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How (and Why) We Reverse-Engineered a Screenplay Into a Comic Book
Michael Stark writes:
"Pay the writer." – Harlan Ellison
"I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process." – Michael Tolkin, The Player
The comic book we're currently hawking — Wolverton, Thief of Impossible Objects — started out as an original screenplay. We thought it had everything Hollywood could possibly want – a high concept, four-quadrant, family friendly, tentpole franchise with the three lead roles interchangeably perfect for Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, and Fassbender. Sounds like something that couldn't possibly miss, right? There was only one hitch.
It wasn't a comic book first!
So, our high concept, four-quadrant, family friendly, tentpole franchise with the three lead roles interchangeably perfect for Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, and Fassbender didn't set off the spectacular bidding war that was prophesized over us by that damn itinerant minister that rode into our little town one dark and stormy night.
It did, however, get picked up by an A-list producer with a studio deal, who managed to seduce away a free option and a few free rewrites. This was a taboo I'd never have considered 20 years prior when I was a working, CAA-repped screenwriter. But, as a poor schmuck pretty much starting all over again after a long absence. I had to submit to the new, humiliating normals of the business.
Paying one's dues now means not getting paid.
Because my life is a cross between a French farce and a Gypsy curse, when we finally had the perfect draft to take to the studio, the champion of our project left the company, and Wolverton spiraled down, down, down, Dante style into the Development Hell.
We tried again with a new manager, but, again, no spectacular bidding war. The sparking dialogue and insane action sequences might have been a director's wet dream, but the studio bean counters just couldn't see making a 150 million dollar movie that wasn't based on existing IP. "If only it was a comic book first" they said!
We kept hearing that at every bottled water meeting we had in LA. "If only it was comic book, I could make it." "I know, get this guys. (leaning in dramatically) What if it was a comic book?"
Then we had a deal suddenly brewing with a famed publisher with a brand-new film division for a graphic novel and then, depending on sales, a movie!
That was until it suddenly un-brewed.
So, with our usual, can do, American moxie, we asked ourselves: just how hard can it be to make it a comic book?
18 pallets of Tums and Imodium later, we found out just how hard it could be. Oh, and expensive, too. Cause, unlike Hollywood, these poor writers paid their starving artists!
But, that is a story I'm sure most of your readers are familiar with. It ain't easy making indie comic books.
THE HOW (ADAPTATION)
So, how did we distill a 110-page screenplay into a six-arc comic book series?
It wasn't that different from adapting an 800-page book into a two-hour movie. It's not just cutting out the boring bits, because – hey! — our script hardly had any boring bits. It's all about finding the right architecture. We were no longer building a skyscraper, but six separate, not-so-shabby office parks.
Is also wasn't fudging with Final Draft's margins, although we did cheat a bit. We made each comic book 26 pages instead of the customary 22, allowing us to pack in a lot more story. Which, for you, the consumer, is always nice.
We needed to make sure that each issue was self contained. They all needed a beginning, middle, and an end. We couldn't afford to have an issue that was just filler for plot elements that would pay off later. No place holding or exposition dumping episodes.
What producers loved about Wolverton were the crazy set pieces. We needed to keep those in. So, in the reverse engineering, we made every issue about a heist. #1 one would be Wolverton stealing the Monkey's Paw from an uncrackable safe, aboard a heavily guarded ship, in the middle of the ocean, during the Storm of the Century! Issue 2 would be set around nicking The Hope Diamond from The British Museum. Character and exposition would all be laid out within the action sequences. It was no longer a page by page adaptation of the script. The comic book scripts were more chapters in an old fashioned Saturday Morning serial like Flash Gordon or the Lone Ranger.
While our initial goal was making Wolverton a movie, we're thrilled that we managed to produce a really cool comic book instead!
When a writer takes over an existing property like Batman or Spider-Man, they have decades of world building, character development and supporting cast member to work with. A comic book scribe creating a new book out of thin air doesn't have it so easy. How do they build this whole new world from scratch? I've seen some use the Syd Field screenplay method of index cards taped to a huge white board. I'm sure by now some genius has created an app for that.
While a new comic's creator is working off post its, scribbled notes or even a detailed treatment, we already had a dozen drafts hammered out, including those written for producers with their long laundry list of notes factored in. With everything from the sequels to the breakfast cereal planned, we had a huge head start transferring Wolverton's world from script to sequential art.
To anyone who has an unproduced script or a unpublished novel locked in a desk or parked on a disk drive, finally seeing your work as a finished, full-color product was glorious. The smell of the ink. The papercuts! It was now, after so many long years, something real!
Terrell and I may have read a ton of comic books, but we were totally naïve in how to actually make one. We relied on our artist, Derek Rodenbeck, to guide us Sherpa style up this mountain. I've written screenplays for over 30 years. It's pretty much the only format I know how to write in. Luckily, the comic book scripts I managed to find weren't that different.
Realizing that our Sherpa knew more than we did, we gave him a wide berth on changing the page and panel count. This caused a few story elements left on the cutting room floor. In book 2, we had too much story that couldn't be sacrificed. So, even though my drawing ability was stick figures at best, I doodled out every page to make sure the story would fit. Like film, comics are a visual medium. These days, with my beloved text boxes of yore so out of fashion, it's even more a visual medium. I wrote the script for the second issue as if I were the director, breaking it all down as storyboards.
THE FINISHED PRODUCT
Because we come from a film background, we had no idea that our home base of Atlanta was a hot bed of comic book talent. It's definitely a great community. Since moving down here, the city has transformed into Hillbilly Hollywood with The Walking Dead and Marvel's production base at Pinewood Studios just minutes away from my burbs.
Luckily we have a lot of friends in production, so just about every star of The Avengers and The Walking Dead have been handed a copy of Wolverton.
And, I'll tell you one thing. You can't hand anyone a screenplay. It has to go through a bloody, booby trapped, blind alley of official channels and no one wants to read that behemoth anyway. But, a comic book? A free comic book handed to you? That's like getting a pony for your birthday! When I've personally handed someone a free comic book, their faces light up and it's all smiles and slaps on the backs after that!
So, my advice to all you other disgruntled screenwriter out there: start making ponies!
Oh, and it also nice when Hollywood actually buys a copy of your comic book, too! 'Cause existing IP is soooo much better than an original screenplay.
JUST ONE MORE THING
By the time this article comes out, we'll be in the middle of our Kickstarter campaign for Issue #2. Please be a mensch and a Medici by helping out a couple of schmucks with Underwoods. The link we really appreciate you'd click on is here.
A Special Pledge Level for Bleeding Cool Readers will be added, so act now!
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