Carole E. Barrowman and her brother, actor John Barrowman (Arrow, Torchwood), are preparing to release DC Entertainment’s new digital first series focusing on Barrowman’s Arrow character Malcolm Merlyn, and in the midst of a major press day the Hollow Earth author admits, “We’re getting a little bit slap happy here.”
Set between the third and fourth season of the television series, the comic will dive into Malcolm’s history and tell the story of the character as he takes his place among The League of Assassins as Ra’s Al Ghul. It’s a project that isn’t necessarily new to the brother-sister duo, who have tackled stories of Barrowman’s characters before, notably his Torchwood character, Captain Jack Harkness. But writing about Malcolm Merlyn was a different kind of creative challenge, especially for a character that, as Barrowman explains, didn’t have a wealth of history to mine from.
EW spoke to the Barrowmans about fleshing out Malcolm Merlyn’s backstory, their creative collaboration, and what it’s like to work together (think booze and chocolate).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This project is cool because you’re getting to write a backstory for a character that John’s been immersed in for a few years now. How did you marry the character’s history with what the show has already depicted?
JOHN BARROWMAN: To be honest, when I went to speak with [Chief Creative Officer] Geoff Johns about the idea that I had — which was not this initial idea — I said to Carole, “I’m also going to talk bring up the Malcolm Merlyn idea.” And when I mentioned it to him, I said, “I’ve been approached by other comic book companies, but I want to keep it in the DC family and I want to do this Malcolm Merlyn thing with my sister.” And he said, “Great, I’m ecstatic,” but there’s not a great deal of stuff out there on Merlyn or his background. I have some of the original comic books that he appeared in, and I also have some of the revamp stuff that he’s been in. It made Carole and I look at what fit in with what the TV show. Andy [Andrew Kreisberg, Arrow executive producer] went, “Well, you need to keep with the canon of our show, and everything should blend together.” But we had artistic freedom to do other things and that’s what was really nice about it. Basically, if I can be so bold to say this, Carole and I can now create a backstory for Malcolm Merlyn.
CAROLE: Hearing it out loud, it makes you feel kind of tingly all over. There were true nuggets of information we found during our research. And we know comics, we like comics, so we know that detail is really important in the stories. We found two nuggets, and we really took those nuggets and ran with them. And they play out in different ways across the arc of this book for sure.
What was your creative process like, given that this you had unique creative freedom?
CAROLE: One of the things that happens when John and I start a project is, we write down questions we have about that character. When we worked on our Torchwood novel and our comic for Captain Jack, we had these big questions that we thought we wanted to answer, and we started the same way with Malcolm. John had a couple questions since when he started playing the character that he always had. So we used those questions to sort of begin the process of fleshing out his story, and we just went from there and moved off into some really cool stuff
JOHN: I think one of the things I learned having come from the world of Doctor Who and Torchwood before Arrow is that anything is possible. And with characters, you can’t put your feet into cement and let it set around you, because the character will be boring. So when new things happen, you have to be open to the fact that you then have to create a reason why it happened, or make it up in your head. Because I’ve made backstories myself with Malcolm and I sometimes talk about it out loud because it also helps me as the actor. When I’m playing the part, I actually then tend to believe it myself. So when things happen, you then are able to let these unreal things come in happen, and if you believe it and you play it truthfully and you have a little bit of a backstory, it’s also more believable for the audience. And that’s the same thing with comics, making it believable for the reader.
CAROLE: One of the things we found was because the writers have already done such a great job on the show of giving us characters that are real, in many ways, it made our jobs more difficult and easier. You could jump into a fleshed out person, but then you also have to respect and honor what has already been done to them.
JOHN: The reason that we’re doing this also, is that Malcolm has become so popular with the fanbase. He’s an interesting character, but there was no other background like there was for other DC characters. This was completely brand new, so I was able to create it. And I’ve said this to Carole, because I know when she does the writing aspect of it, we still look at it the same way. Malcolm will turn to the camera and talk to the audience and have a private little conversation with other characters behind him, but we’ll still hear the conversation. But it’s the audience seeing what goes on in Malcolm’s face, so they see the truth or the manipulation of it. They’re constantly a part of his storytelling and that was a conscious choice of mine with the directors.
CAROLE: And I think one of the things we really tried to do with this comic was capture that sort of unreliable nature of Malcolm, not just as a character but as a narrator. Because obviously, this is his backstory, and in the first chapter we learn right away that he’s going to start to tell this story of who he is. Can we trust him? Can we trust what we see? Can we trust what we hear? But that was the hardest part, trying to figure out how to get all these layers in. And we’re working with a great team: our artist Daniel Sampere, who has been awesome, and Alex [Antone] who was our editor, They helped us make sure those layers were there and make sense and didn’t undercut each other.
What’s your working relationship like, given how much you collaborate with each other? I’d imagine things can get a little crazy, but there’s probably a lot of creative energy thrown around, too…
CAROLE: We are a lot of alike and we like to have fun, and we like to do things that we’re passionate about. And I think when we work we work hard, and take what we do seriously, but we play hard and always have a good laugh.
JOHN: We get drunk a lot! [Laughs] Some of our conversations when we’re starting a project, I get a vodka soda out and Carole gets a bottle of wine out, and we pop them both open and start talking, and we click record on one of our phones and we record our conversations. And then after two or three hours, we go back and listen to it, and tell my niece Claire, “You’ve gotta hear this.” And she’ll listen to it, and she’ll say “You guys think you’re funnier than you really are.” We have moments when we talk about character building,and all of a sudden I’ll go, oh my god this chocolate is amazing!
CAROLE: Or my favorite one: one time we were working on Captain Jack and we ended up doing this taste test to see if we could tell the colors of the Skittles.
JOHN: That’s what it’s like when we collaborate! [Laughs]
CAROLE: And the kind of conversations we find ourselves in, because we just let everything go. I think that’s the mark of letting your imagination be exercised. And the silly moments sometimes lead to some of our best ideas.
JOHN: And what’s really great about Carole and I doing all this work together is that we’re probably closer as adults than we were as kids.
You’d think that writing about a character you play regularly would be easy, but you’re also telling the story through another medium, which has its own set of challenges.
JOHN: One thing with this type of writing, and Carole will back me up on this, is it’s the same as if you’re writing about television, and it’s the same as if you’re watching it: you have to invest in it heavily. You have to believe in it when you’re writing. Although we have fun and sometimes it seems joking, we totally believe. It sounds silly, but when I’m on set, I’m Malcolm. When I’m reading the stuff that’s being brought, I read it as Malcolm. I don’t read it as John. And I’ll get back to her and say, “if you don’t change it, I will kill you.” [Laughs]
CAROLE: I think that’s one of the nice things about jumping into characters that have been really well fleshed out. Because for me, the hardest thing sometimes is separating my little brother from this character. But if I’m going to get this character right, it really can’t just be my brother. But when John talked to Andrew and Marc [Guggenheim, Arrow executive producer], that’s one of the things we wanted to keep: we wanted to play up a little more Malcolm’s sense of humor.
What can you tease about this comic for fans who are excited about seeing more of your character?
JOHN: Read this comic because it’s being written for you, the fans, because you made Malcolm so popular that we both felt we wanted to add more to the world of Malcolm Merlyn. Also, the fact that you’re going to learn more about him and also, you’re going to have other characters that are going to come into his life and world that are going to make your jaw drop.
CAROLE: I think fans are going to maybe be a little bit surprised about where we went for this backstory. It’s two recognizable settings for the Arrow world and what fans know, but we’ve looked at them very differently, and the sort of trigger that took us back to the places where we set up Malcolm’s backstory are in the show. And that’s all I’m going to say.
Arrow: The Dark Archer is available digitally from DC Comics Wednesday. Future issues will be released bi-weekly.