by Rick Klaw
Long a mainstay of comic book publishing, licensed properties comprise a significant portion of the contemporary marketplace. Series and graphic novels based on diverse properties such as Conan, Toy Story, The Lone Ranger, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, G.I. Joe, and Star Wars litter store shelves. I recently spoke with three writers who work on some of these properties. Paul Benjamin (Muppet King Arthur), Alan J. Porter (Cars), and Bill Williams (Spike: The Devil You Know) offer some frank, behind-the-scenes commentary on working with licensed properties.
What properties are you currently working on? What properties have you worked on in the past?
Bill Williams (BW): I have been writing the Eddie Hope backup stories in the back of IDW's Angel comics for a few months. I am partnered with Bill Willingham and our first issue was #28. A trade paperback reprinting our first five issues comes out in time for the San Diego Comic Convention. I also wrote a Spike mini-series that is coming out from IDW now. For the moment, I'm all over the manly end of the Whedonverse.
Before that, I co-wrote a couple of issues of Robin for DC and I wrote an issue of the Justice League Unlimited comic that was based on the animated show. That was a lot of fun to write, because I got to put words in Superman's mouth.
How did you get involved with the licensed properties?
BW: I got pulled into the deal by Willingham. Mariah Huehner worked with him as an assistant editor on Fables at DC and she wanted to work with him at her new home at IDW. He generously wrote me into the pitch giving me four pages a month to put on a show with Eddie, who is new to the Wonderful World of Whedon.
I pitched a Spike and Eddie project as a way to showcase both of the characters. Originally Spike: The Devil You Know was "24 with vampires" but by the time I finished the last script it was more like 48 Hours.
How does writing this property compare to doing your own work? Which do you prefer?
BW: A creator should balance playing with their own characters and with someone else's toys. It gives a fresh perspective on the creative process. I like them more or less equally but for different reasons.
How much creative control do you have?
BW: One of the scenes I had to cut was a splash with Spike holding a demon informant upside-down in a toilet as he asks him for information. The grilling-the-stoolie scene is a staple of detective fiction and every fourth Batman comic book seems to have him dangling some lowlife off of a high-rise. But I was told that Spike was a hero and that kind of behavior was out of bounds. No using a green-skinned informant as a demonic toilet brush for my little script.
I cut it upon request. When you have no ownership stake or control, the changes get made even if they alter the flow of the story. The rights holders have a duty to maintain the properties they manage. So I rewrote the scene and a new scene appears in the third issue. It is part of the job and if you can't make changes at the request of the client, this type of writing might not be the line of work for you.
How has working on licensed properties affected your career?
BW: It's too soon to tell in my case. The work in the Angel comic lists me as scripting four pages a month. It's not an impressive or accurate credit. But the Spike mini-series is my kid. I carried it from pitch to final project and worked with studio and editorial notes to make a fun comic. That one should open doors for me in those markets.
I also have a mystery novel with an agent. I hear good things about a spec television pilot that I script-doctored earlier in the year for a local production company. I have a new screenplay that I'm high on and a few other things in the works. Since the comic publishers love to raid other media, who knows where all of this will lead.