Most actors create some sort of secret backstory for their character so they have a deeper sense of the person they're playing. Not many of them get the chance not only to share that backstory, but to make it a part of their show's canon.
Then again, John Barrowman, who plays the mysterious and manipulative Malcolm Merlyn in "Arrow," is not most actors. He and his sister Carole Barrowman, who co-wrote the YA novel "Hollow Earth" together, have teamed up to write all kinds of stories about his "Torchwood" character Captain Jack Harkness -- and now they're doing the same for Malcolm in a new digital tie-in comic series from DC called "Arrow: The Dark Archer." The series takes place between season 3 and for of the hit CW series, and focuses on how Merlyn settles into his role as the new leader of the League of Assassins.
While not their first comic collaboration -- that honor belongs to "Captain Jack and the Selkie," which is now a collector's item among "Torchwood" fans -- there were struggles that came with bringing new life to Malcolm Merlyn's backstories, as John and Carole told MTV News. The comic will be available to download digitally this Wednesday, January 13 -- but until then, get hyped by checking out what they had to say about their writing process, and how you should never count a creative thinker out:
MTV: You guys are primarily known for your books together -- does the writing process between you two change when you do comics? Are you thinking more visually when you guys write together?
Carole: I think for both of us, every project has a little bit of a different feel to it. But if you do look at our books, they’re very visual in their scenes and in the writing. So what happens with the comic is we ended up just being more closely connected during the process. When we do the books, I go off and do more of a draft before he will jump right in, but with this comic we were more back and forth on a regular basis.
John: The thing is, when we write something… to put it bluntly, we want to see it on television or on the big screen. So Carole, when she takes all the information and collaborative effort stuff we’ve done and then she goes away and physically writes the stuff, the comic book is very different than the other books we’ve written because there’s much more dialogue in the other stuff. This is much more visual, and it’s almost like a script when Carole finishes it.
Carole: I have to say that I think writing this particular comic was one of the hardest things we’ve really done together, because it’s so visual and everything has to be so concise. But also because it’s for DC, and that just sort of raises the stakes for us because we both felt we had such a responsibility to not just comic readers, but all of John’s fans and all the viewers of the show.
MTV: John, you’re clearly very protective of the characters that you play and you really get them on a very specific level. How much leeway do you get when you get to write something like this? How much of the story of who Malcolm Merlyn is comes from the two of you, and how much of it comes from the writers of the show?
John: There wasn’t much information and back history on Malcolm, so Carole and I had a lot of creative rights to do stuff. But we had to stay within the canon of the show, and what has happened – and you know, truthfully, what is going to happen, and the way the character and other characters. If we make them cross paths, everything has to be true to the story.
I went immediately first to [Chief Creative Officer] Geoff Johns at DC and I sat him down with another idea that I had, and I was like, ‘Look, I have this idea for this other comic, but I’m also interested and my sister and I want to do the backstory for Malcolm Merlyn because there doesn’t seem to be that much history, and I want to keep it all in the family.’ He was gobsmacked and also thrilled that we’d come to him. We then spoke with [showrunner] Mark Guggenheim and I then told [showrunner] Andrew Kreisberg and also [Executive producer] Greg Berlanti that we were gonna do this, and they were gung-ho behind it. We just had to pass everything by them. They really have not said no to anything that we’ve done in a big sense.
Yes, I’m protective of the characters that I play, but love to see them grow. And to be honest, the idea that Thea was my daughter was actually my husband and my idea when we were at lunch with Andrew Kreisberg, and presented that to him. And they ran with it. So I’m very involved in that aspect and it’s nice to see a lot of things that you creatively think, that other people listen and they respect your words and it pops up on screen. That’s what Carole and I would love eventually to maybe happen with this story, that it is represented on screen somehow.
Carole: There were two little things that we discovered when we did the research on Malcolm, and I’m not going to give any of them away –
John: No, because it’ll spoil it!
Carole: I know, spoiler! [laughs] The whole idea of Malcolm’s background as a professional and then his background as a personal man, his warped view of the world, really were the two things that we were allowed to play with. And honestly, even in the editing process, the producers have not really come back with hardly and notes at all to us, which is pretty awesome.
MTV: Speaking of having different aspects of Malcolm in this series I was really struck that Malcolm uses so much more tech than I would have expected from what we know about the League Of Assassins.
John: What you’ve got to remember is that the background for Malcolm – and I have always said this in any interviews – he yields an affection towards Oliver because of who he is and what he’s become. Malcolm has always seen Oliver more as the son that he wanted rather than Tommy. And so all those things that Malcolm sees in Oliver – to be blunt, they were Malcolm’s first! Malcolm rode a motorcycle and Malcolm did all that, at least in the world that we’ve created. So that then leads into that whole canon of why he really will just injure him but not kill him.
Carole: I also think that was one of the things where we really found some creative space, John and I, because both of us are very into technology and all of that. In fact, one of the most fun things we did when we went back and forth about how we were going to open this was, I said, “We’ve gotta get him on some kind of machine, something really cool.”
John: So we created a motorcycle. It doesn’t exist -- we actually were hands on in saying what we wanted it to look like and coming up with pictures and crossing different motorcycles together.
Carole: So we could build our own motorcycle now!
MTV: On a different level, obviously “Arrow” as a show has been growing towards a much darker, mystical, more magic-oriented aesthetic. Does that make it a more interesting world to play around in for you?
Carole: I think for the writing it certainly does, and I think you’re going to see us tap into that zeitgeist a little bit as we go along in this book. Can’t say anymore than that, but we are tapping into that for sure.
John: The one thing that’s great about this genre of television and also the way that the comic book will go -- the fact is that anything can happen, and as long as you play it truthfully, if something magical happens, the fans and the people reading it and the viewers of the show will believe it. I’m glad they’re going into the darker, more mystical, magical side of everything, because it gives us as the actors much more to play with. And to be honest, I come from a world of time travel and space, so it’s totally normal for me!
Carole: He spaces out all the time. [laughs]
MTV: I don’t know how much you can spoil for the series, but I’m curious about how many other characters from “Arrow” we’re going to see in this book.
John: Characters will cross, but also, new people will be introduced that you will have not expected and your jaw will drop a bit.
Carole : He is much more practiced at keeping things from people – he’s so far ahead on scripts. Whereas I’m not quite so practiced so I’m always have to bite my tongue!
MTV: Is it difficult to create dialogue for characters that you regularly interact with in person on screen? Do you find it easier to slip into their voices or is it weird that it’s someone you know?
John: You tend to know all of them, and you tend to know them in a way that you don’t think about it as if you’re putting a voice to them. You kind of have to immerse yourself in the world and the have to be a little bit part of you. So let’s just hypothetically say we were writing something with Nyssa in mind – when it comes to that point, I interact a lot with Nyssa and know the character, I know how they write for her having been on four seasons. So it’s easy for me to interpret that to Carole. But then Carole needs to immerse herself in it and find the right words for her voice.
Carole: I think one of the things we both are very strong with, is we have really good imaginations, and we’re working within a canon where writers have done such a terrific job already of establishing characters that feel real. That makes it easier for me to jump into their heads, because they seem real to me. And although Malcolm seems real to me, he’s always the harder one because it’s John, my little brother. So I spend a lot of time in the canon reading scripts and seeing Malcolm so I can disassociate a little but that it’s John. For me, that’s probably harder, but we both have really good imaginations. Never underestimate the imaginations of a really good writer or creative person, because I think if somebody’s already created something that rich, it’s much easier to jump into that world.
MTV: John, you mentioned earlier that you’d approached Geoff Johns with a different project in mind. Do you have ideas for other comics you’d like to work on and is that one of them?
John: I have ideas! I pitched that to him and it was based on four characters from the ‘50s, and going back to the ‘30s and ‘40s, who’ve not been seen for a long, long time. But we felt we’d run with the Merlyn story first because it’s so relevant at the moment, and it’s also a character that people have become very used to. They actually like him, but they also hate him, and I’ve noticed when I do conventions or when I’m talking to people, they want to know more about him. So it seemed the perfect thing to do.
But we do have other ideas. Geoff doesn’t know this yet [laughs], but I want to set up a meeting in the next couple of weeks. Carole and I have written, along with another friend of ours, something that I think DC would be very interested in. It’s something that is completely new to them, for the DC world, rather than hashing up something or doing something that’s already existed.
MTV: Do you have a dream superhero or character that you’d love to write for?
Carole: I will say there are some allusions to a couple of other superheroes in this comic that I think fans will really like!
John: I don’t think that far ahead of thinking, “I wish.” When I get an idea, for instance, about doing a book or writing something, I’ll call Carole and say, I’ve got this idea, I’m gonna pitch it, are you willing to go ahead with it?’ And then after half a bottle of wine she’ll say, “Let’s do it!” That’s the best time to get her, right at cocktail hour. [Both laugh] So I go and pitch it to whoever I need to pitch it to. It’s the spontaneity of it all that I love, not so much the planning way down in the future. ‘Cuz who knows what will come out of this initial comic book, and what the future holds?