Creating and launching an original super hero comic is no easy job. Just ask any comic creator tasked with developing a new series from whole cloth and they’ll tell what a serious challenge it is to come up with something unique in a medium that’s seen some pretty amazing characters launched over the last eighty-plus years.
And if you think it’s hard to do it on the printed page, just ask Thomas Wheeler how difficult it is to attempt it for television. A long time comics fan, Wheeler is also the creator of NBC’s newest series, “The Cape,” a weekly television show airing Monday nights at 9:00 PM Eastern/Pacific, is comprised of an entirely new universe of comic-style characters with colorful personalities.
“The Cape” tells the story of Vince Faraday (David Lyons), a police officer in Palm City, a locale as corrupt as you can find. The city’s criminal world is run by Peter Fleming (James Frain), who, when Faraday refuses to join his team, frames the honorable officer for a crime he didn’t commit, forcing Faraday underground. He’s reluctantly adopted by a group of circus misfits, whose leader Max Malini (Keith David) takes Faraday under his wing, training him to become The Cape and take on the mission to redeem his good name and reunite with his wife and son. Add to that group the mysterious Orwell (Summer Glau), who assists The Cape on his journey, though her motives may not be shared with those of Vince.
CBR News sat down for an extended chat with Wheeler to discuss the development of the show, the challenges genre programming faces on network television and the creator’s hopes and goals for “The Cape” as it begins its first season journey.
CBR News: Tom, I want to talk a bit about the early development of “The Cape” and what that was like. From the moment you first had this idea and thought, “I have to get this on TV,” to taking it to your first producer and ultimately getting it to NBC. What was that process like?
Tom Wheeler: I was real lucky that through some of my previous work — pilots that had been shot and didn’t get on TV and my work on “Empire” — I had a deal in place with Lloyd Braun and Gail Berman (owners of the entertainment firm BermanBraun). We knew we wanted to do something together. I had just worked on a fantasy project for ABC that we came sort of whisper-close to getting green lit called “Captain Cook’s Extraordinary Atlas.” That was one of those swing for the fences types of shows. I definitely like to look for what’s not on TV and, first and foremost, what I could spend potentially years of my life doing.
I had never tackled superheroes, even though I had spent my whole life reading about them and going to the comic book store on Wednesdays. It has always been my hobby, so I took it very seriously. I didn’t go into developing “The Cape” lightly. It had to be special. It would have to work. It would have to accomplish a number of things, in my mind, to make it worth doing. I had the idea for a while, and I thought that I would do it as a feature, which was this father and son story where the father, for whatever reason, [would have] to take on the mantle of his son’s favorite superhero. The idea of “The Cape” came along after, because finding the hero was the trick for me. Finding the character and the look and what was going to be special about this hero and what we could do practically. There was something about “The Cape” that felt both simple and had depth to it, that was elegant and yet accomplished a lot of things for me that I was surprised hadn’t been out there before. The idea of building a character and an ability around the cape felt new and fresh to me. And I loved the look, that hooded look, that monk-like cowl. The whole thing felt really cool and medieval and pulpy and all that stuff.
Once I had that package, I brought it back and pitched it to Lloyd and Gail and Andrew Weil (BermanBraun) and Gene Stein (Executive Producer), who have been my great allies, and they loved it. I said, “Okay. It’s kind of different because we’re doing it in a fictional city. It’s going to be like a comic book.” And they were on board.
We took it NBC and literally, just as we’re walking in the door to go into the pitch, one of them turns to me and goes, “Well, NBC is not doing superheroes this year, so don’t worry about the pitch.” I’m like, “Now you’re telling me this? I’m seconds away!” So, I’m thinking, “Can I make him a superhero lawyer? Is there going to be a superhero doctor?” But then I said, “Screw it. The pressure’s off.” I go in and do my bells and whistles, which is me jumping up on chairs and playing the roles. Now, I knew some of these folks at NBC and have worked with them before and they are great people. They were looking at each other in the same way, like, “This feels fresh, but it also feels like it’s from a timeless era.” So, they bought it!
I’ve had scripts bought before and it’s wonderful, but it’s a long way to getting it to a pilot. You don’t even look ahead because you just don’t assume. So, we write the thing, and they loved it and responded very positively. But it wasn’t like, “We’re going to make this immediately.” It was, “We like it — and here are a couple notes.” But we never at all fundamentally changed the idea or the tone. It was usually logic, clarifying certain things. We were the last pilot to get green lit that season, but sure enough, they picked us up and I couldn’t believe it. We got Simon West on board to direct it, which added this nice momentum as he’s somebody that would be able to tackle the sci-fi side of things.
Then it became the challenge of how to get this done. What are the physics of the cape? How is that going to look? There is something really cool and exhilarating and terrifying about figuring out what Scales was going to look like and who was going to play Vince. That part was a thrill ride, There was a lot of thought about how to bring a sort of Silver Age, classic comic book character to the screen, something that both someone my age would love, but a 12 year old could grab a hold of and [have it] be his favorite thing. My favorite shows growing up were “The Six Million Dollar Man” and shows that had a heightened sense of reality, but were still played very real and serious. I knew we were on this tightrope all along the way, tonally. Yet the process of starting to see artwork and design was thrilling. You turn in a pilot and you go through these really intense few weeks, editing and testing and editing and testing, and to my wonderful shock and surprise and thrill, NBC picked us up and away we went.
So, once NBC said yes to this and you were having these conversations with the network, was there at any time a conversation about “Heroes?” As you were told just before your meeting with the Network, they had just cancelled that series. “Heroes” experienced a spectacular fall from grace, a huge first season that never saw the series find its momentum again. I’m wondering if there was ever a discussion along the lines of, “Hey, we just left ‘Heroes’ behind us. We don’t want to repeat these specific themes.”
No, we really didn’t talk about “Heroes” much. Maybe they felt like, from the pitch, that it was different enough from “Heroes.” You know, I had the Carnival of Crime in there. I was an occasional viewer of “Heroes,” and from what I saw, I liked it. And any show that makes it four seasons, my hat is off to them and all credit to them. So, I didn’t realize their last season had a carnival. [When I found out,] there were even some things where I was going, “I’m surprised they’re not bringing [‘Heroes’] up.”
There were a few things that I knew were the rules of this particular world, which was that we were going to have costumes and there was actually not going to be super powers. I think they might have felt that it existed on a sort of different terrain than the ground they had just covered with “Heroes.” I knew pretty clearly what I wanted to tackle and the things that I didn’t want to contend with, and my favorite superheroes were the brawlers, the street level gangsters and that kind of stuff. More pulp world kind of stuff than galactic overlords. I love that stuff in comics, but this was going to be a more street-level hero with a very colorful rogues gallery.
It sounds like you’re really trying to create a complete superhero universe with “The Cape,” but confined to Palm City.
To me, we start with Palm City. The goal with Palm City was to create stakes within and create stories that matter within this city so that I could manage this unique quality of this world. The rules that exist within this city would be our own. It felt like the [type of] crime story that I like, a kind of 1930s period, even though we’re in the 21st Century. We’ve got carnivals and bank robberies. I wanted a city-based story, which isn’t to say at all that I don’t have a pretty epic mythology planned for “The Cape.” It’s why we’re doing things where we embed this comic book in the world itself. We’ve written that comic book within the world and we’re building a history behind who wrote that comic book. So, there are actually two Cape mythologies existing within Palm City. One is the Vince Faraday, the hero we watch on TV, and the other is the story that inspired him from the comics. We have an adventure-of-the-week energy, but for those paying attention, there will be an unraveling of a much larger story.
You mentioned shows you liked as a kid, like “The Six Million Dollar Man,” which was really kind of a family friendly show. I don’t know if I’d call it “all-ages,” but it was relatively tame. What is the intended audience for “The Cape?”
I truly believe it’s an all-ages show. I know to some [all-ages] is a dirty word. What I go back to is the comics I read growing up, which were comics that began to create this genre world that we live in today. It was the groundbreaking Frank Miller stuff. It was the X-Men with Claremont and Byrne doing their thing. Even a little further back, with Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy. Super heroes were still super heroes and the stories still had high stakes and emotion, but it was still heightened, it was still colorful, it was still fun. That was stuff that adults and kids could read and enjoy. I think right now the seesaw is kind of tilted toward guys my age and women my age. The genre has matured and grown, but in some cases that’s the only audience they’re talking to. I don’t want that to be at the expense of my son falling in love with comic books again and bringing kids back into it. There’s definitely going to be “The Cape” episodes that are going to be super intense for a 7 or 8 year old, no question. I don’t take any of this lightly, and I don’t plan a story to be lighthearted. I have a kind of wry sense of humor, so characters have a sort of wry or dry sense of humor in that Indiana Jones type of way. But I would put it in the realm of Indiana Jones or James Bond, where the danger is real, your character gets hurt, yet you know that you’re on a ride.
Let’s talk about the story and where it goes beyond the first episode. I’ve seen the pilot, which serves as both an origins episode and also a bit of a redemption story for Vince Faraday, but that story is ongoing. So, what is your goal in terms of the overall storyline? There’s some larger stories that run in the background, especially the Summer Glau and James Frain storyline and their relationship. Plus, Vince still has a long way to go to redeem himself, both with his family and in the public eye. Do you have a specific timeline as to how these events play out? Will The Cape, Vince Faraday, ever be able to rejoin society, or is this his new reality?
One of the key goals was to not just have this be a premise pilot. Like, “Okay. The guy had to make this decision. It’s sad for the family. Now let’s go fight some fun bad guys and leave it all behind.” We set out with a couple of goals. One, was that this first arc of [thirteen episodes] would be about the training of the superhero. This first arc would work through telling the story of Vince Faraday, the loss of his name, the disgrace and to also tell this story of a family having lost a husband and a father. They go through the stages of grief that a family would, and we found a real hero you could root for in his wife Dana Faraday, played by Jennifer Farrin. Her journey is just as dangerous as she heads out and becomes a public defender, trying to find out what happened to her husband. She’s been betrayed by her husband’s best friend. She’s raising a son on her own. Her efforts are bringing her further into the corruption of Palm City.
We also will play the tensions between Vince and these mysterious allies that he has been forced into partnership with, a carnival of true criminals. They don’t just go from the pilot to suddenly being the fun henchman. They don’t like having a cop living with them and the tensions between Max and Vince will be real and they’ll have real consequences throughout this first run of episodes.
I also wanted to get into the rivalries of the actual criminal energies in Palm City, whether it was Vinnie Jones’ character — the rise of a great gangster — or James Frain and the Peter Fleming character, as he is doing his best to create this corrupted nest that he could sit atop of and begin the next level of his plan. The great thing about having Vinnie Jones and James Frain is that we will get to know these criminals in a more dimensional way. We will not see them against just the Cape, but against each other, too. I made sure that even though there was going to be an adventure each week so the occasional viewer can drop in and more or less get what’s going on and go along for the ride, I didn’t want to over populate these first thirteen with a villain every week. I didn’t want it to seem so throw away. I’d say we’d meet only six or seven new villains and they each have a distinct personality and a distinct look and origin. I really think that your hero is only as good as your villains, and in this case, I think we’re on a good track. So, those are a number of goals I wanted to get to and that I know we’re going to get to.
Let’s talk about budget and expectations and all that kind of stuff for “The Cape.” We’ve seen television shows that are effects heavy in the past and they don’t look good because they don’t have a decent budget. You’re talking about keeping away from super powers so you’re not bogged by too much special effects work, which helps. That said, there must be some sort of budget limitations and what you want to see on the screen and how you’re able to creatively combat those issues. The Cape itself is a complicated effect that you had to tackle before you even began shooting this thing.
I have not experienced a story we couldn’t tell because of budget limitations or any of that. I knew the stories I wanted to tell would be more driven by “normal guy in extraordinary circumstances.” The oldest tricks in the book being used to take down this big corporate monstrosity. For me, that was the flavor of this particular character and world. So, I wasn’t worried about special effects. We have a brilliant special effect supervisor who worked with Guillermo Del Toro and what he gives us and what he was able to deliver in the pilot has gone on. There’s a difference between a pilot and an episode in that you get fewer days to shoot things. You simply can’t shoot as much stuff as you’d like, but I don’t think the audience in any way, shape or form will see any difference. In fact, I think we’re getting our visual groove going more. From the second hour on, you’re going to be seeing more of the kind of character of Palm City, soaking in this dark light that’s really distinctive. I was surprised by that, and I have to be honest, my expectation was that we would have to endure some sort of downshift, but to the credit of Deran Sarafian, who is our director/producer that has done a freaking brilliant job, and our directors throughout. I can only speak for this experience, but I think it’s unique to TV. It’s a beautiful show and what we set out to do we want to do well.
One thing that I found very interesting is that the first hour of the show was made available through the DC Comics app on the iPad. How did that happen?
Well, to NBC’s credit, I’m sure you’ve noticed and others have noticed, “The Cape” is out there. They are getting us out there and I am deeply, deeply appreciative of that and couldn’t be happier. They’re excited about it. This was an idea that came about, and to be honest, I wish I could credit where it happened — I’m sure it was somewhere between marketing and publicity and BermanBraun and our tech savy group that were working with at DC Comics. I thought the idea was terrific and supported it whole-heartedly and thought it was a really cool and innovative way to get us out there. Now I just have to get my own iPad! I have to borrow my wife’s, which is in my son’s clutches, so it’s something I can never get my hands on! It’s a great way to bring attention to the first hour.
Let’s talk about the development of the comic. It’s running on NBC.com. Who is working on it? Do you have guest artists coming in?
We have a brilliant Alex Maleev cover and John Cassaday cover. We have a brilliant Alex Ross cover. The interior art is by Michael Gaydos, who I just love from “Alias” and who just matched tonally and captured brilliantly this different world of The Cape. “The Cape” that Trip Faraday reads in the comic that he and his dad read each night. To see that come to life was really fun. I write it with one of my writers, Robbie Thompson, with him doing a bulk of the work. We have just had a ball coming up with the world and the new mythology and a whole new group of villains and a tragic origin story for [the comic version of] The Cape. We also have named the author as a character who may or may not appear down the line in the actual series itself. So, people who read “The Cape” comic may find clues to events that take place in our real Cape world.
This may be getting ahead of things, but are there any plans for printed copies of those comics and for action figures at this point?
Well, I’m a somewhat obsessive and crazy action figure person. My office gets a little out of hand. Having had a son, my really treasured collection got really trashed! So, I’m so ready for Cape action figures and would be first in line. I have had many conversations and they’re like, “Well, the show needs to get going and it needs to be a success.” I’m just saying that they need to come to me first because I have some recommendations. My prayers are out for that.
As far as the comic itself, we wanted to do it right. We didn’t want to rush out a comic every week. We’re doing, basically, 10-12 pages a month with Michael Gaydos doing each comic so that there’s a consistency to the look. Ideally, new cover artists, so we can keep that look going. So, once those are all put together and collected, it’ll feel like a visually complete collection. So, I would hope — knock on wood — that we will see that sometime in 2011 before the end of summer, but I don’t know for sure when that would happen.
This may be a tough question for you to answer. The TV landscape is a difficult one to navigate, as you very well know. Success on television is measured from a variety of angles, from total audience/rating share, compared against the budget of the show, whether or not it’s profitable, advertisers, what kind of audience you’re pulling in, etc. Shows like, “The Cape,” genre programs where you’re dealing with a fantasy world that isn’t based on something that came before, have had a tough time on TV. Not an impossible time, but it has historically been a challenge going back to “Star Trek.” My question to you is, what is considered successful for this show? What needs to be accomplished for this show to stick around?
That’s a great question, and to tell you the truth, I don’t even know the answer. I’m sure that answer exists somewhere in the brain trust of NBC, what they would need it to do for it to be considered a hit or a success. It’s a big show and my measurement of success simply has to do with how these episodes are turning out. How is this story getting told? Am I taking full advantage of this great set of collaborators? Am I giving them the best stories to tell? So far, I feel like we are hitting the rails, we are defining the world, but it is no question that it’s a high risk/high reward kind of proposition. I love the idea of, if we can pull this off, then we’ve pulled off something that is very hard to do, and that’s really gratifying. The experience so far has been ridiculously rewarding and has been a dream come true. So, I’m fine either way, but I think we’re in a really good place and I simply can’t have asked for more from NBC in terms of creative freedom, support for the vision of the show and getting out there. They’ve “Caped” every statue in New York City — I don’t know if you’ve seen that. That’s going the extra mile, right there. It’s been a fun ride so far and I see no let up yet.
This is my final question, and it’s a bit of a silly one, so bear with me here. As comic fans, we all have our favorite characters we like to champion, so I want to know, who is your favorite character thus far in “The Cape?”
That’s just mean! There are characters that are really fun to write and they all bring their different rewards. Max is really fun to write. Scales is becoming really fun to write, just because it’s such a different voice on TV, such a specific voice. The Cape himself has some great lines and such a great emotional story, but Scales — you get so many different avenues that you can approach with that guy. I’m hoping he’s a fan favorite. He’s certainly a show favorite. The lucky part of this is that we have the luxury of great talent and characters.
“The Cape” airs on NBC Monday nights at 9:00 PM Eastern/Pacific/