Film, TV talents jump at chance to write their favorites

The credits to today’s top-selling comicbooks are starting to look like a studio phone directory.

While Hollywood has long mined its paper cousin for story ideas and occasionally for talent, rarely have established film and TV pros jumped into comics writing as much as they have the past few years.

So while “Spider-Man” is making a second swing at B.O. records, comics fans are clamoring for stories by the likes of Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith and Bryan Singer, who relish the chance to play with childhood favorites and the creative freedom comics offer.

The hottest comic of the moment is Marvel’s “Astonishing X-Men,” by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Whedon and artist John Cassaday. A comics fan since childhood, writing a comic that had a big influence on his career was a dream come true for Whedon.

“Some of the best writing I read was in comics,” says Whedon, who found a strong connection between his favorite X-Men character, teenager Kitty Pryde, and his most famous creation. “I don’t think I realized how much (Kitty) was (an inspiration for Buffy) until I revisited her,” he says. “And there she is, the original girl with superpowers having a hard time of it.”

The most visible filmmaker in comics is Smith. His love of comics was front and center in his films “Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.” Smith brought his movie characters into comics in 1998 and has since written superheroes such as “Daredevil,” “Green Arrow” and “Spider-Man/Black Cat,” giving the slumping comics biz a small shot in the arm when it needed one.

“For that brief period, that window in there when nobody gave a shit about comicbook movies anymore, I think being in comics kind of raised the profile a little bit,” he says. “At the end of the day for me, all I cared about was writing a ‘Daredevil’ story.”

For comics publishers, the appeal of having a Whedon or Smith working for them is having talented people bring a fresh perspective to long-running or even defunct characters, which was the case with DC’s “Green Arrow” before Smith took it on.

“He brought instant credibility to a character who would be a second- or third-tier franchise,” says Dan Didio, VP of editorial for DC Comics.

Joe Quesada, editor in chief of Marvel Comics, says film and TV talent raise the quality of writing and bring their fans into the comics biz. “The more that happens, the more we’ll see comics permeating everything and being looked at as a very sophisticated branch of the entertainment world.”

Following Smith on “Green Arrow” was novelist turned TV creator Brad Meltzer, whose summer superhero murder mystery “Identity Crisis” has earned a lot of ink. Meltzer says he was approached for the “Green Arrow” job by a DC editor who had picked up on comics references in his novels.

“If you look at some level at all the people who get into comics from the outside, it comes down to one very simple thing: They just ask,” says Meltzer, co-creator of “Bobby and Jack,” a skein picked up for the fall by the WB.

It wasn’t always that easy to break into comics. In the late 1980s, Jeph Loeb had credits such as “Teen Wolf,” “Commando” and “Burglar” under his belt and was working on an unproduced “The Flash” feature at Warner Bros. when the then-president of DC Comics invited him to write a comic. Loeb ended up not on Superman or Batman, but on a revival of the 1950s series “Challengers of the Unknown.”

“The people that were in comics didn’t understand who I was or what I was doing,” he says. “I didn’t come up through the trenches, I didn’t know any editors and the president of the company said ‘Work with this guy.'”

Loeb went on to write several iconic superhero series, one of which inspired Al Gough and Miles Millar in the development of “Smallville.” The producers hired Loeb as a writer and producer for the show’s second season and Loeb’s comicbook series “Superman/Batman” ranks second behind “Astonishing X-Men” in monthly sales.

Unlike most comics writers, film director Bryan Singer didn’t discover comics until he began to develop Marvel’s “X-Men” for the screen. Singer will write 12 issues of “Ultimate X-Men” for Marvel with comics writer Brian Vaughan and “X2″ scripters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris.

“There’s a lot of things I’m unable to explore in the movies by virtue of the length of the films and the PG-13 rating the films require,” Singer says. “This (comicbook) gives me an opportunity to expand on the ideas that interest me in the X-Men universe and take more risks.”

That freedom also attracts J. Michael Straczynski, creator of such TV series as “Babylon 5″ and “Jeremiah.” In addition to penning his own comics “Rising Stars” and “Midnight Nation,” he has written Marvel’s “Amazing Spider-Man” title since 2001.

There’s no budget restrictions; you can blow up planets if you want. It’s a very freeing sort of thing,” he says

The flip side of that freedom is that classic comics characters need to be treated with respect. “When you’re writing Spidey, you know you’ve been trusted with something important,” Straczynski says. “It’s your obligation not to break it.”

The proliferation of comicbook movies since the surprise success of Singer’s “X-Men” has helped Hollywood bring its comicbook obsession into the open. Hollywood execs often want to talk comics first and more film and TV writers have comicbook projects on the way, including “The OC’s” Allan Heinberg, “King of the Hill” director Adam Jacobsen, TV development execs Matt Cherniss and Peter Johnson, and “Day of the Dead” director George Romero, who will kick off a horror line at DC called “Toe Tags” in October.

David Goyer, who has penned films based on comics such as the “Blade” trilogy and next summer’s “Batman Begins,” says he will always keep a hand in comics because they offer a limitless testing ground for ideas.

“You get final cut effectively on every issue,” he says.

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