Timothy Truman: A Gentleman and A Conan Scholar

A comics interview article by: Matthew McLean
Timothy Truman, creator/co-creator of indy hits such as Scout and Grimjack, recently took over Dark Horse’s Conan title. He recently sat down with SBC to answer a few questions about the property and where he sees it going.

Matthew McLean (MM): When the new Dark Horse version of Conan started it looked as if the stories were going to move through the Cimmerian’s life chronologically. More recently, though, this seems to have given way to a more non-linear telling. What can readers expect in the future?

Timothy Truman (TT): In the future, they can expect a very strong and definite return to the linear approach. Dark Horse some big announcements coming up concerning just that.

I've enjoyed doing the King Conan stories, and I think they're good tales. Paul Lee has done some fantastic artwork for them, and the storylines have given me a chance to explore some things with Conan that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. On the other hand, I have to admit that I'd much rather do things in a chronological, linear manner. I’m not sure I could hang with the book otherwise. It’s my natural inclination as a writer. I’d prefer to handle very issue as a single chapter in a massive, life-spanning Conan novel. A more linear approach always provides a better way to really get into the characters and grow with them. There will occasionally be breaks—there have to be-- but only after readers have savored a big, meaty, multi-issue storyline.

Anyway, we have it all worked out now and everything seems to be in place. Readers are in for a great ride, and some storylines that they can really get involved with.

MM: It sounds like the original Howard stories will play an increasingly important role in the coming issue. Would you say that's true? If so, what can you tell readers about it?

TT: The Howard stories have always played an important role in the Dark Horse series. That's been one of the main goals from issue 1, I believe. Beyond his actual storylines, another thing that's been important to observe are continuity hints that Howard dropped within the framework of his existing Conan stories, outlines, and fragments and in his correspondence with friends and editors.

For instance, in the outline for the uncompleted story Halls of the Dead (which Mike Mignola and Cary Nord recently adapted in the Dark Horse series), Howard mentions that "a Gunderman mercenary named Nestor" is involved in the adventure, first as Conan's enemy and rival and later as Conan's accomplice. Then, at the beginning of the original Rogues in the House short story, REH tells us that Conan is jailed for slaying a corrupt priest who caused the death of his partner, "a former Gunderman mercenary". So Howard handed us an entire untold story that could take place between "Halls" and Rogues"-- one that was beneficial for building a relationship between Conan and the Gunderman Nestor and, in turn, essential for showing certain personality and attitude changes that Conan undergoes during the course of the upcoming Rogues in the House arc. In accordance with REH's continuity, it's during this time that Conan-- basically a teenage thief from the backwoods of Cimmeria-- becomes more hard-nosed and world-wise, and decides to give up thievery and become a mercenary. So doing Rogues and its two prelude issues have been quite a wonderful challenge for me.

Issues 40-44 adapt Rogues. I’ve already finished the scripts and the artwork is just being completed. Getting into the story, I had a fascinating revelation about the story’s antagonist, Nabonidus. Howard calls him The Red Priest, but unlike the other wizards and priests he created for the Conan stories, there’s nothing religious or mystical about the guy. You get the feeling that Nabonidus has fostered some sort of religious position just to secure a position of prestige and power in the city. Nabonidus is a paranoid, Hyborian Era “techno-wizard” who has come up with a house full of bizarre, deadly scientific gadgets to protect him from assassination. No magic, just science—and, as Howard readers know, a very special, all-natural secret weapon. Anyway, the big realization that in this single story, Howard totally sums up the philosophy which drives the Conan stories—that when it all comes down to it, despite the wonders and machines they have at their command, the powers of civilization will always end up praying for a man with a sword. This is interesting because it’s one of the earliest Conan stories, and in many ways REH was still getting to his feet with the series. The philosophy is usually there, but as far as I can tell, he wouldn’t spell out as powerfully and clearly until much later in the series, in Beyond the Black River. In Rogues it’s simply an undercurrent, but when it hits you it hits like a mace. Along with keying in on Conan’s sense of betrayal over certain things that occur in the story and the two prelude issues, it became the thematic hook that I concentrated on for the adaptation.

Following the 4-issue Rogues adaptation, there’s an essential, two-issue wrap up for Kurt Busiek's Born on the Battlefield arc.

With issue 47, we begin a long, 7-issue arc called Cimmeria. The storyline was suggested by Howard himself in a letter that he wrote. He states that after the events of Rogues, Conan headed back to Cimmeria for awhile. He doesn't tell us why, but given the betrayals that Conan experiences in the city, it seems to imply that perhaps the Cimmerian went through a brief period of introspection before changing careers—a little vacation, if you will.

Howard also tells us that Conan had obtained his wanderlust from his grandfather, who adventured beyond Cimmeria himself and filled young Conan's head with tales of adventure. One of the things that I realized when I was reflecting on this tidbit of information was that the grandfather had these adventures, then returned to Cimmeria and, as far as we know, never left again. Conan does the same thing-- adventures in the east, then returns home. Unlike his grandfather, though, he leaves again and becomes a citizen of the world.

What were the differences between the two men? Why did one stay and the other leave? During the course of the arc, Conan reflects back on some of the stories that his grandfather told him, and learns new lessons from them. It's a very involved arc, and, by the end of it, a pretty heavy one.

Anyway, we're keeping things as "Howard" as we possibly can. When not adapting stories directly, I'm expanding on information that Howard himself gave to us.

MM: Great answer. For the next few questions, I’d like to switch the topic to Thoth-Amon, as he played an important role in the most recent issue of Conan.

The common conception of Thoth-Amon is that of an all powerful sorcerer. However, in his first appearance in The Phoenix on the Sword Howard casts him as very much an earthy character that has access to sorcerous powers. How do you balance a villain that is obviously flawed but has access to enormous powers?

TT: That's actually the key to making characters interesting, whether they're heroes or villains. Flaws give them an unpredictability and edge. They might be really powerful and threatening in most regards, but if they have a certain insecurity or foible it gives you something that you can use to make them more believable and involving for the reader. Flaws are as important building blocks for characters as strengths.

By the way, in Phoenix Howard also makes it clear that Thoth was, indeed, an all powerful sorcerer in Stygia. Someone got the edge on him, though, and he came crashing down. In the first pages of Phoenix he's a slave-- and one who'd been forced to hide out as a camel-driver before that! From the ruling wizard in Stygia—a land of wizards-- to outcast to camel driver to body servant. It's an interesting career trajectory!

MM: In Howard’s original work, it seemed Thoth-Amon barely knew that Conan existed. He unleashed a beast on him in The Phoenix on the Sword practically by accident. As someone who has been working on the franchise for years, how do you think he evolved from this to Conan’s arch-enemy?

TT: I see your point completely. In truth, the beast he unleashed in Phoenix wasn't even intended for Conan, but rather to wreak Thoth's revenge upon some men who just happened to be conspiring against the Cimmerian. Your view that "Thoth barely new Conan existed" in REH's Phoenix story is completely accurate, I think. If Thoth grew to truly hate and fear Conan and view him as a real obstacle, I'd say that whatever caused it happened after the events of Phoenix on the Sword. Something to keep in mind as the Dark Horse series progresses, I'd say. It's certainly something I considered while I was writing issue 40, The Tale of the Head. In the story, Thoth isn't primarily interested in having some sort of revenge on Conan. He wants to have revenge on those who usurped his power in Stygia. Getting to Conan is only a sort of bonus for him. More than anything else, the possibility that he and Tsotha might run across Conan is simply an enticement Thoth uses to get Tsotha to help him enter Stygia without other sorcerers detecting his return.

To answer your question, though, I think that Thoth became an arch-villain in the old Marvel version because that's the way that comics of the time worked: In the superhero comics tradition, the hero required a preeminent antagonist. Captain America has the Red Skull, Iron Man has the Mandarin, Fantastic Four have Doctor Doom, and on and on. I think that Thoth was drafted at that time to fit the bill-- maybe because he has such a cool name. "Thoth Amon" has a great ring to it-- very mythic. The name reeks of mouldering tombs and ancient, proto-Egyptian mysteries. Howard was certainly on top of his game the day he thought it up.

MM: Thoth-Amon’s magic is largely dependent on a magical ring that he wears. Over the course of his life, he has lost and regained the ring on more than a few occasions. In the beginning of Dark Horse’s chronology, the wizard has the ring. However, later, when Conan is king, Thoth is enslaved because he lost the ring. In issue #40, though, we see that the Thoth has recovered the ring yet again. Are readers going to get to see the tale of how it was originally stolen from the Stygian or how it was recovered?

TT: Here comes another roundabout answer to your question, Matthew. I'm glad you brought your lunch.

Howard tells us that Thoth reacquired the ring in Phoenix on the Sword. The events in Conan #40 take place immediately after Howard's story the Scarlet Citadel, which occurs some time after Phoenix. Both happen during the time when Conan is King.

In REH's Phoenix, Howard makes it clear that Thoth is a vengeful creature, and that rivals in Stygia somehow made him lose the Ring of Set. Thoth wants to get back to Stygia, make his rivals suffer and regain his old position. However, in Phoenix, the fact that Thoth regains the ring again doesn't reach any sort of true resolution. Thoth conjures the demon, and that's the last we see of him.

When I read Scarlet Citadel when I was a teenager, I'd wondered what had happened to Tsotha after King Conan cut off his head and the wizard's body went shambling across the wastelands chasing it. So issue #40 gave me a chance to get into that, tell a fun, fast tale and indulge in a bit of morbid madness.

It also gave me a way to resolve the issue of Thoth, and have him set a course for Stygia, as Howard implied. Having Thoth meet up with Tsotha seemed a great way to start the old boy on his way home.

I'd love to tell the story of how Thoth lost the ring in the first place. That would be a great tale, I think. Since Thoth was hiding from his enemies for several years before the time outlined in Phoenix, you could drop the tale about anywhere.

By the way, a bit of behind-the-scenes trivia: the wizard that Joe R. Lansdale came up with for Dark Horse's Conan and the Songs of the Dead miniseries was originally proposed as being Thoth Amon. I'd just read Phoenix at that time and mentioned to Joe the fact that Thoth traveled incognito as a camel driver after he'd lost his ring. Joe and I wanted there to be a caravan in Songs, and we knew he was going to be an evil wizard in there somewhere, so I reminded him about Thoth putting in time as a lowly camel handler. I thought it would be cool to have him attached to the caravan that Conan and his companion, Alvazar, hook up with. In the end, though, we opted to do something else, but when the idea was in the mix it actually helped us come up with a few other things that made it to the final plot.

MM: So how long have you been a reader of Conan stories?

TT: A long time-- since I was twelve or thirteen. I picked up my first Lancer paperback edition of Conan the Conqueror (AKA Hour of the Dragon) in 1969 or so. Howard became my favorite author, and Conan my favorite fictional character. One of the nicest things about doing the Conan series for Dark Horse has been re-reading the Howard stories, taking notes, and really diving into REH on a more scholarly level, just to accumulate insight and use in the comic series the things I learn about.

MM: What are some of your favorite authors and/or artists to draw inspiration from when writing the Dark Horse line?

TT: Well, manly Howard, of course. He was literally the forefather of the "hard-boiled" barbarian genre. There's such a degree of poetry in his writing. It's quite inspirational-- just the way he strings words together. He also drives a story forward like few have been able to do. Like Howard, I'm mainly a self-taught writer, so the fact that he came up with this technique basically from the boot straps-up leaves me a bit in awe.

I draw upon other writers when I work, of course: adventure writer Stephen Becker wrote a book called The Chinese Bandit that's one of the best thinking-man's adventure novels ever written. It's just so masterful. That single book had almost as much impact on me as Howard's work. (By the way, I believe Becker also wrote a history of comic books, way back in the 1960's or '70's, but I’ve never been able to find it.)

Another adventure writer that I love is Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. She wrote two fictional books called Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife-- caveman stories-- that are pretty incredible. They make the Clan of the Cave Bear books look like something written by a middle school student. Very poetic and naturalistic. Adventure stories, but very deep psychological studies as well. She has a way of making the primitive world and its people come alive. She's a really poetic writer, in the way she comes up with imagery and strings words together, but, like Howard, the poetry doesn't get in the way of the story.

For fantasy, I love Michael Moorcock's work, especially the Elric and Corum stories. John Jake's Brak the Barbarian stories were cool. George R. R. Martin, of course. He's a marvel. Tad Williamson is great. My current favorite author is China Miéville.

I'm also getting into Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories again. Those are really fun, and there's some great depth to the stories themselves. Like the best fantasy writers, Lieber never tries to explain Fafhrd and the Mouser’s world too much. He just dumps you into it and lets you discover your own way around. In the end, you see he was right—you knew this place all along.

Comics-wise, I loved what Roy Thomas did with the original Conan comics series. However, I have a very different approach to Howard's stories, I think. Kurt Busiek did some wonderful work with his issues of the Dark Horse series. Kurt has a way of telling readers what to think. I usually shy away from that approach, because I like to put the characters through their paces and lets the reader piece things together about character motivations and the meaning of the story and such. I think it's more naturalistic-- it's more like the way we piece stories about people together in real life. There's no omniscient narrator in real life, so we observe people and events and draw our own conclusions. So that's usually my approach-- tell a good story, but get the reader's head involved and leave some questions hanging. Let them answer some questions for themselves. However, Kurt really intrigues me, in that he seemed to take an opposite approach a lot of the time and really made it work.

And there are my erstwhile cohorts John Ostrander and Joe R. Lansdale, of course. I've learned so much from them. They're totally different from each other in the way they approach plotting and storytelling, but I've learned a lot of lessons from both of them. Joe is the rune-casting, forest-dwelling shaman, and John is the spell-invoking, crypt-keeping sage.

MM: Remind me not to play against you if they ever have invent a Conan trivia game. I’m sure those answers will satisfy the biggest fanboy.

TT: Well, I hope so. I’m not an unimpeachable REH expert, by any means, but I’ve enjoyed doing the homework. That said, no one ever takes on a character as iconic, quintessential and genre-defining as Conan and pleases everyone. I just try to handle the material with reverence and try not to do anything that I think would piss off Robert Howard himself.

MM: Let’s talk about you. You’re a bit of a renaissance man; writer, artist, musician. You’ve worked with role-playing companies, musicians, comic book companies, book publishers, the whole lot. Where does your heart really lie?

TT: All told, I’d probably rather be playing guitar. Then again, if I was regularly dragging amps out of the van at 3 in the morning or dealing with lead singers— who are, as a rule, truly singular character types unto themselves—I’m sure I’d be screaming to get at the drawing board or Word program again.

It sounds like a cop out, but I like it all—at least at some point. I have the attention span of an orange. If I do too much of one thing for too long a time, I want to get back into the other. Right now, I have a good balance. I write Conan for a week, then spend three weeks drawing, inking and painting—and get some time to solder some new pickups into a guitar or lay down a couple of tracks in my recording studio in the meantime. I don’t think I could ever get tired of writing Conan.

MM: You’ve obviously been in the scene a long time, originally entering into it as an illustrator. How, when and why did you make the transition to writing?

TT: I’d always wanted to write. In comics, I could never quite divorce writing from drawing. That’s the total package. My first published comics pieces were things that I’d written myself— a Flash Gordon parody called Crash Cursor & Sync for Creative Computing magazine, some back-up stories I did in Sgt. Rock while I was a student at the Joe Kubert School, and a couple of six- or eight-page short comics pieces that I did for Ares, a role-playing game magazine.

Mike Gold at First gave me my first shot at the “big time”, though. I did a couple of Munden’s Bar back-up stories for Grimjack. One was drawn by Joe Staton, the other by John Totleben. Then Mike turned me loose on the Time Beavers graphic novel. After that, it was onwards to Scout at Eclipse.

Anyway, it’s all Mike’s fault— as is the fact that I’m in comics in the first place.

MM: Do you have any future projects you’d like to discuss?

TT: Like I mentioned above, my current schedule is pretty cool. The family and I might even get to take a real vacation this year, for the first time in two or three years. I’m able to alternate Conan with other assignments. Rhino Records wants me to do more covers for them, following the Grateful Dead Live at the Cow Palace CD cover I did with them in the winter. In fact, I’m doing a lot of work with the Grateful Dead again, since they teamed up with Rhino. They’ve revamped the Grateful Dead Almanac as an online magazine. And I’m doing a fully painted comics page for them again, only this time online—one every three months or so. Folks can check them out totally free at www.dead.net. All told, the rock art is consistently the best stuff that I do. I was talking to Peter McQuaide of Grateful Dead Productions the other day and he mentioned doing a book that collects all of my old Almanac comics, my CD covers, my T-shirt art—everything I’ve done with them since the early ‘90’s, and maybe some of my other rock ‘n’ roll art, too. That would be fun. Though I’m best known for my comics work, actually more people have seen the music art that I’ve done, when you think about it. I’m also doing a new CD cover for Robert Hunter and Nashville singer Jim Lauderdale for the fall. I did the cover for their first CD project a couple of years ago and it got a lot of attention. I ended up getting inquiries from folks like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others. Pretty neat, for a music fan-boy like myself. Right now, Peter is trying to put me in touch with the Allman Brothers, to maybe do some stuff for them. That would be as big as Conan for me. The Allman Brothers have always been my favorite band, bar none. We’ll see how it works out.

I continue to do a lot of book covers for Subterranean Press. Subterranean does these really high-profile, collectable limited editions of authors like Stephen King, Joe R. Lansdale, Charles de Lint, George R. R. Martin, Jack Vance, and others. My next cover for them will be for the book publication of a really amazing western screenplay that Joe R. Lansdale and his brother John wrote while they were barbequing rabbits on Joe’s back porch.

And of course, comics-wise, my main project besides Conan has been illustrating a new Grimjack graphic novel, Grimjack: Manx Cat. John Ostrander is writing a great story. The dialogue he’s doing is best he’s ever written—ever. I turn in the art just to see what John comes up with for the dialogue. He’s really on to something with this one. He’s always done great lines, but this new material just sings. The lines end up sticking in your head like lines from a good song.

All told, a busy time, but fun.

Folks can keep up with what I’m up to by visiting my website, www.timothytruman.com. I set it up in 2005 and it’s become quite popular. I have about seven art galleries there with hundreds of pieces of artwork, divided into different groups: Illustration, Conan, Grimjack, Rock ‘ Roll Art, Commissions, a Sketchbook page, and a page dedicated to a huge dream-project of mine called Odin the Wanderer. There are a lot of “behind the scenes” pieces in the galleries—step-by-steps for covers, preliminary sketches, guitarist portraits pieces that I do for my own pleasure when I’m experimenting with new techniques, plus book covers, interior illustrations, and CD cover art that fans of my comics work might never have seen before. There’s “Timbomart”— my art and book store-- a message board, new project updates, a page of music reviews, and “Timbo’s Juke Joint”, where people can download MP3’s of some of the music I’ve done in my recording studio over the years. A fun place, really fan friendly with a lot of things to do and see. I average about 2,000 visitors a day.

Anyway, thanks much, Matt. Great questions. It’s been a lot of fun.

Be sure to visit SBC Contributor Matthew McLean’s website here.

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