Since 1989, fans of hoverboards and flying cars have wondered: Just how did Biff Tannen take over Hill Valley in Back to the Future Part II?
The answer is about to be revealed…and it’s a dark one.
Biff to the Future, a new miniseries premiering this week from IDW Publishing, answers the question as to how everyone’s favorite manure-prone bully became a billionaire tyrant with help from a stolen sports almanac and a certain DeLorean. And given how Hill Valley looked by 1985 after Biff’s influence, his 30-year rise to power is bound to be a dark one.
The story’s chronicled by original Back to the Future co-writer Bob Gale, who also co-writes the regular IDW Back to the Future title, and Derek Fridolfs of Batman: Li’l Gotham, and art by Alan Robinson of the Back to the Future: Citizen Brown miniseries. Newsarama got the writers together to talk about how this is a story that’s been waiting to be told, the ongoing appeal of Back to the Future, and Biff’s alleged connection to certain real-world figures.
Newsarama: Bob, tell us a little bit about Biff to the Future.
Bob Gale: Well, this is a project that, when IDW said, “We want to do a Back to the Future series,” this was one of the first ideas I had, because it was something Bob Zemeckis and I had always speculated about - what happened from when Biff got the almanac in Back to the Future, Part II to when Doc and Marty arrive back in the altered 1985.
Nrama: He’s not a smart boy, that Biff. It seems like operating a time machine and taking over the world might require more planning skills than he seemed to possess.
Gale: Well, yeah, and that’s what we’re going to explore. How did a dumb jock like Biff wind up doing what he’s doing? And the answers to that will start to present themselves in the third issue.
Interestingly enough, the whole inspiration for that subplot in Back to the Future Part II, DC was always doing these “Imaginary Stories,” and there was one where Lois Lane married Lex Luthor. This would have been around 1964 or so - there was one about the death of Superman, and Superman-Red and Superman-Blue, and all these crazy things Mort Weisinger came up with, or had his boys come up with.
The point was - those what-if questions were very compelling, and then Marvel jumped into it in the 1970s with their What If? series.
And the whole Back to the Future series had its roots in that idea, “What If?” What if George stood up to Biff instead of being bullied by him? And you see the result of that is a much better future for all concerned, except possibly Biff! [Laughs]
Everyone’s fascinated by the bad guy, and the Citizen Brown miniseries was very successful, so IDW asked for another miniseries, and so - Biff to the Future.
Nrama: Derek, what has been fun about working on this story?
Derek Fridolfs: What's not to like? The Back to the Future movie trilogy was a staple of my youth, growing up in the '80s – very beloved, from the story, the actors involved, and that fantastic music. It's just a very feel-good property that I've revisited many times throughout the years. And while the movies wrapped up very satisfyingly, it's nice that there are still ideas and stories that can be told outside of it.
Bob has been a great shepherd and caretaker of the property. It means as much to him as it does the fans that have accepted it into their hearts. So to get the chance to co-write a new story with Bob, and one that fits into the second movie's alternate 1985 timeline, is very thrilling. I'd be reading this if I weren't helping write it.
Also getting the chance to draw covers for it in my animated style has been a treat!
Nrama: So what was the most difficult part of conceiving this untold tale?
Gale: What’s important in the whole Back to the Future mythos is to try to keep the other characters from the movies involved. One of the things that we’re doing with Biff to the Future that you’ll see in #2, “Biff Goes to Hollywood,” we have Biff interacting with well-known movie stars, and you’ll see him interacting with some other well-known real people in #4. It gives us the opportunity to warp history, without any need to fix it! It’s just this weird alternate Back to the Future history, where not everything turns out well, but that’s okay, because that’s kind of the point!
Nrama: The character has an interesting arc in the films, because he goes from being this comical bully to this monstrous figure shaped by decades of getting his way, this kind of ruthless, unencumbered id. So that’s a very dark arc you’re looking at in this storyline…
Gale: It is! We do something in the first issue that the person at Universal who approves all our stuff read and said, “Whoah! This took a turn I didn’t expect!” And you’ll see what happens and why it happens, and when Derek and I came up with this, it kind of crystallized how Biff’s character was going to go down this dark, dark road.
I want to heap praise on Derek, because he really jumped into this with both feet. He got the concept, and brought so much to the party. The series would not be what it is without his ideas and his warped sensibility [Laughs], which dovetails nicely with my own.
Nrama: What’s your collaborative process like?
Fridolfs: Extremely rewarding. In all regards, it all starts with Bob. He knows his story and timeline and how everything fits in. But he's very open to springboarding ideas back and forth. Whatever works best to tell the story, is how we're approaching it.
But yeah, we both take passes at the plot and script. Some ideas will fuel other ideas, so it's not uncommon to go through a few drafts until we arrive at a finished script we like. And there's been no shortage of ideas, as each of these issues feels very packed.
Personally, on any project I've worked on that's related to a movie or show, I always feel the pressure that it reads and sounds true to the characters and concept - even more so when the creator of it is involved - because I'm a fan of the property as much as the readers are, and want to do right by it. So having the movies on repeat and talking about story with Bob, has been a great help.
And I've found no creator I've worked with that is more complimentary than Bob. He's been extremely generous in always wanting to make sure I agree with the direction of the story or choices involved; that we arrive at it together. And he's been very open about sharing when he's laughed at funny moments I've added to the story, which is the greatest seal of approval to know you're on the right track.
While we normally just communicate through email, I have to admit I geeked out a little when we talked on the phone recently over writing one of the issues. For the longest time, I've come to recognize Bob and his voice through all the commentaries and behind-the-scenes on the DVDs and Blu-Rays. So to hear the familiar sound of his voice on the phone was a great experience.
Gale: When we started this, I gave Derek a few highlights. I said, “There are things in the movie that we need to hit real clearly and show - obviously, we have to show Biff’s success gambling, we have to have the death of George McFly, we need the rise of BiffCo, his taking over Hill Valley - everything we see in the Biff Museum video in Back to the Future Part II.” But I also said, “If you have a different idea or a different approach, let me know. Just because I’m Bob Gale doesn’t mean everything I come up with is perfect,”
As a writer myself, I deal with other writers the way I’d like to be dealt with if I was the other writer. It’s a process like I have with John Barber on the regular Back to the Future title and with the writers on the Telltale games. And Derek is very open to my ideas as well, if I have an idea for a page or two he’s written.
This is one of the things I was the most concerned about with doing the comic title, that other writes would be able to jump in and work on characters that were like children to me! But it’s a testament to how well-drawn these characters are, and how much an effect these movies had on people, that so many great writers and artists are bringing so much to the table, and adding so many ideas, and really exceeding my expectations.
Nrama: People are still very much embracing the storyline of the films, the concepts - they’re still trying to make hoverboards and Pepsi Perfect. Why do you feel it’s been such an enduring concept?
Gale: They’re human stories. A lot of people believe they’re special-effects movies, but they’re human stories about a family, and about passion, and about the idea that resonates with everybody, which is that you do have control over your own destiny, that the decisions you make today are going to have some impact on what happen in the future, and things that happened in the past are why things are the way they are now.
And of course it’s the fantasy of being able to go back and be a fly on the wall – to see what your parents’ first date was like, or maybe try to change it. It’s a universal concept - everyone wonders what their parents were like as kids. It’s why this resonates with different cultures, with different ages. The kids who live next door to me love the films too! And of course we had a fantastic cast, and they were really funny too. It was a case of all the stars lining up.
Fridolfs: I think for the Back to the Future films, it just speaks to all generations. It doesn't matter how old you are, because there's something in there that is relatable. We've all had or will have the high school experience. The awkwardness around someone you like. Being bullied. Or even fantasizing about going back or forward in time, and what we could've done differently if we had taken a different path. I don't think I've every come across someone that doesn't like these movies, which is a rare thing
Nrama: And what has made Biff such an enduring character?
Fridolfs: Every hero needs a great villain. And Thomas F. Wilson's performance is as endearing as it is menacing. The character is a threat while also being not too bright, leading to some funny moments with things he says and does. It's a nice combination to have, and we really have fun with that in our story placing him in the lead
Nrama: On that note - there’s a ton of time-travel shows on TV, and still more about to premiere. Why do you feel at this moment in the zeitgeist, people are so passionate about this concept?
Gale: Well, it could be that the kids who grew up watching Back to the Future are now working at the TV networks and going, “Gee, I loved Back to the Future – let’s see if we can do some kind of time-travel story on TV!” [Laughs]
When we were trying to get Back to the Future made, and having very little success, one of the things we were told repeatedly was, “Time-travel movies don’t make any money!” Which, in 1981, was a true statement. I think we were the first mega-hit time-travel movie, and that kind of erased the taboo about that concept - after Back to the Future, there were many more time-travel movies made, and more opportunities to do those stories.
Now, there’s hundreds of cable outlets to put stuff on, as opposed to three networks…who can keep up with it? I can’t.
Nrama: Have there been any time-travel stories you’ve recently enjoyed in TV, movies or other media?
Gale: I admit I’m behind! I haven’t watched Timeless or the other time-travel TV shows yet. At my age, I’m very careful about how I spend my time!
Nrama: Now, I don’t want to stir up too much political debate here, but you have discussed how the alternate 1985 with Biff was inspired in part by a certain real-world individual recently elected to high political office. So I’m curious as to how much that might have affected your telling of this particular story.
Gale: Oh, that part hasn’t affected anything at all – the desire to tell that story had nothing to do with the rise of Trump. And as I’ve been telling people who want to actually write the story correctly, instead of the story they want to write, Trump was an inspiration for Biff and Alternate 1985, but he was one of many inspirations. The story of a tycoon whose money and power goes to his head and he plasters his face on everything is hardly a new story –
Nrama: William Randolph Hearst, for example.
Gale: Right! Conrad Hilton! Thomas Edison! The Warner Brothers! It’s what we do. And on a certain level, sometimes it’s okay to say, “I’m proud of what I do, and want people to know it’s me, and if people don’t like what I do, they’ll at least know who they need to see the letter to.”
Nrama: Fair enough.
What’s particularly fun about doing a comic book vs. a live-action movie, in terms of what you can do with a comic you can’t do with a film? You’ve certainly got time under your belt working in both mediums at this point.
Gale: Yeah, absolutely. And the fact that to make a hit movie, you gotta get everybody in the world to go see it, while to get a comic book to be a success…you don’t need that many people. It’s a great medium for visual storytelling, and it has that unlimited budget. The original Thor and Fantastic Four comics - Thor goes to the Black Galaxy, or the Fantastic Four encounter Galactus and the Silver Surfer…man, you couldn’t do those as movies back then.
At the end of the day, I think it always has to be about having really memorable characters. That’s what makes a movie work, that’s what gives a movie its staying power. And you can say the same for comics.
Nrama: Anything else you’d like to say about Biff to the Future?
Gale: It’s turning out great. I’m very, very excited about how it’s coming together. Get the first issue! I don’t think you’ll regret it.