Marvel’s premiere Conan the Barbarian series, written by Jason Aaron and drawn by Mahmud Asrar, hadn’t even hit stands before Savage Sword of Conan and Age of Conan: Bêlit were announced, signaling that the House of Ideas is clearly hyped for their returned barbarian. Savage Sword of Conan launched this week from former Guardians of the Galaxy writer Gerry Duggan, outgoing Daredevil artist Ron Garney and master colorist Richard Isanove, providing a second dose of pulpy action for fans who just can’t get enough of the Cimmerian.
While Aaron and Asrar’s series is building an overarching story via standalone tales throughout Conan’s long life, Savage Sword of Conan takes a more straightforward, self-contained narrative approach, beginning with Conan stuck at sea on a slave ship. Duggan is one of Marvel’s most trusted names, thanks in part to his massive Deadpool run, while Garney’s recent pivot to a more expressionistic style makes him a brutally good fit for barbarian violence. Duggan will also script Savage Avengers, a just-announced crossover series that finds Conan interacting with Wolverine, Punisher, Venom, Brother Voodoo and Elektra in pursuit of shared mystical goals.
In advance of Savage Sword of Conan #1 hitting stands, Paste spoke with Duggan to find out more about his Barbarian history, how Garney and Isanove are owning the book and what the odds of survival are for anyone in Conan’s proximity.
Savage Sword of Conan #1 Cover Art by Alex Ross
Paste: Before we talk about Savage Sword itself, I’d love to know more about your own personal Conan journey. Are you a longtime fan of the Barbarian? Did you discover him via comics, film, prose or elsewhere?
Gerry Duggan: I absolutely discovered him first in comic books. When I was in seventh grade, I helped at—I use the term “comic shop” in quotes, because he was like a garage sale that had a store front—but there was this store in my town that had comic books, and he would buy them either in bulk or at garage sales and not really sort them. I would go in, and I was paid in comics, to just sort what he had. I fell in love with Savage Sword. The first thing that you notice about it is that it’s so big that it’s not comic-book-size. And so they didn’t fit in the regular comic boxes and they were set aside, and then that was the first thing I read. So I was reading a lot of Roy Thomas and [John] Buscema and Barry Windsor-Smith, and how could you not fall in love with the Barbarian? And then it’s a different sort of role on the character, but the [Arnold] Schwarzenegger and [John] Milius stuff in the films are wonderful, so now to be able to be part of a team that is returning Savage Sword to Marvel is just a dream come true.
Paste: I do really want to talk about that team aspect. Marvel wasted no time once it got the license back, and you’re launching right on the heels of Conan the Barbarian and just ahead of Age of Conan: Bêlit. Where do you see Savage Sword fitting in the Conan line, and how does the book distinguish itself from Jason Aaron and Mahmud Asrar title?
Duggan: That’s a great question. I think what Jason and his collaborators are cooking up is a much bigger epic in the life of Conan. And I think what Savage can do is sort of provide a little more tightly focused stories. I think people should think of Savage a little bit more like Legends of the Dark Knight, because you can really jump around in time and pick a spot in Conan’s life and reveal a story about that time. And the Conan folks have just been wonderful. The only real rule that anyone has is to just never contradict any of the Robert E. Howard work. So really, it’s as blank a slate as possible for these stories.
Paste: That really speaks to my next question. The first issue of Savage Sword opens at sea, features a monstrous snake person and ends on a mystical teaser, with a potential new sidekick thrown in for good measure. What is the scope of Savage Sword—should we expect relatively self-contained arcs moving forward?
Duggan: I can tell you this—our story, the first Savage Sword story, I knew I was going to open with Ron [Garney] and Richard [Isanove], and Ron Garney is just incredible. He’s someone that I’ve always wanted to work with and I thought I’d never get the opportunity to, especially how good that recent run of Daredevil was. I thought, Oh, well he’ll be on that forever. Conan is a character that so many artists have been wanting to draw, and so I leapt at the chance—I didn’t really even have an inkling that it was going to come my way—so I said yes to this and said, boy, I’d better go cook up something to serve up to Ron. Because that’s really all I try to do is sort of tell my story to Ron and let Ron tell the story to the readers.
This happened around the time that I had seen Mandy too, and I thought, oh cool, how can we visually really push some of the fantasy elements more into the horror aspects. And that really starts to come out in the second issue as we move into Stygia as Conan is chasing the treasure.
Paste: I was just about to ask you about Ron Garney—he’s been such an established name for a while but he’s really switched up his style on recent projects and it’s cool to see what it’s evolving to in this book.
Duggan: Yeah, I think my inspiration always was, and I think my first Conans too, were black and white. And so I think that is also how Ron is seeing it. And then Richard comes in and sort of blows everyone away with these wonderful, painterly colors. And actually, Richard is a really interesting guy if you can ever get a chance to talk to him. He actually did his dissertation on Conan, and so I think he’s another person who is in the Conan business right now who sort of can’t believe that they are so lucky to be doing that.
So the art looks incredible in black and white, and then through Richard’s eye, it has this other life. I am trying to, like you said, we start in that first issue with the finale of a sea battle, and then things get sort of weird. I really do think that, especially in a title like Conan, there is room to be scary and weird and exciting, and maybe things are not as weird as they could be in our culture, so we’re trying to hit you with the unexpected.
Savage Sword of Conan #1 Interior Art by Ron Garney & Richard Isanove
Paste: You called Conan something of an unstoppable force, and you have ample experience finding the softer sides of gnarly characters like Deadpool, Rocket Raccoon, Drax and others. Is there a more likeable side to Conan? Is it challenging to work with a protagonist who isn’t necessarily known for admitting fault or experiencing nuanced character growth?
Duggan: I think there is. I’m fond of saying, and I think it’s true, that my job is as a writer to really torture these characters. [Laughs] I hate that, it makes me sound like a devil, but it really is. In the case of Deadpool, we really tried to pull the wings off of him, and it was out of love, which makes me really sound sadistic now, but if we can make those characters feel something, that’s really the gold standard for the audience to go, “Hey, I felt something reading this comic book.” Inside of the story that we have in Savage Sword, I think there are a couple of real gut-punches for Conan. Those are meant to be gifts, whether or not they resonate with the audience is not really up to me, but I think it’s a great question.
There are always “stakes” characters around Conan who often will pay the price for the victory or the loss and that’s no different here. I thought it was going to be an interesting way to do that by introducing Conan to the audience in this story where he is really at death’s door, to the point where he’s hallucinating and he’s helped by a new friend named Suty. That’s a dangerous place to be, is next to Conan, and we’ll see how that works out for Suty.
Paste: Do you have any parting teases for Barbarian fans that you want to leave us with?
Duggan: Yeah I do. I think this is really a love letter to Conan that is not very romantic, but I will say thank you to everyone at Marvel from CB [Cebulski] and Mark Basso to the Conan folks, and even to Ralph Macchio, who I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to collaborate with. He’s a consulting editor on this from his many years back in Hyboria with Marvel on Conan’s first journey through. But truthfully this book belongs to Ron [Garney] and Richard [Isanove] and so I’m very grateful to them for carrying me on their coattails through this just ridiculously fun adventure that has velocity. And that’s really what every Conan story should feel: like we’re plowing through the world’s most dangerous places with the world’s most evil characters, and I’m really, really proud of this work. And if you’re on the fence about Conan, I think this book will knock the fence down out from underneath you and make you a fan because of their work.
Savage Sword of Conan #1 Interior Art by Ron Garney & Richard Isanove