Round Two with Brian WoodA comics interview article by: Zack Davisson
You can read Round One of Zack Davisson's Brian Wood Interview here.
Brian Wood is one of those names that keeps coming up more and more in comics. From his work on beautiful creator-owned works like Local, Northlanders, and Demo to licensed work like his recent Conan series and his forthcoming Star Wars series for Dark Horse, and much much more, he's proven himself to be one of the top writers working in comics today.
Zack Davisson for ComicsBulletin: You are writing quite a few series now -- Conan, the X-Men, Star Wars, as well as your creator-owned series The Massive, (and probably a few more I don’t know about). Is there any link in your work on these books, either stylistically or thematically? Or do you approach them all as individual creations?
Brian Wood: I try and handle them as their own things with their unique needs and wants, but its all coming from the same brain so I’m sure there’s a lot of overlap. I’ve seen critics identify certain themes, like that of identity, but honestly the less I know about that the better. I wouldn’t want someone else’s interpretation to seep into my subconscious and have it turn into a self-fulfilling thing. I try not to overthink, I just do what I do, I do what seems right.
CB: For you, what are the big differences between writing for a licensed property versus writing a creator-owned series?
BW: The biggest, and most important thing is to know your place. With a licensed book, be it Conan or X-Men, I’m a hired gun, there to deliver a script according to instructions and basically walk away. With a creator-owned book, I’m running a business, one that I founded and own. Getting that straight in your head is key to sanity. I’ve seen some of my peers get too attached to the work for hire projects and have their hearts broken when they realize one day that, yeah, you ultimately don’t get to be the one who decides things.
I make it sound a little mercenary, but work for hire IS mercenary, and I don’t hold it against anyone. It’s the way it goes. I used to do creative work for a day job, design at a video game company, and it was the same thing.
CB: Recently, we’ve seen quite a few big names -- Grant Morrison for one -- retire from writing for the major companies in order to focus exclusively on their creator-owned work. Do you find working on creator-owned books innately more satisfying? With the success of The Massive, have you ever considered making that your focus?
BW: It’s too soon for me to make decisions like that. Someone like Grant has a decade more time in comics that I have, and he’s been incredibly prolific, much more so than I have. That said, creator-owned work WAS my focus for almost the entire last fifteen years. I guess you didn’t research that. Up until 2011-2012, I think I had done three work for hire projects total, maybe 18 issues out of 350-400 (roughly) creator-owned, and it still remains my identity as a creator in the eyes of readers. And yeah, making something new is always more satisfying. For me, working on a licensed book is still a novelty. We’ll see where it takes me.
CB: I confess my ignorance. I lived in Japan for about seven years and -- except for a few favorites -- I was completely out of touch with American comics. The first time I heard of you was when you were announced as the new Conan writer. Even though I have been back a few years now, I am still playing catch-up.
And as you know, I’m a Conan guy; That’s the main book of yours that I follow. What do in particular do you enjoy about writing Conan? What are the challenges?
BW: I enjoy the time period, fictional as though it may be; it’s a love of mine. I wrote fifty issues of Northlanders, which is very much what my Conan stories are, set in actual history. So that’s what drew me to Conan, and it what makes me excited to sit down and write a script. That’s not all of it, but that’s the main thing. It’s flattering to have been asked, and to see the series be such a success, both in the eyes of my editors and readers.
The biggest challenge is finding the right balance between the real-life and the fictional. I’m constantly checking myself to make sure what I’m writing is accurate to Conan’s world. Thankfully, I have great editors, both at Dark Horse and at Paradox, who keep all that accurate.
CB: I can see the love of the time period. As a writer, Robert E. Howard -- like JRR Tolkien -- was a world creator, and I think his Hyborean Age is as much a main character as Conan or Kull. He wrote complex histories that were never intended to see print, just used as background material. His world is also well mapped-out and charted. Have you read any of his histories? Do you reference copies of the maps when you are charting Conan and Belit’s adventures?
BW: I use maps constantly, including an official one from the REH estate that serves as the final word. I also use one that superimposes the Hyborean world over the real world and matches up the analogues as best it can. That’s useful to be in a broad sense, i.e. Shem basically being Mesopotamia, and so on, when it comes to writing the locales and describing landscapes to the artist.
CB: What about Conan himself? Is there something that attracts you to the character? Any traits you wish he didn’t have?
BW: It’s not my place to wish he were different. He is what he is, all that was set in stone long before I came along, so I don’t waste time wishing he was something else. Honestly, the thought never occurred to me.
CB: I asked that mainly because your Conan is noticeably different from previous writers. I was reading some of Roy Thomas’ Savage Sword of Conan the other day, and the contrast between Thomas’ Conan and your Conan is striking. Your Conan is more introspective, more pensive, whereas Thomas’ Conan is more primal and instinctive. More confident, even in his earliest adventures as a teenager. I think having a Conan who doubts himself is one of the biggest differences. Was that something that you saw in the character, an aspect that you thought other writers hadn’t fully explored?
BW: I think the difference between myself and Roy Thomas is pretty striking as well, in terms of writing style and background and age and so on. His storytelling sensibility is from a different generation than mine. So that’s all to be expected. We’re coming from opposite directions.
And having a Conan who doubts himself is because of two things: one, me, who just likes writing multi-dimensional characters like that. Two, this came down from Dark Horse officially, the desire to get away from what was informally termed “the superhero Conan,” meaning a guy who fights a baddie every issue, always wins, always gets the girl, never shows weakness, never slips up, etc etc. A superhero in the blandest sense. Conan, originally, was never that guy. Everyone agreed we should have a more well-rounded, more human Conan for this story. I think fans want that too. Most, anyway. There will always be the outliers who will call my Conan a “fag” for showing emotion.
BW: Conan has had a rotating cast of artists, including newly announced Declan Shalvey. Was this a business decision, or a creative one? And will Conan ever settle down to a regular artist, or can we expect the artist to change with every story arc?
BW: At this point we’re halfway through, so I don’t think you should keep waiting for the book to settle down. Honestly, if I had had my way, Becky Cloonan would have drawn the whole thing, but she couldn’t, so the format we have is what was decided by all of us as being the best. And I don’t mean that as a slight... guys like Declan and Vasilis and some upcoming guys are friends of mine, and past collaborators. I love them to death and they do terrific work. I asked for them.
I know you hate it, but it’s not a negative from an objective standpoint. Northlanders changed artists from arc to arc over the course of its fifty issues, and what you’re left with is a rich and varied series that has a lot of mass appeal. Had this Conan story only have Becky on it, it would have appealed to a much narrower readership than it does now.
And honestly, it’s never easy to find a steady artist. I see this on my Marvel books, and on other projects. A solid, stylish, dependable artist is worth their weight in gold these days, and they’re all working. But all that said, I’m pretty happy with the artists we have. They all bring something different to the table, and I enjoy tailoring my scripts to match their styles.
CB: I think you are right, and I am willing to concede that this is a personal peeve of mine. To me if feels like watching a movie where the actors are constantly changing -- it affects my ability to get lost in a story. But most people I talk to aren’t bothered at all by the different artists, and actually enjoy that aspect. It keeps the series exciting. And yes, if I had my druthers, I would have Becky Cloonan draw the entire series as well -- I think she has the right mood and feel for the story you are telling. And she absolutely owns Belit.
How much freedom do the artists have individually? Is there a style guide that they work from to give the series continuity?
BW: I honestly wouldn’t know. I know they all have PDFs of the previous issues to look at for continuity. I’m sure there are conversations between the artists and the editors that don’t concern me regarding that sort of thing.
CB: One misunderstanding I wanted to clear up: You said in a previous interview that your Conan series was based on a single story, Robert E. Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast. Now, I have spoken to you and I know this doesn’t mean that Queen of the Black Coast is the only Howard Conan story you have ever read. Can you clarify what you meant?
BW: I hope I understand what you’re asking correctly. My Conan series IS based on that short story. That was the job as it was presented to me. But no, it’s not the only Conan story I’ve ever read in my life. I’m not sure where the misunderstanding is?
CB: I think some people took that to mean that Queen of the Black Coast was the only Howard Conan that you had ever read in your life. I just wanted to reaffirm that it wasn’t the case, that you have “Conan credentials.” Do you have a favorite Howard Conan story?
BW: I’m not concerned too much about who out there thinks my credentials pass some kind of invented muster, to be honest. What sort of nonsense is that? Judge the work on the work, don’t try and judge the work based on what I have or haven’t read in my personal life. I know some fans get really worried about this sort of thing, but at the end of the day what matters, what only matters, is if the book is any good or not.
CB: In comic terms, I would say Queen of the Black Coast is a reboot of Dark Horse’s Conan line, unconnected to the previous series and continuity. Would you agree?
BW: I don’t know if that’s for me to say. I’ve never heard anyone at Dark Horse use the word “reboot”, though. Honestly, that sort of thing often, in comics, belongs in the realm of marketing and PR. Whether something is canon or in-continuity or legacy or what have you, it’s rarely the most important thing in a story.
CB: That’s interesting. I never really know what conversations go on behind a series, or how much the writer is involved. For readers who have been following the Dark Horse Conan for a number of years, that continuity ambiguity has been a point of confusion. Visually, your story followed seamlessly after Road of Kings -- and the entire point of Road of Kings was to move Conan from Point A to Point B so that Queen of the Black Coast could start on that first page. But then, Conan was de-aged and less experienced.
I think readers want someone to definitively come out and say “This is in continuity!” or “This is a reboot!” But it looks like there is no simple answer.
BW: Baffling to me. This sort of thing happens elsewhere in comics, too, where readers are only interested if a story “matters,” meaning, its part of what they consider the “main” story. You can leave a lot of great work unread, taking that sort of binary approach. It also really stunts the industry as a whole, because new works can rarely get a toehold in a field of constantly self-referencing work. Some publishers are at the point of not bothering to launch new books that don’t “matter” because, well, the market has spoken.
CB: And would you say are taking a parallel approach with Star Wars, writing a story using only the original film without the baggage of the Extended Universe and Lucas’ other films?
BW: I reject the premise of that question, since rejecting “baggage” or what have you is not what I feel I’m doing on Conan. That would be a very deliberate action that I didn’t take and no one asked me to take. As far as I’m concerned, this Conan is part of the overall Conan story. And I’m sure Dark Horse will agree with that.
And no, with Star Wars I am not rejecting or ignoring any of the EU or the other two original films.
CB: Oh, I will happily own the term “baggage.” Because that’s what it feels like to me. When I came back from Japan, I found it almost impossible to get back into American comics because of the excess of continuity—everything felt like I was picking up a book in the middle chapter. So I just didn’t. I stuck to self-contained stories or comics with single-series continuity.
BW: That excess of continuity? See my comments just above about stories that “matter.” If you are overly worried that no one is officially making this or that official or not official, you are part of the problem.
CB: I found the idea of a lean, back-to-basics, drawn-from-a-single-well type of approach to be appealing. Was this your idea or Dark Horse’s?
BW: On Star Wars? I believe it was LucasArts’ decision, with Dark Horse, for my series to be a bit separate from the established timeline. What I pitched them was a story set after A New Hope, since that’s what I’m most familiar with and what I felt I could best deliver on. But I’m not writing a story in a vacuum; I can’t kill Luke or blow up the Millennium Falcon or make Darth Vader not his father. It’s not an alternate history.
CB: Did your approach to Conan lead into your approach for Star Wars? Using single-story continuity?
BW: Again, I have to reject that premise. I’m not taking that approach with either book. I just came back from Star Wars Celebration and spoke to many fans. There was some mischaracterization of my new series as being some sort of reboot, but it took all of 10 seconds of explaining to make it clear.
CB: I would be terrified to write Star Wars, with all of the technical manuals and reams and reams of minute written and memorized about even the most minor of characters. Do you feel intimidated by all of that?
BW: That’s not what makes Star Wars what it is, so no. Star Wars isn’t sci-fi, it’s a drama with a powerful emotional core. It’s not ABOUT the details or the tech or the trivia, it’s about how the characters relate to each other. Get that part right, and you're 95% of the way there.
That said, a good editor is a writer’s best friend. There are some very smart people at Lucas who read my scripts and tell me if I got a detail wrong. I’m never afraid to ask a dumb question.
CB: That’s cool. And I agree completely. Star Wars should be mythological rather than technological, going back to Lucas’ George Campbell roots. Getting bogged down in the types of crystals in a lightsaber ruins the magic for me.
Back to Conan; you have obviously brought new readers; including those who are experiencing the character for the first time. Do you think this “single-story continuity” approach helps attract new readers?
BW: I think the fact it doesn’t look like a 1970s era Conan book rippling with testosterone, combined with an unexpected creative team, is what is drawing in new readers. The best, most successful comics are always ones that try and appeal across the spectrum.
And no matter how many times you say “single-story continuity,” it doesn’t make it what’s happening here.
CB: Hey, come on now! I am trying to coin a new phrase! I have to disagree with you on that point though. If anything, I think your Conan looks MORE like the 1970s Conan -- the originals with Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. Smith’s Conan was lean. He famously modeled his work on Pre-Raphaelite painting, which is anything but “rippling with testosterone.” And Thomas’ stories were complex, moral tales -- the over-bulked, roid-raged Conan didn’t come till later. The ‘90s in particular were a time of shame.
BW: I wasn’t speaking about visuals only, but the overall storytelling approach. The '70s Conan was undeniably macho. It was the times it was created in. I read those comics too.
CB: Now, you are using Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast as your sole continuity, so I am curious as to where Conan’s mother comes from. In Howard’s books, Conan is essentially an orphan. But Dark Horse introduced the character in an earlier Conan series. Did you take the idea for having Conan’s mother appear from the Dark Horse series, or was that entirely your own invention?
BW: I’m not just using Queen of the Black Coast as my sole continuity. For the story arc you’re speaking of, I did a lot of additional reading. I brought up the idea of Conan’s mother early on – actually in my pitch for the job – and it was approved. I didn’t take the idea of a mother from a previous writing, it was a relationship I knew I’d eventually want to deal with, and so I asked if this was possible. It was.
We’re into the realm of original stories here, this undocumented time Conan and Belit spent together, so I’m not really adapting any more, in the literal sense of taking from an specific, pre-existing source. But like I said before, I’m not working in a vacuum.
CB: That confuses me a little, because I heard you say in an earlier interview that the only continuity you were following was Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast. I thought that you were adapting Howard’s story essentially as book ends, adding the middle with original material but not necessarily connected to any other published Conan comics. Is that true? Or are we are getting tripped up on different usages of “continuity?”
BW: I feel like half this interview has been you trying to pin me down with questions about continuity. This is not a binary thing. I don’t have to be 100% fundamentalist in my devotion to all continuity, or 100% in direct opposition to all continuity with no chance at anything in between. There are degrees to how much you can reasonably let this sort of thing control the story. This middle period of my run is, like I said and like you said, original stories. But like I also just said, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If I write something that breaks something else in continuity, I expect to be told to change it. It’s happened a few times already.
CB: I was just hoping to clear up the ambiguity. It’s confusing to long-time readers.
BW: I think I can understand why this is confusing to you, because like I said, you are trying to pin down something complex into something binary. The real answer is yes: I am adapting a single story, yes it's in continuity, yes I am looking at other books, no I am not necessarily including material from those sources in my story although I might still, yes they are a factor regardless, yes this is all part of the Conan whole, yes this is designed to be new reader-friendly, and so on. It's all of that all at the same time. It's also no different from what I'm doing on Star Wars and X-Men and the other work-for-hire I've done, and I honestly think it only comes across as complicated because you are picking it apart looking for some definitive, declarative answer.
CB: Are there any other supporting characters you are planning to bring in? Any brothers and sisters we don’t know about?
BW: As far as I know, he has no brothers or sisters.
CB: Well there goes my theory as to who the mysterious “imitation Conan” is that has been usurping Conan’s name in the most recent story arc. I was voting for half-brother. Unless you are purposefully misleading me…
I enjoyed your portrayal of Belit and Conan’s relationship in the Cimmeria story. I am in a mixed-race/international marriage myself, and I know full-well the role exoticism and race-fetishism can play in these kinds of relationships. In a lot of ways, you hit the nail on the head. Is this based from personal experience? Or is this something you saw in Howard’s work?
BW: When I read Queen Of The Black Coast, the race-fetishism fairly leapt off the page. I loved it, so I was eager to use it (again and again, as it turned out). It’s also very similar to themes I dealt with in Northlanders, and I find it to be story-rich material. It also seemed like a total no-brainer to flip the tables on the couple, have Belit be the outsider. My goal in these “middle” stories is to give Conan and Belit a rich and well-rounded relationship. If what happens at the end of the story is to have the proper emotional impact, they can’t just have had a fling. It has to be a real relationship with ups and downs, good times and bad.
CB: I think race played a huge role in Howard’s work. I was just reading an essay on the impact of Eugenics theory on Howard’s writing, and other theories of racial memories and such. It’s all discredited science nowadays, but race clearly had an impact on that 1930s Texan. I like that that aspect is being explored. Even more so because it reminds me of my own wife.
But now Belit has been to Conan’s home. She has met his mother -- these kinds of things typically destroy relationships based on exoticism; the exotic becomes ordinary, the fantasy becomes boring old reality. How is this trip home going to affect Belit’s desire for Conan, now that he is no longer a mysterious, mythical figure?
BW: I don’t think Conan’s going to become boring to her.
CB: You talk about relationships. One of the things I have noticed in the series is that the scale has been intimate. You have had some big battles, but much of the real conflict in internal, in those “little grey boxes” you populate the story with. There has been no main antagonist for Conan and Belit, no “arch villain.” There is no real McGuffin that they are chasing, nothing driving them forward. None of the usual tropes. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
BW: I think the “arch villain” doesn’t have to be a person; it can be anything, really. For Conan and Belit, they have plenty of things challenging their unity. And I disagree that there are chasing nothing, that they have nothing driving them forward. I’m surprised you don’t see it.
CB: They have their destiny driving them forward, and Belit’s nihilism, perhaps. And the mysterious visions, which must be more connected than I think. I am going to have to go back and do some rereading now. Any thing I should be looking for?
BW: Don’t look too hard. It’s honestly not that complex... or hidden at all.
CB: Is the series going to remain a collection of somewhat self-contained three-issue story arcs, or will Conan and Belit go epic, with a multi-issue quest?
BW: It’s all a multi-issue journey. The three-issue arc thing is just how the comic is structured. It’s not like the slate is wiped clean with each new chapter.
CB: In Howard’s stories, Conan has many professions, from thief to soldier to statesman. In Queen of the Black Coast, he is an out-and-out sea faring pirate. However, in this series so far, all of Conan and Belit’s adventures have been land-based. When will we see the crew of the Tigress doing some old fashioned pirating? Will we get to see them reaving the Black Coast and the jungles, raiding Stygian ships? And can we get Becky Cloonan, master of drawing waves, back to depict a huge sea battle?
BW: Of course, I think their time will end up being fairly equal in terms of land and sea.
CB: The supernatural also played a large part in Howard’s Conan stories, borrowing elements from his pen-friend and fellow writer H.P. Lovecraft. But your series seems to be more “reality” based. Are we going to see any weird fiction elements?
BW: Probably, although that’s not necessarily my forte. Conan does tend to see an awful lot of visions and dreams, though.
CB: There is a scene in one issue where N’Gara sees into Conan’s future, and he looks to be wearing a Civil War–era uniform. Care to spill any secrets about that?
BW: I had to really look to figure out what you’re talking about. I don’t see that as a civil war uniform and I certainly wouldn’t have written that into the script. What I did write was “a shot of Conan dressed in an unfamiliar military uniform, marching in searing desert heat, looking half-dead from thirst.” No secrets there to spill.
CB: There goes Theory #2 shot down. No time travel. No secret half-brother …
How much of the series do you have planned out? Obviously, those of us who have read Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast know how the series is going to end, but we don’t know what you have planned for the middle. Is there going to be a slow build up to the conclusion? You have slipped in one clue already.
BW: In my original pitch I outlined the first part of the story, what is #1-3 of the comic. Then I wrote about 12 story ideas, possibles for that middle period, and then some notes on how to deal with the ending. So for each arc I go back to those possibles –- all of which were at least tentatively approved – and come up with a story for the arc. That then gets approved, and I’m off to script.
There is a progression; there is/are themes I’m building on, and I keep an eye on that as I go. But I do think it’s the sort of thing that gets easier to see the further we go. You’ve only read to #7, and I’ve written twice that many issues so far.
CB: And finally, Conan or Belit: Who do you see as the main character? And which one do you find more satisfying to write?
BW: I never considered that. Conan is certainly the main character from a narrative standpoint, but I usually try and write them as equals, as a cast. Belit, in her best moments, can be a total blast to write.