Sholly Fisch has made a career of writing comics geared towards children while making them highly entertaining for adult readers, too. So when IDW Publishing and Dreamworks Animation decided to release a comic book miniseries as a tie-in to the 2014 film “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” the former Vice President for Program Research at Sesame Workshop was a logical choice. And making logical choices is important when your main character is a dog who just so happens to be a super-scientist. Or, is it the other way around?
For “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” Fisch joined forces with artist Jorge Morlongo to tell a four-issue origin story for “a time traveling dog and his pet boy.” The titular characters were created by Ted Key, appearing on Jay Ward’s “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” in the late 1950s and early 1960s in segments aptly titled “Peabody’s Improbable History,” which featured the two companions trotting across space and time while meeting everyone from Napoleon to Cleopatra along the way.
Fisch told CBR News about his long-held love for the characters, why the 50-year old concept still works today and how the trademark puns he unleashed in the first issue of “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” won’t be the most painful ones in the series.
CBR News: I just finished reading “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” #1 which features a great pun from Mr. Peabody: “Sometimes it takes a small mountain to solve a mammoth problem.” As someone juggling as many projects as you, are these words to live by?
Sholly Fisch: [Laughs] Yes, probably. And I will warn you, that is far from the most painful pun in the series. But in all seriousness, it’s been a really fun series to write.
You’ve worked with Batman, Scooby-Doo and other classic characters that have been around for a long time, but those other characters have enjoyed several iterations with dozens, if not hundreds, of different interpretations. Mr. Peabody and Sherman have only really appeared on Jay Ward’s “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, living on as reruns. Does the lack of history and continuity make this a more difficult story to write or does the lack of overexposure offer a clean slate?
That’s actually a very good question, and there are a couple of ways to answer it. The first is to say that I’m ancient enough that I was a big Mr. Peabody and Sherman fan when I was a kid. I used to watch “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” all the time. From that standpoint, just as with Batman or any of these other guys, who have been around in the intervening years, it makes my inner five-year old really happy to finally get a chance to write these guys myself.
But it is true that they haven’t been around. I find that with this series, when I tell people what I’m working on, some people, as soon as you say “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” their eyes light up and get these big grins on their faces. Other people just look at you quizzically, but as soon as you say that it’s from the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” and it’s a time traveling dog and his pet boy, they get it immediately.
All of that Jay Ward stuff — Rocky and Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right, Mr. Peabody and Sherman — has such a timeless quality. Even if you don’t come in having known it for years and years, you get immediately. And it’s just as appealing to a kid now as it was to kids way back then.
‘Way back when’ ties in nicely to my next question. I love your introduction of the WABAC machine and your not-so-subtle nods to “Doctor Who,” “Back to the Future” and the Flash’s Cosmic Treadmill. But while you say this 50-year old concept works for kids today, did you feel you had to update the technology or at least some of the story beats for a new generation of children?
The characters of Mr. Peabody and Sherman themselves work just as well now as they ever did. You see more updating in the stuff that’s around them. Because this is a tie-in to the Dreamworks’ movie and we have to be consistent with both that and the original show, you see things like the new streamlined, 21st century WABAC machine that they use to travel through time. It has a very different look than the original. I think it actually looks pretty cool.
We also have this thing that we’ve been referring to as Peabody-Vision, which is taken from the movie. When Mr. Peabody is in a tight spot and he makes all of these plans and calculations, you see what he’s thinking superimposed over the scene, which comes from the movie, not the original cartoon. This is the same Mr. Peabody and Sherman that you knew and loved way back then, but in terms of the stuff around them, they’re living in a world of today.
How closely does this series tie into the movie? Is it an adaptation of what we’ll see or a reintroduction of these classic characters?
This is the prequel to the movie and starts at the beginning of their story together when Mr. Peabody first adopts Sherman and builds the WABAC machine for his enjoyment and education. The final issue ends about five minutes before the movie begins. And about five minutes before the French Revolution begins. [Laughs] Everything is consistent with the movie, but this is a different story.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman are, and have always been, virtually inseparable. Did you find it easy connecting with them and finding their voices?
Obviously, for inspiration I went back and watched the original cartoons. One of the perks of my jobs is that I get to watch cartoons and call it work. [Laughs] Fortunately, I have a pretty extensive “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” collection at home and anything that I didn’t have, my library was more than willing to supply.
Over the course of writing four issues, I think I watched the entire first three seasons’ worth of the “Peabody’s Improbable History” segments, which is not a bad job to have. It’s a lot easier than coal mining.
Watching the shows was enormously helpful, just in keeping everything fresh in my head — the characters’ voices, their speech patterns, the style of the humor, all of that stuff. I have loved these guys for almost as long as I’ve been alive, so getting into their heads wasn’t very hard.
We’ve talked about this before, but in terms of using cartoons like “Peabody’s Improbable History” as educational tools, are there positives that can be gleaned from talking dogs and pet boys?
Absolutely. But with the old cartoons, it depends on which cartoon you watch. Some of them actually are pretty historically accurate. And others of them are less so. With this series, both because it probably would have been my inclination anyway, and also because the folks at Dreamworks and Classic Media, who are the two license holders involved, wanted to make sure that we were being accurate about everything historically. We fudge things a little bit here and there, but I think it’s pretty accurate.
As a kid, I learned all kinds of junk from comics: science facts from Gardner Fox stories, vocabulary from Hank McCoy and all kinds of other stuff. This is my way of paying it forward a little bit. If you’re reading “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” and you learn a little bit about the Mayan calendar or Archimedes or Anna Renzi, who, I am guessing, is someone people are less familiar with but you can go look up, and it inspires you to learn a little, so much the better.
I’m really digging Jorge Monlongo’s art on this book. What does he bring to the project?
I think he’s doing a really nice job with the art. It’s a somewhat different look than the classic cartoons. It’s a little grittier and a little more detailed, partly because it’s not animated. One of the things that he’s done, which is really impressive, is, as we go to all of these different time periods and places — we go to Italy, we go to the middle of the ocean and a pirate ship — he’s really captured all of the backgrounds and all of the scenery, as well as all of the characters in ways that really accentuates how cool it is that these guys are traveling through time and space and all over the world. And, he’s funny. That doesn’t hurt for this series.
I’m not sure how much you’ve seen of it — maybe you’ve just seen the trailer — but as a long-time fan of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, what are your expectations for the movie?
I’ve read an early version of the script, I have seen some of the early clips that were done and I am legally bound not to tell you anything about it. [Laughs] But I will say that it’s a really good Mr. Peabody and Sherman. I was very pleased with what I saw, as an old-time fan, myself.
“Mr. Peabody and Sherman” #1, by Sholly Fisch and featuring art by Jorge Monlongo, is available now.