Roy Thomas: On the Road Back to Conan

A comics interview article by: Zack Davisson

I recently got to chat Conan with one of my heroes, the amazing Roy Thomas.  Roy's resume is incredible. He has been an influence in comics for years, working for both DC and Marvel, creating characters like the Vision, Ghost Rider and a host of others.  

But, to me, Roy Thomas will always be the man who introduced Robert E. Howard and Conan to the world at large and brought a ten-year old boy (me!) into the world of comics.

Zack Davisson: Thank you for taking the time for this interview. I feel honored to speak with you.

Roy Thomas: Well, we'll see how you feel when it's over.

Davisson: I have to tell you that you are largely responsible for getting me into comics in the first place. When I was young -- probably about ten years old -- I was really into the Conan books, the Lancer paperbacks. One year, my mother got me a big pile of your old Conan comics as a Christmas present. That was pretty much my introduction into comics, and I have been hooked every since.

Thomas: They were already old comics then.

Davisson: It was in the early '80s -- '81 or '82 -- around when the first movie came out.

Thomas: I wasn't even working for Marvel or writing Conan any more. I only did the first 110 or so issues.

Davisson: I think she picked them all up cheap at a used bookstore. You could still do that back then.

Thomas: Well, they are still around, they just cost more depending on what you are looking for and when, I guess. But it's nice. Everyone comes through something different. Like, I'm a huge Elvis Presley fan, and when I hear somebody say they became a fan of Elvis from his movies I just shake my head. I can't figure it out. If you heard "Heartbreak Hotel" in '56 I could see it, but if you went to see Kissing Cousins or something and became an Elvis fan, I don't have anything in common with you.

So everybody comes to something in a different way.

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Davisson: Yep. I came to comics through you, though your work on Conan. And here it is three decades later.

Thomas: Well, I'm glad you enjoyed them and that they held up well enough for you to enjoy them in the '80s as much as when I wrote them.

Davisson: I think they still hold up well now. I just reread all of them when getting ready to talk to you.

Thomas: I have been pretty pleased that Dark Horse put them all back into print. I don't like the modern coloring. It's too dark and seems like it doesn't have any primary colors. And [for] the first early issues they didn't reprint the covers. They hadn't figured out yet that if they just dropped the Marvel off it, they could print the covers. It's a shame, because sometimes the covers are the best page of the comic. But other than that, I am really pleased to see what they have done. They are reprinting them all -- mine and other people's. And a new generation can decide what they like and don't like.

Davisson: So I do have to ask you, what did you think of the new Conan movie?

Thomas: Well, I liked it. I thought it was a good story. But the villain just as easily could have had the name -- as Thulsa Doom did in the first one, maybe not the Thulsa Doom of Robert E. Howard -- but it could have just as easily been the name Thoth Amon or one of the names of the Howard characters. And I'm not a big fan of young Conan types of stuff. I thought the actor who played Conan had a feel for action. I tell you, I wish when we were writing the second Conan movie back in the early '80s, or even with the first one that came out a few years earlier, that those technical effects had been available. Like in the first movie, that fight with the snake, I asked, "Why didn't we see more of that?" and they said, "Believe me, we used every foot of film that worked."

But nowadays, when they have that wonderful fight with the sand creatures and so forth, it looks very much like something out of Robert E. Howard, like something I would have been happy to have come up with for the comic. And, in fact, that octopus -- that tentacled creature -- that they had (I think they even referred to it as a "dweller" once or twice)… I had this vague feeling that even though the word dweller was used by Lovecraft and Howard and so forth, maybe not in Conan but, I thought, geez, maybe they were looking at Conan the Barbarian #12

Roy Thomas Interview 2

Davisson: The Dweller in the Dark…

Thomas: Yeah. Not that the idea of an octopoid creature in Conan is original, but there was just something about that whole sequence that was similar. So I liked to see that, because it is always nice to try and envision how the stories that I did in comics -- or that Howard did -- would actually look on the screen. And some things make the transition better than others.

And one thing I don't mind saying about the movie -- especially because Gerry Conway and I were forced to write a PG movie after the first one had been an R -- I'm glad it was back to being an R-rated movie. Because Conan should be an R.

Davisson: A PG Conan just doesn't cut it. Actually, they did a cartoon that was a G-rated Conan.

Thomas: I had to work on that too.  Believe me, I did not enjoy it.

Davisson: I can imagine.

Thomas: With the comics, we always pushed the limits. We couldn't do nudity as such, but Barry, and later John, would go around the edges. We couldn't have the violence, so we would develop ways of showing violence that we thought could get past the Comics Code. Nowadays, you don't have that problem anymore.

So I am glad to see that movie back to being an R. Not just because of sex and violence, but because Conan needs a certain amount of that. You have to have a little of it, or you don't have the feeling of Robert E. Howard. A PG movie is starting off like a three-legged sack race.

Davisson: You make a lot of references to "Robert E. Howard's Conan."  Yet, you have probably actually written more Conan stories than Howard did. Do you ever think of him as "Roy Thomas' Conan?"  Or is he always in your mind "Robert E. Howard's Conan?"

Thomas: I think every writer, every artist, has his version of Conan. As a matter of fact, the version of Conan I did with Barry Smith even evolved. The early version we did together was changed by the time he left the character. And the Conan I would do with John Buscema -- almost as soon as Barry left -- was somewhat different because John drew him bigger. And some of the more subtle nuances that Barry liked to put in were things I think Howard might have approved of and some I think he wouldn't have approved of. But every writer, every artist, has their own way of doing things. So there are several different Roy Thomas Conans.

But I still feel that the only Conan is really Robert E. Howard's Conan. All the rest of us -- as writers, or actors like Schwarzenegger, or L. Sprague De Camp or others who wrote the pro stories -- we are all just trying to get at our own particular approximation of what Robert E. Howard was doing. And even if you look back at the first movies in the '80s, maybe for a few seconds or a few minutes here and there, they got it, and even in a few places in the new movie.  I hope there will be more such movies. Keep working away at it.

I don't know if there will ever be a perfect Conan film. There was never a perfect Tarzan film. They made dozens of them, but they never really captured the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan.

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Davisson: I feel the same way about Sherlock Holmes. And I have made that comparison before. You have this one writer who put out this one character, and, ever since then, people have been doing pastiches of him without quite getting it right.

Thomas: Some people come closer. Things like Conan and Tarzan are even harder to get than Sherlock Holmes. But he's difficult. I grew up loving the Basil Rathbone movies, but when I talked to a couple of people from England they laughed at Basil Rathbone and his horrible American accent.

Davisson: The Basil Rathbones are pretty far from the character written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Thomas: The Jeremy Brett series were better.

Davisson: Those, I think, were the most successful ones.  

Thomas: I think that the new [Conan] actor, Jason Momoa, has the right look. Kind of a wild look, with wild hair and a steely gaze. Conan has to be a larger than life figure. But Howard never described him, what his face looked like. And one time he would describe him as being like a tiger, and another time like a wolf. But you and I know that tigers and wolves are very different. They move differently. They give different impressions. Howard just threw into Conan whatever he wanted at the moment. He had a certain core of what the guy was like but then he just wrote it. He could have a guy who was very musculal and like a giant but at the same time very lithe. Virtually in the same sentence.

But you can do that when you are writing prose. And his prose was good enough that it just carried people along. It's harder to do when you are drawing.

Davisson: Because you are stuck to a specific visual.

Thomas: Exactly. Still, I think the movie has a few nice set pieces in it. I like the idea of the pirates. I liked the octopoid dweller. I liked the sand creatures. The special effects and mood of it. I think those things are quite nice.

Davisson: Now you are back to actually writing Conan comics with your Road of Kings series. How many more issues of that do you have?

Thomas: Well, I'm finished. There are twelve all total. The last two or three are [yet] to come out. It was a one year assignment. In between where he was left off in the story Iron Shadows in the Moon and Queen of the Black Coast. My job was to get him from the easternmost point of the Hyborian Age map to the westernmost. And so I had twelve issues to have him go along, which is why I ended up calling it Road of Kings.

That was the best way to travel from the far East to the far West. It ended up being a little episodic. I felt [that by] the last half I was getting the feel of it. After all, I hadn't written Conan for ten years. I'd never worked with the artist before. I'd never worked with the editors I had before. So everything was kind of new. Having had this practice now for twelve issues, I would like to have the chance to go back and do something again, to do another year or two. See what I have learned and what I can do in another context. We'll see how that goes.

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Davisson: I talked to the artist Dan Panosian and he said basically the same thing...

Thomas: He did some fill in work that was very nice.

Davisson: …that once he got the feel for it, it was over. Unfortunately.

Thomas: Yeah, right.

Davisson: So are you planning to do anymore Conan for Dark Horse?  Have they asked?

Thomas: I would like to. In the early stages, Mike Richardson presented a couple of ideas here and there. But, you know, Mike has got things he is doing all over the world. And who knows when I'll hear from him. You know, if he suddenly thinks about it and there is something he wants me to do or if he responds to some idea I give him, then I'll do it. I'm not holding my breath waiting.

I've got other things that I'm working on. Including developing a sword-and-sorcery character of my own that I would like to sell. Who is somewhat Conan-like with a little bit of a different twist. I'd like to be able to control my own destiny. When you are working for someone else doing Conan, you are at their mercy as to what they want you to do or when they will  let you do it or whatever. And that's fine, because that's their character. So I wanted to think of a character that had some of those qualities that I like about Conan and a few other things and do a new character. I been working on this, but it is hard between my magazine Alter Ego and working with Stan Lee on the Spider-Man strip and then the last year doing Conan and a few other things. I haven't had to time to work on developing the strip as much as I would like to. And it's got me wanting to write more Conan too.

Davisson: Well I would certainly want to read more of your Conan. One of the things I have always enjoyed about your Conan is that you are one of the few writers who puts in the "gigantic mirth" that everyone seems to forget. There is a lot of brooding, a lot of grim Conan, but in Howard's Conan he laughs as well.

Thomas: As you said, gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth. Sometimes there is a tendency -- and I'm not talking about particular writers or Dark Horse -- to think only of the grimness. And that's probably a little more prominent in the Howard stories than the mirth is. But there were good funny moments. I remember Mike Richardson, the Dark Horse publisher, was always especially fond of the scene in Rogues in the House where Conan bangs his head into a wall because he is drunk and trying to get away. Barry and I had done our own version of that in Rogues in the House and tossed in the little near nudity that we could get away with.

And I would like to get back and do some more of this. In trying to get him several thousand miles in twelve issues I ended up with a storyline that was more episodic than I usually would have done. I'll get another shot at it one of these days.

Davisson: I certainly hope so. I have been enjoying them. I do feel that everyone who came on didn't really get the time they deserved to develop the project, but it was a good transition. And it was interesting to see the Road of Kings used. Is that a Howard creation?

Thomas: Oh yeah. I think it is mentioned once or twice, and I think he used it as the title of a poem or excerpt that he planned to build a story with. So it is part of that. Plus, it is part of the map that Howard evidently drew in the last couple years of his life. He drew a map, and I think the Road of Kings is running in-between it. It starts somewhere out there in Turan, runs through Zamora and ends up at the main port of Argos. So I followed that map and the other pretty straight iterations of it that have come down through the years.  Karl Edward Wagner wrote a novel with that title back in the '80s. Except for the title, it has nothing to do with that.

I like to use Howard things. I wouldn't have been as happy if I had to make up something. I like to make up things with Conan, but I also like to feel that I am grounding whatever I can in Howard -- as much as I possibly can. That's why, for example, in the comic I have the ship called the Saucy Wench, [which] is one of the names of a ship in one of Howard's stories. It's a throw-away bit for the few diehard Conan fans, [a group] which includes me. When you do this for a while, you do a lot of things just to make yourself happy. If the audience also likes it, that's fine. Luckily, if the editors don't like what I do enough, then I'm not going to starve to death.

I'm sort of semi-retired. I like doing comics, but if I never did another one I wouldn't die.

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Davisson: That's an interesting point you brought up about having things grounded in Howard. You listen to a lot of Conan fans and they are almost broken into categories. There ares the real pure Howardists where, if you take a few sentences away, they are screaming pastiche at you. And you have other people like the Dark Horse editor I talked to who thought of Conan as being more like Superman, a blank slate that any number of writers could impose themselves on.

Thomas: Don't tell me the name of that editor!

Davisson: I won't! He was saying something like, if you tell me Grant Morrison is writing Superman, then I want to read that. He wanted to see all of these different interpretations.

Thomas: I'm at the other end. I'm not interested in seeing other people's interpretations of Conan. I am only interested in seeing other people's interpretations of Robert E. Howard's Conan and what they can do that has the spirit of that in it. I suffered myself at the hands of the Howard purists. You know, when you are doing a Marvel comic and it's a code-approved comic, there are always people who are not going to like it because it is not Robert E. Howard.  Well, it wasn't Robert E. Howard. There are a couple of dozen Robert E. Howard stories of various length, and that's all there is. Just like there are only a couple of dozen Tarzan books, and that's it.

There are the movies and things and interpretations of it, and they can be quite good. Like I said, there are a lot of good things in the Conan movies. But when you are writing a comic book or making a movie, you have a different set of priorities than you what had with Robert E. Howard. He could write a story and make it any length he wanted. He could write it as a serial and sell the serial to Weird Tales or he could make a vignette like The Frost Giant's Daughter -- although he didn't sell that one. But he could do all these things. And at the end of the story, he could ride off with the girl. You didn't have to worry about where she was the next time you saw Conan, which was maybe five years later.  But in a comic where you are following him practically day-by-day, you need to account for those things.

I had a set of priorities, [as] do other comic writers, and movie writers have a different one. And it's all quite different from what Robert E. Howard was doing. I wonder if he would like some of the things that I did and some of the things the movie writers have done, and I think he would. Potentially. But on the other hand, how many authors really like what other people do with their work?  We don't know. Maybe he would have been a cranky old man and he would have hated them all.

Davisson: Well now he would be a very, very old man.

Thomas: Now he would be over a hundred years old. Back with the first movie, he would have been in his eighties, so he might have had an opinion on it. But we are all just trying to do our own [thing]. That particular editor you mentioned doesn't sound like he has an [idea] at all of what Conan is. I hope he's not a Conan editor.

Davisson: Well, I won't say the name but, yes…

So, one last question. You said you are semi-retired, so how involved are you with the comics circuit? Do you still go to conventions, still get out there and meet the folks?

Thomas: Well, I go for at least one day -- it is hard to get my wife to go for longer -- to the Charlotte, North Carolina convention because that is only a couple of hours from where I live. It all depends on if a convention invites me to a city my wife wants to visit, like New York or Los Angeles or the San Diego convention. I like to go to conventions, but it is hard to go because you can't get away for that long.

When I was in Spain years ago, a couple times I felt like I must have signed every copy of Spanish Conan that was ever done. And it is always very interesting. One time I'll go to a convention and I will be signing mostly Conans, and another time it is mostly All-Star Squadron or Avengers. It depends on the age of the audience and who happens to be coming in. You know, sometimes I am signing a bunch of issues in a row for someone and I realize that with every issue I was a month older than the last one I signed. I can see myself aging as I sign. That's a year's worth of my life.

But I still try to keep involved. I live here on the farm with a lot of animals.

Davisson: It has been a real thrill to talk to you. Thank you so much for taking the time.

For more Conan fun, check out the new Conan the Barbarian film, released on Blu-Ray and DVD today and reviewed by Comics Bulletin here!


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