John Barrowman is definitely living his best life.
He may convincingly play the odius and conniving Malcolm Merlyn on WB's Arrow, but Barrowman is one of those rare celebrities who is universally adored by everyone he comes into contact with, onscreen or off. The multi-hyphenate had a long and established career in theater before transitioning to television, but it was his scene-stealing role as Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who that solidified his MVP status with genre fans. John was instrumental in Harkness' creation (head writer Russel T Davies and co-executive producer Julie Gardner admitted they wrote him specifically with Barrowman in mind), and the character, which was the first non-heterosexual character in Doctor Who history, was such a hit that it spawned its own spinoff series in Torchwood. So it comes as no suprise that John Barrowman has, yet again, taken a character and literally written the book on him with D.C's Malcolm Merlyn.
Despite being a series regular, Merlyn has had little backstory within D.C.'s canon. Until now. Teaming up with his sister and fellow nerd, Carole, the siblings stumbled upon a group of forgotten supers with the intention of developing a new comic book series for D.C. Instead, they ended up finally giving Merlyn the origin story he deserved. Arrow: The Dark Archer explores just how and why Malcolm came to be one of Oliver Queen's biggest foes. We spoke with John and Carole about their favorite superheroes and how the new comic came to be.
Blastr: I know you guys have written together before. What is it like working and collaborating with your sibling?
Carole: It's a nightmare. It's horrible.
John: She gets a lot of free wine out of it, that's all I'll say.
Carole: We have our moments where we'll have ... you know, we'll snipe, but I think for the most part we get along really well. We have really good imaginations, and we're good story-tellers. I think it's just been a really nice match. We're certainly not twins, but I think there's a way in which ... One of us will start to say something, and the other one will be like, "Oh my god yes let's do that. Let's do that." We'll be really on the same thread. I'm not sure but if we were just collaborating as writers and didn't have the relationship that we have that we'd be able to ... that'd we would do that quite so much. Yeah I think in some ways it makes the whole process certainly a lot more fun.
John: It's also as kids you kind of ... well you don't hang out with your older sister or your older brother really, and then when you become teenagers and you go off to school, you kind of grow apart a little bit. This whole process has brought us ... we've always been a close family, but it has actually brought us all closer together, in that sense. When Carole comes out to spend time when we go through stuff and we write, she gets to sit by the pool. She gets to write in Palm Springs, rather than if it's in the winter in the cold of Milwaukee. There is aspects of good and bad through it all. It's a good process, it works.
I read that you mentioned that you guys have found some lost superhero team from the 50's and that was kind of your springboard and where you got your inspiration. What was that team?
John: I don't know if I want to tell you that.
Carole: I think we're going to hang onto that because I think there's a lot of potential for it. It was one of two projects with John. When we decided it would be great to give Malcolm a little more gravitas. He spends a lot of time on the show. He comes in and saves the day, or he makes the day work, but he spends a lot of time sort of brooding and looking and staring, at least recently. I think I felt that he needed to have ... We needed to know more about who this person was and who ... How did he get his money? How did he meet his wife? Where did he go and what's he been doing when he's not around the lair with Oliver and all of them? John took that and went with it.
John: The initial ... like you said, the initial conversation I started with was it's a group of three people in the kind of vault of D.C. We combined them along with another individual so there'd be 4 people because we wanted to create, at that time, a Torchwood-esque type team for D.C. of new characters. While we were in that meeting, they said, "Well that's something we'd love." Then I said, "We wanted to do Malcolm Merlyn back-story." Then they said, "That's something we'd really love right now."
That was when Jeff John just said, "I'm glad that you've" ... Cause I like keeping things within kind of a family circle and I ... he said, "I'm glad you came to us with this. Please ... Okay go ahead, take the Malcolm Merlyn stuff and run with it." That's what Carole and I did. Along with Daniel and Juan , we really think we've come up with what is a totally awesome comic book. How great that we are now creators of this for D.C.? As nerds ourselves ... I'm going to swear here, for f**ks-sakes, we've written a D.C. comic book!
Carole: I know and I tell my students that all the time. I can't help it. I just drop it into random conversations.
John, now that you have an actual back-story for Merlyn, does this change your approach to playing him at all because you've got more insight with him?
John: This is some of the stuff that Carole and I .... When we were putting this thing together, I had these little ideas that along with her and my head of ... Cause I have to create a little of a back-story when I'm doing something on camera. Some of it is different, but I don't let it weigh too heavily on me with what I'm doing in the show. I'd love to see some of it transitioned into the show, but I'm not sure that our producers know that we've actually done this, really, cause no one has actually sent anything to me. Who knows? The comic itself sits aside the season, but it works perfectly in tandem because there are certain little cross-over things that happen in it with characters. It could work perfectly on the screen. Carole and I made sure that it was written and graphically done in a kind of very cinematic way and also like a storyboard. It really is ready to go.
You guys have mentioned in your book "Nerd" and your book "Comic Fans" ... What were some of the comic books that you were fans of growing up?
John: The thing that I used to do ... On a Thursday morning, I used to go with my friends, Ross Von Hoff and Scott Von Hoff, and we used to go down to it was called The Town & Country Plaza in Illinois. There was a drugstore in the corner. At that time, all the comics came and on every Thursday morning and they put them on a circular rotating thing, and you picked all the new comics. We would go back to their house, sit and read them, and then put them in the plastic bag, and put them in the boxes.
Actually Ross and Scott to this day, still have all those comic books in their basement, in the boxes, in the plastics. My first introduction to the comic book world was Fantastic Four, and it was also Captain America. Of course, I loved ... One of my favorite D.C. characters is Superman. I have one of the ... I have an old comic book of Superman. Those were the three that kind of struck me. Maybe the Fantastic Four because of the team element of it. Captain America for his kind of individuality. Superman for his kind of ... all the superpowers that he has, in that aspect. Maybe they've had some influence on me, throughout the course of time with the characters that I've played.
Carole likes all the old comics ... She was into the ... What was the one that you used to get into?
Carole: We emigrated from Scotland so I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in the UK. We would go down to what we called The New Shop and I would get the The Beano comic. I was a huge fan of the Thunderbirds. We did The Dandy. I also really liked Tales From The Crypt, which was sort of my introduction into some of the horror ones. The thing about in Scotland is even ... they had a very distinctive set of comics just for girls, and when I got old enough to realize, "Oh, these aren't nearly as much fun as the comics they're making for boys." That's when I sort of switched over to the superheroes.
John, as proud and out gay man and nerd, can you talk a bit about how important inclusion and representation is to you when creating comic books, especially the impact these characters can have on gay teens and youth? Do you want to see more gay characters in the D.C. universe?
John: It's important to have any type of individual represented in comic books and on television. I have to say that even before my D.C. time, I created with Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner one of the most iconic openly kind of omni-sexual characters played by a gay man, which Captain Jack Harkness. We kind of changed the face of television in the UK with that, because here you have an openly gay man playing a hero on television. That had never been done before. I think it is important that if comic book writers are writing for the screen ... and you know, Greg Berlanti cast, I call it blind-casting. He's cast probably more gay men in his realm of TV shows than anybody else ever has. It's a good thing.
I think we're drawn to comic books because they are ... at that time when we were growing up, gay men and women were ostracized by society a little bit, and that's what the superheroes go through. That's why I think we connected to them. That's also why I think the nerds connected to them, whether they're gay or straight, because they were ostracized ... I think that's what attracts all these people to superheroes. They were a little ostracized. They're different. They're deemed to be different. Yet, they know inside themselves that they are good. They can do great things, and that's why we were attracted to them.
Carole: That's like for the plug-in for our novels that we've collaborated on. Our latest one, Conjurer, has a gay character, and I think he is a hero. His superpowers is he can draw himself in and out of paintings. Then he has the drawings that he does can come alive. We love his character. That's why I'm hoping we're adding to the growing number of gay, young men and women that are out there in literature and comics.
Arrow: The Dark Archer is available now.