In the continuing tradition of Dark Horse Comics' Conan franchise, "Conan & The Midnight God" #1 was released earlier this year to high sales and considerable critical acclaim. In anticipation of issue #5's July 25 relase, CBR News presents an extensive commentary for "Conan & The Midnight God" #1 by series writer Joshua Dysart and editor Scott Allie. The pair offer fans an enormous amount of insight into the process of creating this latest "Conan" series, including anecdotes concerning the original artist's abandonment of the project and the problems that caused; how Dysart got the scripting job; as well as in-depth discussion as to the philosophy behind the book.
DYSART: I want to talk a little bit about how I was offered the gig before we get into the pages themselves. Scott, who was familiar with "Violent Messiahs", and I had formed a friendship at the conventions, and this led to us working together on the "Van Helsing" one-shot, which is a comic I'm still very proud of. Then about a year or two later, we were having this email conversation, not work related, just friends rapping. Scott was talking about how his son had just been born. He was all gaga over the miracle of life and rhapsodizing on the birthing process when suddenly - right in the middle of a message that was sent at midnight on a Saturday in April of 2005 - he somehow managed to find a place in the conversation to type, "Oh, wait, shit. Wanna do Conan? Wanna do a really dark, nasty Conan miniseries?" That's an exact quote from the email by the way. I went back and found it.
It was like the offer was some sort of afterthought. Like it had come to him at that very moment. Maybe it was an epiphany, but to me it seemed as if it could be fleeting. As if he would change his mind once he got some rest and sobered up. So I leaped at it immediately. I gave him no time to back out.
Something I've never thought of until this moment is, considering the emotional catalyst in this first issue and how it launches the events that follow, I wonder if the discussion of the birth of your son in the same email as the original offer had any influence on the series?
ALLIE: Well, I liked the idea of the miscarriage spurring the action, and it was sort of supercharged for me given the timing. My book, "The Devil's Footprints," is to some degree driven by a miscarriage in the first issue - a mystical miscarriage, the similarity of which never occurred to me until now - so the idea of driving a story off a miscarriage was something I'd already considered. There's an even stranger synchronicity behind the miscarriage in Devil's Footprints," though.
DYSART: Ooooooh, I'm dying to know what that synchronicity is. I find that happens all the time with the creative process. What often seems to be a very haphazard creative decision later turns out to be the most perfect thing you could've possibly come up with. But I guess we shouldn't talk about "The Devil's Footprints" too much here since this is supposed to about Conan." Although everybody should read "DF." It's a great book.
ALLIE: Anyway, the cover - Jason Alexander did the cover for this, and I was real glad to put him and Josh together again - Jason had done interiors on the "Van Helsing" thing that Josh wrote.
DYSART: Working with Jason on "Van Helsing" was a miraculous experience. I remember when those pages first started rolling in and my heart just started to sing. Now Jason and I have done a Hellboy one-shot that I co-wrote with Mike Mignola, and, man, it happened all over again. The pages started coming in and they were just so beautiful. Saw-jagged and precise all at the same time. Awesome stuff.
ALLIE: I was able to give Jason more work sort of right after the "Van Helsing" thing, but it took a while to get another gig for Josh….
DYSART: Because I'm a difficult prima-donna bitch! And I talk shit about editors online - you go to hell, Matt Dryer! You go straight to hell! I hate your fashion sense! And that awful excuse for a human being, Rachel Edidin, echhh. Don't get me started.
ALLIE: I'd wanted to use Jason for oil paintings on something, and since this was gonna be such a dark Conan take, I figured this old-masters approach would suit it well.
DYSART: When Scott told me Jason was doing the covers I was ecstatic. Scott and I had talked about doing a very humanist, horror-centric "Conan." We tossed around phrases like "Lovecraftian horror" and "Shakespearean emotional scope."
ALLIE: Which only invites people to comment on how far we missed that mark.
DYSART: Wow, excellent point. That's why these kinds of things suck. The less said the better. Oh, we're in it now. So, yeah, I set out to explore Conan's flaws and weaknesses, you know? Thing is, I think you see all of our intentions manifested in Jason's covers. I have never seen an artist humanize Conan like Jason has over the course of these five covers. For instance Issue #3's cover is adorned with what feels like the face of the most real, living, breathing Conan I have ever seen.
DYSART: With this first cover it's all there. Conan is emerging from, or being swallowed by, an all-consuming darkness. Sword in hand, a hunting panther's stare. As far as I'm concerned this should've been the cover to the first trade, because the whole story is right here, in this single image.
ALLIE: This opening scene is the Battle of Venarium, when a teenaged Conan got his first taste of real war. It was a touchy thing for us, because it was the natural place to open this series, but it was something we'd been building to in the monthly series for a long time. There's an arc of the monthly that we're just wrapping up now. It's called "Born on the Battlefield," and it's stretched on for years - it will climax with the Battle of Venarium this fall. So we've been saving Venarium for all this time, an epic story building up to it, and here Josh wanted to drop the whole thing on the first pages of this series, in flashback.
DYSART: Oh man, this was totally my fault. I'm sure I pissed Kurt off to no end. But ultimately I wanted this story to be about Conan's youth in a very indirect way. I've described this series as Conan's mid-life crisis to a lot of people, and the easiest way to explore that was to juxtapose his earliest, glorified experiences against his adult life. That's my rationale anyway. And I'm not even subtle about it either. Here it is, page one, panel one, and we're off to the races. I was given all kinds of restrictions about this scene so I wouldn't step on Kurt's toes, which was completely fair. I feel bad about it, but like Scott said, it really was the right way to start a book about the themes I wanted to explore.
ALLIE: Well, but what's here is what we worked out with Kurt, so there were no toes stepped on. I did have to reign Will in a little bit. Not only was the girl on the right-hand side of panel two naked, but she was built like a swimsuit model. That's not my vision of Cimmerian women. She's still pretty lean - and under dressed - here, but I think fairly realistic. Anyway. I've featured some nudity in Conan, but I don't think you send your womenfolk into war armed and topless.
DYSART: I'm pretty sure the topless woman was my fault. I think it's actually in the script. Although I specifically requested she not look like a "swimsuit model." I really did.
ALLIE: The one thing that Kurt asked was that we not show Conan going over the wall. That's a central moment in the story Kurt's building to. Of course, that was exactly what Josh wanted to show, but we compromised. Basically, he goes over the wall between panels two and three, and you just don't see it.
DYSART: Oh man, I feel terrible. I love Kurt's Conan stuff. I would have totally figured something else out here if somebody had asked me to. Still, I'm glad they didn't. A young man fighting against incursion by the very kingdom he eventually will come to lead - well, it's just such a damn fine way to lead into a story about aging and lost youth, you know?
DYSART: Notice the hot oil being poured over the wooden ramparts? Pretty stupid thing for a defending army to do. That's my fault. Yup, it's in the script. I shudder when I think of that. I'm a hack.
ALLIE: I guess we should talk about how Will got the job.
DYSART: He came in second place on the nationally syndicated TV show, American Comic Book Idol- or is it idle? He was chosen by the fawning American public for his chiseled good looks and mad Latin dancing skills. We couldn't get the first-place winner. He's spotting blacks for Jim Lee on Frank Miller's "All Star Batman."
ALLIE: Well, actually, that is sort of what happened. When we were first auditioning artists for "Conan," in the hunt that got Cary Nord the job on the monthly, Will was the #1 runner up. Some people in the middle of the decision were advocating for Will over Cary. So Will was very much in our minds with "Conan," and he had done really good work on a "Serenity" series for me not too long ago. He's always been real good to work with. Originally, I'd hired Tone Rodriguez, who did "Violent Messiahs" with Josh - that was the book that got me to notice Josh in the first place. I love the idea of putting teams together that belong together, so, right or wrong, I decided to do that with Josh and Tone on "Conan." I think I met Tone before Josh, through Gene Simmons. Tone is a big KISS fan, and there's nothing Gene likes more than KISS fans, so he introduced Tone to me as a potential artist for the KISS comics we did.
DYSART: You know what's funny? Clowns. But also, I was at that meeting and Scott doesn't remember because I didn't say anything. I mean it was really Tone's show. He was the KISS fan. I think Gene Simmons is an egoist asshole quite frankly and I'd rather defecate in his mouth than work with the guy, but I was there for Tone, my brother in arms. Tone was offering to draw that first issue for free. Do you remember that, Scott? It was in the Wizard Show in Chicago, I think. The meeting was in the Hurricane booth. And Tone was going to draw a freaking 22-page comic book for free because he loved KISS so much.
ALLIE: God, I forgot you were there, but you're right about all that. You and I met through Jeff Macey at a Texas con, right? Also Wizard World. And Shiner beer, and Macey trying to get in a fight with a local after telling some redneck chick to get her "ghetto ass" off the pool table.
DYSART: Oh my God. That was fantastic. Macey was out of control. I gotta say, I miss Jeff on the Con circuit. He is a man amongst men. That was a really formative night for my career. That was the night you introduced me to Mike Mignola. I was speechless. I was hanging out at the pool table with an editor who had been an intricate part of a hell of a lot of the books that I loved and a creator who I genuinely think is the second coming of Jack Kirby and we were just sort of hanging out, shooting the shit. Needless to say, I measured every thought for its coolness factor before I opened my mouth that night.
ALLIE: I miss Jeff a lot. Last fall Michael Ring and I flew to Indy, where he's going to law school, and we drove to Baltimore for Sarah Grace McCandless's wedding. It was a classic Macey adventure. That baby face goes from gleeful to scowling so quick when you get the right mixture of booze in him.
ALLIE: But back to Chicago, several years before. Tone had offered to draw the Kiss comic for free, he wanted it so bad. But he wound up turning that gig down. That's a story for Tone to tell.
DYSART: Agreed, but it has to do with Gene Simmons being a, no, no, you're right, that's a story for Tone to tell.
ALLIE: Tone's this very sweet, gentle, giant of a man, and seemed a good artist for "Conan." He drew the prologue that will be in the front of the trade, but he wasn't taking to the character. I think the sweet, gentle side of him won out over the giant. It wasn't working out, and we amicably parted ways - I don't even remember if it was him or me who first suggested he leave the book. But I started looking at options. We considered Will, but he was busy - and he was gearing up to do another "Serenity" series for me. So I offered the job to another guy, who accepted. By then we were pretty under the gun - we had to get going right away. Next thing I knew, that guy backed out to do a book for DC. After committing to "Conan." To any freelancers out there - don't do that. I will never work with that guy again.
DYSART: Wow, I didn't know there was a guy between Tone and Will. Who was it?
SCOTT: Feh. Anyway, then we were really under a crunch. We were obligated to get "Midnight God" out no later than January.
DYSART: You're not going to tell me?
ALLIE: Yeah, I'll tell you, but I'm not telling the internet.
DYSART: We're on the internet!!?
ALLIE: Anyway, I found out Will was available. We weren't ready to go on "Serenity," so I asked him to do this. He'd been eager to do "Conan," we'd been eager to get him, so it all worked out. By the fuckin' skin of our teeth.
DYSART: Will was great. It was a bummer to lose Tone on this project. I've always felt I owed him a great debt for "Violent Messiahs." I made him draw some awful stuff in that series that just wasn't in his nature to draw, but he always came through. So I thought this would be a chance for him to help get work for one of the big three.
ALLIE: Big three!
DYSART: All right, settle down. But Tone was having a hard time with this project. We had grown in even more divergent directions artistically and he was really wrestling with the way Scott and I were handling the story, both visually and in the narrative. He was so not feeling it that he didn't even get upset when he got fired. He was pretty relieved actually. I want to reiterate that Tone is such a great guy and a wonderful art machine to boot. I still feel I owe a great debt to him. I'd like to see him work more on quality projects that make him happy. Someday I hope we can find a project to do together that will make us both happy. I love the guy.
DYSART: Then Will came along and just started banging it. I mean, like Scott said, we were really under the gun, and he totally came through.
DYSART: But I want to talk about this page a little. It really sets the stage for my central themes. It's quiet and Conan is alone with this overly bejeweled sword. I don't think we've seen Conan be introspective too much and I thought that if we get that in early we can communicate to readers that this is an older, wiser Conan, and although he doesn't say much, there's a lot going on underneath the surface.
ALLIE: It became a real exercise in this book, seeing how we could reveal Conan's thoughts and feelings without having him act them out, or talk about them, or otherwise express them. Right down to the last issue, we were trying new things for that.
DYSART: Yeah, I loved that aspect of our Conan. The storm beneath the silence.
ALLIE: For this scene, Will had to contrast the two swords - it's a metaphor. Josh's script called for the sword in the flashback to be real primitive, and the sword in the sheath to be real fancy. So for the primitive sword, we just had Will copy the sort of sword Cary usually draws, which is just a hunk of steel with no adornment at all. That's as much a style thing with Cary as it is a design choice for him, but you pull that out and drop it into Will's world, and it sort of stands out.But didn't we have to have him do that second panel over a couple of times?
DYSART: I don't recall. It turned out great though. The sword is one of a couple of visual references for the gilded cage that Conan finds himself in as king. You're supposed to imagine that it's poorly balanced, shiny but not too sharp. The blade of a pretender. Not the blade of a man like Conan.
ALLIE: The colorist on the book, Juan Ferrerya, is a great artist in his own right, by the way. He does "Rex Mundi" for us - which is actually a book that Josh indirectly got me to publish…
DYSART: I have compromising photographs.
ALLIE: … but when Juan first colored that spit in panel 3, it looked like chewing tobacco or something.
DYSART: But look at panel 5. That's the first panel that totally sold me on Juan. Check out the dope-ass design element in the back and the texture on the faces. Plus, Will just handled that really swell too. Sometimes I write a bonehead panel, like this, where two people are talking and I expect both faces to be visible to get their reaction. Will always managed to give me what I wanted and find a way to make it look cool no matter how screwed up my scripting was.
ALLIE: Actually, those little yellow rectangles behind the heads - I did that. I thought the balloons looked too much like they were floating in this indefinite space, and that the rectangles would anchor them to the speakers, make two separate little vignettes.
DYSART: You did that!? That's awesome, man. I've always loved that. This is also where we introduce that the Aquilonian army is modeled after a Roman design. This is, to some degree, my fault. Though, while researching in the middle of writing this issue, passages in Howard's work were discovered suggesting that King Conan's army was much more middle ages in the design of their armor then Roman. I pointed this out to editorial, but for reasons I'm not quite sure of, no changes were implemented. It's one of my only regrets of the series. That we weren't more true to Howard regarding the look and feel of King Conan's army.
ALLIE: We'd already established some stuff about the Aquilonian army in "Conan and the Demons of Khitai"- and what we did there was based in part on the Conan line of toys from MacFarlane. But it's been our understanding that Aquilonia should be based on Roman stuff. I think that's what Howard scholars in general accept.
DYSART: Well, they are wrong! Don't make me pull out the passages from the battle scenes in "Hour of the Dragon!"
ALLIE: I like those little touches of red on Conan in the second panel. I really love Juan's graphic color sense. Very dynamic, very risky. I thought it would help solidify the uninked pencils we did here with Will.
DYSART: It's just gorgeous. He's so ambitious with his colors and, considering the tight deadline, the amount of work he puts into it is awesome. I like this scene. Actually, I like all the scenes with Pallantides and Conan. Pallantides is the more educated man, but Conan is like this animal. His instincts are impeccable. Pallantides knows this and respects him for it. It's Conan's natural sense of leadership and fearlessness that justifies Pallantides following him so loyally. Pallantides is like a scholar in the service of a lion. Another thing I like about this scene is that Conan makes a decision to act "civilized" here. He acts like a king of a court should and lets his enemy in for a robust round of diplomacy. This is not in his nature and very much out of his realm of instinct. Later he will pay a price for going against his nature.
ALLIE: Scenes like this drive some artists nuts. But Will loves detail. He loves drawing a hundred people in a panel, which really helped on this book.
DYSART: Thank god he loves it, because a huge part of "Conan" is world building. If the artist is willing to put in the time, they'll find that comics can world build better than any other medium, even more so than film in my opinion. I tend to lean toward artists who think about how cool a rich and overflowing scene will look before they think about the amount of work it will take to execute it. Although, I know that's easy for the writer to say.
ALLIE: Well, Will rises to the occasion. But then the colorist is stuck with whatever the artist does, and the colorist is just forced to step up to the plate. We were on such a tight schedule on the book, thanks to losing multiple artists before it even started, that Juan was coloring Will's pages one at a time as they came in, which is not an ideal way to do it.
DYSART: It's interesting that you mention that, because there are some inconsistencies in this first issue. Juan's style shifts occasionally as he's searching for the right way to treat Will's work. It's actually a testament to his versatility that he has all these "voices" to try. Later on, once Juan finds the perfect way to handle Will's pages, he becomes fiercely consistent and gives so much to the mood of the work.
ALLIE: Juan wasn't that happy with the results on this page. He colored this whole series on the computer, but he took a stab at doing this page in watercolor. He printed it out and colored on a copy, but he ended up not using it. He'd tried out for the monthly Conan book when Dave Stewart quit, and he used watercolor over Cary Nord in those tryouts, but it didn't work as well with Will. So he painted all this in Photoshop, using a Wacom tablet. Hecreated a lotof Photoshop brushes for the series, which he then used on "Rex Mundi." He made brushes for rain, and for the rocks, which he started using halfway through the series, and for the brushlike strokes for empty backgrounds. But all that came in later issues.
DYSART: Jesus, he worked his ass off.
ALLIE: I liked the colors on this page. Juan changed the mood from previous scenes, which it needed here. I remember thinking that this page was where Juan started to get Will's style.
DYSART: Agreed. If you look at later pages, this is much more consistent with the technique he chose, overall, for the series.
DYSART: In this scene I was continuing to subvert the traditional Conan paradigm. This time by sexualizing a pregnant woman. For decades now Conan has had gorgeous woman standing in front of him naked, but never a pregnant woman (to my knowledge). We're letting readers know that they're going to get the things they love about Conan from this story, but it's all going to be just a little off center. I also like the grin Will gives Conan in the last panel. Secretly, he's jazzed that drama is rolling in. Also Will rocked on her bathtub. He drew everything I told him to draw and more. Will's environments are really what sold me on him in this series.
ALLIE: There was an interesting thing with the acting on this book. One of Will's strengths is his ability to get realistic emotion out of his characters, which I find to be kind of rare in comics. It really helped when he did "Serenity." The book wouldn't have worked without it, and I thought that would be a real good thing for Conan, for this story. But some of the pages sort of lacked that, and I had to ask Will to get more of it in there. What I think was going on was that Will was thinking of the big, dumb, later Marvel "Conan" books, which lacked any humanity at all. Characters stood with feet wide apart, clenching their fists, gritting their teeth - all the time, never showing any variation in mood. So I had to push that realism idea on Will, even though he'd already done a series for me where he did it effortlessly. But that comic was based on a Joss Whedon TV show, and I think he started this book thinking more of Arnold and the end run of the Marvel series.
ALLIE: This is an important bit, right? She looks out the window, and all is lost, she dooms herself? Should we have indicated that Ra-Sidh noticedher looking down at him? There's that great upshot of his nose, but he doesn't actually address her ...
DYSART: It's a gorgeous page. I love that he doesn't address her. He doesn't need to. That way we don't play up the villain aspect too heavy, too early.
ALLIE: The letterer earned his pay on this page, huh?
DYSART: I love it! A nice clean page. None of my pretentious-ass rambling covering up the art. You can really just focus on the arrival of the antagonist amongst all this pomp. While drinking in New York with Scott, Arvid Nelson and Cary Nord (booyaa on the name drop tip) and I tried to get Scott to let me make the very last issue of this mini a silent issue. But he wasn't having it. If you think that would've been cool, you can send hate mail to Scott.
ALLIE: I don't think Arvid and Cary were lobbying that hard for that one.
DYSART: It's true, I was all alone on that one.
ALLIE: But god, in the end, what happened? I called you up one Monday afternoon, and I said, Josh, the last issue is all lettered, and it's going to the printer in two days. But I don't think it reads right. We left it too quiet. Can you gimme more dialogue?
DYSART: That's right, we had to wrestle the thing down to the ground and force more dialogue into it.
ALLIE: Down to the very last minute.
DYSART: Just the way I like it! That's how you know the creators care.
ALLIE: So is Ra-Sidh really here looking to make peace? If Conan hadn't been such a xenophobe, would this have ended peacefully? Would Conan's heir have been born? Or was Ra-Sidh really just here to do harm?
DYSART: One thing about Howard's Conan that I didn't want to goof with was his sense of absolutes. Howard praised things like xenophobia.
ALLIE: And he didn't mind racism … He'd have loved the War on Terror. His blood would be pumping.
DYSART: Exactly! Violence always won the day and seldom complicated things. Sorcerers with dark intent never had a motivation less muddied than the quest for personal power. It was interesting for me, who is politically left of Lenin, to write from that place. It was like a release. So the way I see it is that Ra-Sidh came on a calculated mission to do more than harm. He came to shake the very foundation of the only kingdom who could stand in Stygia's way of reclaiming their rightful place as the dominant empire in Western Hyborea.
ALLIE: I like that line, "Your court, your command." I remember really liking that from the first draft. I don't know why. Did you lift that from someplace?
DYSART: How come if it's cool you think I lifted it!? That, sir, is a Dysart original!
ALLIE: Fantastic. That big panel, that's some of that sort of superhero acting I was pushing Will to avoid. The clenched fists, the flexed arms. I think it looks good, but it lacks a real naturalistic feel.
ALLLIE: I like how this page turned out, but it took a while.
DYSART: Yeah, I like it too. I'm actually really happy with this scene.
ALLIE: This was where we started to notice that Will had Conan flexing like the Hulk even in scenes of repose, right?
DYSART: I'd noticed that on Page #11, but didn't want to say anything.
ALLIE: With Dark Horse's Conan, we want to treat him more like a real guy, and that means that he needs natural gestures.
DYSART: Especially for this series, where humanizing him is one of the actual creative intents of the project.
ALLIE: Also, look at the muscles in that last panel. I had Juan shade it a lot to diminish the rendering, not make it look so overly muscled.
DYSART: I wondered about that. I thought that was Juan still searching for the right look on top of Will's pencils.
ALLIE: The first panel went through a few drafts, but what Will came up with here is nice, and again, I like the red rim lighting, like on the other scene in this room.
DYSART: Love it. Juan's lighting is always really great.
ALLIE: That map on the wall - Will just drew the canvas, and then Juan digitally dropped in the map that Conan Properties provided us. It's all done in the computer, like "Transformers."
DYSART: If you look closely you can see Sound Wave break dancing in the right hand corner of the map.
DYSART: This scene had one of my two favorite lines in the whole issue: "I took Aquilonia because I could, Pallantides." It tells you everything you need to know about our interpretation of Conan. This is where the ladder of success has led him. This is that part when the Talking Heads come on the soundtrack, singing, "Where!? How did I get here?!" In this scene we also lay the foundation for the logical reasons why Conan later marches his army to Stygia on what seems to be a whim. "We may have to start a war soon, if only to remind others of our strength."
DYSART: Another fun little subversion. Conan having sex with his pregnant wife. Not usually the kind of physical encounter we find him in.
DYSART: Hey Scott, what do you think about the thorny panel border when the dream sequence begins? I love this kind of fisheye lens thing Will has going on in Panel 4.
ALLIE: The distortion here is fun. That thorny border, though - that was an interesting bit. Will drew that just as random shapes, just a scratchy border, and Juan redrew it to more specifically suggest thorns, to tie into those trees. Little things like that made this a pretty interesting collaboration between penciler and colorist.
ALLIE: Same here.
DYSART: Here's where we foreshadow things to come. Letting the reader know that it's not all going to be fun and games. Then there's panel 2. I happen to think this is one of the most beautiful panels in the whole book. Not a particularly exciting one, but wonderfully executed by everyone involved. Will, Juan, and Comicraft created a dynamic, bursting image. And we end the page on Conan picking up the "play sword." You can see the veins popping out on his hands, like he's really clenching it.
ALLIE: Yeah, in this case, it really worked to get that overblown, clenching and grimacing version of Conan. And the way Will rendered the face there, the way the shadows make the shapes sort of loose - that was one of the things about his work that made me love it on his original Conan samples. I'd never ask him to do that on "Serenity"- probably not - but it works here. I love that exaggeration for this character.
DYSART: There's a crazy color shift here on this one page. Was that Juan still trying to find his footing under the pressures of the compressed deadline?
ALLIE: Mainly it was him trying to settle on a style. This reminds me of some of his stuff in "Rex Mundi." He didn't wind up coloring that much of "Conan" like this, but the hard cuts between colors, the sort of marker feel of it, definitely distinguishes his stuff.
DYSART: This page had a great last panel. I know we already talked about this, but screw it, I'm gonna say it again, since nobody will probably even read this far. I love to write Conan being silent because A) it's easy and B) it gives us the sense that something profound is stirring beneath the surface of him. A blue-eyed stare from the Cimmerian has more strength in it than ten lines of dialog when Will draws it, and I used it liberally throughout this series.
DYSART: Here we see Conan still trying to be civilized. Not exactly sure what's going on. His instincts tell him to cut this guy down right here and now. But the part of him with the kingly responsibilities says, "She just had a bad dream, don't be too hasty."
DYSART: Then he sees Zenobia ill, and the shit is on! He throws away the bejeweled sword and demands a real hunk of steel. It's this moment, in panel 2, where he's casting aside that civilized expectation. He's done playing good king. Despite this, he stays with Zenobia. It's not easy, his nature is to bum rush this wizard fucker.
ALLIE: I expected fans to take issue with this - that Conan would never let a woman tell him not to go to a fight. But I think Josh set it up well enough that we had people on our side. They understood that what was going on with Zenobia was too important for Conan to rush off like a bull. Not that he liked it, but he knew his responsibility was to her, first.
DYSART: That was actually a note you gave me. Originally I was fearful that Conan fans wouldn't take to this story beat and I had him run off to fight. But it never felt right. You were the one that encouraged me to keep him here, with her. And I think it's perfect.
ALLIE: The colors are really coming together here. The palette is perfect. Look at the little brushstrokes where the background color fades out on either side of the page. Such nice little touches.
DYSART: Will is also nailing the acting now. The team's all coming together!
DYSART: Here's where the pace really starts to pick up, as the horses bolt through the city gates, it seems they're racing toward the end of the issue itself. If I did my job right, then reading the rest of this comic should be a lot like rolling, uncontrollably, downhill. I love the last panel here too. Conan being domestic. More subversion of the traditional Conan paradigm, here we have him waiting at the beck and call of his ailing woman, albeit, with sword in hand.
ALLIE: In terms of the pace kicking up, look at the bits of leaves flying up at the top right of the page. Will used to ink Cliff Richards on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and whenever there was some action going on, Cliff would draw bits of paper and leaves and other little detritus blowing around in the air. Even if there was probably no logical reason for it, he'd do it, and it helped give the sense of motion and action. I think that's where Will got it.
DYSART: That's awesome! I had noticed that through out the series and I loved it. It's as if the whole world is stirring under the weight of action.
DYSART: Panel 1, oh my god, another gorgeous, gorgeous panel. The art, the coloring, the lettering, and the emotion! I really like her dialogue here too. Zenobia worships Mitra, goddess of light, and she's probably never really been able to fully understand Conan's hard god, Crom, or the ambiguous relationship his worshipers have with him.
ALLIE: I like how Juan handled the shadows on the hill on the left. He didn't just go dark on them, he made them a much more vivid color. Reminds me of Cam Kennedy's work.
DYSART: Actually, look at the coloring overall on this page. The whole thing is just delicious. Juan actually combines two palettes here, he has one spill into the other. Really, really great.
DYSART: At the bottom of this panel I have them speaking Stygian. But later, when Conan is in Stygia, I don't have anybody speaking Stygian. I really wrestled with that. I guess we can just sort of assume Conan speaks Stygian, but that's really a cheat. Fact is, I just didn't know how to handle it once we got there and I dropped the whole language device all together. It's a shame. Foreign language use in comics is one of the things I'm most fascinated with. And if you look through all my work, torturous as that may be, again and again you'll see me use language as a device. Whether it's "translated," like here, or actual non-English phrases, it invokes a richness of culture, but it also separates characters who don't speak each other's language into their own tribal units and social structures.
ALLIE: Funny, we haven't talked about this much, but I love that too. Moebius said that he learned about comics from Kirby Marvel books, but that he couldn't read the words. So he learned this art form from books that he sort of could not read. But he read them, and he understood them. When I went to Europe the first time, ugly American that I am, I couldn't speak any of the languages there, but I bought comics everywhere I went. I find it to be a unique reading experience to be reading and understanding a story when you can't read nor understand the language part of it.
DYSART: I do the same thing. I love to "read" foreign comics! Then the balloons become just another graphic on the page. At that point their interaction with the art is the single most important thing. Have you ever watched a foreign film on DVD with the subtitles off? I do it all the time. The nuances you get from the piece, especially if you're already familiar with it, are amazing. So when you see a non-English sentence in an American comic book it becomes purely graphic.
ALLIE: We've got a little of that in the "B.P.R.D." series you're writing for me. Oh yeah, Josh is teaming with Mike Mignola again for his next project with me. Josh is one of Mike's favorites writers now.
DYSART: God that is a beautiful sentence, "Josh is one of Mike's favorites writers now." It just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? It's so great to work with him. He totally makes me a better writer. I owe it all to Scott. And Mike Wellman of Atomic Basement Comics helped out a little too by being my pimp on the ground.
DYSART: Glorious panel 1. Such resplendent violence! Colored so perfectly, with just a cherry topping of dialog placed right in the sweet spot. Look at the way the sun acts as a halo of white around the giant, and then radiates out into rich color in all directions. And look at Will's composition. No space goes unused. The chaos of battle is all pervasive. It's just fantastic! When I first saw this issue in the store and randomly opened it, this is where I landed. Pages 18 and 19. And this panel was the first thing I saw. I was so happy I could spit.
ALLIE: Switching color schemes between scenes is a favorite trick of mine, and I love what it does on pages like this, sort of breaking it up into two pages with a real definite break between color schemes-the top part is one palette, the bottom is another.
DYSART: And panel 3 is about as cool a sword-strike image as one could ever hope to find in a sword and sorcery comic.
ALLIE: Yeah. This came out before the "300" movie, mind you.
DYSART: Do they do that in "300?" I haven't seen it.
ALLIE: Maybe not exactly, but there's a lot of blood.
DYSART: Everybody was Kung-Fu Fightin'! Again, great first panel. Although I've always wondered if people could read the action on this page. I mean, can you tell that Ra-Sidh is casting some spell, or does it just look like he's just blowing up? Maybe the ambiguity here is good. I don't know.
ALLIE: I never thought of that. I guess I assumed that readers would think spell before they thought explode. We know he's a wizard. Why's he gonna explode? I love how the second panel looks. Great synthesis of what Will does and what Juan does. Oh, and Starkings!
DYSART: And here we come to the real emotional pith of the whole series. The death of youth. I made a very un-Howardian decision here. Continuing to let readers know that this was going to be a different kind of Conan story. And in the last panel we get another great shot of Conan saying - absolutely nothing. Look at the lines around his eyes.
ALLIE: The lines and the cuts in the color. That's that marker technique of Juan's, reminds me sometimes of Leyendecker. I mean, it looks like it could be markers, but it's all done in Photoshop.
DYSART: Conan looks really great here - although he seems to have lost the gash across the bridge of his nose. It sort of comes and goes as the series progresses.
ALLIE: Yeah, that detail is not perfectly consistent. I can't remember where it came from. I think actually that when Tim Truman was warming up to draw his first Conan story, which features Conan shortly before his time as king, he gave me a headshot that had a distinct line across the bridge of the nose. I've always thought that the shape of Conan's nose should be different from his youth to his time as king, as he must have had that nose broken a dozen times. But Tim drew a scar, and I loved it. So when Paul Lee drew "Demons of Khitai," I had him do the scar over the bridge of the nose. And when Will did this, I gave him the same reference.
ALLIE: The silent panel, though - that wasn't supposed to be silent, right? Wasn't this where you had him talking about feeding the stillborn baby to the dogs?
DYSART: Ha! I don't know! I know that originally issue two opened with Conan actually feeding the stillborn to his dogs, and you and I had the story meeting over breakfast in San Diego during Comic Con and you were like, "Uhh… no."
ALLIE: This was our biggest disagreement over the whole series. I felt that it was too deliberately shocking. Sometimes I think Josh wants to be provocative for the sake of being provocative, and this was one of those places. I felt like it would be distractingly ugly. I can take Conan as the ultimate hard ass, but feeding his dead son to the dogs - and saying it right in front of your wife, who's at the lowest moment of her life. I just didn't buy it.
DYSART: Okay, if I had him say it in front of his wife, I agree, that was kind of screwed up. But the idea of it, of feeding his dead son to the dogs, isn't too far off the mark. I just wanted to show that Cimmerians handle death, and therefore life, differently. When a thing dies, especially a weak thing, then it is done. It had no place in this world to begin with. I mean Conan's culture are the kind of people who leave club-footed babies out in the weather to die and dunk young children in ice water to test their constitutions. You know that feels right. I thought this would be a way to explore that part of Conan's culture.
ALLIE: I thought it would just throw people out of the story, that they'd read that line and not even see it as a Conan line, just see it as a writer trying to shock.
DYSART: But you did let me get the sentiment in there somewhere, not until issue five, but I found a way to couch it that worked for you, or I just wore you down.
ALLIE: No, I think you did it a little differently, like it was something someone said hypothetically, rather than something Conan specifically was going to do.
DYSART: Whatever the Stygian did on the earlier page, it certainly was effective. You'll notice in panel 3 a reoccurring character with no name. The man with one eye. He was at the gate when the Stygian messenger arrived earlier in this issue. He also ends up being one of Conan's elite soldiers who enters into Stygia with him, and makes it all the way to issue #4 before he's killed!
ALLIE: I like the birds. Was that in the script? The birds circling over the dead, waiting for food.
DYSART: Nope. That was all Will.
DYSART: Here we laid the seed of a notion that Conan is acting impetuously, which he is, but later we'll reveal there's a certain degree of method to the madness of marching his army across several kingdoms. I love this character line here, "My sword, Pallantides. My sword."
ALLIE: I love that too. I knew that was you this time. It's one of the lines that really makes of him an epic figure, in this book in particular.
DYSART: It illuminates his sense of personal strength and his mistrust of the aggregate. It also references back to one of the visual metaphors of the issue, the fancy sword of the civilized king versus the well-balanced blade of the warrior.
ALLIE: Yeah, right - he's laying claim by saying it's his sword, but by saying it's his sword, he's also saying that it's different from the swords of other kings - it's not some ornamental accessory. It's there to hack people up, and that's what it's gonna do.
DYSART: Absolutely. And for the next four issues, that's exactly what it does.
DYSART: Well, I guess that's it. One of my better first issues in general, I think. Thanks for reading!
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