Long a mainstay of comic book publishing, licensed properties comprise a significant
portion of the contemporary marketplace. Series and graphic novels based on diverse
properties such as Conan, Toy Story, The Lone Ranger,
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kolchak: The Night Stalker,
G.I. Joe, and Star Wars litter store shelves. I recently
spoke with three writers who work on some of these properties. Paul Benjamin (Muppet
King Arthur), Alan J. Porter (Cars), and Bill Williams (Spike:
The Devil You Know) offer some frank, behind-the-scenes commentary on
working with licensed properties.
What properties are you currently working on? What properties have you worked on in the past?
Bill Williams (BW): I have been writing the Eddie Hope backup stories in the back of
IDW's Angel comics for a few months. I am partnered with Bill Willingham and
our first issue was #28. A trade paperback reprinting our first five issues comes out in time
for the San Diego Comic Convention. I also wrote a Spike mini-series that is coming out from
IDW now. For the moment, I'm all over the manly end of the Whedonverse.
Before that, I co-wrote a couple of issues of Robin for DC and I wrote an issue
of the Justice League Unlimited comic that was based on the animated show. That
was a lot of fun to write, because I got to put words in Superman's mouth.
Paul Benjamin (PB): Right now is kind
of a magical time for me. No, I'm not waxing
poetic. The trade paperback of my Muppet King Arthur series just hit the
shelves this month and later this year my World of Warcraft: Shaman graphic novel
will be available. As for what I've written in the past, it's a fairly diverse list. I've
written a number of stories for Marvel including a long run on Marvel Adventures
Hulk. I'm also very proud of the Monsters, Inc. series I wrote. It's
basically a sequel that takes place right after the end of the film. I worked on some sci-fi
properties as well, including a Star Trek manga and several volumes of
the Starcraft: Frontline anthology.
Alan J. Porter (AJP): I have just come to the end of a two year run writing the
Disney Pixar Cars comic book series for Boom! Studios. My last issue will be
in stores this month, marking the completion of a 16 issue run that included two mini-series
and an 8 issue series.
In the past I have written non-fiction books about Batman, James Bond and Star Trek.
How did you get involved with the licensed properties?
PB: Getting on a licensed series tends to be driven by the editors whose job is to find
talent for their books. For example, I pitched a variety of Marvel stories to editor Mark Paniccia
before he finally hired me to write Marvel Adventures Hulk. That led to work
on [other Marvel properties].
In the case of Muppet King Arthur, Paul Morrissey was the editor of my original
manga series Pantheon High (for Tokyopop). Paul then hired me
for Monsters, Inc. when he moved to Boom Kids! After Paul left Boom!, the new editor
called me up to pitch a story for Muppet King Arthur because [he] felt I'd be a
good match for the property along with my co-writer, Patrick Storck.
AJP: In the early dark days of
the Internet, I set up one of the first Batman fan
websites. Through that I got to know several people involved in the various Batman
projects. [That eventually lead to] my first book, The Unauthorized Batman Collectors
Guide [and] a relationship with Hermes Press, the publishers of my books on Bond
and Star Trek.
Getting into licensed comics came by a different route. After several years of pitching
comics stories, I made a sale for a manga series at Tokyopop (God Shop). My editor
on that book moved over to Boom! to oversee the launch of the Disney books, and as soon as
I found out I'm not afraid to say that I begged for a chance to write the Cars
book. Luckily, both he and the folks at Disney liked my story ideas.
BW: I got pulled into the deal
by Willingham. Mariah Huehner worked with him as an
assistant editor on Fables at DC and she wanted to work with him at her new
home at IDW. He generously wrote me into the pitch giving me four pages a month to put on a
show with Eddie, who is new to the Wonderful World of Whedon.
I pitched a Spike and Eddie project as a way to showcase both of the characters. Originally
Spike: The Devil You Know was "24 with vampires" but by the time
I finished the last script it was more like 48 Hours.
How does writing this property compare to doing your own work? Which do you prefer?
AJP: I enjoy both equally, but in some ways working on licensed properties is
easier. You don't have to concentrate on world building, and it's a fair assumption that
most of the audience know who the characters are, so you don't have as much time on
establishing character. Of course, the downside of that is that the fans of the franchise,
whatever it is, have very definite ideas as to how their favorite characters should sound
and act, or even as to what type of stories they should be in; and they will let you know
if you get it wrong! Having said that, meeting various Cars and Pixar fans,
of all ages, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this gig.
BW: A creator should balance playing with their own characters and with someone else's
toys. It gives a fresh perspective on the creative process. I like them more or less equally
but for different reasons.
PB: I honestly prefer a mix of licensed work and original properties. Licensed work
has less freedom but gives me an opportunity to play with iconic characters like the
Muppets. Original properties can be whatever I want them to be but are less likely to reach
a broad audience. Ultimately, I want to give others the thrill that reading gives me and more
people will be interested in their life-long friends Kermit and Miss Piggy than in an original series.
How much creative control do you have?
PB: The amount of creative control varies greatly depending on the property. Sometimes
the publisher can be invasive, while other times, it's the license holder. In the case of
Muppet King Arthur, Patrick and I didn't really get any interference from
either Boom! or Henson. One or the other might have killed a joke or two for various
reasons, but they also gave great suggestions for gags throughout the series. In fact, I've
been pretty lucky on this front. I've really had a lot of creative freedom on my licensed
property work and most of the feedback from on high has been constructive criticism that
really added to the final product. Or maybe I'm just more open-minded because I used to be
an editor and I have to burn off the karma of all the times I was invasive with my
writers (sorry about that, guys and gals).
AJP: I was amazed at how much creative freedom I have had over the last couple
of years. We kicked off Cars with what amounted to a prequel to the
movie. I never really thought that Pixar would let us tell the back story to one of its
lead characters. Over the books run, there were several instances where I had jokes,
references and double entendres in the scripts that I was sure wouldn't get approved,
but they did.
What changes were asked for were in the main very minor ones to make sure characters
stayed on-model. The only exception was in my last story arc when we were suddenly
told we couldn't use a certain supporting character. However, as it turned out, the
introduction of the character we used instead actually made the plot structure stronger.
BW: One of the scenes I had to cut was a splash with Spike holding a demon
informant upside-down in a toilet as he asks him for information. The grilling-the-stoolie
scene is a staple of detective fiction and every fourth Batman comic book seems to have
him dangling some lowlife off of a high-rise. But I was told that Spike was a hero and
that kind of behavior was out of bounds. No using a green-skinned informant as a
demonic toilet brush for my little script.
I cut it upon request. When you have no ownership stake or control, the changes get made
even if they alter the flow of the story. The rights holders have a duty to maintain the
properties they manage. So I rewrote the scene and a new scene appears in the third
issue. It is part of the job and if you can't make changes at the request of the client,
this type of writing might not be the line of work for you.
How has working on licensed properties affected your career?
BW: It's too soon to tell in my case. The work in the Angel comic
lists me as scripting four pages a month. It's not an impressive or accurate credit. But
the Spike mini-series is my kid. I carried it from pitch to final project and worked with
studio and editorial notes to make a fun comic. That one should open doors for me in
I also have a mystery novel with an agent. I hear good things about a spec television pilot
that I script-doctored earlier in the year for a local production company. I have a new
screenplay that I'm high on and a few other things in the works. Since the comic publishers
love to raid other media, who knows where all of this will lead.
PB: It's been a blast. I've gotten to work on incredible characters and I've
collaborated with amazingly talented artists that I never could've hired for an original
book. In most cases, I never would have even known of the artist if my editor hadn't brought
them to me as a co-creator for our stories. Also, licensed properties have less risk attached
to them and they certainly pay better up front. Plus it's nice to be able to talk to people
about the characters they love and to know that you told a story that made them dig that
property even more.
AJP: Through my non-fiction work I have got to know a lot of other creators and
editors who either worked on those properties, or are fans. Writing a Pixar book has also
helped to raise awareness of my work a bit -- as to what that will mean in terms of my
career, I guess we will have to see -- but it does make approaching editors a bit easier
when you have something to show with a recognizable title on the cover.