Singing a Barbaric Song

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Next month, Joe R. Lansdale and Timothy Truman team up on a new Dark Horse mini series Conan: Songs of the Dead. In the four-issue caper, everyone’s favorite barbarian chops off even more heads and limbs than he does on a monthly basis.

BF spoke to artist Tim Truman about the book, his re-teaming with Lansdale and what’s in store for the ongoing Conan series when he takes over as the new writer in October.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Conan and the Songs of the Dead is said to be a lot grittier than Dark Horse’s monthly ongoing. In the regular series, Conan already isn’t exactly a cute kitten, so what makes him even more rough ‘n tough in your story?

Click to enlargeTIMOTHY TRUMAN: I don’t know, really. It’s just the way it’s coming out.  When you mix up Joe R. Lansdale and me, it’s just the way that things seem to want to come out. By and large, Conan and the Songs of the Dead is Robert E. Howard’s Conan that’s been stored for several years in the fungus-lined cask that is the mind of Joe R. Lansdale, then tapped and cold-filtered through the veins of Timothy Truman.

The story is in the spirit of the Weird Tales pulps as opposed to the Marvel comics or movie versions of Conan. However, Joe—being a rather innovative and imaginative writer himself, to say the least—puts a Lansdale spin on things. I think that Howard would get a real big kick out of what his later-generation fellow Texan has done.    

BF: The beginning of the mini series takes place in the Hyborian era’s wasteland, Stygia. What brings our barbarian to this desolate region?

TT: I’m not sure. That’s what Conan gets for using a roadmap that Joe and I gave him. It’s just where the old boy ended up. Our original concept was to portray Conan before the time of the Howard story “Beyond the Black River.” In the original Howard tales, Stygia is in the south eastern part of the Hyborian continent, roughly in the area that would become Egypt and Syria. In the Conan chronology, our barbarian friend was sort of roaming around north eastern Africa and Middle East area during that period of his life then ended up going quite a ways north to the Pictish Wilderness.   

Joe and I have this creative process that we’ve refined over the years whereby he lets me be the first cook into the kitchen.  I gather up a lot of ingredients and bring them to the pot. Joe looks at the ingredients and basically draws on them for inspiration for the final stew. Sometimes only about a quarter of the stuff I bring to him might make it into the story, and that’s OK.  It’s all important in getting the cooking process going. 

In this case, I was re-reading some of the Howard stories and started noticing various little things that Howard was sort of dropping along the way: a sentence about a lost race of ancient Stygian archers; things about how Robert E. Howard’s primitive tribe, the Picts—located in what would be the UK today—were fond of ostrich feathers that they’d trade for; a mention of how the sorcerer Thoth Amon had hidden from his enemies by disguising himself as a camel driver; stuff like that. None of this stuff is actually used in our story except for a variation of the Stygian archers. However, they were little ideas that kicked other ideas in the butt.  

BF: At what point during Conan’s life does Songs of the Dead take place?

TT: During the late-middle part of his career. He’s accumulated a few scars and had his nose broken more than a few times.

Click to enlarge    Click to enlarge    Click to enlarge

BF: As you’ve said, you’re once again collaborating with Joe R. Lansdale, whom you’ve also worked with on books like DC’s Jonah Hex and Avatar’s Dead Folks. What makes you guys the Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale of the grim ‘n gritty?

TT: Har! Cute description. It’s reach maybe, but, by golly, it’s cute.

Joe and I just do what we do. We like the pairing and our editors seem to, also. When Joe is offered a comics project he usually asks for me to be the artist. And if someone else is going to write something for me to draw, there’s no one I’d rather work with more than Joe R. Lansdale, my Grimjack collaborator, John Ostrander, or Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.   Those guys have really spoiled me.

With all due respect to other writers I’ve worked with, when I draw something that Joe, John or Robert have written, it’s almost as though I’ve written it myself. There’s a weird mild-meld sort of thing that goes on that I’ve never experienced with other writers. When I work with them, it’s like jamming with good musicians. Everybody adds their own riffs and we come out with a good song.

BF: Speaking of grim ‘n gritty, one of your career-defining moments was the creation of Grimjack with the aforementioned John Ostrander. What is it about ‘edgy’ characters that make them so appealing to you?

TT: They’re just the types of characters that I’ve always been attracted to. I’ve always liked outlaws and anti-heroes, cut from the same mould as Conan, Elric, Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name, the Godfather, old biker flicks, Geronimo, what have you. Why that is, I’m not sure. I’ve just never liked characters who could be princes or CEOs or presidents.  I like hard-boiled types—hard-boiled detectives, hard-boiled mercenaries, hard-boiled Apaches, hard-boiled Cimmerians.


BF: Is the oeuvre of Robert E. Howard perhaps also responsible for your fascination with this kind of characters?

TT: You’ve put your finger right on it. Robert E. Howard—and Frank Frazetta’s interpretation of Conan—was the main influence early on. The day I picked up the old Lancer Conan the Conqueror paperback way back in 1969 or 1970 the world changed for me.  Howard was the biggest influence on me for the way I wanted to write stories and Conan was the biggest influence on the way I depicted heroes.  Other sources came into the mix over the years, but Howard was the one that made me hunker down and get serious.

BF: This fall, you’re replacing Kurt Busiek as the new writer on the regular monthly series with Conan #33. Did you get tapped for the ongoing before you were offered Songs of the Dead?

TT: No, it occurred afterwards. I’d already completed art for one issue of Conan and the Songs of the Dead and was taking a short break from the miniseries to draw the two issue fill-in that Scott Allie and Kurt had asked me to do. I had no idea that Kurt was considering leaving the title, and was quite flattered when I found out he’d suggested me as the new writer. It was a huge surprise.  But I must say it’s one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me. I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid back in 1970.  

BF: In a recent BF interview, Conan editor Scott Allie stated that he trusted you the most to faithfully bring Robert Howard’s stories to modern readers. How will you try to accomplish that?

TT: He knows the spirit of my past stuff, he knows I do my research, and he knows that Robert E. Howard’s Conan is my favorite character of all time.  Plus he knows that while I’m known for doing adventure stories, the heroes that I write about aren’t just cutthroats and head bashers. I try to give my characters some depth and motivation.

BF: What are some of the things you’ve got planned for your run?

Click to enlargeTT: To kick off my run, issue # 33 is a “king sized” issue, featuring about 10 extra pages of art and story.  Issues #33 and #34 wrap up plot threads for the Kurt Busiek and Mike Mignola issues and set Conan up real nicely for my adaptation of “Rogues in the House”, which is one of Howard’s most famous stories.

In the first few pages of the original short story, Howard left us a lot of information about an adventure that Conan was involved with right before “Rogues” and gave us a lot to work with.  This is one of the coolest things about doing work—doing the research and picking up on the little bits and pieces about Conan that Howard left behind.

Because Conan artist Cary Nord likes to take a take a break after about 5 issues or so, and because he’s doing  three issues with Mike Mignola that occur right before mine, issues #35 and #36 will be a King Conan story drawn by Paul Lee. Scott Allie and I want to make Paul the regular artist for these fill-ins, and to make those fill-ins part of a larger story. Fans have been asking for King Conan stories, so this seems to be a good way to do that.

Cary is then back for issues #37-41-- the “Rogues in the House” adaptation. There are plans beyond that, but it’s too early to give them all away.  Suffice it to say that I’m contracted for a good, long run on the series. In any case, it’s really exciting to be working with Cary and Paul. Cary’s work in particular has really been getting more detailed of late.

BF: Will your run continue on the same path Kurt has put Conan on, or will there be any tweaks in comparison to what Kurt’s done over the past two and a half years?

TT: I love what Kurt did with the series and the character as much as the fans do, so you can trust that  I’ll be studying things about his take on the character that made his run on the series so interesting. By the same token, I think that folks also realize that we’re very different writers. We’re both heavily into characters as the driving force behind our tales, though.

One of the main differences is that I was practically raised on Howard’s original stories. Plus, my overall influences and interests are quite different. My work is fun, but it has a darker tone to it. Think pulps as opposed to comics.  The fun and characterisation will be there, but I tend to drag things through a bit more Weird Tales style ooze. It works out great, because in the generally accepted chronology for the Conan stories, that’s the direction that the character headed in during this post-adolescent, post-thief second phase of his career. Conan took some nasty knocks from some ugly people and things and came out of it with a harder view of life.

We’re all going to have a lot of fun. Scott Allie is one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with. He really reads things with a critical eye and is very hands-on. He helps me to dig deeper and develop story elements to their best potential. So far, I think everyone is quite happy, and I think the readers are really going to like the direction of we’re taking things. 

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