Here at Geek Girl Authority, we love our comics: from our weekly Saturday Morning Webtoons column to our list of Queer Furry comics to our love letter to Dazzler. So, we were excited when noted comic book historian (and writer) Arie Kaplan agreed to speak with us about his upcoming projects both on the page and on the small screen.

Arie recently published a short story in the Lord of the Rings-themed anthology edited by Josh SippieOne Anthology to Rule Them All, penned a (very fun) episode of Charlie’s Colorforms City and contributed to the Ryan’s World series of graphic novels for young readers.

I spoke with Arie about all of his latest adventures, as well as writerly obsessions: fairy tales, myths and legends, and detective stories. Read on for a wild ride!

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This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

One Anthology to Rule Them All

One Anthology to Rule Them All cover

Rebecca Kaplan: What’s the inspiration for your short story in One Anthology to Rule Them All?

Arie Kaplan: The Beatles wanted to make a Lord of the Rings movie in 1968. They did do a lot of talk shows in the ’60s, like Ed Sullivan. So, that quickly morphed into Johnny Carson asking the questions. 

I was inspired by this YouTube clip of a 1960s press junket, and all four Beatles were such incredible a**holes to these poor reporters. Like, I know it’s tough to write good rock songs. I know it’s tough to do it as well as they did it and make it look easy too. It’s also not easy to be a reporter, sitting in the queue and waiting your turn, and then The Beatles make fun of you and poop all over your question. I was like, “God, these guys are just being such jerks.”

Then, their whole public persona never took anything seriously, but you also get a sense they don’t take anything seriously. The Marx Brothers movies significantly influenced their films. Help and A Hard Day’s Night are very Marx Brothers-ish type films. If Johnny Carson’s asking them serious questions about this movie, what’s it about and everything, you think they’d answer in the most flipping way possible.

All the stuff in the piece that I wrote for One Anthology to Rule Them All has the same flavor where it’s like, these guys are just insufferable.

The Beatles performing on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964

The Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. Photo: Bernard Gotfryd, Library of Congress Gift

RK: Probably too much of that pipeweed.

AK: Oh, the pipeweed. That’s the other thing; I wish this movie had gotten made. It would have been a train wreck if they had done a LotR movie, but it would’ve been interesting to see it in a pre-Star Wars world, probably with the backing of a major movie studio because they’re The Beatles if they had gotten the rights.

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J.R.R. Tolkien had no respect for rock and roll. He was like, “Oh, no, absolutely not.” He was a World War I veteran. The Beatles must have seemed like people from another planet to him. What’s funny about it is I’m sure they could’ve found some common ground. Indeed, if you read the LotR books, you get he has a lot of respect for the environment, and so did The Beatles.

Supposedly, they wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct the movie. John Lennon would have played Gollum. George Harrison would have played Gandalf. Ringo Starr would have been Samwise. Paul McCartney would have been Frodo. Like, how can you not want to see that movie?

Red Titan (Ryan’s World)

Red Titan and the Runaway Robot

Red Titan and the Runaway Robot by Arie Kaplan (writer), Ryan Kaji (story), and Patrick Spaziante (illustrator). Photo: Simon Spotlight

RK: Can you tell me about the Red Titan books? 

AK: They were a lot of fun to write. The dance battle was the hardest thing about Red Titan and the Runaway Robot because half of the story is this dance battle. When you’re writing a dance battle for a graphic novel, the characters are paused because each panel is a still image, like you’re taking a photo. In this case, they have to be paused in a way that tells the reader that they’re dancing.

I had to describe particular dance poses in the stage corrections, AKA art notes, for each panel in the dance battle sequence. You have to show them dancing in a way that looks like they’re dancing — where it doesn’t look like they’re slipping on a banana peel or something.

It required going online and looking up a lot of images of people dancing, charts for people who want to learn how to dance where it shows different dance poses and then being like, “Okay, this is the way Ryan should be posed here, and this is the way the Robot should be posed here.”

I usually have the links all together at the end of the script, but in this case, I put each of them in the stage directions for each panel for the dance battle scene because I felt like I had to be that specific. I hope it saved the artist, Patrick Spaziante, who did a lot of work for Archie Comics and is talented, a lot of work. He did the illustrations for Red Titan and the Runaway Robot.

The other thing about the Red Titan books is I got to parody elements of superhero comics for very young kids. While writing, I think, “What paradigm do I have in mind while I’m writing this?” For Red Titan, I often had in mind the Supergirl or Superboy stories from the ’50s that DC would put out or the old Shazam/Captain Marvel stories that Fawcett Comics would put out, and I tried to make it feel like those.

Charlie’s Colorforms City

Charlie's Colorforms City

Charlie’s Colorforms City. Photo: Netflix/9 Story Media Group

RK: What’s the credentialing process to become an animal detective?

AK: I don’t know whose idea it was to make him an animal detective. That might have been McPaul Smith, who’s the head writer of the season of Charlie’s Colorforms City that I worked on. Working with McPaul, an excellent writer Pammy Salmon (Sesame Workshop), the story editor, and everyone else was fun because the show is about creativity. 

“Charlie and Little Bo Peep” gives the viewer subtle clues about genre and genre parody because it’s parodying a detective story. I think that’s the reasoning behind making Charlie an animal detective for that episode.

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It’s Charlie’s Colorforms City, so there’s no murder. But it’s still a detective story, so you’re able to parody certain things about detective stories. By the way, in the finished episode, he’s dressed up as Sherlock Holmes with the deerstalker cap, cape and everything. In a couple of versions of the script, Charlie was dressed up like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca

One line of dialogue had to be sacrificed because of the Sherlock Holmes outfit: “This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendsheep.”

RK: What’s it like when you’re writing a children’s show and balancing out jokes for the parents and the kids?

AK: The cool thing about Charlie’s Colorforms City is it’s about teaching kids about storytelling, the creative process, what it’s like coming up with story ideas, and unpacking those concepts. The episodes could be structured a little bit like “yes, and” improv, which I think a lot of scripts are, to a certain extent, because every scene inspires the next scene, which inspires the next scene.

They all have to have this organic cause and effect relationship between each other, which is at the heart of screenwriting, and it’s at the heart of improv as well.

You have to figure out how to unpack certain concepts for very young children. You’ve got to tease out that mystery so that the viewer is still wondering, “Oh, what’s going on? I want to see what the next story tells me.” Then eventually, when you get all the clues together, the preschooler watching it also puts it together in their heads, “Oh, I see. They think the sheep are running away from her because they think that this is the starting whistle of a race, and they think that they’re running in a race.”

RK: Do you know if there’s research that supports that? 

AK: I’ve heard from educators that it works on an educational level.

RK: How does the process work?

AK: What happens is they take the script, turn it into a storybook, read it, and then one of the people working on the show reads it before many kids. This was all done virtually because it was at the pandemic’s beginning. Then they get the kids’ feedback, and part of it is, do the kids find it entertaining and funny? Are they laughing when they’re supposed to? Are they laughing at the jokes? Are they getting the educational subject matter? Is that working?

As the writer, I’m sitting there quietly, not saying anything, because you don’t want to upset these kids or break their concentration. After that, I take the feedback of the other people working on the show, the producers, the head writer, the story editor, and the educational consultants, and I incorporate that into the next draft of the script.

RK: I heard (from Arie) there is an Easter eggy thing in the script that’s a touching tribute to a late MAD Magazine writer. I don’t know him, but who wouldn’t want to live on as a cartoon sheep?

AK: One of the sheep is named Barry. It’s Baarry, like baa, like the sheep sound. That’s in there because it’s another excuse to put in a sheep pun. When you write a script for a show like this, you quickly understand that you’re encouraged to put as many sheep puns in the episode as you can. The other reason is that I had a friend named Barry Liebmann, a writer of MAD Magazine, who died a few years ago. That’s my way of paying tribute to him.

I thought paying tribute to Barry Liebmann via this sheep was appropriate because the episode is also a parody of a couple of different things: a parody of the fairytale/nursery rhyme, Little Bo Peep, and it’s a parody of detective stories. Genre parodies are something that Barry wrote a lot in MAD Magazine.

It’s very much in his wheelhouse; you know what I mean? In the actual Barry Liebmann’s wheelhouse. He wrote a few comic book stories too. He wrote a few Looney Tunes comics for DC.

Swamped by Croc!

Swamped by Croc! cover by Arie Kaplan

RK: How is it writing these characters for children versus adults?

AK: These characters are designed as fairly adult characters. Batman was created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and those first few Batman stories are pretty dark. Pulp magazine characters like the Shadow influenced them. So Batman’s dark, mysterious, pulpy and film noir-ish. 

Over the years, he became more and more kid-friendly because kids loved Batman and kids loved comics in general, which they still do. Then, around 1969 or ’70, he returns to his dark and mysterious roots. He’s been that way ever since for the past five decades plus.

Harley’s similar because she’s this great character. Even when she was introduced in Batman: The Animated Series, her episodes were dark and complex, especially for a children’s TV show. I’m so amazed that the writers could balance that and tell stories about this woman traumatized by this horrible relationship with The Joker.

The writers were able to write these scripts that address she’s in an abusive relationship while still somehow keeping it appropriate for a children’s show — that, to me, is amazing. 

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When I got to write Harley at Bat!, I thought, “Okay, but what’s the kid-friendly version of this character?” Which you’ve seen on DC Super Hero Girls and other kids’ animated shows, but this is slightly different because we didn’t have much room for dialogue. So you have to rely a lot on slapstick comedy sequences and action sequences.

For both of those, you got to think, “What does Harley do to try and knock Batman unconscious that’s original and interesting?” You have to brainstorm what Harley-type gags have not been done to death or maybe hadn’t been done before? 

With the second book, Swamped by Croc!how do you have Croc in the story? It takes place in the sewers where Batman and Croc are battling it out. You got to keep it action-packed, but it can’t be too violent, and it can’t be too gross. You’re juggling those two things; a Batman story and suitability for children.

The other thing about it, too, is I’ve learned in writing both of them how much sympathy I have for the villains in the Batman stories. You feel so much compassion for Harley and Croc because it’s not his fault he looks like that. It’s a good “problem” to have if you’re trying to figure out how to make Croc and Harley Quinn’s children’s book stories work. I realize how lucky and privileged I am to write these books. 

RK: What does the research for Swamped by Croc! entail?

AK: I did a lot of research on sewer systems of various cities when I was writing Swamped by Croc! I researched it as a courtesy to the artist and editors. I always include a section after the script called “web reference links,” linking to different websites for research. 

For example, for the artist, I found images of a sewer exit with a stone tunnel and sewer exits made of stone or tunnels made of stone. I always go down the rabbit hole with this research stuff. In researching the sewers, I was like, “God, every city on Earth used to be absolutely filthy before they had a sewer system.”

RK: What is your take on Croc?

AK: In the back of your head, you have that Croc doesn’t want to be a “monster;” he just looks that way. He wants Batman to leave him alone. It’s not too much to ask. What’s great about Batman as a character is everyone always says he has the best rogues’ gallery in comics. I think it’s true because he’s got these fascinating villains. You can even convey that in a children’s book story.

RK: I haven’t thought about Croc that way before, like how we often see a deformity used as a trope in horror?

AK: Yes. It makes him like one of those classic monsters. Not unlike Phantom of the Opera or Beast in Beauty and the Beast where it’s like he’s not a monster. It’s just everyone thinks he’s a monster because of the way he looks. When you write one of these stories, if you’re me anyway, you’ve got to think, what’s the character’s goal? What does the character want?

Well, Batman wants to capture Croc, but Croc wants to be left alone. That is his goal. He wants to sit in a shack and, I don’t know, read the newspaper or whatever the heck he does to unwind. That’s it. Only Batman is his obstacle; he gets in the way of doing that.

You got to think of both characters as the hero of their own story because at the end of the day, in our heads, we’re the hero of our story. Batman would think that he’s the hero of the story, and Croc would also believe he’s the hero of the story.

RELATED: Check out more of our interviews here!

Be sure to follow Arie on Twitter (@ariekaplan)! Click here to purchase Swamped by Croc! and here to add One Anthology to Rule Them All to your book collection. 

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