Conducted and transcribed by Allen W. Wright
AWW: So, how did the idea for Muppet Robin Hood come about?
TB: I received a call from Paul Morrissey, the BOOM! Studios editor overseeing their Muppet and Pixar books, letting me know that BOOM! had acquired the license to publish Muppet comics and that they wanted to release a series of Muppet titles based on classic stories. Paul and I had worked together at TOKYOPOP, and he knew from my work on TOKYOPOP's Return to Labyrinth and Legends of The Dark Crystal that I was a huge fan of Jim Henson's work. He also knew that I had a lot of experience working on all-ages material, something that's surprisingly rare in the world of comics.
I told Paul that if we were writing a comic rather than a film, then we should use the medium to our advantage and tell a story that would be difficult to pull off as a Muppet movie. Robin Hood struck me as a natural choice since it offered a big cast and the opportunity for action on a large scale, something that's difficult to do with puppets. Plus, Robin Hood is such an iconic character, as is Kermit the Frog. It just felt like a natural fit.
AWW: What can readers expect from the series?
TB: Expect laughs, excitement and more Muppets than you'll know what to do with. I'm bringing back the classic, crazy Muppets from the original Muppet Show, where sentimentality didn't overshadow the humour and fun. Expect a fast and loose retelling of Robin Hood that isn't afraid to go in some surprising new directions. Expect archery, swordfights, romance, chickens, dungeons, ogre diving, Muppets riding horses, Muppets riding chickens, a different twist on Friar Tuck, a giant pig-eating plant, a giant chicken, castles made entirely of cheese, a unique take on the Crusades, palace intrigue, palace pratfalls, palaces full of chickens, high fashion, low humour, Medieval Muppet Labs, food fights, monsters, songs about socks…and oh yeah, I mentioned chickens, right?
AWW: Did you watch or read any of the other Muppet versions of Robin Hood such as the Muppet Show episode with Lynn Redgrave?
TB: I love that episode of the show, but I've never really thought of that as a true Muppet adaptation. If you've seen the episode, you know the story that really drives it is Piggy's anger at losing out on the role of Marian to Lynn Redgrave. That's the real plot of the episode. The Robin Hood pageant is just the stage dressing.
That said, it's a classic episode and I could only hope the fans feel our comic lives up to the precedent it set. Believe it or not, I avoided re-watching that episode until after I had written the first couple of issues because I didn't want to be overly influenced by it. The jokes are just so funny and perfect that I think familiarizing myself with them once again would've made it impossible for me to come up with anything different! Now that I've written the bulk of the miniseries, I've allowed myself to re-watch it, and was surprised at how many similarities there are between that episode and our comic, despite my attempts to avoid them. I thought about why this may be the case, and I think it's that Robin Hood as a story is such a natural fit for the Muppets as a cast of characters that certain things-like Gonzo having fun with torture devices, for instance-just naturally fall into place. We're really only talking about surface similarities, though. Overall, our story is pretty different.
AWW: How did you pick which Muppets would play which parts? I know you departed somewhat from the previous roles - such as making Sam the Eagle the sheriff instead of Gonzo.
TB: Actually, in my original draft of the script, Gonzo was the sheriff and Sam was Will Scarlet. I had Rizzo the Rat as Guy of Gisbourne. It was Disney that suggested using Sam as the sheriff. I don't know if it was to further differentiate our comic from the Robin Hood episode or just because they thought it would be funnier, but it was a brilliant recommendation. Sam makes for a pretty entertaining villain, and quite a contrast from some of the sheriffs we've seen in past adaptations.
But to get to your question, casting this book was a lot of fun, but also more of a challenge than I expected. Some of the roles were pretty easy. Robin and Marian were obvious. Fozzie the Bear plays our version of Friar Tuck, which also seemed like an obvious choice considering some of the changes we've made to that particular character. Little John was more of a challenge because no member of the core Muppet cast really fit the role. I think I suggested Sweetums on a whim and Paul really loved it. Settling on the rest of the Merry Men was a fun exchange that continued right up until the first issue deadline. Arthur a Bland was a very late addition, which is one of the reasons he doesn't show up on any of our covers!
The villains were the real casting challenge for me. We actually have three main villains in Muppet Robin Hood: Prince John, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisbourne. That's a lot for a four-issue miniseries, but I felt that I could differentiate between the three of them if I cast sufficiently different characters to play each of the roles. However, deciding on those three characters wasn't easy. In fact, deciding on even a single Muppet character to play a villain is pretty difficult because our perception of these characters is that they're an extended family. It's hard to picture them truly at odds with each other and attempting to do each other harm (slapstick Muppet violence aside). No Muppet stands out as particularly villainous unless you want to use an obscure character, and an important distinction when writing a Muppet adaptation like Muppet Robin Hood is that you bring the personalities of the Muppets to the roles in Robin Hood. Not the other way around.
Casting the villains was definitely a challenge, but we figured it out. As I said earlier, Disney suggested Sam as the sheriff, and he functions pretty well as a villain because he's always been somewhat removed from all the craziness that goes on with the Muppets. There always has been a bit of a divide between him and the rest of the cast. Gonzo also works as a villain because he's all about the dramatic. He comes up with these elaborate schemes, but they rarely work out for him, which seemed to make perfect sense for Guy. You get the sense that Guy isn't really comfortable in his role as the prince's henchman, but he enjoys the perks that come with the job (most of which any right-thinking individual would consider pretty unpleasant). Prince John was probably the most difficult villain to cast and ultimately, I had to look at some of the more recent Muppets to land on the right one for the role. When I initially suggested Johnny Fiama as Prince John, I thought it was an okay bit of casting, but it really surprised me once I started writing his scenes. Johnny Fiama was never my favorite Muppet, but he's an absolute riot as Prince John. Writing him has been a blast. I even added his sidekick Sal Minella in a supporting role, and the pair of them, along with the sheriff and Guy, have really made our villains a thrill to write and hopefully a kick to read.
AWW: I like your different take of Friar Tuck (as played by Fozzie Bear). His background suits Fozzie's regular role on the Muppet Show, but I was curious about distancing the character from the church. Was the religious aspect of the Robin Hood legend a matter for some concern in creating this series?
TB: I was never told explicitly to be careful with the church, and in fact, originally, I intended using Fozzie as a fool who becomes a friar to have a lot more bite—inferring that friars were just as ridiculous as fools. Anyhow, I had to tone that down A LOT. It became clear that referencing the church in any sense was a potential landmine, so I just tried to avoid it. Friar Tuck, while a supporting character, is actually one of the most important characters in the story. He’s the one who goes through the character growth and experiences redemption at the end. If *Muppet Robin Hood* teaches a lesson, which was never my intention, Tuck is the character who learns it. He also kind of saves the day at the end of the story, but you’ll have to wait to see how.
AWW: Are some of my favourite Muppets -- Animal or Waldorf and Statler -- going to turn up in future issues?
TB: I think one of the best things about telling the story of Robin Hood with the Muppets is that it allows us to have a really large cast. I think I've figured out a way to fit just about every Muppet that fans know and love into our story. Some of the roles are cameos, much like the appearance of Louis Kazagger in our first issue, but some of them are a bit larger. I think part of the fun is discovering how they've been incorporated into the story. We have a LOT of cameos in our third issue. That's the archery contest issue, and as you'd imagine, many Muppets show up as archers and spectators. That's also the issue where Animal makes his first appearance. You'll have to wait till our final issue for Statler and Waldorf, but I assure you, the role they play in that issue is pretty substantial. They form the heart of a subplot that is entirely unique to our version. However, it's something that feels appropriate considering some of the changes we've made to our story.
AWW: I like the breaking of the fourth wall in places, such as the comments that Kermit's nephew is usually named Robin. Or the idea that the sheriff has turned Loxley Swamp into a miniature golf course. But you've also included traditional elements such as the quarterstaff duel. What challenges did you face in giving the Robin Hood story a Muppet sensibility?
TB: More than I expected. My biggest problem is that I tend to get really caught up in writing fun exchanges between our characters that don't necessarily move the story forward, but that really help the story feel like part of the Muppet universe. If you think about it, part of what people really loved and responded to in the original show were the backstage moments-the funny conversations between all of the characters. You really need to find a way to preserve that in a project like this, but you can't get carried away with it or else your story falls apart.
Another challenge is definitely the violence. I've looked to Muppet Treasure Island as a gauge for how much is too much, and of course, I have Disney watching my back on this and telling me when I've taken things too far. It's not too big of a problem, but it's definitely a challenge. I mean, the violence is pretty light and silly for the most part, but at the same time, these ARE lethal weapons the characters are using…
Finally, it's also been really challenging to balance the Muppet characterizations with the Robin Hood characterizations at times, and I've learned from the writer working on the next project in this series, Muppet Peter Pan, that this challenge isn't unique to Robin Hood. When you think about it, Robin Hood as a character is quite a bit different than Kermit the Frog. I've definitely brought a lot of Kermit to the role, but Robin's still a far more dominant character than I think we're accustomed to seeing from Kermit. And he's still a thief, which is certainly something you'd never see from Kermit!
AWW: What research did you do for the Robin Hood elements? Do you have any favourite versions of Robin Hood?
TB: I'm a HUGE fan of Robin Hood, so I didn't need to do a lot of research. My research was a lifetime of reading and watching movies about these characters. There are things I appreciate in every version of Robin Hood that I've experienced, but I still enjoy the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood the best. He just encapsulates everything you want this hero to be and he makes it look so effortless! Of course, Robin McKinley's Outlaws of Sherwood was great as well. That's also a personal favorite of mine and a book I recommend to people who want to delve a little deeper into the world.
I do think it's worth mentioning that Muppet Robin Hood doesn't remain overly faithful to the story most people are familiar with. I wanted to have some of the traditional elements-like the quarterstaff fight and the archery contest. But the legend is really just a frame for what's first and foremost a Muppet comedy, and you'll notice that as it goes on, the story drifts farther and farther off the tracks. I firmly believe that to tie myself down too tightly to the familiar story would water down both Robin Hood and the Muppets. I think Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island suffered a bit from this. They tried to remain too faithful to the source material, when really, I don't believe fans cared how many liberties they took. I mean, let's face it, if you want to experience Treasure Island as Stevenson intended it, I don't think you're going to start with a Muppet movie.
AWW: Did you write a full script or work "Marvel-style" (by dialoguing to the finished art) with artist Armand Villavert, Jr.?
TB: I write a pretty full script, even indicating which Muppet characters should be used for each role and providing Armand with visual references for them when I can. I think working Marvel-style on a licensed project like this can get you into trouble since revisions from the licensor (Disney, in this case) are extremely common and pretty numerous. It's a lot easier to accommodate these revisions in a written script than on a drawn page, so making as many changes as possible at the scripting stage makes the most sense considering we have a deadline.
Of course, when it comes to the actual visual storytelling, I've tried to make it clear that Armand isn't locked in to what I write. If I indicate six panels on a page, but he feels he can better illustrate the action with seven, he should absolutely add the additional panel. But to avoid problems and make the whole thing as efficient as possible, I think it makes sense to write the script first and stick to it as much as possible once it's been approved by our licensor.
AWW: What involvement did the Muppets Studio (Disney) have in this comic?
TB: They're extremely involved. They own the Muppets, so they have to get fully behind everything we do with them. They approved the initial pitch and outline, and they approve every script and every page of art that we produce. With some licensors, this could be a real nightmare, but my experience working with Disney on Muppet Robin Hood has been good. Their notes have been really helpful. They've been great about suggesting lesser known Muppets to fill in some of the supporting roles, and they've definitely helped me nail down some of the Muppet characterizations. Some of the people they have providing the approvals have quite a history with the Muppets, so there's a great feeling that goes along with getting their thumbs up on something. It really makes you feel like you've become part of the Muppet legacy.
AWW: What are you most proud of in Muppet Robin Hood?
TB: I think I take the most pride in simply having played a role in bringing the Muppets back. The Muppets have never disappeared, but they've definitely been harder to find these past ten years. I'm not about to presume that I know the reason for that, but if I had to guess, I'd imagine it's been a little difficult figuring out their audience. With the technology available today, do the Muppets-a troupe of traditional puppets inspired by, of all things, vaudeville-still hold appeal? Of course, I think the answer is a resounding yes, provided they're allowed to play to their strengths and given strong material to work with. The fans have always been there, and as evident by the interest in these comics and the success they've been experiencing, they're as passionate as ever. But it's important to remember that the audience has grown up a bit. The Muppets aren't children's entertainment-they're family entertainment. There's a difference between the two, and that difference has always remained firmly in my mind throughout this project. Adults who grew up with the Muppets are going to enjoy Muppet Robin Hood in a different way than kids who may be new to the characters, but I believe it will appeal to both groups. If it does, I can't take credit for the success. All credit goes to Jim Henson and the incredibly creative group who created these characters. All I've done is try to stay true to his vision.
The best thing is that this is just the start. There are many more Muppet comic books planned, more TV specials in the works, more books and hopefully a new movie on the way. It's an exciting time to be a Muppet fan, and playing a small role in all of this is something I've found very fulfilling.
AWW: What comic projects are you working on next?
TB: I'm editing a comic book for Radical Comics that's written and drawn by Nick Simmons, the son of Gene Simmons. It's an action/horror miniseries called Incarnate and the first issue hits stores in August. It also looks like I'm going to be editing a series of Fraggle Rock comics for Archaia as part of their just-announced line of Jim Henson Company comics. On the writing side of things, I recently completed a Warcraft comic for TOKYOPOP's Warcraft: Legends anthology. It's a quirky murder mystery entitled "Blood Runs Thicker" and is in the fourth volume of the series, which is in bookstores now. I'm also working on an illustrated urban fantasy with an artist friend of mine. It's a novella called Coin-Operated Boy and we'll hopefully have it ready for publication by the end of the year.
Thanks very much, Tim.
MUPPET ROBIN HOOD by Tim Beedle and Armand Villavert, Jr. from BOOM! Kids. Individual issues available wherever you buy comics and a collected edition coming in November 2009. The original Muppet Show Robin Hood-themed episode is also available on DVD.
Interview, © Allen W. Wright, 2009.
Please ask for permission if you plan to quote more than a small segment of the interview.