Tony Lee On Writing Battlestar Galactica: Starbuck For Both The Causal and Serious Fans

Tony Lee grew up a fan of Battlestar Galactica and more specifically Starbuck. With that love of the character, Lee has embarked on a four-part series that dives into not only the early days of the Viper-piloting rogue, but into the history of all the main BSG characters. Jim Zub chatted with Lee about his interest in the series and his approach to writing the character.

JIM ZUB: What storytelling elements draw you to the classic Battlestar Galactica property?

TONY LEE: Since I was a kid I’ve been fixated with ‘quest’ stories, from classics like the Odyssey all the way up to shows like Battlestar Galactica and Ulysses 31. (Hey, Nick – if you want to buy the Ulysses 31 property I’m totally available.)

I think the first thing a writer should look for when writing a story is heart. A great storyline should have tons of that. The second is hope, the chance that something better can be found while you plough through the badness of whatever is affecting you – and Battlestar Galactica has that in spades. The utter hopelessness and futility of humanity’s last roll of the dice – who doesn’t want to root for the underdog?

JZ: Any favorite episodes from the original run that spring to mind?

TL: I think it’d have to be ‘The Man With Nine Lives’ – it was a Starbuck-centric episode where we first started to learn about his past, and more importantly you get to meet the ‘is he isn’t he’ character of Chameleon, played by Fred Astaire who might or might not be Starbuck’s biological father – I won’t say the end result in case anyone wants to keep from the spoiler!

When I started working on the story, this was ground zero for the research I began on Starbuck.

JZ: I know the fans of these properties can be sticklers for detail. How often do you find yourself going back to watch episodes from the show as you’re working away on a script?

TL: As a fan of the original series, it wasn’t really a chore to keep returning to the episodes, especially as I already had them on DVD. But with this, I’m writing the show characters two years before the show even started, which although saves me from show continuity issues, also doubles the pressure as I’m writing the iconic moments that all fans have wanted to see. How Starbuck meets Adama, becomes friends with Apollo, that sort of thing. And, when we jump to two years before the show, we’re seeing earlier versions of all of our regulars, including people like Baltar, seen before the attack on Cimtar, and at this point of the story nothing more than an eager and ambitious trader.

Which of course means that I’m opening myself up for even more detail…

JZ: Do you worry about making a comic like this appealing to a casual reader, someone who hasn’t watched the series before?

TL: If I made it only accessible to original series it’d have a very limited audience, so more than anything I need to ensure that the casual reader enjoys this. In addition, you’ll have fans of the revised series coming into this, so we need to make sure that no matter what knowledge you have of Starbuck this story works on all levels. So although it’s a ‘Starbuck: Year One’ of sorts, it’s also a solid chase story, a murder mystery and a political thriller all rolled into one. Oh, with Cylons and Vipers and epic space battles…

JZ: This issue digs in on what makes Starbuck tick as a character, fleshing out his past. What can you tell us about it (without giving away any surprises)?

TL: The first story starts when he’s broken and battered after the attack on Umbra, a child thats lost everything, and builds up to a similar Starbuck a year or two before the series starts in a similar state of affairs. We learn who the pilot was that Starbuck apprenticed to, who taught him to play Pyramids and smoke cigars, and the connection that Starbuck has with the house of Adama.

The mask that Starbuck always wears in the television show finally falls off as, one by one, every friend and safe harbour he knows is stripped away from him. Only when he has nothing left do you truly know the measure of the man named ‘Starbuck’ by a stranger.

JZ: Are there any other Galactica characters you’d like to explore in the same way?

TL: To be honest, although this is a Starbuck story, its as much an Apollo or Adama one, a Baltar origin or even the first adventures of Boomer and Jolly. Pretty much every main character in the show is in this story in one way or another, starting with the very first scene of issue one, from Tigh and Adama as Colonial Warriors all the way up to the changes in the Quorum that lead to the events at the start of the show. With the main bulk of the story set two ‘Yahrens’, or years before the show starts, there’s still a lot of space to play with if we get another series. However, that said I’d love to do a similar story from Baltar’s point of view, his self belief that he’s actually the true hero in this tale…

JZ: How tightly do you write your comic stories – Are they full script with panel counts and detailed descriptions or more outline-style for the artist?

TL: I’ve always scripted tightly, using Final Draft and a template given to me by Antony Johnston almost ten years ago. I’ll start with the panels, describing the action within each – but only if there’s a specific ‘stage direction’ will I tell the artist how to frame the panel, as I want them to be as free as they can be. I’ll also place the balloons at this point, numbering them so that the letterer knows the order they progress.

I’ve written for DC and Marvel in the ‘house style’ of generic layouts, allowing the artist to do what they want and then returning to create the dialogue afterwards, but I’ve not felt as comfortable with it as when I have more control over the story. it’s how I started to write, and it’s what I feel more at home with.

JZ: Do you have any particular writing habits or routine?

I try to work as close to a ‘nine to five’ day as I can. I start when my wife leaves for work, and stop when she returns home. This gives me about ten or eleven hours a day to write, which is ample time to get the bulk of the work finished.

When I take on a project I work the pitch into a synopsis of the story, breaking it down into issues. I then break the issue down into scenes, at which point I run each scene through in my head as a comic, maybe even sketching out pages to work out how many pages are needed for each scene. In an ideal world, with a 22 page comic, I’ll have worked out 22 pages. More often than not I’m over the limit and then have to work out how to lose a page. Or, I’m at the correct number, but one of my right hand side pages needs to be a left hand side page, which forces me to rejig the issue around.

Once I have the scenes set I create a line block – 22 lines, each with a bullet point to show what’s on the relevant page. This is my last chance before scripting to see where the slow points of the story are, or to see where I can tighten up a scene or even lengthen one.

Once this is done, I start scripting.

It’s not a solid chunk of work, however. I’ll often work on multiple projects at multiple stages, so I’ll find myself having breaks, walk the dog, or watch a television episode with my lunch as a pallet cleanser. The break up of the day into different stories gives me a variance that allows me to keep going when usually I’d be burning out.

JZ: What other projects, comic or otherwise, have you got on tap for 2014?

TL: Apart from Starbuck, I have a one shot Vampirella coming out with Dynamite, a ‘Heroes and Heroines’ GN with Sam Hart for Candlewick/Walker books based on Joan of Arc and the second of my Anthony Horowitz ‘Gatekeepers’ adaptations, Evil Star, also from Candlewick/ Walker. I’m looking forwards to that one as it’s been years in the making. Apart from that I’m working on a series called Omerta: Gods And Gangsters, which is a ‘modern day crime families fight Elder Gods’ type story with JK Woodward, who worked with me on Doctor Who / Star Trek for IDW, and a couple of other things not yet announced.

Outside of comics I’m working on several TV projects with people in America, I have a spec pilot doing the rounds in the UK, I have a couple of movie screenplays moving through the hoops and a middle grade novel that my Literary Agent is going over the final notes on before sending to publishers.

More importantly for me, my biggest project for 2014 is a continuation of my ‘Change The Channel’ school tour, aimed at helping reluctant readers across the UK get into reading. As a one time reluctant reader, this is something very important to me and I hope to get a lot of exposure for it in 2014.

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Battlestar Galactica: Starbuck #1 is in stores now.

JimZubJim Zub is a writer, artist and art instructor based in Toronto, Canada. His current comic projects include Samurai Jack, a new comic series continuing the award-winning cartoon, Skullkickers, a sword & sorcery action-comedy, and Pathfinder, a comic series based on the best selling tabletop RPG. He can be found online at www.jimzub.com or on Twitter at @jimzub.

About Dan Wickline

Has quietly been working at Bleeding Cool for over three years. He has written comics for Image, Top Cow, Shadowline, Avatar, IDW, Dynamite, Moonstone, Humanoids and Zenescope. He is the author of the Lucius Fogg series of novels and a published photographer.

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