Monday, 18 October 2010

Roy Thomas on the history of Conan in comics

Way back when Thomas' return to Conan was announced, I had certain thoughts on the matter.  In retrospect, I'm a bit more appreciative of Thomas returning when we have blasted Jones to contend with, but even so, there's the worry of whether Thomas can gel with the current Dark Horse Conan.

So we get an interview where Thomas briefly recounts the history of Conan in the comics.  It's a very good read, with some very interesting morsels to ruminate over.

Naturally, Thomas talks about The Road of Kings, where he discusses about the different continuities of Marvel and Dark Horse's Cimmerians:

Well the continuity it has to fit into of course is Dark Horse’s which seems to be aligned as was Marvel’s to some extent, with Robert E. Howard’s continuity.  The only difference is that Dark Horse and the people they hired to put some proposal papers, informational papers together for them, came up with a somewhat different order in which they think some of the stories happened than the one that was accepted some years before.  I don’t necessarily agree with that order but it doesn’t make any real difference.  It simply means that by the time I’m writing Conan, Conan has had a couple of these Robert E. Howard adventures that he wouldn’t have had at this time in the Marvel comics. 

We don’t pay any attention to Marvel continuity because that would just be confusing.  Dark Horse reprints those books, but they go under their own continuity and readapt the stories as they come to them. 

In fact I had kind of a strange and difficult path which actually probably needed a lot more room to do it the way I would have liked to, happy as I am to be doing Conan.  When I pick up Conan after another series has just ended, Conan has just become the captain of this pirate ship on the Vilayet Sea which is about as far east as the map for the Hyborean Age goes, at least Robert E. Howard’s authentic map.  It’s over there between Turan and Hyrkania—it’s pretty far east. 

At the end of the story which was called alternately “Shadows in the Moonlight,” or Howard’s title was, “Iron Shadows in the Moon” (which we’ve always used as the adaptation title), he’s over there in the east, he’s just become a pirate captain.  What they needed was in twelve issues for me to get him from there (getting rid of the pirate thing very quickly, whereas otherwise we’d stick around with him as the pirate captain for a little while) by the end of 12th issue to be in Messantia, the capital of Argos, which is about as far west as you can go in the Hyborean Age, because right after that they’ll be starting their own particular version of the adaptation of the story “Queen of the Black Coast,” in which Conan spent a couple of years with Belit the pirate queen, his first long-time lover.  I sort of became the the writer of this filler period.  That led me to feel that I needed kind of an episodic storyline, but one where you’d have maybe two six issue story arcs so that each one of them could be collected into a graphic novel collection. 

I had to plot the stories and make them a little more of a rambling story, more than some real tight story, nor did I have time to play around with the pirate thing.  I had to take him off that pirate ship in the first issue.  But that was fine, I wasn’t that eager to write a pirate story anyway because by the time right after he gets to the west coast of the continent and joins Belit, he’s going to be a pirate for the next couple of years or so.  So I guess it made sense not to have him go through another pirate stint right before that.  

The thing I came up with, although he’s been on it before, there’s this thing called the Road of Kings which winds from somewhere in Turan on the east there and it winds through a lot of the Hyborean kingdoms and it ends in Messantia, that port of Argos where he has to be.  It was just a happy circumstance that I could just have Conan follow this road west.  So we called the series Conan: Road of Kings.  That’s the name of the series.

As far as I can tell, the Dark Horse and Marvel continuities both follow a fairly similar chronology.  However, there's a notable difference: in Marvel, "Iron Shadows in the Moon" follows "Queen of the Black Coast," whereas the two stories are switched around in Dark Horse's scheme.

This, I feel, is a really bad idea on Dark Horse's part.  Not only does it mean you have to get Conan from the Vilayet to Messantia, but it means a lot of elements from "Queen of the Black Coast" appear to be contradicted.  For example, this passage:

And once an inhuman voice was lifted in awful mockery - the cry of an ape, Bêlit said, adding that the souls of evil men were imprisoned in these manlike animals as punishment for past crimes. But Conan doubted, for once, in a gold-barred cage in an Hyrkanian city, he had seen an abysmal sad-eyed beast which men told him was an ape, and there had been about it naught of the demoniac malevolence which vibrated in the shrieking laughter that echoed from the black jungle.

Yet in the Dark Horse timeline, Conan has seen another ape apart from that sad creature in the gilded cage - not only that, he battled it!  One could mention Thak, but then, as Nabonidus said: "some would call him an ape, but he is almost as different from a real ape as he is different from a real man." Thus, until he comes across the Winged One in "Queen of the Black Coast," there's no reason to think Conan had ever encountered an ape in the wild.

There are other problems, too: if Conan was a pirate captain on the Vilayet, why didn't he mention any of this to Belit, and why did he not seem to know what to expect if the Tigress ever caught up with the Argo? Conan also seems very inexperienced with civilization, still - in "Iron Shadows" he's in that disenfranchised, cynical stage where he denigrates civilization's hypocrisy, while in "Queen" he's still baffled and confused by the mores of society, like in the thief stories.

Generally, I'm really coming around to the idea of "Iron Shadows in the Moon" being set later in Conan's career than in Dale Rippke's Dark Storm Chronology, which up to now Dark Horse had been following: Conan just seems so much more confident, knowledgeable and mature than he does in other storie - especially "Queen of the Black Coast."  I also have some problems with the placement of "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," and think it too could be placed later in Conan's career.  Still, these are arguments for another time.

There will be several other characters.  There’s a wizard/inquisitor type and several others, as I said, plus a few other characters who will appear because they’re meant to appear later in Conan’s life.  Quite often in a Conan story he would meet somebody and there would be reference to the fact that he knew them this time or that time.  There are all these little clues like land mines in the Conan stories and I would just (did then and do now) go in and pick them out and drop the characters into Conan.

Maybe a certain Poitanian Rogue?  No, I will not stop pushing for Prospero to be Conan's soldier-friend from the events prior to "Queen of the Black Coast," I'm determined, dammit!  Hey, wouldn't it be a hoot if Olivia became Prospero's girlfriend?  Nah, too much of a coincidence.

In addition to The Road of Kings, Thoas shares his thoughts on the state of the Conan franchise in the 1970s that's most intriguing to me:

By the middle seventies Conan had become one of Marvel’s most popular characters.  Since the Savage Sword of Conan book sold for like a buck at a time when other comics were like a quarter or thirty cents or so (and didn’t have that much color in it, just the cover, it was not that expensive to produce), I suspect there was probably a little while in the late seventies at least, when Conan between the two or three titles he was in was probably making as much money in terms of comic book sales for the company as Spider-Man was. 

The Franklin Mint did some medallions at that time, three or four of them and one of the four they picked was Conan out of all the characters they could have picked.  We had the rights to merchandising at that time.  So it was really quite popular. 

But in the meantime, by the mid-seventies, unfortunately Lancer (I don’t know exactly how they mismanaged it) somehow despite the popularity of the Conan and Robert E. Howard properties they had, and the other things they did, managed to go into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which meant that for a number of years in the late seventies and early eighties there were a number of years when there was no authorized printing of the Conan text stories at all.  He wasn’t exactly a growth industry in terms of paperbacks or hardbound books or anything like that.  He was surviving in the public’s mind for those years primarily on the strength of the comics. 

I always remember that at an early stage, sometime in the late seventies or early eighties, but sometime before the movie, that Sammy Davis Jr. was hosting a show, I don’t know if it was his or he was guest-hosting The Tonight Show, and he had Arnold Schwarzenegger on.  This was sometime before the movie was released or even filmed yet, but he’d been signed long since to play the character and he said he was willing to play Conan the Barbarian.  And Sammy Davis Jr., a favorite singer of mine, said, “Oh, the comic book character!”  That’s sort of the way the public thought of Conan if they thought of him at all at that time--as a comic book character. 

It made that movie viable at a time when otherwise probably it would have been dead.  Eventually it would have come back and maybe somebody would have done it, but that particular movie at that particular time owed as much to comics as it did to the stories in terms of viability. 

I must confess, I'm not up to speed on the history of the Lancers.  After putting my copy of Conan the Conqueror down in disgust on reading the introduction, I never bothered picking any of the others up to read.  Why bother when I have so many superior alternatives available, like the Del Reys, Fantasy Masterworks and Centenary Editions?  However, it stuns me that the Lancers could be so poorly managed as to collapse despite being some of the biggest sellers of the time, to the point where only the comics were keeping Conan going.  How on earth did that happen?

Oh yeah, and all those individuals who insist that Conan was an obscure, fringe property before Conan the Barbarian came along to thrust Conan into popular consciousness - well, from the perspective of someone who was in the industry at the time, Conan was hanging with Spider-Man.

Speaking of Conan the Barbarian, I found this snippet of interest:

Are they showing you any script elements or giving you any guidance in terms of things to do or not to do as it relates to the movie?
I have no knowledge of that movie.  My interest has always been (a)Robert E. Howard, and (b) me writing Conan because I like the character.  Everything else doesn’t make it onto my radar screen.  I’m really a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan.  I like Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan but I wasn’t that wild about either of the movies including the one I helped write.  But even the first one, I just didn’t think they captured what I felt Conan should be even though it was not the fault primarily of the actors.  

First of all, I love the naievete of the interviewer, thinking that the movie has anything to do with Dark Horse or Robert E. Howard.   Secondly, it's good to have Thomas reiterate his belief that Conan the Barbarian didn't really capture Robert E. Howard's Conan.  I'm not quite as sold on Arnold as he is, but I can't disagree with him on that.  Neither did Gary Gygax, for that matter, famously referring to Conan the Barbarian as "Lil' Abner versus the Moonies."

I've been awfully hard on Conan the Barbarian recently, even though I did like it a lot.  The problem is, it's a film that must be judged completely separately from the source material.  When you even tangentially bring Robert E. Howard into things, the film suffers in the comparison.  The film does nothing that improves on Howard, and what little REH is there is diluted and willowy in comparison.  It's a film that cannot be considered alongside the original stories.  The only way to truly appreciate it, in fact, is to forget it's supposed to be a Conan movie at all.

Think of it as the difference between The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars.  The similarities between those two films are quite notable, but they're also very different.  They're different enough to be considered on their own terms.  But as soon as you try to compare the films, Star Wars just dies a death, because the myriad faults in Star Wars - the dialogue, the acting, the flaws in the storytelling - work relentlessly against it when put alongside a masterpiece of cinema by one of the great directors of the art.  This is all in addition to comparison of how much better The Hidden Fortress did the elements it shares with Star Wars: as surely as Ben Kenobi looks wan and underdeveloped next to General Rokurota Makabe, Milius' Conan is a pale shadow of his inspiration.  However, to paraphrase myself, that's like saying Mount Snowdon looks tiny next to Mount Everest: it may, but that doesn't mean Snowdon isn't a big damn mountain.  Howard and The Hidden Fortresses are collosi of the Himalayas, while Conan the Barbarian and Star Wars are peaks of the Cairngorms: no, they aren't as big as the giants, but that's hardly a knock on their grandeur.

... And now I'm imagining Kurosawa's Konanzagurēto.  And you know what?  I don't think it would be much different, plot-wise.  Oh dear, now I'm off on a tangent...


  1. Nice reference on the Hidden Fortress, I love the Kurosawa's.

    I have to say I am looking forward to Thomas's handling of the comics over almost anyonbe else's-but then you knew that after my review of The Creation Quest. I was being vocally kinder than I was in my heart about it.

  2. It was Roy Thomas, through Marvel's Conan the Barbarian comic book, who introduced me to Conan, so I'm probably a little biased towards Roy, but I was glad to hear that he would be writing Conan again. (I got to meet Roy a few years back and shake his hand and thank him for his involvement in my discovery of Robert E. Howard. He seemed pleased.)
    I always felt that Roy had a better grasp of REH's Conan than most of the writers who produced the prose pastiches. The stories that Roy made up to bridge the gaps between Howard adaptations usually seemed much more 'Howardian' than anything de Camp/Carter ever came up with, especially in the first 50 or so issues of CtB and SSoC. I thought he generally did a better job of turning REH's non-Conan stories into Conan yarns as well.
    So I guess the big question is, how will Roy do after all these years? I'm encouraged by a couple of things. Most recently by his return to Red Sonja a couple of years back when he wrote one of Dynamite's annuals. It was truly as if Roy had never left the character and he stepped right in and wrote a story that was as solid as any he'd done before.
    Slightly less recent was his return to Marvel's Conan and Savage Sword after more than a decade away. Again he had no problem jumping right back into writing the character, especially in Savage Sword.
    So yeah, I'm hopeful that Roy will do a year's worth of Conan that we'll all enjoy. Obviously he won't be writing exactly the same character, since Dark Horse's Conan has a different continuity and all of Roy's original stories didn't happen in the DH universe. But as Roy said in the interview, it's not that different and when in doubt he goes back to REH.

  3. I like Star Wars much more than "Hidden fortress"... Toshiro Mifune is cool but, in my opinion, the movie fails on story structure.

  4. "Gary Gygax...famously referring to Conan the Barbarian as "Lil' Abner versus the Moonies.""

    I always thought Karl Edward Wagner said that.

    (despite the art, it'll be good to have ol' Roy back)

  5. I have to say I am looking forward to Thomas's handling of the comics over almost anyonbe else's-but then you knew that after my review of The Creation Quest. I was being vocally kinder than I was in my heart about it.

    I'm looking forward more to The Road of Kings than any of the other upcoming Dark Horse comics (outside Savage Sword, of course). I'm one of the few that had problems with Busiek and Truman's runs, though.

    I always felt that Roy had a better grasp of REH's Conan than most of the writers who produced the prose pastiches. The stories that Roy made up to bridge the gaps between Howard adaptations usually seemed much more 'Howardian' than anything de Camp/Carter ever came up with, especially in the first 50 or so issues of CtB and SSoC. I thought he generally did a better job of turning REH's non-Conan stories into Conan yarns as well.

    Well, it isn't exactly hard to out-Howard de Camp and Carter's nonsense. It always infuriated me that Thomas basically had to stick to the pastiches, especially Conan the Liberator (I HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE THAT BLOODY BOOK CROM DAMN IT). My favourite "Conanvertion" was Thomas' adaptation of "The Lost Valley of Iskander," where he basically explains how Alexander's descendents could populate a lost city in the Hyborian Age by using a sort of time-travel element. Yet somehow, it works: it's so vague and mysterious that it works in a Howardian context as one of those eldritch "things" that just happens.

    I like Star Wars much more than "Hidden fortress"... Toshiro Mifune is cool but, in my opinion, the movie fails on story structure.

    Eh, whatever floats your boat. I think my relationship with Star Wars suffers a bit since I didn't see it until I was about 10 or 12. I loved it, but I wasn't in love with it, so to speak.

    I always thought Karl Edward Wagner said that.

    I may be mistaken, but I distinctly remember Gygax using it in a review of Conan the Barbarian. I can't seem to find it. It could well have been KEW. Maybe one inspired the other. I dunno, I think it's cute.

  6. My favorite Conanization was 'The Slave Princess' the uncompleted Cormac Fiztgeoffrey story. Thomas added a supernatural element that was very cool and came up with The Haunters of Castle Crimson in SSoC #12.

  7. what's film is The hidden fortress? is by Kurosawa? I think in Spain has other title...
    when DH started that version of Queen of the black coast will Roy Thomas be the writer...? I think is the most appropiate writer...
    by the way Conan the liberator comic adaptation has the most gorgeous girl in hyborian world, Alcina... and The lost valley of Iskander that superblonde Bardylis in bikini... by the way when they published the saga of Conan and Belit in three hardcovers in Spain, the prologuer ask about what ancient civilizarion could has inspired the bikini of the blonde... hahaha...
    speaking about Conan the liberator this have no such fun...