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Devourer of Words 036: Reboot Camp

Marc Bernardin

We live in a world that is, at least as far as pop culture is concerned, obsessed with taking old things and trying to make them new again. Prequels, sequels, spin-offs, and, yes, reboots. Comics does it probably as much as anyone, especially in books published by Marvel and DC—publishers who have enough characters to fill the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse four times over. (Arbitrary number, I know. Roll with it.)

So for as fantastic as it is to bring your own creations to the marketplace, it is entirely likely that you’ll spend some time burnishing someone else’s.

There is a chunk of William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade—which, if you’re a writer and you haven’t read, what the hell are you waiting for?—devoted to the art of adaptation. For Goldman (who wrote, among other things, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, and adapted Stephen King’s Misery, so he knows whereof he speaks), the key to a successful adaptation is reading the book a couple of times and then, without ever referring back to it, writing down the story as you remember it. Your brain will act as a filter, weeding out the inessential and retaining the things that you feel are the most crucial to telling that story.

Rebooting a character, or a book, is similar in the idea that what you’re looking to capture is the thing that excites you about it in the first place. Boiling that protagonist or that concept down to the things that make it tick, and then rebuilding it from there.

When my cowriter Adam Freeman and I first release the Genius one-shot through Top Cow back in 2009, we got a few nibbles from some production companies looking to make a movie. As we are collaborative blokes by nature, we sat with them, and listened to their ideas for how to adapt a book about a 17-year-old black girl who rallies the gangs of South Central to take on the cops. It’s a tricky book, to be sure. Especially back in ’09.

But each of these producers had different takes and each of them, in various ways, strayed from the core of what Genius was. And we would tell them, just before we said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” that the only thing we were wedded to, before granting anyone an option, was that the adaptation retained the elements that excited the reader in the first place. In Genius’ case, it was its extreme, unforgiving nature. It was telling the kind of story that wasn’t being told—and the producers wanted to mold it, in the way Hollywood always does, into the kind of story they knew how to sell.

If you’re given the chance to reboot something, try and locate that beacon of amazing that’s been buried underneath the decades of stories that had been told before. Excavate. Peel back the layers. Find the soil that remains fertile, and plant your new story there.

And try not to listen to the chorus of people clinging on to the iteration of that story that, for whatever reason, is their favorite. You’re never going to please them, no matter what you do.

Your job is to make it someone else’s favorite.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!