'Trollhunters' deep dive with Dark Horse writer Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton was a Trollhunters fan long before he started writing Tales of Arcadia: The Secret History of Trollkind with Marc GuggenheimThe 72-page graphic novel from Dark Horse Comics is the latest piece of the growing Trollhunters franchise. Set to release on Feb. 14, the comic book is a companion to Netflix and Dreamworks’ Emmy Award-winning original series from Guillermo del Toro. With the Trollhunters Part 3 release date still up in the air, dedicated fans can still get their fix by following Jim, Claire, Blinky and AARGGH on a journey of historical discovery.

Make sure to check out our exclusive preview of The Secret History of Trollkind, but we also caught up with Hamilton (How To Train Your Dragon) to discuss his dive into comics with Dark Horse, the intricacies of the Trollhunters franchise as well as his upcoming work.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.



How did you first get involved with the Trollhunters franchise?

Honestly, it was just basically begging and making a general nuisance of myself for a couple of years. I was trained as a screenwriter and I used to self publish my own comics. Eventually, I worked at Dreamworks Animation. I got lucky and got to work for Bill Damaschke, the chief creative officer of Dreamworks, and also the person who brought in Guillermo del Toro. Guillermo brought the script that would one day becomeTrollhunters. Bill knew I was a big comic book fan and an aspiring writer. He let me look at that script. It was very early days, but many of the hallmark features people love about Trollhunters were present in those early drafts.

It was seven or eight years ago, but and I had the sense at the time, ‘I hope Trollhuntersbecomes a thing and I hope I get to be a part of it.’ Several years went by. I had several jobs at Dreamworks and did a lot of work on the How To Train Your Dragon franchise, but in the back of my mind I was always thinking Trollhunters. Then I found out it was going to be an animated series and I started watching the episodes and seeing the quality of the animation and the writing. So when I found out there was going to be a comic book series with Dark Horse, I threw my hat in the ring. I had already started writing some How To Train Your Dragon comics with Dark Horse, and really enjoyed the process of working with everyone. So they let me co-write this first one with Marc Guggenheim.

You said you read the early script, what popped out at you that you knew would be something special?

It was a couple of things. Predominantly it was Jim. There were some differences with his character in that script, and if you compare it to the novel that Guillermo co-wrote with Daniel Kraus, you’ll see some differences there. At his core, Jim, then as he is now, is an inherently decent, good guy. I loved the relationship he has with his Mom. I love that he loves to cook. I love to cook. But he was a guy who to all outward appearances seemed very average, but deep down was somebody always trying to do right by people and always trying to do the right thing. That really struck a chord with me. There’s sort of a Peter Parker aspect to Jim. I'm a dad and have two boys of my own. I saw a lot of attributes in Jim I hope my boys inherit one day.

The other part of it is the world. We’ve all heard of trolls in other forms of literature and in the movies, but this was a wholly unique interpretation very much in Guillermo’s style. There was a sense of grandeur in scale, but also playfulness and whimsy. To have characters named Blinky and AAARGH and the whole story about how they came over on the Mayflower from the old world ... all that was there. It was just so funny and action-packed and gave me that feel of the old Amblin movies that I loved.

What are the main differences in your creative approach to comic books and novels?

The graphic novel work is, to me, closer to my training in screenwriting. There is a real economy to the writing, and real emphasis on the visuals because it's such a visual medium. So trying to think in terms of clear, distinct images that are going to tell a story sequentially, and then when you add dialogue or narration or caption boxes on top of that, what is this new meta-meaning you can give to the page or give to the issue? It’s a very disciplined, very pared-down style of writing. You just pray that you get paired with an amazing artist, and in my case I've been extremely lucky.

The book writing, in some sense, is a little bit of a relief after you've been trained to be so judicious in screenwriting. You can’t really write what characters are thinking, you can’t really go too deep into describing the scene or the action, because the screenplay or a comic script is meant to be a blueprint that’s fleshed out by an artist or film crews. In a novel, that's kind of all on you. So it’s a lot of fun to exhale a little bit, and get to write in all these other little details and features and inner monologues you normally couldn’t.

Is there anything that you’ve inserted or added into the story?

The thing I really like doing is putting together characters, giving them scenes that you don't get to see them do in the actual show. For instances, I have a scene in one of the books coming up where we see Not Enrique talk with the real Enrique. And that's a fun interaction between the two of them and we see a bond form between them.

Trollhunters is kind of lousy with mythology and Easter eggs. I mean that in the best way possible. It’s like in every episode, there’s a cool line or reference to a past Trollhunter or some kind of relic or artifact. It’s a lot of fun for me to go back in, take these cool names that are mentioned, and reverse-engineer a character and a personality for them and come up with the different stories about all these other Trollhunters that preceded Jim.

And that’s what happens in Secret History. We go back and learn a lot more about Kanjigar. Why did you decide to flashback to that beginning.?

It was my understanding that Marc and Guillermo and the crew of the show, they all hoped that they’d get to make comics and graphic novels one day. And if they did, they always wanted the first story to be about Kanjigar. As a fan of the show and a fan of comics, that's exactly the story I wanted to tell. Although we only see Kanjigar very briefly ... there is something so evocative about his character. It may just be because it’s Tom Hiddleston's voice, but you know the fact that this show opens with the hero sacrificing himself for the greater good.When a character does that, I want to learn more about that character.

And then Draal also happens to be one of my favorite characters, and the writers did an amazing job hinting at and establishing a very complicated father-son relationship between Kanjiagr and Draal. As a dad and a fan, I was very excited to explore that.

Working with Marc Guggenheim, do you have specific roles?  What’s that collaboration like?

I felt like I was getting the better end of the deal, because I was learning so much from Marc in the process. We would meet in his very awesome office, where he works on TV shows like Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, and when I was done touching all the maquettes and action figures on his shelves we would sit down and start talking. We knew we wanted to book-end the story with scenes of Jim in the present, because although we really wanted to tell a Kanjigar story we wanted to be mindful of the fact this is the first Trollhunters graphic novel out there. For fans who know the show, we wanted them to see characters they recognize. For those new to the property, we wanted to give them a fairly even taste of all the different things you would find in the show. So then we came up with a rough outline, and Marc worked with Guillermo to make sure it was something Guillermo was happy with. The hope is, when it’s all put together, you can’t tell which scenes I worked on and which ones Marc worked on. That it feels like one uniform author.

The Trollhunters show is really fast-paced. There’s always something happening. Did you try to keep that speed in the graphic novel?

I appreciate the pace and the density of the storytelling. I think that's something a lot of fans respond to. It's a show that doesn't talk down to its audiences. It trusts them to retain a lot of this lore and a lot of these big emotions and to keep up with that. That was definitely a goal in this.

On the other hand, when I get a comic and I read it in less than five minutes and nothing’s really happened, I feel kind of gypped. Especially for a cover price of $2.99 or $3.99 an issue. I know some parts of the story are a little bit more action-packed than others, but from my self-publishing background, I really believe in giving people a bang for the buck. It was important to me, and I'm thinking it was probably important to Marc too, to make sure this wasn’t a throwaway prequel book. That there were big, meaningful, lasting events in there that if you read the comic and watch the show it gives you a new appreciation. But also if you just read it as a comic, you feel like, ‘Wow, that was a complete adventure.’

The show feels so multidimensional because of all the different settings. The art style in the graphic novel manages to create that same feel through the character work and coloring.

I can't overstate how unique a skill it is to take characters that everyone is accustomed to seeing as 3D surfaced rigs on a show and making them work in a 2D medium like comics. It’s not a simple as lighboxing an outline of a 3D still. When you see the expressions on Blinky’s face or Claire’s body language, it looks like it does on the show. I think having Timothy Green on board as the artist really made all that possible.

As I was reading, I could hear everyone’s voice from the show. Was it a different process writing something where you knew people would already be reading with that association?

I think that’s a testament to the voice cast of the show. There are no weak links. They all have such distinct voices. So I did my best to channel their voices, Kelsey Grammer in particular. To hear Blinky go on a big jag of hoity-toity exposition, that's a blast to listen to and it's just as much fun to write.

You said you have kids. Have they inspired any aspects of your Trollhunters writing?

There are certain behaviors my sons exhibit that I put into Jim and Toby. They are also big fans of the show. I guess there’s a little bias in my house, but they love Trollhunters.My oldest son has brought up questions about Angor Rot and his backstory which have served as the genesis for one of the new Trollhunters books I’m working on right now. Also, saying the things they like about the show, if I see that they like that and their classmates and friends like that, that's a pretty good sign of something to include in one of the stories. I also want to mention that my six-year-old, his request is for Jim to get puppy. I don't know if that's going to happen on the show, but if there's an organic way to make it happen in the comics or the books, we'll see if we can do it and come up with an armored puppy.

As long as it’s not a cat I think we're good...

Yeah, cats don't do to well around Trollmarket. A puppy has a better chance.


'Black Lightning' shows strength in vulnerability

Black Lightning is not stumbling upon the conversation of identity politics in America and it doesn’t take place in the world of the willfully blind. Jefferson Pierce is a man wholly concerned with taking care of his family, students and community. But in the face of adversity, he’s forced to use the special gift he’s been given. Some of that sounds ordinary, but Black Lightning separates itself from the rest of CW’s lineup by refusing to offer a full escape from reality. Jefferson Pierce is one of the most powerful heroes in the DC Universe, but there’s no even playing field in Freeland. He’s still Black.

The series dodges the reluctant hero trope in the very first episode: as a respected principal of Garfield High, Jefferson Pierce is already a hero. He’s aware of his impact on the community. The internal struggle stems from him having convinced himself he doesn’t need his powers to help the people he cares about, though he realizes after a nine-year hiatus Black Lightning is his purpose. Even if suiting up prevents him from reconciling with his ex-wife, Lynn, it means a better future for his daughters and students.

“Justice, like lightning, should ever appear to some men hope, to other men fear.”

Jefferson and Lynn’s relationship isn’t anything like we’ve seen on TV. They are divorced, yet do not loathe each other’s company. In fact, it's quite the contrary. In a perfect world, these two would be together. But Black Lightning doesn’t inhabit a perfect world and uses this dynamic to display appropriate relationship boundaries. In a world where more people are divorced than married, presenting a vision of a successful co-parenting situation is vital for a series that will attract a young audience.  We also see how Jefferson and Lynn’s tumultuous yet healthy relationship affects their daughters, who both highly value themselves when it comes to interpersonal relationships on all levels, proving divorced parents can provide a stable foundation for their children.

That being said, the series does not shy away from showing the imperfections of its characters. One could see Lynn’s view of Black Lightning as selfish. Why would she not want her husband to help the world as much as he can? The youngest daughter, Jennifer, struggles with witnessing The 100 gang’s violence first-hand and turns to alcohol and marijuana to cope. Anissa is hesitant to fully commit to a long-term relationship with her girlfriend as she’s too busy with work, school and activism. And while Jefferson understands the role gangs play for survival in Freeland, he strives to find a way for gangs, the community, and police to live in harmony. When diplomacy doesn't work fast enough, he answers with violence.

Black Lighting ’s treatment of death shows a high level of emotional intelligence. In the first two episodes, many people die. But unlike most superhero shows, there are real, serious consequences. There’s no high fives or “Go Team.” These deaths are tragedies and aren’t marketed otherwise, even though they people killed are technically villains. While the series has a clear-cut antagonist in Tobias Whale, there’s an unspoken understanding that these characters do not want to be villains. They are just trying to survive in an unjust world, paralleling Jefferson Pierce’s own story.

Black Lightning’s vulnerability is what makes him the strongest hero DC Comics has brought to television. Writers Mara Brock and Salim Akil defy stereotypes of black masculinity and femininity, constructing characters who feel so grounded you could run into them at the grocery store. Beyond the first two episodes this review is based on, there’s room to explore how the worlds of the police, gangs and community collides within the characters of Inspector Henderson and Tobias Whale. These dynamic characters make Black Lightning one of the most the most truthful, culturally dense shows on network television.


Comic book pioneers trace the impact of Black heroes at ‘DC In DC’

Black Lightning is not only DC comics’ first African American superhero, but Cress Williams will also be the first Black man to lead a network TV series. For comic book innovators like Milestone Media co-founder Denys Cowan and The Other Side Of The DC Universe writer John Ridley, this has been a long time coming.

“I was maybe 10 years old the day I went home and pulled these comic books out and one of them was Black Lightning. A lot of you will not have that feeling of pulling something out of a bag and being so stunned by it,” Ridley told the audience during the “The Many Shades of Heroism: DC Heroes Through The African American Lens” panel at DC In DC “To live long enough where it's not pulling the surprise out of the bag, but it's being presented to all of us as mainstream entertainment.”

Black Lightning, created by Tony Isabella and illustrated by Trevor Von Eeden in 1977, was one of the first times Ridley saw himself in a comic book. It later became Milestone’s goal, founded in 1993, to make sure everyone could see themselves in comic books. The influence of co-founder Dwayne McDuffie’s inclusive ideologies helped expand Milestone’s mission to its full capacity.

“When we started Milestone, it was like Black comics done by Black people in a Black way,” Cowan said. “It took someone like Dwayne McDuffie to go and say to me, ‘You know, dude, we need to open this up so it’s multicultural, so there’s different voices...Gay voices, transgender voices and we did a lot of stuff back then—all being done by the people who were those people.”

Decades later, executive producers Salim and Mara Brock Akil continue to build on that same foundation with the Black Lightning TV series.

“These writers and producers are creating the text to make sure our reality is better in the future,” said The Wind Done Gone author Alice Randall, who is currently working with Reginald Hudlin on Earth-M, a title in Milestone’s upcoming line.

The Akil's are adapting visceral, real-world experiences to Black Lightning and they aren’t holding back an ounce of emotion in the process. 

“I’m probably the angriest Black man in Hollywood,” said Salim Akil. “I just had a lot of shit to say. I’m a sensitive person, so the world affects me everyday. I can’t help but put it in my work because I feel like what I’m doing is a blessing. When you are given an opportunity in these times, I felt like I have to say something, right?”

It’s clear from the the footage released so far that Black Lightning is different. Jefferson Pierce, a high school principal, would be a hero even if he didn’t have powers. At the end of the day, he’s just a man trying to survive and do the best he can in an unjust world.

“We use that word authenticity often times when we are talking about other cultures. But really what we are talking about is the nuance of culture. And Black culture is an integral part of American culture. You just can’t tear the two apart,” Salim Akil said. “You can take the Black off and he’s a man who wants the best for his family and community.”

Black Lightning premieres on The CW Jan. 16 at 9 p.m.