Jody Houser on Stranger Things and Licensed Works

Stranger Things, Dark Horse, 2018

Jody Houser is a busy woman in the world of comics, having just wrapped up a Thrawn miniseries at Marvel and about to launch a Stranger Things comic and a StarCraft title with Dark Horse, not mention her work with Valiant and DC. While her original worlds appear in short comics in anthologies, her primary professional focus has been on licensed works and worlds. I was able to sit down with her at the Dark Horse booth during San Diego Comic Con to see what it was like being a sought after adapter, the Star Wars fandom, her dream adaptation, and more!

In some ways you’re living a fan’s dream, where you get to add to the canon of some pretty big franchises like X-Files. Now you’re adding to StarCraft, and even the Orphan Black Universe, which was great. So can you talk about the sort of responsibilities that gives you and what it’s like to be a writer for something you’re actually a fan of?

It’s really interesting, because you sort of run the gauntlet in terms of what licensors are looking for. Sometimes they want direct adaptations of material that’s already existing, sometimes they want something that’s tangential to what happened, so it’s a mix of what you saw on screen, but a different character’s perspective maybe, which is very much what the Stranger Things comic is.

And something like StarCraft is a whole brand new story set in the world with new characters, so it’s sort of building from the foundation, but something completely new the fans haven’t seen before.

I’ve sort of done a whole bunch of different aspects of licensed books, and it really does boil down to what both the publisher and the licensors want the comic to be and how they want it to add to the world and the brand and just getting to play with that.

Can you talk a little about what it’s like adapting something? I assume there’ll probably be some comic parallels to scenes we’ve seen on Stranger Things, like we’re the seeing the opposite side of something?

The upside down side perhaps!

(Aside: Dark Horse PR: heyoooo)

What is an interview without terrible puns?

It’s a lot of fun, but you have to be really aware of the strengths of different [media]. I actually went to grad school for writing, and one of the classes I took was novel into film, which was a very specific type of adaptation, but very much studying how they would take the same story, or the same characters and just really play to the strengths of each medium.

And that was the thing that I really took to heart and I really tried to do with the comic. There are certain elements of Rogue One, for example that work much better when you have movement and action and sound, and then there’s the moments that work really well in comics, like finding some of those quiet character moments that maybe they didn’t have time for in the movie. Maybe some of them were hinted at in the novel or stuff I got to create whole cloth.

There’s also limited pages to try to fit the story within. It’s very much just trying to remember at the end of the day I’m writing a comic and I’m trying to write a good comic. And you know making sure the story is fitting the medium rather than me trying to beat the medium into the existing story.

So would you consider yourself a fan, like somebody who might have attended a con before you started writing comics? And how has your relationship with being a fan changed, if at all?

I mean, this year is my 12th San Diego Comic Con in a row, and my career is only about five years old, so, yeah I definitely started coming to San Diego as a fan, even though I was doing webcomics back then. So I was still technically coming as a pro but I was mostly coming to be a fan.

You know, getting to know fellow fans and just knowing what I myself enjoy about different franchises and what draws me into certain worlds and certain characters—I definitely try to bring that perspective into my work and think about what it is that fans love about the story and what elements maybe they haven’t gotten to see or have been curious about.

What we do, it’s very much a marketing term: “added value,” because you don’t want a comic to exist just for the sake of existing. You want to bring something new to the fans.

You don’t need to tell us your handle, but were you ever a fanficcer?

Way back, I sort of dabbled in fanfic a little bit, mostly to try writing with other characters. I went to school for screenwriting, so I definitely did spec scripts for TV shows and stuff so anything I did that was sort of along those lines was mostly writing practice for if I ever got a chance to write for characters that I didn’t create. So I think that was time well spent!

Definitely! So if there were no licensing constraints, what would your dream licensed property be?

Oh gosh, aside from like, all the stuff I’m working on… and one that just got announced was Rainbow Brite [by Jeremy Whitley and Brittney Williams], is something I always wanted to work on.

There’s also, in terms of stuff I would love to adapt, a novel that was a dystopian fiction novel I loved as a kid called Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes.

Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes (Published June 1st 1993 by Simon Pulse

[Comically loud gasp] Oh my gosh! Sorry!

That would be a great either movie or comic.

That was like my favorite book, that was like “baby’s first dystopia” for me!

It was not my first dystopian book but it was definitely one of my favorites because it was one of the few that had a very sort of uplifting message, and it wasn’t like “we must murder to change the world.” I don’t need to tell you…

No, I know, I love that book so much!

It was a very thoughtful take on a dystopia and one that I feel is sadly relevant to our current society in a lot of ways. I feel like that would be great for a movie so that’s not in comics. In terms of property, I would love to adapt into another medium, that book.

Let’s talk a little about Stranger Things. So you’re writing about Will’s story as everything’s going on. Was that your pitch or did they come to you with that?

They came to me with a couple of basic ideas for what the miniseries could be and one of them was Will’s perspective of events of the first season, it was basically, I think, just that sentence, and I was sold. I’m like, that’s great, that’s something that we’ve seen hints of, that we can really pull out a lot more, and I feel that Will’s a great character. I know they’ve said in season three he’s not going to be like gone or super influenced probably, poor Will.

You know, the fact that he survived so long in the upside down, and I think that’s a really cool journey to get to see, how smart and strong he was to be able to get through that.

Your StarCraft book features brand new characters based in the StarCraft world. Tell me a little about how you conceive new characters in a universe you’re already familiar with?

That was another one where Blizzard again sort of sent a couple base ideas and one was a group of Terran scavengers who get in over their head, and something I’d been really wanting to do at the time when they approached me about it was a horror story set in space. So that was a really great, timing wise, idea they sent me and I was like, yup that’s the one I’m doing!

It’s definitely one of the darker things I’ve gotten to write, I’d argue that out of the two comics I’m doing for Dark Horse right now I think StarCraft is the darker one.

What’s the hook for StarCraft players?

It’s getting to see characters who are working outside of the main events of the game and sort of how those politics and things going on affect them.

Dark Horse: I guess that’s the best way to put it without spoiling too much!

You’re writing Thrawn who’s obviously a huge fan favorite—it was really exciting when they resurrected him from the Star Wars expanded universe and pulled him into the now main universe continuity—but there’s been a  fandom schism, and also one in sort of greater nerd culture. I was wondering if you’ve experience any of that blowback because of Thrawn or because of your relationships to these licensed properties you’re actually creating canon for?

I feel like I’ve been really lucky Thrawn is such a universally loved character, which, if you’d told me that back in the mid ’90s when I first found Timothy Zahn’s books I wouldn’t have [believed it], you know people didn’t even care about Star Wars back then, prior to the prequels coming out really.

The response I’ve gotten has been pretty overwhelmingly great, no one’s come at me saying I’ve ruined Thrawn or anything like that. So the fact that people have really embraced the comic, and feel like it’s a great companion to the novel—which was written by the creator of the character and I’m adapting that, what the heck?—has really been a great experience. All the interaction I’ve had on the Star Wars side have been great.

That’s really great to hear, as a lifelong Star Wars fandom person I know it can be really warm and welcoming too… Let’s talk about your approach to Faith, was there a really strict model for Faith in the Valiant Universe?

That was very much up to me to pick which of the Harbinger characters to pitch. They sort of just told me to read the book and pick a character and send them a pitch. And Faith was really the standout for me in that book because she’s the only one happy to have powers and excited to be a hero, and she just reminded me so much of, you know, to a certain extent, myself—although she’s much nicer than me, she doesn’t spend her days killing fictional people—and so many of my friends. She’s just someone you could see at your gaming session or your movie night or at your comic shop, and I just wanted to delve into a character like that who was so influenced by heroes in pop culture that she was modeling her life around that

What books do you have coming up?

Things that have been announced? StarCraft is coming very soon, Stranger Things in the fall. Also in the fall is Doctor Who from Titan, I’m writing the 13th Doctor. There’s also Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows, and Mother Panic: Gotham AD is wrapping up soon but still has a couple more issues. I know I’m forgetting things… Thrawn just wrapped… Oh, Faith’s new mini-series, Faith: Dreamside.

The day after this interview, it was also announced that Jody House would be part of a team working on a new Star Wars maxiseries, and Spider-Girls with Andres Genolet. Like I said, a busy woman!

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Kat Overland

Kat Overland

Small press editor Kat Overland is a displaced Texan now living in Washington, DC, where she is perpetually behind on reading her pull list. She's a millennial, Latina, exhausted, and can often be spotted casually cosplaying America Chavez and complaining.