We grew up reading Robert E. Howard’s original tales of Conan, and were thrilled when Marvel Comics published The Savage Sword of Conan. The main force behind those amazing translations was the prolific Roy Thomas, a creative force at Marvel and beyond who continues to bring us tales of high adventure today.
Pulposaurus is thrilled to announce that Mr. Thomas has joined us on our Conan: Rise of Monsters, writing an overview to the era of King Conan and the setup to the rise of his long-unseen nemesis, Thoth-Amon!
Shane Hensley had this to say: “My own writing is heavily influenced by Stephen Crane, Robert E. Howard, and the Marvel crew of the ’70s… Roy Thomas being first and foremost among a team of giants. I think what truly inspires me with Roy’s work is how he and the artists were able to take Howard’s unique style, so flavorful and atmospheric, and not just ‘illustrate’ it, but make something new and different yet somehow more true to the source material. Look at the image of Natohk The Veiled One (the wizard Thugra Khotan in disguise), below. This is one of those key moments where Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and Alfredo Alcala really nailed the power, mystery, and raw excitement of Howard’s world.”
Designer Darrell Hayhurst interviewed this phenomenal talent about his time on The Savage Sword of Conan and his thoughts on the coming confrontation between the barbarian and Thoth in our game.
Tell us how you went about transforming the original Howard stories into a visual medium like comics.
The “Marvel method” in 1970 and for all my run on the Conan stories (I still use it at Dark Horse) was to write the story as a synopsis, which the artist would then illustrate, using his own instincts as to precisely how to break the story down into pictures. Of course, also being the de facto editor of the series, I could also ask for (or insist on) changes if there was anything I felt needed to be changed. Of course, Stan Lee and, earlier, Martin Goodman as publisher could overrule me, though that rarely happened. However, on CONAN THE BARBARIAN #2, Goodman insisted that a bear whom Conan had just killed on the story as penciled by Barry Smith be changed to one of the man-apes who, in my synopsis, weren’t introduced till the next page. I had to make that work.
What are some of your favorite memories of the Conan series, both personal and with the series itself?
Once I began to really read REH’s Conan stories, I fell in love both with the character and, at its best, his writing style, and with the polyglot world of the Hyborian Age. Favorite memories? Working with Barry Smith on the earlier issues…. working
with Gil Kane and especially John Buscema, but even with many other talented artists, each of whom had his (or occasionally her) own take on the Cimmerian, which kept me on my toes: Maroto, Infantino, Chaykin, Chan, DeZuniga, Alcala, Starlin, Brunner, Buckler, etc., etc. But I liked it best when working with Barry and Big John. Seeing a story come in would, especially in the early years, be exciting to me. I recall turning the penciled pages of CONAN THE BARBARIAN #6 excitedly, for it was the best original story I’d done to date of Conan, I thought… ditto CONAN #4, with “Tower of the Elephant,” my favorite Conan story, bar none. Coming up with the ending of the War of the Tarim, in Buscema’s second issue, CTB #26… Archie Goodwin and others I respected congratulated me on the last page of that issue. “Red Nails,” from start to last… the wonderful graphic novel CONAN THE ROGUE that John plotted, drew, and I think even lettered and colored in the early 90s, and which I had the pleasure of dialoguing at the last moment when John decided I could script his story better than he could… the long-running b&w continued stories I did with Buscema and Chan in the early-90s SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, that took him to the Hyborian Age equivalents of Japan, China, Australia… then back to the Barachan Isles to meet Valeria earlier than he had in REH’s stories. The whole War of the Tarim (aka the Hyrkanian War, started with Barry and ended with Buscema). The introduction and one or two other early stories of Red Sonja and Conan together. SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN #200, with its three different realities: REH reality, REH fantasy adventure, Conan adventure. A number of the adaptations, including several with Buscema and Alcala and “Scarlet Citadel” with Brunner.
Conan: Rise of Monsters, posits the inevitable confrontation between Thoth-Amon and King Conan, a tale Howard obviously never got to. What do you think of that as a fan?
Thoth-Amon was, as you know, never a major ongoing foe of Conan’s until L. Sprague de Camp made him so, but I applaud what Sprague did in that area… even though perhaps he went a bit far with “The Black Stranger.” He posited other clashes between the two, and their eventual final clash in his King Conan days, and I carried that over in the comics. On the one hand, I am happy that the pure, 100% REH Conan is in print… but I see no reason to denounce de Camp’s efforts, as some have done.
He did his part to make Conan into a commercial property in the 1960s and 70s, and people who are overly purist don’t give him his due. Of course, I don’t think that REH ever WOULD have gotten around to an “inevitable confrontation” between the two, because I doubt if he ever thought of the two of them as special foes, any more than Tsotha-Lanti and Conan were, say. But it makes a lot of sense for Conan: Rise of Monsters to go in that direction.
The designers of the game are not only big fans of Robert E. Howard, but also of your adaptations as well. What advice would you give them when walking in Conan’s world?
Look at Conan with two pairs of eyes if you can, or two mind-sets: as a real (if somewhat imperfectly realized) world, and as the literary creation of a very talented man.
Any medium based on another must take some artistic license and focus on what’s best in the new medium. Vague descriptions of a monster in Howard’s prose, for example, must be turned into art in a panel just like Conan: Rise of Monsters must transform them into miniatures. Can you talk a little about the process you went through with the artists when you were interpreting Howard’s “yarns”?
I often left it to the artists, as they had the REH descriptions. When I made up a new monster or creature for a new story, I usually tried to describe the way I saw it… but it would’ve been just a thumbnail outline, and the artist was encouraged to get creative. I was occasionally, but only very occasionally, disappointed in what they came up with. Usually, they did a great job. Of course, sometimes it’s just impossible to make a monster that is seen (either on comics page or on a movie screen) as frightening as it can be in prose alone, but mostly the artists did a commendable job. I particularly liked the creature John Buscema designed (and Alcala embellished) in “Xuthal of the Dusk.”
Given Thoth Amon’s resurgence in Conan: Rise of Monsters, what other nations and villains from the Howard stories can you envision getting caught up in his ambitions?
Every kingdom he ever visited is ripe for a story or three… every villain he ever faced who COULD return would be worth facing a second time, but of course to do that too often would dissipate the reality of the series, the way it happens in comics and the like, with a thousand appearances of Dr. Doom, Red Skull, et al. Better generally to let most of the villains stay dead and, at most, come up with a “relative” or other heir, like when I made up a son or nephew or whatever of Tsotha-Lanti for one story.
There are many minor or background characters that appear in Howard’s work who can be brought to the fore and fleshed out in adaptions. Which are your favorites that you worked with, and which do you think deserve more attention?
I enjoyed Giles from “Gates of Empire,” a Falstaffian creation of Howard’s that I brought into a dozen or so issues of CTB in the
90s…and of course Red Sonja (screw the purists!)…and Valeria, whom I developed in the 90s SAVAGE SWORD… and Zula, the male version, whom I made up partly because I then couldn’t use de Camp and Carter’s Juma… and would’ve liked working with the female Zula, too, whom Gerry Conway and I made up for the “Conan the Destroyer” film and even suggested Grace Jones for… and the villains Devourer of Souls and that scythe-wielding guy whom I had clash in the several-part 1990s “Conan in the City of Magicians” storyline in SAVAGE SWORD, both villains being created by others besides myself… and Karanthes priest of Ibis (an offstage character in REH)… and Zukala, whom we developed from a name in an REH poem… and several others.
Finally, what was it about Conan that drew you in? Why did you like him (and his world) so much?
I’ve said more than once that I bought the first paperback, CONAN THE ADVENTURER, mostly for the Frazetta cover, and thought it might be something more like John Carter of Mars because there was a mention of “Atlantis” on the back cover. When I started reading “People of the Black Circle,” I was disappointed not to find what I was looking for, and I put the book down and didn’t finish that story or read any other Conan story for a few years, though I continued to collect them for the covers. Then, circa 1969, as readers were besieging Stan (and thus me) with letters asking, demanding either Conan or some other sword-and-sorcery hero in a Marvel comic, Stan and I decided we’d go after Thongor–because it was a sort of combination of Conan and John Carter,and Stan liked that name.
Luckily, Lin Carter’s agent stalled, and I decided on a whim to go after Conan, which I should have pushed Stan about from the beginning… by that time I started to read the REH stories and liked them very much, no longer expecting them to be something other than what they were. Luckily, literary agent for the REH estate Glenn Lord saw the truth in my suggestion that, despite the low fee Marvel was offering, it might be good for Conan to get comic book exposure, and soon we were off and running. I had intended probably to have Gerry Conway or someone else write the series, not being a real S&S fan even though I liked REH’s writing…but I had offered Glenn and the estate $200 per issue rather than the $150 that publisher Goodman had authorized, so I had to write the first issue or two, I felt, because then if Goodman complained, I could take that $50 off my writing fee (which would’ve meant writing a 20-page story but only getting paid for about 17 pages, at that time). Ironically, that same cheapness on Goodman’s part led him to reject the idea that Buscema would draw Conan, because he wanted someone cheaper so the book wouldn’t cost so much…and that gave Barry Smith his big break.
I liked Conan’s world because REH had looted the ancient and medieval history of the world for its parts… everything from a touch of ancient Egypt (Stygia) to medieval and not quite Renaissance Europe… making it the world’s greatest stage. Holes there may be in it, perhaps…but it was a solid accomplishment, and I would rather re-read REH’s body of work on Conan several times than re-read LORD OF THE RINGS even once… not that I don’t respect the latter work. Respect, yes… but I LOVE Conan! Always have (at least since 1969-70), and probably always will.
Roy Thomas has been a comics writer and often editor since 1965, primarily for Marvel or DC Comics. Among the thousands of comic books he has written are Conan the Barbarian, The Avengers, The X-Men, Fantastic Four, The Invaders, Sub-Mariner, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, Red Sonja, The Savage Sword of Conan, All-Star Squadron, Wonder Woman, and Infinity, Inc. He served as a Marvel editor from 1965-80 (and as its editor-in-chief from 1972-74), and as a DC editor from 1983-86. At Marvel he co-created the Vision, Ultron, Iron Fist, Wolverine, Luke Cage, Adam Warlock, Havok, the Valkyrie, and a number of other characters. He has written graphic novels starring Conan, Spider-Man, Dracula, Superman, Justice League, et al. In the 1980s he co-wrote the films Fire and Ice and Conan the Destroyer. He currently edits the comics-history magazine Alter Ego, writes three online strips for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., and since 2000 has worked with Stan Lee on the Spider-Man newspaper comic strip. In 2014 he wrote the humongous book 75 Years of Marvel: From Golden Age to Silver Screen for the German publisher Taschen; 2017 will see an equally huge volume for Taschen about the work of Stan Lee. Besides winning numerous fan and pro awards over the years, he was elected to the Eisner Hall of Fame in 2011. He is married to Dann Thomas, with whom he has often collaborated on comics.