Playing “Scribblenauts” is a bit like writing a comic: The players write words, which become pictures, which the characters then incorporate into their story. “Scribblenauts Unmasked” is all that plus DC characters — pretty much all the DC characters, in fact–who become a part of the story as well. So it’s logical, if a bit circular, that DC should decide to make this comic-like game into a game comic. The ongoing series “Scribblenauts Unmasked: A Crisis of Imagination,” written by Josh Elder and drawn by Adam Archer, debuts as a digital-first comic on December 4 and will be available in print in January 2014. (Elder and Archer are also the creators of “Scribblenauts Unmasked: A Battle Most Bizarre,” a digital comic that was given away as a free extra to purchasers of the game.)
Elder brings an array of experience with both comics and games to his work on “Scribblenauts”: He is the author of “Mail Order Ninja,” which was published by Tokyopop and syndicated in newspapers across the country, and he also wrote several issues of DC’s all-ages Batman series “The Batman Strikes.” On the gaming side, he spent a year as a game writer and designer at Disney Interactive. He is the founder of the comics literacy group Reading With Pictures and an account director at the digital comics distributor iVerse Media. Elder is one of those people who always has a couple of different creative irons in the fire, and “Scribblenauts” isn’t the only comic he’s working on; DC just published his “Dear Superman” story as “Adventures of Superman” #28 last month. CBR News spoke with him about Scribblenauts, Superman and the challenges of turning a game into a comic.
CBR News: Josh, had you played the “Scribblenauts” game before you did the comic? How did you get to know “Scribblenauts,” and did you have to play it a lot more once you got the gig?
Josh Elder: I was aware of the game series–it came up a lot in discussions of how to create “emergent gameplay” during my days as a game writer/designer at Disney Interactive — but I had never actually played any of them before I was asked to pitch for the comic. I picked up “Scribblenauts Remix” on the iPad and immediately fell in love. It was both awesome and adorable — awedorable for short.
These days, I play “Remix” and “Scribblenauts Unmasked” on a fairly regular basis just to keep myself immersed in the unique feel of that world. The goal of the comic is to be a continuation of the game, and so everyone on the creative team tries to replicate the gameplay experience in as authentic a way as possible.
“Scribblenauts Unmasked” is set in the DC universe, with the lead characters, Max and Lilly, helping out the DC superheroes. What do you think is the “hook” of this game — why do kids like it, and why do you like it?
Maxwell and Lily are audience identification characters. They’re avatars in every sense of the word. So it’s like you get to help the Justice League save the universe, and that’s pretty darn cool. For me, it provides an opportunity to go a little “meta” and bring the fandom perspective into the DC Universe in a way that feels organic. I mean, I got to write a scene where Batman is reluctantly drawn into a group hug with Maxwell, Lily and the rest of the Justice League! Stuff like that never fails to put a smile on my face.
However it’s the underlying theme — that imagination is the greatest superpower of all — that makes “Scribblenauts Unmasked” so meaningful to me. That’s a terrific message; one that I look forward to spreading far and wide.
You wrote “A Battle Most Bizarre,” a digital “Scribblenauts” comic that was given away free with purchase of “Scribblenauts Unmasked” when it first came out. Do you know if that comic will go into wider release?
I certainly hope so! I’m really proud of what artist Adam Archer and I did with that story, and I think it would be a great companion piece for what we’re doing with the series. And it has Bizarros! Lots of ’em! It’s like my mother always told me, stocks may rise and fall, utilities may crumble, but people will always need Bizarros.
Will this new “Scribblenauts Unmasked” series have a continuing story, or will each issue be self-contained?
It’s one large story, though we give each 10-page segment its own miniature three-act structure and cliffhanger ending. We want to create a fast-paced, old-school serial feel for the thing. My experience doing the “Mail Order Ninja” comic strip has been really helpful in that regard.
What was the biggest challenge of turning this game into a story?
The biggest challenge has been in reconciling the different tones of the two franchises. The game did this incredibly well, so I mostly just follow the path they set. But I also look to films like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” for guidance on how to effectively integrate a comedic character into a more “realistic” and dramatic setting. Making this a legitimate (and funny) Scribblenauts adventure while also maintaining the integrity of the DC characters is a challenge, but when it works — it’s magic.
What’s it like being able to play in a universe with all the DC superheroes? Do you have any favorite obscure characters you are looking forward to pulling out for the comic?
It really is the most fun assignment I’ve ever had. I get to play with all my favorite toys, and I’m encouraged to be as off-the-wall as possible. So I get to use the Justice League and the Green Lantern Corps — which is awesome — but I also get my choice of villains and supporting cast members. So far I’ve been able to work in Krypto, Bibbo Bibbowski, Bat Cow, Harvey Bullock, hippie Jimmy Olsen, Batzarro, Space Cabby, Crazy Quilt, the Zoo Crew and loads more that I can’t talk about without getting into spoiler territory.
With all those characters, do you have a rule book to follow? Is it OK to mix different Batmans, or do certain versions of the same character behave differently from one another?
I’m expected to follow the New 52 continuity (and character designs) as much as possible, but it’s not an absolute rule. The game created its own continuity, and that’s the only continuity I’m truly beholden to. The “Scribblenauts Unmasked” version of the DCU is designed to appeal to a broad, general audience. The Injustice game and prequel series did the same thing, we’re just skewing younger and zanier.
Have you been able to create any original characters?
No, but that’s fine. I have a huge cast to work with, and the interplay between them gives me more than enough material to fill nine issues.
Even with a big cast, you are working within a fairly constrained structure. How do you come up with new story ideas?
At DC, we’re treating this series as the sequel to the game. That means I needed to go bigger. And if you want to go big at DC, you go “Crisis” or you go home. My goal was to craft a plot that — if you removed the Scribblenauts — would feel like a legitimate DC crossover event. Then I added the Scribblenauts, and suddenly all these scenes of apocalyptic drama become tableaus of absurdist humor. “Crisis of Imagination” is going to show how humor and creativity (along withe a few punches here and there) can save the universe.
From a character perspective, I also want to provide some real character development for our “Scribblenauts” cast: Maxwell, Lily and Doppelganger. Is Maxwell still a hero without his Magic Notebook? Can Lily go from being her brother’s sidekick to being a hero in her own right? Will the-formerly-evil-but-now-supposedly-reformed Doppelganger continue to do the right thing even though everyone still treats him like a villain? You’ll have to read to find out!
You did another digital-first comic, “Adventures of Superman” #28, which I know touches on some personal experiences in your life. Can you tell me a bit of the backstory to that comic?
“Dear Superman” is about a little girl named Connie who writes a letter to Superman about how he inspires her to keep fighting through a serious illness. Then he shows up at the hospital to say that her courage in the face of adversity inspires him.
The original idea for the story came from an interview with Christopher Reeve where he talked about visiting children’s hospitals as Superman. He brought joy to those children, and no small measure of hope. That’s the idea of Superman being brought into the real world to make a real difference. That’s real heroism. And that’s an incredible thing.
I was diagnosed with cancer the day before my 22nd birthday. When I was a child, I had to help take care of my mother (who, not coincidentally, is also named Connie) after invasive cancer surgeries left her bedridden for weeks. We’ve both been cancer free for years, but I know all too well what those kids were going through.
“Dear Superman” is a very personal story for me, but one that I hope will have meaning to anyone who has ever felt powerless in the face of something terrible. You may not be faster than a speeding bullet, and you can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. But even with the weight of the world on your shoulders, you still find the strength to carry on. That’s what makes you a superhero.
How does writing a digital-first comic differ from writing a print comic?
Since we’re not doing any digital transition effects, the biggest change for me was in writing for “screens” rather than “pages.” Screens are landscape rather than portrait and are half the size of a traditional comic page. This changes how you do layouts, where you place reveals and — for me, at least — has led to a denser style of storytelling with more panels and more activity in general. Which Adam and Ben may hate me for, but I think leads to a better reading experience overall.
Your first comic was a manga-style graphic novel, “Mail Order Ninja,” which was done for Tokyopop’s OEL manga program. How has manga influenced your storytelling style?
I think a lot of the most popular manga — especially series like “Ranma 1/2,” “Naruto” and “Dragon Ball” — do a pretty fantastic job of balancing over-the-top humor with action/adventure and drama. Making those very different tonal elements work in harmony is something I absolutely try to emulate in my own work. Manga also has a highly developed comedic visual vocabulary that I borrowed heavily from for “Mail Order Ninja” and “Crisis of Imagination” both.
“Scribblenauts: A Crisis of Imagination” #1 goes on sale January 22.