Zubby Newsletter #40: A Question of Pacing

A peek behind the scenes, with slight spoilers for the new Conan the Barbarian series-

In the epilogue at the end of Conan the Barbarian #4, we see a traveler from Asgard pick up a fragment of Black Stone, the strange eldritch material at the heart of several mysteries in Robert E. Howard’s pulp stories, most notably the titular horror story The Black Stone from 1931. This discovery is a classic set-up for a future tale, making our reader wonder when they might see it again, presumably at some future date…

…And then, just one month later at the end of Conan the Barbarian #5, we reveal that our second story arc ties back in with Black Stone.

Weird, right?

I saw a couple reviews where people felt we jumped the gun a bit by having two Black Stone-centered stories one after another and, under different circumstances, they’d be right. In a classic monthly comic run from the 1970’s or ’80’s this kind of set-up and payoff would have been many months apart, with unrelated 1 and 2-part stories between to clear the decks and focus readers elsewhere before we brought it back as a surprise. In an ideal scenario, that’s exactly what I would’ve done as well.

But~ you also have to understand the broader context involved.

Here and now, looking in the rearview mirror with six months of shockingly strong sales for the relaunch behind us, it seems obvious that the pacing could be/should be less frenetic and that we have lots of time to set up and pay off big ideas over a longer span, but when we planned this out more than 18 months ago there was absolutely no way we could have known how successful it would be.

Titan Comics is obviously a smaller comic publisher than Marvel or Dark Horse (the previous licensors for Conan comics). Direct market comic shop sales in North America have been shaky as of late and, while comic sales for Conan in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s were spectacular, that hasn’t always been the case in the modern era. Couple that with me at the center of this relaunch, the writer who quietly wrapped up the run at Marvel during the pandemic, and things looked even less certain.

We had to come out of the gate roaring like Hell and not hold anything back, otherwise readers wouldn’t see anything special they had to read and collect every month and we’d quickly sink. If Black Stone sets up big mythic storytelling and can make readers and retailers take notice, then, by Crom, it has to be Black Stone all the way! Back-to-back stories with a plot point that acts as a clear throughline for year one (issues #1-12) to build an epic saga of cannot miss comics!

That’s the plan, at least. So far, so good.

It reminds me of interviews I read with Robert Kirkman around Invincible where he originally planned to have the big twist for the series (a key character betraying our hero and turning the entire narrative on its head) arrive in issue #25. Like me, he grew up reading superhero comics in an era where that absolutely would have worked, a wonderful slow burn build up and pay off over two years, but the Publisher at Image at the time (I think it was Jim Valentino) warned him that he didn’t have that luxury. Modern readers decide almost immediately if a series is worth their time and money and drop it in a heartbeat if they believe it’s not, so slam that accelerator pedal down at the start and cover as much ground as you can because you will not get a second chance to earn their loyalty.

(Although weirdly, in this case I kind of did, because this Conan relaunch has had way stronger sales and staying power than my initial run, which is highly unusual.)

Invincible delivered its big twist in issue #7, and I genuinely think if the series launched in 2023 Robert would’ve done it by issue 4 or 5 to get the same jolt.

Anyways, if we’d known right off the bat that the Conan relaunch would be the smash hit that it’s been, I’m sure we would have made different narrative choices, but then maybe those choices wouldn’t have led to the same surge of interest. It’s chicken and egg, in full effect.

Now that we have some momentum it’s a bit easier to set up future plotlines without the same level of fear around a quick cancellation. I’ve always been committed to at least 2 years/24 issues on the new series (and am now looking at possibilities beyond that), but I’m sure that if we would’ve flopped right at the start the plan would look very different right now.

Speaking of which, I’m in the thick of year two writing on the series and am happy to report that readers will get more variety as we keep rolling- Arc 4 will be 4 issues, but after that we switch things up with some 2-parters and even some done-in-one adventures. Different times in Conan’s life, different locations and circumstances…All kinds of creative levers we can pull to keep the excitement going.

Gut-Wrenching Beauty, Coming Your Way

Speaking of excitement, I received my CONAN THE BARBARIAN #6 comp copies late last week.

Doug BraithwaiteDiego Rodriguez, and Richard Starkings are crafting something special. The words are pretty good too 😉

Issue #6 arrives in stores December 27th. Preview pages are right HERE.

In Conan #6-8 we certainly earn our ‘Mature Readers’ rating. It is violent, sexy, tragic, and gut-wrenching in ways readers have never seen in a Conan comic story before.

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