Andrew Dabb plays with other people’s toys. Though at first glance that might sound dirty, in reality it points to a growing body of work that the young writer has amassed adapting well-loved novels, films and licensed properties to the medium of comic books and graphic novels. Practiced at the art of distilling stories down to their essentials and transferring them from prose to sequential or one visual stage to another, Dabb has been sought by companies from Devil’s Due to Slave Labor Graphics to handle such popular properties as G.I. JOE, DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, TRON and GHOSTBUSTERS with a hand that displays knowledge of the source material, a refinement of craft and a touch of dry sarcasm that makes you think while making you laugh.
Dabb, scribe of such offbeat and admittedly “mature” tales as HAPPYDALE for DC/Vertigo and VAISTRON for Slave Labor, spent some time with me this week explaining ways and means of adapting licensed products and stories into comics books.
KLEID: The past few years have seen an resurgence of comic books based on toy, film, television and book licenses. You’ve thrust your arms deep into the barrel with each, having been part of projects based on everything from GHOSTBUSTERS to G.I.JOE to DRAGONLANCE to TRON. What are the different approaches in creating comics based on novels, like with your D&D work and crafting stories based on cartoons like SIGMA SIX? How do you tackle adapting the different forms of media and is there a sort of formatted approach to each?
DABB: Writing for something like GHOSTBUSTERS, or GI JOE, you’re basically facing the same challenges as anyone working on a pre-existing property, from Batman to James Bond: There are established characters and continuity, and your job is to tell the best story you can without screwing either up too badly. Each one has its own world and, at times, very specific rules you have to be aware of and work within, which can sometimes be more creatively challenging that approaching something carte blanche.
When it comes to my DRAGONLANCE and FORGOTTEN REALMS adaptations, the story’s already there so it’s less a creative exercise than it is a technical exercise. In almost every case I’m taking a 300+ page novel and reducing it to 120 or so comic book pages, so deciding what gets in and how it gets in is the real job. You have to re-tell the story in an incredibly limited space, without putting so much in it becomes an illustrated novel (always a danger), or so little that the fans (or original author(s)) come and hunt you down. The best comparison I can think of is putting together a 1,000 piece puzzle using just 250 pieces, it works a whole different part of your brain than writing original material does.
As far as the approach, original stories based on licensed properties operate along the standard lines. A pitch (sometimes as little as a few lines) goes to the editor, if he likes it I work up a 1-3 page summary of the story which gets vetted by both the publisher and the original license holder (usually some multinational corporation), and if they both sign off a full script is written.
With the adaptations, I’ll re-read the novel marking down important plot and character beats, and then break those down into issues based on the length of the original work (one 44 page issue of my DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT adaptation which Devil’s Due is publishing right now covers about 100 novel pages, for example). Once my editor and the license holder have okayed that, I start working on the script.
KLEID: Do you think it’s worse, working with a character like Spiderman, mired in comic book continuity, or something like Ghostbusters which has a continuity that isn’t as extensive (slash fan-fic aside!) but is mired in studio input?
I KNOW there’s a difference between working on a project for Marvel and a project for Disney – we’ve both gotten our hands wet in the Disney area, working on projects like TRON and THE HAUNTED MANSION and have seen the fact that creative work goes past several levels – between editorial, studio and sometimes past creator depending on the project and characters. Thoughts on all that?
DABB: I think there are pros and cons to each approach. Working on a character like Spiderman, with all that continuity, means that you really have to be aware of what’s come before (and what the company wants to come in the future) to make your story work. On the other hand, you have a lot more toys (villains, supporting characters, etc…) to play with, and comic book continuity tends to be extremely flexible. This is a medium where no major character ever really dies, after all, and we’ve had our share of clones, alternate pasts, alternate futures, etc.
On something like Ghostbusters, especially the way we approached it at 88MPH, there was a lot less to work with. Our cannon was the first film, nothing else. So I got the opportunity to be very creative with what I added to it. But, at the same time, with Sony involved the rules and continuity that existed were very rigid. I couldn’t make Egon a heroin addict, or reveal that Louis Tully is really Peter Venkman’s botched clone. That wouldn’t fly.
In my experience, Disney is by far the most hands on licensor. They want to be involved in every aspect of production, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does tend to make the process go a bit slower. By contrast, on Ghostbusters Sony was mostly just interested in avoiding a lawsuit. So their notes revolved around, say, not using the Twinkies brand name in the script. Hasbro, I’ve found, lies just about in the middle. They have no problem giving story and art notes, but they don’t overdo it, and even when I may not agree with one of their comments, I know why they made it. To be honest, I have yet to have a horrible experience with a licensor (though I know a few people who have), so I don’t have a lot of dirt to dish.
KLEID: Speaking of Disney, is there anything you can tell us about your sordid history with TRON? It started off at 88MPH and now sits in Slave Labor Graphic’s hands. Wazzupwithdat?
DABB: For those that don’t know, way back in 2003 88MPH Studios owned the TRON license. I was hired to write a four issue mini-series based largely on the TRON 2.0 video game, with the very talented Gabe Bridwell on art. All four issues were solicited, but none of them shipped and 88MPH ended up dropping the license.
As for why, I think it was mostly a matter of a large, experienced company with high expectations (Disney), coming into contact with a very small, brand new company (88MPH) that was still working out the kinks. 88MPH simply wasn’t ready to handle two fairly major licenses (Tron and Ghostbusters), and Disney wasn’t particularly interested in waiting out some of the mistakes that are inevitable in a fledgling company (and a lot of mistakes were made).
In the end though, I think it worked out for the best. The TRON comic we were going to do at 88MPH was much more an all ages action adventure comic. The version they’re doing at Slave Labor now is a bit more intellectual and challenging, which I think is more interesting. I’m really enjoying it.
KLEID: I imagine that with several of these projects (if not all) you’re also a fan of the material. I know that when I adapted CALL OF THE WILD there were scenes I went into the project with knowing “okay – this one’s going in” but I’m sure for all the darlings you keep in, there must be hundreds you have to cut for lack of space in the book. How do you judge what stays in and what stays out when adapting a novel or previously written material?
DABB: For me, and I’m sure you ran up against this in CALL OF THE WILD as well, it all revolves around the main plot. If a chapter or sequence doesn’t move the A story along, it has to go for space considerations, no matter how good it is. That can be hard because I’m a huge fan of all the books I’m adapting (I must have read the first Drizzt book, HOMELAND, 5 times in junior high school) and I do have my favorite scenes. But, at the end of the day you only have so many panels and even things you love are going to get left out, not to mention scenes other people love.
I still remember a review the first issue of DRAGONLANCE got when it came out last year, where the reviewer basically said that even though some people’s favorite bits might not be in the comic, it was worth buying. A month later the second issue came out and the same reviewer went on a tirade about how we’d left out HIS favorite scene, and concluded that the comic sucked. That’s just the way things go, no matter what you put in, someone will love you for it. And not matter what you leave you; someone will hate you for it. You just hope the former outnumber the latter.