Conan the Barbarian has been thrilling readers for decades and will soon celebrate the big '300' over at Marvel Comics later this year. After returning to the publisher in 2019, current writer Jim Zub is prepping for a milestone 300th issue of the main Conan the Barbarian title - and the road to that begins in March 10's Conan the Barbarian #19.
In this new arc 'Land of the Lotus,' Conan is carrying an ancient artifact with the blood of a former lover on it - with a plan to honor her memory by returning it to where it rightfully belongs. Of course, others have their own plans for that artifact.
Conan writer Jim Zub spoke with Newsarama about the upcoming arc, the milestone 300th issue, and the delays the series suffered due to the pandemic.
Newsarama: Jim, it's almost been a year since you've been on Conan, but the pandemic really put things on hold for y'all. The book started back up with issue #15 back in October. How are you holding up with everything now that it's back on track?
Jim Zub: It's been strange, absolutely. Getting to write Conan the Barbarian is a dream come true but having only two issues come out before we were put on pause added to the surreal feeling that 2020 was outside of time and we were all drifting along just doing the best we could.
With scripts going through both Marvel editorial and Conan Properties, I already had quite a bit written by the time production stalled, but I'm incredibly thankful we're back in a big way and Cory Smith is crushing it on the line art.
Nrama: With the upcoming Conan the Barbarian #19 (Legacy #294), you're starting a big new arc and new regular artist Cory Smith is now on board. Fans might know him from TMNT and Guardians of the Galaxy. What do you think makes him a great fit for Conan?
Zub: It's funny because on a call we had Cory admit that he didn't think of himself as a sword and sorcery guy before this, but that with each page he was getting more invested in the series and it really shows. Cory's Conan pages are easily some of the best I've ever seen from him and, given how great his previous books have looked, that's saying a lot.
His figure work, which is a staple of the best Conan artists over the past five decades, is solid and dynamic, his storytelling is amazing, and he's taking what I have in the scripts and elevating every single page with incredible action and drama. It feels classic and contemporary at the same time. I am blown away by his work on the series so far.
Nrama: What can you tell us about the new arc?
Zub: This arc, 'Land of the Lotus,' takes place in Khitai, the Eastern edge of the Hyborian Age. It's a place Conan has never ventured before at this point in his life and the mystery and danger that represents become immediately apparent.
A quest to return an heirloom weapon to a famous warlord of the region becomes a desperate struggle for survival and, since Conan immediately stands out among the locals and doesn't know their traditions, he's in way over his head. He doesn't know who he can trust and larger forces soon realize they can use him to get some of their dirty work done.
Nrama: With almost 300 issues of Conan the Barbarian published by Marvel, it's interesting to see how this book ushered in a lot of new talent, especially the likes of Barry Windsor-Smith, do you have a favorite arc or issue that stands out?
Zub: It's a long run of issues, but Conan on the high seas with Bêlit stands out as a golden run of the original series for me. She arrives in issue #58 and is a regular part of the cast until #100. That part of Conan's life is a montage in the original Robert E. Howard story 'Queen of the Black Coast,' but Roy Thomas and co. made it a vibrant and engaging period of high adventure for readers every month.
Nrama: As a fantasy writer, do you find it a challenge to not step on your own toes when writing something like Conan?
Zub: With any long-running character it can be difficult to try and find new angles and new ideas that feel appropriate while also shaking things up and surprising people. I want these issues to feel like iconic Conan stories without tripping over well-worn story tropes readers can see coming from a mile away. That's the tough part, honestly.
Once I have a core idea in place, I feel comfortable building it out and amping up the action. Sword and sorcery is in my blood and I relish every issue I get to work on for this series.
Nrama: In November's issue #16, the final part of 'Into the Crucible,' you created a language for the Uttaran people. How did you come up with it? What was the basis for it?
Zub: That was a really odd challenge I gave myself and kind of ties in well with what I said before about finding new angles. Most of the time language in Conan has been treated as something to be hand waved away for the sake of expediency. Almost everyone speaks some sort of common tongue and can communicate. When coming up with the idea to have Conan trek to the far east, I thought about challenges I could give him, and communication seemed like one I hadn't seen done this way. Having both Conan and the reader unable to discern exactly what was being said put our hero in a tough spot and forced him to pay more attention and build strange alliances.
For the actual language itself, I cribbed bits and pieces from Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese while switching around sounds or combining elements together, then filling in extra bits to make it feel like a real language. I 'wrote' the dialogue in the script knowing what I wanted to be said in each word balloon and then, whenever I had a new word show up, I added it to a spreadsheet so I could track and re-use that word throughout the story arc.
By the end of scripting #16, I had 70-80 words defined for the Uttaran language and we published that list as a bonus for readers in the back of the issue so they could go back and re-read the arc to see how words were used. It was a pain to do, but also made my first arc of Conan something special.
Nrama: When you add mythos and languages, how much of that has to be approved?
Zub: In the case of building new material for the Hyborian age, all of it has to be approved, though that hasn't been a difficult process so far when working with Conan Properties. I send pretty tight outlines and those include new places, gods, myths, and anything else that needs to be cleared ahead of time.
For the Uttaran language, Conan Properties was seeing that evolve with each script submitted, but knew ahead of time that I'd be generating that lexicon of new words.
Nrama: The interesting thing about Conan is that you get to write a bit of prose along the way, do you feel like it took time to get used to that vernacular or was it easy to pick up?
Zub: Captions in Conan the Barbarian are definitely a lot more verbose than in most other comics and the way they're used is a bit different, so that was a bit of a learning curve, absolutely. It required digging back into the Robert E. Howard prose and Roy Thomas stories to remind me how to punctuate scenes with sensory information and a poetic turn of a phrase. It's unlike any other comic writing I've done, but that's also something I really enjoy about it.
Nrama: What is it about Conan that you feel like keeps him being the--pun intended here--swordbearer as this archetype of hero after almost 100 years?
Zub: Conan is the original anti-hero, the sellsword who became a king by his own hand. He's the savage template for every Wolverine, Punisher, Elektra, or Winter Soldier-style character in literature, film, or games. His core traits – a no-nonsense warrior, an explorer, an adventurer, and survivor crystallized an entire genre of storytelling.
There are many other characters who share some of his traits, but he sets the standard and I think that's why Conan sticks around and has built such a fervent fan base.
Nrama: Can you tell us anything about possible big plans for Conan the Barbarian #25, which will be the Legacy 300th issue?
Zub: #300 will be longer than a regular issue and includes someone I've been itching to write since this run began. Like a lot of anniversary issues, it's a way for us to celebrate and exemplify the character's best qualities while surprising readers with a couple big twists. It's the culmination of everything we've been building in the previous 12 issues and I'm pumped for readers to check it out.
Conan the Barbarian #19 debuts March 10 in comic book shops and on digital platforms. Check out Newsarama's list of the best digital comics readers for Android and iOS devices.