From Small Screen to Page: TV Writers on Moving to Comics

Eli Stone & Green Lantern, two characters in the mind of writer Marc Guggenheim

Writers on some of the most popular shows on television have an unusual pastime in common – more and more of them are writing comic books on the side.

"A lot of TV writers grew up on comic books," said Marc Guggenheim, co-creator of the ABC show Eli Stone and current writer on the Amazing Spider-Man comic. "That was the thing that inspired them to become writers. And basically, the opportunity became available as the comic book industry started to open its doors to various Hollywood writers. The TV writers just absolutely love the medium."

The list of writers who "broke" into comics only after they made it as writers in television is a "who's who" of episodic television. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly writer Joss Whedon, who just finished runs on the Marvel comics Astonishing X-Men and Runaways, to Joe Pokaski, writer on the ABC show Heroes as well as the current Secret Invasion: Inhumans mini-series, TV writers are clearly attracted to something about comics.

"I write comics to push myself as a writer, collaborator and artist," said Aron Coleite, writer on the TV show Heroes and the Ultimate X-Men series for Marvel Comics. "The most inspirational and important stories that have affected my life have been comic books. It's always been a goal of mine to be a part of this legacy -- to dream bigger and more creative than anything that could be contained on film or television."

"For me it's just a really selfish thing in that there's very little in the world as much fun as thinking, 'what would be fun for Superman and Batman to do?' And then writing it," said Michael Green, whose new NBC show Kings debuts in February but who also co-writes Superman/Batman for DC Comics. "And then someone draws it beautifully. It's just way more fun than I can believe anyone's letting me have."

Former television writer Dan DiDio, who's now vice president and executive editor at DC Comics, said he isn't surprised by the interest from TV writers because he noticed a lot of comics fans in the television industry when he worked among them.

"When I worked in television and worked in animation, we would joke about how we used comics as shorthand for the types of stories and types of situations we want to create. When I was working on ReBoot, we were creating this alternate dimension that one of the characters was going through, and we had a hard time verbalizing what we wanted until one of us described it as 'Dormammu's dimension.' And everybody said, 'Oh! Dormammu! Yeah! Sure!'" DiDio said, naming the haven of a Doctor Strange villain. "And it all came together after that. And when you have that level of common knowledge, it's clear there's a common knowledge that's been brought into the TV side, and it's natural that it would work its way back into comics as well."

Guggenheim said that because television and comics both tell an ongoing story broken into "episodes" or "issues," there's also a natural synergy between the two. "And they're both mediums that tell long-run storylines as opposed to movies, which are closed ended. They're both mediums that have a long-running tradition of shared universes, like if you look at Law and Order or Dallas," he said.

"The synergy you're seeing right now in comics and television is that a lot of the writers in television – especially the writers we're using – deal with storytelling in a periodic manner. They're not working with situational storytelling, but they're doing long-time story-building and character development, which is what we do in comic book form. So there are a lot of similarities there. There are also a lot of similarities in the pacing," DiDio said.

The editor said he thinks comics have even had an influence on the type of TV shows we see, because so many comics fans are in the business. "The types of writers we're attracting to comics have a sense of story and a sense of pacing and a sense of development that all plays to what they do, not only in the type of stories they do on TV, but in some of the cases... how they developed their style for television might have been learned, or in some cases have been learned, from what they used to read in comics and how comic stories used to unfold for them," DiDio said.

Within the comic book industry, fans are often hesitant to get excited about TV writers who write comics because it's hard for the Hollywood folks to commit the time it takes to create comics too. For example, Damon Lindelof, co-creator of ABC's sci-fi drama Lost, wrote the beginning of an Ultimate Hulk vs. Wolverine series that's been delayed due to his TV schedule, with fans still waiting to read the story's finish. Even Guggenheim admitted he has to wake up at 5 a.m. to meet the deadlines for his comics writing, getting it done before his busy TV work day begins so his comics won't be late.

"It's really a question of how much time people have available and how much time they're willing to dedicate," DiDio said. "But good writers are good writers. We welcome anyone who has a story to tell and the time to commit to it."

Green, who got the job as a comics writer when his Jack and Bobby co-writer, novelist Brad Meltzer, mentioned that he was writing comics, said he's able to stay on deadline with Superman/Batman because he has another writer from the TV industry, Mike Johnson, who keeps him "honest about deadlines" as co-writer of the title.

"Working in television is incredibly time intensive. So unless you're comfortable handing in your comics late, which I'm not, you have to be willing to use whatever free time comes your way efficiently," Green said.

And with the popularity of superheroes, working on comics isn't always a huge departure for Hollywood writers. Green and Guggenheim co-wrote a Green Lantern movie script with TV writer Greg Berlanti while also writing comics. And TV writer Daniel Knauf (HBO's Carnivale) is co-writing The Eternals for Marvel Comics with his son, Charles Knauf, a job that eventually led to the two of them developing a Sci-Fi series about the costumed hero The Phantom.

However, all the synergy doesn't exactly line up when it comes to paychecks, with Hollywood projects paying much more than comic books can. But all the differential in pay just points to the fact that TV writers must really love comics.

"If you're a Hollywood writer and you're used to that kind of money, you really do comic books for the love of the game," Guggenheim said. "That's why you do it, and that's what makes it worthwhile. Lord knows that's why I wake up at 5 in the morning to get my comic book work done. I love comics."

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