A quick perusal of the CBR Forums will prove that, in no uncertain terms, comic books fans rarely agree about anything; from writing to art to story direction, there’s almost no topic on which you’ll find a strong positive feeling from the majority. Almost. Enter “Justice League Unlimited,” Cartoon Network’s animated series featuring DC’s biggest heroes, evolving from the “Justice League” series. The new “JLU” has garnered both critical and fan acclaim, with every episode inspiring pages upon pages of praises heaped upon the series and its creative team. With the new season premiering on Cartoon Network for an entire hour on September 17th, CBR News caught up with the series Producer and Story Editor, Dwayne McDuffie, who explained the genesis of taking “Justice League” and making it “Unlimited.”
“Well, it developed into something very different than we thought it was going to be. Initially we saw it as a disguised anthology, with J’onn, the Watchtower and the concept of Justice League being the main things the shows had in common,” McDuffie explained to CBR News. “Our mandate was simply to tell really good stories with very small groups of characters, usually featuring one or two of the new guys. As we were saying early on, one week we’d tell the best Booster Gold story we can, the next week the best Hawk and Dove story. But as the stories developed (particularly Stan Berkowitz and Bob Goodman’s ‘Fearful Symmetry’), we realized we had the makings of what would become the ‘Cadmus arc,’ a huge story that could span two seasons, a story that would have been impossible to tell in the old ‘Justice League’ format.”
Of particular note to fans is the tenor of the show, with the approach to the characters and the fantastic nature of their powers striking a chord with long time fans. Many have commented that there’s a lot of reverence for the material and that the stories seem to be inspired by the classics, but McDuffie says there isn’t any single inspiration for the show. “Obviously the source material and Bruce Timm’s vision for the show are the primary creative streams feeding the show. But the creative team has many and varied interests and passions that they bring to the work. Bruce loves old Marvel Comics, James Bond and Buffy. James Tucker loves old DC Comics and a startlingly wide array of movies. Stan Berkowitz and I each brought our own set of influences to the pot. The series directors Dan Riba and Joaquim Dos Santos do the same. Then we all fight to the death to see who gets their way.
“Okay, actually, we work to develop shows that we’re all excited about, but the fight to the death thing sounded more exciting, didn’t it?”
Unlike many of the current comic books featuring characters in “JLU,” the animated series seems to have a universal love from fans, but McDuffie says there are some dissenters. “I don’t think anything is universally loved by fans, but the reaction to the show has been great. It strikes a chord with the fans because of the respect it shows to the source material. We have the luxury of cherry-picking the best elements of over 60 years of stories from the comics. I think the fans realize we love these characters as much as they do and they generally trust us to do right by them.”
In addition to the plethora of new characters introduced in the past two season of “JLU,” such as Shining Knight and Vigilante, there have been changes in the length of stories (more single episode tales instead of hour long epics), there are now more overarching plots and continuity has been tightened. With this, and the positive response from fans in mind, one has to wonder if McDuffie and Co might have approached the early “JL” seasons differently. “There are things I’m sure we would do differently if we knew then what we know now, but the reason we know is because we have the experience, so yes, it’s all part of the learning curve.”
Most people know that McDuffie produces and story edits “JLU,” but few seem to know what that job entails, information that the scribe is happy to provide. “I help develop stories with Bruce, James and story editor Matt Wayne. I help choose writers to work on the stories. I boil down everyone’s notes on the scripts (each script is read and commented on at every stage by all of the producers, the story editors, Cartoon Network and occasionally Warner Bros. executives, DC Comics and Broadcast Standards) and communicate them to the writers. When necessary, I punch up or even rewrite scripts, either to bring them closer to our show’s ‘voice’ or to include new bits that the producers come up with too late for the original writer to have time to include in a rewrite.”
Long time comic book fans are no doubt used to seeing McDuffie’s name in print, especially in the nineties when he helped launch Milestone Comics, a comic book imprint focused on bringing minority heroes to the forefront and appeared in other mediums, such as adorning the walls of Will Smith’s pool house in “Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.” From Milestone came Static, star of “Static Shock,” which featured the Justice League as guest stars, and came Static’s surprise guest appearance in the latest season of “JLU.” But if you’re expecting to see Hardware, Icon or other Milestone heroes in “JLU,” don’t hold your breath, cautions McDuffie. “Probably not. Bruce Timm came up with that idea and I was thrilled at the chance to use Static on the show, but we’ve already got plenty of DC Universe characters to service, so it was pretty much a one-time thing. That said, I’m always looking for ways to get the old Milestone characters out there, and Static is extremely popular so you know, never say never.”
This year, fans were delighted with spotlight episodes focusing on Booster Gold, Amazo, Hawkgirl and other characters who hadn’t seen much spotlight. Expect this upcoming season to introduce more characters and when asked about the debuts, McDuffie laughs says, “I stink at this, let me try. We’re doing some spotlight episodes this year. Stargirl and Stripe, Fire and Carter Hall will all get some serious airtime. Warlord, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, Deadman and the Legion of Superheroes will each get episodes.” McDuffie noted that in addition to those he’s already listed, more characters will also receive the spotlight.
One thing that no one has forgotten is the season two finale, released on DVD as “Starcrossed,” where JL member Hawkgirl was revealed as a traitor and helped an invasion force conquer Earth. The story resonated with many fans, but some wondered if younger fans, who often idolize these fictional heroes, would be put off by this event and there was comparison to the Terra storyline in “Teen Titans,” which would soon appear on the cartoon of the same name. “The GL and Shayera’s romance and Hawkgirl’s betrayal were planned a year before I even came on staff,” explained McDuffie. “I don’t think Teen Titans even existed yet. So nobody was thinking about the reaction to Terra. I don’t remember any serious discussion about negative reaction to the story line. We were pretty confident that we would get a big emotional reaction to the story, but we all thought that was a good thing.”
With the previous two seasons of “Justice League Unlimited” feeling darker in tone and presented more tightly woven stories (through a series of ongoing subplots), the series gained credibility with older fans and concerns about the series being too grown up for children are off base, contends McDuffie. “While we have a solid and much beloved adult fanbase, ‘JLU’ does great numbers with kids, about the same as ‘Teen Titans.’ I think that parents should monitor what their children watch; nobody knows better than a parent what’s appropriate for any particular kid. The good news is that there have never been more choices for children than there are right now.”
Season Five of DC’s big super-hero show harkens back to the classic “Super Friends” show, as a Legion of Dooms supervillain team will debut this fall, with Grodd and Luthor providing some of the impetus for this group. “It’s a super-sized Legion to match the super-sized League. You’ll see almost every foe that the league has ever faced, plus a number of classic DC villains who have never had the animated treatment. ‘Super Friends’ is an inspiration, but the tone of the show is pure ‘Justice League Unlimited.'”
As successful as McDuffie was in the realm of comic books, it would seem that he has eclipsed that success with his work on “JLU” and “Static Shock,” for a simple reason, according to McDuffie. “In animation, I was given a chance.”
Comic books have been trying to appeal to children for the last decade, a time in which the medium has lost a lot of readers, and to some, “JLU” represents the breakthrough project that is bringing children– and adults– back to their childhood heroes. It wouldn’t seem unreasonable to wonder if super hero comic book publishers could learn from the success of “JLU,” but McDuffie highlights the differences between the two. “Animation and comics are very different animals. Comics have a very specific readership, as opposed to TV’s more casual and less fanatic audience. They also have the problem of keeping dozens of titles running simultaneously. I think a lot of the stuff we do best on the cartoon isn’t possible in a shared universe of monthly titles.”
As you might have guessed, working on “JLU” has been a great experience for McDuffie and when asked about the highlights, he’s not quite sure where to start. “Way too many to list and I’m sure I’ll think of more three seconds after I mail this off but… I love Batman privately showing his respect at Superman’s memorial. Any scene with Phil LaMarr and Maria Canals as Green Lantern and Hawkgirl. The people of Covenant, New Mexico going about their day, moments before the JL BFG destroyed the city. Flash explaining what superheroes do. The Question humming the pop song to himself as he ‘stealthily’ breaks into a building. Static trying to convince Green Lantern that Hawkgirl laid an egg. Aquaman cutting off his hand to save his child. Batman telling everyone what their secret identities are. Seriously, I can do this all day…
“My favorite character to write remains Shayera.”
For the Justice League faithful, who have supported the series through two incarnations and its four year adventure, McDuffie says, “Thanks for watching and reading, and stick around, the best is yet to come.”
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