Christy Marx Interview
Actualizado: 30 may 2022
Christy Marx is one of the most important TV writers of the 80s. She, for the record, developed the beloved "Jem and the holograms". Also, in her resume you can find hundreds of comic books and lots of very well known Sierra games. But today, we're not here to talk about that. By Mitra and Ishtar! We are going to talk about CONAN THE ADVENTURER!
Yes, the hit 90s cartoon that Christy developed, based on a Hasbro toyline and mostly inspired by the original Robert E. Howard short stories.
First of all, thank you so much not just for this interview, but for the show itself! "Conan the adventurer" came out when I was 5 years old and I loved everything about it. Going back to it after reading all of Howard's fiction, it surprises me how close it is to the actual source material.
That’s because I went back to the source material and stuck to REH’s stories only for reference and inspiration.
What were the biggest challenges you faced as the sole story editor of the show?
We had previously done 13 episodes through Sunbow at a more normal pace, but the remaining 52 episodes were handled through a different production entity, Jetlag. They required that I turn in three scripts per week. But before I could have a script, I had to have a story premise and then an outline from each writer. The premise and outline had to be approved before the writer could go to script.
That meant that every single week I had to receive, read and approve three premises, plus read and edit three outlines, plus read and edit three scripts to make that happen. Every single week. That’s an insane amount of work and it was a grueling schedule. I managed to maintain it until the last few weeks when I only managed to keep two scripts a week in the pipeline.
How important was it to stay true to the character of Conan, even when the adventures were all-new?
For me, it was extremely important, even though I was faced with the reality that this wasn’t Howard’s Conan. This wasn’t a loner Conan. This was a Conan with friends and companions. Lots of friends.
During the 80s you wrote a lot of GI Joe episodes, another family friendly action/adventure show. What did you learn from your experience working at Sunbow?
Sunbow was a dream to work for. They treated writers well and showed that they valued us. GI JOE and the other action/adventure shows I worked on back then had the same basic guidelines – no realistic violence, no real-world weapons, no direct physical action against another living person or creature, and no matter how big the explosion or crash, nobody died, not even the bad guys.
As I said, only the first 13 episodes of Conan were done by Sunbow, and the rest done by Jetlag Productions, which was the American production branch for a French producer named Jean Chalopin. I want to set the record straight about one thing: even though Chalopin put his name on every script as “written by”, he never wrote a single word of any script. The American writers, who received an “adapted by” credit came up with the story premises and did the actual writing. This happened because Chalopin was getting production kick-backs from the French government that required a certain amount of the work to be done by French talent. He got that kick-back by putting his name on the scripts. I had to work with a small, but dependable team of writers who were willing to work under that restriction in exchange for getting multiple scripts to write. But I want it known that THEY did the writing, not Chalopin.
"Conan the adventurer" was based on a Hasbro toy line. What were the limitations of that approach? Were there any characters you didn't like but you were forced to put in? There was anything that you wanted to include but you couldn't?
Developing Conan based on the action figure line was a standard assignment for me. I was accustomed to developing shows based on toy lines. They already had the figures designed, so I knew what I had to work with. What was unusual is that they didn’t have final product names for a couple of them, so I ended up coming up with the names they used, such as Snagg. I liked all the characters. It was no hardship finding ways to use them.
I came up with the little naga sidekick, Dreggs, and Needle the Phoenix. Those were both a lot of fun to throw into the mix to add humor.
Also, why didn't you use the name Thoth-Amon? I always found it quite strange that the character was split into "Wrath Amon" and "Ram Amon".
I forget why. There may have been legal complications around using the name Thoth-Amon for a toy. Hasbro may well have wanted something they could own for copyright and trademark purposes without having to worry about other uses.
You worked with Roy Thomas back in the 70s, when you sold your story "Child of sorcery". Of course, Zula is a character from the "Conan the barbarian" series. Did you include any other references to the Marvel comic books in the show?
Zula came from Hasbro as one of their toys, not from me.
Roy gave me my break writing for comics, starting with Conan and then Red Sonja. It gave me great pleasure to have that come full circle when I was able to hire him to write for Conan the Adventurer.
Talking about comic books, have you read any of the Dark Horse Conan?
No, I haven’t.
The Robert E. Howard tales are autoconclusive and independent from each other. Also, serialization wasn't common in the early 90s, not in live-action shows, let alone cartoons. Why did you decide to tackle the "epic quest" narrative?
We weren’t allowed to serialize those runs of 65 half-hours because broadcasters didn’t like having to worry about running them in any specific order. But I wanted a larger, over-arching storyline because that’s stronger storytelling. I did it by having key story moments dropped into individual episodes, a method of storytelling that I also used in writing for mobile games. I call it breadcrumbing. You drop a trail of breadcrumbs here and there to reach the end you want. I pushed to have the three-part story for the end of the series and I don’t recall there being resistance to doing that.
I always saw the "family turned into stone" thing as a reference to the John Millius movie... a less violent way to wipe out Conan's village, so to say. Considering the show was mostly faithful to Howard, was that your idea or someone else's?
That was my idea, but I didn’t take it from Milius. It was a good way to create peril for Conan’s family that wasn’t violent (a requirement for animation), plus it provided a long-term goal (to restore them).
The show is surprisingly "punchy" for being an early 90s cartoon. Of course, Conan "banishes" the serpent men, so there is not much blood in that regard, but I noticed that there are a lot of physical fights (against the cannibals of Darfar, for example) and skeleton warriors being smashed into the ground. Did you have any problems with the censorship of the time?
When Hasbro and Sunbow first approached me to develop Conan for animation, I said, “You DO know that Conan is a barbarian with a sword and kills people, right?” Because of the strict, unwritten rules of animation made it impossible to have Conan use a sword on a normal person, finding a way around that was my greatest challenge. It’s not much fun having a hero with a big sword that he could barely ever use.
While reading one of REH’s stories, he made reference to a meteorite or star-metal. I grabbed that idea and expanded on it, turning it into something that would allow our heroes to use their star-metal weapons without bloodshed or death. That was my workaround for that problem.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the key unwritten rules of animation is no direct physical violence against a human or living creature. But we can smash as many skeletons as we want. That’s why things like skeletons or robots or elementals or anything not strictly living are so often used for action in these shows.
Because we were a syndicated show, we didn’t have to deal with a Standards & Practices department (also known as censors). I only had to deal with notes from the producers. The funniest note I ever got was for an episode where Conan was trapped in Stygia and was fighting his way through some buildings to escape and bursting through a storefront. The note said to make sure it was “an evil storefront”. LOL!
Do you think a King Conan cartoon could have worked? What would have been your approach?
I’m sure there would have been a way to do a King Conan, but I never gave it any thought.
You're part of the generation that made Dungeons & Dragons such a phenomenal success. I have to ask, have you ever played role playing games?
I played World of Warcraft for 13 years, but finally got burned out on it last year and quit. I haven’t had time for RPGs since then.
Your game “Conquest of Camelot” went pretty deep into Arthurian lore. Apart from modern fantasy stuff, do you like old myths and legends?
Absolutely, I love all sorts of ancient myths and legends. I’ve been fascinated by archaeology my entire life and regularly read up on the subject. The more ancient it is, the more interesting I find it. I’m deeply interested in the stories about Gilgamesh, and how the flood story in those very ancient tales ended up as the Noah’s ark story centuries later.
I particularly love reading ancient “letters” that have messages that are similar to what we’d write today, such as a student writing home for money or an Egyptian beer vendor writing to complain about not getting paid. It creates a connection between those ancient people and us.
And what about other pulp fiction, apart from Howard? Have you read any Lovecraft tales?
I have no interest in Lovecraft. Not my taste.
I'm sorry if I sound way too nerdy, but there's something I have to know. The protagonist of "Sisterhood of Steel" is named Boronwë. Is that a reference to Tolkien's Voronwë or is it just a coincidence?
Just a coincidence. Don’t be fooled by the use of umlauts. Though I may very well have gotten my tendency to use umlauts from Tolkien. I’m a huge Tolkien fan.
A couple of years after the cartoon ended, there was another "Conan the adventurer" on TV, starring Ralf Moeller. However, the thing was an absolute disaster and it's frankly embarrassing to watch. Have you ever seen it?
I’m not familiar with that one.
Now, Netflix is working on a new big budget live-action Conan show. If they ask you to be part of it, what would you do? What advice would you give to new writers tackling the barbarian?
I would LOVE to write for that, but I can pretty much guarantee I wouldn’t be given a chance. Without knowing anything about the show or its approach, there isn’t anything I could say about writing for it. I would hope that the people developing the show go back to the source material as I did, and stay as true to that as they can.
Again, thank you so much for your time. I know you're very busy right now. I can only wish you the best for your future projects.
Let us eat and make merry! For Crom alone knows what adventures tomorrow may bring!