Any kid that’s visited Disney’s massive Epcot Center attraction at Disney World in Florida is likely familiar with the “Journey Into Imagination” attraction. A fixture at Epcot, “Journey Into Imagination” was established March 5, 1983, featuring the characters Dreamfinder and a purple dragon named Figment. (If you don’t remember the attraction, maybe you’ll remember its theme song, “One Little Spark” by Richard and Robert Sherman.)
“Journey Into Imagination” is the latest Disney attraction to get the Marvel Comics treatment. “Skullkickers” creator Jim Zub and “Captain Marvel” artist Felipe Andrade plan to explore the origins of Dreamfinder and Figment, keeping with the imaginative spirit of the original Epcot attraction by establishing a steampunk-like setting for their story of exploration and beginnings.
To get a better idea of what Marvel has in store for Epcot’s resident dragon, CBR News spoke with Jim Zub about his plans for the series, his experience with the original attraction, the elements of imagination that drive the story forward and the challenge of creating a backstory and expansive world for one of the park’s most popular attractions.
CBR News: Jim, give us the broad strokes on “Figment” — what’s the general story of your upcoming series?
Jim Zub: Essentially, what I’ve been tasked by [Marvel editor] Bill Rosemann to flesh out who Figment and Dreamfinder are, how they came to be. The version of them that’s in the Epcot attraction, particularly the original one, is almost like an endpoint, so we’re rolling things back and showing the origin of these characters — how Dreamfinder came to be, how he creates Figment, how the two of them team up and go on these incredible adventures. It sounds kind of corny, because it’s the name of the attraction, but it really is a journey into imagination. We use the attraction as the structure of the story.
Marvel’s already done a “Seekers of the Weird” comic, which is about as far away from an attraction as you can get since it was never actually installed in a park, but the series remained true of the core of what the intent and concept of the attraction would have been. For an attraction that’s much more established like “Journey Into Imagination,” what was the challenge of capturing its essence and translating it into a comic?
It’s like any other project where you’re working with established material; you’ve got to do your research and really understand what the core of that thing is. I’m trying to bring not only aspects of myself in terms of my writing and in terms of character development, but also trying to make sure it’s a cohesive story. For “Seekers of the Weird,” it was never really a finished attraction. It was more about the concept art and the overarching design. It’s a different challenge, I think. Brandon’s doing a great job with it. With this one, you’ve got a much more established legacy of the characters and the attraction. What’s interesting is they don’t have well known backstories. It’s really just an experience that the people and the park go through as they’re heading through the attraction, and the various kind of entertainment that happens there. Using the core of that, the main points they make or the themes they bring up during the attraction, and then forging a story around that, that also tells us who these characters are, what they’ve been through and what made them who they are today.
What’s your background with this character? Had you previously gone on the “Imagination” attraction in Disney World?
I did know the characters and the attraction — I’ve only been to Disney World once. I went when I was 14 years old with my family. We did a road trip across America one summer, and Disney World was one of the places that we went to. I was a huge — I’m still a huge — fantasy buff. I don’t think that’s something that goes away. So, anything at all, whether it was the castles or knights or any of that kind of stuff. In the case of “Journey Into Imagination,” you had a dragon that was a mascot. I really wanted to go see that attraction, and it was really fantastic. It has such a creative core to it. A lot of the Disney attraction shave got this broad-based narrative with the characters, but “Journey Into Imagination” is also reflective of you, the people taking the attraction; encouraging you to use your imagination, encouraging you to be creative, and that you have within you the ability to make things. I think that’s one of the things that makes it so compelling, especially to young riders. It puts it back into your hands and says, “Look at all these tools, look at all these amazing creative things that are at your fingertips and what you can achieve if you push yourself and try things.”
I think that’s a great message, and it’s really good, fertile material that we can explore.
The attraction got a redesign in the early 2000s to reflect more of a university vibe. As a professor yourself, were you able to use any of that experience to help develop Dreamfinder a little more?
[Laughs] That’s an interesting question, actually. The core of our story actually starts in a bit of an unexpected place. It begins in London, England in 1910. The gentleman who will one day be Dreamfinder is this inventor and he’s at — it’s sort of a school/research academy called Scientifica Lucida. He’s a member of this academy and putting out these wild ideas. They’re trying to build up their scientific research and trying to tap into the new technology of the day. He’s going off in wild directions and he’s got bigger dreams and bigger imaginative creations that he wants to pursue, and the school isn’t quite sure what to do with him.
I think there’s an element of the innovators versus the establishment that finds its way into the story, and that true creativity can come from many different paths — it’s not just something that can be controlled in many ways. There is a school element to it, but it’s not necessarily the school that shows up in the modern “Journey Into Imagination” attraction.
This isn’t the first licensed book you’ve done — you’ve been doing some great work over on Dynamite’s “Pathfinder” series and “Samurai Jack” for IDW — but crafting a comic based on a character that’s only really appeared in a Disney attraction seems like a unique challenge. What was your approach to building a personality for these characters that gels with the very little that’s already been established for them?
I think I approach a lot of the work-for-hire stuff in the same way — and the research component is so important. It’s about trying to get a feel for as much material as you can get your hands on so you can start to see broad brushstrokes of tendencies; whether that’s personalities of characters or themes coming out in the established worked so that the messages I’m trying to tell build on or echo those. Whatever the source material is, it’s valuable.
The initial pitch for “Samurai Jack” was about sitting down with one of my favorite episodes and cut through to the core of what makes it tick, and why people really love it; to analyze it and ask, “Why do I love it” as a viewer and trying to really grab hold of the essence. The same thing holds true with this project. It’s definitely a different source and it’s definitely a different kind of a challenge because it’s an attraction and you’ve got in some ways some very recognizable characters, but not character that have been developed in terms of plot or conflict or story — a lot of the traditional storytelling elements that we would typically have. But you still have personality traits and you still have a sense of who they are and what their goals are. Then, it’s a matter of bringing those into place and trying to show how they came to this point in a way that makes sense and doesn’t trample on anything that’s been established. It’s an interesting challenge for sure — but I relish it.
Steampunk is a genre/setting that you haven’t worked extensively in — what about the setting excites you and makes it a good fit for the story you’ve got planned for “Figment?”
It’s interesting. I pitched three or four possible directions we could go with the series because I wasn’t sure what Disney and Marvel would want as far as that goes. The steampunk one was the one that they all zeroed in on. They all really liked it. On the original attraction, there’s this wild contraption that Dreamfinder pilots through the realms of imagination, this big, billowing, steam-powered machine. We felt like that was a good starting point in terms of thinking about the eccentric inventor that is Dreamfinder and building off of that. I think the steampunk label is kind of appropriate, but it’s not necessarily the core of what we’re doing. It’s not just about, “We’re going to take everything and make it steam-powered,” but there’s definitely an eccentricity to it and there’s a fun, adventurous quality to it that works really well with the type of story we’re telling and the established material. We get to see Dreamfinder taking these more creative approaches to his inventions and the types of machinery that he puts together in order to propel the story forward.
The series seems unique in that it’s not a clear protagonist versus antagonist plot, or even a good versus evil plot.
No, it’s not. It doesn’t have quite a classic good guy/bad guy “We’re going to fight!” feel to it. There are antagonists as a whole, and one of the most challenging parts of it has been bringing in new characters into the mix. It’s not just Dreamfinder. In the original attraction, they don’t come into conflict with much, so we had to put together some antagonists and put together challenges that push them into different directions, but in many ways, it’s a story about exploration more than just straight-up conflict. It’s also about internal conflict rather than external. It’s about our own fears as part of the creative process or the challenges that we need to overcome in order to achieve greatness along with an exploratory element where these characters are going into the unknown, finding something new and unexpected, and trying to find their way back. Those two main conflict thrusts make the story tick.
I think it’s a little different than the norm in the best way possible. When you go on that attraction, it’s not like people are fighting each other. That’s not the core of it. It’s about environmental challenges or the internal conflicts to find themselves and get back from that.
You mentioned you get to create some new characters. Can you tease who are some of the other characters in the series are?
Sure! I don’t think it’s much of a surprise for me to say that when you have a story called “Journey Into Imagination” that they’re going to be heading into some wild and surreal landscapes of imagination and creativity. We got to come up with some of the denizens of those places, whether those are creatures or those are different races, or the sights and sounds of things they’re interacting with. That was a lot of fun, and kind of intimidating as well. As much as you might say it’s a miniseries, we’re essentially creating new Disney characters. I’m working directly with Disney Imagineers and artists we’ve got onboard. There’s a design process involved and the back-and-forth as to how you can create characters that will exemplify aspects of the story. You want them to be iconic and you want them to be strong and to really bring something out in terms of the storytelling. That’s been a really cool challenge. We’ve got some of these different dream creatures — there’s actually been quite a few emails going back and forth this week designing this creature named Chimera, taking different elements of animals and asking how we can accentuate this character’s personality. It’s a fun, almost playful pet, but almost huge at the same time. We have to bring those qualities out in a way that’s going to be recognizable and enjoyable in picking up the story. I’m having a blast with it.
It’s one of the weirdest feelings. On any creative project, you put the ideas down, and you see the art come in — but with this project, since you’ve got the legacy of the Disney stuff, it feels that much more magical as a process.
Speaking of art and design, Felipe Andrade seems like a great choice for this type of story. What about Felipe’s style do you think really makes it a strong match for the series?
I think what’s great about his stuff is that it has a beauty and a delicate nature to the linework. He’s got a beautiful sensibility in terms of shape and in terms of appeal. My background’s in animation, and one of the things we’d always say — and it’s an ephemeral quality — is, “That’s got appeal.” The minute you look at it, it brings a smile to your face. There’s a real joy that comes out in his linework. It never feels stiff, it never feels mechanical. There’s a joyful energy bubbling beneath the surface, so I think he’s a really ideal fit for this kind of story where we want to have a sweeping imaginative quality to the artwork as well as to the storytelling.
Talk a bit about the tone you hope to set for the series. What was your approach to making the book accessible to today’s youth, but also adults that have a strong memory of the character from their own childhood?
I think that we want to bring across a strong sense of exploration and adventure. This is a fun adventure story. It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily shallow — we’re talking about bigger ideas, about dreams and imagination within the scope of that. The A plot is that the characters are going to go here, do this, and find things. But the B plot is also that internal conflict about what makes us tick and push our ideas to completion and take our ideas to a bigger and better place. What kind of courage does it take to be creative above and beyond just going about your day-to-day lives? I think that resonates a little bit deeper than just a story about people running around and punching each other in the head.
Before I let you go, you’ve got a lot on your plate at the moment — “Samurai Jack,” “Pathfinder” and “Skullkickers,” and now “Figment.” What else have you got coming up?
Some stuff has been announced — I’ve got “Suicide Squad: Amanda Waller” at the end of this month from DC. Next month, the “Red Sonja and Cub” one-shot from Dynamite. I’m doing the “Cow and Chicken” one-shot that’s part of the Cartoon Network crossover at IDW, and on top of that, I’ve got another IDW project that’s going to be announced in a couple months. I have another creator-owned book that’s coming in August that’s probably going to be announced in May, and I’ve got another pitch I’m putting together for more creator-owned work. I’ve got 7 or 8 projects underway at various points of completion.
My wife is very, very patient. [Laughs] It’s a busy time right now in terms of creative growth, and a lot of really fantastic stuff going on. I grew up as a Marvel kid. I love those characters and I love the company, so finally getting a chance to get my foot in the door there means a lot to me. I’m really excited about this, and I’m hopeful that this is the first of many Marvel projects.
“Figment” #1 launches in June.