Interviews in Sherwood

Tony Lee

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright

Introduction

Tony Lee has written for radio and television, but is best known as a writer of comic books and graphic novels. He has written for characters such as X-Men and Spider-Man. He has written several Doctor Who comics including the mini-series Doctor Who: The Forgotten. His graphic novel Outlaw - The Legend of Robin Hood was published by Walker Books in the UK and North America in 2009. He explored other myths and legends in Excalibur - The Legend of King Arthur in 2011.  And Tony also returned to medieval history with 2014's Messenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc

He has also provided sequels for classic literature with a Dracula sequel, the graphic novel Harker (approved by Bram Stoker's descendants), in 2009 and the novel Dodge & Twist: A Sequel to Oliver Twist in 2011.

In 2016 it was announced that Tony Lee would take on scriptwriting duties for a futuristic take on the Robin Hood legend backed by Hollywood producers responsible for such films as 300. Also in 2018 he wrote a Robin of Sherwood audio drama for Spiteful Puppet – “The Trial of John Little”.

He currently lives in Kent, UK.

Click here to visit Tony Lee's Official Website

Click here to visit the official blog for Outlaw - The Legend of Robin Hood

This interview was conducted by e-mail in June 2009 with additional responses added in December 2018. 

The Origins of Outlaw

AWW:    Why did you decide to write a Robin Hood graphic novel?

TL:      I've always been a massive fan of Robin Hood, ever since an early age. I loved Errol Flynn, I loved Prince of Thieves, I loved Robin and Marian - I even enjoyed the Patrick Bergin one. But my biggest influence was the '80s Robin of Sherwood, which came out during my formative teenage years, and because of this Robin was always there. And there was one more, but I'll come into that in a minute.

         A few years ago I wrote a comic called Midnight Kiss, and it involved the Fae and crossed a variety of timelines - one of which was Robin Hood, and I had a convoluted subplot that I was never able to use (as the comic was cancelled after #5) where in the past, the hero of the book stole Robin's silver arrow because it was a shard of the silver arm of Nuadha... as I said, convoluted. But, fellow Robin Hood fan and close friend Sam Hart, an artist who'd worked with me on a Starship Troopers graphic novel enjoyed the one page that made it through so much that he drew me a 'fanart' sketch of Robin Hood - the one that eventually became the first page of the book. Although by then it wasn't Robin.

         I saw the picture and immediately emailed Sam asking if he wanted to do something Robin Hood based. His reply was even faster than mine. We knew we had something; however, while talking to my then editor at Walker Books, I mentioned that I was going to be taking a Robin Hood pitch to San Diego for the Comic Con and he told me to hold on that until he spoke to his bosses - within a week, we had a deal at Walker Books and a graphic novel to create!

On legends and licenced characters

AWW:    What are some of your earliest memories of Robin Hood, and what appeals to you about the legend?

TL:      I think that he stood for the common folk, it was the fox and the hound, the fighting against tyranny - I've always rooted for the underdog. And as I said above, I grew up on Michael Praed's Robin, and there were moments in that story, especially the 'Nothing's ever forgotten' theme that just haunted me for years.

         But actually my favourite Robin Hood memory - and the one I allude to above - is the British West End musical Robin: Prince of Sherwood, by my friend Peter Howarth and Rick Fenn, which played in the early nineties. I must have seen that show a few dozen times before it toured, and even then I saw its final show. I'm actually listening to the OST [original cast recording] as I write this. I loved that musical, to me it caught the right mixture of adventure and 'established history' of the 1190s Robin, and I think more than anything, as I wrote the book, I wanted to be as close to this mindset as possible.

AWW:    You've written for various established properties such as Doctor Who and Spider-Man, as well as the upcoming Dracula sequel Harker. What challenges are there in adapting a familiar story or character?

TL:      There are a variety of issues with working with characters that appear in the mainstream, some of which have a little more 'wiggle room' than others.

         When you use characters like Robin Hood, King Arthur, Oliver Twist or Dracula, you're using characters that are in the public domain. Characters that effectively nobody owns, and therefore, nobody can complain bitterly when they're used in whatever way you use them. However, other licenses, like Doctor Who or Spider-Man have solid 'dos and don'ts', and therefore, you're held to a higher standard, and, therefore, a longer process. In the latter, there are a whole load of people who are involved. People who'll tell you that character A wouldn't say or do something, sometimes to the extent of killing the whole story because it wouldn't work within the constraints - but when you get it right, when you start to work the magic, it's an amazing thing.

On writing Outlaw

AWW:    What unique challenges did working on Robin Hood present?

TL:      Well, the biggest one was, of course, that not everyone agrees with the 1190s Robin. I had people emailing me saying how unhappy they were that I wasn't portraying him as a 13th century yeoman, but at the end of the day I know the 12th century stories far more, and to be honest so does everyone else.

         The other issues I had, though, were what to keep and what to miss. I didn't want this to be a 'by the numbers' story that everyone knew - I needed new angles in there - Tuck being in the crusades, Marian a widow, that sort of thing - but every page I spent on that was a page less that I could spend on other things.

AWW:    What aspects of the Robin Hood story do you think work best and least well in comics?

TL:      I think it all works well, as long as you work out the best way to tell it. You can't show the action of a archery contest, but you can build up the tension of whether he makes it or not.

         I think there will always be a comparison between static images and motion, but I think in comics, it comes off okay.

AWW:    Outlaw is very well illustrated. How did you collaborate with artist Sam Hart on this project? Did you write "full-script" [the dialogue script given to the artist] or "Marvel style" [where the dialogue is added after the art]?

TL:      I wrote full script, very much like a screenplay. But because I knew Sam and knew what he could do and because he was lettering the book as well, he knew that if he wanted, he could play around with the page structure if needed. I didn't allow him to bring things across pages, as I had a strict page by page plan - if he'd added a page around page fifty, for example, every right hand page turn following that would have been ruined, but in the boundaries of the page, he had carte blanche to do what he wanted. As long as he followed my script!

         It would read as a panel by panel script, first a description in the panel - it might be incredibly detailed, stating exact positions of certain characters, or it might be as simple as 'Robin smiles as he replies'. Then under that I'd place the dialogue, always in capitals. That way it gave me a better idea of how the words would look on the page.

AWW:    I noticed references to the ballads, Errol Flynn film, the Robin of Sherwood TV series and I believe traces of Paul Creswick and NC Wyeth's children's novel. And I see the sheriff shares the same name as the one in Magazine Enterprise's 1950s Robin Hood comic book series. What were the major influences on Outlaw - both inside and outside the Robin Hood legend?

TL:      Everything. But, Murdach wasn't named after the 1950s one, as well you know - Ralph Murdac was the actual Sheriff around the time [in the 1180s], so I thought I'd take a little from history, and a little from Henry Gilbert.

         Actually, Henry Gilbert's Robin Hood was probably the first book on the outlaw that I ever read as a child, and so this was a major influence. And of course, as I said, Robin of Sherwood was another factor. When I started to research, J.C Holt's Robin Hood was a constant companion and again, influenced the way I told the tale. But I pretty much devoured most Robin Hood genres as a child - so there's likely to be a little bit of everything in there somewhere...

Twists in the tale and an outlaw’s return

AWW:    One of the interesting twists on the legend was making Marian a widow instead of a "maid". What inspired this change?

TL:      There's always a need to 'make things your own' when you do this - to have something slightly different. Richard Carpenter added Nasir. Prince of Thieves made Robin and Will Scarlett brothers. And I wanted to do something similar, things that were only seen in my book.

         I hadn't seen anything mentioned about the 'Hooded Man' line, but in research, the hanged man always came up because of the Executioner's hood - and so this is how Robin became the Hooded Man. Marian as a widow was to give her a little bit more of a reason to help Robin - on finding out her late husband's treachery, she instantly becomes an ally to the outlaw. And of course, Friar Tuck being a Templar Friar meant that I could make him more of a fighter. I always saw him more as Gimli in The Lord of the Rings movies than as a fat idiot.

         And to be honest, I think all three changes worked. That said, I'm sure they've all been done elsewhere!

AWW:    The ending does leave room for a sequel. Have you any thoughts about returning to the Robin Hood story?

TL:      We actually had one planned - originally the book was going to be called 'Robin Hood: Outlaw's Pride', and there was talk at Walker of a sequel called 'Robin Hood: Outlaw's Return' where we'd jump fifteen or so years and show the end of Robin's life. We had a whole treatment worked out and it was solid, we were even going to return to the Jerusalem scenes to add a few little foreshadows - it would have bookended this perfectly - but the sales figures showed that Robin was a great seller, but they weren't sure if a sequel was ready yet. So, we looked at other areas to work on and the book got renamed to Outlaw - The Legend Of Robin Hood and Walker commissioned a series of 'Heroes & Heroines' books, starting with this and continuing with Excalibur - The Legend Of King Arthur which hopefully comes out next year, and a third one that we haven't confirmed yet.

         Hopefully down the line I'll be able to write the bookend Robin story - mainly because it tied in so many of the later myths. But then who knows - I might write more Robin Hood in other ways.

AWW:    It's been a pleasure to read Outlaw - easily one of the best versions of Robin in comics form. And thanks for the tip of the old bycocket hat.

But we aren't done yet. Read below for a 2018 addition to the interview.

2018: The Trial of John Little

AWW:  Since I first interviewed you, you've written several audio dramas (including the excellent Dorian Gray / Sherlock Holmes Christmas  crossover special I listened to again last night). How is writing for  audio drama different from writing for comics or other media? 

TL:      The biggest issue is that it's all descriptive, but with audio you can't show what's there via the eyes, you need to ensure that the sounds describe whats going on, that the characters talk about what's happening, but at the same time don't say things like 'wow, look at the tall man over there holding the banner. It says 'go away'. Because we don't talk like that, and that sounds fake.

         So you find yourself relying on slow, drip-fed information that gets put into the scene. And hoping that the actors sound sufficiently different as to not confuse the listener!

AWW:    I also loved your new "The Trial of John Little" audio drama. You'd mentioned previously how important the original Robin of Sherwood TV  series had been to you. How did you come to be involved in the new audio  continuation? 

TL:      I was asked. Simple as that. Barnaby Eaton-Jones was looking for writers and contacted a friend and fellow writer, Gary Russell about doing a story, and asked if he knew anyone who could also pitch for it. Gary had directed the Bernice Summerfield audios I did and was involved with the Dorian Gray one, so he put my name forward.

         Barnaby contacted me, asked if I had any ideas, we talked about what he was looking for and he said he wanted a Michael Praed story that was something Clive Mantle could really get his teeth into - and so I pitched the Trial, purely as a chance for Clive to let go a little.

AWW: I liked your exploration of Little John's past (including a quick reference to Little John's other "real name"). How did you come to devise the story for "Trial"? And I understand you original pitched  another idea -- traces of which I think survive in Robin's subplot. Can  you share anything about that original idea? 

TL:      Actually there wasn't another pitch - just the Trial. I'd always wanted to know what happened to John before he was freed, and I wondered whether John would, or rather whether he would rather never learn. When I was 21 I had an accident that left me with three months of short term memory forever lost, and I looked to that to start this. What if the police arrested me for a murder, performed during that time? I wouldn't know whether I did it or not. And for John, it was a similar tale. Would he want to win the trial, or did he feel he should be blamed?

         The other part was the fact that I could make this a story set right before the finale - I always hated that Robin seemed to give up at the end, and this was a way to pre-empt this, and give Robin (one) more of a send off, and to show that not only was he prepared to die, but actively expected it that day. Some of this had to be removed though because of actors not being around; I had a long conversation between Robin and his father about being the guardian, but a lot of that was folded into a talk with Herne.

AWW: What elements make Robin of Sherwood distinctive from other Robin Hood tales -- including your own work on Outlaw? 

TL:      The spiritualism in the forest, for me. Other stories just go 'forest = haunted' and that's it. With RoS there was magic. And Horned Gods. And Magic Swords. And witches. And Demons. And even the Devil. And meanwhile we have everything else that people love from the legends. It was done in such a way that when Robin (one) dies, we understand how Robin (two) can take the role. It's a position more than a person.

          I tried to put this into Outlaw - I also added pieces from Peter Howarth's West End show 'Robin - Prince of Sherwood' - and I managed both again in the audio.

Other projects

AWW:    It was also announced a couple years ago that you were working on a screenplay for a futuristic Robin Hood adventure. Is there anything you can share about that project?

TL:      As far as I know it's still in development (with another half dozen similar films), Hasraf Dullul was directing. However, the recent Taron Egerton film and the terrible box office / reviews seems to have delayed everything as people rethink what to do, so the chances are it'll never move on. But who knows!

AWW:    I understand your 2011 sequel to Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, Dodge & Twist is now available as an audiobook from Audible. What would you like readers / listeners to know about it? 

TL:      It's Ocean's Eleven if written by Charles Dickens. It's not an audiobook though, it's a full cast audio drama, like the Robin of Sherwood play - and it stars Steven Mangham, Matt Lucas, Kara Tointon, Michael Socha and a ton of others. Oliver and Dodger meet up, twelve years after the original novel, and as they are forced to work together, we learn a whole lot of things about everyone's past. It's adapted from a book I wrote years ago, but with a ton of new scenes and subplots.

AWW:    Are there any other upcoming projects you're exited about?

TL:      In 2019 I have the last book in our Heroes and Heroines range - the one that Outlaw started - called Pirate Queen - The Legend of Grace O'Malley, and it's about a real 16th Century pirate / freedom fighter in Ireland, and her life. It's great fun and hopefully will bring a whole load of new fans to her story.

          I'm also writing a novel called The Plantagenet Curse, which is a Dan Brown-esque take on Tudor history.

AWW:    Thanks again.

Order books by Tony Lee

OUTLAW - THE LEGEND OF ROBIN HOOD by Tony Lee, Sam Hart and Artur Fujita (with an afterword by Allen W. Wright, this site's webmaster). A graphic novel (ie: comic book that's thicker and on better paper) that retells the classic Robin Hood story with a few new twists. It got a good review from the School Library Journal. For older children to adults.
Buy Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood on Amazon.com
Buy Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood on Amazon.co.uk
Buy Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood on Amazon.ca

EXCALIBUR - THE LEGEND OF KING ARTHUR  by by Tony Lee, Sam Hart and Artur Fujita. The team behind Outlaw reunite for this Arthurian graphic novel.
Buy Excalibur on Amazon.com
Buy Excalibur on Amazon.co.uk
Buy Excalibur on Amazon.ca

MESSENGER: THE LEGEND OF JOAN OF ARC by Tony Lee and Sam Hart. Yet another graphic novel, this one exploring the legend of the French heroine.
Buy Messenger on Amazon.com
Buy Messenger on Amazon.co.uk
Buy Messenger on Amazon.ca

DODGE & TWIST - THE SEQUEL TO OLIVER TWIST by Tony Lee. The original Kindle novel that has an Dickensian-style Ocean's Eleven caper.
Get Dodge & Twist (the novel) on Amazon.com
Get Dodge & Twist: The Novel on Amazon.co.uk
Get Dodge & Twist: The Novel on Amazon.ca

TONY LEE'S DODGE & TWIST - THE SEQUEL TO OLIVER TWIST: AN AUDIBLE ORIGINAL DRAMA by Tony Lee. The new audio drama adaptation features a great cast including Matt Lucas as Fagin.
Get Dodge & Twist: An Audible Original Drama on Amazon.com
Get Dodge & Twist: An Audible Original Drama on Amazon.co.uk
Get Dodge & Twist: An Audible Original Drama on Amazon.ca

ROBIN OF SHERWOOD: THE TRIAL OF JOHN LITTLE by Tony Lee and starring Michael Praed, Clive Mantle, Mark Ryan, Judi Trott and more is available directly on the Spiteful Puppet website. It is available separately as a digital download or as part of a boxed set (in either CD or digital format) along with three more adventures with the Robin of Sherwood cast. [Unfortunately due to international licencing agreements, these are only available to UK and Irish residents, although you could always ask a UK friend to order them for you.]

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© Text and Location pictures, Copyright 2019 Allen W. Wright - All Rights Reserved
Art from Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood written by Tony Lee, art by Sam Hart, colours by Artur Fujita from Walker Books. Used under fair use for the purposes of criticism and review.
Photo of Tony Lee is copyright Tony Lee and used with his permission
Audio drama cover is copyright Spiteful Puppet / ITV Studios and is used under fair use
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