The People Behind the Puppets: Jake T. Forbes

After the success of the first volume of Fraggle Rock, we naturally began asking ourselves what we could do to make the second volume even better. One of the ideas we embraced was bringing on some talented writers and artists who had worked on other successful Jim Henson Company comics. Naturally, Jake T. Forbes was at the top of that select list.

Jake is the writer of Return to Labyrinth, the New York Times bestselling manga series that also serves as the official sequel to the seminal 1986 fantasy film. He’s also a respected expert on manga in the United States and an experienced video game designer. And yet, Jake still manages to keep a low profile, spending his time writing and cooking from his home in the Bay Area.

With a variety of projects in the works, we’ll see how long that low profile lasts…

Jake, when I first met you, you were one of the most respected editors over at Tokyopop, and I was a freelance copy editor just learning about manga. However, what astounded me was that you were a few years younger than me at the time. How did you manage to become one of the most widely respected manga editors and authorities at such a young age?

It largely boils down to being at the right place at the right time. When I applied at Tokyopop, fresh out of college, the company wasn’t well known as a book publisher. I didn’t even realize I was applying for a manga editing position until I was at the interview — I assumed it was a junior editor position at the magazine or website that I was applying for. When I got the job, I was excited to have a grown-up job in a real office — it was great. Tokyopop employed close to 100 people at that time, of whom only six people worked on manga. Everyone else was devoted to the magazine, the anime line, soundtracks, toy importing and, most of all, the website. The company wasn’t Tokyopop; it was Tokyopop.COM.

Prior to being hired, my knowledge of manga and otaku culture was pretty low. In high school and before, I had friends who were more engaged in that nascent scene and so I was familiar with Ranma, Evangelion, Akira and Lone Wolf and Cub, but I didn’t bring a lot of expertise to the table. What I did have, however, was enthusiasm and a deep respect for fan culture and I dug into the secret language of otakudom with relish. At first I was just trying to figure out what was popular with those ahead of the curve, but in time I started to understand why things were popular and form my own educated opinions as I fell in love with the stories and creators I was exposed to. I made a lot of mistakes that first year, but I learned a lot and made many friends and contacts in the fan community.

Less than a year after I started, the company underwent a major shift in focus. Most of the staff moved on as the company dropped the magazine and web content and focused on localization. Suddenly, with just one year of experience, I was the localized manga authority in the office and found myself promoted to Senior Editor. Yikes! Any “authority” I earned came from keeping my eyes and ears open and trying to do right by readers.

Through all the work you did at Tokyopop, on such series as Fruits Basket, Chobits, Priest, Samurai Deeper Kyo and Rave Master, just to name a few, was a goal of yours to eventually move into writing full-time? Why did you leave editing?

I was truly blessed to work on so many amazing and high-profile titles, and I really did enjoy the work, but increasingly, I found my desire to create stories wasn’t being satisfied by localization, where fidelity is the ultimate aim. I was also frustrated by my inability to make the books I was working on better. Part of this was due to cost-cutting measures that caused retouch, lettering and image reproduction quality to shift radically volume to volume, partly it was my butting heads with the zero-tolerance policy on retouching sound-fx, and, perhaps most of all, I was looking for change. The opportunity to write an original series definitely helped me commit to leaving, but I wasn’t completely sure if writing was what I wanted to do full time.

Some people would say you got out at just the right time. I’m not going to ask you to comment on Tokyopop’s current problems, but did you foresee the decline in manga’s popularity? Was that something you’d say was inevitable? And do you still read manga today?

I won’t claim to have predicted manga’s decline at the time. After all, shortly after I left, I went on to lead production at manga upstart GoComi. Part of that was me falling back into a comfort zone, and part of it was my pride compelling me to try and fix the issues I had with quality at Tokyopop. It wasn’t until about a year later that warning signs started going off for me; but by that time, there was already a fair amount of doomsaying. As for reading manga, I do pick up titles from the library, but mostly these days I just read the Viz Signature titles like Children of the Sea, DMC and Urasawa’s stuff, but I’ll pick up the occasional shonen or shojo title to see what’s popular.

You certainly chose an ambitious gig for your first comic book writing project: scripting the official comic book sequel to Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, a film with no shortage of opinionated fans. Was it intimidating?

At the time I suggested Tokyopop pursue that license, I knew that Labyrinth had fans, but I had no idea how opinionated the fans were. I considered myself about as hardcore as Labyrinth fans could get, but it was a personal obsession that I shared with friends and family only. I wasn’t aware of the size of the community who shared that passion. Any intimidation I felt — and there was a lot! — came from working for the Jim Henson Company, as Henson was and is one of the people I most admire. It wasn’t until Comic-Con, where the series was first previewed to a standing-room-only crowd of 200+ fans, that I knew just how big this was.

The cover to the first volume of Return to Labyrinth, beautifully painted by Kouyu Shurei.

How does one go about creating a sequel to such a beloved work of fantasy? Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do, or did the idea change and evolve as you went along?

The story definitely evolved as I went along. The initial outline was much heavier on action and adventure, but the more time I spent with it, the more the series shifted towards melodrama. If the volumes had been scheduled back-to-back, I probably would have stuck to a more action/comedy format, but with six months of downtime between volumes, I ended up getting very introspective and wanted to know more about the characters. I was also finding my voice as a writer.

Did you think about how long the project was when you started? I mean, you were working on it for nearly five years!

The series was originally contracted to be a trilogy. After volume 2, Tokyopop had a major wave of troubles that led to layoffs and the series’ fate was in limbo. I don’t think the executives at Tokyopop realized until after the fact that Return to Labyrinth had become one of the publisher’s best-selling titles! When we finally renewed the contract for volume 3, I convinced them to do another volume so that I could expand the story.

A spread from Return to Labyrinth Volume 1. Yes, that is Travelling Matt making a cameo appearance in the lower left, which technically makes Jake the very first Fraggle Rock comic book writer since the 1980s!

Are you pleased with how it turned out? Is there anything you would do differently?

I’m very pleased with the series as a whole. I hope that the original characters, like Skub, Moppet and Mizumi, will be remembered for years to come. Certainly, there are some things I would do differently in retrospect, and there were a few scenes that got trimmed that I wish could have stayed in for the final volume, but overall, I’m proud of the work that Chris [Lie, the illustrator] and I did. It’s a book created with enthusiasm and love, and I think that sincerity comes through. In my future work, I hope that passion continues, albeit with a little more discipline that comes from experience.

While I know that Return to Labyrinth has plenty of fans — some of them pretty obsessive, actually — not all of the fans of the movie have embraced it. Why do you think that is? Does it bother you?

When you’re working with beloved source material, opinions and emotions invariably and understandably run high with readers. I definitely don’t take it personally if there are Labyrinth fans who don’t embrace Return to Labyrinth.

A page from Return to Labyrinth Volume 4 featuring Moppet, one of the original characters created by Jake for the sequel comic.

At four pages, your Fraggle Rock story was one of the shortest in the book, and yet I felt it was paced perfectly. It didn’t feel like you were trying to cram in too much, which is a common problem with the shorter stories. Was it at all difficult to write something so short and concise after working on such a longer series?

It was tough! I had to trim and trim and trim to make it work. Having a song as the foundation helped, as it helped me focus on what was most important. While writing Return to Labyrinth, I had a tendency towards indulgent dialog. The Labyrinth books are very talky. In the script I’m writing now, I’m really trying to keep dialog short and sweet and less expositional.

Your short is one of the very few Fraggle Rock stories to attempt to incorporate music, which was such an important element of the TV show. For all its strengths, the comic book medium is not a very good one for music. How do you add an audial art form into a medium that’s entirely silent?

I agree, it’s tough to sell lyrics in the comics format. Nine times out of ten, when I read song lyrics in print, it doesn’t feel particularly musical. As a writer, when you put lyrics to the page, you’re counting on the reader being able to turn the text into a song, but for most readers, I have a feeling it’s looked upon as (bad) poetry and glossed over. In the case of Return to Labyrinth, I think the song worked because Bowie’s ballads are so ingrained in the readers’ minds that it’s not hard to imagine the words coming from Bowie cum Jareth. In the case of Fraggle Rock, it was a little easier as the song is more whimsical verse. Verse is a lot easier to sell in print, provided it’s in the right context.

Why did you focus your story on Boober? Can you relate to him?

I mentioned this in another interview, but I admire Boober more than I relate to him. The Fraggle I relate to most is Wembley. Wembley stories sort of stress me out, whereas Boober stories always make me smile.

A page from “Boober and the Ghastly Stain,” Jake’s Fraggle Rock short.

You’ve now written two projects for The Jim Henson Company. Do you see yourself working with the Henson Company again, or are you ready to move on to something else?

As I said up above, Henson is a true hero. My earliest TV memories are of watching Fraggle Rock on HBO. The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan were favorite childhood films (for whatever reason, I didn’t get into the original Muppet Movie until adulthood). I loved both Storyteller series, the fantasy films, and any Creature Shop work in other movies. Being able to work with the Henson Company is a dream come true. Would I work with the Henson Company again? In a heartbeat, if there is an appropriate story that I felt needed to be told and the Henson Company wanted to share in its creation.

As you’ve been writing these projects, you’ve also had a successful career in video game development. Do you feel video games and comic books have much in common?

Console games and super-hero comics have much in common in that these aging, mostly male, communities of fans and creators are having to come to terms with their no longer being synonymous with their respective mediums. There’s a lot of overlap in terms of art styles, as many artists work in both industries or are inspired by the other. Both industries are going through major periods of adjustment, but I think games have a definite leg up there as activities monetize much better than content.

How difficult was making the transition from a full-time comic book professional to a full-time video game one?

Having published graphic novels to show at an interview was a big help. My first games job started shortly after Return to Labyrinth debuted, and if I didn’t have that book to supplement my resume, I don’t know that I could have scored a game writing job. To be honest, my games career had a rocky start after my first employer imploded and several contract jobs didn’t amount to much. In the console games space, what titles you’ve shipped and who you know makes all the difference in landing a good job. At this point though, the games industry is much more diverse, and there are more opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds. I’m finally on stable ground now, working with a new company that is getting ready to publish some great social games.

While the comic book influence can definitely be seen in today’s entertainment, it’s a very small industry and market compared to the number of game developers and players out there. Do you feel video games and other forms of interactive entertainment might ultimately be responsible for comic book readership’s erosion?

Comics are such an inefficient medium, taking hundreds of hours of an artist’s time for an experience that is consumed in a matter of minutes. As a means of expression, I have no doubt that comics will continue to thrive. As a serious business, I’m not bullish on the comics industry’s potential for growth, outside of perhaps kids’ comics. I’m not worried about comics — the creators and publishers who have comics in their blood, who create works that matter and resonate with readers, will keep on putting out amazing work. As for the explosion of fandom that continues to grow as children of the 80s and beyond grow up and exert their influence — that fandom we see at the madhouse that is Comic-Con — I don’t think it’s the comics industry that will ultimately benefit from that passion. Games, on the other hand, have huge growth potential as they evolve from $60 console experiences into a multitude of forms. I’m a book fetishist, so I still hope to publish a few more bound books before I give up on the medium, but as a storyteller, I expect I’ll reach a much bigger audience through games.

So what’s next for you?

I wish I had more details to share. Right now I’m working for a company called Making Fun, a new games division of Fox, working on a few games to debut this summer or fall. On the comics front, I’ve got an original graphic novel project with an amazing artist you’ll recognize that I’m looking for a publishing partner for. Check in with me in a month and hopefully I’ll have an update about that one!

And finally, I’ve heard rumors that you’re also a whiz at LEGO construction? Do I smell a potential third career path?

That was a path that I’ve long since diverged from. In college, a friend and I built LEGO displays for toy store windows. I probably have 200,000 bricks in storage right now, and every once in a while I start dreaming about undergoing a major building project again. It’s intimidating, though. Ten years ago, when I was last active, the “Adult Fan of LEGO” community was pretty scattered and the standards weren’t all that high. Since then, multiple LEGO communities have exploded online, and adult creators have shared techniques and refined building practices from the chunky styling I once knew to SNOT (studs-not-on-top) sleek designs. Instead of the eight main colors I knew, there are a good two dozen shades. It’s not that the bricks have gotten more specialized and dumbed down, as happened in the late 90s, but rather the standards are so much higher. It’s scary!

Actually, it’s a lot like the Magic the Gathering scene. Today’s cards are great, benefiting from 15 years of refinement, but for an “old-timer” like me, it’s a little intimidating to go back. I actually dipped my toes back into both LEGO and M:TG waters this past month, having bought the amazing Diagon Alley set to decorate my new desk and participated in a booster draft. If only I had more hours in the week to be a nerd! I’m having a hard enough time getting through my stack of games. And right now, everything takes a back seat to Dragon Age 2.

Well, LEGOs have proven to be a surprisingly fun subject for video games. Do you think there may be LEGO comics in the future?

I don’t see it. The main appeal of LEGO comes from their wonderfully tangible nature. The Traveler’s Tales games like LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Harry Potter do a great job of invoking the look, feel and sound of the bricks. The limitations imposed on their narrative by way of the bricks makes for great comedy in motion. I don’t think it would translate well to comics. Actually, that’s not quite true. The Brick Testament is amazing. For the most part, I think LEGO works best as vignettes and not as a medium for storytelling.

For more information on Jake and his projects, be sure to visit his website,

And check back again soon for more Fraggle Rock creator interviews, including one with another Jim Henson manga creator!