Tearing Down to Build Up
My kids are off from school this week, thanks to their winter break, though with temperatures in the 40s and no snow on the ground, “winter” is a debatable point. A few days ago, I happened to glance through the French doors that border one end of my office, and watched my 8-year-old son at our dining room table. He was playing with Lego, creating a spaceship he was pulling directly out of his imagination.
He didn’t know I was watching him. He was too busy building something that existed only in his mind’s eye. Next to him, temporarily forgotten, was the Lego Sith Infiltrator, which I must admit is a pretty impressive piece of plastic. He’d put together the Infiltrator sometime before Christmas and left it in one piece, which is not a usual occurrence. My son’s multitude of Legos — whether they’re Star Wars, Batman, Harry Potter or any other theme — often stay together for a while, and then get stripped down for spare parts, to build something new and different.
I will admit that it used to drive me up the wall. Santa would bring, say, the Lego version of Boba Fett’s Slave I, and within a few weeks, the ship didn’t exist anymore. It had been reduced to component parts, all stored in a blue Lego duffle bag, ready for the next iteration. I would feel like we’d paid for, say, Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter, but ended up with a pile of plastic bricks.
Watching my son the other morning, though, I was struck by the revelation that writing comics isn’t all that different from playing with Legos. And that maybe tearing apart what already exists, in order to build something new, isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Taking over an existing comic series, with established characters and concepts, is a bit like getting your hands on a Lego that’s been built in just the way intended. Everything you need is there, put in place by someone else. You’re simply utilizing what’s already been created, and you can have a grand time doing it. Concepts like “Fantastic Four” or “Amazing Spider-Man” or “Batman” have such rich protagonists, settings, villains and supporting characters, you could tell literally years of entertaining tales without creating anything new. But ultimately, that sort of piggybacking on the work of prior creators isn’t so much creation as imitation. It’s a remix, which is why many creators bring at least something new to the table on an existing title: new villains, new supporting characters.
When I’ve taken over an existing title, I’ve usually changed the status quo to whatever extent was possible. Sometimes, as with “Green Lantern,” it was by editorial decree, removing Hal Jordan from the role and creating Kyle Rayner to take over. Creatively, it was a halfway house of the best kind. I got to play with the great existing concepts and characters, but explore them through a completely new protagonist without any continuity baggage. It was the best of both worlds — something like keeping your Legos mostly intact, but building some new bits and pieces here and there.
When I took over “X-O Manowar,” I loved the main character and central concept, which was described to me as “Conan in a can.” The rest? Not so much. Placing a Visigoth warrior with alien battle armor in the role of a chief executive officer struck me as Iron Man-lite; board rooms and conference tables hold zero dramatic interest for me. So we burned it all down. Literally. We kept the main character, and went scorched earth on the rest. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay on the title long enough to bring everything we had planned to fruition.
For “Witchblade,” within the first year we gave Sara Pezzini a new police assignment, a new detective partner, and a new love interest. As the series wore on, we were able to introduce a more fully-realized mythology centered around the 13 Artifacts, plus additional characters, and even a child for Sara.
I’ve found the experience to be virtually the same working on licensed properties like “Star Wars.” Playing in the Extended Star Wars Universe is no different than playing in the Marvel or DC Universes (with the exception of the Star Wars timeline generally making a lot more sense than the fuzzy timelines necessitated by superheroes who never age). You know part of the job is to play within the established parameters, to follow someone else’s rules. (No, the charming irony of writing the Sith Infiltrator into my “Darth Maul” series, and years later watching my son playing with the Lego version, is not lost on me.)
Following someone else’s rules is not a problem, as long as you understand what they rules are, and make your peace with them going in. The level of “new” on a particular assignment depends upon you and the people you’re working for. How much you can bend or even break the toys is decided by mutual consent. Or perhaps a better way to say it is this: you ask for permission, and keep your fingers crossed for what gets approved. There’s no reason playing by someone else’s rules — in other words, work-for-hire — can’t be creatively satisfying.
But as far as I’m concerned, the best aspect of this job is starting with that pile of Lego pieces, and creating something new and different. Working on creator-owned material like “Shinku” or “Dragon Prince” or “Samurai: Heaven and Earth” is, for me, the purest distillation of comics: no rules, no preconceptions, just unfettered creativity. As much as I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of my work-for-hire gigs, there’s nothing more satisfying doing a book that you own, that you create, that is yours in every sense of the word. It’s like playing God.
It’s also like taking random Legos and making something that didn’t exist before. So the next time I’m tempted to be annoyed with my son for tearing apart a Lego Hogwarts or Imperial AT-AT, enabling him to build something else, I’m not just going to bite my tongue. I’m going to help him do it.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com