Interview: Timothy Truman on Dark Horse’s King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel


King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel #1 cover by Darick Robertson

King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel #1 cover by Darick Robertson

In his career in comics, Timothy Truman has worked on such books as the creator-owned GrimJack and Scout, as well as characters including Hawkman, Jonah Hex, and the Lone Ranger. This month, he and his Conan the Cimmerian collaborator, Tomas Giorello, join forces on Dark Horse’s King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel. Westfield’s Roger Ash recently caught up with Truman to learn more about this new miniseries.

Westfield: Why was the decision made to end Conan the Cimmerian and jump ahead to the King Conan stories?

Timothy Truman: Well, to be absolutely clear, the monthly Conan title is still very alive and well, as Conan: The Road Of Kings, with the legendary Roy Thomas handling the scripting. Dark Horse and Conan Properties’ wanted to add more Robert E. Howard related titles to their line-up, which, as a rabid Howard fan, was just fine by me. They wanted artist Tomas Giorello and myself to remain involved in the titles and offered us the chance to do REH-related special projects, which was also fine by me. I’ve been writing the monthly for 4 years now. Doing special projects and miniseries provided Tomas and me the chance to take more time with the material and let the work “breathe” more. I’ve been proud of the work that we’ve done on the regular series, and fans have liked it to. However, I can safely say that the King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel miniseries is going to blow the other stuff right out of the water.

Westfield: What can you tell us about the story?

King Conan by Tomas Giorello

King Conan by Tomas Giorello

TrumanScarlet Citadel is one of Howard’s most celebrated Conan tales.

Many folks don’t realize that Howard didn’t write the Conan tales in chronological order. For the first few years that he was writing the stories for the Weird Tales pulp in the 1930’s, he shuffled between tales of King Conan and young Conan. That’s pretty interesting when you think about it – at least to me – because there’s a remarkable degree of consistency in the tales. He obviously had the entire history of Conan mapped out in his head.

Scarlet Citadel is one of the quintessential foundation stories for the swords-and-sorcery genre – a template that other writers have cribbed from for almost 80 years now. Conan, King of Aquilonia, is betrayed by a plot between a supposed ally, the King of Ophir and one of the Cimmerian’s oldest enemies, Strabonus, ruler of Koth. Assisting them is a half-demon wizard named Tsotha Lanti – the real mastermind behind the scheme. After ambushing Conan’s forces on the field of battle, Tsotha uses his wizardry to paralyze our hero and take him prisoner.

They send word to Conan’s kingdom that Conan has died and chain him in a dungeon beneath Tsotha’s Scarlet Citadel, a fortress built over a system of accursed, ancient tunnels. While Tsotha and his co-conspirators march to conquer Aquilonia, the Cimmerian has to escape his confinement and find a way to stop them. In the tunnels he confronts some of the most horrific entities that Howard ever concocted.

The ending of the story is one of REH’S most memorable scenes – one that’s burned into brain cells of every fan of his work.

Conan in his 60s by Tomas Giorello

Conan in his 60s by Tomas Giorello

I added a special twist to the story that I’m hoping the Howard faithful will enjoy: One is that we get to see the origins of the “Nemedian Chronicles” – the texts from which came the famous “Hither came Conan… to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet”. The other is that during the course of the tale, we actually see King Conan during two distinct periods of his reign – as a relatively young king in his 40’s and as a far older, far more battle-scarred but still very dangerous ruler in his late 60’s, narrating the adventure to a young scholar who has been charged with collecting from the Cimmerian a narrative history. In correspondence to friends, REH specifies that King Conan had a very long, tumultuous reign, so it was great to have a chance to emphasize that fact. Tomas’ depiction of Conan in his 60’s is absolutely awe-inspiring. We were blown away when we saw his initial character designs. A road map of every mile that Conan ever traveled is carved into his flesh. Simply magnificent.

Westfield: To you, what is the difference between the Conan we saw in Conan the Cimmerian and the Conan in King Conan?

Truman: Since Howard implies that Conan was probably in his 40s when he took control of the throne, he obviously racked up a lot of experiences on the way there. So Conan the King is more calculating – a bit grimmer and, to my way of thinking, far more dangerous. Younger Conan is a restless, predatory alpha dog out to prove himself. Conan the King is still restless, but he’s established himself as the leader of the pack whose territory is Aquilonia, one of the most powerful nations in the Hyborian Era. Thus, he has more to lose and more interests at stake. His sole motive is to remain the top dog and to keep the pack united and safe.

That said, one of the most fun things about Scarlet Citadel is that, however many miles he’s traveled and unimaginable things that he’s seen, he still retains some deeply-rooted, barbaric superstitions that he’ll carry with him to the grave: namely, an innate disgust and distrust of all things supernatural.

Westfield: You’re adapting a Robert E. Howard story for this miniseries. What challenges are there in adapting a prose story to comics?

King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel alternate cover by Gerald Parel.

King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel alternate cover by Gerald Parel.

Truman: It’s always a challenge, because I love Howard’s work so much. I grew up with it. His writings and his characters informed everything I’ve ever done.

Staying true to the work is no problem. that’s easy – the stories are everything one could ask for in an adventure story. That said, there are a few primary challenges I can think of. One is to get across the fact that Conan himself is a deceptively complex character. To the uninitiated, he seems to be a pretty straightforward sword-slinging skull-crusher on the surface, but he’s not. There are certain subtleties and depths to the character. A writer or artist has to realize that and get it across in an almost subliminal fashion, just as Howard did. Those subtleties are one of the reasons that Conan remains so fascinating and enduring almost 80 years after he was created. There have been countless fantasy and swords-and-sorcery characters, but the Cimmerian is still the ultimate king.

Another challenge is to translate the stories into the visual format in the most exciting way possible. Howard’s stories contain a lot of forward momentum – an unstoppable drive. Believe it or not, some of that drive can be lost if one does a pure panel-by-panel recitation of every word and paragraph Howard’s tales. So, doing a faithful adaptation means that I have to carefully read and analyze the original stories and pick which scenes and moods to emphasize and which to de-emphasize. For instance, in the original Iron Shadows In The Moon, which was the basis for our last arc in Conan The Cimmerian, Conan and the woman he’s with spend a lot of time scaling this pinnacle in the middle of the island that they’re trapped on, then climbing down again, then scaling the mountain again, then climbing down one more time. It works fine in the original Howard story – one hardly notices it. However, one WOULD notice it if we’d have a note-for-note recitation of it for the comic. It would chew up a lot of pages and actually slow down the pace of the tale down in a very non-Howardian fashion.

Conan in his 40s by Tomas Giorello

Conan in his 40s by Tomas Giorello

I ran into a few scenes like that when scripting Scarlet Citadel, particularly in the last chapters of REH’s short story where there’s a lot of political exposition that doesn’t really involve Conan. So one has to find a way to get essential information while making sure that the story is paced effectively.

Westfield: You’re working with artist Tomas Giorello again on this book. What can you say about your collaboration with him?

Truman: Tomas is incredible. His work just keeps getting better and better and better. Just when you think he’s taken you about as far as he can, in the very next arc he’ll sweep things to a new level. I truly think that of all the artists who’ve portrayed Conan for the comics, he’ll be regarded as one of the greatest, right up there with Buscema and Smith.

Westfield: Are there any other projects you’re working on that you’d like to mention?

Hawken TM and copyright 2010 Timothy and Benjamin Truman, all rights reserved

Hawken TM and copyright 2010 Timothy and Benjamin Truman, all rights reserved

Truman: Besides Scarlet Citadel, I’ve been collaborating with my son Ben on a project called Hawken. We’re co-plotting the stories, with Ben doing the final scripting and me drawing. The whole idea originated during a visit with Ben in Tucson last summer. Ben mentioned some character ideas that he was tinkering with and within 10 minutes this Hawken just leapt out of the ground and possessed us. Hawken is a western with lots of horror elements, but very subversive and “underground”. We’re taking all these mythical western conventions and turning them on their heads. Just when the reader thinks they have something figured out we give them a kick to the stomach.

We’re polishing off the first issue now and are preparing pitch material to submit it to a publisher who’s interested in it. However, I was so into the project that I actually did art for half the first issue before even thinking of a publisher. It turned into one of those things that I had to do, had to get out. Except for Conan, it’s about all I’ve been able to think about since last June.

It’s great working with Ben. He’s very much his own man – in no way a clone of his old man. We have very different approaches to storytelling – we analyze things from totally different points of view. Yet our sensibilities are similar enough so that the differences mix really well.

Ben and I also collaborated on a 2-part story that editor Shawna Gore asked us to do for issues #5 and #6 of Dark Horse’s new Creepy magazine.

Anyway, it’s been a great ride and there’s more to come.