Just a quick glimpse at his resume on his website, and you really have to marvel at sheer variety of projects from writer Arie Kaplan. A screenwriter for television, video games comic books, and much more, the award-winning Kaplan still manages to find time for public speaking engagements.
I first met Arie Kaplan through a mutual friend at San Diego Comic-Con back in 2018. Unbeknownst to either of us, it turned out we had more mutual acquaintances than we realized that it’s a wonder we hadn’t met earlier.
I had the chance to sit down with Kaplan recently and discuss some of his major writing projects in the past year.
Taimur Dar: Seeing as how Batman Day was not too long ago, it seems appropriate to begin with your “What if Batman Were Actually 80 Years Old” story drawn by the talented Pete Woods in MAD Magazine #9. Let’s start with the obvious, how did this come about?
Arie Kaplan: Originally, late last year I wrote a proposal pitch of “What if Superman was 80 years old?” because last year was Superman’s 80th birthday. Early this year they decided to buy it but asked to make it into “What if Batman was 80 years old,” because it was Batman’s 80th Anniversary. I think one joke [from the Superman pitch] made its way into the Batman story with Joker telling him, “Try not to get lost and wander into a Marvel comic.”
My editor on this was Rebecca Bohanan. She told me to come up with some ideas and she would pick the one she liked best. Originally it was just a series of loose jokes. The one she liked was the one I called “Sid Caesar” Batman where he’s like an old Catskills comic like Krusty the clown. I’ve written some Krusty stories for Bongo Comics so I’m very familiar with that type of character. I can certainly relate.
There were two versions of the script. The story was originally supposed to be two pages and one had this giant splash panel and the other without it. My note to Rebecca suggested we use the version without the splash panel. She decided to use the script the splash panel but expanded the story to three pages. It gave more breathing room for the artist. I think two pages would have made it felt way too cluttered.
One thing we couldn’t fit in the three page script was seeing what happened to Clayface. The chessboard was supposed to be made out of Clayface cooked and hardened into chess pieces. That would have required at least 2-3 additional panels to set it up and pay it off right. There was just no room.
It’s a comedy obviously, but on a more serious note, it’s kind of my mission statement on Batman and his relationship with the Joker. I think there’s a very serious undercurrent to the script which is what happens to people when they outlive their usefulness.
Dar: One of the things that you told me beforehand that took me by surprise was that you never spoke with the artist Pete Woods. All your communication was pretty much through your editor Rebecca Bohanan. In fact, when you wrote the script you didn’t even know Woods was drawing it. That’s a contrast to most comic writers who usually insist upon knowing the assigned artist so they tailor the script to their strengths.
Kaplan: No I didn’t. There were a couple of people who were talked about who might possible to drawing it. Eventually it went to Pete Woods who’s great. He’s done stuff for Archie and the artist for Action Comics for awhile.
Dar: He’s definitely got skills drawing action and comedy as his work on Deadpool shows.
Kaplan: That’s right! That’s another character I’d love to write someday. He’s a very funny artist and it was important to get somebody who can draw funny. He’s very expressive. Like I do with the Little Golden Book stories and comic stories that I write, I drew little concept sketches. I didn’t show them because I wasn’t hired to do layouts and I didn’t want the artist I was telling him how to draw. The only one that turned out the same as my concept sketches was Robin as the male stripper.
Dar: I loved the inclusion of pixie boots! I particularly loved the final panel and all those hilarious cameos? Including Joaquin Phoenix seems like kismet given the King of Comedy influence on the movie as well as how big it looks to be. Was Phoenix and all the cameos in the script?
Kaplan: The only three people in the notes to be in the audience were the Oh, Hello guys and Joaquin Phoenix. Everyone who’s ever played Batman I don’t know if that was Rebecca or Pete’s ideas, possibly both of them.
In the art notes, I was very specific with what everyone should like even to the point that Batman should have a golf visor coming out of his cowl and coke-bottle glasses.
I reject the idea that Alfred would be a super old man. I took it to the next level. If Batman is 80 then Alfred is maybe 120 or 130 by that point. He’s carrying the red phone from the Adam West series. It was very important to put a bunch of Easter Eggs from various eras of Batman in there.
This was very much the case of writing it like a typical comic book story and figuring out how many gags I could comfortably get in there.
Dar: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your thoughts and feelings regarding the news that broke back in July that after 67-years MAD Magazine is ceasing publication or at least won’t be publishing any new material.
Kaplan: The phrase, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” definitely applies to something like MAD. The fact that, going forward, MAD won’t be publishing new material on a regular basis makes me incredibly sad. As I’ve said elsewhere: MAD was my first credit as a comedy writer. Writing humor pieces for MAD has taught me so much about comedy, and so much about life. This magazine has been a part of my professional life since I was 18 years old when I was an intern. I will miss it terribly.
I’ve certainly had a lot of fun with both the New York and the Burbank version of MAD. A colleague of mine, Matt Cohen who’s also a writer for MAD, referred to the Burbank MAD as “MAD: TNG,” The Next Generation. I guess that would make New York MAD, “MAD: TOS.”
MAD Magazine meant a great deal to me growing up. To me, as a child, the existence of something like MAD meant that there were people who had a sense of humor that was similar to my own. I felt like SUCH a weirdo when I was growing up, I felt so different when I was a kid, and it meant so much that something like MAD existed. What I’m trying to say is that – there’s no other way to put it – the very existence of MAD made me feel validated when I was a kid. Like I wasn’t alone.
For certain types of kids, MAD speaks to you because the message it’s sending is that institutions are lying. You should be skeptical because a lot of what you see aren’t what they seem in the adult world.
Dar: Hearing you say all this makes me realize that it’s very telling that this is happening in an era where truth and media are under constant attack by people like Trump.
Kaplan: And definitely now, in 2019, we need humor institutions like MAD to speak truth to power, and we need publications like MAD to stand up to bigotry and intolerance and hypocrisy. Also, in this era when the number of political cartoonists who work at newspapers is dwindling, MAD was important because it employed so many political cartoonists, and political satirists (writers as well as artists). In general, MAD gave the past few generations of kids an important, vital message: American culture lies to you, your parents lie to you, mass media lies to you, advertising lies to you, pop culture lies to you, all your beloved, sacred institutions lie to you. That’s the role MAD Magazine occupies in American comics: that of truth-teller and forum for serious, edgy satire and parody. I don’t know if we’ll see anything like it ever again.
Dar: Let’s move on to the “Tales from Wilde Space: Majordomo, Major Problems” story drawn by Drew Moss in Star Wars Adventures #23 from IDW. Can you break it down for our readers?
Kaplan: It’s a fun little 8-page humor tale where Bib Fortuna, Jabba the Hutt’s majordomo and basically consigliere since Jabba is a space gangster, is having a real hard time serving Jabba because he’s REALLY demanding. He’s on his feet 24/7 so when Bib Fortuna collapses and has to take a sick day, Jabba has to find a replacement majordomo and conducts interviews who ends up getting sent to the Sarlacc Pit.
There was going to be a second interview that Jabba did with a potential majordomo who also gets sent to the Sarlacc Pit. He was going to be a Zabrak, the alien race Darth Maul is part of. They all look serious and somewhat monstrous and demonic. I thought it would be funny if you saw a Zabrak who was positive, optimistic, and always had a smile on his face. It was going to be an original character I made up who worked for Ziro the Hutt, Jabba’s uncle who tried to have Jabba killed and betrayed him. Then you see him tossed into the Sarlacc Pit. It was a callback to The Clone Wars 2008 movie which was one of the things I watched as I was preparing to write this.
Dar: That was when Jabba was a baby right?
Kaplan: He has a baby.
Dar: Right! He was already an adult in Phantom Menace, so of course the baby Hutt I remember was his kid.
Kaplan: The whole plot of the movie is that Anakin and Ahsoka are tasked with the job of rescuing Jabba’s baby because he’s been kidnapped. It’s funny I was watching that movie with my daughter when I was writing the script and she was really confused as to why all the characters were talking to Jabba like he was one of the good guys and not one of the bad guys. My daughter is 8-years old and they start asking questions like that at that age. It’s a good question though because Jabba is one of the bad guys so why is everybody being so nice to him? So I had to explain to her what a gangster and organized crime was.
It’s one of the things I noticed how everybody talks to Jabba in every Star Wars story, they kiss his butt. They have to because he’s a gangster and he’s so powerful. Even characters who are more powerful like Jedi and Sith Lords just to get what they want they have to compliment him, “Oh wise Jabba.” It makes him look like he has a very fragile ego.
Dar: I didn’t intend for this conversation to get political, but I can’t help but go back to Trump!
Kaplan: It so goes back to Trump! It’s not what I had in mind when I wrote this comic. Jabba has been around since 1977 in New Hope when Trump was just another real estate developer. They have very fragile egos. Jabba and Trump are definitely two people who have that in common. It’s not something I was thinking about when I was writing the story, but now that you mention it, absolutely.
Jabba’s default way of talking to people is barking and yelling at people. He never says please. He’s almost like a kid inside because he’s such a spoiled brat.
Dar: It seems your experience as a parent really came in handy!
Kaplan: A couple of critics pointed out that this story is a meditation on parenting and Bib is an overwork, flustered parent and Jabba is the kid who’s never satisfied. I should put it out there and make it very clear that isn’t how I feel about my daughter! Maybe subconsciously some of it worked its way in. It’s hard raising kids and sometimes you do feel like you’re on your feet 24/7. I do think some of my story ideas are about being overworked.
Dar: I can’t think of a better transition to the Despicable Me Little Golden Book you wrote and drawn by Elsa Chang that came out this month. How did your own experience as a father inform how you approached the book?
Kaplan: It was a lot of fun. Being a parent definitely makes you identify with the Gru character. It came out in 2010 when my wife was pregnant. I think I saw it for the first time on television when my daughter was a baby. Some of the emotions and things Gru goes through are ones that my wife and I could relate to. One of the reasons that the relationship [between Gru and the girls] works in the movies is because it’s a look at parenting but not in a cliched way. He doesn’t want to be a parent but he finds himself in this situation to get what he wants. And along the way he finds himself actually caring for these kids and you believe it. It’s sweet but it’s not too syrupy. You hear all these cliches about a parent loving a child unconditionally and it does happen in such an absurd cartoonish way. It’s certainly something I had in mind when I was writing the Despicable Me Little Golden Book. It [being a parent] made it a project I was even more excited about because it reminded me how much I enjoyed being a dad.
Dar: In sharp contrast to Despicable Me is The Threat of Thanos Little Golden Book you wrote that came out last year and drawn by Shane Clester. What was that like?
Kaplan: The big challenge for this book was how to unpack what the Infinity Stones do on a young child’s level. How do you explain what the Reality Stone is to a kid who doesn’t even know what the word reality means? There are always challenges like that when I write these Little Golden Books. They’re fun challenges and ones I look forward to. I always figure out a way.
For a book for kindergartners it’s a very appropriate. Obviously you can’t have Thanos being violent.
Dar: Though all the Infinity Stones are featured in the book, not all the powers are showcased. Was it simply for the sake of simplicity? I’m sure something a young kid may not comprehend something like the Soul Stone compared to the others.
Kaplan: If any one of the Infinity Stones is going to be left out, it’s going to be the Soul Stone just because it requires the most explanation. The other ones are a bit easier to wrap your head around. We kept it to the Power Stone, the Reality Stone, and the Mind Stone.
75% of writing these Little Golden Books for me anyway is drawing these stories out in thumbnails and writing the text over the page. Just to get an idea of what shape the story is going to take and how much visual information can be packed into every page or double page spread. I never show the thumbnails to my editor or the illustrator. I just convert the thumbnail sketches into prose for what the artist should draw.
Dar: As you pointed out to me when you first showed me the book at SDCC, your daughter has a cameo as the scientist. Did she recognize her cameo immediately when she read to book or did you have to tell her?
Kaplan: I pointed it out to her and she got very excited. When you write one of these you can put in the art notes that the scientist is a young African-American woman with glasses and a ponytail. Whenever my daughter has friends over she tells them she has a cameo in it.
Kaplan: Hannah Dolan wrote the original dictionary and I co-authored this version with her. It’s got a ton of new material because there have been a lot of seasons of the Ninjago show. It’s written in-world or in-universe as if the adventures of the Ninjago characters are really happening. The text never mentions that these are just toys. The previous book I wrote for DK, LEGO DC Super Heroes Visual Dictionary, did mention they were all toys. It required a lot of rewatching of the show and various TV specials. Since almost every set in the book is referencing some episode of the show, I had to in the text reference what was happening in the story. For instance, the Dragon Forge set is the blacksmith shop where Kai and Nya’s father and mother work.
Dar: How does the writing process of writing something like a Visual Dictionary compare to your other projects?
Kaplan: It’s very research intense. Licensed based projects have their own challenges. But they’re fun ones I really enjoy doing. Like Captain America says, “I can do this all day.” But I’m not talking about getting beaten up. I’m writing a delightful children’s book.
There are no thumbnail sketches that go into these DK books. It’s all research. You get really into the weeds. I hope fans of the show like it because I certainly did my due diligence.
Dar: Future projects people should be aware of?
Kaplan: I’ll be signing the LEGO Ninjago Visual Dictionary at NYCC. I do have a couple of projects I’m working on in different mediums. I can’t say what they are right now. That’s what NDAs are for. MAD Magazine #9 with the Batman story is still on the stands.
Follow Arie Kaplan on Twitter @ariekaplan. Kaplan will be signing at the DK Booth #2205-J at New York Comic Con during the following days/times:
Thursday, October 3rd 3-4pm
Saturday, October 5th 11am-12pm
Sunday, October 6th 2:30-3:30pm