Talking Comics with Tim: Elaine Lee

When I got a look at IDW's first remastered issue of Elaine Lee and Michael Kaluta's Starstruck, I immediately wanted to talk to Lee about the story's return. In doing the email interview, I wanted to get an idea of the creative processes involved (for the comic, as well as related theater and audio productions) and some of her thoughts regarding the remastering of the work. My thanks to Lee for her insight, as well as IDW Special Projects Editor Scott Dunbier and IDW's AnnaMaria White for helping make this interview possible.

Tim O'Shea: Back in the 1980s when you and Kaluta originally developed this comic, it seems like you were among the first to attempt a multimedia concept--You were able to take a play and adapt it to a comic book. How challenging was it to pull off, given that you were taking comics into seemingly uncharted territory?

Elaine Lee: I guess we weren’t really thinking about taking comics into uncharted territory. We were just thinking about telling the story we wanted to tell and having a good time doing it!

We never tried to adapt the actual play. The action of the play takes place on two ships out in space, over maybe a day’s time. Not enough scope for a comic series. And any play has much more dialogue than even the wordiest comic, so it wouldn’t translate very well. But in the play, each character had a big monologue, wherein he or she described events that happened in his or her past. We first envisioned Starstruck as a series of vignettes that related these stories from the characters’ pasts. Later, we would add the material that linked all these events together.

If Michael and I were influenced by anyone working in comics, it would’ve been the European artists, like Moebius and Enki Bilal, whose work was appearing in Heavy Metal at the time. And in fact, Starstruck was published in Europe before it was published here in the States, serialized in magazines in France and Spain. They weren’t publishing much unusual material in the US at the time. But we always had an American sensibility and both the play and the comic were greatly influenced by old American science fiction movies and TV series, the stuff that came out between the forties and the sixties, from the old Buck Rogers serials and Rocky Jones Space Ranger, to Star Trek and Lost in Space, Queen of Outer Space and Barbarella. We lifted themes, archetypes and settings from classic sci-fi and tried to drop into them flawed characters with real human problems.

The comic series is very different from the play. With the play, we were trying to put a comic book onstage. It’s a comedy and its story is linear. In the two New York productions, the characters and their movements were extreme, cartoon-like. When Brucilla was in a fight, her opponent might sneeze and blow her into a back flip to land on her feet and attack again. Waaaaaaaaaay over the top! With the comics, we were trying to do an epic SF novel as a comic book. The story isn’t always linear. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes serious and sometimes a mix, depending on which character you’re following. We took a character like Kalif, who in the play came off as simply evil, and gave him a past - a sister who tormented him, a father who expected too much – and tried to show how he became who he became.

O'Shea: You had not worked in comics before this collaboration, can you remember the point in working with Kaluta that you realized you were telling tales with an artist considered by many to be a cut above the average comics artist?

Lee: Oh, I knew that from the beginning! You just had to look at the work! And if I had been part of the comics world, I might’ve been completely intimidated. But the first thing we worked on together was the play, which was my area of expertise. Kaluta was the newbie! At the time, I was acting on a network soap opera, was acting director of a theatre company in Manhattan and was nominated for an EMMY the same spring we opened the play. Starstruck was the third play our company produced. So while I have the greatest respect for Michael’s talent, and couldn’t imagine working with anyone else on this, I never felt intimidated to be working with him. That would’ve been terrible!

It probably also helped that, when we met, Michael was disenchanted with the world of comics. He hadn’t worked in comics for a few years. So if the project hadn’t been a highly unusual one, I doubt he would’ve been interested. On the other hand, I had read comics as a kid, left them behind for some years, and then had recently become enchanted with them again. Kaluta has confessed that my enthusiasm for the medium sometimes annoyed him, at least in the beginning!

But working with Michael was a blast! We sat in the same room for days on end, doing script and layout and talking about the characters and the universe. Lots of Chinese takeout! Michael helped me learn how to stop thinking like an actor and playwright. When you’re writing a play, you tend to see the characters who are talking and an area about five feet around them. I had to learn to think in establishing shots and close-ups - in static panels. The panels drove me nuts at first. I remember screaming, “I can’t think in all these little boxes!” But I eventually got the hang of it!

The best thing about working so closely with an amazing artist, is that we very quickly decided that the words would tell only a piece of the story, while the art would often tell a different piece. So, the character narrating may be saying one thing, while you see in the art that the narration isn’t entirely truthful, or at least not the whole story.

O'Shea: How did this project land at IDW?

Lee: That’s easy! Scott Dunbier called Michael and expressed interest. We were thrilled!

O'Shea: The stories have been revised and restored for this new IDW series--throughout the revisions and restoration are there certain scenes or elements you were most pleased to see occur?

Lee: Two big things. I love Lee Moyer’s new color. And I’m really happy to have some of the never-before-published Galactic Girl Guides stories included as a back-up feature.

Lee Moyer, who is an accomplished fantasy artist in his own right, has been a fan of Starstruck since he was a kid. He probably knows the material better than Michael and I do. Because of this, his color is not only beautiful, but helps tell the story. It makes a huge difference. Even our old fans will see things in Starstruck they may have missed before.

Some years ago, Michael and I were supposed to have done the Galactic Girl Guides for Kevin Eastman’s company, Tundra Comics. But when Tundra was bought by Kitchen Sink, the project was cancelled. Now, the first 60 pages of the Guides, drawn by Kaluta, inked by Charles Vess and colored by Lee, will appear as backup stories in the Starstruck books.

There are other things I’m happy about, as well. Michael has lengthened the pages, adding art and giving the panels much more room to breathe. I’ve added some bits and pieces and made small changes here and there. There’s a new forward in each issue, written from the perspective of one of the characters, Dwannyun of Griivarr, and there are some new glossary entries.

Starting in issue 4, we’ll have some special features, like art from “Personalities of AnarchEra” trading cards, Rootersnoos reports, ads for Pleasure Droids, Galactic Girl Guide badges, that sort of thing. Something that’s fun to look at and expands the view of the universe.

O'Shea: How did you and the remainder of the creative team decide on developing the new material, such as You Are Here or The End of the Beginning, the Galactic Girl Guides and Ordering AnarchEra?

Lee: The new forwards, or “You Are Here” segments, came from the fact that Michael and I, while just chatting about the universe all those years ago, created so much more Starstruck than we could fit into the stories. We knew the new series needed a forward and I think it was Lee who suggested writing it as a character. I had already decided that the character of Dwannyun, who hangs around the main characters and observes them throughout the series, would later become a historian and write about these characters. Though he knows a lot about the events that make up the story, you have to be careful not to take every single thing he says at face value. In some cases, his information is incomplete or flawed (to his credit, he knows this). That’s something we tried to do throughout Starstruck. A character like Brucilla may exaggerate, others will outright lie and still others may be misinformed. Like life. When you’re looking through the eyes of any one character, you’ll only get a fraction of the picture. So, now we have Dwannyun, adding his perspective.

The Girl Guides were mentioned in the play, then showed up as minor characters in the comics. But everyone seemed to love them, so we wanted to give them their own story. We took the characters of Brucilla and her gunnery sergeant, Cookie Fabre, and told stories about when they were little kids in the Galactic Girl Guides. These stories have some of the black humor of Starstruck, while being much more straightforward.

While we’ve always had a glossary in Starstruck, Ordering Anarchera (or The Omniverse According to Me) began appearing in the Dark Horse series. This is another feature written by a character. Scooter Jean appears as a Galactic Girl Guide with large, round glasses on Rec Station 97, in the issue where Galatia 9 meets Brucilla. She will later be taken in by Glorianna of Phoebus (AKA Mary Medea) and will eventually become Maiden Priestess of Phoebus and write Ordering AnarchEra. In later issues of the IDW series, we may mix it up and include a glossary that is part of the Official Galactic Girl Guide Manual. That sort of change, along with the new features that will start appearing in issue 4, help to keep me excited about what I’m doing.

O'Shea: Prior to this current tour with the Starstruck universe, when was the last time you worked with the characters?

Lee: Maybe five or six years ago, some guys bought the option to Starstruck. They wanted to do a live-action series, like the shows that were appearing on the Sci-Fi (now SyFy) Channel… Farscape… Firefly. I wrote (and was paid for) pitch documents, several scripts and I outlined a season of episodes for them. But when it finally came down to the deal, they asked us to renegotiate our contract, giving them much more control of the property than made us comfortable. We bowed out.

O'Shea: With almost a 30-year history with the characters, you clearly have never tired of them, what about them holds your interest?

Lee: I do get tired of them! At least certain ones of them, but only from time to time. There are enough characters in StarStruck that I can change to another character whenever I find myself getting bored. Back when we were doing the Marvel Epic comic series, I had been working with “the girls” – Galatia, Brucilla, Annie – for such a long time, first in the play, then the graphic novel – that I wanted a change. Harry Palmer had just been a Rec Station bartender, named for two bartenders at the neighborhood restaurant where Kaluta, Charles Vess and I hung out. I thought it would be fun to play with a new male character for a while, so the second and third books of the epic comic series are Harry’s books. We made him an ex-proldier who fought with Mary Medea in both the Revolution and Droid Wars. Harry shows up as a hologram in issue #2 of the new IDW series. We also added Randall Factor as a major player.

One thing that keeps me coming back to Starstruck, besides the fact that I love working with Michael, is that the core characters were written for the young actors who were my closest friends and family, back when I was in my twenties. Even characters that didn’t appear in the play, but only later in the comic series, were modeled on people Michael and I knew. Randall factor was Herb Briton, a regular at The Library (the aforementioned favorite bar/restaurant). Sadly, several of the friends we based characters on have died since their characters first appeared in the books. Herb (Randall) and a good friend of Michael’s, Jeff Ethel (Siegfried), as well as Paul Ratkevich (Kalif Bajar) are all no longer with us. I love the characters because I love the people we made them for.

O'Shea: I loved the information overload from ALs on page 4 of the first issue, would you like to take credit for forecasting the Twitter, news crawl, Internet news feed phenomena that we currently experience?

Lee: Ha! At this moment, I’m watching a crime drama with my computer on my lap! Every once in awhile, I interrupt this interview when a ding tells me I’ve got email, or I decide to check Facebook and I just forwarded my husband (sitting next to me, listening to music with earplugs, with his computer) an op-ed from a news site, which he immediately posted on his wall. If I hadn’t left my cell on an airplane this week, there would probably be talking, texting or twittering happening somewhere in there. But…

The ALs do it better. Androids can actually communicate on all those frequencies at once, whereas I am only halfway paying attention to the show, am taking waaaaaaaaay too long to finish the interview, and I could be making out with my husband, instead of sending him another article he already agrees with. Starstruck droids can please a partner, while chatting on numerous channels, writing poems in Stark Verse and solving the Reimann Hypothesis at one and the same time. So until we all have nano-enhanced brains that allow us to simultaneously process this stuff, the ALs will have us beat, hands down. They don’t feel physical pleasure though, at least not anything humans would recognize as pleasure.

O'Shea: What have you been doing in theater and other non-comics efforts since your initial Starstruck days?

Lee: For a few years, I overlapped comics and theatre, acting in a couple of plays, designing costumes for another and running an acting workshop. When I was expecting my son, Brennan, I stepped away from theatre and stuck to work I could do easily while being a Mom. Besides creating a number of original comics (Vamps, BrainBanx, Skin Tight Orbit) and writing others, I did comics coloring and a bit of freelance commercial art, even penciled some cartoons for a New Yorker parody.

The closest thing I did to theatre, during the “mom” years, was directing motion capture for a role-playing game, Secret of the Black Onyx, for which I had also done some writing. Then I found a niche writing kids’ animation scripts for several European companies. It seems the whole world is set up to dub films in American English into other languages. If a company in Germany uses American or Canadian writers and voice actors, it’s easier for them to sell their product in France, and vice versa. So, I wrote a whole pile of scripts for cartoons that no one in the US will ever see! But it allowed me to keep writing while homeschooling two of our three sons. I also co-authored a humorous “self-help” book, under the name Georgia Sullivan, and interviewed gay and lesbian artists and musicians for a magazine called InsideOUT. Besides working on Starstruck, I’m currently doing graphic art for a new music company, Stadium Entertainment, and beginning work on comics based on Honey West, a female pulp detective from the 50s and 60s. I love writing in that time period! I’ve also been doing prose stories for several anthologies. One of these anthologies, Chicks in Capes, is about female superheroes. Both Chicks in Capes and Honey West will be published by Moonstone. And I’m about 280 pages into a fantasy novel.

The only acting I’ve done in recent years has been playing characters in adventure games run by The Wayfinder Experience, a theatrical gaming company owned and run by two of my sons and their friends. Wayfinder’s adventure games are to the usual LARPs what Xtreme Fighting is to Queensbury Rules! Very physical, very intense and lots of fun!

O'Shea: Given the text intensity of the story, how critical was letterer Todd Klein to the story from your perspective?

Lee: Todd’s impact on the comic was huge. When Todd letters SPLOOSH, you feel wet! Starstruck always had a retro feel, even when it first came out. Slick, graphic, machine-like fonts wouldn’t have worked for it. Todd Klein makes words beautiful.

O'Shea: How did the audio recording/benefit for Gene Colan turn out? Can you talk about the "several new Starstruck pieces written specifically for the medium of audio"?

Lee: The benefit was a lot of fun! I got to see old friends, both actors from the original production and comics pals. Brent Anderson, Astro City artist and a friend I hadn’t seen in quite a few years, showed up for the event. Lance Axt of Play it by Ear and his talented cast raised a little cash for Gene and we were able to imagine how the play might work for audio. I’m busy now, doing a little rewriting of the play. There were a few things that didn’t work as well without the visuals (perfectionist writer talking), but overall, it was a great time!

The new audio pieces will be produced by AudioComics, a company formed by Lance, Bill Dufris (Mind’s Eye Productions) and Dan Bernard (Just In Time Productions). We’re thinking that the new audio pieces will happen, chronologically speaking, in that space of time between end of the comic series and the events of the play, when Galatia 9, Brucilla and the reprogrammed Erotica Ann are flying missions for the U4F. That way, each episode will be a different mission and will be a stand-alone. We’ll avoid having to explain the complex larger plot of the comics, though all the characters the readers are used to seeing will show up now and again. Some minor characters will become major ones. We’re planning big things for Rootersnoos ferret, Jimmy the Snout!

O'Shea: What are you able to do with Starstruck characters in comics that you're unable to execute on stage or in radio dramas?

Lee: Going from stage to comics, we were able to expand the universe, introduce more characters and scatter them across multiple planets, settings that would be impossible to build. Throw in some aliens! It’s much easier to draw an alien than to costume or play one! We could give Kalif a twin, without having to clone an actor. You can show the whole line of 333 Erotica Ann pleasure droids. People can float in a gravity-free atmosphere, without the use of rigs and wires. We can watch ships battle in space, rather than see actors doing the old Star Trek run across the set, from one side to the other, while lights flash. You can have extreme long shots and close-ups, scenes of one army attacking another. Violence is easier to convey. We could stretch the story to cover longer periods of time. And we could go inside the mind of a character.

With audio, the visuals will be entirely left to the listener’s imagination. So, you won’t get Kaluta’s incredible drawing or Lee’s beautiful color, though Michael may have input in the plots. We’ll have to paint the stories entirely with words and sound, which is a challenge, but can be very effective.

O'Shea: By the same token, what plot or character elements are you able to execute in stage or radio?

Lee: On stage? Sound and motion! A lot of character is revealed in a voice, or in movement, a facial expression. And music conveys emotion. In a play, you can see Brucilla bouncing around the bridge of the Harpy, or Kalif slinking around the Siren 3. You can see Annie’s amazing bod in the comics, but you can see what she does with it on stage! While in audio, everything has to be in the voice. I just had a chat with Bill Dufris about the Annie character. With the audio you can’t see what Annie looks like, so she needs to have the voice of a bimbo, while saying highly intelligent things and with a slightly robotic flavor. Her voice and her words are in direct opposition to each other. Steven Hawking, if the machine he talked through sounded like Marilyn Monroe – something like that.

I often had song lyrics and musical notes float through scenes in the comics, to indicate music was playing, but you can really hear the music in a stage production. There is a huge difference in a musical theme for Heroes and a theme for Villains. When watching the play, you knew what the characters were going to be like even before they walked onstage, because you heard it in their music.

Audio gives you even more freedom than comics, as far as the possibilities for settings go. You could send characters into an alternate universe that exists in 13 dimensions if you wanted, which would be impossible to either build as a set or draw in comic. You could only suggest it.

The challenge is to find ways to tell the story that work for each of the mediums. Solving that problem is half the fun!

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