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CCI: Jeff Katz’s American Original

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
CCI: Jeff Katz’s American Original

One running comment amongst attendees at last weekend’s Comic-Con International in San Diego was the way studio executive and comics writer Jeff Katz seemed able to show up at any panel over the course of the show and drop a quote or two about comics and movies that would turn heads and rile up the audiences. So it should come as no surprise that Katz’s own American Original panel played out more like an old timey revival than a standard comics conversation when it hit the stage last Saturday afternoon. Giving new details on projects he previously announced this summer and dropping word on a large slate of new series, ideas and business deals, Katz and a wide range of creative talent pushed the limit on their one-hour panel with never a lack of something to talk about.

“As much as we comic fans want to deny it, the entertainment industry and the comic book industry are symbiotic businesses,” the executive declared at the start of the American Original panel. “They need each other to survive, quite frankly. That’s why all the Hollywood folks are down here. Look around you. Half these guys are here for one reason, and that’s survival. The truth is that 85% of the people that come down here from Hollywood are totally full of shit. They don’t like this stuff. The fact of the matter is that they are here because this is the place to find what’s known as ‘pre-awareness material.’ And pre-awareness material is the only game in town.

“In terms of the comics people, they’re facing a shrinking marketplace, and they have to live or die on their ability to license their properties to film and merchandising - to have it made and made well. Even then, when successful, most publishers are now left as passive partners. They don’t really control their own fate and are often given lip service if anything at all, despite a lot of the innate Hollywood ramblings you’ll here at panels like this. A lot of the guys go on about ‘I love this stuff,’ but it’s all horse shit, guys. They like getting their movies made. They like keeping their profits up, and the reality is what the comic companies are starting to realize is that these businesses have to evolve.”

For Katz, that evolution comes in the American Original two-fold business plan of creating new kinds of content not currently seen in the comics community and by paying the creators a heavy percentage of profits from all media products derived from their ideas.

Launching into an astonishingly long list of projects on slate for the fledgling company, Katz started with the independent New Zealand kids comic “Blastosaurs.” “I find kids to be a very underserved market. Kids aren’t reading comics today, and part of that frankly is that we’ve priced ourselves out of that audience,” he said, introducing the art of 24-year-old legally blind cartoonist Richard Fairgray. Katz then revealed the new detail that artist Darick Robertson would draw covers for the “Blastosaurus” American launch. “Who better to draw a kids comic than the guy that draws ‘The Boys?'”

Robertson took the stage, telling the audience, “I had met Richard completely disconnected from this,” and said he’d already bought a Blastosaurus T-Shirt. “My first book when I started my career was called ‘Space Beaver.’ It was very similar, and it just came from a passion for publishing and doing my own stories and art. So I have a great deal of respect for what Richard’s already accomplished, getting this far with such a great idea, and the love that he has for his property clearly shows when you’re reading it. It’s charming and original.”

Katz then showed the first pieces of art from his own “Vengeance Is Mine” - a comic book series that mixes horror films and British revenge movies with artist Thomas Nachlik. “It should be a pretty unique one, and obviously this guy’s something of a sadist cutting off demon’s nuts and heads,” laughed Katz, looking at the pages of his hard-boiled protagonist descending into the literal underworld.

Crime and drama took a different turn in the discussion of the already announced “Daybreak” by screenwriter Gary Whitta and comics scribe Brian Lynch. Both creators came to the mic to explain how they wanted to create a new anti-hero to take movie storytelling back to its more aggressive roots. “‘Daybreak’ was originally something I came up with as a response to the sense that I got in the last few years that action heroes in movies and comics had become very pussified,” said Whitta. “We wanted to create an ultimate bad ass anti-hero and came up with a character that conforms to old school John Carpenter grindhouse vibe, and we threw him into a prison. We turned it into a prison break movie, but it’s not really like any prison break story you’ve ever seen for reasons that’ll become apparent when you read the comic.”

“The character would do everything that I’m afraid to do,” Lynch added.

Art for “Daybreak” comes from “Secret Invasion: Frontline” artist Marco Castiello.

Concept art for “The Galaxy Project”

Moving on to new business, Katz spoke of his ambitious plan for the science fiction corner of comics. “I love the Alien, I love the Predator, but the fact of the matter is I’m 30-years old and I’d kind of like to move on.” Katz revealed he’s working with Alec Gillis & Tom Woodruff - the acclaimed creature makers behind hits like “Tremors” and “Starship Troopers.” “What I’m doing with these guys is pretty cool. We’ve codenamed it ‘The Galaxy Project’ although that name may change. Basically what we’re going to set out to do is create a brand new sci-fi galaxy to allow writers to come and explore every angle of sci-fi they want with these two Academy Award-winners winners doing all the creature design and conceptual work. The fun of this is that we’re working with a bunch of young and very talented science fiction Hollywood screenwriters and a couple of comic guys who are putting this together as we speak, to build out the mythology of this universe.”

Some of the biggest names spoken of at the panel had very little to do with traditional comics or movie projects, such as those involved with “The Comedy Death-Ray Anthology.” “One things people liked about [‘Booster Gold’] was that it was funny, and to be honest with you, I don’t think DC ever fully got that it was a big part of the appeal. Ultimately, that stuck with me,” Katz said of the genesis of the four-issue series edited by Comedy Death-Ray creator Scott Aukerman, who spoke with CBR about the project last week.

Aukerman and comedian Paul Scheer then performed a quick bit on other comic ideas they were running past Katz, including a mash-up series called “Trontourage” in which “Bruce Boxleitner and Jeff Bridges talk about banging computer-generated chicks” and an American Original scent called Manchovies for Men. The pair then announced the initial lineup of big name comedians who would contribute stories to the series including Scheer, “Mr. Show” creators David Cross & Bob Odenkirk (who will be working separately at first and maybe together later), Paul F. Tompkins, B.J. Novak, Janeane Garofalo, Fred Armisen, Brian Posehn, Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, and a special comics team-up between Sarah Silverman and Rob Schrab, who will draw a new story based on ideas from the star of the Comedy Central series he writes and produces.

When the laughter died down, Katz moved on to another brand new project, a response to the mistakes often made in Hollywood and comics. “We get told the ‘urban’ or black market doesn’t work in comics, and then I walk into my comic store and it’s 50% black guys. So as such, I’m going heavily after this space, and Marc Bernardin is going to be intimately involved with us,” Katz said before bringing the “Highwaymen” writer on stage.

Bernardin cited his Top Cow Pilot Season-winning “Genius” as further evidence that comics with black characters can work and be popular. “So Jeff came to me with a project we can’t say yet, but it sounded like an urban street-level thriller kind of like if you took Richard Stark’s Parker books and made it into something more like Shaft.” Katz promised more series in the same vein moving forward.

Later, Katz dropped word that writer Tim Simmons of Zuda Comics’ “Spy6teen” would create “a book best described as every major god from every major culture ever throwing down in the biblical battle royale to end all biblical battle royales.” Also, a new American Original thriller series is in the works from writer Steve Alten, the man behind the “MEG” book series. Katz also teased another line of books by Academy Award-winning screenwriters.

Attention shifted then to the big screen as Katz debuted a DVD of wrestling promoter Paul Heyman, who bombastically announced a comics series that would dig into the world of New York street life a la “The Warriors” from an actual Subway tunnel on Manhattan’s 6 line.

Perhaps the biggest news of the panel came when Katz dropped word of American Original’s first feature film project. “I’ve been very patient in waiting before I named what the first movie project we’d be doing with American Original is. I looked around and the project I wanted to push to the front was something that was very important to me and personal to me. It’s a movie that I think is of the moment and of today and is frankly important,” he said before announcing he’d help make the acclaimed documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” about the abuse of steroids in the sports world into a feature film.

Written by the documentary’s director Chris Bell with Jason Dolan, the film will differ from the doc. “There’s a lot of things, when you’re making a documentary, that you can’t explore,” Bell explained. “Especially if you’re talking about the use of drugs and things that are illegal, there are a lot of things you can’t shoot and get access to. We’re looking forward to make it happen.”

American Original’s first foray into animation will be with adult-oriented studio Titmouse, Inc. – the studio behind “G.I. Joe Resolute” amongst other series - and Katz brought Keith Fay and Chris Prynoski from the company on stage. Prynoski said, “We’re going to be doing some movies. We’re going to be doing some cartoons. And we’re going to be doing some cartoon movies. I said let’s make a movie together, he said let’s make four movies together, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

Katz added the first project would be “the most twisted empowerment movie in the history of mankind. I promise you, the wait will be worth it.”

Later, LongBox founder Rantz Hoseley restated the commitment American Original has made to expanding comics into the digital arena through the downloadable comics startup, which you can read more on here on CBR.

After that, Katz announced the first two partners in his American Original branding unit: G4 TV host Blair Butler and “TNA Wrestling.”

“What we’re doing with American Original Branding under the leadership of Rich Marincic, who we just hired over from Platinum [Studios], is helping companies operate in the genre space effectively with the authenticity and credibility that is necessary,” Katz explained. The unit will also represent Fairgray and writer Chris Monfette. “The deal is, the days of the one girl in the comic book store are over. That’s a myth. There are a lot of girls in the comic book store now, and they’re not just in the store. They’re writing comics. They’re drawing comics. And they’re reading comics. This genre is not a foreign substance to ladies. We like reading it, we like seeing it, and there’s got to be more of it done the right way.”

As for the “TNA” deal, Katz spoke personally of his connection to wrestling, noting that he got his start in entertainment as a teenager working for WCW. “I’ve watched over the past decade-plus as my Hollywood career did well and the wrestling business cratered. I try to help [wrestling] where I can because I know I owe so much of my career to it. And I’ve always waited as to when I might go back in and take a shot and try to really help the business again. And so I look at ‘TNA’ and see an undervalued property. It’s not a perfect property – nothing is – but the upside is clear. I think this is a group on the rise, and hopefully I can be good for ‘TNA’ and ‘TNA’ can be good for me.”

Wrestlers Chris Daniels and the Motor City Machine Guns appeared with Katz, expressing a desire to continue wrestling in the traditional vein with athleticism and realism.

Katz wrapped the panel by announcing that well known comics fan Eddie Argos and his acclaimed punk band Art Brut would be penning an “official nerd machine fight song” for the American Original company.

For more on American Original, check back to CBR in the coming days for a chat with “Blastosaurus” creator Richard Fairgray.

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