Happy New Year everyone! Time to rid ourselves of the pains of 2016 and move on to the comics/entertainment goodness that’s surely in store for 2017. For me, one of the great surprises of this new year was the chance to sit down with ARIE KAPLAN, a prolific writer whose work ranges from television comedies to MAD MAGAZINE, and now a series of charming, Lego-infused Star Wars storybooks targeted towards younger audiences. It’s always nice to chat with Arie, not only because of the passion that is evident in his work, but also for his erudite reflections about the ecology of Star Wars, Marvel, and Disney-related media swirling around in the ether of contemporary pop culture.
In my latest talk with Arie, we discussed a wide range of topics, including his latest works, his fascination with time travel, writing for children and adults, and, poignantly, his reflections on the late, great Carrie Fisher.
AJ FROST: I wanted to start off with a more personal question, and then we’ll move on to the book stuff, if that’s cool? As I’m sure you know, Carrie Fisher passed away tragically and suddenly quite recently. How did you react when you heard that she passed? What did her work in Star Wars and beyond mean to you?
ARIE KAPLAN: Like so many others, I was incredibly saddened to learn of Carrie Fisher’s death, and the news of her death hit me like a punch to the gut. She’s been a big literary hero of mine for a long time now. Over the past several years, when the Academy Awards ceremony airs on TV, I would look for her name in the credits because she often wrote some of the Oscar host’s jokes. Since I’m a comedy writer—and since I’ve written jokes and comedy sketches for a few different television shows—I felt a kinship with Carrie Fisher. Also, her sarcastic, witty comedic voice really resonated with me. I loved her novels, her humorous essays, her tweets. I admired her for her toughness and her resilience and her resourcefulness and above all, for that wonderful brain she possessed.
Earlier [in the] week, when she died, I tweeted that as a kid, I wished Carrie Fisher was my mom. I think some people thought that that was a joke. Well, I got news for you: not a joke! I very clearly remember being a kid and thinking, “If I got to choose my parents, I think I’d pick Carrie Fisher as my mom.” So many of the things that she would say in press interviews or in her essays or tweets would be things I would relate to on such a deep level. I’d think, “Wow, there’s someone who sees the world in the same way I do.” She was so nonjudgmental and open-minded and she had this ability to tell it like she saw it in a way that was just searingly funny and honest. And yes, she was amazing as Princess Leia in the STAR WARS movies. And she was great in other movies like When Harry Met Sally and Soapdish and The Blues Brothers. Her one-woman show Wishful Drinking was a revelation. Just so sad and funny and angry and bold, often all at the same time. Just like Carrie Fisher herself.
FROST: Yeah I felt that way too. I thought she brought a lot of light into the world, whether through her acting or her writing. I was pretty devastated when I heard the news.
KAPLAN: By the way, my daughter’s middle name is “Leah.” Her full name is “Aviya Leah Kaplan.” It’s spelled differently than “Princess Leia,” but my wife and I chose our daughter’s middle name because of Princess Leia. Because of our admiration for that character. Princess Leia, by the way, is one of my daughter’s two favorite STAR WARS characters, the other being Rey [from the The Force Awakens]. I wrote two LEGO STAR WARS books for Scholastic recently, and both of them involve Princess Leia to some degree. So my daughter likes that. My daughter’s only six, so I don’t think she’s aware that Princess Leia was played by someone named Carrie Fisher. But she [my daughter] loves strong female protagonists, and Princess Leia is definitely one of those. And so was Carrie Fisher.
FROST: You saw Rogue One, right?
KAPLAN: I did. And here’s the thing: My wife and I, because we have a young kid, had to wait until we could find a babysitter to go see ROGUE ONE. So we saw it on Tuesday December 27th, we loved it. The final image **spoiler alert** is of Carrie Fisher’s face, and the moment we left the theater, my wife checked her phone and saw on Facebook that Carrie Fisher had died. And she just started crying. It was… wow, that’s not fair. She should still be alive. We shouldn’t be talking about her in the past tense. It’s so awful that she’s no longer with us.
FROST: Moving on, you mentioned that you recently released not one, but two, books featuring characters in the Star Wars universe. Not only that, it’s LEGO STAR WARS! Tell me how you got the opportunity to write these books! And how fun was it?
KAPLAN: It was so much fun! I got that gig thanks to a wonderful editor at Scholastic named Michael Petranek. Michael and I had previously worked together when he was an editor at Papercutz. (I’ve also written some comics for Papercutz, where I worked with Michael and with the great Jim Salicrup.) Anyway, Michael and I had stayed in touch after he went over to Scholastic, and when he offered me the opportunity to write the two LEGO STAR WARS books, I jumped at the chance.
I think Michael thought of me for the LEGO STAR WARS gig (at least partially) because I’ve written a few STAR WARS parodies for MAD MAGAZINE over the years. I believe I’ve written three STAR WARS pieces for MAD, and they’re all included in the 2007 book MAD ABOUT STAR WARS. I was also interviewed for that book by the author Jonathan Bresman, so my interview quotes appear in that book as well. (And it’s funny how things come full circle, because a few months ago, I interviewed Jon Bresman for an article I wrote for STAR WARS INSIDER Magazine #168, which came last September. That article was about MAD’s history of STAR WARS parodies (over the past four decades). Since Jon used to be a MAD editor, and since he also used to work at Lucasfilm, he was a perfect person to interview for the article.
FROST: Both these recently released books, while both in the Star Wars universe, are a bit different. Your newest one is a Stormtrooper training manual. What is it about the Imperial stormtroopers that make them menacing and comical at the same time, you think?
KAPLAN: I think the fact that stormtroopers have skull-like masks makes them somewhat menacing. But the fact that they can’t shoot straight is really funny, and I make quite a few jokes about that in the OFFICIAL STORMTROOPER TRAINING MANUAL.
FROST: And when you get the manual, you get your own Stormtrooper Lego mini-fig. I wish all books were like that!
KAPLAN: I should also mention that —since they’re LEGO STAR WARS books—they’re written as humor books, and tonally they have much in common with the various LEGO STAR WARS TV shows (like FREEMAKER ADVENTURES and DROID TALES).
FROST: Right. I couldn’t imagine these being strictly canon, though they are really really fun and witty (especially for us long-time fans). That goes to another question: These books are geared towards younger readers, but it must be fun to drop easter eggs from Star Wars lore that might be a bit above their heads? Like, was there anything in your other recent book FACE-OFF, that you snuck in there for the parents?
KAPLAN: Oh, sure! In all great children’s entertainment, there are jokes for the kids and jokes for the parents. That’s true of THE MUPPET SHOW and ROCKY & BULLWINKLE, and SHREK.
There are easter eggs in both books that parents will probably get more than kids will.There are references to famous quotes from the various STAR WARS movies, and sometimes in a section where I talk about young Anakin Skywalker, I hint at what eventually happens to him (being corrupted by the Dark Side, becoming Darth Vader, etc).
And specifically with LEGO STAR WARS: FACE OFF (the first LEGO STAR WARS book I wrote), there are references to characters from the STAR WARS video games, and characters from TV shows like CLONE WARS and REBELS, as well as all seven films (but not ROGUE ONE, because it hadn’t come out when I was working on these books – as of this writing, it’s only been out for a couple of weeks).
FROST: What media did you look back to those as you were writing your new books?
KAPLAN: I’ll tell you what was my REAL inspiration when I was writing both FACE OFF and THE OFFICIAL STORMTROOPER TRAINING MANUAL…
FROST: Please tell!
KAPLAN: Douglas Adams’ HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE books were my biggest inspiration in writing my LEGO STAR WARS books.
FROST: Why Douglas Adams?
KAPLAN: Since the whole thing is framed as a “guide,” and the HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE book is ALSO a guide, I looked to the Douglas Adams books for inspiration. But only in a very loose way. When Michael Petranek was kind enough to give me the assignment of writing both these books, just to make sure it was okay with him, I said, “My vision for these two books is to write them like a more kid-friendly version of the HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE books. Is that okay?” And he said, “Absolutely! That sounds perfect.”
Here’s why I think it works to write them somewhat like Douglas Adams books (but, you know, for kids): Because the OFFICIAL STORMTROOPER TRAINING MANUAL is a “guide book” of sorts, not unlike HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE. The OFFICIAL STORMTROOPER TRAINING MANUAL is actually one book in two parts: a “training manual” section and an “activity book” section.
The manual is “narrated” by a stormtrooper who’s explaining the ins and outs of being a stormtrooper: what armor you’ll be wearing, what tech you’ll be using, what weapons you’ll have, and all of the totally cool, totally chill, not-at-all-evil people who are your superiors in the Imperial hierarchy, like Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader. And the “activity book” section is ALSO narrated by that same stormtrooper, who explains that this section is really “packed with training exercises cleverly disguised as ‘games’ and ‘activities.'” So there are puzzles, secret codes, word searches, and even Star Wars-themed “poetry” sections within the activity book. There are even Star Wars-themed haikus as well as “joke book” type sections, one of which is called “Sick Sith Burns,” where the narrator explains that the Emperor has encouraged the stormtroopers to see how many “sick burns” they can come up with at the expense of the Jedi.
FROST: Sounds about right. They can’t shoot the Jedi… gotta take ’em down with jokes!
FROST: In FACE OFF, you have the iconic characters from the original, prequel, and sequel trilogies, as well as Clone Wars & Rebels squaring off. That must’ve been fun to come up with different combinations of battles between the characters. Which do you think, if you had to pick, was your favorite match-up?
KAPLAN: This “guide” theme is also true of LEGO STAR WARS: FACE OFF, which is a series of match-ups between characters who’ve never faced off against each other in the STAR WARS movies or TV shows, like Lando Calrissian Vs. Emperor Palpatine. And as I guide the reader through the various “Face Offs,” I include info about the various characters’ home planets, gear, tech, weaponry, etc. And I make jokes about all of that too.
FROST: Very fun! Let me ask, which do you enjoy more, writing for kids or adults? Or do they just excite & inspire you in different ways?
KAPLAN: I like writing for both adults and kids. And yeah, they just inspire me in different ways. Sometimes it’s nice to work on a project for kids earlier in the day, and then I can shift gears and work on a project for “grown ups” later in the day. Which I have done. Back in 2008 and 2009, I spent most of my days writing the screenplays for all 5 episodes of the episodic HOUSE M.D. video game (which came out in 2010 from Legacy Games). Then most nights, I was writing the script for the CLUB PENGUIN graphic novel, which was titled SHADOW GUY AND GAMMA GAL: HEROES UNITE. That was published by Penguin Young Readers Group/Grosset & Dunlap in 2010. The CLUB PENGUIN graphic novel was very much for kids, and the HOUSE M.D. game (much like the HOUSE show on which it was based) was very, very much for adults.
FROST: Besides your recent Lego Star Wars output, what do you have in the pipeline?
KAPLAN: I’ve been working on some projects for Disney Book Group’s Marvel Press imprint. For example, I wrote three of the stories in the 5-MINUTE AVENGERS STORIES collection. That’s a prose fiction anthology, which features 12 stories, each focusing on one of the Avengers.They’re short stories for kids, and I had such fun writing them.
Also, I wrote one story for the SPIDER-MAN STORYBOOK COLLECTION, which came out in May 2016 from Marvel Press. And I wrote two stories for the upcoming 5-MINUTE SPIDER-MAN STORIES anthology, which will be published by Marvel Press in June 2017. And one of the 5-MINUTE AVENGERS STORIES tales a time travel story. My one story in SPIDER-MAN STORYBOOK COLLECTION is a time travel story. And one of the stories I wrote for 5-MINUTE SPIDER-MAN STORIES is a time travel story. So that seems to be a recurring theme for me. I’m kind of obsessed with time travel. I think that people are obsessed with time travel because it brings up the question of, “How would my life have been different if I would’ve just changed that ONE LITTLE THING?” Everyone thinks about that.
FROST: Speaking of time travel, any prognostications for the Second Jewish Comic-Con?
KAPLAN: Oh, I don’t know. it’s much too soon to tell! But I did have a great time working with Fabrice Sapolsky and Danny Fingeroth on the first Jewish Comic Con. (I was a programming consultant on that one). I will say that although it is too soon to tell, I do have some ideas for the second one, and I’m sure Fabrice and Danny do too. The first one was quite a big success!
Going back to that topic of time travel: When I was writing those three stories for 5-MINUTE AVENGERS STORIES (which is out now from Disney Book Group’s Marvel Press imprint), I thought it was an opportunity to almost do a Ray Bradbury-style story, but for young kids. Bradbury was one of the first science fiction writers to really embrace (and popularize) the notion of the “butterfly effect,” the concept that—if you were to go back in time to the past—it would have a ripple effect, impacting the present. Even if you were to do something minuscule and seemingly inconsequential, it could have monumental consequences. So in “Robin Hawk,” the time travel story for 5-MINUTE AVENGERS STORIES, Hawkeye, Iron Man, and MODOK all get sent back in time to medieval Europe, where all of the locals think that Hawkeye is ROBIN HOOD. He keeps trying to tell them that he isn’t Robin Hood, but they don’t believe him; they just think he’s being modest. Then, when our heroes return to the twenty-first century, Hawkeye googles “Robin Hood” and every drawing he finds of Robin Hood looks like…him! Like Hawkeye! So because he went back in time, even though he didn’t really do anything earth-shaking while in medieval times, he still had an impact on history (and legend).
With the two Spider-Man time travel stories (one of them in SPIDER-MAN STORYBOOK COLLECTION and one in the upcoming 5-MINUTE SPIDER-MAN STORIES), each time Spidey goes back in time, he meets one of Nick Fury’s ancestors. In “The Fastest Web In The West” (which appears in SPIDER-MAN STORYBOOK COLLECTION), the webslinger finds himself in the Old West, where he teams up with Sherriff Fury (and Deputy Coulson) to fight Billy the Kid. And in “Swashbuckling Spidey” (which will be published in 5-MINUTE SPIDER-MAN STORIES in June 2017), Spider-Man gets sent back in time to the so-called Golden Age of Piracy in the 18th century, where he battles Blackbeard the pirate with the help of “One-Eyed” Fury, a spy for the Queen of England. In that story, you also meet the ancestors of a couple of classic Marvel villains, but I don’t want to say who they are just yet. Anyway, I love the idea that Spidey gets to meet the ancestors of his fellow Marvel Universe characters. It’s something I’ve played with in some of my comic book stories, going back to a miniseries I wrote, SPEED RACER: CHRONICLES OF THE RACER (published by IDW in 2008), where we met Speed Racer’s ancestors in various eras. I’ve also had pirates on the brain recently because I wrote a juvenile nonfiction book on the history of piracy which came out last year (SWASHBUCKLING SCOUNDRELS: PIRATES IN FACT AND FICTION, out now from Lerner Publishing Group).
FROST: What are you looking forward to most in 2017? Whether in terms of your own creative output, or pop culture releases, or just life in general?
KAPLAN: Well, I do have a few different comic book stories I’ve written for a couple of different publishers, but they haven’t been announced yet. So I don’t think I can talk about them… But hopefully I’ll be able to soon! Because (as with all of my other work), I’m very proud of them. Oh! And I don’t know if I mentioned this, but THE OFFICIAL STORMTROOPER TRAINING MANUAL (written by yours truly) comes out [this] month (Jan 2017) from Scholastic. And LEGO STAR WARS: FACE OFF, which is out now from Scholastic, is also written by me and illustrated by Dave White.
As far as other pop culture releases I’m looking forward to, I’m DEFINITELY excited about the following: DC’s upcoming KAMANDI series, the upcoming season of DOCTOR WHO, the movies SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2, and the DUCK TALES relaunch on Disney XD!
FROST: Anything coming up where people can catch you for book signings and lectures?
KAPLAN: Starting in January 2017, I’ll be doing a series of pop culture-oriented lectures at NYC performance space QED Astoria. The first one is a lecture called “The Monster Makers,” and it’s about the Golden Age of Universal horror movies (e.g. James Whale’s 1931 FRANKENSTEIN). That will be happening on Saturday January 7th, 2017 at 2pm at QED Astoria. Here’s some more info about it AT THIS LINK!
ALSO: I’ll be doing a bunch of those QED lectures all throughout 2017, and some of the lectures will be on comic book history (like the one in February, which will be based on my book FROM KRAKOW TO KRYPTON).I have a few other speaking engagements at various venues around the US during 2017, but I’m still working on some of the details for those. But I’ll be announcing any other upcoming events on my website and on Twitter.
FROST: Thanks for taking the time to chat!
KAPLAN: Thank you!