Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to another week of The No-Fly Zone. We've often talked about licensed comics and how they can attract new readers to the medium. But, they also come with a few drawbacks. Writing Star Trek comics means staying within boundaries established by the properties that own the whole franchise. Still, it can be a real joy for some writers to play in their favorite worlds. I recently chatted with Keith DeCandido about his experience writing for a few different licensed comics. Keith has written both Starcraft and Star Trek comics, along with the ongoing Farscape series over at Boom.
Kurt Amacker: All right, so you've worked on three different licensed comics thus far--Farscape, Starcraft, and some Star Trek stuff.
Keith DeCandido: I've also written novels in all three universes.
KA: Obviously, the experience is different from just writing your own stories. Do you find that restrictive, or do you enjoy getting to play with, at least in Star Trek, a few cultural icons?
KD: 95% of my writing career has been media tie-ins, so it's really not a problem. Good stories are good stories. And, I don't view it all as restrictive. I view it as a challenge.
KA: True enough, but it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's a great way to introduce new readers, and I'm all for that. On the other, you can't just, say, kill Worf, even if it would make the story better. I'm kind of torn about it myself, seeing as how the comic industry by and large relies on older properties for its bread and butter. You don't have complete creative freedom the way you would if you were writing something wholly original. I'm not saying you can't write great stories, because obviously you can. But there's still a level of restriction there. But, I think it's a valuable tool to draw in new comic readers. Buffy and The Dark Tower both showed that.
KD: There's a level of restriction, true, but it's not always there. For example, in the Buffy comics and the Angel comics from IDW and the Farscape comics I'm writing, they're continuing the story after the finale, which means the shackles are off. And when you get right down to it, most comic books are under similar restrictions.
KA: Still, someone owns else owns Buffy. It's not always Joss Whedon writing it.
KD: Yes, and someone else owns Spider-Man, someone else owns Superman, someone else owns Batman, someone else owns the X-Men. Stan Lee isn't writing the X-Men, and Siegel and Shuster aren't writing Superman.
KA: I realize that, but that's sort of the problem. The industry is more or less built on characters created years and years ago.
KD: And, people have continued to tell good stories. If a character is strong enough it lasts, whether that character is Spider-Man, Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, Beowulf, or Robin Hood--or, Mr. Spock.
KA: Well, the good stories part is debatable. There are some great characters and stories out there, but most of what comes out in mainstream comics is middle of the road. Actually, you'd have more freedom with King Arthur, Beowulf, or Robin Hood because they are public domain. You can send them to space, write horrible slash fiction, or do whatever you want.
KD: Most of what comes out of everywhere is middle of the road. So?
KA: Your given mainstream comic is usually not terrible or anything, but it's mostly same-old. I think the industry thrives on that, though. Most readers want comics that remind them of childhood. That's not in and of itself a bad thing, but it doesn't push the boundaries of the medium.
KD: That same thing applies to most of the books in your local Barnes & Noble, most of the movies available on Netflix, and most of the shows on TV. Not everything has to push the boundaries of the medium.
KA: I think any work of art should work to be the best, most original work possible. It could be your last--or the last one someone else experiences. That said, people have to pay the light bill. I don't begrudge anyone for working with other people's characters. I probably would if it meant a paycheck.
KD: Well, you must hate Shakespeare, then. Most of his plays were completely unoriginal. For that matter, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was a media tie-in work-for-hire.
KA: No, I don't hate Shakespeare. I realize that most of his work was based on older stories. That's not what I'm saying. I wouldn't stack the original stories against his any day. Good one on the Sistine Chapel, by the way. But, Shakespeare didn't have their original writers cutting him a check to stay within boundaries dictated by shareholders. He took old stories and did what he wanted with them. That goes back to my earlier remark about Robin Hood in Space (totally my idea don't steal it).
KA: Still, licensed books can attract new readers who might just want more Buffy or Star Trek. Do you think there's any validity to that idea?
KD: Absolutely. In the case of Star Trek, it has a huge following already, and the market for ancillary stories is well established. In the case particularly of comics like Buffy, Angel, Farscape and the new or planned post-finale comics for Jericho and Pushing Daisies, it's a way to give the hardcore fanbase more stories. If a property's audience has dropped to the point where it can't support a TV show (which requires an audience of millions and millions to be successful), but it has a devoted following that can support a comic book (which only sells in the thousands), then everyone's happy.
KA: In your experience writing for other properties, is there a typical process by which you get to actually write the story? Does someone say "We need a Star Trek story" or are you given a skeleton of a story and asked to flesh it out?
KD: There's no single answer to that question. Sometimes you pitch to them. Sometimes they come to you. Sometimes it's something developed in collaboration. Sometimes they say they want a story based on a single sentence and you have to turn that sentence into a real plot.
KA: Have you ever had an editor or publisher take issue with something because of the nature of the property? As in, you couldn't make Data run pantsless through the Enterprise or something?
KD: That never happens. For starters, you have to write the entire plot outline first. Then, it has to be approved by both the editor and a representative of the company that owns the property. So, anything like that gets nipped in the bud early on.
KA: Have you encountered any other problems in the process?
KD: Often the deadlines are insane, and sometimes the desires of the licensors are a challenge to fulfill. Ultimately, this is work-for-hire, and that means that the person who owns the property has the final say. Sometimes their notes are bizarre. I must emphasize here that most of my relationships with licensors has been excellent. But, every once in a while you get weirdness. As one friend put it, nobody went to Hollywood with dreams of working in the licensing office. I edited a line of novels based on Marvel comics. We were told that we couldn't even make reference to Nazis, in any way, shape, or form. I really couldn't tell you why. It made it really hard to do a Captain America novel, since the Red Skull was basically off limits.
KA: When you write with other people's characters, do you feel like fan expectations come into play, or do you just write what you think is best and let it out into the wild?
KD: My main concern is to make sure that the character voices are right. I examine every sentence of dialogue to make sure that it's right coming out of the mouth of that person. For example, I wrote a Star Trek novella that involved both Picard and Sisko. They're traveling on a runabout together, and I had a line of dialogue that belonged to Picard initially. I realized as I was writing the scene that that line needed to go to Sisko instead. I wound up changing every word of that sentence--though I didn't change the meaning of it at all--because Patrick Stewart's speaking style is so very different from Avery Brooks's.
KA: You'd really have to play down the rampant profanity and race-baiting that are so integral to Picard's speech, right?
KD: "Make it so, motherfucker!"
KA: Let's talk about your upcoming projects. Farscape is up and going at Boom right?
KD: Yup. We're into our second year of that. The fan response has been spectacular. The show's been off the air for quite a while, but it still has a dedicated following.
KA: Were you a fan yourself?
KD: A huge one, yes. I wrote a tie-in novel in 2001, as well as short stories that appeared in the official magazine and the role-playing game.
KA: Farscape is the show with all the puppets in it, right? I live in a tightly controlled world of underground comics, haunted castles, and forgotten British rock bands.
KD: Several of the aliens are products of the Henson Creature Shop, yes.
KA: Any of your own material we can look for soon? You've got some proposals out there, no doubt.
KD: The only thing I can talk about is a short story in the same universe as my 2004 novel Dragon Precinct. It'll be in a small-press anthology called Dragon's Lure. Dragon Precinct is a high-fantasy police procedural. Think Law & Order meets Lord of the Rings. It takes place in your basic fantasy setting: elves, dwarves, humans, goblins, etc., there's magic and wizards and stuff. But, the main characters are detectives from the Castle Guard whose job is to solve crimes. The short story anthology will be out in June.
KA: We'll keep an eye our for it. Thanks for chatting.
Keith DeCandido writes Farscape for Boom! every month. His new short story will be available in Dragon's Lure in June.