Kurt Busiek Interview

Marvels. Astro City. JLA/Avengers. Writer Kurt Busiek has written some of the most popular comics in recent memory. And now he adds Conan to the list of popular characters he's written. Worlds of Westfield Content Editor Roger Ash recently spoke with Busiek about this new title from Dark Horse.

Westfield: What attracted you to the project?

Kurt Busiek: I like dat Conan man. [laughter]

I've been a big fan of Roy Thomas' run on the Conan series, both what he did in the 70s and what he did when he came back in the 90s. That got me interested in the character and that got me interested in the Robert E. Howard stuff. I've read all of that and I'm a big fan of the Robert E. Howard Conan too. I don't think Mike Richardson knew that I was a big Conan fan when we went out to dinner at San Diego. We were just talking about other projects, and he mentioned that Dark Horse was in the process of getting the license to Conan. That spurred an enthusiastic conversation where Mike and I talked about what stuff we had liked best, what stuff we hadn't liked, disagreeing over what worked and what didn't; just in general having a real fun fannish conversation about Conan and Conan comics. What would make Conan comics cool, and what was great about past Conan comics, and blahbity, blahbity, blah.

At the time, Dark Horse's plan was to do Conan as a series of mini-series and Mike asked if I'd be interested in doing one. I said, "Sure, at some point. No problem." Then, over the next few months, they apparently changed their minds and decided to do it as an ongoing series.

I was one of the writers that Mike recommended to the editor, Scott Allie. I called Scott about, again, a different project -- and when I told him what I was calling about, he said, "Oh really? I thought you were calling about Conan. I'm editing Conan and Mike said you might be a good writer for it." That started us talking about Conan and I ended up writing up an outline of how I thought a series launch should work and how a Conan series should go.

They liked it, and here I am.

Westfield: Will you be doing new stories or will it be adaptations of Howard's work?

Busiek: Yes. The idea is, we're starting with Conan early on, shortly after he leaves Cimmeria for the first time. So he's 16, 17 years old. He's off on a life of adventure, going off to see the civilized worlds that he's heard about all his life but he's never seen. Along the way of telling the story of his life from this point on up, we'll tell new stories and when we reach a point where a Robert E. Howard story happens, we'll adapt that story and then go on telling new stories until we reach the next one.

Naturally that means there's a certain amount of adaptation in-between because the Howard stories mention events in Conan's life, or things he learned or people he met that he met in the past. So, when we hit that point in his past, we'll set up that bit for later stories. We're taking the Robert E. Howard stuff and we're putting it in a timeline, an outline of Conan's life and career, and then filling in the gaps in-between.

The first issue is a new story. The second issue is our first adaptation, The Frost Giant's Daughter. Issues 3-6 are the wrap up of the arc that The Frost Giant's Daughter has now become a chapter in. The next six issues are built around another Conan story, The God in the Bowl, that will take up an issue, but it'll also deal with lead-ins and repercussions to it that will give Conan more adventures, and involve him coming to the notice of Thoth-Amon, his greatest enemy. He'll also meet other people and get involved with other stuff. The third arc is built around The Tower of the Elephant and on and on. We're going to be adapting the stories and we're going to be integrating the stories into the sweep of Conan's ongoing life.

Westfield: The stories will undoubtedly be compared to the classic Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith/John Buscema stories. Does that concern you at all?

Busiek: I expect they'll also be compared to the Robert E. Howard stories. It's a concern to some degree because I'm a big fan of what Roy and Barry and John did and I think that Roy is practically the only writer who's made Conan work in comics. There are other guys who've taken a good shot at it, but nobody's gotten it as right as Roy did. Now, here I am doing it and hopefully 5 years from now, people won't be saying, "Oh yeah. That Roy Thomas, he was the only guy who got Conan right." [laughter]

I want to do it differently. I don't want to imitate Roy. We're reprinting Roy's material, so people who want to read it, they got it. But I can take advantage of things - like, we have different production methods today. We've got a different set up in that back in 1970 no one expected that you'd do an issue of a comic and it would stay in print forever in a trade paperback. They ended up adapting a lot of stories in a single issue that might have worked better if they'd been able to expand it. They didn't have as much room to do sweeping battle, expansive artwork, setting up something that'll pay off 5 years from now. They certainly did some of that, and it's one of the things that attracted me to the comic, but we can do more. We can take the room to really make the stories sing. If I want to, I can take 5 issues to adapt Rogues in the House. Roy was facing a market where he didn't know whether Conan was going to be popular or not. It was a gamble. I'm facing a market where the reaction to Conan returning is "Hoo-hah! Conan's back!" There've been movies, there've been TV series, there've been lots of new novels, there's been a whole lot of Conan material in the time since Marvel picked up the license in 1970. He's a much, much better known character, in part due to what Roy and the people he worked with did at Marvel.

So we don't want to tread the same ground. We respect what they did enormously. I am delighted that it's being reprinted in book form and that I'll be able to have it on my bookshelves. I did Avengers for a few years and there I knew it was going to be compared to what Jim Shooter did and what Roy did and what Stan did and what Jack did and what Steve Englehart did and what Roger Stern did, so to some degree, it comes with the territory.

Westfield: Did you do any research for the stories?

Busiek: Yeah. [laughs] As I noted, we're taking all the Robert E. Howard stories and we're building a timeline, a concordance. I want to make sure that any detail that turns up in any Conan story that would affect what I'm doing in other stories is accounted for. For instance, there's one tossed-off bit in Hour of the Dragon where Conan mentions that he's going to set himself up as a mercenary, so his horse's harness and his armor have no symbol on them that would indicate his allegiance to one country or another. That immediately becomes a note. Make sure when soldiers show up, they have a symbol on them that indicates their allegiance to whatever country they're from, as that's obviously part of this world. Little things like that.

Or larger things like working out Conan's history with Thoth-Amon or other research beyond Robert E. Howard. Early on, Conan has an adventure in the ancient nation of Hyperborea. Howard alluded to that adventure, but he never told that story. Hyperborea is a name of pretty long standing in myth. Pliny wrote about it, Plato, people like that. In building Hyperborea, I'm going to the sources that Howard would have gone to had he actually been fleshing it out for a story and taking bits and pieces from the various legends of Hyperborea over time and shaping it into something Howard might.

Similarly, we have the fact that Hyperborea is roughly based on Europe, so the Aquilonians are roughly the French and the Nemedians are roughly Germanic and the Cimmerians are roughly Celtic and so forth and so on. We want to do the research to make sure that feeling gets in there. Not that these guys just seem like they're stand-ins for modern-day people, but the idea that Cimmeria is Ireland, but translated into fantasy. There should be stuff in common; there should be stuff that's completely different. So that involves research. Some of it is as simple as -- if Howard describes a soldier as wearing a hauberk, we better make sure we know what a hauberk looks like, because Cary's going to have to draw that.

So yeah, plenty of research to do.

Westfield: What do feel artist Cary Nord brings to the book?

Busiek: Damn near nothing, I tell ya. He's one lousy artist. [laughter]

No, no. Cary's extremely enthusiastic about Conan. He likes the character, he likes the world, he likes the adventures. He's got a terrific design sense. When we first asked him if he was interested in working on the book, he did a bunch of samples showing different cultures. Here's an Aquilonian soldier, here's a Gunderman soldier, here's a Cimmerian. Here's how they look different. He's a terrific storyteller. He's influenced by Frank Frazetta's take on Conan but not in an imitative way. You can see it in his work, but he's not trying to copy Frazetta. He's just inspired enough by Frazetta that it creeps in there. That gives his Conan a very powerful, a very athletic, a very visceral look. He makes the world come to life really strongly and distinctively and not like Barry did, not like John did. This is a different take on Conan, but I think that it may well go down as one of the classic takes, once people have a year or so of it to get used to.

Also, Cary's working with Dave Stewart, and Dave's doing fabulous color work. He's taking Cary's pencils and working with them and enriching them and digitally painting with them and creating a look to the book that's lush and romantic and fantastic and textured. It doesn't look like any Conan comic has ever looked before. It's really superb looking.

Westfield: Do you have any other upcoming projects you'd like to mention?

Busiek: I'm doing Superman: Secret Identity. That launches in January. That's a four-issue mini-series that I'm doing with Stuart Immonen that isn't actually about the traditional DC Superman. It's about a kid named Clark Kent, who looks like Clark Kent, who grows up in a small town in Kansas - and all his life people have been bugging him. "Hey, Clark, where's Superman?" "Hey Clark, why don't you use your x-ray vision?" That sort of thing.

While he's in high school, he discovers that he has the powers too. So we explore what kind of effect that has on his life and on who he is and what choices he makes. Over the series, we see him as a high school student, as a young man in the big city, as a husband and about-to-be father, and as an older man facing retirement. It's all built around that idea of his secret self. Everybody's got an inner self that the world doesn't get to see. His is Superman. How does that shape his life?

Stuart is doing beautiful, beautiful work on it.

I'm also working on the Marvels: Eye of the Camera mini-series, although I don't know when that'll be scheduled. I'm doing a graphic novel with Humanoids called Redhand with an Italian artist named Mario Alberti, a post-apocalyptic barbarian series. More sword-and-sorcerous-science than sword-and-sorcery.

We'll be doing more Astro City, of course. We'll be doing more Arrowsmith. That ought to keep me hopping.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Busiek: Buy my books! [laughter]

I'm glad I'm able to keep doing this. To keep telling stories and have readers out there interested enough in them to support them. So I guess I'm less saying buy my books and more saying thank you for buying my books. This is why I get to keep doing this.