Arrow showrunners Marc Guggenheim & Andrew Kreisberg reflect on the reasons behind a recent sea change in superhero storytelling and how they achieve a balance between geeky fandom and emotional truth.
Written by Denis Faye
(February 1, 2013)
Pretend you’re a TV exec looking for a series based on an obscure DC Comics Justice League member. For example, Green Arrow, a cross between Robin Hood and Batman with a curly blonde goatee, a penchant for green, and severe leftwing leanings. Who would you hire to develop and showrun something like that?
Odds are, you’d avoid hiring the geek squad, right? The days of comic book kitsch are over. A successful hero series nowadays is rooted in character and story, not spandex and trick arrows with big fists on the end of them. To be blunt, the inmates have no business running the Arkham Asylum.
Well, apparently, the folks at CW didn’t get that memo, so they hired Marc Guggenheim & Greg Berlanti (Green Lantern, No Ordinary Family, Eli Stone), as well as Andrew Kreisberg (Warehouse 13, Fringe, Vampire Diaries) as showrunners for their new series Arrow. Not only do all three men have lengthy TV resumes, they’re also established comic book writers. So, yeah, they’re geeks. But the thing is, they’re smart geeks, so instead of going off the deep end, they looked to the one true source of logic and moderation in any true geek’s life – their spouses.
“After we did the pilot, I showed it to my wife,” says Andrew. “She is not a big comic book fan – and she said, ‘That is the best thing you have ever done.’”
Then he adds sheepishly, “It wasn't exactly by design, but I feel like we stumbled into this formula where the show is geeky enough for the geeks to really enjoy but not so geeky that people who just want to watch a good hour of television and not be overwhelmed by the comic book aspects can really enjoy it too.”
Photo: © 2013 The CW Television Network
Stephen Amell in Arrow.
Recently, Marc and Andrew sat down with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site to discuss how they managed to achieve this balance and why it’s important to today’s audiences, even if that means there will never be another A-Team.
What’s your method for turning a comic book character into a TV series hero?
Marc Guggenheim: I guess our method is to take this character and the concept and then almost forget that it’s from a comic book originally. We just approach the character on his own terms and the concept on its own terms. That helps us approach it as a TV show, if we sort of almost forget where the source material comes in, at least at first. Obviously, we're comic book fans so we're never going to be fully unaware of the comic book origins, but we try to ultimately circle back around to the comic.
Andrew Kreisberg: Greg Berlanti, our partner in all of this, he's always said that Oliver Queen's backstory in the comic book, the true emotionality of his experiences of being shipwrecked and being left on an island and then coming back, had never ever really been fully explored in any medium, whether television or comic books. It was really trying to take this somewhat fantastical story and ground it in a true-life emotion. That’s where it started and where the continuing story and the mythology and the supporting characters that we came up with to surround him were all designed to service – that emotional truth.
But then obviously you do honor the comic books in that you have a number of the same characters. Also, he's got his little green outfit. Do you weave that stuff in after you've established a solid character?
Marc Guggenheim: Yeah, exactly. That's what I mean by coming back to the comic book, you construct this TV show, and then you circle back around. For example, in the comic books, Oliver doesn't have a sister, and we knew we wanted him to have a sister –television shows are all about ensembles, and we needed to create an ensemble around Oliver that really didn't exist in the comics. So after giving him a sister, we looked to the comics for inspiration, and there is a female Speedy established in the Kevin Smith run of the comic book series. So we thought, what if we give her the nickname Speedy and suggested that could be that character's trajectory? We also wanted to give Oliver a best friend. Well, who could his best friend be? In the comics, his darkest villain is a guy named Merlin, what if we called his best friend Merlin, and that would suggest a certain trajectory? We always start with the characters and the concepts – this has been true post-pilot and series. We know where the story we want to tell is, so let's now look into the comic book lore and see if there are any characters or concepts that support the idea that we're trying to get across.
So you’re following the Batman model, the way the Christopher Nolan movies borrow heavily from the comic books.
Andrew Kreisberg: Yes, that's what we’ve been doing. From what we've read about how Christopher Nolan and David Goyer approached the material, they set about coming up with what they wanted Batman to face emotionally and then said, “Well, what's the best villain, the best characters to illustrate that?” That's really how we've been going through the episodes; we borrowed heavily from not just the Green Arrow comic book but the entire DC universe by introducing characters like the Huntress and Firefly and China White and Dead Shot and Death Stroke.
And it's always started from a place of what emotional paces we want to put Oliver through that week, and then backtracking into the comics and saying, “Is there a villain, is there a hero in the book that can help us get that across?” So the best comic book adaptations both have a fealty and a distance from the source material. The distance is what allows a wider tent and allows a grander audience to come to the material. But then the fealty also allows the people who are diehard comic fans to find enough of what they love in it. I think fortunately we've really struck a great balance. Comic book fans and regular fans have both cottoned to the show and that's been really gratifying for us.
When you're sketching out an episode, do you ever realize it’s just way too geeky?
Marc Guggenheim: I have to say that we haven't experienced that thus far. I can't account for why we haven't experienced it but maybe we just instinctively know where the line is. But it really comes from a place of story first and if you're proceeding from story first, it's really hard to get too geeky for the rest of the world. Where we start from keeps us honest, as it were. Even though we're geeks and we're comic book fans and comic book writers, we've just sort of instinctively shied away from anything that would be sort of too inside baseball for the general public.
Did your picking the writers’ room have something to do with that balance? Did you deliberately look for a combination of fan boys and dramaturges?
Marc Guggenheim: Originally, Andrew and I thought that we were geek enough for the show, so we pretty much only hired dramaturges. We hired only one other geek, Ben Sokolowski. And then just as the season has progressed, we recognized that maybe we over-corrected a touch, so we brought on Drew Greenberg from, among other things, the Joss Whedon camp. I would say now we have a really nice mix of geeks and civilians. Also, Andrew and I, even though we're very, very proud card-carrying geeks, we've worked on shows like Lipstick Jungle and Brothers and Sisters and Eli Stone and things that were not genre at all, so for us the best version of the show is this mix of action and melodrama and mythology. That's what creates that big tent that we were talking about.
Thinking about the history of TV super heroes, you have an old, campy Batman and then you have like the Flash in the early '90s that was a little less campy and now this seems the trend is to keep that camp to a minimum. Why is it evolving like that?
Andrew Kreisberg: It's probably the natural evolution. The shows that you describe were much more niche shows. Superhero movies have been much more to the forefront and there was sort of a natural evolution from the living comic book of the early Tim Burton Batman movies to the more realistic, grounded, emotionally grounded worlds of Bryan Singer's X-Men and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. Even the pilot of Smallville, it was really, it was all emotion, it was all about this poor kid – who we all knew was going to grow up to be Superman – but at age 16 was just a bundle of nerves and anxieties and frustrations and inadequacies. That made him really relatable and human. Especially for a TV show where you can't compete with a movie as far as special effects and budget, what's really going to get people coming back week in and week out are the characters.
If the super heroics aren't grounded and realistic, it's hard to get people to invest in the characters as real and emotional and fully developed human beings.
Marc Guggenheim: Also, if you look at the evolution of television as a whole, camp has gone out of style. I grew up on the Stephen Cannell shows. I love them, and I don't mean to denigrate them at all – they were a huge influence on me and my writing – but you know you don't see those types of shows today. They were a louder, brasher, arguably in some instances more campy type of show. I'm thinking of shows like Greatest American Hero or Riptide.
Andrew Kreisberg: The A-Team.
Marc Guggenheim: The A-Team, exactly. If you were to try to do The A-Team today on network television, it would have to be a little bit darker and a little bit less funny in order to at least catch the imaginations of the studios and the networks that are ordering these things.
Andrew Kreisberg: In terms of the shows that influence us and the people that influence us, it began on television with the X-Files. Despite the mythology and the aliens and the monsters, the characters themselves were incredibly grounded in their emotions, in their emotional lives. My wife loved the X-Files. She couldn't care less about aliens and what brought her back week in, week out was Mulder and Scully and their relationship. That’s the kind of show that Mark, Greg and I really enjoy and that really influenced Arrow, like the Joss Whedon universe, Buffy and Angel and Dollhouse and Firefly: the kinds of shows where they have grand mythologies and deal heavily with genre material, but again, it starts with characters and their emotional lives and their realistic reactions to incredible situations. Bringing it back around to Green Arrow, that character, Oliver Queen, and his world had never been dealt with in that way before, even though he'd been very successful as a character on Smallville and in the comic. So it was a chance for us to break new ground with an old character.