x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Comic crossover

More and more celebrities are penning their own graphic novels - and even starring in them.

A detail from the cover of <i>Cold Space</i>, a graphic novel by the actor Samuel L Jackson and the artist Eric Calderon.
A detail from the cover of Cold Space, a graphic novel by the actor Samuel L Jackson and the artist Eric Calderon.

Many things are associated with wealth and fame - guitar-shaped swimming pools, miniature dogs with diamond collars - but a bulging comic book collection is not usually among them. In recent years, however, dozens of famous names have been revealed as secret geeks, not by being "papped" with a stack of X-Men books in their Louis Vuitton handbags, but by writing comics themselves.

They include Samuel L Jackson, who is co-writing a four-part comic book series called Cold Space, to be published by BOOM! Studios in April. Other famous names are John Cleese, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Vinnie Jones, Gerard Way, Courtney Love and many more. There has also been a surge in the number of writers from film and television turning to comics, such as the Lost creator JJ Abrams and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer Joss Whedon. The prolific horror author Stephen King's first tailor-made comic is also about to be released, and several comic book adaptations of his existing novels have already been made.

Although most comics feature out-of-this-world stories, celebrity authors often try to include autobiographical elements in their books. The singer Courtney Love's manga series, Princess Ai, features an amnesiac girl from another world who meets a complicated, long-haired rocker named "Kent" and he helps her discover her talent. Others show how their writers would like to be seen. Jones's book, Noble, for example, reimagines the footballer-turned-actor as a super-spy with two beautiful female assistants.

Because all these authors want to stamp their own identities on their works, most celebrity-penned comics feature completely new stories and characters, but not all. In 2004, the Monty Python comedian John Cleese wrote a graphic novel called True Brit - a re-imagining of the Superman mythos which asked what would the world be like had the Man of Steel arrived on Earth a few hours earlier and been raised by British parents? The satirical book sees Superman skewering Batman on a cricket bat and his bumbling alter-ego, Colin Clark, working for a celebrity-obsessed British tabloid newspaper.

If you happened to visit last year's San Diego Comic-Con - the world's biggest comic book and science fiction convention - you might have caught a glimpse of two middle-aged men gripped with excitement amid the thousands of jostling teenagers. "Jonathan was like a kid who had just received his allowance, set free in an amusement park," says the artist Tommy Lee Edwards, whose new friend was Jonathan Ross, Britain's highest-paid broadcaster. Though less well-known outside the UK, the extrovert talk-show host, radio DJ, documentary maker and film critic was seen around the world as the host of this week's Bafta ceremony.

Ross has been a supporter of comic books for decades, once co-owning a comic shop in his native London. But in April, he will be able to add yet another accolade to his already-crowded CV: comic-book writer. His four-part story, entitled Turf, is illustrated by Edwards and sees vampires vying with gangsters in the underworld of prohibition-era New York. The story also incorporates historical events from the 1920s and readers will be able to see the city's landmark Chrysler Building being constructed throughout the book. The pair attended Comic-Con last July to pitch Turf to a number of publishers, eventually striking a deal with the San Francisco-based Image Comics.

"It's most definitely a trend and a growing one," says Rich Johnson, the editor of the comics blog BleedingCool.com. "I've been writing about a few celebrities turning to comics recently, but Jonathan Ross really likes comics. He's been interested in the medium for so many years and has a number of comic-book-writing friends. Now he's finally got a chance to do his own." A number of possible explanations have been given for the celebrity-penned comic trend. Some believe that by first turning a story into a comic book, the writer can more easily sell the idea to Hollywood studios for film adaptation. Comic publishing houses are also keen to attach famous names to existing brands and new titles because it often results in greater sales.

"When people from outside the world of comics move into the medium, it brings in more people than the normal comic-buying folk," says Joe Gordon, a bookseller at Forbidden Planet, the cult entertainment retailer. "There's probably going to be a lot more interest in this book than the first issue of a new comic by an unknown writer, but that isn't always the case. It depends on who the person writing is. If it's the wrong person, fans will just look at it as a cheap attempt at making money."

The working relationship between writer and artist can be a surprisingly complicated one. In an age when many such people are celebrities in their own right among fans of comics, it is possible for an entire series to reach print without the two creators ever meeting. Indeed, Edwards worked on Turf in his studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from a script emailed to him by Ross in London. "Often I work on things that already exist, like Batman or Wolverine. But Jonathan and I created this book from the ground up," says Edwards. "We would talk on the phone a lot and he had so many ideas that it was hard to fit them all into 26 pages for each issue."

After finalising the script, Edwards would design the panels in Photoshop and email the images to the writer. The text would be hand-drawn by another artist before Edwards began work on the finished pages with ink and brush. "From there you see it all come together and get excited about it," he says. But the artist has not always found it easy to collaborate with famous writers. In 2006 he worked on a series called Bullet Points, written by the award-winning film and television scriptwriter J Michael Straczynski.

"There were things I had questions about, but he just wasn't really one for communicating," says Edwards. "We could just never really connect and I think it really hurt the story." Ross and Edwards became acquainted before Edwards's involvement in Turf, thanks to Ross's wife's career as a screenwriter. Jane Goldman wrote the screenplay for Neil Gaiman's novel Stardust. If Turf is a success, the couple could combine their expertise and help bring the story to the big screen, believes Rich Johnson.

"If [Ross] can, he might try to do Turf as a movie. His wife is a famous screenwriter now and he obviously knows plenty of filmmakers, so it would seem like a natural fit - but I think primarily he is doing the comic book to be a comic book and not so much as a pitch for other things." Although Ross's reasons for writing the comic seem straightforward, Johnson believes that some celebrities who turn to the medium are motivated by more than just the desire to produce a decent book.

"There's a trend at the moment of comics and graphic novels being turned into films," he says. "So you might have a situation where someone is trying to get a film into production and they realise that having a graphic novel is quite a good way of getting that done, so they treat it as a stepping stone." The phenomenon often goes beyond writing the books; many celebrities will "appear" in the stories themselves.

"People who might have just been involved in film production are suddenly comic-book writers, and often lending their likenesses to books," says Johnson. "There's a book called Cold Space that's been written by Samuel L Jackson that you might expect to become a film or TV show one day, and the star looks like Jackson." According to MTV.com, Cold Space is a "hardboiled sci-fi tale" about an "outlaw who crash lands on a foreign planet and looks for a way to profit off of a civil war."