Tony Lee: Watching Everything

A comics interview article by: Nicholas Slayton

Tony Lee is fast becoming the man to write iconic characters, from the Doctor of Doctor Who to MacGyver himself. Lee found time in his increasingly busy schedule to talk with Comics Bulletin about his influences, cultural legacy of the characters he writes and his future plans.

Nicholas Slayton: I'm going to start off with a shared passion. You've been doing a great job on IDW's Doctor Who series. So far you've written the ongoing when David Tennant's Tenth Doctor was the official version, and now with Matt Smith's Eleventh as the lead. Is there a particular trick or challenge to writing characters that are being acted out on television? Have the producers or Tennant and Smith ever commented on your approach?

Tony Lee: I think the best answer I can give is "watch everything. " Getting the characters voices is the most important thing for a writer of such a license, and I'm glad that so many people think I have the voice. I didn't always have it, the first Tenth Doctor story I ever did was "FAQ" for Doctor Who Magazine back in, I don't know, 2006? Tennant had literally just been in the Christmas Invasion, we had twenty minutes of actual Tenth Doctor dialogue, most in a pair of pajamas and nobody knew really what the character would involve. I remember after getting through the pitch, synopsis and script stages of the first part getting notes back from Clayton (DWM's then editor) going "why does he speak like William Hartnell? " From then on I worked harder at getting the voice before anything else. You can write a mediocre story and get away with it if the Doctor sounds right, but a brilliant story with a Doctor that's off will ruin it.

As for Smith, that was even harder, basically as I was starting to block out and write his stories as "Eleventh Hour" came on. I was luckier here, though, as I had about three weeks of his Doctor to work from before script #1 went to IDW, but the problem was that at the same time I was finishing off "Final Sacrifice", the last Tenth Doctor arc, so I was writing Tenth Doctor dialogue in the morning and Eleventh Doctor dialogue in the afternoon, and that was incredibly difficult to keep myself in the right voice. Although I did manage to do it!

Slayton: You tend to write very iconic characters, The Doctor, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and many others. Is it hard to find a way to write them, balancing the original material, your views on the characters and the pop culture osmosis version? After all, Holmes isn't the deerstalker-wearing, "elementary my dear Watson" spouting character in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories.

Lee: I pick characters that I think I have a different take on. The stories that I do with Doctor Who are, in my opinion, "snacks" compared to the television series, but I try to write things I don't see there. For example, recently I wrote a twenty foot high cybernetic dinosaur named Kevin is as a companion.

With Robin Hood, I wanted to take all of the variant films and TV shows I watched as a teenager and distill it into a kind of "Universe One" Robin Hood. It's effectively the same story, but with a few major elements altered. Likewise with the second in the series, "Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur".

With Sherlock Holmes, I took characters that weren't shown before -- Watson, Adler and Lestrange -- during the three years that Holmes was believed dead, and added the Baker Street Irregulars into the mix. Wiggins is the only Irregular ever to be named in canon, so the team I created was a blank canvas for me and Dan (Boultwood, the artist on Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars) to work from, so with that we were able to take our favourite elements of the books -- characters, settings etc -- and play with them.

Slayton: Similar to that, much of your work is steeped in the Victorian era and the literature of time. Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and so on. There are quite a few iconic characters and stories to come from that time. Why do you think that is? And how has their appeal lasted for so long?

Lee: Well, it's been an interest of mine for many years now. There's something about those fog-ridden, gas lamp nights that really works for me. I wrote a YA book a couple of years back that was set during this time too! I think it also helps that my wife Tracy is very much into the era, she did her dissertation on the literature of this time (I believe) so we discuss it a lot. Writers like M.R. James, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle line my shelves and I love nothing better than to slip back into that world when I have a spare moment or two.

I think the appeal of these characters is because the stories, although set in a different time, are still relevant today, as shown by the countless re-imaginings of Dracula set in modern day, or the recent Moffat-penned series Sherlock, which modernizes the great detective quite successfully. Back in the day, there was no television, no movies; the populace got their serial fixes through stories in periodicals like The Strand, where Conan Doyle started his ongoing stories of Sherlock Holmes. Because of this, the stories had power. They were as eagerly waited for as, say, the latest Harry Potter book, and I think in a hundred years time, people will be adding books like that to the list as, once more, the stories escape the contemporary setting they were written in.

Slayton: Now you're working on MacGyver with Becky Cloonan. I love how you used Twitter in the development of this project, and I'm sure you've talked about the origins of the new miniseries enough times. But I'm a bit curious on how you're handling the character. Today there are so many gadgets -- smart phones, digital apps, tablets, cool things found on specialty websites -- so how does MacGyver, who is kind of an analog, make-it-up-as-he-goes-along sort of character, fit into the modern world?

Lee: Well, for a start, Twitter was mainly used to ensure that neither of us forgot that we'd agreed to do it! [laughs] As for the character, once more we have a character that is more than the parts that made him. Many people hear "MacGyver" and think of a mullet, but the hair progressed as the series did, leaving the more refined hair of the late Eighties and moving into the more familiar look of the early Nineties. I had a mullet back then -- I think half the planet did -- but it didn't make me the man I was, my actions did. So that's what we're going to work on more. MacGyver's going to be altered slightly, made a bit more hipster -- after all, he was too cool for school back then, he should still be now -- and Becky Cloonan's already on the case, working out concepts as I type.

As for the "make it up hero", I never saw MacGyver as analog, he was a character who could make use of everything he saw, very much like Michael Weston in Burn Notice, who's been name-checked often in reviews as a modern day MacGyver. With the new series being set current time but with the character the same, we'll have him doing what he does best but with a greater array of toys. And the joy of the plot we're working on is that MacGyver has to go off the grid somewhat as people hunt for him, so in a way he is forced to go analog rather than digital. Lee has some great ideas, I've had some more since I was a child and John Porter, who was the guy who created the original MacGyverisms and who's carried on into the modern day in his own life, will be giving us some modern takes on some old favorites.

But some things will never change. He'll be fast quipping, he'll hate guns and he'll have a girl by his side - whether he wants her there or not.

Slayton: One consistent trend I've noticed in all of your works is a mix of the occult -- the unknown, the mysterious and the terrifying -- with a very strong sense of fun and adventure, which seem like an odd combination. How do you keep your stories so upbeat despite the horror undertones involved?

Lee: It depends on what stories you're talking about! I, for one, wouldn't call From The Pages Of Bram Stoker's Dracula: Harker upbeat. It's quite dark and has shocks running throughout, although it has what you could call an upbeat ending with a big exciting fight and all that. But things like Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars and Hope Falls have to have a slice of humor, if only to keep the reader happy.

I've always had a healthy (or perhaps unhealthy) interest in the occult, and the supernatural is one of the few remaining mysteries out there on the planet. Nobody can prove conclusively one way or the other on a lot of things, and this gives a writer a massive amount of leeway on what he or she can do. Bringing in the odd, the dark, the scary and thumbing your nose at it seems like a logical combination, and I'm glad that it works.

Slayton: You're also working on a new novel. What, if anything, can you say about it?

Lee: Currently I'm 40k [words] through it, and it's probably going to be about 70k by the time I finish at the end of the month. It's a Young Adult book called The Ministry Of Unnatural Things and it's set current day, a story about a teenage boy who gets tangled up with a secret and frowned upon government department that specializes in the cases that other civil service departments don't want to go near -- Faerie courts, Zombie uprisings, Vampire brokers, that sort of thing.

If it's weird and terrifying, these are the guys that get it. They live in what used to be the British Museum Underground Station and include a ninja witch with cold iron knitting needles and the blade that Cain killed Abel with, a teenage succubus with a love for exploding Vampires, a bibliomancer with a magical book with a mind of it's own, a certain "Mister Hyde" who bears an uncanny resemblance to a character from a classic story over a century earlier and their mysterious, white haired leader, Farringdon Gales.

They're Torchwood, MI5 or Department X, insert agency here, but instead of fitted out armored SUVs and private helicopters and jets, they have Oyster cards, expense forms in triplicate and a handful of air miles. They're saving the world on a Ministerial budget and relying on all the help they can get.

And when fourteen-year-old Jamie finds himself pulled into their world, he learns that this was something that was always destined to happen, as his real father was once one of their ranks (and is now the most hated Necrophyte in the known dimensions) and also that he has a hit out on him, one that can only be removed if he and the Ministry can work out why a team of unliving Templar Knights are killing people and placing the thirty silver coins of Judas Iscariot in their mouths, and that he might be the next person destined to wield Excalibur - or the next person doomed to wield the Blade of Cain....

It's fun. And it's supernatural. Which I suppose goes back to the earlier question!

Slayton: Any other big endeavors in the works? Is there anything you would love to write?

Lee: I've just pitched a spec TV show pilot out to LA, which is quite terrifying, and Dan [Boultwood] and I are working on our next MTV book, a series of one shots, all linked together called Department P.U.L.P. that starts next year. There are a couple of things I can't talk about yet that hopefully get announced in New York, but we'll see on that.

As for what I'd love to write, I don't know. I'd still like to do something with DC Comics or Marvel, but it's not desperate at the moment. Five years ago I'd have said "Doctor Who and MacGyver", and I've pretty much hit those goals, so who knows? Maybe more TV or film work, as I'm moving more into screenplays these days.

Slayton: One last question based on your recent tweets. Is the rise of crowdfunding sources like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo helping or hurting the comic industry? On one hand, you made a good case on unpolished stories seeing publication, but at the same time, isn't an alternative to the current market good in the long run?

Lee: I think both, actually. It helps the industry because creators can experiment more and bring out things that they would have never have considered before, charity anthologies can get a massive boost and there are some books that get a lot of buzz from such a thing.

The negative side is that some projects are simply terrible, effectively books where the creator has shown it to everyone, been rejected by everyone and gone "screw you, I'll show that this was destined to be great by self publishing." Which is admirable, but lacking in two things.

One -- if every publisher has passed, it's not you, it's the story. There's something fundamentally wrong with either the words or the pictures or even both. And rather than putting your finger up to the world, perhaps you should take a long hard look at the comic and ask why it was passed. Maybe get an editor, or even a friend who's not scared to speak their mind to look at it. To become a better writer or artist you need this section. You need to write bad things in order to learn how to write better things. Ignoring this and going to Kickstarter stunts your professional growth.

Two -- by asking for a chunk of money to fund a print run, shouldn't the people who invest get a financial return if that book hits profit? Many of the Kickstarter projects go "pay us $50 and we'll give you a copy of the book, signed!" That's great, but when it is out, you'll be signing it at conventions for cover price, so why should I pay so much? You'll draw me in the comic? Okay, that might be better. But, to be honest, make the prize equal the investment. Womanthology had some pretty damned good ones when they were up, and there's a reason they hit $100,000.

So I both like and hate Kickstarter for differing reasons, the same way I like and dislike small press and webcomics. There are some nuggets of gold out there, but the bulk of the pan is just dirt.

I don't pay for dirt, and don't expect to be badgered to pay for dirt.

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