Out of Cimmeria: Tim Truman on “Conan”

Tue, February 24th, 2009 at 12:07pm PST | Updated: February 24th, 2009 at 12:07pm

Comic Books
Shaun Manning, Staff Writer
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Conan the Cimmerian
"Conan the Cimmerian" #8 on sale this week

With the publication this week of “Conan the Cimmerian” #8, Dark Horse ushers in a new era in the classic Robert E. Howard character's adventures. CBR News caught up with series writer Tim Truman to discuss the upcoming arc, based on Howard's “Black Colossus,” as well as his upcoming collaboration with Joe Kubert on the title.

Having left Cimmeria last month, Conan enters the next phase of his life as a mercenary in issue #8. “Conan comes out of the first arc a harder character-- no longer the devil-may-care thief and wanderer,” Truman told CBR. “In Howard's original stories, the 'mercenary' Conan seems to have a more hard-bitten attitude than 'Conan the thief.' He's definitely drier behind the ears. Howard never really showed exactly why. So we used the Cimmeria arc (as well as the 'Hand of Nergal' arc, which was the last arc in the original title) to set that up.”

The new story arc beginning with “Conan the Cimmerian”#8 is based on R.E. Howard's short story, “Black Colossus,” and Truman said that his version will expand on the original and lay some continuity groundwork for things to come. “In Howard's original story, Conan is already a mercenary, so the first issues contain a lot of prequel material, showing how he first became involved with Amalric's army and, in turn, how Amalric's army became employed by the Princess of Khoraja,” the writer explained.

As a mercenary, Conan will choose his clients carefully. “Conan is a wolf. He joins the pack that appeals to him the most-- the one that seems stronger and more organized,” Truman said. “He decides that if he's going to play in the big leagues, he'll pick the right team. In the story, we see that he makes his decision in a very calculated fashion. For a few weeks, he observes the two sides as they battle-- to the point where the soldiers will see him sitting on a hill and say 'Look, there's that stranger again, watching us.' They wonder what he's up to. They find out soon enough.

“Another thing we touch upon is Conan's relationship with the god Mitra-- or rather, Mitra's interest in him. it's something that crops up pretty explicitly in at least two of Howard's classic tales-- 'Black Colossus' and 'Phoenix on the Sword' (a King Conan tale) and which is implied in a couple of other stories. There's a paradox there that really interests me. Conan follows the dark Cimmerian god Crom, of course. However, for some reason, in REH's stories, Mitra-- a very 'civilized' god-- seems to favor the old boy. So we're examining that connection.”

Pages from "Conan the Cimmerian" #8

The “Black Colossus” story arc will introduce and flesh out a number of supporting “Conan” players, including the villain Natohk the Veiled One. “I love evil wizards,” Truman said. “He's one of Howard's several undead Stygian wizards. I'm trying to interconnect the paths of these Stygians more. They're all devotees of Set, so I've been trying to find ways to interconnect their relationships and overall agendas. We also use 'Colossus' to introduce characters whom we'll be seeing in later arcs-- particularly a Howard character named Sergius and two of his henchmen, Ivanos and Aratus, who have roles in Howard's 'Iron Shadows on the Moon.' We'll be adapting 'Shadows' next year. In his original tale, Howard indicates that Conan, Sergius, and gang have met each other in the past and that there's lots of bad blood between them. So we show the beginnings of that.”

Additionally, Truman confirmed there will an interim arc between “Colossus” and “Shadows,” titled "Free Companions,” that will further set up this conflict.

As Conan re-enters the world, readers will again see a tension between "civilization" and "barbarism"--Conan's nakedness is remarked upon in issue #8 as it had been in some previous stories dealing with foreign fighters. “Conan definitely adapts to various cultures he encounters, but never becomes assimilated by them,” Truman said. “One way that Howard scholars demarcate certain eras of Conan's career is through the clothing and gear that he's wearing. His attire is reflective of whatever civilization he's encountering at the time. For instance, during this particular period-- his 'mercenary era'-- he wears a scarlet cape from Corinthia. In this arc, we get to show how he acquired it. Howard establishes that Conan a bit of a pack rat. It makes sense, because on ancient battlefields the soldiers always foraged for gear.”

Conan's new employers also tell him he'll need to change his fighting style to fit in with this cadre, a detail that emerged from Truman's own studies of warfare. “Conan's Cimmerians are tribal people-- raiders and guerrilla fighters. In real life, the combat styles of cultures like that are quite different than those of 'civilized' armies,” the writer explained. “Thus, while tribal people might be taught to be adept as using swords or knives with either hand, soldiers who engage in close-rank fighting techniques are expected to fight with their weapons in their right hands. Otherwise, It's sort of like a right-hander and a left-hander eating side-by-side at a crowded dinner table. At some point, someone's going to get stuck. In battle, of course, the knives are lots bigger and do a lot more damage. Thus, when it comes to fighting in the ranks with other men, Conan sees that he has to adapt his technique to suit. Little story bits like that were fun to play with.”

Pages from "Conan the Cimmerian" #8

In adapting Howard's stories, any material Tim Truman adds to Conan's world is based on clues in the source material, but he believes the comics should be able to stand on their own. “I don't want to do a visual pantomime of the Howard originals,” the writer said. “Those stories best speak for themselves, as Crom intended. The prose mediums and the comics medium are so different from one another, it's almost impossible to do a word-per-word, scene-by-scene swipe of Howard in comics. In some ways, of course, it's similar to adapting a book for TV or film. In that regard, I opt for the 'Masterpiece Theater' approach. ‘Masterpiece Theater’ seldom does a scene-by-scene, word-for-word adaptation of a book. However, they are very reverent towards their source material. They dig deep into and sometimes past the original work-- into the writer's background, inspirations, sources material, whatever. Similarly, I stay as reverential and faithful to the original stories, but sometimes to best put the story across visually I have to juggle a few things here and there, pump up aspects of certain scenes, condense others, shift a few things around, so that Howard can be best served by our medium.”

As such, there is a degree of research involved in producing Dark Horse’s “Conan” series, but Truman also finds himself interpreting and extrapolating from Howard's stories. “When I re-read the 'Black Colossus' story and started pulling it apart so that Tomas could draw clear, panel-to-panel sequences, I found at least three spots in the original that left me scratching my head,” he said. “For instance, there's a resurrection scene in the first few pages that's one of the most memorable, exciting horror sequences that Howard ever wrote. However, when I re-read the scene, I realized that, somehow, Howard never really tells you what's actually happening. I thought maybe I was missing something, and ended up emailing Phillip Simon, my editor: 'Hey, man, I need your opinion: What exactly--exactly-- is going on in this scene?' He read it and got back to me: 'Hmmmm... I see what you mean. I really don't know.' In one way, it really proved the raw power of Howard's prose. However, to actually depict the scene in a way that was as at least as powerful as the prose version took a bit of visual choreography. There were a few scenes like that in the tale.”

Truman continued, “I've found that the most challenging part of working on the book is doing a story which pleases both the hard-core Howard/Conan faithful as well as the reader who is less familiar with the original tales. I try to find a way to put a twist on thing things to keep everything moving. However, when I do so, I try to do it in a way so that the R.E.H. folks won't even notice, or, if they do, they'll think 'hey, that was pretty cool.'”

Pages from "Conan the Cimmerian" #8

Earlier issues of “Conan the Cimmerian” have featured flashback sequences drawn by Richard Corben, but this issue marks Tomás Giorello coming back in the saddle full time. Truman expressed deep regard for the artist, who first came onto the book with the “Hand of Nergal” arc, which closed out the previous “Conan” series. “Tomas is a beast. His work is very lavish. He has this knack for Frazetta-style blood and thunder, yet it has a modern edge to it as well,” Truman said. “I love the color work that Jose [Villarubia] does over Tomas' work, but there's a part of me that would love to see a collection of Giorello's 'Conan' pages in the original, back and white pencil form. There are details and a certain impact that is somehow lost when it's colored. That's not a slight towards Jose-- it would happen no matter who colored Tomas, unless it was Tomas himself. Then again, as a fan of underground comics and the old Warren comic mags, I'm just partial to black and white. How he does the amount of work that he does and still make his deadlines is a wonderment. Of course, now that he's a new father, that might change! Something tells me that he'll be fine, though. In any case, Dark Horse just scheduled a little vacation time for him with issues #14 and 15, so he can spend some time with the new baby and catch some breath.”

As to who will be filling in on those issues, Truman's web site reveals that Truman himself will be illustrating #14 along with Joe Kubert, in a story co-written by Truman and his son Ben. The story will take place after “Black Colossus” and early in the “Free Companions” arc. Kubert will be drawing Conan's scenes, while Truman tackles those set in Cimmeria. “Following the events of 'Black Colossus,' Conan has become the companion of the princess in the story, Yasmela. He gets his first real taste of court life and doesn't much care for it,” the writer said.

“It's a really special story for me-- and, I think, for all the people involved. There are multi-generational aspects to the plot itself-- we see Conan, we see his mother, Fialla, and we see Kulin, the young boy who was introduced in the Cimmeria arc. And, of course, the creative team is multi-generation. Each one of us is a link in the chain,” Truman said. “Ben co-plotted he story with me. We've worked on a few other things together and it's been fantastic. We really enjoy feeding back off one another. He's very much is own guy-- his style and approach to storytelling is different than mine, and he leads me in directions that I might not have considered otherwise. It sort of reminds me of the way John Ostander and I approached stories in he '70s, doing the early 'Grimjack' books.

“As for working with Joe Kubert, what can I say? Joe was my mentor at the Kubert School, and before that, he was my favorite artist when I was growing up. So the whole thing represents the completion of a circle, in many ways.

“The story itself is a good, rollicking adventure tale, but it has some pretty interesting, heavy aspects to it. It will be great to be drawing a Conan story again. People have been asking for it. I'm going to have to work extra hard to keep my stuff up to Joe's level, though!”

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TAGS:  conan, conan the cimmerian, dark horse comics, tim truman, robert e. howard

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