Brian Wood knows his barbarians. Or at least, he’s pretty familiar with Vikings, as evidenced by his successful Vertigo series Northlanders. But now, he – along with artist Becky Cloonan – are heading South and taking on the most famous barbarian of all time: Conan. The new series from Dark Horse is a retelling of one of Robert E. Howard’s most famous stories, Queen Of The Black Coast, and for those of you not familiar: Conan vs. Pirates.
We chatted with Wood about the book before its release this week to find out more… Including how you deal with a naked pirate queen, fans angry that Wood and Cloonan’s Conan is too “emo,” and the biggest question of all:
MTV Geek: Why Conan, and why now?
Brian Wood: Put bluntly, I was offered the book! Dark Horse made a strong case - specifically Sierra Hahn, who I know from her days doing PR for Veritgo - for me to come over there and do a 25-issue stint on the book. I can honestly say that it would NEVER have occurred to me to pitch for this book, but once I was asked, it just felt right. It seemed like a no-brainer. Also, my viking book Northlanders was ending, and Conan felt like a way to continue kinda-sorta in the same genre but without doing the exact same thing.
Geek: What is the draw of Conan as a character? What’s your take on him?
BW: There's a couple levels to this. Conan is appealing because he is this incredibly famous character, a real classic of American pulp literature, and a worldwide-recognized brand. And it was very flattering to be asked to be a part of that. That's the draw on the more practical side of things. On the creative side, here's this character who is the classic sword-and-sorcery type, very genre, very much of a certain type of world, but does have this mass appeal. The genius of Conan is how we, as readers, can relate to him regardless of when he was written or what the particulars of his adventures may be. He's not a superhero, or a meathead, or anything like that. He's this great character with a rich and detailed backstory, and you want to root for him. You relate to his successes and failures.
He's just very, very human. That's at his core as a character, and a central aspect of the stories I'm writing for the book.
Geek: Not to inject myself into this, but my first reaction reaction upon hearing you guys were doing this series after, “cool!” was that it seemed to be leaning far more straight-forward and mainstream than either of you do usually – though I know you’ve both tackled less indie projects in the past. Any thoughts on that?
BW: I thought the reaction was a lot more positive than I might have predicted. I dunno, there's a larger thing happening for me right now in terms of my career. I'm wrapping up these two long running creator-owned Vertigo books, 50 and 72 issues respectively, and everything else was coming to an end around the same time, and my future was wide open and I saw a real chance to tweak and define the next stage of my career. After 14 years of doing almost exclusively creator-owned, I decided to spend a couple years and do a bunch of licensed work and stretch those muscles and see what it's like. So you have Conan, you have the X-Men, and probably something else later in 2012. I don't see work like that defining the rest of my career, but I'll do it for a little while. I needed to shake things up.
Geek: Furthermore, after reading message boards – bad idea, by the way – it seemed like readers of your indie work were pissed you were going so “mainstream,” while Conan fans were pissed he was so “emo.” Are you at all worried that you might alienate, you know, everybody?
BW: The 'emo' thing is both really funny and really annoying. All my books have been called 'emo' at one point or another, since Demo in 2003. Even Northlanders was called 'emo'. Clearly its a meaningless insult, issued by lazy people who don't have the proper words to describe something that is even a little bit less than 100% macho and straightforward. So Becky draws a sketch of Conan with a smile on his face, and only reaction available is to call it 'emo'. It's absurd. The funny part of it is these same people don't even know what 'emo' is, what the word really means. A fun variation on this, something I spotted on some forum, was "Conan looks like a barista!". I almost emailed Becky to ask her to sketch Conan working at Starbucks for the fun of it.
And no, it’s not a concern. If someone thinks DMZ and Northlander is 'emo', there is absolutely nothing I can do to combat this. Conan clearly isn't 'emo', and the work will speak for itself. And as far as alienating existing readers of mine, like I said the reactions been pretty positive overall, and I'm not letting up on my creator-owned work.
Geek: To follow up, have you interacted with any Conan fans on this? For that side of the coin, what do you think is or are the essential elements of a Conan comic book? And how many will you be holding on to?
BW: I've interacted a little, and hardcore Conan fans have a passion that outstrips the hardest-core X-Men fans. It's a sight to behold. I try to stay away, because I think to a lot of them I am a controversial pick to write this book and I know the preview pages have, in the words of one guy who emailed me, "sparked weeks of controversy" on one forum. I just can't be distracted by that. And also, and this is a general comment, I don't really think creators should be on forums where the work is being discussed. I think readers should have the privacy and feel free to talk openly about a book without the writer or artist lurking over their shoulder, ready to jump in at a moment's notice. It's a little creepy, really. So I told myself I wouldn't interfere in these discussions going forward.
Geek: It seems extremely ambitious to do a twenty-five issue series… How are you structuring it? As one long tale? In arcs?
BW: About eight arcs, shorter arcs that what I think is typical. But overall it is one long story, the adaptation of the original Queen Of The Black Coast novelette. There's a lot of space in that original story, though, so 25 issues feels about right.
Geek: I know you’ve talked about this a bit, but it seems like it’s this epic love story between Conan and Belit… Is that true?
BW: It is, that's what the original story is, and also why is such a famous and well-loved story amongst fans. It's an incredibly formative and important chapter in Conan's life.
Geek: You’ve also talked about this quite a bit, but hey, it’s the Internet: Belit is naked most of the story… Did you get any pressure from Dark Horse to add a shirt here and there? Or is it integral to the telling of the story that she is a completely naked pirate queen?
BW: Yeah, in the story she is topless and wears only the skimpiest of bottoms. Looking at it realistically, its pretty absurd, that this naked woman with skin described as pure white spends all her time on a boat in sun-drenched tropical waters. But you can't look at pulp literature in a very realistic way. She is an ideal, and is presented as such. We gave her a little more clothes, but not so much as to destroy that ideal, that image. In later arcs, though, when the surroundings dictate it, she adopts disguises and costumes and warm weather gear.
Geek: What’s your approaches to pirates in this book? Are they the, “argh, shiver me timbers!” variety, or something else? This is some crack interviewing I’m doing right here.
BW: I think we're predating the "shiver me timbers" stereotype by at least a thousand years. Belit has about as much to do with that as she does modern day Somali pirates. She is sort of her own thing, a self-described Queen with her own boat and crew of fanatically loyal men who worship her. She's brutal in her pirating, killing, burning, and looting as she sees fit. No puffy sleeves.
Geek: I know this is thinking about three years or so in the future, but could you see yourself doing more Conan after this? Are there any other adaptations you’re itching to do?
BW: There's an understanding with Dark Horse that, if all goes well, the possibility exists to continue on beyond the 25, but any further discussion is pretty much pointless this far out. We'll see. I'm already 7 issues into the 25, so maybe after another 7 we'll be in a position to start talking about it.
Geek: For those who just plain haven’t read a Conan comic before, why pick up this one?
BW: I can think of a dozen reasons, but here's a few: like I said, this is classic American pulp literature, not insular and nerdy like a role-playing game manual. Becky and I are unusual choices for this material and so will bring something unexpected to the book, the art and coloring looks phenomenal, and this is an adaptation I am committing two years of my life to. I'm bringing my A game, and so is everyone else. This is a book worth checking out.
Geek: Lastly, anything else you two want to plug, while I have you?
BW: THE MASSIVE, my next big, multi-year creator-owned book, also published by Dark Horse.
Conan The Barbarian #1 hits comic book stands on Wednesday, February 8, 2012 from Dark Horse Comics!