Merlin: The Unchanging Wizard Mentor

The wizard mentor. Whether labeled a mystic, a wise one, a shaman, or any of a hundred other names, this archetype has appeared in stories from nearly every culture and period, and is a particular favorite of modern fantasy.

Whether it’s Gandalf…




…or Obi-Wan…


…they’re all cut from the same cloth (and obviously subscribe to the same fashion magazines). While a cynical person might call them unimaginative copies of one another — barely altered versions of Merlin — I would argue that’s beside the point.

Because these characters aren’t supposed to be reinvented from the ground up. That’s not their function in story or myth. Rather than an opportunity to conceive of something new, they’re one of the constant, familiar elements that allow us to accept all the fantastical aspects of a story that are innovative.

Whether it’s epic battles between forces of good and evil…

lord of the rings

…schools of magic hidden in distant  mountains…


…or spaceships you really, really, really wanted to fly in as a kid (okay, even more so now)…

millenium falcon

…the setting, the plot, the rules of the world…  even the hero of the story may change dramatically, but the wizard mentor remains steadfast.

So, beyond the stable ground they provide a story, what is the function of a wizard mentor?

One classic role they fulfill is as father figure to an (often orphaned) hero. But their main goal is to steer, nudge, bribe, inspire, trick, convince, shame… basically do anything they must to guide the hero into taking the path that is their destiny, and ultimately, face the evil they will inevitably have to confront in the end.

Another aspect that I’ve always found fascinating about these characters — and one that seems nearly universal as well — is that the wizard mentor keeps secrets from the hero. Not that they don’t like and trust (or even love) their young champions, but wizards do what they must for the big picture, for the greater good. They endure the guilt for the peril they puts their apprentices in, and keep their secrets out of a desire to shelter their hero from the burden of the dark truth about their plight… their destiny… and often their slim (or nonexistent) chances for survival.

How about a few more wizard mentors you might be familiar that show they don’t always have to have long gray beards (couldn’t hurt though). Let’ see, how about the bald one from X-Men…

professor x

…or that geeky guy from Buffy…

giles buffy the vampire slayer

…and how about a woman (no small task to find one, let me tell you)…

fin raziel

Slap a beard on her, and you’ve got Gandalf again! And if you know who she is, you’ve watched entirely too many badly written 1980’s fantasy films staring Val Kilmer. (There could be an entire discussion on the lack of women wizard mentors, but that’s fodder for a future post)

And how about one from History.  I would argue that this guy fits the bill pretty closely…

ben franklin

Franklin fits the archetype of a wizard mentor in his relations to many of America’s founding fathers.

Ok, that was fun… but let’s get to grandaddy of them all…



The stock wizard mentor, recast a hundred (if not a thousand) times in countless versions of the Arthurian Legends over the last millennium, retains these core elements.

But in modern versions, he’s sometimes more of a bumbling professorial, rated-G, white magic type…

sword in the stone merlin

…while in others, he operates in a moral grayish area…

john boorman merlin

…and still other times, he’s just a teenager, learning the ropes, worried about pimples and girls (or maybe boys, unclear)…

merlin tv series

…whoa… wait a second.  If you’re familiar with the show, I know what you’re thinking. This Merlin doesn’t fit the bill! Well, although I could argue that this Merlin is still a mentor to Arthur, and is indeed keeping secrets about Arthur’s destiny from him… I’d have to agree. In my opinion, in the BBC Merlin TV Series, Merlin is not the wizard mentor…

He’s the hero.

And the man training him — Gaius — is the wizard mentor…

merlin tv series gaius

That looks better, no?


Film Scripts vs. Comic Scripts

While there’s no 100% accepted industry standard format for scripts of any type, they all share much in common. The main similarities stem from the fact that scripts are not intended to be read by an audience like, say, a novel would be. Instead, they are maps that guide the creation of media rather than the media itself. Whether it’s the performance of a play, the filming of a television show or movie, or the illustrating of a graphic novel or comic book, scripts are at work behind the scenes, part technical document, part (if done well) entertaining read of the story.

Here’s a compare and contrast of a film and comic script:

film script vs comic script

Dialogue and action/description are essentially the same for both, but looking at the other elements, it becomes clear how the differences are dictated by the practical needs of film crews or illustrators during production of their movies or books.

For example, in a film script, the labeling of scenes makes it easier to break down the story into filmable pieces. It might be nice to know exactly which ones take place outside or indoors (EXT. vs. INT.) so a film crew can shoot multiple scenes with one setup, even if they don’t appear sequentially in the story. (Saves big $!)  Likewise, it might be good to know which scenes occur during the DAY or NIGHT for the same reason.

In a comic script there are no such needs. The penciller can draw a panel that takes place outside at night, drink a cup of coffee, and move right on to draw the next panel that takes place inside and during the day. It makes no practical difference. What many comic scripts do to grease the wheels of productivity is spell out exactly what chunks of the story constitute separate panels, and how many panels appear on each page of the finished book. But there are also comic writers who leave all of that up to the illustrator, delegating the control over the pacing and flow of the story. But to a type-A writer like myself… that’s just crazy talk.

This topic could fill a book… and has. Many of them. But suffice it to say, if you’re a screenwriter who wants to learn how to format a story for comics, or vice versa, then you’re bound to already be halfway there!

The Dangers of Amatuer Art Direction

In the final weeks of the concept art stage for the first volume of 13 Legends, when pieces were still being commissioned to help get a handle on the look and feel of the story-world, I turned my attention to a cool new design — an airship. What story is complete without an airship? Thus, I contacted an illustrator who I’d worked with on some of the other technological concepts, Alfredo, from Argentina, and we got to work. From my written descriptions for the function of the ship, Alfredo came up with a trio of options:

airship concept

I ruled out #3 immediately, thinking it was too futuristic. #2 was cool, but I felt it didn’t push the boundaries enough. I really liked #1, but to me, the balloon parts still seemed too modern. So, it was time to put on the “art director hat”. (yes, I know a collective shutter just ran through all freelance artists in the world like a planetary-sized disturbance in The Force) So there I am with this hat — speaking metaphorically, of course, for I don’t really have such a hat, nor do I believe one exists, but if it did… never mind. I came up with the obvious, yet brilliant, answer to the problem:

Combine specific aspects of both #1 and #2 into a new, even better design!

I promptly e-mailed Alfredo my pearls of wisdom, and, as I was the client, he followed my instructions carefully.

The art came back, and I thought, “awesome! Really great! Perfect, in fact!”, followed by, “damn, I’m good!!” (okay, so Alfredo drew it, but I… I told him to draw it! Which makes it at least a 50% victory for me, right?) I proudly showed my better-half the latest design, and awaited the obvious praise that was bound to be bestowed upon me… and she said, “don’t you think it looks like boobs?” My smile faded as I turned back to the screen. My god, she was right! It was boobs! Giant, flying boobs.. but boobs nonetheless.

I suppose the moral of this story is that, until you’ve subconsciously steered a design toward resembling gender-specific anatomy, you haven’t really earned your “art director hat”… even a metaphorical one.




The Future of Book Publishing?

While bookstores are shutting their doors left and right, publishers have been taking increasingly desperate measures to squeeze cash out of what they apparently still believe is their core business — applying ink to tons of wood-pulp, shipping it on trucks around the country to be sold, and then destroying any leftovers. The thing is, most everyone else has noticed that the digital age isn’t coming… it’s arrived.

So, with the business models of many major publishers floundering, what does this mean for the future of books… and more importantly, the stories they deliver?

Personally, I believe that printed books will always be around, but as time passes, they will become cherished objects rather than shot-in-the-dark, mass-produced fodder with Martha Stewart or Fabio on the cover. People will buy physical books that contain the stories that they love, as mementos, souvenirs, or to collect… or perhaps to support certain graphic novel writers that beg them for their support!

As I see it, publishers will need to do two things to survive:

  1. They’ll need to abandon their roles as printers and focus on becoming even more trusted certifiers of quality — giving their stamps of approval on well-written books to help readers filter through the ever-rising oceans of bad ones. (After all, anyone can ‘publish’ a book today, but, let’s face it, most self-published ones are crap)
  2. Publishers will need to increase their focus on the promotion of their authors.

This is not to say that publishers will be able to make the same kind of money they have in the past. They won’t — just look at the music business! While the digital revolution will bring the costs of distribution down to almost nothing, simultaneously, many of the publishers’ justifications for the high price of books, and low payments to their authors, will evaporate. It will be the readers and authors who will benefit from this new landscape, each squeezing the publisher from opposite ends. Readers will enjoy more competitive prices, while authors will gain leverage to retain more rights to their work and larger shares of profits, turning their noses at royalty rates not worth the paper they’re printed on. (sigh)

And for all you people who refuse to read on anything besides gen-u-ine paper (regardless of how good the e-reader technology gets), you guys will still get your way. You’ll eventually be able to print licensed copies of nearly any book while you sip your latte and watch it being constructed before your very eyes. Actually, you can do that now!  Have a look…