Tom Pinchuk describes his career as “a comics-animation Mobius strip,” as he moves back and forth seamlessly between the two media. His comic, the Archaia-published “Hybrid Bastards,” caught the collective eye of animation studio Man of Action, and they extended him an offer to be a freelance writer for an as-yet unnamed boys’ action series.
Now, with his Hollywood career on the upswing, Pinchuk has returned to the comics side with “Max Steel: Haywire,” a graphic novel illustrated by Jan Wijngaard and published through Viz’s Perfect Square imprint. The OGN is based on the “Max Steel” animated series, which is in turn based on Mattel’s action figure line.
In speaking with CBR News, Pinchuk explains how working on “Max Steel” is in many ways a return to his childhood, how his animation background helped him in crafting the best story for the characters, and describes the excitement he saw firsthand from fans of the character during the most recent Free Comic Book Day, when they dressed as Max in order to destroy a piñata in the form of the Ultimate Elementor.
CBR News: What was it like writing a comic based on a cartoon based on an action figure?
Tom Pinchuk: It really put me back in touch with what drew me to storytelling in the earliest days, being in my playroom and having a bunch of action figures and playing with them for hours, staging stories. It was a very surreal sensory memory. Mattel gives me these awesome toys to play with, and it’s the same sort of experience as back then, but now I am recording this epic adventure I plot out. I can’t say enough about how enjoyable that was. You do have to coordinate with licensors and editors, and as an adult you have to be mindful of telling a story and being disciplined about plotting and pacing, but it put me back in touch with what is still purely fun about doing this stuff.
What aspects of your animation experience did you draw on?
Working on a series before I can have any visual guidelines, as I had with Man of Action., you are given a “bible,” and it’s pages and pages of planning and strategy and description, but not a frame of the show has been animated, and none of the character designs have been finished, either. I was involved early enough that I had to picture how things are going to be, but because I’m part of a team, it’s not entirely from my own imagination. When I started seeing the designs, it was interesting to see how they contrasted with what I pictured. The characters were the same, the personalities were all on the page, but the look of them was different.
It was the same when I got the licensing guide from Max Steel. [I have] a document that explicitly outlines what kind of messages we want to get across, how we describe the relationship between Max and his mentors, how we want to have kids respond to the material.
There’s even a little thing — I find this in a lot of boys’ action series — there’s a lot of shot calls. So whenever Max transforms into another mode, he says, “I’m in turbo mode” or “speed mode” or “flight mode” or “turbo sword” or what have you. You know an audience is really engaging with their materials when they are playing it on the playground. It’s something that has been honed into more of a science; maybe before I might have been [playing] Batman and I would say, “Watch out, I’m jumping off the cliff here and I’m shooting my rope,” as opposed to saying “Turbo speed mode!” It’s almost like a role playing game where we have common terms. When a kid says that, the other kids know what he is doing or pretending to do.
It’s little things like that, and if you have characters bantering all the time, [knowing] what is that trying to get at. Why are they arguing, how would you describe their personalities, that is something that is explicitly laid out in the bible for the show. I was seeing the action adventure setup from many more angles than when I went into it.
Didn’t that ruin the fun of watching those cartoons from your childhood?
I don’t think it’s necessarily taking away the magic of it, just giving me a better appreciation of it. Sometimes you can appreciate a song better if you know about structure and melody, about verses and chorus and how the bridge takes you between the two. It enriches the experience, because I can look at it and say, “That is what the Transformers are doing! That is what G.I. Joe is doing!”
What are the challenges and constraints of working on a licensed comic, especially one where the show is still running?
They gave me a very long bible for the TV series and a licensor’s guide. You’re in their sandbox, and that’s clear up front. I pitched a story that will fit within that, and from there you get autonomy and you go through several drafts with notes from the licensor and Mattel. That means they care about the property, they want to make sure we are fitting in the relationship of Max Steel and hitting on the tone and the themes of teamwork and partnership and fun that is the Max Steel brand.
At a certain point, they wanted these books to come out to give fans of the show something they could enjoy between seasons of the series. They asked if I wanted to introduce a new villain before it showed up onscreen, and I said, “Absolutely!” They were still developing the character, so a lot of it was on me. It was something where you are coordinating a lot of moving parts, there’s input that goes into it from the editor and the licensors as well, but I think the story is mine. I stand by the creative choices I made in it.
Your story starts with Max hanging upside down with the Elementors about to finish him off. Was that a cliffhanger from the previous volume? Picking up the story in the middle, how much can you add?
If you look closely at the volume, there’s no number on it. I think Viz and Perfect Square decided it kind of worked as a self-contained unit and they didn’t want to number it. It’s not like this is a series where they are telling a continuous narrative. They are stand-alone adventures.
In terms of opening in medias res, I thought it was exciting to start as late as possible, put your hero in a situation and stomp on the accelerator from the beginning. Max has his supporting cast, but he also has his rogues’ gallery. No matter how often he knocks them down, they are always up to some new scheme. I though it would be interesting to have an action scene where he is immediately in over his head. Putting myself back in touch with the boy in the playroom, I think when you are a kid, you want to get into the action right away. I don’t think it would be Max having a typical day at high school and being called into action; I thought it would be more exciting to get called into the turbo fun right away.
Tell us about the Max Steel piñata you had at Meltdown Comics when you were signing there for Free Comic Book Day.
I know the people at Meltdown comics, and they knew Anime Chibi Sen, a collective of piñata makers in Los Angeles. They do custom-built piñatas, often based on characters like Naruto or Iron Man. I thought it would be fun to do something more than just sign books, so I talked to Viz and laid out a budget. They were enthusiastic about it, so we commissioned a piñata in the likeness of the Ultimate Elementor [the villain in Max Steel].
Mattel had put out a role-play set for Max Steel called the Turbo Transformation Kit — you can wear Max’s mask and wield his sword, and when you attach Steel to the sword it lights up and makes zooming sounds, and when you crash it into something it goes PSSSHT. I thought it would be cool to let the kids do battle with the universe’s evilest piñata.
We had a really great selection of kids, kids in costume, boys and girls, a good spread of ages as well. We put a mask on them, gave them the turbo sword, spun them around three times, and they took some really vicious swings at this thing. That’s what’s so appealing about doing this, letting kids’ imagination run wild and giving them something that will inspire them to become this fantasy right there. Being back in the playroom — that’s exactly what it was. We had a ton of kids participating, but I think the adults wanted to too. We would activate the turbo and I could see their eyes lighting up.