Chambliss Writes "Dollhouse: Epitaphs"

Set several years into the future of the main Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" storyline, "Epitaph One," the thirteenth and final episode of the first season, was notable for several reasons. First, it starred an almost entirely different cast, struggling to survive in a world in which the Rossum Corporation's identity-swapping technology has led to roughly half the population becoming mindless killers while most of the other half wander blankly with no persona at all; those few who have dodged both versions of the programming are left to pick up the pieces. Another quirk was that the episode was not originally broadcast during "Dollhouse's" Fox timeslot, instead debuting online and on DVD. But there's yet another aspect of the episode that set it apart in the minds of fans: It was really, really good. "Epitaph Two" rounded out the second and final season, bringing together the stories of Eliza Dushku's character Echo and survivors Mag ("The Guild's" Felicia Day) and Zone. Now, following a successful one-shot written by show writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen with art by Cliff Richards, Dark Horse is returning "Dollhouse" to comics once again with the five-issue "Dollhouse: Epitaphs," written by Whedon, Tancharoen and Andrew Chambliss -- another writer for the show making his comics debut -- with the returning Richards on art.

CBR News spoke with Andrew Chambliss for his thoughts on joining the ranks of Whedon alumni making the move to comics and what fans can expect from the new series.
Chambliss was involved with writing the two "Epitaph" episodes for television, which he said was a special pleasure. "The Epitaph timeline is so much fun to write because A) it's apocalyptic, and who doesn't like the apocalypse? (The fictional apocalypse, that is.); and B) anything really goes in the Epitaph timeline," Chambliss told CBR. "The Dollhouse tech is pushed to its logical extreme, people are switching bodies to stay young, Freakshows can swap out skills on USB drives and anyone can become a villain by answering the phone. It's a heightened reality, and there really are no bounds to the kind of things that can happen. That makes for fun storytelling."
Both "Epitaph" episodes take place chronologically after the events of season 2, episode 12, in which Echo, a "Doll" who can retain traits of every personality with which she's ever been imprinted, has seemingly struck a decisive blow against the Rossum Corporation, which has begun to advance its technology in ways that will allow it to manipulate the world's population. Jumping forward to the future timeline, though, much has changed, and those changes go beyond a simple apocalypse. Alpha -- who, like Echo, can retain skills from his previous personalities but also happens to be a psychopath -- has become one of Echo's most trusted allies, the technological genius Topher has gone insane and rumors of a sanctuary called "Safe Haven" keep hope alive against all odds. Asked whether the writing team had a grand map of what takes place in the "Dollhouse" universe up to Epitaph 2 or whether they built the story out as opportunities allowed, Chambliss said, "It's a little of both."

"Back when we were breaking the show, there was always an idea of the events that led to the Epitaph world. And, more specifically when we were breaking 'Epitaph 2,' we knew where we wanted the characters to end up. But that doesn't mean we necessarily knew exactly how they came to be in the situations they were in -- for instance, we knew Alpha was good but didn't know how that happened; we knew Rossum had Topher locked in a lab but didn't know how or when they captured him," Chambliss explained.

"So when Jed, Mo and I started talking about writing stories for an 'Epitaph' comic series, we had tentpoles to guide us, but the tentpoles left us a lot of latitude for us to find new stories and take characters on journeys that we didn't see on screen," he continued. "Before we started breaking the miniseries, one of the first things I did was carefully watch Epitaphs 1 and 2 and make a timeline of everything that was mentioned on screen. I wanted to make sure we honored all of that, yet still find a way to surprise people with things they weren't expecting. The good news is that the robo-calls that started the Apocalypse began around 2013 and most of the Epitaph events we see in the TV episodes don't happen until 2019-2020ish. That's a ton of room to tell some really cool stories and fill in some of the history of how the characters came to be who they were in 'Epitaph 2.'"

Of all the changes that take place off-screen between the end of the main Echo story and the beginning of "Epitaph One," Alpha undergoes perhaps the most unexpected shift, moving from mentally unstable serial killer to ally and protector. "When we last saw Alpha in season 2, he stole Paul's personality and left him for dead. He was still obsessed with Echo and desperately wanted to have a relationship with her because he saw her as his only equal," Chambliss said. "I don't want to give too much away about Alpha's journey during the comic series, but at the beginning of the series he definitely regrets his past actions and sees an opportunity to seek redemption in the apocalyptic world. Why he's had that shift is something we'll learn over the course of the miniseries, but suffice it to say that his change of heart doesn't come easily to someone like Alpha."

His mission during this first miniseries, then, will be both one of redemption and one with more practical, large-scale considerations. "In the days after the first robo-calls -- when Rossum has obliterated most of the world's population by erasing their minds -- Alpha's first priority is to find a way to stop Rossum from erasing any more brains. And to do that, he's going to need help," the writer told CBR. "The story picks up fairly soon after the one shot that Jed and Maurissa wrote leaves off, as Alpha starts to build his army. Trevor, the young kid whose uncle was killed in the one shot, is Alpha's first soldier, and the first issue follows Alpha as he trains Trevor to survive in the brain-pocalypse (which may involve using some really fun Dollhouse tech)."

Chambliss added that, much as the "Epitaph" episodes followed parallel stories of Echo's crew and the band of survivors led by Mag and Zone, the "Dollhouse: Epitaphs" miniseries would also feature multiple storylines. "There are two parallel stories happening concurrently in the miniseries, and there are familiar faces in both," Chambliss said. "Alpha and Trevor are on their journey to stop Rossum from turning survivors into Butchers, Wielders and Dumbshows. It's a story of people stepping up and becoming larger than life heroes.

"At the same time, Zone, Mag and Griff are stuck in Los Angeles, doing everything they can to survive in a world that's completely on its head. Theirs is a much more human story about how regular people react to things they don't understand.

"There are also some other familiar faces (and personalities -- this is 'Dollhouse,' remember) from the show whom we'll encounter along the way."

Though he did not want to reveal details about Alpha's new team, Chambliss did say that "at the heart of his crew is Trevor." "Trevor is devastated by the destruction that Rossum has caused and wants nothing more than to step up and be a hero -- something that he's going to find to be tougher than he originally thought. His innocence and idealism serves as a nice contrast to Alpha's troubled past."

Given that this is Chambliss's first project in comics, CBR asked the writer whether there were any challenges in adapting to the format. "There was definitely a big learning curve to the medium," Chambliss said. "I think the most challenging part of making the transition from television writing to comic writing has been figuring out exactly how much story I can tell in a given issue or in a given arc. In television, I have a pretty good sense of what kind of story is appropriately sized for an hour-long episode. I'm still honing that sense in my comic writing, especially in figuring out how to best pace the story so I'm not cramming every page full of six panels. I've been lucky to have been working with Scott Allie and Sierra Hahn on the 'Dollhouse' comics. Since they work on so much of Joss' stuff and Joss has had so many of his TV writers work on his comics, Scott and Sierra are used to easing television writers over to the world of comic books. I'm very fortunate to be working with such great editors."

Chambliss has, however, worked on several comics-friendly TV shows -- in addition to "Dollhouse," he is also a writer on "The Vampire Diaries" and wrote for "Heroes" and "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," among others. Noting his resume's genre slant and his new gig as comics writer, CBR News asked Chambliss about his own background as a fan of comics. "I grew up reading comics in the late '80s, early '90s. Lots of Marvel. Lots of X-men, back when there were more X-men titles than I can count," Chambliss said. "I fell out of it a bit when I went to college, but I think the exposure I had to the medium at an early age definitely attracted me to television shows with similar sensibilities. I've been getting back into reading comics in the past few years and reading a lot in trade paperbacks -- I can get very impatient, so I like reading everything in trades, when I don't have to wait month-to-month to see what happens."

Receiving artwork from Cliff Richards, though, provides a new perspective, as Chambliss's story is brought to life in way that is new to the writer. "I've seen a lot of the finished artwork from Cliff. It's so gratifying to be working with such a great artist who brings so much life to the story through his artwork," Chambliss said. "The thing about seeing the 'Dollhouse' world brought to life through Cliff's art is that I get to see thing that would have been impossible to do on a television production budget and schedule. If I write a huge action scene with fifty butchers attacking Alpha, I don't have to worry about how we'll shoot it or whether a particular stunt can be performed safely. And as cool as the action stuff is, what I really love about getting pencils from Cliff is seeing how he's rendered the quieter character beats. It's akin to watching an actor bring that extra something to a scene when you watch them perform it for the first time."

"Dollhouse: Epitaphs" #1 ships in July from Dark Horse. More exclusive is available at darkhorse.com

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