Becky Cloonan is one of the comic industry’s most genuine talents. Having worked on titles such as Batman, The Punisher, Southern Cross, and The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, she has massed an impressive and critically acclaimed body of work. Her latest project sees her tackling Robert E. Howard’s Dark Agnes in the pages of her own miniseries from Marvel.
Dark Agnes is a fascinating character. The real life (so to speak) backstory of this character also just sparks the imagination. A strong feminist heroine created back in the 1930’s by Robert E. Howard, best known for his uber-masculine icon Conan the Barbarian. Howard only wrote two complete stories of Dark Agnes before his death in 1936. The stories never get published until nearly 40 years after his death, and then nothing else is written for another 35 years after with her entrance into the Marvel universe. If you can root for a fictional character I’m rooting for Dark Agnes. With that in mind, Becky Cloonan took the time to answer some questions about this fascinating character.
Mike Nickells for Comics Bulletin (CB): What drew you to work on this project of writing Dark Agnes?
Becky Cloonan: I’m not ashamed to say I’d never heard of Dark Agnes before Mark Basso, my editor at Marvel sent me an email asking if I’d like to write this miniseries. His description of a gender-defying swashbuckling stone cold Renaissance bad ass got me curious, then reading Robert E. Howard’s short stories got me hooked! It seemed like such a shame that Agnes was left for so long on the doorstep of her adventures, so I was more than happy to help craft a new story worthy of her!
CB: For a character originally written in the thirties, Dark Agnes is breaking a lot of feminine stereotypes in this series. Is this from you modernizing the character for today’s reader or did Robert E. Howard originally write her this way?
Cloonan: For a pulp character, Dark Agnes is surprisingly modern! I tried to be as true to what I think Howard’s vision was for her, while still being true to my own sensibilities and keeping the story fresh. In the original stories there wasn’t many female characters (there wasn’t many characters in general, because there were so few stories!) so I made sure to give Agnes a strong supporting cast of women, both historical and fictional. Girl gangs are so much fun.
In the original stories the historical figure Françoise de Foix made a bold appearance- witty, beautiful, and mistress to King Francis I. She became a supporting character in our story as well, helping to guide Agnes through the perils of courtly life. Agnes can slice a man a hundred different ways, but she doesn’t even have the right cutlery for a royal banquet!
CB: How has the response been like for the first issue of Dark Agnes?
Cloonan: I’m happy to report that the feedback has been great! In issue one we did a lot of heavy lifting to establish the characters, their relationships and backstories, the setting and the time period… With all that set up, from here on out it’s smooth sailing! Smooth, sailing through the blood sea of Agnes’s enemies, I mean.
Big props to Luca Pizzari and Jay David Ramos who have been just killing the art and coloring issue after issue. And these are some dense comics- they are really going above and beyond to really bring this book to life. I’ve asked a lot from them, and they hit the mark every time!
CB: With Robert E. Howard only writing two completed stories with this character, things are pretty open. What do you see happening with Dark Agnes in the future? (without spoiling anything of course)
Cloonan: Excuse me while I put on my detective hat for a minute… When you look at the historical characters Howard chooses to include in the original stories, the political events and battles that were happening at the time, and then cross reference this with what the historical characters were actually up to in the 1520s, there is enough foreshadowing and clues to piece together where Howard was probably going.
I have a pretty good idea of what kind of dramatic ending I’d give Agnes, but there is so much room for adventure and drama that she could easily have her own ongoing series. The time period is so captivating- we were on the very cusp of the Renaissance! Think of the people, the science, the arts, the costumes! There is a whole world for her to explore, and I’m sure she’d take it by storm.
CB: You have worked on Conan the Barbarian and were even the first female artist to work on the main Batman title for DC. How do you approach working on a female hero differently from a male character or is there a difference?
Cloonan: When I start writing a story, I first try and get inside the characters heads- what motivates them to get up in the morning, what are their goals, their loves, their flaws and their regrets, that sort of thing. I like to really get to know them before I dig in to the scripts— even in the process of writing each issue I’ll keep learning new things about the characters!
Gender will certainly influence a character- who they are, how they behave, and the way they are treated by the other characters and society, but I don’t approach working on my characters any differently based on that.
CB: Do you or Marvel have plans for this character past this five issue mini-series?
Cloonan: Sadly, no! I’d love to see her have a longer series, even if I’m not writing it. I’ve just grown to love Agnes so much, she really deserves more adventures!
CB: Taking things back in time a little, how did you first get interested in comics?
Cloonan: I’ve been reading comics for pretty much my whole life. My dad used to read me Silver Surfer and Fantastic Four comics as bedtime stories, and when I was old enough to buy my own comics I started reading X-Men. I got into Manga shortly after that, a rabbit hole I never fully crawled out from!
CB: What are your creative influences both as a writer and an artist?
Cloonan: When you strip away all the obvious comic book and animation influences, I think silent film, especially the expressionist movement, played a big part in informing my storytelling sensibilities and how I compose and frame my illustrations. I wear my influences on my sleeve- the drawings of artists like Howard Pyle, Waterhouse, J.C. Coll and Carl Otto Czeschka have always captured my imagination.
Film and music has always been a big influence on my writing. I spent some time storyboarding, and I love deconstructing the shots in films I love. And music has a way or letting a feeling wash over you- I like to try and capture that feeling through my comics, and thinking of my stories as songs helps with that!
CB: What was it like to be the first female artist to work on the main Batman title for DC?
Cloonan: I didn’t know it at the time when I drew it- it’s still hard to believe that it took so long. I mean, it’s cool, don’t get me wrong- but I just wish they had hired a woman to work on the book way before me.
CB: What other projects are you currently working on or going to have out soon?
Cloonan: I’m illustrating a handful of covers, I have a few posters and art prints coming out soon, and I’m also working on writing and drawing a graphic novel! That might take a minute to finish though, so in the meantime read Dark Agnes!!