly offbeat comics, not like Busiek's Astro City or Truman's other work.

I'm incredibly nervous. "Queen of the Black Coast" is, in my opinion, one of the five big Conan stories: that is, stories that are most valuable in getting an insight into the mind of Conan, the tone of the Hyborian Age, and Howard's own psyche.  It's incredibly important to get it right, and if you're going to commit to a 25-issue run, you'd better make sure they have the right people for the job.

Have Dark Horse chosen wisely?

As of right now, there are only bits and pieces of what Clood are up to, but there are some things I'd like to discuss.

On the Art

I regret to say I'm not aware of Cloonan's work, but she's highly endorsed by a good friend, which impressed me quite a bit, and having seen some samples of her art, I'm very intrigued.  There are a few sketches from Comics Alliance which give a rough idea of how Conan and Belit are going to look. First, Conan.

I'm going to be blunt: I have issues with Clood's Conan.  His "bull neck" is painfully thin, and though I'm aware that people's definition of "big" "tall" "muscular" and whatnot may vary... this Conan does look pretty skinny.  Even as a youth, Conan was described as being massive, muscular, broad-shouldered, heavy-limbed, and whatnot.  I'd have a hard enough time thinking of this character as Conan circa Venarium, let alone early 20s.  In comparison to what we've already seen from Nord and Giorello, he's positively emaciated: what in blazes happened to Conan to make him lose half his body weight within such a short time?  Diverticulitis? In fact, he reminds me a lot of Adrian Brody's character in Predators.  Which is not good.  I'd be forgiving if Conan is still muscular and tall in comparison to other characters, though: this might just be Cloonan's art style.  As long as Conan doesn't look scrappy next to town guards or tribesmen, I can get over it.

Another issue is that elsewhere, we see Conan wearing a wolfskin cloak.  I really hope they don't decide to put him in that for the final fight of the Argo: Conan's armour is one of the reasons he survives so long against the Corsairs, not to mention saving his skin against the Were-Hyenas.  Dark Horse may have turned all instances of Medieval plate into Greco-Roman panoply, but at least it was still armour.  It'd be pretty lame if Conan defeats half of Belit's crew without a stitch on him.

Facially, I'm undecided.  He looks a bit like a Disney version of Conan, the sort you'd see in a late 2000s adaptation: after all the really successful ones of the '90s, when traditional animation was starting to peter out at the box office.  It doesn't help that his hair looks perpetually matted and wet.  On the other hand, he's definitely expressive, feral and barbaric looking,with enough variety in the expressions to cover the gigantic melancholies and mirths.

If Cloonan's Conan reminds me of any Howard character, it would be Techotl of "Red Nails":

He was naked but for a scanty silk clout that only partly covered his muscular hips, and a leather girdle, a hand's breadth broad, about his lean waist. His long black hair hung in lank strands about his shoulders, giving him a wild appearance. He was gaunt, but knots and cords of muscles stood out on his arms and legs, without that fleshy padding that presents a pleasing symmetry of contour. He was built with an economy that was almost repellent.

Lean waist, wild appearance, long black hair hung in lank strands, gaunt but muscular without fleshy padding... Howardian, yes, but not Conan.  At least, in my opinion.

But what about Belit?

WOW! Talk about night and day - while Cloonan's Conan seems to be just a convention-goer playing dress-up, this is Belit.  All the prerequisites for Belit are there: dark eyes, dark hair, white skin, strong features, she's "at once lithe and voluptuous," she's buxom* and she has strongly "Shemitic" features. Some were worried that the dreaded furkini from the Marvel years would return, but it appears that they needn't have been concerned: Belit's festooned in what appears to be gold ornamentation, which is certainly in keeping with her avaricious personality.

Just as important to her physical appearance is her physical bearing: she's acting like Belit.  Some poses are sexy, but some are confident and commanding, befitting a pirate queen.  I particularly love the post on the lower right corner: isn't that just a fantastic nonchalent fist-on-hips expression?  Wood could have her curse in Yiddish and I wouldn't even mind.

You can also see more than a smidgen of Frazetta's possible influence: doesn't this sketch remind you a bit of Sheba or Golden Girl?

In my interpretations of Howard characters, I like to look at film stars of his time - back then silent films still reigned for the most part, with a few forays into talkies.  This interpretation of Belit strikes me as a dark-eyed Olga Baclanova, with a little of Lupe Velez' sultry stare and Lili Damita's pout. While I still think Stephen Fabian's Belit is my personal favourite, this is up there.

All well and good seeing sketches, but what about finished art? Well, we have one unlettered page to give us an idea of what's to come:

I quite like it. Again, different, but good different.

On the Writer

While Cloonan is letting her art speak for itself, Brian Wood is going the more traditional route by talking about his plans. I'm quite familiar with a particular Wood work (ho ho): DMZ, which is a gripping comic of the alternate history/speculative fiction type.  In its simplest terms, it's a war journalism piece set in a world where a second civil war in the United States renders Manhattan a chaotic demilitarized zone, forming a buffer state between the United States territory in Brooklyn and the Free States territory in New Jersey.  I've only read the first few volumes, but it's absolutely brilliant stuff, the sort of thing that would make a great TV series.  Hell, if they can make Walking Dead, they can make DMZ.  So, the prospect of what Wood could bring to Conan is indeed intriguing.

Here are a few interesting snippets I wish to dissect and ruminate over:

Becky's art, of course, is quite different from Conan's usual aesthetic. What do you think her style will bring to the character?
I dunno, its not that different. I think anyone who's seen Becky's self-published comic "Wolves," or her "Northlanders" story, or has followed her tweets and blog posts shouldn't be that surprised about this. It's true she is not like a lot of the other Conan artists that have come before, but I think she is a good match for Conan. All the prerequisites are there, but she brings a little extra humor. Very subtle, but its there in the faces. Some spark of life and energy to a genre that could very easily just be grim and overly serious.

I would say Conan's Dark Horse comic aesthetic is different from Cloonan's, especially if you compare the Nord and Giorello runs to Cloonan's work.  That said, I don't think Cloonan's work is inappropriate for Conan in the slightest, unless people are only thinking of Demo and other such quirkiness.  Look at this piece from her blog, Ink and Thunder (which I'm following as of this moment):

That is Howard right there. If Cloonan can bring the same stark intensity to Conan, then it'll be just braw.

So, what made you want to give your take on a Conan story?
Well, first, I was asked, and its always very flattering to be asked to pitch for a book like this, one with the weight of responsibility to its history and also a title so prominent in Dark Horse's catalog. Also, "Northlanders" I knew was coming to an end, so I saw an opportunity to continue to tell stories in this same general genre while giving my style of Viking comics a bit of a rest. It felt like a challenge, it felt like a way to grow as a writer.
When I pitched, I pitched something that was very "Northlanders" in tone, still staying very accurate and true to REH's world of Conan, but the sensibility is something any reader of Conan will recognize. And that's apparently exactly what both Dark Horse and the Conan people wanted. 

Well, I guess I'm going to have to check out Northlanders!

Who is Conan, to your mind? Are there particular themes or aspects of his personality you're looking to explore?
One thing that we all agreed upon -- meaning me, my editors, [Dark Horse Publisher] Mike Richardson, etc. -- is that Conan is not a superhero. He is not infallible, here to simply slay a beast, get the girl and ride off into the sunset. He struggles, he overreaches and he fails, much more than one might think. He's really, really human. That's what I'm focusing on and that's what, in large part, got me this job.

Good man, Mr Wood - Conan's humanity is something that is often sadly overlooked, and the fact that "Queen of the Black Coast" ends on one of the darkest, bleakest notes in the Conan stories - and there are some pretty dark, bleak notes in the Conan stories - leads me to think maybe Wood will offer a very interesting take.

You'll be adapting Robert E. Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast" in this series. What can you tell us about this story and how you'll be fleshing it out for the comic?
I had to check with some friends who are better versed in the pulp world, and this is apparently a pretty famous story, arguably the most loved by Conan fans. It's the story of Conan's first love, Belit, and this period of his early life where he sailed with this pirate queen for a couple years. What was really appealing about this adaptation is the freedom I have. The source material, the original story, deals with how Conan and Belit met, and how their time together came to an end, but as far as those years they spent together, that is not in the story. All it says is, basically, they sailed together for two years. Those two years are the bulk of this adaptation, and its material I can generate from scratch. That's really appealing.

Here's where I get really nervous - Brian Wood is not only not a big Conan fan, but he isn't aware of the general "pecking order" of the Conan stories among the fandom.  Now, this isn't to say that only fans can make good adaptations - Crom knows there are plenty of terrible works done by lifelong fans of various properties, and masterpieces by those who didn't know anything about the project - but "Queen of the Black Coast" is, as Wood rightly surmises, one of the big ones.  It's one of the stories you cannot afford to mess up.  If you make a hash of, say, "The Devil in Iron" or even a great story like "Rogues in the House," it isn't the end of the world, since those stories are self-contained.

But while some would argue about "Queen's" merits (I'm watching you, Mark!), I think few would argue its importance in terms of Howard's development of Conan and the Hyborian Age.  It's one of the stories where Howard is really going all out: so weighty with symbolism, allusions, theme and poetry, that it cannot be dismissed as a cash-in like some of the mediocre Conan tales.  That's not even getting to the importance of the story in Conan's personal development as a character and the impact of the setting, and the fact that Conan's time as a pirate is frequently alluded to, and that it directly impacts the plot of many a story.

So to see that Brian Wood isn't as well versed in Conan as his predecessors fills me with no small measure of apprehension: after all, if I can have issues with guys who know Conan back-to-front like Roy Thomas, then what can we expect from a relative neophyte?  Yet at the same time, perhaps that might be freeing: not knowing about the Hyborian Age and its vast history both in Howard's work and in pastiche, not to mention Dark Horse's own work, one might make decisions one wouldn't make when subconciously or consciously thinking about what's come before.

If there's any story which justifies a 25-issue expansion, it's "Queen of the Black Coast."  Entire stories could be wrought from the merest hints Howard leaves in the tale, and I hope Clood capitalize on them.  At the same time, the story has virtually free reign to go places one normally couldn't go in an adaptation, with the entire ocean offering a conduit to voyage to parts unknown.  You couldn't get away with Conan going to Khitai or Iranistan in the middle of "Rogues in the House," but there's nothing stopping Clood from doing just that.  You couldn't invent new countries, lands or islands in an adaptation of "Black Colossus," but you can certainly have the Tigress land on some unknown continent, island or archipelago far from the Hyborian landscape.  Hopefully, though, Clood do the Hyborian Age proud all the same.

You mentioned "Northlanders," which is wrapping up soon, and "Conan the Barbarian" looks to be pirate-centered at this point in the Cimmerian's career. Are there ways in which these historical archetypes complement each other? How do you put yourself in a mind to write a pirate tale?
Well, there is virtually no difference between a pirate and a Viking. That said, I am not trying to turn "Conan" into "Northlanders." Not only would no one let me, I would not be so stupid and disrespectful to even try. And the world of Conan, while based in part of the real world, is really its own thing, a living, vibrant world with its own geography, rules and style. I'm writing within those parameters. But there are ways I can cross over a bit, find appropriate opportunities to flex those "Northlanders" muscles, which are the result of years of research. Conan and Belit spent plenty of time on ships, but those two years together is a long time and there's a wide variety of story I'll tell, some more "pirate," some a lot less so.
Your stories accomplish a lot of world-building while also honing in on character relationships. Do you see "Conan the Barbarian" taking a similar approach?
Absolutely, for all the reasons I stated above. Conan is a world that's already built, sure, but I look forward to making it a foreground element, like the way NYC was in "DMZ," and the land of the Vikings in "Northlanders." No generic backdrops in my Conan stories.

This is also very promising.  Too many authors treat the Hyborian Age as just a background for Conan, a playground for a Puerile Adolescent's fantasy avatar that just needs sexy ladies, scary beasties and sneaky sorcerers.  I just hope that Wood chooses to highlight Howard's Hyborian Age over some pastiche nonsense like Antillia or Japan "Lemuria" or whatnot, and that his additions are fitting to the tone of the Hyborian age - which it sounds like he's anxious to ensure.

The Revolution

However, something even more encouraging is happening. If you go to comic news websites, you'll probably find a lot of comments like this:

Never read or watched any Conan in my entire life, but this creative team is going to change that. Wood and Cloonan are both extraordinarily talented creators, and even more so when working together. Can't wait.
 - maniacmatt

I'll definitely check it out even though I'm not normally into Conan. 
 - Awesome!

My first Conan book, bought. Bought the shiz out of. So bought. Can't be bought-er.
 - Stephen B.

The only other time I make sure to buy Conan is when Darick has done an issue here or there.
This shall be a grand experiment!
- Joe B. Pangrazio

I'll buy almost everything Cloonan draws. The phonebook even. Hell, I'll buy the McGyver comics she is doing next year.
So yeah, I'm buying Conan.

This is a sight for sore eyes, and exactly what good adaptations should do: bring newcomers in to the source material through quality work.  Furthermore, it's exactly how Dark Horse should be expanding Conan, appealing to audiences that might not otherwise bother with Conan.  Let's be frank, how many times have you come across the old "nah, I don't care about big dumb barbarian comics - ooh, look, Wolverine!" or "I prefer my comics to be more cerebral and less chauvinistic" dismissal?  Well, the most effective remedy to counter that is bring in someone you wouldn't expect.

Nordsiek and Gioruman had tremendous success, to be sure, but they were effectively preaching to the converted, and weren't likely to make many conversions after their initial run.  The marriage of Roy Thomas and Mike Hawthorne was a nice case of mixing classic and modern (even if a lot of Nord/Truman fans were turned off), but it was still perceived as Conan has been perceived for nigh on 40 years: a boys-only comic with manly men and nekkid ladies.  But bringing in the author of one of the most powerful political comics of recent years and one of the foremost young female comics artists to adapt the story, and you could cause that paradigm shift in public perceptions which allow people to truly appreciate how special Conan is.

This is the sort of thing that could give the second Howard Renaissance the boost it needs.  Mitra knows the film sure didn't do that. Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan could bring a whole new audience to Conan, and to Howard.  The art style looks different from what has come before, but it's a good difference - a challenging one, a change in pace that may reinvigorate.  They're working with one of the most powerful story arcs in the entire Conan saga, and have free reign for an awful lot of it - and a lot of passionate Howard fans to convince.

I'm going to wish them all the luck I can muster.

*Howard described Belit as possessing "ivory globes," which is oddly enough one of only a few direct references to a female character's chest in the stories.  There are some stories where a woman's figure is described only vaguely, leading to a wide range of interpretation, though comics being comics they usually stuck to the same basic type. Indeed, Conan evidently had broader tastes than some give him credit: Valeria is large-limbed and strongly built, Octavia is frequently described in terms that border on the Rubenesque, while Conan's seraglio girls are said to have "dainty bosoms." In any case, while some Howard womens' buxocity is up to interpretation, Belit's is not.


  1. Sounds great! I really like Woods northlanders, and Cloonans art look really nice (really exited to go and get some of her stuff, soon). And I can almost guarante you will get a good portrayal of strong women if this is anything like Woods northlanders. Lots of the stories are based on female protoganists, not just as backup for guys with swords.
    Northlanders also put emphase on the clash between Chrisianity and "the old ways", making some great stories about civilisazion vs, well, a kind of barbarism. A great read

  2. It's alright with me for starters, but I'm worried Wood isn't aware of characters & situations that will surface later on the saga, such as the sack of Abombi, the Amra surname, Publius & others.

  3. And I can almost guarante you will get a good portrayal of strong women if this is anything like Woods northlanders. Lots of the stories are based on female protoganists, not just as backup for guys with swords.

    I'm liking Wood's involvement more and more. Thanks for the tips!

    It's alright with me for starters, but I'm worried Wood isn't aware of characters & situations that will surface later on the saga, such as the sack of Abombi, the Amra surname, Publius & others.

    This is a concern for me too, but I hope Wood shows the same sense of attention to detail he showed in DMZ's depiction of New York and US political sensibilities. I have to believe either an REH fan has bombarded him ideas, or he's actively sought them out. "Right, speculative Howard fan, is there anything I really can't leave out?"

    In fact, I'll be addressing exactly this in a future post.

  4. Woods' DMZ is an excellent series. I get the GN collections and have been playing catch-up. He's very good at shifting POV and telling little one-shots in the process of a longer arc. He shouldn't have any problem fitting in those little suggestions like the sack of Abombi and the Amra nickname. My interpretation is Cloonan is co-writer under Wood's direction, so they will be planning things together.

    I am intrigued by her artwork and whatever xfactor she brings, especially as it pertains to Belit and any other female characters.

    I chuckle at everyone wincing about the look of Conan. It's certainly "out-of-box" and free of Frazetta's copy-cat's cliches. I'm all for a more elegantly attired Conan. Instead of dressed down in armor and leather, he should be, well, kinda "pimped-out" in silks and jewels. The close-up of Belit is quite intriguing.

  5. Woods' DMZ is an excellent series. I get the GN collections and have been playing catch-up. He's very good at shifting POV and telling little one-shots in the process of a longer arc. He shouldn't have any problem fitting in those little suggestions like the sack of Abombi and the Amra nickname. My interpretation is Cloonan is co-writer under Wood's direction, so they will be planning things together.

    Sounds about right.

    I chuckle at everyone wincing about the look of Conan. It's certainly "out-of-box" and free of Frazetta's copy-cat's cliches. I'm all for a more elegantly attired Conan. Instead of dressed down in armor and leather, he should be, well, kinda "pimped-out" in silks and jewels. The close-up of Belit is quite intriguing.

    Getting out of the shadow of Frazetta's fine, and I applaud attempts to bring a new interpretation, but I think it can be done while still adhering to REH's descriptions. The only thing that really bothers me is his skinny neck and general frame: other things like face and hair I'm happy to accept as personal interpretation. In any case, though, I'd rather have this than a return to the preposterously muscled nonsense of Liefeld Conan.

    I'm also with you on a more pimped-out Conan, but from what I've seen of these sketches, I'm concerned we'll get another "fur loincloth" interpretation. Hopefully they were just sketches and won't end up in the final comic.

  6. This Conan's physique seems quite similar to Brundage's Conan, and all the rest of the Weird Tales illustrations.

  7. Belit is shemite so she must looks like an arab girl but the Belit of Marvel comics look more than a south european, from Italy or Spain, girl the depiction of Kriss de Valnor in Thorgal's comics, a girl from a viking kingdom in the north but with an absolutely mediterranean look fits with an ideal Belit

    at first when I though the drawings of Becky Cloonan I have thought amerimanga but when I have seen the sketches for Belit and the complete page I have thought of Conan stories drawn by european authors, look at this illustrations from the albums of the Djinn series by spanish artist Ana Miralles with stories by Jean Dufaux