Sunday 23 October 2011

More from Clood on Conan

Io9 has an interview with Clood on "Queen of the Black Coast."  They certainly don't seem intimidated by fans, for they make a couple of pretty bold statements.  Do I agree or disagree?  Only one way to find out!

Another big project you have coming down the line is Conan the Barbarian. How did that come around?
Brian Wood: Dark Horse asked me to take it on almost a year ago. It took a while, but my schedule eventually freed, and Becky was the obvious choice. Dark Horse's goal is to have not your typical sort of Conan look and vibe. The comic adapts the old story, Queen of the Black Coast. It's a young Conan, he's about 25. He falls in with this pirate band, and the first love of his life is this tough, awesome pirate queen. There's a lot of sex, a lot of adventures — it's this time in his life when he sees the world with a hot girl at his side. It's an adaptation, but we're also creating a lot of new stuff.

It's kind of weird, because of all the stories to pick as "not your typical Conan series," I would've thought taking a gamble on one of the lesser stories would pay off better than taking one of the iconic Conan tales.  Truman gambled with the idea of turning "Iron Shadows in the Moon" into first-person perspective from Olivia's point of view, and I think that aspect of the adaptation worked tremendously.  Again, I'm interested in seeing what Clood do with this, but to be frank, I don't think people would mind too much if they did something outlandish with, say, "Xuthal of the Dusk" or "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula," whereas messing about with something as beloved and complex as "Queen of the Black Coast" is about as tricky as altering "Beyond the Black River" or "The People of the Black Circle."  Maybe that's the plan: take one of the most famed, loved and admired Conan stories, and put it all on black.  Gotta admire their mettle.

Becky, what sort of design are you bringing to the pirate queen, Bêlit?
Becky Cloonan: She's great. It's kind of difficult because she's a sexy, strong character, but you don't oversexualize her because it can easily turn into cheesecake. I'm trying to make her look as dangerous as possible. She's hot, but she also looks like she would kill you just to watch you die.

The problem, unfortunately, is that in American culture, nudity is equated with sexuality, which is obviously problematic.  Thus, even depicting women with a lot of skin can be considered sexualizing, which strikes me as somewhat preposterous: by this logic, a bland bikini worn at the beach is more sexualised than a little black dress, despite the one being intended to be functional and the latter for display.  Weird world, I guess.  But putting Belit in non-sexual poses should be fine: make her stand proud, defiant and dominant, languid and lazy, and crouched like a tigress ready to pounce, instead of the usual cocked-hip stuff.

Still, there are ways: Belit seems to have quite an attachment to Conan's scarlet cloak.  She's seen sleeping under it at least once, and Conan lays her on it in her funeral pyre.  So, if you run out of ideas, just have her play with Conan's cloak.  Wear it as a cape, a cloak, robes, a skirt, a toga, a sari, whatever.  Do a variation of that scene from Spartacus where Varinia tells Spartacus she's pregnant, and they're both in the same robes.  Have fun with it.

Brian Wood: In the book itself, she's naked around the clock. Obviously, we can't really draw that, so we have to find creative ways of depicting this. Also, the [Conan] books are really old. Obviously, what's going to fly in the 1930s isn't going to fly now when you show a woman like that. We're trying to find the right balance.
Becky Cloonan: She's supposed to run around topless, but I can't just be like, "Oh, here are two word balloons! Oh, here is a plant in front of the left boob!" I want to find creative ways of depicting this.

Alarm bells!  Alarm bells!  Alarm bells!  Alright, calm down... Sorry, I just tend to get a bit tense whenever people keep talking about "updating" the classics.  After all, not only were these stories written in the 1930s, they were set in a pre-industrial age with mores and customs alien to modern times.  It seems preposterous to complain about "what's going to fly in the 1930s" when the story's setting is an age where women were treated as property, chattel and second-class citizens.  Especially when said story notes that this isn't a good thing.

I may be overly nervous: I just hope Clood don't muck about with Belit's characterisation out of a misplaced sense of "modernising" the character, when I think it would be more creatively satisfying to explain those actions in a modern context.  For example, a lot of people give "Queen" flak for Belit and Conan being implied (in the old "fade to black" fashion) to have sex right on the deck of the Tigress shortly after the battle of the Argus.  "That's completely unrealistic!  It's totally childish!  It's an adolescent fantasy!  No woman would act like that!"  Some would suggest, for example, having Belit mistrust Conan, and just make him another corsair forcing him to work his way up the ranks, or a captive in the brig, or even her personal slave.

From my point of view, it's cheating to change that: it's admitting defeat, admitting that "yeah, this is totally unrealistic, nobody would buy that."  It belies a lack of faith in the source material.  Wouldn't it be better to try and explain Belit's sudden actions?  Howard left more than a few hints that Belit considered this to be some sort of divine providence or cosmic conjunction: being a daughter of the Kings of Askalon as well as clearly versed in Shemite religion, wouldn't it be more fun to try and explain her actions from a religious-prophetic point of view, instead of dumbing it down for readers who can't grasp the idea that things may have been different in prehistoric times, or that Belit's actions are meant to be unusual?

Curses, sorry, I'm doing it again.  Suffice to say, I note that they haven't brought up the fact that the black corsairs are all naked.  All eighty of them. Belit is the only naked woman in a sea of giant naked black men!  It would be a shame if they didn't take this chance for equal-opportunity nudity - hell, it's all the more reason to show Belit being nude, if only to offset the sheer volume of black flesh on display.  Or are they going to cover up the black corsairs, for fear of scaring away the young male demographic, but leaving Belit unclad?  Well, that would be sexist.  In fact, I'd actually be offended that they covered up the Black Corsairs and not Belit, if that situation comes to pass, especially for all that talk about stuff flying in the '30s and not now.  I'm serious.

That said... it isn't strictly necessary for Belit to be naked for the entire 25-issue run.  She should just be naked for any issues that are direct adaptations of "Queen of the Black Coast," and an argument could be made that only the first chapter applies.  Howard never really mentioned Belit's attire after the first meeting with Conan, so it's possible that she was topless then, or you could go the old gold bikini route.  Belit is noted as wearing copious ornamentations, after all.

Becky Cloonan: So maybe. Right now, I'm working on another Dark Horse book, The Guild: Zaboo one-shot, which is really fun. I made a minicomic Wolves at my website, it's in the genre of Conan.
Brian Wood: If anybody wants to get a sense of what Becky's Conan will be like, check out that minicomic.

You heard the Clood.

Brian Wood: And some people are like "Emo Conan!" because you drew too much hair in his eyes. I actually saw that in a comment, "YOU DREW TOO MUCH HAIR IN HIS FACE!"
Becky Cloonan: Whatever! I didn't want him to look like the Hulk with a bad haircut.

There have been plenty of comparatively slight Conans who could still fit a given description of being massively muscled, tall, broad-shouldered, deep-chested and heavy-limbed: Barry Smith's Conan is probably the most famous example, along with Margaret Brundage's, but there's also P. Craig Russell's and Darral Greene's interpretations.  Jason Momoa is another example, at least in comparison to more gigantic physiques like those of Arnold and Ralf Moeller.  The sketches I've seen so far aren't even close to those Conans, and depict Conan as almost anorexic - that said, they are only sketches, and not definitive by any means.  I don't know, something about this response rubs me up the wrong way a bit.  Cloonan just seems to be speaking as if there's no middle ground between Adrien Brody in Predators and Lou Ferrigno. 

Just saying, you don't have to choose between two extremes!

Sorry, sorry, it's hard to stop when I start.  In any case, nah, Becky's Conan doesn't look emo.  I do wonder why his hair is constantly plastered to his head, but it could just be the salty sea or sweat or whatnot.

However, Brian came to the Robert E. Howard Forums to address some of the concerns made, which is mighty nice of him, and really puts my mind at ease:

Those sketches, as some of you have assumed, are first-round rough takes on Conan, not final executed pieces. So yeah, they are rough and she is clearly trying out a range of facial expressions and looks for the benefit of the client (in this case Paradox). Really, this sort of sketch should never be made public, since it is so far removed from what you will actually see in the book. It's like looking at scraps of fabric on the floor and jumping to a conclusion as to what the article of clothing must look like.

That said, the direction she was given, and that I was given, is to take the "panther-like" description of REH's and apply it to this younger Conan, rather than make him so beefy. He's still impressively built, but in more of an athletic way than a bodybuilder way. All this talk here of "cute" and "anime" and "waif" doesn't apply. I get it if someone doesn't like Becky's art, because no one likes everything, but that's a decision I hope people make based on the art in the book, not the art in her sketchbook she made before she was even hired!

I suspected this would be the case: in the absence of full-body completed art, there wasn't much to go on, but it's good to know all the same that the sketches won't be the final thing. It's a shame this was one of the first things to be released (though I have a soft spot for Conan doing the batusi for some reason!)

I also wanted to say something about my lack of knowledge, apparently, regarding Conan and REH. I guess I must have said something to that affect in an interview? I know I did close to 20 interviews at this last New York Comic Con. Anyway, its true that I am no expert and I'm sure a bunch of you here could run circles around me in this regard, but I am not completely ignorant. I do have to, have done, and am still doing research, and this is what writers do for a living. It's not like we can only ever write about the things we are already experts on and never grow beyond that. And I have editors at Dark Horse checking my scripts, and the people at Paradox as well. I can say that in the first 3 scripts I've written, the only changes that I was asked to make were (very) minor geographical ones... place names and such. I seem to be doing a pretty solid job all things considered.

Perhaps it's the way I read it, but the "apparently it's a pretty famous story" gave me pause, and me being the eternal pessimist, I was starting to be concerned. Nonetheless, given what I've read of DMZ and what people have told me of Northlanders, I do get the impression that Brian's very thorough and meticulous when it comes to research, which is really all any REH fan could possibly want - that, and a good story, of course.

One of the mandates I was given, in general, is to bring a more well-rounded humanity to Conan, the whole "gigantic mirth and gigantic melancholy" thing, and to keep in mind he is young and prone to error as much as anyone. This is what made Dark Horse want to hire me, this same sort of approach that I employ in my viking series Northlanders. Conan is not a superhero; he is not infallible. That, combined with the events of the story I'm adapting, are going to call for a lot of ups and downs for him.

I'm signed on to Conan for 25 issues. I think I'll do a good job. I know Becky is. We both love the material, and the genre, and feel blessed to have been given the responsibility of adapting this well-loved story. But like I said, its not going to appeal to everyone, but just know we are taking it seriously, and the REH estate holders are approving it every step of the way.

It could be that some of us REH fans are a bit burned by the promises of the film and Roy Thomas' return, or that we're used to a more painterly style rather than an inked one, but knowing that you're taking it seriously instead of treating it like a fun diversion is assuring.

I typically avoid visiting forums like this... I feel that readers should feel free to discuss and criticize and otherwise comment on books without the author breathing down their necks, so if you don't hear from me often at all, that's the reason. BUT, I will check back in for a little while now in case anyone has any questions I can answer.

I'm hoping Brian does come around every so often: he's here for a long haul.  Kurt Busiek commented on the forums, as have other comics authors and artists, so it'd be good to see him explain this or that decision and answer questions.  I'm really very excited, and the thing is, I know I'm still probably going to have problems with it - but because Brian is doing something different instead of, say, bringing back some pastiche retreads like using "The Hand of Nergal" as a title, I feel it's at least a new thing to discuss.

This is going to be fun.


  1. Then, much of "Iron Shadows in the Moon" is already told from Olivia's POV. That helps.

  2. I actually think the entirety of "Iron Shadows" is told from Olivia's perspective: nonetheless, Truman did a great job translating a lot of REH's great prose into Olivia's narrative voice.

  3. I got a laugh out of that line about what would fly in the '30s. My first thought was: are naked people more naked now? Live and learn. And thanks for pointing out that it's a whole Ship of Nudity.

  4. well, yes, naked people in a comic are considerably more naked than naked people in prose - I doubt you would have forgotten that they were all naked if you had seen it.

  5. There are scenes in "Iron Shadows" from Conan's POV -- when she tells him about her dream, for instance. Mostly Olivia, I think, but not entirely.