It isn’t easy to turn a video game into a successful comic book. They’re dramatically different storytelling mediums, and the best aspects of a game won’t always work in the pages of a comic.
But Scribblenauts Unmasked: A Crisis of Imagination handles the transition with ease. It’s the kind of book where you can see Batman pulled into a group hug, watch Harley Quinn take on Bat-Cow, and laugh as Maxwell summons a telephone booth for Clark Kent. It nails everything that makes the Scribblenauts games great, and is always a fantastically fun read.
I talked with the book’s writer, Josh Elder, about the challenges of bringing Scribblenauts Unmasked to life.
One of the things I love about Scribblenauts Unmasked is how much it feels like an actual game of Scribblenauts. Has your writing been influenced by your own gaming sessions?
Oh, absolutely! I’m a huge fan of the game, and everything that Maxwell does in the book (with very few exceptions) can be replicated in the game, and most of the threats are structured less as fights and more as puzzles, which is of course very much in-line with the game. Artist Adam Archer and I try to make everything as true-to-game as possible. We get outside the lines every now and then, but I think Maxwell would approve of that.
Everyone from Psycho-Pirate to Larfleeze has appeared in the pages of Scribblenauts Unmasked. Are there any DC characters you’d still like to include?
As someone who had a complete collection of the DC Who’s Who series from the ‘80s, I do know my obscure DC characters. And I’m proud to say that ALL the Super Pets appear in the series along with Golden Age super heroine Ma “Red Tornado” Hunkel and Quad Cities vigilante Wild Dog. They don’t get much more obscure than that. Oh, and Bibbo Bibbowski. And Space Cabby! I honestly don’t know the full character count at this point, but it’s definitely in the hundreds. There are of course more I’d still like to see Adam draw, but I want to leave something if they decide to do a sequel.
Has your work on Scribblenauts Unmasked been inspired by the DC animated universe? Sometimes it feels like I’m reading a cartoon!
In my opinion, the DCUA is the most consistently high-quality “version” of the DC Universe that has ever existed in any medium. So it’s hard for it not to be an influence. Those shows are a master class in how to treat the characters with dignity while still making them fun and accessible to children. The fact that Scribblenauts Unmasked reminded you of them is a compliment of the highest order.
To prove how deeply embedded those shows are in my DNA, I always use the Kevin Conroy Batman voice and the Mark Hamill Joker voice when working out my dialog. (Yes, I say my lines out loud when I write them. And yes, I use voices for the characters when I do it.)
And speaking of cartoons, Scribblenauts would make for an AMAZING animated series. Which I would certainly be open to writing as well!
You’ve done a great job bringing Maxwell and Lily to life. What influenced your take on the characters?
Maxwell and Lily are both classic “Mary Sue” characters who arrive in a beloved fictional universe and immediately become best friends and trusted allies to the heroes there. We should hate them as readers and gamers, but they avoid that in the game by making Maxwell a kind of lovable lunkhead and by making Lily almost painfully sweet and, dare I say it, totes adorbs. I just followed their lead and deepened those characterizations.
To me, Maxwell is that hyperactive kid who could never sit still in school but was always drawing crazy doodles in his notebook and was always down for playing pretend. The kid with a big heart who always wanted to help and wasn’t afraid to stand up to bullies (or at least he wouldn’t let you know he was afraid). Is he a bit of a spazz? Sure, but he’s so entertaining that you don’t mind.
Lily is a lot more mature than Maxwell. Not as inventive, but she’s got the booksmarts of the family. She’s also incredibly considerate. She really pays attention to how other people are feeling and goes out of her way to be kind to everyone. She has all the (often annoying) habits of any tweenage girl, but she’s so full of positivity and warmth that she manages to redeem even the much-maligned selfie. Now that is impressive.
Ultimately, Maxwell and Lily are a characters who can do (literally) anything, but they’ve learned that the best and most rewarding thing they can do is to help people. It’s hard not to love characters like that.
The lighthearted, cartoony vibe of Scribblenauts Unmasked is fantastic. Still, would you be interested in telling more serious stories with any of its characters?
Oh, absolutely. In fact, I already have. I wrote a story called “Dear Superman” with artist Victor Ibanez about a sick little girl who writes a letter to Superman telling him that she inspires her to keep fighting. Then Superman comes to visit the little girl in the hospital to let her know that her strength and courage – it inspires him. You can find the story here and the story-behind-the-story here.
Now would I also like to tell a political thriller set in Aquaman’s Atlantis or a parable about the limits of “The Truth” starring Wonder Woman? Absolutely, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get a reaction as meaningful as when the father of a chronically ill child said that this story encapsulates everything that he feels about his daughter.
Are games and comics something you grew up with, or an interest you developed later in life?
I learned to read with comics. I got my first job mowing lawns at age 9 to pay for my burgeoning comic habit, and my first job out of college was working as an editor at a comics magazine. So yeah, you could say comics have been with me pretty much since forever.
I’m old enough that my first game system was actually an Atari (with the Superman and Spider-Man games among my first purchases, naturally). So I’ve been a gamer almost as long as I’ve been a reader. And just like with comics, I turned my hobby into my profession with a stint at Disney Interactive back in 2010-2011. I’ve always loved world-bulding and exploration, whatever the medium.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the non-profit I founded called Reading With Pictures that promotes the use of comics in education. Comics really did change my life for the better, and we believe at RWP that they can do the same for everyone.
Aside from Scribblenauts, what games do you enjoy playing?
I really admire the emergent/sandbox quality of a game like Scribblenauts. I don’t play as many of those types of games as I would like simply as a matter of self-preservation. I know I’d get lost in them, and I have comics to write!
But I always make time for StarCraft (I wrote some of those comics too, btw). Also a big Mass Effect fan. Same with Portal. Love old school Mortal Kombat, Marvel vs. Capcom. So many quarters sacrificed at those twin altars back in the day. Gameplay is usually what draws me in, but it’s story that keeps me.
Okay, one last question: Batman or Superman?
Superman. Always and forever.