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From Ducks to Dragons: Translating a DreamWorks Franchise into Print

Aaron Sparrow and James Silvani discuss the new Dragons: Riders of Berk comic series.

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images: Dragons: Riders Of Berk tm and (c) 2012
DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.

Fans of Toothless, the flying Nightfury from 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon, have had many reasons to celebrate of late.  First DreamWorks Animation announced it would release two sequels to the hit film, scheduled for 2014 and 2016.  Then Global Creatures brought the character to animatronic life for a live arena show that has been touring the world since March.  Earlier this month, Toothless made the transition to the small screen with the debut of a tie-in animated series on Cartoon Network.  Now, he’s making the leap to the printed page in Ape Entertainment’s Dragons: Riders of Berk comic series, expected to hit newsstands in December.

No wonder they’re calling 2012 the Year of the Dragon.

Two major animation buffs are bringing their talents to the project: writer Aaron Sparrow and illustrator James Silvani, who previously teamed up to bring Disney’s Darkwing Duck out of retirement for a successful BOOM! Studios comic series.  According to Sparrow, the idea of doing a Dragons book appealed to him well before the opportunity actually presented itself.  “I was working on the Disney books when How To Train Your Dragon came out and I remember having a discussion with one of my assistant editors about how awesome it was, saying ‘Oh, I wish we could do a Dragon comic – it’s too bad we don’t have the DreamWorks license.’  And then I ended up at Ape Entertainment and they had the DreamWorks license, so being able to pitch for it and get it approved and then tie into a TV show that they’re doing is pretty neat.“

The television series, also entitled Dragons: Riders of Berk, picks up after the events of the first film to show how Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, reprising his role) helps his Viking community learn to co-exist with the creatures they’d previously engaged in combat.  The comic will do the same, fleshing out various characters and themes introduced in the series.  “We get a lot of feedback and direction from DreamWorks and from the production team on the show,” Sparrow explains of the collaboration.  “They’ll send us a two-sentence concept and say ‘we think this would be a good springboard for an idea’ and then we’ll go out and develop it and send it back to them.”

Working from an episode guide for the first season and an overview of the second, Sparrow has a pretty clear sense of what territory can be mined for new ideas, as well as what the comic will need to steer clear of.  For example, when asked about Alvin the Treacherous, a character that will be voiced on the series by fan-favorite Mark Hamill, he insists he’s “sworn to secrecy.”  He can confirm that Mildew, voiced by Stephen Root and introduced in the Berk pilot episode, will be popping up in the comic, however.  “He’s an older Viking and very determined to return to the old ways.  He doesn’t like the fact that the dragons are in the villages and he has several different schemes that he tries to put into play to make them look bad.”

For his part, Silvani has the unusual challenge of trying to realize 3D characters in a 2D medium.  “There’s no real reference as far as putting it onto a comic page, as opposed to doing Darkwing Duck, where we had everything as line art,” he explains from his home studio in Hawaii.  Sparrow, miles away in sunny California, feels his cohort is continuing to churn out work that will impress his fans.  “James is doing a really good job of keeping the characters on-model while still retaining his signature style.  And we’re lucky enough to have Andrew Dalhouse, who was our Darkwing Duck colorist, coming on-board to color James’ art, so we’ll leave all that texturing up to him.”

The comic is currently slated to run for three issues, with a lead and back-up story in each, though there’s a strong possibility of it becoming a regular monthly publication in 2013.  “We’re following the standard format that we use at Ape Entertainment for our children’s properties,” Sparrow shares.  “We have a stand-alone book with two stories in it that a kid could pick up and enjoy without having to have bought the previous issue.”  It’s an increasingly rare approach in the industry these days, which tends to prioritize hooking readers in with multiple-issue arcs.  Sparrow is comfortable with writing both formats and teases, “as we move on, we may play around with longer stories with deeper themes and more epic adventures.”

In the meantime, they’re occupying themselves with developing the core cast of characters.  “On the parts that I’ve been writing,” Sparrow says of his lead story in issue two and backup in issue three, “I’ve mostly dealt with Toothless, who I think is everyone’s favorite.”  Silvani can’t help but agree.  “I mean, there’s so much expression to him.  I look at my dogs for inspiration when I’m looking for an emotion or a facial expression or a nod of the head or something.”  His mixed hound dogs, Boingo and Huli, are all too happy to serve as models for the creature, whose relationship with Hiccup drives the narrative of the franchise.  As Sparrow explains, “one of the things that was really great about film is that when Hiccup lost his leg at the end, it kind-of tied him more closely to Toothless, who had lost a piece of his tail, and couldn’t maneuver without Hiccup’s invention.  It made the characters mirror each other a little more and brought them closer together.”

“As far as the people characters go,” Silvani goes on to say, “I think I’m having the most fun drawing Ruffnut and Tuffnut because you can just stick them in the background of any scene and have them hitting each other and it’ll add a nice little comedic touch, even if they weren’t written into it.”

That kind of visual storytelling is essential, according to Sparrow.  “Comics are a medium where the motto is ‘show don’t tell’.  I think the quickest way you can ruin a really fun scene in a comic book is to put a bunch of unnecessary dialogue over it.  That said, my story in issue two is intentionally mostly pantomime with the dragons and doesn’t have a lot of words in it, so James really gets a chance to tell the story with their expressions and their body language.”

Silvani will also get a chance to show just how much action he can cram into a panel.  “The story that I’ve just finished up is called ‘The Two Thousand Terrible Terrors’, which are the small dragons that you see in the movie.  I took that theme to heart,” he laughs, “and I think I literally drew two thousand Terrible Terrors throughout the course of a fourteen page story.”  Sparrow can’t help but point out how typical this is of partner-in-crime.  “Anybody who remembers the ‘Infinite Darkwings’ storyline knows how many characters James can put on the page!”

Darkwing readers will also recall Silvani’s penchant for sneaking little easter eggs into the background.  While the thought of giving famous animated dragons like Maleficent and Elliot cameos in the book tickles him, the artist stresses that “the universe might actually explode if I put Disney references into a DreamWorks comic.  I don’t know if I’ll be sticking in a Kung Fu Panda or Monsters VS Aliens reference on the shields of one of the characters…but you never know!”

Dragons: Riders of Berk will feature stories by Patrick Rills, Jai Nitz, Troy Dye and Tom Kelesides, and Paul Morrissey and Heather Nuhfer.  Darkwing Duck letterer Deron Bennett and illustrator Amy Mebberson will also be contributing.  For a glimpse at the first issue, enjoy the following pages illustrated by Silvani, which show, as Sparrow puts it, “the problems inherent with having a several-thousand pound lizard rampaging through your village at any given time.”

The following are three unlettered panels from the upcoming series (click on any image to get a higher-res version):