Mike Russell Journeys To The Center Of The Whedonverse With Dark Horse Comics' Scott Allie! Exclusive SERENITY Preview Art!
Published at: March 22, 2010, 4:17 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
THE AICN Q&A:
Above: Scott Allie. Photo by Melinda Allie; art by Kevin McGovern.
Dark Horse Comics editor/writer Scott Allie -- whom I've known and occasionally worked with over the past 15 years -- dropped me a line a few weeks ago. He was wondering if I'd submit some spoofy backup comic strips for consideration in the letter-column pages on future Dark Horse "Serenity" books. *
* (My editing of a semi-defunct website collecting "Firefly" fan webcomics -- or, as I like to call it, "the single nerdiest thing I've ever done in my life" -- probably had something to do with his offer.)
Anyway. I also suggested we do a Q&A for AICN, mostly because I wanted a sneak peek at what Scott was working on. The backup comics may or may not happen, for all kinds of reasons. But the Q&A totally did, and it accidentally went on for two hours. So here you go.
Dark Horse is putting out two new Joss Whedon-supervised "Serenity" comics this year. You'll find some preview art below. Coincidentally, the two comics deal (in very different ways) with characters who died in Whedon's 2005 "Serenity" film.
"Float Out," due in June, is written by comedian Patton Oswalt, who pitched the story to Whedon while guest-starring on "Dollhouse." Among other things, it's a 24-page collection of memories about wisecracking pilot Hoban "Wash" Washburne -- and it's notable for being the first "Serenity" comic-book story that isn't set entirely between the TV show "Firefly" and the movie. Like the characters in the story (who aren't necessarily the characters you'd expect), we're moving forward.
Due this fall, "The Shepherd's Tale" is an original graphic novel written by Zack Whedon ("Terminator," "Dr. Horrible") from a detailed outline by his brother Joss. It reveals space-preacher Shepherd Book's past, it's structurally fascinating and surprising, and from what I was allowed to read, I'd guess Ron Glass is powerfully sad he didn't get to play this story onscreen -- it would have been one of the great episodes of "Firefly" had Whedon gotten a chance to film it.
Artistically, the books represent a major departure from the more straightforward look of the first two "Serenity" comics miniseries, "Those Left Behind" and "Better Days." "Float Out" artist Patric Reynolds has a rough-hewn, expressive style that Allie describes below as "sort of Kent Williams-style art." And "The Shepherd's Tale" gets a gorgeously high-contrast treatment from the great Chris Samnee ("Capote in Kansas") that acts as a stark counterpoint to the moral grays in Book's life. Allie says he and Whedon wanted "to get away from the precise look we'd had in 'Serenity' comics. And that's what we got with these two guys."
Again, I've known Scott and workedwithhim off and on for 15 years. It's been fun to watch him go from being the poor bastard who had to try and keep Dark Horse's hilarious-but-unwieldy "Instant Piano" afloat to the guy who edits comics that include Whedon's "Buffy" and "Serenity" titles, "Hellboy," "Conan" and "The Umbrella Academy," among others. He's also built a comics-writing career that ranges from his mid-'90s self-published horror anthology "Sick Smiles" (to which, full disclosure, I contributed), to "The Devil's Footprints," "Exurbia," "Star Wars: Empire" and "Solomon Kane."
We talked for a ridiculous amount of time about "Serenity," "Buffy," Joss Whedon, Evan Dorkin, fan management, future publishing plans, the recent "Buffy" cover fiasco, how licensing works, Gerard Way, the negated "Dollhouse" comic, and the hilarious trainwreck that was "Instant Piano." An edited transcript follows.
-- Cheers, Mike Russell.
PATTON OSWALT WRITES AN ELEGY
MIKE RUSSELL: The Wash story ("Float Out") is the first "Serenity" comic that isn't completely a prequel. Was that a big deal -- deciding to move forward through time? And is there any chance of future "Serenity" comics that aren't prequels?
SCOTT ALLIE: Yes, there's a chance of more "Serenity" comics going in that direction. The funny thing is, the way the book came about -- and the way the decision came about to finally move forward -- was just that Patton Oswalt pitched us a story.
To backtrack a little: Joss and I have often talked about needing to keep the comic stories set between the TV series and the film. And everybody probably assumes that's because Joss wants to make another film or TV series. But I don't think that alone would prevent him from moving forward. The thing I think he cares the most about -- the thing he talks about the most -- is this full cast. And you don't have this cast together post-film.
But there's that time between series and film that they were all together, doing stuff. And I don't think there's anything concrete in the film to tell you how long it's been, how much time you have to play with -- maybe I'm wrong about that. So we could keep doing the comic, puttying in that space -- arbitrarily deciding it's five years and giving you every minute of it and publishing a thousand comics.
The way "Float Out" came about is Patton was guest-starring on "Dollhouse," and he's a big comics fan, and he told Joss, "I want to write a 'Serenity' comic." And I think Joss was skeptical that he'd get to it -- it's busy times for Patton -- but he told Patton to pitch him something.
And Patton had never done anything like this before. He'd done a couple of little comics things, but to do a licensed comic.... Also, "Serenity" is funny -- but it's not as funny as Patton Oswalt.
RUSSELL: And Oswalt's humor is very reference-based. "Serenity"'s isn't.
ALLIE: Yeah. I've listened to the record he put out last year ["My Weakness Is Strong"] a thousand times. When Kevin McGovern and I were doing our "Exurbia" book tour, Kevin had never really heard Patton, and I popped that thing in while we were driving down the coast, and we listened to it over and over again. And the funny thing is that there's a lot of rat humor on the disc [a drunk talking rat figures prominently in "Exurbia"] -- there's all the references to "Ratatouille," and there's that weird bit about the rat in his backyard that's painfully funny. Kevin and I practically crashed the car listening to that.
ALLIE: So great. But yeah -- he's funnier than "Serenity" generally is.
Patton pitched Joss a number of stories. Joss only told me about one other idea of Patton's, which had to do with River -- but logistically, it didn't fit. But then there was this Wash story that was really straight and really sweet....
RUSSELL: Yeah. Without getting into any spoilers, it has a very melancholic tone toward the end. I don't know if "elegiac" is the word you want to use...
ALLIE: It's a very serious story, with great bits of humor. I think Patton's a great guy to write Wash, but Wash's humor is pretty understated -- and Patton delivers it. The decision to move forward in time simply came from the fact that this was the best story we were handed.
MEANWHILE, BOOK GETS HIS BACKSTORY
RUSSELL: The other thing that's notable about these two new "Serenity" comics is that both deal very specifically with the deaths from the 2005 film.
ALLIE: Total coincidence.
RUSSELL: And they have very different takes on memorializing their characters -- one is funny, one is more epic and surprising. And they're both structurally ambitious.
ALLIE: Patton's is pretty elaborate, but less so because of the size -- it's only 24 pages, with three medium-sized flashbacks -- rather than the more elaborate flashback system that Joss and Zack build in "The Shepherd's Tale."
We haven't had a "Serenity" comic in a few years, and now we have two coming out the same year, and they both just happen to be about the two guys that we lost. That wasn't deliberate -- that's just the way it came together. Joss had the Book story that we wanted to do, "The Shepherd's Tale," and we've been wanting to put it together for year. We've been so focused on "Buffy Season Eight," it's been hard to get it going.
RUSSELL: Yeah, I first read mention of "Shepherd's Tale" in -- what? -- 2007?
ALLIE: Probably. The Browncoats were gonna do a cruise, and Ron Glass was gonna be on it. He got a hold of Joss and said, "Look, man, I'm going to be on a boat for four days. And for four days, all anybody's gonna ask me is, 'Where did Book come from? What's his backstory?' -- and I can't tell them anything. Please let me tell them something finally."
And Joss wrote back to Ron with the four bullet points. [Those bullet points were: "1. A part of Shepherd Book is artificial. 2. He found God in a bowl of soup. 3. Book is best-known for his greatest failure. 4. 'Derrial' is not his real name. He took that name from a man he killed."]
And Joss told Ron that Dark Horse was going to do a graphic novel, and he laid out at that point to Ron and to me what the structure was going to be and some of the major beats it was going to hit, and some of the ... unique qualities of the story.
But Joss wasn't going to write it himself. He was just gonna outline it -- which he did not do immediately. So the question was, "Okay -- who's gonna write it?" Our immediate answer: "Jane Espenson." But that's our answer to every question. And she's, um, fairly busy -- we already knew that we were going to lean on her pretty heavily for something in "Season Eight," because she's such a powerhouse and she gets it so well.
Eventually -- I think it was early summer 2009 -- Joss jammed out the outline. And I said, "Oh, crap. I don't have a writer lined up." There was someone else I was talking to, but it didn't pan out, and now I'm not ready to just jump on it and have a comic made, and I felt pretty crappy about that, because it had already been a long time.
But there was one name that came up on our end, that both Sierra Hahn -- my co-editor on the "Buffy" stuff -- and I were really excited about: Zack Whedon. But we didn't want to ask him to follow in his brother's footsteps on "Serenity." At that point, we were kicking around the idea of asking him to write the "Terminator" series for Dark Horse. Sierra said, "He's amazing, but I don't think he'd want to do it." I told her she had to ask him. And he agreed.
And what they've managed to do together on that has been awesome. Doing "Terminator" with Sierra set Zack up as a comics writer in his own right -- so with "Terminator" underway, it didn't feel like putting him on "Serenity" was putting him in his brother's shadow. We didn't want it to feel that way for the sake of Zack's long-term outlook as a writer; commercially, it's an awesome move for the book, but I didn't want it to look like he was playing second fiddle to his brother.
RUSSELL: Well, my non-scientific take on the fan temperature is that "Dr. Horrible" proved to them that Zack Whedon's ability transcends charges of nepotism.
ALLIE: Absolutely. And he was on "Deadwood" and "Fringe." I think he's just having a really good time writing comics -- doing the "Dr. Horrible" and "Terminator" stuff with Sierra. And you've read part of Zack's script for "Shepherd's Tale." It's amazing.
Any writer jumping into Joss' world -- the voices and the ways the stories operate are so distinct. Either it works or it doesn't. And in my experience with the pre-"Season Eight" Buffy comics, I've seen it not work. Simply because the guy is Joss' brother doesn't mean he's going to be able to pull it off. But then we got the first chunk of script -- in particular, the scene where we're on Serenity and almost every character is accounted for -- I said, "This is the best scene of the TV show that we've gotten in five years."
RUSSELL: That scene in the comic sort of echoes the opening shot of "Serenity" -- where we're moving through the ship and meeting all the characters.
ALLIE: Yeah. The line that sealed the deal for me was when Wash says to Book, "You maybe definitely don't want to go in there right now." Oh, man -- that's the show. Every line. The scene between Mal and Zoe -- it's perfectly right there. We knew we had it. Zack's able to deliver on the established "Firefly" style and do something that's worthy of his talent at the same time.
RUSSELL: Yeah, reading the outline, it did strike me that "The Shepherd's Tale" could have been one of the great "Firefly" episodes. If I were Ron Glass and I learned the story of this episode, I'd be mega-pissed I didn't get to act it.
ALLIE: [laughs] Yeah, he left a voicemail for my publicist the other day. Now that he's read some of the script, he said, "Man, reading this just makes me want to play the character again." I think we'd all like that. I feel like "Shepherd's Tale" and "Float Out" are the best job we've done of recreating what works about these worlds.
And it's so surprising that Patton recreated it the way he did. Zack writes very smart, character-driven, plot-driven genre fiction. For Zack to nail it -- well, that's his job. I didn't know it was Patton's job. But man.
'WE ARE GOING TO RAMP UP WHEDONVERSE EFFORTS'
RUSSELL: Reading Whedon's outline for "The Shepherd's Tale," it's clear this was a TV episode idea he'd been kicking around in his head for a while. Are there any other great "untold stories" from the series rattling around in there?
ALLIE: There definitely are. Last summer, we had a long conversation about what we're going to do with "Firefly" and "Serenity." There was this Internet rumor saying that IDW whould do "Firefly" Season 2. I was like, "Wait -- aren't we doing that?" So I talked to IDW, and it was fans starting the rumors, not them. I talked to Joss about it and said, "I'd love to do more of this stuff. Do you? Do you want to give me a framework?" And he didn't. I asked him if he had any desire to see a "Season Eight" volume of work come out on "Serenity." At this time, he does not.
But we talked about next year, and we are going to ramp up Whedonverse efforts. You're going to see more coming out that will have an equal amount of involvement as what Joss has done in "Season Eight." We're going to continue to only do as much stuff as Joss has time to do. It'll be more than it's been in the past -- but it won't include "Firefly Season 2" or anything like that. I hope to get a "Serenity" book out a year, which will be a huge improvement. Sixty or 70 pages a year would be the goal.
What Joss wants to do with "Buffy" next is an elaborate story that needs multi-dimensions and a lot of continuity, that sort of thing. That's less what he's thinking with "Firefly" and "Serenity."
RUSSELL: It seems like he'd have more brain space for it now that "Dollhouse" has ended.
ALLIE: You'd think, but no. He's a crazy-busy guy. One thing I didn't know about -- and I don't know how seriously to take this -- Eliza said something about them doing a feature together, and the Internet's been making a big deal about it these last couple of days. Man. That'd be bad news for me. [laughs] 'Cause "Cabin"'s coming out next year. But if he winds up doing a feature film with Eliza, that'll get busy.
ALLIE: Yeah, something like that. I don't know what'll happen with "Goners." Studios constantly get these massive shakeups where people disappear off the face of the earth --
RUSSELL: And all the projects they were shepherding along with them.
ALLIE: Right. Who knows about that crazy business. But my hope is that Joss gets more time to do things like "Dr. Horrible" -- the online things -- and these comics. He has said he wants to do more original comics along the lines of "Sugarshock." I think we probably won't get to a point where we see him writing more "Serenity" comics -- he'll continue in his executive-producer role.
His role in these two new "Serenity" comics is real consistent with his "Buffy Season Eight" role. With "Float Out," Patton pitched him some stories, Joss picked one, gave him notes. There's one story beat that's very specific to Joss that he handed to Patton.
So that's the level of involvement from Joss: He's editing the scripts pretty heavily -- usually before I ever see them. A couple of times we've received them simultaneously, but he always does an edit before I ever do anything.
RUSSELL: Yeah, his dictated "Shepherd's Tale" outline read like he was breaking a story for TV.
ALLIE: Yeah. That's one of the things that I've learned from him -- how to work with other writers. So much of "Season Eight" is about Joss using his particular genius to get their skills to work in his world. He very much looks at the comics projects as running a show.
As I've said in a lot of interviews I've done over the years, he just sent me the Issue 1 script one day and said, "Hey! We're doing Season Eight!" Uh, what? And then he said, "This is how we're going to figure it out, and I'm only going to write four, and then other people are going to write the rest of it, and it'll be 22 issues...."
RUSSELL: He just unleashed it on you one day with no notice?
ALLIE: Yeah. I mean, we'd been talking very hypothetically about it for years -- but in the hypothetical conversation, we'd never discussed him writing it. It was always, "Well, I'll give you a direction, and maybe we can get Jane to write it." (Again, it's always Jane.) The involvement he's actually had is far, far more than what we were talking about back then.
But when he turned in that first script, he started working on an overview that came in the form of a letter that he sent to a bunch of writers and to me. I think around that time, he said that Brad Meltzer would end up writing the second-to-last arc; we've known that for a very long time. And he told us at that point who Twilight was -- I still can't say the words out loud in case there's one person out there who doesn't want it spoiled for them -- but at that point we knew who Twilight was and how we were going to get there.
ANATOMY OF A COCK-UP, PART 1: THE 'BUFFY' COVER FIASCO
RUSSELL: You want to address that whole 'Buffy' cover fiasco? What the hell happened there?
[Backstory: In January 2010, uncensored covers for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight" #34 were accidentally released online as previews, even though censored covers had been created. The uncensored Issue 34 covers ruined the big surprise of Issue 33 a whopping two months early, a big surprise that Dark Horse and Whedon and the creative team had been building for years: Angel is the masked villain Twilight. Fan reaction was insane. If you want a taste of what Scott Allie's life was like right around then, hereareafewsamplesofposts at Whedonesque, many of them using the term "Twilightgate."]
ALLIE: Yeah, sure. What the hell happened there was that data exists, and when it exists, it doesn't go away.
Okay. We knew that Angel would be unmasked as Twilight in "Buffy Season Eight" # 33, and we had it all worked out how that was going to happen. We knew a long ways out that it would happen in Brad's arc. And then we were breaking out the covers: "Brad's first cover, we're gonna do this. The second cover, we're going to have Twilight unmasked, but so we can't see him -- just the back of Twilight's head and Buffy in shock."
But the next cover -- don't we want to put Angel on that cover? Yeah, we do. But the way solicitations work, Issue 33 will go on sale the first Wednesday of a given month -- that's when he gets unmasked -- but previews of your next two covers are already out before that comic's out. So technically, you can't put Angel on the cover of 34 or 35. But man, you really want to get Angel on the cover, you know?
So what you can do is have Jo Chen do the covers with Angel on them, and have Georges Jeanty do the covers with Angel on them, and then we'll just censor it. And so on the Issue 34 cover by Jo, it's this really nice embrace with Angel and Buffy kind of intertwined together -- and for any advance promotion or catalogs for that one, we'll just zoom in on Buffy's face and the solicit will just be that big blowup of Buffy's face with "NOT ACTUAL COVER" written on it. That's good enough.
And then for Issue 35, the cover is Angel's mug in the middle of the cover with Buffy below him looking anguished, and then all these other floating heads kind of around him looking mad -- everybody's pissed, because Angel's back and Buffy's really freaked out because it's her fault, like everything else. So on that one, we say, "Jo, if we give you a few extra bucks, can you do a version of the cover where he's got the mask on?" And we'll use that one for marketing purposes.
All right. Great.
So the Previews catalog is getting put together to get sent to Diamond way before they need it. I see it. Everybody sees it. We make sure it's the right censored versions of the covers: no appearance of Angel, no hint or mention. Great. Those go out.
But it turns out at Dark Horse there's a whole separate process for pulling together the Previews information and giving it to Diamond online and to a couple of other outlets. And the people who took care of that process weren't as much in the loop about the spoiler situation. And so they grabbed the wrong versions of the covers and sent them out and they immediately went online -- and the cat was out of the bag.
RUSSELL: And everybody freaked out.
ALLIE: Including us. Yup.
It was Georges who tipped me off to it. I was having my typical frantic afternoon, just trying to get some stuff done, and I get this e-mail from Georges that was confusing and, um, terrifying. I saw that it was copied to Sierra, so I went over to Sierra's office, saying, "What does this mean? What does this mean? It means -- oh my God. It can't be."
And the ground just fell out from under me, because for four years, I've kept the best nerd secret I've ever been charged with, and we held on to it, and a bunch of people at Dark Horse knew about it, and everybody was taking really good care of this awesome secret that was gonna kill when the comic came out, and we'd figured out a great plan for how not to spoil it ahead of time. And now I'm thinking, "Did we really blow it? Do I really have to call Joss and Brad and other people to tell them that we blew it?"
I call Georges. Sierra goes online. And yeah -- it's out there, and it's out there in multiple places. And if it had only been sent to Diamond and it hadn't already been picked up, we could have gotten Diamond to drop it instantaneously and the cat would have gone back into the bag. But the Internet doesn't work like that.
RUSSELL: When you started out in this business, the Internet wasn't anywhere near what it is now. It's become so much harder to keep a secret.
ALLIE: Yeah. Well, you know, a funny thing happened with "Buffy Season Eight": It's a pretty standard thing to send comic previews to your major, respectable news outlets. So we sent a complete PDF of "Buffy" # 1 to a bunch of news outlets, including USA Today.... And the person at USA Today we sent it to took the entire PDF and posted it on their blog -- like a month or two months before the comic was going to come out. They just decided they were in the publishing-of-comics business all of a sudden. Wow! So that's hampered our ability to send PDFs out to the press, because who knows whose blog it's gonna turn up on?
RUSSELL: So you had to make the call to Joss. What he philosophical, or did he just lose his shit?
ALLIE: He was wildly philosophical about it. It was amazing. Brad was a bit more shaken up about it than Joss was. But I think the thing is, Joss has been through it enough, and ironically.... Do you watch "Dollhouse"? This all happened the day before Boyd was outed [as a Rossum Corporation co-founder]. No one spoiled that. So when we talked about it again on Saturday, he said, "Well, only one of my big things got wrecked this week."
The good thing was that I watched "Dollhouse" when it actually aired that Friday night, and afterward, I hopped on a couple of Web sites to see what people were saying, and I felt like the damage was already passing them by -- because what I was hearing was, "Joss blew my mind twice this week. First Angel, now Boyd." Oh -- so now you're viewing it in the light of good storytelling rather than bad marketing. Good. Hopefully we'll all get there someday.
RUSSELL: Perversely, this may have the effect of boosting sales for that particular issue of "Buffy."
ALLIE: It will. And if marketing had their druthers, we would have deliberately marketed this. Angel's coming back? He's the villain? Of course that's a good marketing hook. But storytelling-wise, you'd want to keep that secret.
But man. The comic comes out this coming Wednesday [March 3], and I wanted to show you how well the reveal is handled. It's so cool. And for very few readers will it work the way it was supposed to work. There's a panel where she's pulling the mask off him, and you're not supposed to know who it is yet. If you'd turned the page not knowing who it was, you'd go, "Oh, that's kind of great."
But Joss was cool about it. I told him: "The covers for 34 got out." And he says, "Which cover?" And I say, "No, you misheard me. Both of them." And I know where he's going: If only Jo's cover had gotten out, there was a huge amount of plausible deniability -- we could have just ignored it and fans would have been speculating on very good information. But because Georges' cover got out -- man. You've got a good picture of Angel wearing the costume with no mask on. There's no two ways about that one.
And Dark Horse had spontaneously manufactured this whole campaign of obfuscation that we budgeted on the spot. We talked to Mike Richardson about it, and he said, "Here's what you do. Create a bunch of artwork to make it look like Twilight could be anyone." I said, "Okay, I'm gonna need about $2,500 to make that happen." He said, "Just do it." Then Joss calls back and I tell him what we want to do: "We're gonna confuse everybody so much that we're not gonna be sure who Twilight is."
And Joss said, "No." And he was right -- he was totally right. He'd been through it in ways we hadn't before. All our campaign of obfuscation would accomplish is that after fans had been presented with incontrovertible evidence and said "Really?," from us they'd get, "No! Not really!" And then, two months later, the comic comes out and they say, "So it was exactly what we thought it was, and all you've done is try to confuse us."
RUSSELL: And then they think you're liars.
ALLIE: Yeah. Then we look like dicks. Not only did we screw up, but then our fix is an elaborate lie. Well, they're gonna say that about us anyway. [laughs] So Joss said, "No. Just get out in front of it, acknowledge it, and move past it."
So we did that, and there were some people mad at us for that, too, because we mishandled it. I'd never dealt with this sort of thing before, where a secret that people really cared about -- the specific question of the series that's we'd held out for three years to get them interested -- is screwed up two months before it's supposed to get out.
Recently, it was revealed in "Hellboy" that Hellboy is the bloodline of Arthur. I've held on to that secret for longer -- I've known that for ten years, I think. But nobody was asking, "Who's Hellboy's great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather?" The Hellboy storyline doesn't pose the question, so nobody's wondering when you're going to announce it -- it's interesting, not the revelation of who killed Laura Palmer.
RUSSELL: Right. Can you imagine if "The Empire Strikes Back" had come out in the Internet era?
ALLIE: Yeah. And remember that yourself, as a kid. Now there's so much media. When we saw that movie as kids, I knew nothing about what was happening until the minute he said that line. And even now I'm afraid to say it, because someone online is gonna go, "You dick! Why'd you say that? You should have put a spoiler warning on the interview that you were gonna ruin 'Empire Strikes Back' for me!"
Yeah. People got so damn mad. In one interview, I tried to compare it to something recent: "I'm a big fan of the TV show "Dexter." What if they'd screwed up the death of Rita -- what if that had leaked?" To which the Internet said, "What? Rita died? Why'd you say that in the interview?!" Aw, man. You can't win. Abraham Lincoln got shot in a theater.
THE ART OF FAN MANAGEMENT
RUSSELL: How much of your job involves fan-management?
ALLIE: Not that much. If I do it, I don't do it that well, because many of them are angry. [laughs] The fans don't like me. But I do like it.
RUSSELL: It seems to me at least part of your job is acting as a buffer between the fans and Whedon himself.
ALLIE: I think it's that Dark Horse likes to address the audience. Joss isn't gonna do it. I think I do it more on behalf of Dark Horse than I do on behalf of Joss. Probably, if it were up to Joss, he'd say, "Oh, spare yourself."
I was on a panel with Joe Quesada a few years ago, and he was talking about this subject. And he was saying the great thing with comics was that you can produce a comic relatively quickly -- so if fans respond negatively to something, he can change it in the space of three or four months. And I was like: But why would you? Okay, I guess that makes sense for that particular business model -- but I think in some ways, part of my "fan management" is protecting creators from that influence.
For instance, with Mignola, he's pretty immune to audience feedback. He's got a vision of what he wants to do, a storyline he wants to tell, and how he wants to tell it. And sometimes he'll see something on the Internet where people don't like what he's doing -- and at that point, part of my "fan management" becomes: "No, Mike -- stick to your guns. You know what you want to do. You've got to tell the story that you want to tell."
So it was weird to me, listening to Joey say that on the panel. If you don't like Peter Parker marrying Mary Jane, we'll get 'em divorced inside of four months! Really? I mean, obviously, they wouldn't do it about something that big -- but I guess that is partly how this kind of entertainment gets made. I don't want to see us do that. If we do something that doesn't work, we need to fix it -- but the judgment of whether it works or not should ultimately be ours.
RUSSELL: Well, to be fair, DC and Marvel are managing brands as well as telling stories. And with Mignola and Whedon, there's a much greater sense of the authorship boiling down to one man.
ALLIE: Yeah. In terms of the fan management, I want them to like our stuff, and I want them to be taken care of by us. One friend of mine who doesn't write for Dark Horse -- he writes for one of the other companies, and he's a pretty big guy in the industry -- he's constantly telling me stories about how some fan blasted him on a message board and he replied. And I'm like, "Really? Why? They're supposed to blast you on the message boards, and the message boards are for them."
That's one thing it took me a long time to understand, and I think my understanding of this grows year by year: The message boards belong to them. They're not someplace we need to go to straighten out every misconception.
RUSSELL: It's a community, and they don't want a mayor.
ALLIE: Well, I think if they're a community and we walk in thinking we're the mayor, that's a mistake. We're not the mayor. We're Cuba. We're not the locals or the natives. If anything, we're the oppressor who needs to be crushed.
That was something I noticed on the "Hellboy" message boards over the years: There's be some great conversation going on between the fans -- and maybe half of them I'd disagree with and the other half I'd be going, "Yeah, you tell 'em." And I'd be watching the conversation, and then at some point I'd jump in and add my two cents -- and BOOM, that was the end of that thread. I realized, "Oh -- I just totally squashed dialogue without meaning to." It's not like I came in and said, "You guys are right and you guys are dicks. Here's the truth." I'd come in with some information and some fact and some opinion, and having that word come in would kind of kill the fun, I think.
RUSSELL: You're like the final commission report.
ALLIE: Yeah. So I realized that's not what it's for-- they want to be in there having that dialogue. And they like hearing from the people more closely related to the books, but that's not the point.
THE OGN AS STORY VEHICLE
RUSSELL: "The Shepherd's Tale" is going to be released as an original graphic novel (OGN) -- which strikes me as a good move, given the story structure. The flashbacks would lose a lot of their impact if they were doled out in monthly installments.
ALLIE: Yeah -- the structure of it really requires it to move quickly. When Joss first explained the story to me, he said it had to be a single graphic novel. It moves in such a way that you can't have the strong peaks and valleys that you need to make a three-issue miniseries work.
And that's awesome, because I love doing original graphic novels. I love being able to read a whole story in a single package. It's just more significant than a single issue. But they're hard to do financially for a couple of reasons. They're easiest to do with books you don't have to pay [talent and licensing fees] for, like "Exurbia," or with books that are so guaranteed to sell that you can put all that money up front and go straight to graphic novel. "Serenity" and "Buffy" sell so strongly that it does make sense for those.
It's something we're trying to look into more. We're going to do a couple of original "Hellboy" graphic novels down the road, and an "Aliens" original graphic novel coming out right before "Float Out," I think. I love the format.
"Shepherd's Tale" has such a unique structure, breaking it anywhere would be arbitrary and totally destructive to the story.
RUSSELL: Yeah, there's a lot of momentum built on surprise.
ALLIE: And how would you ratchet back up? It would be real artificial. Forced.
RUSSELL: What are the new "Serenity" book release dates?
ALLIE: The Wash book is in June, right after Brad's last issue of "Buffy." And "Shepherd's Tale" is somewhere between August and October. "Shepherd's Tale" is just getting started. "Float Out" is done; it's drawn and lettered and the covers are done, and Dave Stewart is coloring it now.
RUSSELL: How long is "Shepherd's Tale"?
ALLIE: I think it's 54 story pages, right around there. It's like a 64-page book.
RUSSELL: "Shepherd's Tale" artist Chris Samnee strikes me as an interesting choice, because his work is so ... chiaroscuro? Is that the right word? In a lot of his work he's doing a sort of early-"Sin City" thing where he uses tremendous amounts of shadow and reduces the drawings to essential lines; his art's as much about what's left out as what's left in. Is that look carried over in "The Shepherd's Tale"?
ALLIE: Yeah. He talked about changing his style -- "If I'm gonna be working with Dave Stewart, maybe I should...." And we were like, "No no no no -- we want you to do your thing. We love your style."
The decision with both of these new books artistically was basically this: We had done two "Serenity" books with the same artist and two different colorists who approached it in similar ways.
RUSSELL: Fairly representational and mainstream.
ALLIE: Yeah, with very good likenesses. Really strong on likenesses. Very sort of mainstream-comic. And we've gone very mainstream-comic for the "Buffy" look. And I think we felt that "Serenity" is such a proven property, we wanted to reflect Joss' indie tastes a bit more. I mean, Chris Samnee works with Marvel, so it's not like he's an "indie guy" -- but he kind of looks like one.
I first became aware of Chris' art on this great Oni graphic novel "Capote in Kansas," this amazing re-envisioning of "In Cold Blood." I've watched his stuff since then, and we've talked a lot over the years at conventions. We'd talked about putting him on this and that, but it hadn't happened.
There was one other artist we were kind of considering for "Shepherd's Tale," and that wasn't going to be a good idea -- we never got around to asking him, because other things kind of convinced us not to go there. But that guy had gotten us thinking in more of this high-contrast, less-mainstream kind of look. And that's how we picked Chris: Because it's an original graphic novel, we felt it needed to be more of a statement visually.
With the Wash comic, it's a little different how it came about. Joss and I still weren't banking on that project -- we didn't think Patton would actually have time for it. Then, suddenly, I've got a script sitting on my desk for a comic that's going to sell really well -- I'd better get moving on this. Normally, that's not how it happens. Just like with "Season Eight" #1, it's very rare where you go, "I don't know if I'm ever going to do -- oh, here's the script. Why isn't anybody drawing this?" Uh, because we didn't know it was real a week ago?
[Above: Another Patric Reynolds page from "Float Out."]
Let's see if I remember this correctly: Duncan Fegredo, my artist for "Hellboy," sent Patric Reynolds' samples to me in early 2009 and compared him favorably to some other artists we were fans of. So I put Patric on a couple of short stories, and I really loved what I was getting out of him. And then John Arcudi, my writer on B.P.R.D., was doing an "Abe Sapien" one-shot, and he specifically requested Patric. Patric's super-enthusiastic, fresh out of school, and I love working with him. Dave Stewart, one of my best friends, loves working with him. So we put him on the Abe one-shot and that worked out great.
I wanted to do more with Patric. There were two properties floating out there, neither of which I can name at this point, and I had Patric try out for both of them -- both of which he became the front-runner for, and both of which became held up in deal negotiations, and who knows when they were ever gonna happen. In the meantime, I get this Wash script, and I realize Patric will be perfect for it. You've read it: So much of the Wash script has people sitting around talking in interesting settings -- and Patric does a really nice job with that.
I'd never seen him do sci-fi before, so I had him try out by doing a bunch of drawings of Wash and doing a page with Wash that cuts out to spaceship stuff -- cool spaceships, basically, in a page layout (pictured below). And he really nailed it. Patton loved it. Joss was into it. And that was it.
Patric has a little bit of an artsy style, sort of Kent Williams-style art. And I'd already made the decision in my mind that we were going to get away from the precise look we'd had in "Serenity" comics. And that's what we got with these two guys.
THE GENEROUS UNDERDOG FANDOM THAT THRIVES IN A VACUUM
RUSSELL: I kept thinking there was going to be a point where "Firefly fatigue" would set in and people will start losing interest in the property because there wasn't going to be another movie or TV series. But it doesn't seem to be happening; the story and characters seem to have entered the cultural fabric of fandom.
ALLIE: For sure. The phenomenon of this thing is interesting. I think that any Joss property that isn't "Buffy" has a little bit of an underdog quality -- it's the less popular of the master's creations. And I think that can fuel fandom in a specific kind of way: If their property is viewed as an underdog in some way, there's more of a quest aspect to the fandom.
RUSSELL: [laughs] That's a great way to put it.
ALLIE: And where is that more true than "Serenity"? I mean, these fans got a movie made. When has that ever happened? Maybe that's happened since, like when "Jericho" got an extra season....
RUSSELL: There are very few precedents for it. The only one I can think of is when "Police Squad!" got turned into the "Naked Gun" movies -- but I don't even think that was a fandom thing.
ALLIE: Yeah, that was more "We've got something here, but I'm not sure what it is." I think, to some degree, what's fueled the Browncoats more than anything is the vacuum -- so the vacuum isn't the thing that's going to wipe them out.
My favorite Joss property -- and I don't know why I say shit like this, because it's just gonna make people hate me -- is "Buffy." I love these other things -- and no, Internet, the fact that "Buffy"'s my favorite isn't the reason we do fewer "Serenity" comics. "Buffy" is just the one that appeals to me the most personally, so sometimes I don't think I appreciate the passion Browncoats have for this thing. "Serenity" means something to them that isn't going to go away.
If I can get a new "Serenity" comic out once a year instead of once every two or three years, I think that will nicely fuel a fandom that is able to subsist on very little food.
RUSSELL: Yeah, the "Firefly" fandom sort of becamemybeat as an entertainment reporter before the movie came out --
RUSSELL: Exactly. [laughs] But one of the things that became apparent to me as I was hanging out with these fans was that they invest a lot of energy in charitable efforts like "Can't Stop the Serenity" for Equality Now. They seem more activist and outwardly focused to me than a lot of fandoms.
ALLIE: Yeah. The other one that deserves credit is a very specific segment of the "Star Wars" fandom, the 501st.
RUSSELL: Right. They go to hospitals, don't they?
ALLIE: They do all sorts of stuff. They do major good works, raise money.... But yeah, I think the Browncoats are uniquely positive and uniquely productive.
RUSSELL: Very unique. I've watched it all curdle so many times elsewhere.
WHY WHEDON WORKS
RUSSELL: In an interview with ComicMix, you were talking about wrapping your head around "Buffy" and what it means to the culture, and you said this: "I'm embarrassed that I didn't grasp what it was all about sooner."
RUSSELL: Could you expand on that a little bit?
ALLIE: Yeah. You know my chief interest is the horror genre. And when I asked to work on the "Buffy" comics in the first place, I was coming at it from a position of, "Oh, it's got vampires in the title? That's all I need. I'm on it."
And then it didn't really satisfy the horror geek in me -- as I think no one will be surprised.
I saw the surface of why it was generally popular in the culture -- but I didn't totally get the much deeper thing that infuses all of Joss' work and makes it so superior to most of what's out there. At first, I just got the cute girl fighting monsters, with really character-driven stories and a tight group of friends who are fun to watch bounce off each other and cause disaster and whatnot. It's a great mix of cute girls, violence, monsters and humor -- especially in those early seasons.
I said, "Okay. Got it. I'll run with it." And without criticizing anyone beyond myself, the people that I was working with at that time didn't exactly lead me to understand the higher benefits of what Joss does. I wasn't working directly with Joss yet -- and so, for a while, I wasn't getting it. But as I watched the show more and edited more [comic] scripts, I began to feel the scripts I was editing weren't quite nailing it. I started perceiving that bigger thing.
And then I got to work with Doug Petrie and Jane Espenson directly, and that led to working directly with Joss. And Joss said, "I want to write a Faith comic miniseries, I want to get Tim Sale to draw it." And before we got anywhere, that morphed into the "Fray" miniseries. And simultaneous with all that, the original "Angel" comic led to my first face-to-face with Joss, where he asked me to come down and meet with the writers and talk about what a monthly "Angel" comic should be. Fox was pushing us to do an "Angel" comic before the TV series even started -- which we later realized was too soon.
So Joss and I talked about Angel, Faith, Fray -- and I started seeing what was really unique and special and transcendent about his particular brand of action-adventure genre stories. It was working directly with him that got me to see that there was a way to do character-driven genre stories better than anyone else was doing them -- certainly better than anyone was doing them on TV.
I mean, I liked "X-Files" for a while. But for my money, you cannot compare "X-Files" to "Buffy." It's good stuff, it's fun -- but even to the degree that it had its own ongoing mythology, it's still monsters-of-the-week compared to the depth that I think "Buffy" got into. Maybe if the mythology stuff in "X-Files" had paid off differently, it would have been something. But story is drama, which is character, and Joss does something with characters that makes all of his stuff -- "Serenity," "Angel," "Buffy," all of it -- so special.
The reason you have this devoted small group of Browncoats, the reason people still want to read stories about Angel, and the reason "Buffy" became as big as it became in mainstream culture is because there is something so special going on character-wise that really touches you as a viewer.
There's something you get out of really well-done literary fiction or cinema that helps you understand life better. You read a really great Hemingway or Carson McCullers novel, and the world makes a little bit more sense. You see a really special movie and the world makes a little bit more sense. And TV doesn't really do that too much, I don't think -- though it probably does now more than ever. But anything Joss does gets at character and the emotional inner workings of people in a way that makes the world make a little bit more sense -- and he happens to do it with spaceships and vampires and all manner of B.S. that makes for good fun TV and comics. And he has this beautiful interplay of metaphor and action that allows him to deliver that kind of insight.
That's where I started seeing what he does as incredibly special. And that was where I got to saying, "All I want to do is fun stupid genre fiction, but I want to do it smart" -- and Joss has shown me a way to do it slightly smarter.
And when I read books like "Story" by Robert McKee, I always take that stuff with a grain of salt, and I always kind of view that stuff from the point of view of the Whedonverse. In my own writing, I don't think I copy what Joss does at all -- I don't think I could if I tried, but I don't really try to; that's not really where I'm going -- but it's definitely informed by his approach to character and metaphor and theme and making stories that are really about something.
RUSSELL: I interviewed Whedon about "Serenity" back in 2005, and he made a point along those lines: He said "Serenity" and "Firefly" weren't political stories, even if they contained politics; he was far more interested in having nine characters with completely different points of view that were all legitimate all looking at the same thing and having different reactions to it. And the viewer could find a little bit of himself or herself in those reactions.
ALLIE: That's funny, too, because in "Season Eight," the U.S. military is going up against the Slayers. And so that led to a certain kind of letter from a certain kind of fan: "Why is Joss Whedon vilifying the military? Is this just liberal bias? And why are you making your heroes analogous to the terrorists? What are you trying to say politically?" Oh, crap -- not really that much. That's not what we're going for, using "Buffy" to try and make a political statement. That's not so much the point.
Certainly we're not, you know, "against the troops" in our "Buffy" comics. It's just that there are bad guys, and some of them happen to be in the Army. That doesn't mean the Army is bad.
RUSSELL: He told me he was less interested in making a political statement than a human statement.
ALLIE: Yeah, and that's the thing: There is one big fat statement that he likes to make over and over again, but he views it as a human statement and not a political statement -- that wacky notion that women are strong and individuals with actual personalities and whatnot. To some people, that's him being political; to him, that's just reflecting the world that he sees -- portraying strong women as a natural thing and trying to portray gay relationships as a normal thing.
RUSSELL: He also told me genre was a great way to get structure so he could do those things.
ALLIE: Yeah, exactly. It's a great delivery mechanism.
Going back to my initial reaction to "Buffy" when I was a horror geek: It quickly became clear to me that this horror genre that I'm so in love with -- the reason I picked up "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in the first place -- the horror trappings are very secondary to Joss. The reason we have the phrase "monster of the week" is because he doesn't really care about the monster -- I mean, he does, but it's not the point to him.
I came to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" because I thought it would be fun to have a girl fight monsters. Well, it is fun to have a girl fight monsters, but again, that wasn't the point for Joss. When I first figured that out about him, I was a little disappointed, because I was like, "Well, I really like monsters." [laughs] But then I realized that his actual point was far cooler than that.
In my own stuff, I am more interested in the monsters than he is, but I'm more interested in developing the thematic stuff as a great counterpoint.
RUSSELL: I remember running into you sometime back in the '90s when you were starting out on the "Buffy" series, and I got the sense that the size of the "Buffy" fandom was sort of taking the company by surprise.
ALLIE: Oh, it was awesome.
RUSSELL: It also sounded like it was a little overwhelming. But I may be misremembering that.
ALLIE: Yeah, I don't know. I don't remember that. "Season Eight" was more overwhelming, fan-wise -- because when we were doing the comic back then, the show was still on the air and we were totally secondary. And all the other licenses were jammin' out piles of product, so we were just a drop in the bucket. Now we're still secondary to the show, but we're the only game in town.
I'm sure you're remembering correctly. But for me, my immersion into that world and how much bigger a part of my life it's become makes me wonder what that cute little Scott Allie back in 1998 would have made of all this. Different world, for sure.
THE POLITICS OF LICENSING
RUSSELL: For people who don't quite understand how this works, can you explain the licensing process for "Serenity"? Could Dark Horse have licensed a "Firefly" comic from Fox instead?
ALLIE: Um, possibly. That's a weird one. Because both companies own a piece of this thing. [Fox owns the rights to "Firefly" and Universal has the rights to "Serenity," which are the movie rights to "Firefly."]
This goes back to something I said a while ago: I went to L.A. to talk to Joss about the "Angel" comic. The "Angel" show had not started yet. They were starting to write it. But Fox wanted -- and we wanted -- we all wanted to get a comic out to coincide with the launch of the TV show. Which was, at that time, unprecedented. And there's such a long production time on a comic as opposed to a TV show that we were going down really early to meet with Joss and Doug Petrie and a bunch of other people to talk this through.
Cut to a year or two years later, and we've come to the conclusion that, "You know what? That was a bad idea." Because you can see this in "Dollhouse" and you can see this in "Angel": A TV show doesn't really know what it is starting out. Maybe J.J. Abrams knows what his shows are before they start. But generally, a show launches, and you start to find the chemistry between the actors and what the relationships really are. You can't just create a show in a box and dump it out and there it is. They tend to evolve and kind of find themselves.
Certainly that's true with "Angel." Season to season, that's not the same show, for a variety of reasons. And that's cool that things change like that -- but it also means it's a bad idea to launch a comic to coincide with the launch of a TV show, because you don't know what the TV show is yet.
So when Joss told me, "We're going to be doing this sci-fi show for Fox," I said, "Well, obviously, we want to do the comic." And he said, "Yes, I want you to do the comic -- but I don't want you to do it right now. We're gonna wait. Let's give the show a year and find out what it is. And when we feel like the show's established, then we'll do a comic." And he told me to go to Fox and tell them not to license it to us or anybody. And they were cool with that. They could have licensed it to anyone they wanted at that moment, but in accordance with Joss' wishes, they didn't.
Fans misunderstand this stuff so deeply, so tragically, when they're talking about IDW [which publishes "Angel" comics under a licensing agreement with Fox] and Dark Horse. The fans will say things like "Joss and Dave Greenwalt own 'Angel,' and they license it to IDW." No. Joss doesn't own any of this stuff or have a legal claim on it. Fox owns all of it. Universal owns "Serenity." He doesn't license it or lease it to Fox and then they license it or lease it to us. Out of courtesy and respect and pragmatism, Fox gives Joss as much say as he wants with this stuff.
RUSSELL: Because it's good for sales.
ALLIE: And it's good policy. If Fox Licensing started pushing Joss around, Fox's film and TV divisions would come in and squash them and say, "Why are you pissing off this incredibly important guy?"
RUSSELL: And his audience.
ALLIE: Exactly. My contact Debbie [Olshan] at Fox Licensing likes working with Joss. She's going to respect Joss' wishes on all this stuff. Which is great, and gives the creator some control over his creation, which is really nice -- and not legally built into it. Nobody has to do it, but it's a really good choice that they're all making constantly.
So I told Debbie way back when that Joss didn't want to license "Firefly" at that moment, but when we get to Season 2, hopefully we'll be doing a comic. So they sat on the license.
Then, of course, that didn't work out. But then Universal does a film and Joss says, "Okay, I want to do a comic, and here's how I want it to work."
RUSSELL: Right. The bridging comic ["Those Left Behind"] between the series and the film. Didn't they briefly consider doing that comic as an animated project, like Universal did with "Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury"?
ALLIE: Yeah, I think there's something to that, or there was a separate idea for an animated project. Yeah. I think you're right.
So we set that comic up with Universal, and Fox -- in deference to Joss -- said, "Okay, we could probably legally license 'Firefly,' but we're not going to, because that would be a pain in the ass." Which is great. So last year, when I heard the rumor that IDW was licensing "Firefly," I immediately checked with Joss and he said, "Absolutely not." And just to be sure, I checked with Fox and they said, "No, of course not."
Technically, Fox could license "Firefly." But they don't want to be that greedy and create havoc and confusion.
OF UMBRELLAS AND KILLJOYS
RUSSELL: Of course, there's still some great stuff that comes out of left field every once in a while. Share on Facebook