Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan: Queen of the Black CoastA comics interview article by: Zack Davisson
Though both are vastly accomplished creators in their own rights, Brian Wood (Channel Zero, DMZ, Northlanders) and Becky Cloonan (East Coast Rising, American Virgin) have found some of the greatest acclaim of their careers when working together, most notably on two volumes of the series Demo. In February, the pair will be looking to conjure up the collaborative magic once more in a new Conan the Barbarian series from Dark Horse. Comics Bulletin's own Zack Davisson recently caught up with Wood and Cloonan to hear what they have in store for Robert E. Howard's classic character.
Zack Davisson: First off, I want to say thank you for taking the time to answer some questions! And also to say that I am excited about your upcoming run. I am a long-time Conan fan -- I have been reading Robert E. Howard and Conan comics for more than thirty years -- and it has been quite some time since I have seen a Conan comic generate the kind of buzz and controversy you two have stirred up with only an announcement and a few preview pages.
I am curious; Did you pitch the idea of working on Conan to Dark Horse, or did Dark Horse come to you with Queen of the Black Coast?
Brian Wood: Dark Horse came to me with a full pitch of sorts. They were looking for a writer to do this adaptation over 25 issues. They also had some thoughts on direction, mostly in terms of tone, Conan's appearance and a basic desire to relaunch the title in a new and unexpected way.
Davisson: Have either of you worked on a licensed property before?
Wood: Well, any DC or Marvel superhero book is a licensed property, so yeah, both Becky and I have. In addition to that, I've recently written a Supernatural miniseries for DC and a short Lord of the Rings comic. I've done a bunch of writing -- all still under NDA, sadly -- for a few videogame franchises. It's interesting work... it certainly uses different creative muscles but comes with some dangers as well. I think any sort of work for hire does.
Becky Cloonan: I've worked on a few licensed books before. I wrote an issue of Buffy and did a little work for Marvel, but this is by far the biggest licensed project I've been a part of! It's cool because Conan has such a large history outside of comics, which makes working on this book both exciting and daunting at the same time.
Davisson: Where you given any specific guidelines to follow, or were you given a fairly free hand in determining the look and feel of the comic?
Wood: It was pretty free, all things considered. Like I said, they had some notes to offer, specifically regarding Conan's appearance (which, since this story is set when Conan was quite young, makes sense) and a general desire to humanize Conan a little more. He's not a superhero, he's not infallible. He makes mistakes quite a lot, loses battles, screws up royally. It's why he's so endearing, why he as a character has persisted and resonated for close to a century. All genre stuff aside, you should be able to relate to the guy.
So I took all that in and wrote a pitch for Dark Horse, really taking the humanity angle to heart (easy, considering Northlanders is all about that) and it was accepted with virtually no significant notes or changes... accepted by both the DH staff as well as the Conan estate.
Cloonan: I was pretty nervous at the beginning because I know my art wouldn't be most people's first guess for Conan, but I figured they wouldn't have asked me if they didn't think my work would fit the project. I've had a lot of freedom when it comes to my interpretations, but when it comes down to it I'm taking all of my cues from the books.
Davisson: Are you both signed on to see the project through from start to finish? I have heard a rumor (that I am hoping is not true) that Becky is only signed on for the first six issues.
Wood: I don't know if that's a rumor so much as it’s something that's been in several interviews to date. I'm contracted to write the full 25, and the desire is for Becky to draw as many of the 25 as possible, or that she wants to. Beyond that, I'll leave the scheduling announcements to Dark Horse so I don't spoil anything.
Davisson: With Conan, you are entering into a world with eight decades of dedicated fandom, and your work is really going to come under the microscope. Are you worried about that? Do you consider the hard-core Robert E. Howard fans, or are you targeting a fresh audience?
Wood: I consider both. And yeah, I was worried a little, but it’s just like it is with any franchise, be it Conan, or the X-Men, or Supernatural -- the hardcore fans are the most vocal and the scariest, and their negativity is always at its highest before the book has even come out. The sanest course of action for the creators is to just avoid all that, focus on the work and let it speak for itself. Trying to write for the fans, for ANY fans, is the path to madness and will not result in good comics. My job is to make myself happy, make Becky happy, make Dark Horse and the Conan estate people happy.
And this is a #1. We are re-launching the franchise, so the goal is to make it accessible.
Cloonan: I know (because I've read some comment threads) that some fans think I'm drawing "emo Conan," or that it looks too manga, but these words are thrown around so much they really don't mean anything anymore. I certainly don't think they apply to my art or this Conan book in particular. If a reader is hung up on the fact that I draw a dashing Conan, that's fine, I know you can't please everyone.
That said, I think this book will attract a lot of female readers -- at its core it's a love story, and Conan spends a lot of his time shirtless… But then again, when doesn't he? I've always loved Conan, and I hope people can feel that when they read this comic, and get excited about this story too. This is a book people should have fun reading.
Davisson: Are you Robert E. Howard fans yourselves? Have you read the original Conan books?
Wood: I wouldn't call myself a hardcore fan, but yeah, I know the character, read a lot of the older comics and a few novels. And like any child of the 80's, I have strong nostalgia for the original film, such as it is!
Cloonan: Brian, you took my answer! I've seen the original movie hundreds of times, and around high chool I started reading the Robert E. Howard stories. I've always been big into fantasy novels and role playing games, so at the time it was easy to immerse myself in Hyboria. I'm certainly learning a lot more about it working on this book!
Davisson: I did an interview with Roy Thomas a while back, and I think he summed up the feelings of most Conan fans when he said, "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." What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel an obligation to be "true" to the Howard Conan, or are you more interested in creating the Wood/Cloonan Conan?
Wood: I don't think I was hired to write against the spirit of REH's vision or of what has come before. I also don't have a raging ego like that. I feel like what we're doing is incredibly faithful to the material we are charged with adapting, and anything that may look different -- like Conan's appearance or his humanity or any humor the book has -- I can find direct precedent for in the original novels. There is a prevailing opinion out there that this Conan is somehow "emo", whatever that means. I can take that hit .I've endured the emo tag since I wrote Demo back in 2003, and it’s so often ill-applied, like to Northlanders. But the implication is that what we're doing is counter to the "true" Conan is a hundred and eighty degrees in the wrong direction.
Cloonan: I'm definitely of the mindset that I have to be true to the original. It'd be pretty pointless to re-invent the character, because at that point I might as well make up a totally new barbarian story. I'm much more interested in bringing the same feelings I got from reading the original stories to people who read this comic. My interpretation might be different from what some people imagine, but that doesn't mean that I'm going against the source material, which is the bottom line when it comes to any licensed book.
Davisson: Here is a bit of that microscope for you. In the preview pages, two panels in particular have stirred some controversy in the Howard community.
In the original story, Howard made a specific point of saying that Conan did not look back at his pursuers, whereas you have a big freeze-frame of him glancing over his shoulder in the second panel. It seemed like such an intentional departure from the text, I took that as your way of declaring that you weren’t planning on sticking to the story religiously. Was that intentional? Or am I reading too much into a single panel?
Wood: This is seriously creating a controversy? No one should read into that any more than that in a comic you vary angles and degrees of zoom for compositional reasons and for a dozen other reasons. I think when you read the actual comics you can see how close I'm sticking to the original story.
Cloonan: I'm going to chime in here and say that any adaptation, whether it's from a book to film or a comic to a musical is going to have its differences. In most cases, the source material is always going to be untouchable, what you go back to in the end as a fan. However, in order to enjoy any new version you have to let go of the original just long enough to let the adaptation do its work.
Davisson: You seem to have made changes to Howard’s dialog, such as changing "Then I am for Kush!" to "Then so am I!" The style has usually been, in both Marvel and Dark Horse books, to stick fairly close to Howard's dialogue, with, at most, the structure being rearranged or a few words being replaced. What was behind your decision to write your own dialog instead of adapting Howard’s?
Wood: I felt like I stuck very close to the original dialog. I had a copy of the source material open on my screen at the same time as my script. But I'm not going to copy the original or replace words in an arbitrary way. An adaptation requires a fair amount of tweaks and adjustments -- even the most faithful of adaptations -- and the original story is so brief. Again, I would urge people to just read the comic first.
Davisson: Queen of the Black Coast is a challenge to adapt, because -- even though Belit is considered to be one of the great figures in Conan’s life -- much like Professor Moriarty with Sherlock Holmes, she only actually appeared in one story. How are you going to build up to that climax? Are you adapting from any other Howard stories, or will it be all original material?
Wood: The part of the original story, where Conan meets Belit and eventually decides to sail with her -- to stay with her -- that represents the first three issues of this series. Which, I have to say, is not a lot of story to fill 66 pages and required a hyper-detailed examination of the original text to get as much out of it as possible. I'm really proud of how I handled it. So the second half of the original text, which I will not spoil, will probably be the final six issues of my run.
This leaves me with 16 issues where I can explore the period of time Conan and Belit spent together with all-original stories. My goal is to create a rich and complex history for the two, where they grow and explore and fall deeper in love, making the ending of the story have real stakes, real emotional impact. And in writing these new chapters, I am mining the original novel for as many clues, as much subtext, and other indicators as I can find to really make it feel like a whole, that it all belongs together.
Davisson: Breaking away from Howard, I have some questions/comments for Becky regarding her design of Conan. I don’t know how much you are aware of the controversy regarding DC’s treatment of female characters in the recent New 52 relaunch, where female-friendly icons like Harley Quinn and Starfire were recreated to be hyper-sexualized male fantasy-figures, but I thought your design of Conan was an interesting juxtaposition. At the same time that there was this outcry from women comic book fans about the destruction of some of their favorite characters, on the other side you had men complaining about your "My Conan is actually rather pretty" comment and the "feminizing" of Conan. Was this in any way intentional? Could you tell us a little more about your redesign?
Cloonan: Anyone who is familiar with my work knows that I don't really draw manly men, and even when I draw warriors and werewolves they all end up being on the pretty side. I don't know, I can't really help it I suppose. But I honestly don't mean to offend any male readers with my interpretation of Conan!
In my defense, here's a barbarian that has a new woman hugging his leg in every city, obviously he wouldn't get all these chicks looking like the Hulk with a Bettie Paige haircut. This is a guy who's got charisma and charm, women love him, this is a guy people want to be around. I don't think a handsome Conan is out of the realm of possibility, and hardly destruction of the character.
Davisson: I have to say I was a little put off in one of your interviews where you described guys having a "man-crush" on Conan. I can’t speak for everyone, but most guys don’t "man-crush" on Conan. He isn’t a bromance film! I do like how you returned to a more lanky Conan, more in the tune of Barry Windsor-Smith than the bulkier John Buscema Conan. And I can see some of the Disney “Tarzan” design in your Conan. Was that an influence?
Wood: Did I say that? Maybe I did. Conan's cool, he's awesome and has a great story, and you can feel that way without sexualizing it. Not to age myself, but I have huge man-crushes on people, like Chris Cornell for one. Joe Strummer for sure.
Cloonan: Tarzan wasn't an influence, but I can see that! I went to school for animation, so I think some of that has worked its way into my style over the years. I've also been looking at a lot of European artists, like Manara and Rosiński and trying to capture some of that in my work.
As far as body type goes, I was going more for a William Wallace Braveheart build. I'm a huge fan of both BW Smith and Buscema, and I know not in a million years could I ever touch them! Rather than try to ape somebody else and fail miserably, I'm trying to be true to myself and draw the best I can.
Davisson: Your Belit, by the way, is spot-on. I have never seen her drawn better. Can you tell us a bit about her character design?
Cloonan: Aw, thanks! Belit was one of those characters whose design I nailed right away, everything just fell into place. She is so much fun to draw too, she's dangerous and sexy and mysterious. There's a lot more to her than just being hot, and I have to project that when I draw her. That's what stops Belit from being just another cheesecake character. I've got her draped in jewels, necklaces and pendants, and her body language is always a lot of fun to try and work out in my head. She is a very powerful character!
Davisson: And here is one for Brian. Was there anything you learned by adapting historical events into your Northlanders stories which you applied to adapting Conan? Would you consider the writings of Howard to be similar -- of the same weight -- to the histories you adapted to your stories?
Wood: I'm approaching Conan in the same way as Northlanders, taking special consideration to the world REH created, which is every bit as detailed and real as what was recorded of Viking times. You'll see a lot of this in backgrounds and locations, not just generic genre cities and landscapes, but story-specific ones.
Davisson: And my last question. If all goes well with Queen of the Black Coast, would either of you be interested in coming back for another Conan series? Or do you see this as a single project?
Wood: The contract is just for these 25 issues, and two years is a long time. Dark Horse and I will see how it goes and at some point make the determination if we want to keep going or not.
Cloonan: My scheduling depends on another book I have lined up, and I'm also interested in doing more creator-owned work in the future. But I'm having so much fun on Conan, I'm going to see where it takes me! It's hard to look that far down the road, and I guess a lot will depend if people like my work on this book! And, by Crom, I couldn't be happier to get the chance to draw Conan.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.