Last weekend, writers/showrunners/married couple Tara Butters and Marc Guggenheim found themselves in the spotlight at Long Beach Comics Expo in Long Beach, CA. Introduced to the audience by moderator Aaron Couch of The Hollywood Reporter as “The Power Couple of Comic Book TV,” the two have been married for ten years after meeting while each was writing on a different “Law & Order” series — “Special Victims Unit” and original flavor, respectively. Now, they both find themselves working on hit comic adaptions — Butters is an Executive Producer on “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” while Guggenheim wears a number of hats for the DC Comics-based “Arrow,” “The Flash,” the upcoming “Supergirl” and the animated “Vixen” series.
Couch started by asking about the logistics of balancing their work versus private life. Tweeting about each others’ show isn’t an issue, Butters said, putting to rest any notions about there being an in-house Marvel vs. DC rivalry. They don’t really spoil things for each other, but will discuss any issues they’re having breaking a story aspect, or perhaps share something they’re very excited about. Guggenheim admitted that he is more guilty of spoilers than Butters.
Their daughters don’t watch “Arrow” that much — it’s “too adult,” noted Butters — but they like Canary. “It’s definitely too adult,” Guggenheim concurred. “But we’re not good parents, so they’ve definitely seen it.”
“Agent Carter” is more their kids’ speed. Their eldest daughter wants a Peggy outfit to wear to Comic-Con International, while another daughter wants to dress up as Dottie.
Since the episode order is so different — “Agent Carter” thus far only seeing an 8-episode run, while Guggenheim’s projects are longer and more open-ended — Couch asked if they were jealous of the other’s situation. Butters’ answer indicated the possibility of more “Agent Carter” in the future, as she said she would love to have thirteen episodes to work with, but would also be fine sticking with the current eight-episode format due to the series’ visual effects needs, which are far more than people would expect. She mentioned a piece “Wired” did that chronicled the before and after adding effects to the first two episodes. They averaged 200 visual effects per episode, and she worries that anything more than a thirteen episode order would be “pushing the envelope” on quality.
Asked whether future seasons of “Agent Carter” could take place in different decades, Butters said she and Co-Showrunner Michelle Fazekas talked about it, but will likely keep it in the same period, maybe changing location to a place like Hollywood or Europe. The only real constraint is maintaining the pre-S.H.I.E.L.D time frame, or there would essentially be two “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” series on.
Pointing to Guggenheim’s growing workload, specifically mentioning the upcoming “Supergirl” series and the as-yet-unnamed spinoff of “The Flash,” Couch wondered if there was a critical mass for comic book adaptations. Butters believes that if there are good stories, people will be drawn to the shows. Guggenheim added, “It wouldn’t be network TV if there wasn’t a drive to kill the golden goose. I think, like Tara said, comic shows are the new procedurals, and the water will find it’s proper level, eventually. But right now, the number of quality comic book shows, the number of television shows that are actually good is incredibly high… People get over-saturated with badness.”
Asked about the difference between working on a film like “Green Lantern” and the challenges of TV, Guggenheim said, “With ‘Green Lantern,’ we [he and Co-Showrunner Greg Berlanti] really learned the lesson of control. We didn’t have it on ‘Green Lantern.’ It got taken out of our hands at a certain point, and stuff happened. The difference between features and TV is that on TV, as a writer, you’re writing for your life. Every eight business days, there’s a new script due, and as a showrunner, it all goes through your pen. Sometimes what’s getting shot is literally your first draft. At the same time, it’s getting shot.”
“Also, there’s character versus plot,” Butters added “You have two, two-and-a-half hours where certain things have to happen.” “Agent Carter” was the first show Marvel Studios was really involved in, so she and Fazekas had to pitch all eight scripts before production began. During the process, they realized that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Peggy & Coulson will now almost have more dedicated screen-time than some of the “bigger heroes.” You know more about her because you’ve spent eight hours with her.
Citing Howard Stark, Jarvis and Felicity as breakout characters, Couch wondered, does their popularity affect the approach to writing the episodes? Butters responded that Jarvis and Howard “are so fun for us. We have so much fun writing those characters and therefore I hope the audience responds, too. Jarvis is a flip of Felicity, in a weird way — he’s a supporting character [that’s a bit of comic relief], but at the same time, Peggy or Oliver couldn’t function without that support.”
“It always starts with us loving the characters first,” Guggenheim stated. They love getting a positive response from Twitter, but there’s a disconnect because they’re written so far in advance to people seeing the shows. “You’re writing the character in a vacuum.”
Referencing a comment Guggenheim made about wanting Batman to appear in the Arrow-verse, Couch wondered how they go about deciding which characters to use where, and what the clearance procedure is like with DC Entertainment. “We have a great relationship with DC. We sort of navigate with DC which characters in the toy box we have access to,” Guggenheim replied. “Obviously, ‘Gotham’ has Batman covered… At the same time, DC [recognizes [Green] Arrow doesn’t have a fantastic rogues gallery — we’ve got Count Vertigo, and we’ve used him twice. They know that we need access to other characters, but it’s a give and take. The bottom line is, Batman won’t appear on “Arrow” before he appears on “Gotham,” and “they’ve got about twenty more years to go.”
When asked about her dream Marvel characters to appear on “Agent Carter,” Butters replied, “It’s hard, because we’re in this weird time frame that there’s not that many characters.” She named a few, including Namor, who she noted is tied up in legal rights. “Obviously, Doctor Faustus really wasn’t of our time frame, but it was something within conversations with Marvel Studios that they were willing to [adjust] — ‘Oh, well, it’s still Captain America-centric and we could move it back and we could play with and still actually tie-in to the Winter Soldier program.’ Hopefully, if we did our jobs properly, when you do see ‘Cap 3’ or other things in the Marvel Universe, some of the character stuff is going to be laid out a little bit more with Howard and Peggy and [Jarvis], who live on in other ways in the storylines.”
Couch followed up by asking how much she knew about “Captain America: Civil War.” The answer: not much. “They’re really good. It’s funny though — sometimes, the guys will come into the room and go, ‘Can you do X?’ and we’re like, ‘… OK…’ And, like, [they] just walk out,” she said. “There were storylines that we were pitching out, and [‘Captain America 3’ co-screenwriter] Steve McFeely says, ‘That’s [close to something already in play], so you can’t use that.’ So we knew we were in the general area of things without being told what the stories were.”
Audience questions started with someone asking Guggenheim if it was always planned to make Thea Queen Malcom Merlyn’s daughter. It wasn’t, and interestingly enough, it was the husband of John Barrowman (who plays Malcom) who first suggested it. Guggenheim said they know what the arcs are every season, but still find new things to do along the way. The only restriction is, “we won’t do that if it involves a retcon.”
Guggenheim stated firmly that “The Brave and the Bold” is not the title of the spinoff.
Asked about the comics beginning to reflect some of what they’re doing on the show, Guggenheim said, it’s become a “synergistic relationship” with TV. Green Arrow is well known as a character, “but the canon is pretty thin” so he can absorb changes more easily in either medium. There’s less leeway with A-list characters. “If you’re doing Spider-Man, Uncle Ben has to die.”
Aked if there’s a list of things that can and can’t be used (besides Batman), Guggenheim explained that twice a year they sit down with DC, and each has a list of characters they’d like to use or be used. Katana was a character DC suggested they use. Ray Palmer was originally supposed to be Ted Kord, but DC said, “No, we have plans for that character. How about Ray Palmer?”
One industrious fan asked about Onomatopoeia, a villain created in 2002 by writer Kevin Smith and artist Phil Hester. “I’d be stunned if ‘Arrow’ ended its run and we didn’t use Onomatopoeia,” Guggenheim replied, explaining that they just haven’t found the right story yet.
â€¨Voice recording sessions for the actors will begin “soon” on the animated “Vixen” series, and feature Grant Gustin and Stephen Amell as their characters. The show is more similar to the tone of “Flash” than “Arrow” in terms of darkness.
A gentleman cosplaying Arsenal asked Butters if Dum-Dum Duggan referring to Peggy as “Union Jack” means she could be an incarnation of that character. She responded that anything was possible, and that the character fits the time period so it can be used.
Back to “Arrow,” Guggenheim was asked if they’ll ever use Harley Quinn. Between “Gotham” and Margot Robbie playing her in the upcoming Suicide Squad film, he stated that the closest they could come is the “wink and a nod” from last season.
Do they have any dreams about doing an “Agent Carter”/”Arrow” crossover? Guggenheim is a “total sucker for the inter-company crossovers” but the closest they’d be able to get is “cross-Easter eggs.” Butters recalled that when Guggenheim was working on “Eli Stone,” he had one of the clients on the show employed at The Work Bench, the fictional home improvement store at the center of her show, “Reaper” — he even had a authentic Work Bench smock for the character. She thought that was especially cool because that meant God and the Devil were both actively operating in the same TV universe.
Asked about what they think drives fans to ‘ship their characters and how they map out relationship progressions around uncertainties including actor availability and renewals, Guggenheim said he never expected as much passion for the ‘ships as fans seem to have. “I don’t know what fuels it,” he said. “I’m just glad [it exists].” They didn’t plan to put Oliver and Felicity together, but they had such chemistry. “I defy you to put Emily [Bett Rickard] in a scene with someone and there not be chemistry.”
Butters was asked about the struggles of writing period pieces. The primary issue, she said, was trying to not sound “too period,” and when they do use a turn of phrase, they make sure it actually came from the proper time period. It was particularly problematic to write British people from “Agent Carter’s” time period as they wanted to avoid stereotypes, like making Jarvis a “typical British butler.” James D’Arcy, who plays Jarvis, said they were writing them better than anyone had and was surprised there were no Brits on staff.
To prepare for working on “Agent Carter,” Butters watched some of her favorite films from the ’40s and read James Joyce’s “LA Quartet.” She also read some Captain America comics books, including Ed Brubaker’s run, since there’s not that much written about Peggy in the comics.
Guggenheim said his biggest initial struggle was writing Oliver, since he didn’t speak much early on. He and Berlanti had to “invent a whole new voice” for themselves. From that adjustment, Felicity was born. They wanted to write a character that fit more with their natural inclinations. It was a challenge to find a balance.
If you loved the radio show within “Agent Carter” in episode “Bridge and Tunnel,” you’re not alone. Butters revealed that it wasn’t part of the original pitch — one of the writers pitched it in the room. Initially, it was only supposed to be on once, in the beginning of the pilot episode, but director Joe Russo suggested they use it in the fight scene as well. Funnily enough, he’d originally cut it out of his edit because he was afraid it went “too far.” She and Fazekas looked at it and asked the editor what he thought — they all liked it, so they added it back in. That’s part of the reason they brought it back in the last episode. They talked about making it into a podcast, “little fifteen-minute storylines,” and talked about it with”Thrilling Adventure Hour” co-creator/writer Ben Blacker. When asked what needed to be done to make it happen, Butters answered, “A second season would help.”
As a final question, Butters was asked about Peggy’s future husband. “We’ve talked about certain scenarios, but I can’t really talk about it,” she replied. “The amazing thing about Haley Atwell is that she has chemistry with everyone.” Butters emphasized that not having a romantic relationship worked on “The X-Files” for years. When pressed on Peggy’s husband’s identity, Butters mentioned several characters Atwell had chemistry with, including Enver Gjokaj’s Daniel Sousa. When she mentioned Chad Michael Murray’s Jack Thompson, Guggenheim quipped, “I’m not ‘shipping that.”