Wednesday, October 10, 2007

An Interview with Tim Beedle

In 2005, The Jim Henson Company announced that they were teaming up with TOKYOPOP, the leading publisher of manga in the United States, to produce all-new original graphic novels based on two of Henson's beloved fantasy films - The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. The first installment of the highly-anticipated "Return to Labyrinth" manga, a sequel to the 1986 film, was released in last year, and the second volume hit stores earlier this month. The manga, written by Jake T. Forbes with art by Chris Lie, follows the adventures of Toby, who is now a teenager, as he re-enters the labyrinth to assume his place as an heir to the Goblin King. The second Henson series, "Legends of the Dark Crystal" is a prequel to the classic Henson fantasy film. The story, written by Barbara Randall Kesel and illustrated by Heidi Arnhold and Max Kim, focuses on the plight and struggles of the Gelflings against the evil forces of the ruling Skeksis. The first volume, entitled "The Garthim Wars", will be released on November 13th.

We had a chance to ask Tim Beedle, the editor of both Henson-based manga series, about his work on the publications. Tim has been leading the team on "Legends of the Dark Crystal" since the beginning and he recently came to helm the "Return to Labyrinth" series as well. Tim was able to shares some great behind-the-scenes insights, and gives a bit of a "sneak peak" of what fans can expect to see in these highly-anticipated graphic novels.

Were you always a fan of The Dark Crystal?
Heh heh... Well, if you want the real answer, the first time I saw a trailer for The Dark Crystal, I was six years old and it scared the heck out of me. The Skeksis, Garthim and even the Mystics really frightened me. I hadn’t seen anything like them before, and to a six-year-old, they just seemed so real. So, honestly, I wouldn't say that I was always a fan of The Dark Crystal, but I was certainly a fan after my parents convinced me to see it. After that, it became my favorite movie as a child, and remains one of my favorite films to this day. As a boy, I seemed to really like movies that scared me at first. I think overcoming those fears and watching the film all the way through gave me a sense of accomplishment. And The Dark Crystal was such a great story! I credit it for turning me on to the fantasy genre as a whole.

What about Labyrinth?
I have to admit that I wasn’t at first. I’ve gained a real appreciation of it since, though. Now, I think I enjoy both Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal equally depending on my mood. However, growing up, I was definitely more of a Dark Crystal fan.

So how did these mangas come about?
"Return to Labyrinth" and "Legends of The Dark Crystal" are largely due to the efforts of three individuals. Jake T. Forbes, who was an editor here at TOKYOPOP for over five years and a huge Jim Henson fan, was asked by our Publisher if there were any untapped properties out there that he thought could make good original graphic novels, and the two he immediately jumped on were Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Much to our surprise, when we actually contacted The Jim Henson Company about it, we found out that they had been thinking the same thing! Michael Polis, who at the time was their Senior VP of Marketing and Home Entertainment, is a lifelong comic book fan and was really interested in spinning both properties off into comics. Shortly after that, we hired Rob Valois as an editor. Rob had worked for The Jim Henson Company previously and was still very friendly with all his former coworkers there. With him at the helm, a deal was worked out between the two companies and we were off and running!

While those three original members of the team have moved on, Jake is writing "Return to Labyrinth", so he’s still heavily involved with that project, at least!

So what is your role in creating and producing "Return to Labyrinth" and "Legends of The Dark Crystal"?
I'm the editor of the two books, so my role is largely one of coordination and making sure everyone does as good a job as I know they’re capable of doing. In the case of "Legends of The Dark Crystal", I suppose you could say that I had an active hand in deciding which direction the story should go in, and I chose writers and artists that I knew could help visualize that. I screened story proposals and I looked at an unbelievable amount of artists. I found a handful of each that I liked and submitted them to The Jim Henson Company, who have the final say on which story, writer and artist we decide to go with on these projects. With "Return to Labyrinth", the creative team was already in place when I came onboard, so I've just been trying to make sure our artist and writer stay true to the story they pitched to the previous editor and to The Jim Henson Company.

What is the creative process like working on a project like this – where you have to coordinate between a writer, illustrators, and a licensor?
Well, The Jim Henson Company approves everything we do, and rightly so. Therefore, every new bit of script or new piece of art that’s submitted is screened by them. However, most of the ideas are generated by the two creative teams. They run them by me, and if I like them, then they're sent to The Jim Henson Company. The same goes for the art. When either Chris Lie or Heidi Arnhold have completed a new set of thumbnails, pencils, inks or tones, I look them over first, and then I forward them on to The Jim Henson Company. That’s not to say that we haven't been given ideas by The Jim Henson Company. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in "Legends of The Dark Crystal" came from Michael Polis' wish to see music somehow incorporated into our Dark Crystal manga.

So what makes these properties so ripe for the manga format?
I think to tell a good Labyrinth or Dark Crystal story, you need the benefit of length. This is entirely due to the depth and breadth of Jim Henson and Brian Froud's vision. Both worlds obviously are large and have lots of corners to explore, and I just don’t think you could do that in a shorter comic. Also, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal both have a strong female fan base, just like manga does. You typically don’t see that with traditional American comic book readers.

As for why it should be done as a graphic novel rather than a text novel, I would suggest that when dealing with film you're dealing with a visual medium, and the best way to continue or expand on the stories in the films is with another visual medium. These worlds were brought to life by a variety of brilliant visual artists. Telling a Labyrinth or Dark Crystal story without a visual artist involved just wouldn't be the same in my mind.

The first volume of "Return to Labyrinth" was released last year. For the unfamiliar, could you tell us a little bit about the book?
It takes place around 13 years after the events in the film and focuses on Toby Williams. He’s now a teenager and is dealing with all of the typical teenage problems. He’s also facing a few not-so-typical problems, like how whatever he wishes for seems to be given to him in mysterious, and often malevolent, ways. He tries to live his life as "normally" as possible—doing his homework, auditioning for the school play. However, one night, right after completing a very important school report, the paper is stolen. When Toby realizes that he didn’t back the copy up, he decides to follow the thief, who leads him directly into the Goblin Kingdom. There he discovers that the Goblin King has big plans for him.

How was the response to volume 1? Did you get any feedback that caused you to change or readjust things for the future installments?
We haven’t changed anything, but we’ve added in a few things in for the fans, which we were able to do precisely because they were so supportive of the series. We had initially plotted this first arc to be three volumes, but since the sales for volume 1 were so good, I was able to get a fourth volume approved, and therefore, we’ve expanded on a subplot featuring Jareth and Sarah—which is fitting, since the thing that most of the fans have been clamoring for is more Sarah and Jareth.

What can fans expect to see in volume 2?
More Jareth, definitely. Our first chapter is a flashback focusing entirely on him that takes place shortly after the events of the film. We start to get an idea of how big the Goblin Kingdom is. We find that there's an entire museum devoted to Toby, and that there's an entire ministry devoted to prophecies. We also learn a lot more about Mizumi, the Queen of the Moraine Kingdom, who was introduced in the first volume. Apparently, she has quite a history with Jareth.

I really do feel that the second volume is even better than the first. Our first volume was really just the setup for what was to come. However, things really start getting interesting in the second!

So there are two more volumes planned to follow, can you give us any hints about what the future of "Return to Labyrinth" will hold?
I don’t want to give away too much, but I can say that the second half of our series has plenty of action. We realize that we have the ability to do things in our manga that they just wouldn't have been capable of doing believably in a live action film back in 1986, so we're making good use of that. Our story is also going to explode out into the "real" world in a way that the film didn't, but that’s about all I can say about that.

Switching over to "Legends of The Dark Crystal", that story takes place hundreds of years before the events of the original film. How did the idea of a prequel come about?
I knew from the very start that if we were going to do a manga based on The Dark Crystal, that it had to be a prequel. Unlike Labyrinth, The Jim Henson Company has a live action sequel planned for The Dark Crystal, so we certainly didn't want to step on their toes. Plus, telling a prequel story meant that we could include some of our favorite Skeksis and Mystics from the film, like the Chamberlain and the Emperor.

The first volume, which is titled "The Garthim Wars," is planned for release in November. What can you tell us about that story?
It’s set about 200 years before the events of The Dark Crystal. Gelflings are hunted by the Skeksis, but their race hasn't been completely wiped out yet. Still, it's a pretty dark period of time.

The story focuses on two Gelflings: Lahr, a shepherd, and Neffi, a weaver. After both their villages are attacked and destroyed by the Garthim, they join together and eventually rally another nearby village into taking a stand against the monsters. It sounds like a simple enough act, but in this world, it's really not. Gelflings are extremely peaceful creatures. Confrontation is against their very nature and the thought of taking life greatly disturbs them. They possess no weapons. Their trades and crafts are all focused on building things that create, not destroy. Seeing them come to terms with the necessity of war and the brutality of it is a large part of what drives the story in our first volume.

What kinds of creatures and characters will we meet in "Legends of The Dark Crystal"?
A lot more Gelflings than you were introduced to in the film. We have an entire village worth of them, and Barbara Kesel, our writer, has done a great job of populating that village with many colorful, yet completely believable, characters. You’ll also be meeting some Mystics and Skeksis that weren't in the film. We have a scene featuring a Skeksis General, who was a character that was created by The Jim Henson Company, but designed by Heidi Arnhold, our artist. As far as creatures go, Lahr's "flock" is made up of "mounders," which are seaweed-fleeced "sheep" the size of elephants. Also, later in the series, we're introduced to a nasty new creature called an "arduff." They’re used more or less as attack dogs by one of our Skeksis, but are far more deadly than any dog I've ever seen.

Now the fans are always craving more information - can you tell us anything about what we can expect in regards to future volumes?
Since the first volume isn't out yet, I can’t really tell you what to expect in future volumes without giving away the end of the first one. However, I will say that this story starts fairly small and gets bigger as it goes along. I’ll also say that we use the Skeksis and Mystics sparingly in this first volume, but that changes with the second. Our first volume focuses largely on Gelflings, but if you're really itching for more Skeksis and Mystics, they're coming. Just stick with us.

So much of the appeal of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth cames from the visually rich and unique flair Brian Froud brought to each film. Was it a challenge to preserve the spirit of these worlds when translating the visual style into a manga?
It's always a challenge when dealing with a universe envisioned and designed by someone else, in his or her unique style. Fortunately, both of our artists are huge Brian Froud fans. We use Goblins of Labyrinth and particularly The World of The Dark Crystal as two of our most valued references. It was important to me to preserve the authenticity of the worlds in these books. However, we’ve never tried to mimic Brian Froud's style. I think that would be a mistake. Rather, I've asked our artists to interpret his work in their own style.

Part of the fun of these projects has been reinterpreting the worlds of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal in different visual styles. We have guest art galleries in the two upcoming volumes that do just that, and it's also the main reason why we decided to use different artists for the covers than we used for the interiors on these books. We've taken some heat for that, as some people feel the cover isn't indicative of the art inside the book, but I still think it was the right decision. After all, Kouyu Shurei (the cover artist for "Return to Labyrinth") and Jae-Hwan Kim (the cover artist for "Legends of The Dark Crystal") are both working manga artists, and they have too much on their plates right now to illustrate the full series for us. However, they can do covers. And as a Labyrinth and Dark Crystal fan, are you really going to tell me that you’d rather not have those two amazing pieces of Labyrinth and Dark Crystal art out there?

One of my favorite little touches included in the first volume of "Return to Labyrinth" was a cameo appearance by Fraggle Rock's Traveling Matt. Where did that idea come from?
From Jake Forbes, our writer. He’s a big Fraggle Rock fan.

Now I noticed there were a bunch of other little references to past Henson projects in there too. Are there any little hidden references or other things in any of these mangas that readers might miss or overlook that you'd like to point out or highlight?
But half the fun is discovering those things on your own! Yes, we have a few little "Easter eggs" in "Return to Labyrinth" volume 2 for the perceptive readers out there. I won't point them all out, but you may want to pay close attention to the details in the Ministry of Prophecies.

We can have a lot of fun with that sort of stuff in "Return to Labyrinth", but you won't be finding it in "Legends of The Dark Crystal". The Goblin Kingdom is a bit nutty and surreal, so I think you can get away with it, but that's not so for the world of Thra.

Are there any plans to partner with Henson to adapt any other properties?
I hope so. Working with The Jim Henson Company on these two projects has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my professional life. I know that we'd love to do more with them. Unfortunately, though, I can't really say anything more than that.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to the fans out there?
Just that I hope they all enjoy what we've done. Everyone involved with both of these projects are huge fans of Jim Henson and his work, and I hope that respect shows in both "Return to Labyrinth" and "Legends of The Dark Crystal". That said, the purpose of this is to tell some fun stories that we hope readers of all ages will enjoy. I don't think one needs to be at the sacrifice of the other. In fact, I think they complement each other. I can't think of a better tribute to Jim Henson than keeping the worlds he created alive. And I can't think of a better way to do that than telling some entertaining stories within them.

Thanks to Tim for taking the time to answer our questions and share a bit of insight on these extraordinary mangas. We'd also like to acknowledge the talented writers, artists and other creative minds that have made these wonderful extensions of Henson's fantastic worlds a reality for fans to enjoy and explore.