Rob Williams interview: spin-off fiction

In SFX magazine recently we've been considering franchise fiction, and the creation of shared universes. In the second of our Q&As on this topic, comics writer (and occasional SFX contributor) Rob Williams talks about the "balancing act" of working on comics franchises. Williams has recently written Indiana Jones and the Tomb of the Gods (Dark Horse), which will be published in June.

SFX: Let's get this one straight out of the way, franchise work is maybe regarded as not creative in the same way that 'original' work is. What's your take on that?
Rob Williams:
"That's nonsense. Of course it's creative, it's just creative with perhaps more parameters. As a writer you still have to come up with a story idea, plot, characters, dialogue, exactly the same as you would on a creator-owned project. The differences come in editorial control and certain limitations in what you can do with the protagonist. Marvel isn't going to let you kill of Wolverine, for example, no matter that it would make a killer ending to your story. And, importantly, ownership of your material: you're a hired hand with franchise work so you get a page rate, and wave goodbye to your ideas and characters for the privilege."

SFX: Are the rules with existing franchises slightly different to when you're pitching a new comic?
Rob Williams:
"Not really. You just have to play to your market. If you're asked to pitch for Star Wars, for example, you know the tone of the movies. You're going to be wasting your time if you pitch a depraved serial killer in the Star Wars universe or a sexually charged spot of subtle tension building. The trick is to try and give the publisher what they want and sneak your own sensibility in too, so there's still some of you in the end product."

SFX: Related to the above – do fans expect certain things of franchises and is that something you think about very much?
Rob Williams:
"You have to play in the existing landscape of that franchise, so yes, you have to push certain recognised buttons, but you're a bad writer if you're not also thinking, 'What hasn't been done before with this character? How can I take them in fresh directions?' Franchise work's a balancing act. It's probably not unfair to call it hackwork. But you've still got to be able to write a good story."

SFX: To what extent can you decide plotlines?
Rob Williams:
"You pretty much get autonomy, with the caveat of an editor making suggestions and changes along the way. For Star Wars and Indiana Jones, for instance, it goes through the editor at Dark Horse comics and then, once you've taken their comments on board and amended your plot, it goes to Lucasfilm and they take a pass at it. If you're lucky, you'll get away with minor edits throughout, but sometimes a hands-on editor will pull your plot every which way. And then there's whether or not you can actually have recognised characters for your plot. I pitched a story to Marvel a few years back and it contained the Iron Man villain, The Mandarin. The editor said he'd check on his availability and get back to me (like he's an actor or something). When he replied he said, 'Sorry, The Mandarin isn't available.' I asked why. 'He's currently dead,' came the reply. Death is a temporary thing in the comics world."

SFX: How does the commissioning/editing process work?
Rob Williams:
"As you'd imagine, really. You're usually asked to pitch for something. You send in a short A4 breakdown of your story. If you get the job you then go to plot breakdown, describing the action beat-by-beat. This is where editorial get their filthy hands on it. Then, once that's eventually been green lit, you script. Again, the editor can make amends here, but generally the hard work's done in the plot stage. Also, sometimes, with franchise work, the editor will hit you with something that you really should know from their encyclopaedia of franchise knowledge but invariably don't. I've been pulled up before on not actually knowing how Star Wars lightspeed engines actually work and on how many Stormtroopers officially make up a company. I had no idea. People in editorial do know these things, thankfully."

SFX: Do you think such developments as the boom in fan fiction and online shared worlds, all the interactive games, affect what you do?
Rob Williams:
"Not really. It depends on what is recognised as 'canon'. With Star Wars, for instance, there's a mountain of expanded universe material in term of novels, comics, games. If I tried keeping up with everything Luke and Han have done under other writers I'd never sleep. I tend to stick to what I know from the movies and tell me own stories. The movies are what people loved in the first place."

SFX: Do your 'original' work and your franchise work feed off each other?
Rob Williams:
"You're using the same creative muscles with both, it's really only a business difference, which is a little ironic considering the perceived 'artistic purity' of creator-owned work. Unless you're well established, you need to do a lot of franchise work because it pays a guaranteed page rate and it builds your profile in the industry. Creator-owned work will usually pay nothing up front and it's back-ended on royalties. A good career plan would probably be to do a little of both. That way you're paying the mortgage and you're able to completely stretch yourself creatively by telling that X-rated bloodfest tale that is unlikely to go down well with a Spider-Man editor."

SFX: Thanks Rob!

Read more on this subject in SFX 171 which is on sale in all good newsagents and supermarkets on Wednesday 4 June. Find our more about Rob Williams' work at his personal website .

Words: Jonathan Wright