How do you follow up on a video game that features players using their imagination to conjure up every DC comics hero and villain ever created… ever?
A Crisis, of course.
This week's digital release of Scribblenauts Unmasked: A Crisis of Imagination #1 kicks off the comic book sequel to the video game Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure. The DC-themed video game (released in September) was the latest spin-off of the popular Scribblenauts series that invites players to write anything they can think of and have it suddenly appear. In the DC version of the game, players could conjure up a seemingly unlimited list of characters from the DC universe to help them solve problems in the game.
The bi-weekly, all-ages comic is being written by Josh Elder, who has experience in both comics and video games, but possibly most influential on his resume is a demonstrated love of spurring all-ages imagination through comics. Best known for his syndicated comic strip Mail Order Ninja, the writer has led comic book workshops for people of all ages who want to make comics.
Newsarama talked to Elder about what characters might show up in the Crisis of Imagination — including information on how readers can get Elder to include their favorite character in the comic.
Newsarama: Josh, what was the challenge you were given for this story, and how did you end up coming up with this approach?
Josh Elder: I was challenged to make a sequel to the game. So to me, that meant a crafting story that was grander in its scope yet more personal for the characters. Because if the comic doesn't raise the stakes from the game nor say anything new about Maxwell and Lily, then why bother?
That’s where Crisis of Imagination came from. It’s a crisis in every sense of the word. The universe – the multiverse – is in dire peril, but so are the hearts and minds of our young heroes. And in the end, the only superpower that can save them is imagination itself. Though heat vision certainly helps as well.
Worst case, I know the series is at least going to look great thanks to my amazing, alternating, alliterative artists, Adam Archer and Ben Bates. They’re both masters of the awedorable (awesome + adorable). So much so that I often feel bad putting so many words on a page because I hate to cover up their artwork. But birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and writers gotta bloviate!
Nrama: Leave it to a Scribblenauts writer to break out the big vocabulary and use "bloviate." But you know, comic books have the ability to explore just about any subject one could imagine, so it seems fitting that Maxwell and Lily would be part of a comic-based world, since their powers are based on imagination. What's it like to write them in this format?
Elder: Maxwell and his sister Lily are probably the two most purely fun characters I’ve ever been privileged to write. When you think about it, they’re textbook Mary Sues – they journey to the DCU, become besties with the Justice League and save the universe.
And yet we still love them because the team at 5th Cell (the game studio behind the Scribblenauts franchise) imbued them with such wit and charm and old-fashioned earnestness. I’m just carrying the torch that they lit.
As audience viewpoint characters, Maxwell and Lily provide a unique opportunity for fan-driven meta-commentary on the DCU.
Nrama: So in a way, they're us. They're fans.
Elder: Basically, I treat Lily as the gal filled with fan art and pics of her latest cosplays, while Maxwell is the guy writing fanfic and posting comic reviews on the message boards every Wednesday.
They say “write what you know,” and I most definitely know fandom…
Nrama: Don't we all. And if the game is any indication, we could see just about anyone show up in this series. So what DC characters are readers meeting in this week's first issue?
Elder: The most important characters are, of course Maxwell and Lily, along with their respective doppelgängers. These four characters form the nucleus of the Scribblenauts Universe and cause all sorts of unexpected reactions once we introduce them into the DCU.
Nrama: So the Doppelgängers are part of the story?
Elder: Yeah, even though Doppelgänger and Doppelily make their exit early on the issue, they have a lot of unfinished business with Maxwell and Lily, so I can promise you that we haven’t seen the last of them!
We also get an extended scene with Madame Xanadu and the Phantom Stranger. The Stranger is a personal favorite character of mine, and he’ll be playing the Obi-Wan/Merlin/Ganfalf role for Maxwell and Lily as they venture forth on their superhero’s journey.
Finally, we get a big clue to the larger plot when Maxwell and Lily arrive in Gotham City to find red skies and the Bat-villains all sporting mysterious technological enhancements…
Nrama: One of the great things about Scribblenauts is the way it inspires creativity from its players, forcing them to use their imagination to solve problems. How does the comic embrace the spirit of solving problems?
Elder: To me, the problem-solving aspect of the game is the single most important element. You can't hack ’n slash your way to victory in the Scribblenauts games. The problems aren’t that simple. And having a Notebook that can create anything is only useful if you know what the right thing is.
I tried to bring that same concept to the series. The heroes are arrayed against a threat that’s so big and so powerful that they have no real hope of defeating it through strength alone. Their only hope lies in creativity, and who’s more creative than a Scribblenaut?
Of course the Notebook is so powerful that I had to create a few rules for myself in much the same way that Mr. Mxyzptlk’s challenges did in the game. So no creating a Superman suit that gives him all of Superman’s powers or summoning DC heroes to fight for him. I also limit the use of adjectives, since I feel it's more creative (and visually interesting) to create objects instead. Like, if I need to fix a broken car, I’d rather see Maxwell create a mechanic than simply apply the adjective “functional” to the car. Or to paraphrase Roger Rabbit, Maxwell has the ability to get out of any jam… but only when it’s funny.
Nrama: Let's talk about the audience for the comic. This being all ages, I would have expected a simple story, but you've jumped right in with both feet — the entire DCU is under duress, and there are multiple villains and heroes involved. What was behind the choice to do that type of "epic" story in this comic?
Elder: They wanted me to go big. And at DC, you go Crisis or you go home. So lots of characters, lots of places and lots of speechifying about the end of life as we know it. Only, you know, funny!
Look at Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It’s a cartoon character flung ears-first into a straightforward noir plot filled with the standard femme fatales, gangsters and hardboiled detectives. Sure, some of them happen to be cartoons, but nobody’s perfect. Seriously, take out the slapstick and WFRR? is Chinatown. It’s the friction between hare-brained and hard-boiled that makes the movie work. I’m trying to do the same thing here by dropping the cartoon sensibility of Scribblenauts into an utterly straightforward DC crossover event. Fingers crossed that it actually works!
Nrama: I was doing research on your background, and I found out that you've been involved in discussions and projects connected to the use of comics as educational tools. Did that idea inform your approach on the comic?
Elder: Always. I also have a background in game design, so I applied all those skills to this series. The biggest impact it has on me creatively involves how we use words and pictures in a complimentary fashion to get across complex concepts. There are a lot of big ideas in this series. A lot of things that will absolutely go over the average 8-year-old’s head unless I can provide a textual/visual scaffolding that helps support understanding.
Normally I’m applying those ideas to teaching Newton’s Laws or the Pythagorean Theorem, but here I’m using them to help explain the concept of the DC Multiverse or Batman’s motivations for fighting crime.
Nrama: Among our readers on Newsarama are plenty of fans of the DC Universe characters. To finish up, is there anything you'd like to say to them in particular about this comic?
Elder: I like to think of Crisis of Imagination as a magical mystery tour of the DC Universe. We’re cramming in as many DC characters and locales as we possibly can because we know that every character – no matter how obscure — is somebody’s favorite. (For me, it’s big-hearted, Superman-loving barkeep Bibbo Bibbowski, whom I’ve already worked into the series twice so far. And Krypto. You’ve got to have Krypto.)
But why should the creative team have all the fun? Tweet @joshelder and tell me who your favorite DC character is and why. I can’t make any promises, but I will do my best to find a place for them in an upcoming issue – somewhere, somehow!
Crisis of Imagination is going to help introduce a new generation of readers to the DCU, and (hopefully) plant the seed of a lifelong love. I’m honored and excited to be a part of that.