Interview: Arie Kaplan

Writer for television, comics, books, and videogames.

Arie Kaplan is a screenwriter for television, comic books, videogames, and transmedia. He has written for television shows like TruTV Presents: World’s Dumbest, the PBS Kids series Cyberchase, and the Cartoon Network show Codename: Kids Next Door.  As a comic book writer, Arie has written stories for IDW Publishing, DC Comics, Bongo Comics, Mad Magazine, and Archie Comics. He’s also an author, and his books include From Krakow to Krypton and Saturday Night Live: Shaping TV Comedy and American Culture.

Patrick Hayes interviewed Mr. Kaplan for SciFiPulse.

SciFiPulse: Looking online, I’ve seen you’ve been asked the kind of question that would make Harlan Ellison’s head explode, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’m more interested in your technique as a writer of comic books. Do you prefer the full script method, where every panel is described in detail for the artist, or the Marvel method, where the storytelling process is much more of a collaborative process between writer and artist. Which do you prefer?

Arie Kaplan: For the most part, I do prefer a full script. Most of the comic book stories I’ve written have been full script. I worked on one series years and years ago which was done somewhat in the Marvel style and that was fun. There is a certain flying by the seat of your pants quality with that kind of collaboration. I do think it’s a tricky business. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were on firm ground together because Kirby was also a strong storyteller, writer himself in addition to being an artist. He had a lot of great story ideas as well, so did Stan Lee, so they were great collaborators on that level. I think that’s what made that team create such beautiful music together for the Marvel Universe.

I think that when teams try to do it and realize it’s not working they discover this early on. I think that the teams that have done scripts Marvel style tend to work, like George Perez and Marv Wolfman who created amazing comics. From what I understand, a lot of The New Teen Titans from the early 80s were done Marvel style. No matter how those scripts were written, they’re great. The comics that have the first appearances of Starfire, Cyborg, and Raven, they’re wonderful. If that’s the result of the “Marvel” style, that’s some amazing work that can come of it. It’s not for everyone, but neither is full script. I think you’ve got to try and find out what’s best for you.

SFP: You’ve got an impressive resume as a writer, not being stuck in one niche. You’ve recently written for Bongo Comics with The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror. Your story “Graveyard Shift” was really funny.

AK: Thank you. That story is obviously a parody of the 1984 film Gremlins, but I tried to write it like an Outer Limits or Twilight Zone episode. There was this early 1960s show called Thriller that Boris Karloff hosted. It was a horror anthology show that adapted a lot of stories. They adapted a story called “Masquerade” which is definitely a horror-comedy story. It was totally what I was going for with “Graveyard Shift.” It was by Henry Kuttner. It’s a really funny vampire story. Having Apu alone in the Kwik-E-Mart at night is the classic setting for an Outer Limits, Thriller, or Twilight Zone story. A lot of their stories were based on pulp stories.

SFP: I’ve seen in another interview that you’ve been reading the works of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. Do you find yourself reading pulps before writing a story set in that time period?

AK: On certain projects, yes. A year ago I did a Sailor Steve Costigan for Dark Horse Comics. I wrote that for Editor Patrick Thorpe and I had a lot of fun with it. He’s a huge Robert E. Howard fan. We had a great time meeting at the San Diego Comic Con, I pitched for Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword, and I was so happy because it’s a great anthology title, featuring Conan and other characters. Sailor Steve Costigan is a character not as well known as Conan, although when Howard was alive he wrote more Sailor Steve Costigan stories than he did Conan.

SFP: He did. It’s sad to say that this character isn’t as well known as Conan.

AK: I think that’s largely due to the Conan movies. Having Arnold Schwarzenegger play the character had people who never read the pulps watch the films, so they’re familiar with the character. Sadly, there hasn’t been a Sailor Steve Costigan movie yet. I think there should be because he’s a great character. Being a writer is a lot like being an actor and you have to get into character when you write a script. You have to get in the right head space and feel like you’re sort of jumping into the skin of the character a lot of the time. I like to go as method as possible. I’m not going to go into a gym to get into shape like Costigan, or start working as a merchant sailor, or get in a time machine, but I do what I can to get into character. I read a lot of the Sailor Steve Costigan prose stories.

After I read those original prose stories I realized that in my process I had to do two things, which I often do when writing. I had to write a couple of dramatic monologues in the voice of the character because I found that the character has such a specific way of talking that’s so unlike the way I talk. I had to rewire my brain for several hours a day to work on the story. It’s all dialect – dialect humor. The character talks in this Texas accent. It’s funny because I lived in Houston, Texas for a few years. It’s very much a larger than life version of that accent. Howard lived in Texas, so he knew people who talked like that. It’s really an exaggeration of the Texas accent, a Texas twang. After I wrote these monologues, I broke down the plot so that I could write the story in the voice of the character.

The thing about the Sailor Steve Costigan stories is that they’re all in first person narration. The thing you have to understand about Steve is, like the Joker in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, he’s an unreliable narrator. You can’t believe everything he’s saying. It’s an exaggeration of what he’s telling because it’s an overblown tall tale version of what happened. You also need to know that everyone in the stories talks with a Texas accent because the story is told through his narration. I thought I should do that in the comic as well. I thought that would be a really fun conceit. I had a blast writing it.

“Paper Tiger” is the name of the Sailor Steve story I wrote. Steve’s in the ring fighting and he notices someone he’s not seen before and the guy doesn’t seem to be a sports writer. That’s part of the plot. How would he know he’s not a sports writer? What sort of people would be in a little underground fight club in the 1930s? I did research on how people got in to such places, how they would bet. There were sports writers hunkered down by the ring with telegraphs, they were called telegraphers, and he doesn’t have one, so he’s not one of those guys. It’s little things like that I thought would create a nice sense of specific time and place.

SFP: The voice for Costigan is strong and it’s entertaining just reading the story for the voice. The story reminded me of the tall tales of Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill.

AK: Hopefully, maybe some day some enterprising young filmmaker will make a movie or television series about him. Agent Carter is a period piece and it’s a big hit, so maybe it will open the door to more period pieces. I would watch a Sailor Steve Costigan TV show. I would watch the hell out of that show. I would write the pilot. If any producer is reading this interview, just give me a pile of money and I will write the hell out of that pilot.

SFP: (Laughter)

AK: Seriously, that is a series I would love to do. I think that character owes a debt to the tall tales. Robert E. Howard had a great sense of humor, he was a great humorist. Not a lot of people know that.

SFP: His humor doesn’t really carry over into the works that people are familiar with.

AK: There are elements of social satire in the Conan stories and those are really fascinating on a number of levels. He was such a good writer, his stories were never inadvertently funny. Some of them are funny, some of them are serious. The funny ones are just as awesome as the serious ones.

The pulp influence has even come out in other projects I’ve worked on, by the way. Two years ago, I wrote the story, dialogue, and in-game fiction for a videogame called Paranormal State: Poison Spring (2013, Legacy Games). And there’s a character in the game, an archaeologist, named Dr. Gibson Walters, who’s named after legendary pulp writer Walter B. Gibson, the creator of the iconic pulp magazine character The Shadow. Walter B. Gibson is a hero of mine, and so I thought it’d be cool to name a character in the game after him.

SFP: You have a book out which has received good reviews from Kirkus, Swashbuckling Scoundrels: Pirates in Fact and Fiction. What brought this project on?

AK: It was an assignment that came my way from Lerner Books. I had done a series of books on every aspect of videogames and I was asked if I’d like to write a pirate book. There would be sections on pop culture pirates, the Johnny Depp pirate movies, Peter Pan’s pirates, though most of the book would be on historical pirates. I’m obsessed with pop culture, so I did it.

Originally there was going to be a section on comic book pirates, but it got cut early on. There’s a sidebar, just a mention on Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates. I didn’t get to talk about the different pirate comics by Jack Kirby and Will Eisner. I really wanted to, but when you do a specific work like this you have to cut certain things.

I already knew certain things about certain pirates, like Blackbeard, but I really wanted to get down to the nuts and bolts of why people became pirates. What was it about that life that appealed to them? What was life like in Europe in the early 1700s that made so many people abandon their legitimate lives and made them “turn pirate”? I found a lot of documentation that so many people had such awful lives as sailors, they were whipped and tortured by some captains who were sadistic, petty people. So many of them thought, ‘Maybe I’m making my living in an illegal way, maybe I’m going to get caught, maybe I’ll be hung, get my head cut off, or die on an unknown island, but it beats an honest living!”

SFP: Do you think you would return to the comic book pirates for another book?

AK: It was in rough shape when it was cut, but I’m sure I could return to it because I have such a passion for it. I think a lot of early comic book creators  grew up on Errol Flynn movies. Those Golden Age and Silver Age comics have a swashbuckling feeling in them. Early on, Will Eisner did a strip called Hawks of the Sea. There’s even a Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Fantastic Four story where they go back in time an end up on a pirate ship where Ben Grimm dresses up like Blackbeard. I love the idea that the real Blackbeard was really Ben Grimm. I love that kind of stuff!

SFP: Speaking of Marvel Comics, you’ve got a three stories in a new book, 5-Minute Avengers Stories. Can you talk about that?

AK: One story is titled “Practice Makes Perfect” and it’s an Iron Man story. “Lending a Wing” features the Falcon. The final one is “Robin Hawk” featuring Hawkeye. What happens in that story is Hawkeye, Iron Man, and MODOK go back to the middle ages where Hawkeye, because he’s an archer, is thought to be Robin Hood. I’m really proud of all three stories.

SFP: When you mentioned MODOK, I had visions of him flying around as the Sheriff of Nottingham.

AK: No, but the townsfolk do think he’s an ogre. I love time travel stories. The editor liked what I did so much with that story that I’ve been asked to write a Spider-Man time travel story for a collection of Spider-Man stories (titled the Spider-Man Storybook Collection) which is coming out in May of 2016. My story involves Spider-Man in the old west. I’d love to write more stories for these characters, including more grown up ones.

SFP: Maybe this is a gateway project that leads to that.

AK: I wrote a Superman story for DC a few years ago, so maybe.

SFP: Is there any comic book characters you’d like to write for but haven’t?

AK: I’d love to write a Conan story. I’d also like to write a Spider-Man story, or ten, or twenty, or thousands. He’s a character I relate to. Captain America, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Mockingbird, Iron Man…I’d also love to write a Batman or Joker story. I think there are aspects of the Joker’s personality that haven’t been told.

SFP: You’ve written stories set in the past and the present. Can you talk about the ones you’re writing set “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”?

AK: I’m currently writing two Lego Star Wars books for Scholastic, but I can’t say anything more than that.

SFP: Are you approaching them as Lego books or Star Wars books?

AK: As Star Wars books. The thing about a Lego Star Wars book is it’s got to be really funny and kid friendly. It’s really a dream project in a lot of ways. I knew I was going to have fun with them, but I didn’t think I’d have this much fun with them. I’m having a blast. It’s like writing science fiction comedy.

Early in my writing career, I wrote stage plays about aliens, so that prepared me for this kind of stuff. I also wrote a few Star Wars parodies for Mad Magazine. Those two things really prepared me for working on the Lego Star Wars books. When I was writing comedy sketches for World’s Dumbest, I thought, “Let’s see if I can get some geeky material in here.” That’s why some of my World’s Dumbest sketches were about Superman, Gollum from Lord of the Rings, that sort of thing. I’ve always been of the feeling that when you embrace your obsessions that’s when your strongest work comes out. Write about who you are.

I teach screenwriting courses at the Digital Film Academy (DFA) in NYC, and that’s one thing I always tell my students: Embrace your personal obsessions, and put that in your work. Be honest about who you are and what you’re passionate about. It’ll make your work more truthful, and audiences will respond to it more.  (And starting in January 2016, in addition to my ongoing Screenwriting courses which I’ll continue teaching at Digital Film Academy, I’ll also be teaching a comic book writing course at DFA.)

SFP: You’ve written for different franchises and genres, what’s your dream project?

AK: I wrote a series of stage plays when I was starting out. I didn’t really do much with them. There were a couple that took place on Mars with a society of Martians. They were science fiction comedies, taking a lot of sci-fi tropes and making fun of them. Those plays were inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Mars novels, but they were also inspired by the works of many of my heroes, like Richard Pryor, Jack Kirby, and Jim Henson. I’d like to resurrect them as a series of prose novels or graphic novels or stage plays. I had a couple of the plays put up in small theaters in New York. I’ve put them on the shelf and really haven’t taken them off. I’d like to revise them now that I’ve had more experience as a writer.

Arie Kaplan continues to write and lecture all over the world about pop culture-related subjects. Go to www.ariekaplan.com to learn more about him.

 

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer’s Guide for several years with “It’s Bound to Happen!” and he’s reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He’s taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.

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