Usually, Zak Penn adapts comics to the big screen, but for "Hero Worship," Penn turns the superhero genre -- and his career -- upside down and pens a tale bound for the printed page. Penn joined his comic book co-writer Scott Murphy for a panel during Comic-Con International in San Diego to discuss their upcoming monthly series published by Avatar Press.
During his career, Penn has written and contributed to more than a dozen major films including "Fantastic Four," "X2," "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "The Avengers." Like "Hero Worship," his first produced screenplay, the infamous "Last Action Hero," inverts several popular genres.
Penn drifted toward comics with the hope that he might find some more control in his creative endeavors. "As a writer, you have so little control over the product that gets up on screen," he said. "What you see in this comic book is what we wanted to put there -- in a comic book, you can actually blame us for everything that's in it. That's our fault"
"Hero Worship" grew out of the Hollywood screenwriters strike of 2008. When Scott Murphy's agent informed him that he could not work on screen or teleplays, but he could write videogames or comics, he developed the premise and mentioned it to Penn through an online writers forum some time later. When it came to the actual pitch, however, Murphy gave it to Penn in person. "I didn't get 60 seconds into the idea before Zak said, 'This could be something,'" Murphy said.
"It explores a lot of things that I'm interested in," Penn said. "It's definitely a comic book idea about the role of comics and the fandom surrounding them." Of course, the concept also matches Penn's aesthetic as the writer believes that the best superhero projects are those most grounded in reality and tied to science fiction. These traits are evident in both his big screen projects and the TV show he created, Syfy's "Alphas."
These interests fanned his enthusiasm when working on Marvel projects. "I like the comic book characters like the Hulk and X-Men that veer toward science fiction," he said. But, he continued, "I do think eventually people might get tired of the straightforward, 'A guy pulls on tights and goes and fights crime.'"
While the final product was almost entirely Joss Whedon's, Penn wrote some of the early drafts of "The Avengers" as Kevin Feige and Ari Arad brought him on board the project in 2003. "At the time, there was no Marvel Studios, so it was kind of like a pipe dream," he said. "My job was to keep revising the draft…for about four or five years, that's what I did. The story was basically the same, but it kept shifting. Then, once Joss (Whedon) came in, he took over from there."
Penn also gave audience a few pieces of inside info on the development of Marvel's movie hit, saying that there was no contingency plan if Marvel's pre-"Avengers" films had not fared well on the screen, Penn said he had questioned the plan to release "Thor" ahead of the team movie, and probably would have opted for a release after "The Avengers." And while Loki was almost always the choice for the villain thanks to that character's long-lived role in the comics, there was "some discussion of it being Red Skull." "If I thought I could have gotten away with Thanos," Penn mused aloud, "I would have put him in there."