Baltazar & Franco Assemble "Young Justice"

Over the past three years, fans of DC Comics young and old have come to know the ubiquitous call of "Aww Yeah!" that frequently comes out of the mouths of creative partners Art Baltazar and Franco as well as their many kids comics characters. With both creators scripting and Baltazar drawing the adventures of the "Tiny Titans," the pair have left a big impression on DC's kid-friendly Johnny DC line, not only with their signature take on the Teen Titans characters but also writing the ongoing adventures of "Billy Batson And The Magic of Shazam!" This week, Baltazar and Franco add a new series to their DC kids canon, and a new challenge as well, as they pick up scripting duties on "Young Justice"-- the tie-in comic to Cartoon Network's latest DC adaptation.

Focusing on the black ops team of teen heroes recruited by the Justice League, the "Young Justice" comic (drawn by "Shazam!" artist Mike Norton) is more than stories told within the world of the sophisticated action cartoon. With a tight continuity in the cable series episodes assigning each new adventure a specific date and time stamp, the "Young Justice" comic fits in between episodes to reveal hidden secrets about the cast that includes Robin, Superboy and Kid Flash. Meanwhile, Baltazar is also expanding his kids comics presence by illustrating six new "DC Super-Pets" picture books published by Capstone's Picture Window Books featuring the adventures of superhero pets like Krypto the Superdog and Ace the Bat-hound.

CBR News reached out to Baltazar and Franco about their launch of "Young Justice" and how tying into the TV show so closely has allowed them to play with some of their favorite DC characters while expanding their audience. The pair revealed some key clues to the series big mystery and explain how younger comics fans with pets of their own can get their animal drawn into an upcoming "Super-Pets" book.

CBR News: The one thing that jumped out to me when I'd heard you two would be writing this book is, it's a bit of a change from what most folks know you from. We all know that you follow the core DC Universe books, as you lampoon things like "Blackest Night" or what have you in "Tiny Titans," but "Young Justice" seems to be the first project you've done at DC that skews older. Was there a learning curve at all in preparing for this?

Art Baltazar: Well, it's its own universe so we had to read a lot and talk with the guys who write the show to make sure we're all on the same page as far as the characters and the universe go. That's a little different from when we were writing "Shazam!"

Franco: And I think a lot of people forget that we did a lot of stuff before we were at DC. And we did more adult-skewing stuff as well as kid stuff before. So we'd written all kinds of stuff before jumping onto "Tiny Titans" and "Billy Batson." We've handled all audiences, so to speak.

In terms of matching the world of the show, I know each episode carries a date and time stamp with a very specific timeline set up. The #0 issue of the "Young Justice" comic by producers Greg Weisman and Kevin Hopps matched this format, fitting right between episodes of the show. Is that something you're doing as well?

Franco: Yeah! We've been working with them constantly on everything. If you've seen the first two episodes -- or the one-hour episode that was later split into two, I should say -- our story picks up immediately after that. We've got all the time stamps and are fully immersed in the continuity.

Baltazar: The first issue we have kind of takes place between scenes of the episodes on TV. Our comic almost fills in the blanks of what you don't see on the show. It's pretty cool that it's in continuity with the show. If you don't see the show, you'll still get it, but if you've seen the show, this is like an extra, behind-the-scenes stories. Like when you watch a DVD extra of a deleted scene and go, "Man! Why didn't they put that in the movie?" Our series is like that. We're writing really closely to the episodes, and we're anxious, too, because when we write an issue, we'll know it fits between episode four and five or whatever. And then we're real excited when the show comes on on Friday. Everything shuts down in my house, and everybody's around the TV. We're just waiting to see the show just so we can see what it sparks and what we can write about it. That's pretty fun.

What's been the element of the show you've tapped into the most? I know there's the black ops hook to the Young Justice team, but there's also a lot of characters getting introduced to this world for the first time. Is there one thing you gravitate towards?

Baltazar: For me, it's that I've always been a Teen Titans fan. Now, making this after "Tiny Titans," it's almost like we get to do the same characters we've been writing for years, but it's just a different version. You still have Robin and Kid Flash and Aqualad -- well, he's a different guy, but they're all the Teen Titans to me. It's kind of the same.

Franco:It's fully immersed in the DC continuity. The appeal for me is just to tell really exciting stories. A book like this, to me, is going to open us up to an even bigger audience. Maybe not as many people have picked up "Billy Batson," but with the TV show as a draw, they'll be picking this up. It gets our stories out there, and it's something we've always wanted to do.

Baltazar: Plus, we get to write the Justice League guys. When Mike Norton turns in his pages and we've written Superman on there, he'll say "You must view this page with the John Williams theme music." [Laughter]

In the first issue, you jump right into the establishment of the team at Happy Harbor, focusing particularly on Superboy and Ms. Martian. Did you focus on those two because they were the "newbies" to this world?

Baltazar: The show guys are kind of guiding us into what characters to write. Since we have to fit our stories to the episodes, the characters available at that time were Superboy and Ms. Martian.

Franco: It fits in because the show is so continuity-driven, because of the time stamps, that our issues take place immediately after those first two shows. The only people who wind up living in the cave are Superboy and Ms. Martian, so it was only natural to focus on them and their relationship as they got used to living where they live. If you've seen the episodes that are out there now, Robin goes back to Gotham, Kid Flash goes home -- you saw his family life in the #0 issue -- and Aqualad goes back and forth to Atlantis. So we've only got two living full time at the cave, and we wanted to show that and give a little bit more back story on Superboy himself. There are some things that you find out in our first two issues that come up again later on. There are things he says in episodes of the show where you'll go, "Oh, wait! Did he just say what I think he said? I remember that from the comic book." If you don't read the comic book, it's a throwaway line, but if you do read it, it adds so much.

Baltazar: I cheered out loud in the last episode!

Franco: I did too! [Laughter] It was like, "I know why he said that!"

Baltazar: It's kind of weird. We write this stuff, and then as we're watching the show, we go, "We just wrote about that." We haven't seen all the shows yet.

Franco: We've read the scripts, so we know when things are going to happen, but seeing it is something different.

Baltazar: It's been really cool, and so far Superboy and Robin have become my favorite [characters]. Superboy, and the take on him compared to what we see in the regular DC Comics. In this one, you much more get the feeling that he is Superman. We know he's a clone of Superman, but just the way he's drawn in the show and Superman's drawn in the show gives them the same eyes and facial structure. I really dig the way Superboy is portrayed.

The cover to issue #2 reveals that you're bringing in the Joker as well. Sometimes we see that in the animated world, certain characters are left out but they get used in the comic versions pretty easily. Have you found that to be the case here?

Franco: Again, working with the producers, we'll say, "How about we use this guy?" and they'll say, "Well, no because this is what we have going on with him later," or, "Yes, but make sure you have him do this." So everybody you see in the comic will show up in the show at one point or another. The Joker is really there because he is a big part of what happened to the Justice League in the past. He's going to show up in the show eventually, and they wanted us to establish certain things about him.

Baltazar: Yeah, we submitted a lot of characters, and if we can't use them because of plans in the show, we have to keep moving around. But the Joker is actually one of the guys we submitted where they liked the idea, and we all worked together on that story.

Is there any character you've been chomping at the bit to write for a while and now you're getting to use them in this book?

Franco: I think the answer to that for both of us is, "Yes," because they've all shown up so far. In the span of all our books, we've gotten to write who we want to, but here the entire Justice League is in there...heck, the entire DC Universe is in there! We've been really lucky.

Baltazar: Yeah, it's been a lot of fun. I still want to put Bizarro in there somewhere. We're trying to fit him in right now. I really like the "Super Friends" villains -- you know, the Legion of Doom. So, so far we've been throwing Solomon Grundy and Bizarro at them for every issue. And they know that by the time it's time for us to write the next issue, and they go, "Who do you want for villains?" we'll go, "Solomon Grundy and Bizarro." And they're like, "It's the same thing we told you last time." [Laughter]

On the opposite end of what you do, Art, you just had a run of picture books you illustrated that came out focusing on DC's "Super-Pets." Did this gig grow out of "Tiny Titans"?

Baltazar: I got the Super-Pets job just from the things I've done in the past. I did some "Tiny Titans" storybooks published by Penguin, and I was told by different people that they sold really well. So when Franco and I went to visit DC, we were just hanging out, and I showed one of my editors my Super-Pet drawings. It was just like, "Hey, check this out!" And then a week later I got a call saying, "We're going to do a Super Pets series." I was like "What?" [Laughs] I wasn't really pitching anything. I was just hanging out, showing people some drawings.

But when we started talking about the series, I gave the characters to them the way I draw them in "Tiny Titans." That's just the stories I create and the way I draw. They wanted to make the Super-Pets a bit older, like teenagers, because in "Tiny Titans," Krypto is just a puppy, and Ace is a puppy. So now, this is kind of like the Super-Pets being in the same universe as the Tiny Titans, but this is ten years later. [Laughter] That's the way I designed the characters, so if you see Robin or Aqualad in those books, they'll be a bit older, but they'll be the Tiny Titans' Robin and Aqualad. But it all just happened that way, and I got the call from DC that I'd be working with Capstone and the different writers they'd put on the books. It's been exciting because I never know what kind of script I'm going to get.

But the coolest part about this was that I got to go and research all the DC animal characters, and I'm redesigning everybody -- every pet in the DC Universe. I created a bunch of Green Lantern pets and Sinestro pets. It's cool. It's cool when I get an e-mail saying, "We need a black panther and a Reverse Flash." I'm like, "Wow!" [Laughter] It's pretty cool to get my own versions of the superheroes, too. I did a Superman and a Captain Marvel and Aquaman. I'm working on more right now too. I'm doing a Krypto one, and I just finished Comet the Super Horse. Hoppy the Shazam bunny is coming out in this wave too.

And I hear that part of this next wave of books involves a contest where kids send you pics of their own pets to be included. How's that working out?

Baltazar: Yeah! The contest is for the best story explaining "Why My Pet Is Super" and the winner I draw with their pet in the story. [Laughs] I don't know where it stands right now, but I know they're coming.

People talk all the time about how we need more kids comics, but it really seems like over the past few years, your work has been embraced by DC as a publisher, as well as by a significant segment of the audience. I'm always seeing kids standing around your table at cons. What's your take on getting comics into the hands of kids? What kind of work is there left to do?

Baltazar: I think the biggest difference is that when we were kids, you could buy comics at a lot of places. I used to get them in a deli. They had them at grocery stores, drug stores, comic shops and magazine racks. Now, there's only comic shops, pretty much. It's not that kids don't like comics -- that's why conventions are so successful. They're packed with kids. It's just that it's harder for kids to get comics now. Finding them is tougher. Or I should say there's less places. I know that I wouldn't let my kids go wandering around the neighborhood looking for comics, so I know times have changed, too.

But as far as kids liking comics, they still love them! I take my kids to the shop now, and I let them roam free. I let them pick what they want and don't try to influence them. I want to see what they want. My daughter always picks the ones with the girls, and she always like Veronica and Betty. But my son, the last two months he's been buying "Jurassic Park" -- and there's swearing in the last one! [Laughs] They say the "S" word, and he's going, "Can I buy it? Can I buy it?" and I said, "Yeah...you're going to read this?" So I know kids like comics, and he wants that one because it's got dinosaurs. He's showing me "Daddy, look! The dinosaur ate this guy's eye, so now he's a zombie!" [Laughter]

Franco: I think it's predisposed in that the kids can pick up a comic and know immediately what to do. We've had people come up to us at conventions, and even kids that can't read yet will pick up "Tiny Titans" because the way Art draws is viewer friendly to anybody -- kids, adults, anybody. But really for kids who can't read, Art's work is so easy to follow panel-to-panel that they'll just follow it along. There's something that they're immediately drawn to and can be immersed in. We do conventions all over the country, and we get waves and waves of kids who love the book. I think if it were available in a lot more places, or if there weren't so many preconceived notions outside the comics industry that "Comics are for adults now" or whatever, then comics would be a lot more widespread.

Baltazar: It's interesting, because when I meet a lot of normal people -- I mean, people who aren't in the comics industry. [Laughter] For instance, I was at a comic shop one time for a signing, and at 5:30 the place turned into a wine tasting. So as we're doing our signing, this guy came in and set up a wine rack because the shop was in a downtown community where all the businesses had different wines out. So these "normal people" started lining up, and they were like, "What are you doing here?" I said, "This is my comic book," and a bunch of people one after the other said, "They still make comic books?!?" [Laughter] That was the impression I got from there. I had to explain to them, "Where do you think Batman and Superman and X-Men and all those movies came from? They came from comics." And the people said, "Yeah, we remember those." So it's different when regular mainstream people see this stuff. The same thing too when I took my parents to see the Ang Lee "Hulk," my dad wanted to know why they didn't use Lou Ferrigno. [Laughs] He kept telling me the Hulk looked too big and asked where Jack McGee was. So the difference between not knowing comics exists and us is the same thing as my dad's version of the Hulk and ours. It's like two different American cultures.

"Young Justice" #1 is on sale now from DC Comics. For more on the "Why My Pet is Super" contest, go to the Capstone Publishing website

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