Next week, Marvel Animation’s “Ultimate Spider-Man” moves into prime time for a special one-hour Season 2 premier on Disney XD. But the men behind the January 21 extra-length episode have been in their cartoon prime for a while now.
Serving as story masters for the show are the four-member Man of Action collaborative which includes Steve Seagle and Joe Kelly (alongsideJoe Casey and Duncan Rouleau). The team is well-known in comic circles, but they have an even longer reach in the cable animation world as the creators of “Ben 10” and “Generator Rex.” Since coming to Marvel in 2011, Man of Action has taken the writing lead on all Marvel-produced shows including “Ultimate Spidey” and “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”
CBR News spoke with Seagle and Kelly about “Ultimate Spider-Man’s” next spin, and below, the pair describe the learning curve they experienced in bringing more comedy to Peter Parker’s small screen world, why the re-imagined versions of the Sinister Six will be a surprising threat to the S.H.I.E.L.D. team of teen heroes featured on the series and how they’re working to win fans over with the new “Avengers Assemble” series debuting later in 2013.
CBR News: Watching “Ultimate Spider-Man” over the first season, I get the impression that the four-man Man of Action team wrote damn near every episode. You at least shared credit on a majority. Do you feel like you’ve done more writing for this show than previous ‘toons you’ve worked on in the past?
Steve Seagle: Definitely. But it’s a choice to make sure that this show has a certain tone and the Man of Action feel. But we have to give a huge heaping helping of credit to our co-writers. We tend to do really long outlines with a lot of action and jokes beat out, then the writers flesh it all out before we maybe do a dialogue polish. We actually did co-write all of the episodes except for Brian Bendis’, because he said he’d have nothing to do with us. [Laughter] But it’s more to create this house style where the show is really consistent over the season.
Out of the four of you, is there someone who slips swear words into the scripts, and who has to edit them out?
Seagle: Joe Casey! [Laughter]
Joe Kelly: No, we’re actually really, really good about that. This is one of those work environments where you don’t want to let those slip in. So we’re very, very careful.
How is the show is evolving in Season 2? Season 1 was all about building this world up and introducing these additional heroes into Spider-Man’s world. What did you learn doing those episodes about how this show has to work?
Seagle: The Man of Action model these days, for all the boys action stuff we do, has been making each episode digestible by itself. These shows are for kids, and kids don’t always have the luxury of watching everything or watching it in order. So we’ve really trained ourselves to make sure that each story can be watched on its own. But since we’re comic book guys, we like having that long-running narrative, too. In the first season, that dealt with Norman Osborn and his role in Spider-Man and Harry’s life and then his transformation into something other than what he is and maybe what he always was. In Season 2, we have a similar grand design meted out by the writers room and Joe Quesada and Jeph Loeb and Brian. You’ll get a similar feel, but in a completely different way.
Kelly: What we sort of knew from the beginning, though some elements needed convincing, is that the comedy really works. We knew that the show as fun, and we knew that the more fun, the better it would be. There was never any doubt — since it was a Marvel show with Marvel guys and Marvel characters — that this show would have a lot of action. The question was always where to turn the dial for the comedy. And as we’ve had kids coming up to the convention booth or writing fan letters, their response has been really great to that. So it was less of a learning curve and more being proven correct. Kids like a little fun with their action, and so do the older fans, much to their surprise. Now we just want to push it a little farther. As somebody who likes comedy, that’s a good thing.
Seagle: I think the other thing we’re learning is that kids really respond to the relationships, as well. I think there was some push back about, “Why does Spider-Man need a team around him?” The answer is that it’s more about them being his circle of friends. In Season 2, we’re going to dive into those friendships a little more.
Right now, there are ads running for the new season that really play up this idea of Spidey’s team facing off against a new version of the Sinister Six. Did you want to build up the villain side of the equation more in that team sense now that the S.H.I.E.L.D. kids are established?
Kelly: I think, in part, having the Sinister Six pop up was a fun centerpiece to build the season around. But like Steve said, the way we construct episodes is not only in a standalone way with less continuity, but we also choose each week whether it’s Spidey and one character or Spidey and the whole team. There’s always a way for us to change things depending on how we want to tell a story. That aspect of it is fun, and it’s fun from a villain point of view. We can raise a lot of questions and mystery about who’s in the Six. I think you’ll see that the stories in the second season are sometimes Spider-Man just by himself, and some of them are him with one of his friends. There’s a lot of origin stories in the second season as well that allow us to focus on the specific members of the team. Like Steve said, the relationships really carry the characters through.
When the show returns next week, it’ll be with an hour-long episode in prime time on Disney XD. Did that change up how you plotted out this first episode of the season?
Seagle: You always want to start big, get big in the middle and then end big. We’ve learned, after many, many years working on these kinds of shows, that you never know whether you’ll be an hour or a half-hour at the beginning, so we try to write these connected two-parters. Both of them tell stories, but they tell a bigger story together if you watch them that way. That’s what we did here.
Kelly: We do it at the end of the season, also. You’ll notice that the season-enders can be held as a full-hour episode, or you can watch them individually. That’s also important for the international version of things as well as, like he said, the big bang nature of the stories.
The version of the Sinister Six we’re meeting is not the same as the classic version from the comics. Who were the villains you really wanted to use to make the “Ultimate” version of that team?
Seagle: The lineup definitely changed in the writer’s room as the story was moved around and things were figured out. And even if there’s a classic Sinister Six villain on this team, they’re not necessarily going to be the classic version you know. There are some different hosts for the persona of the characters. I don’t want to tell you which ones yet, because that’s part of the fun of telling these stories. But, for example, it’s been mentioned that Electro is in it. That may be the Electro you knew from the comics, but it could also be a totally new Electro. There’s still some fun to be had with these characters, and that’s something we’ve carried over from the Bendis “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” series. Keep the architecture you know, but make it work in the universe you’re building. If this is a world where Harry Osborn can be Venom, all bets are off for the Sinister Six. That is a lot of the fun of those characters.
In terms of our favorites, there’s always villains and guest stars we’re trying to work in over the season. Some of those guys might work in to the Six, and some of those guys will have stand-alone episodes. We always work in the villains we like.
You mention the Bendis comic, and he’s been in the room helping you negotiate which influences you use or don’t. Does Brian really champion his versions of the characters, and are we going to see Geldof in this season of “Ultimate Spider-Man”?
Seagle: [Laughter] Geldof made it into every meeting!
Kelly: It’s as if you were there.
Seagle: Listen, here’s what’s great about having Brian in that room. He’s there with us, but he’s not going, “I did this. Do it my way.” He’s not like that at all. He’s really looking at the stories we’re putting together and going, “That’s really fun,” or, “That’s not fun at all.” He’s great to play in the room with.
Kelly: I was saying to somebody before that I really had a perception of Brian coming into this as a serious Writer with a capital W. I only knew him a bit before working with him on the show, but to see him sit down and dissect what a kids show means to him and watch him get giddy about gags and what a kid would think is funny — t’s like a whole new side to his writing. I knew him from back when he was starting with his indie stuff, which is so serious. It’s great to watch him embrace the kids stuff. He’s very easy to work with in this universe. We’ve always said that the spirit of the show was born out of the spirit of what he did, but the show is still its own monster.
Seagle: He’s a proud papa, now, so he wants everything here to be something his kids would really love.
“Ultimate Spider-Man” isn’t the only show making it to the Marvel Universe block on Disney XD this year. We’ve got new Hulk and Avengers shows on tap. Are you involved with all of that the same way you worked on “Ultimate Spidey” and “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” last year?
Kelly: It was announced that we’re going to be co-executive producers on “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble,” and we’ll be doing it at the same time as we work on “Ultimate Spidey.”
Jeph Loeb has talked about that show as being a series where we accept that the relationships between the Avengers and their world is already established. How does that affect how it all shapes up, and how will you make it a compliment to “Ultimate Spider-Man”?
Seagle: The first thing I’d say is, we did work on “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” so we’re not guys coming in to say, “Let’s knock over that table and forget all about it.” We have a vested interest in those stories, too. But it is a new, fresh show. It’s got its own personality and its own vibe. I think the fun thing is, we’re going to land you in this Avengers show, and just like you do in the Marvel Comics Universe, you’ll figure out how it goes together over time. There are some things that’ll cross through the shows, but the fun is discovering, “Oh, that’s how that relates.” We don’t want to explain it all and go, “Here’s how this show sits next to ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ in this way.” You’ll see all that unfold like you do in the Marvel Universe.
Kelly: It’s a similar challenge to the one we had coming onto Spidey to begin with. “Ultimate Spidey” comes as a result of the Marvel/Disney marriage, and there were some fans of the previous “Spectacular Spider-Man” show, which was a very good show. We liked that show as well. So the question is, “How do you move into something new without disregarding everything that came before since people dug it?” In that case, it was an easier leap, though we still had fans that questioned what the show would be like. In this case, it’s amongst ourselves and within our own house. “Here’s a show we liked, and here’s our new show. How do we move them to the next level?” I certainly think we’ve done a pretty good job to being sensitive to both the old and the new in a way that’s pretty exciting. I think that people are going to really dig the dynamics of the new show and the way the character works.
Seagle: And, P.S. — there was a small movie that came out last year called “Marvel’s The Avengers” which some people may have seen. That might have some influence.
Kelly: Just a little. You know, it’s just this little arthouse film. [Laughter]
The one hour season premiere of “Ultimate Spider-Man” Season 2 airs January 21 at 7pm EST on Disney XD