Scott Allie, long time editor at Dark Horse for such titles as Hellboy, Buffy and Conan, has set his sights on another of Robert E. Horward’s characters, Solomon Kane, this time as writer. Scott sat down with Comics Bulletin to talk about Howard’s first character, the challenges of bringing him to the page and his relationship to Howard’s other creations.
Editor’s Note: Solomon Kane will be out in stores on September, 24th, 2008.
Matthew McLean: Compared to the titan that is Conan, Solomon Kane is a relatively unknown character of Robert E. Howard’s.
Scott Allie: Yeah, there’s the smaller number of stories, but it’s also just that Kane’s such a weird character, it makes sense to me that he never achieved what Conan did. You know, Conan is just such a crowd pleaser, he’s the kind of character you want to identify with, that you want to think you have things in common with. He’s that adolescent male fantasy fulfillment thing.
MM: Well, for readers not in the know why don’t you give them a rundown of the Puritan?
SA: Well, Kane’s a puritan, so that right there takes away some of the fun you have with Conan. There’s never an instance in the couple of dozen Solomon Kane stories of him exploiting the spoils of all his good works. Women don’t throw themselves at him because he is so dour and weird, and he wouldn’t let them if they tried. There’s nothing romanticized about him except for the romanticization of the loner figure, the guy that’s out there completely on his own in a desolate world, taking on evil. But there’s no fun in any of that for him, there’s no joy in it; Conan is possessed of great mirth and great drama, but Kane is just this ruthless instrument of God. He doesn’t take pleasure and he’d probably deny taking pride in what he does, although he does take pride in it.
The interesting thing about the character for me is that Howard made him a puritan, Howard treats him as this weapon of God, but Kane talks about God just a tiny little bit. He never talks about Jesus. He’s not a New Testament puritan, and I’m pretty sure that’s the only type of puritan there is. The way I read that is that Howard didn’t have the religious convictions himself, he just thought it would make good material for a character and good material for a story. He wasn’t able to write those convictions into the character because that’s not where he was coming from—or maybe he just didn’t care to write that into the character. He just liked the idea of the wrath and the vengeance of God, but he wasn’t really seeing any spiritual aspect to any of it. I don’t think he thought through too much what the Puritanism should mean for the character, it was just some nice window dressing.
Kane is a character whose history is really hard to piece together based on what Howard gave us. It’s much harder to determine the chronology of the Kane stories than the Conan stories—there’s not the same kind of landmarks to pin it on, so you don’t know which stories came first exactly. Although I’ve got it worked out the way that I believe it goes; he had a big career as a military man, but it’s hard to say if his adventures took place during his military career or after it. I’ve got it placed after, but he definitely had a long, adventurous career in the military, and he teamed up with some famous figures from English history.
SA: Not a lot, because what I find interesting about Kane is the supernatural adventures, and the way I read it, he started coming face-to-face with the supernatural after his military career. The way I interpret his history is that he started in the military, moved from one operation to another for a while, achieved the rank of captain, but didn’t like taking orders from other people. I think he didn’t like giving orders to other people either. He didn’t like taking orders because he didn’t think that there was anybody solid enough to give him orders; there were a few people, but even they would end up disappointing him. As a military leader, he was disappointed in the caliber of the men who worked under him, and didn’t feel that they were really worthy of following his orders. I think that’s why he felt better operating alone.
MM: So we’ve got a very judgmental, individualistic person here.
SA: Oh yeah, yeah. Nobody’s worthy, everybody’s a sinner.
SA:: He does find people that he’ll walk around with for a while and have adventures with, but he’s judging them the whole time, so he’s not really on board with them. I think he has a certain naivety to him where he doesn’t immediately recognize flaws in people, so he judges them more harshly when they don’t live up to what he imagines.
MM: You’ve used the word weird a couple of times. What about the character, other than bumping into supernatural stuff, is weird to you?
SA: Everything about him. I mean, he’s not a just loner, he’s really not able to relate to people in any kind of way. His conversations with people involve a high level of disconnect. The first story, “Castle of the Devil,” the one we’re kicking off with, is based on a fragment by Howard that’s only five pages long, and the entire thing is a conversation between Kane and a guy he runs into in the woods named John Silent. Kane makes these big, fancy statements about himself right out of the game; “I’m a wanderer on the Earth, with no home or land to call my own.” He throws this stuff out while the other guy is making normal conversation. He has a very dramatic vision of himself and of his mission.
What’s funny, what’s great about what Howard does there, is that the other guy doesn’t carry the same weight of melodrama with him. So Kane will say something like that, and just like you would do in real life if I were to talk to you like that, the other guy is grinning and rolling his eyes while looking in the other direction, because nobody really talks like that. But Kane does; Kane does view himself as this incredibly gallant knight out to separate evil men from their lives.
MM: [Laughter] That’s a pretty dramatic statement.
SA: Exactly! That’s a phrase from that conversation, but that’s the kind of statements he makes. If Howard were just writing a really thin melodrama everybody would talk like that. But only Kane talks like that because that’s who Kane is. That’s a weird quality, one of many.
MM: So how do you, as the writer, make a character like that relatable to the reader?
SA: I have a tremendous amount of interest in him. As weird as he is, he’s totally fascinating to me. If I can just approach him with that level of fascination, I think it’ll make him relatable and interesting to the reader. Key to a character like this, I think, is the supporting cast. That’s what I love so much about “Castle of the Devil.” In these few pages of prose we have from Howard, your understanding of Kane comes so much from John Silent’s understanding of Kane, and Silent is very relatable. His observations about Kane are
more of what you’re relating to than you are relating to Kane himself.
But there’s a human level to Kane, and in “Castle of the Devil” we’ll just scratch the surface. What I have in mind for the second series will get us closer to that human under there. That might be a strange way to approach a character, doing a first series where he’s mainly a mystery to us and very much at arms length emotionally, but I think that’s the kind of character he is. I wouldn’t want to write these stories if I didn’t feel like I was dealing with real human stuff. But I can also take advantage of the fact that the audience is looking for a cool character that looks kind of interesting and does some interesting things like fighting monsters. And if I can give them that genre story on a fun, accessible level, with the truth of the character simmering under the surface, I think that’s okay.
MM: Most folks associate Puritans with the British colonies that would become the States, but most of Solomon Kane’s adventures take place in Europe, don’t they?
SA: Well, he’s British. He is from that faith that came to the colonies, he just didn’t move to the colonies himself. He came over in a military adventure previous to our stories, though. His stories are taking place at the end of the 16th century, and I believe that’s before the Puritans were coming here in droves.
MM: Yeah, that’s before the Great Migration.
SA: So maybe if he were sixty years younger he would have come over. There are references from Howard that I want to play with a little bit about him coming to the New World and massacring Indians.
MM: [Laughter] Lovely.
SA: Yeah, well, it’s Howard. He was a Texas boy who was concerned with telling a good yarn and fighting the bad guys and to a Texan in the ’30s –
MM: Cowboys & Indians.
SA: Yeah, exactly. You’re going to be wiping out Indians. Howard was looking at a character that was coming to America before colonization really started, so it really was a bloodbath. They had to make room for all the goddamn Wal-marts. And how Howard viewed non-white races is a sticky wicket that I have to confront.
MM: I would imagine that whatever prejudices Howard had that a character like Kane, four centuries earlier, would only share them if not believe more heartily in them.
SA: Absolutely, absolutely. If you know Kane’s adventures, he has a few years in supernatural adventures in Europe before he heads down to Africa, where he spends most of the rest of his life fighting monsters.
MM: Africa? That should be interesting.
SA: The dichotomy of the images is real fascinating. It was tempting to start there, to show him as a European, to show him in those dark clothes, pallid face, walking around Africa, fighting monsters. But instead I decided I wanted to show him in Europe for a while, in his own element, so to speak. Then the reader has a really firm image of that in his head, of the European adventurer, and then transpose him to Africa, so that the contrast between his clothing, his bearing, and his surroundings will be all the more jarring.
The way that Howard would describe Africans in the narration, in the prose, was real bleak. You wince when you read that stuff. He doesn’t necessarily have them act in a way that’s real un-PC or whatever—although I guess maybe it’s not PC, but it doesn’t bother me that much. The behavior wasn’t so terrible, but he definitely looks at them in that kind of way—as, sort of, subhuman. God, it’s gonna be rough …
Part of the way that I view racism—and this doesn’t apply to all racists, but to people who are maybe more intelligent, or have the potential to look past their built-in racism. Howard was really intelligent, and I see Kane as an intelligent guy—what I’ve seen with racism with people that I know is that genuine ignorance, as in not having been around people of other races, can breed a level of racism. You view them as the Other, and you maybe form quick decisions about them based on stereotypes. But I’ve watched people who are prone to those perceptions, and once they’re placed in situations where they’re interacting with other races, those impressions can slip away. They can find themselves connecting with someone of another race. The weird thing, though, is that they won’t necessarily let go of their racism—they just don’t apply it to this guy; it’s just all the other ones that are like that.
The way I read Kane, and the way you have to read Kane if you read through all of his African adventures, is that he’s really put off by the alienness of what he encounters in Africa. But the minute he’s face-to-face with a big, strong African warrior, he just sees him as another warrior. He doesn’t judge that guy in any weird way; he doesn’t treat that guy like an animal. The African that functions well on the same level that Kane functions on can be his friend. Over time, Kane befriends more and more Africans, getting along better with them, but he’s still got some deep-rooted prejudices.
MM: He still views the rest of them as heathens.
SA: And it’s not that I think Howard was intentionally reflecting this observation I’m making about racism, and an ability to connect on an individual level. I think the fact that he wrote Kane like that just reflects the possibility of that in any character, or person.
Howard is an interesting case. His life experiences are real limited; he was in this depressed, rural area of Texas, so he grew up into a lot of attitudes of the time and the area, but he also has this undercurrent of a kind of rebellious nature to him. Anyway, it makes sense that he’d have his character going over to America as a soldier for the crown and massacring a bunch of Indians that he saw as savages that were barely above animals. That was the attitude he would have had, and plenty of people of his time had.
MM: It was probably the prevalent attitude of the time.
SA: Yeah, sure, certainly. You got to be historically accurate, you’ve got to be true to what’s going on. I don’t want to discolor history with my modern perceptions. But you can be historically accurate while being accurate to your own beliefs at the same time. When Howard describes an African warrior with words that would be more appropriate to describe a gorilla, that reflects his experience of the world or a lack of a kind of experience in the world. I’m doing a certain amount of narration in the book and it won’t be faithful to Howard in that way, because it doesn’t reflect my experience of the world.
SA: Yeah, sort of.
MM: Well, the “Two Gun Bob” stories in the back of Dark Horse’s Conan have given readers a singular view into Robert Howard – where he grew up, the poverty around him, his interest in athletics. It’s seems clear that he was of an independent spirit, disliked authority and tended to be fatalistic.
MM:: You’ve also mentioned that he wasn’t religious individual, so Kane’s beliefs were more of window dressing. Besides his attitudes towards race and religion, how do you feel REH’s beliefs formed the Solomon Kane character?
SA: Howard’s characters were formed at different times. It’s one of the reasons that Kane, Kull, and Conan are as different as they are. The main thing about a Howard character is this fierce independence and a belief in man existing at his best when he’s immersed in nature, away from civilization. That wasn’t just good fiction for Howard, I think that’s what he really believed. I think it’s what he wished he could do with himself, but he could never do it. That’s one of the key ingredients of all of his heroes. His own beliefs about individuality were dramatized in who his characters were.
He had this incredibly sense of nobility in his heroes, but the racism and the attitude toward women puts some people off. I think you have to take his context into account—where he lived, the unusual circumstances of his life, and his particular social life. It’s also interesting that of the main characters, Kane, Kull and Conan, Conan was the only one out of them that was getting laid.
SA: There was no way in Hell that Kane was getting near any women. Kull was getting nearer women, but he wasn’t having the luck of Conan. It’s interesting that that is a progression forward in time, that later in his career, Howard was getting more interested in women. Or his characters were getting better with them. But I don’t get the impression that Howard was getting more interested in women in his real life. I don’t remember at what age he created Kane, but from his early twenties to his thirties, his characters were becoming more interested and having more luck with women. That’s interesting, but you can’t really know what was going through Howard’s head. With Kane, however, there was never any straying from the path. He was going to be celibate forever.
MM: A true Puritan in that sense, I suppose. Kind of boring for him, but oh well.
SA: And there’s a quality about Kane that only pops up once or twice in the Howard stuff, but I just think it’s great, so I made something of it in the first series. He never touches these women, he never expresses any interest in these women, and he’s so distant they never express any interest in him for the most part.
There’s this one story where Kane is fighting these pirates to free a beautiful young girl, and the pirates say, “You just want her for the same thing we want her for.” And he goes nuts! Kane goes nuts! This is the most emotional reaction he ever has in a story, and it’s when someone suggests he’s in it for the chicks. I love that that is what gets under his skin, more than all the other stuff.
MM: The suggestion that perhaps he’s a hypocrite?
SA: Yeah, yeah. I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy in Kane. I don’t want to overstate that because it’s something that I have to explore, and don’t understand yet. It’s something I suspect about him. I think it’s a thin grasp on morality. It’s like, “I would never touch any of these women,” because if I ever touched one I’d probably totally lose control.”
Maybe that’s what it is, I don’t know. But to have that knee-jerk reaction to that suggestion, an accusation from a pirate, no less, from a totally immoral guy that he’s ready to kill. But that that guy would besmirch his character in that way cannot be tolerated, that’s interesting.
MM: Do your own beliefs, religious or otherwise, work into the writing of Solomon Kane?
SA: In a strange kind of way, yeah. I want do to a little more with the religious stuff than Howard did. Not a lot more, but I think that it’s such rich subtext that something more needs to be made of it. If God, as Howard says, is Kane’s main motivator, or if Kane thinks its his main motivator, then that needs to be explored a little bit.
MM: If God isn’t the main motivator for Kane, what is?
SA: Anger and a sort of passion that he only knows how to let out a certain kind of way. I’m actually just making this up as I go along, but I think it might work out.
Kane wouldn’t have come to the Puritan faith on his own. He got it from his family—so in the Puritan faith there’s the idea that God has a mission for each one of us, and we need to live our lives by doing God’s work, doing the work he intended for us to do. And Kane wasn’t going to be a farmer, he wasn’t going to be a father, he wasn’t going to stay in the city. So he went and had a military career, but that didn’t work out, so that must not have been what God had in mind for him. But was it that God didn’t have it in mind for him, or just that he couldn’t follow orders? Was he just too proud to be a soldier?
But Kane believed it was simply that God had something else in mind for him. He decided to go walk the Earth, wander around and look for what God intended for him. So does that mean he was walking around because he was running from other things, or was he out there because God wanted him walking around? Then in his ramblings he came to the Black Forest and started to encounter these monsters. “Ah! So this is what God had in mind for me.” Yeah, or maybe this is the closet you can come to relating to your surroundings.
MM: Is his failure to connect to God or to his religion the source of his anger?
SA: No, no, no, no. I think the source of his anger is just how he’s wired.
MM: He’s just an angry dude.
SA: I think he’s an angry guy and I don’t think it’s his failure to connect to God. I think on some level it’s his failure to connect to other people that has something to do with it. There’s something that I’m gonna do down the road that’ll probably offend the purists.
MM: [Laughter] Isn’t that inevitable?
SA: Yeah, there’s no way around it, so why not go head first? But there’s something I need to do in order to explore his lack of connection, to really test what it means, why he’s so solitary. It’ll probably offend some purists, but it’s necessary to put the character through the fire, not only in fighting monsters, but to test what the hell he’s really made of. I think he’s made of some screwed up stuff, but I think down deep he’s human. Now, there will never be an issue of Solomon Kane with him sitting down and talking about feelings. That’s kind of the point—he would never talk about his feelings. So instead we get to see him reacting to stuff, yelling at pirates and fighting monsters. But even in those conflicts he’ll remain distant and detached, this solid, dour visage of the warrior.
MM: Well, that’s certainly going to be…I’m not sure fun is the right word, but it does sound interesting.
SA: No, it’s gonna be a ton of fun. One of the guys I work with that I benefit the most from my association is Joss on the Buffy stuff. One of the things that Joss said when he was trying to sum up what he was trying to do was, “I like to cause my kids pain.” That’s clearly how he ran the show and that’s how he runs the comic—he causes these kids pain. If that’s not happening, then there’s nothing there, no drama. I’ve always known I liked to see the hero gettin’ beaten bloody, but it’s also
good to beat up what makes them who they are, beat the crap out of their beliefs, beat the crap out of their self-confidence. I want to see all that happen to this guy. From doing that I’ll have a better idea who he is, and the reader will be able to relate to him, even if Kane can’t relate to himself.
MM: So you’ve been in this swirl of Howard’s work, as editor, and now writer of adaptations of his work. What’s that been like?
SA: It’s been great. One of the things that struck me about it early on was that what we do in these comics is an important, faithful re-imagining of the whole canon, the body of Howard’s work. I believe that this work—the comics—will stand the test of time and be remembered; we’re contributing to a legacy that’s incredibly important—Howard’s work. If the comics do hold up, and people are reading these Conan stories and Solomon Kane stories years from now, we’ll have fed into a really sacred vein of pulp fiction and hero fiction. Howard’s work is really important to the people who read it and connect with it and just enjoy it. It’s a cherished and important duty, to pitch in this way. The material has been around a long time, and it comes and it goes in waves of relevance. It’s nice to be part of that ebb and flow.
MM: Thanks for taking the time to talk about Solomon Kane.
If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out more of the author’s work at madbastard.hypersites.com