It was back in 2006 that writer/director Chris Folino first met William Katt (of "Greatest American Hero" fame) while working on the film "Gamers." That collaboration sowed the seeds of Catastrophic Comics, a joint venture between Folino and Katt that launched in June of 2008 with a comic book called "Sparks." Catastrophic went on to produce a "Greatest American Hero" title, and reunited many of the classic TV series' cast for a panel discussion at Comic-Con International in San Diego last July. Among those in attendance was Katt's "Greatest American Hero" co-star Michael Pare.
When co-creators Folino and Katt elected to stop printing "Sparks" and resurrect the project as a motion comic exclusively for the iPhone and iTouch, Pare was the first person they thought of to voice the titular Ian Sparks.
CBR News caught up with Chris Folino, William Katt and Michael Pare to get all the details on the project.
CBR: Chris, you and William Katt first met while working together on "Gamers." Tell us about the genesis of Catastophic Comics.
Chris Folino: We had dragged Bill down to Gen Con to promote "Gamers." He looked at me and goes, "You owe me your life." Because if Bill hadn't come down, we would have made no money whatsoever, he pretty much saved the day for us. When we sold the movie down there, we pretty much covered the entire cost of being down there. Everybody had this great time. It was my first taste of business, and Bill Katt said, "You are a stupid businessman and you owe me. Let's get together and let's talk about some cool ideas." So after "Gamers," we got together at least once a week, talked about doing some projects together. And a comic book company formed from that, Catastrophic. It was just Bill's passion since he was a little kid with a love of comic books.
William Katt: Since the time that Chris and I were both little kids, we loved telling lies and stories, so we decided that when we grew up, we'd become big liars, we'd put it all down in story form and get into the comic book industry.
CF: Like we're going to lie to you today.
CBR: What were some of the comics you read?
Michael Pare: I read mostly Marvel. I started out with "Fantastic Four," and then "The Avengers" and "The Incredible Hulk." Me and my brother used to pretend to be the incredible Hulk and Ben Grimm. But even though I was the Incredible Hulk, my brother, Ben Grimm, could still kick my ass. I couldn't understand why. Marvel Comics, they're kind of like the philosophers, from Plato and those guys, in that they have this incredible power. Instead of dominating the world, enslaving all of the lesser beings, they choose to be the guardians. It really was such a noble concept to have as a child. I thought superheroes really were a great service to this advanced civilization to America.
CF: I'm waiting for you to segue from Marvel to Catastrophic Comics, how Catastrophic Comics has transcended that for you, Mike, with "Sparks." I was waiting for that, because that's a hell of a plug for Marvel.
MP: Well, my character, Ian Sparks, it's not like Marvel -- it's a much darker, angrier guy. It's something that happened to him, it's not something he was seeking out. These really bad guys were responsible for killing my parents, and just as a byproduct, I got this power. So I'm really wreaking havoc and revenge on the people who killed my parents and cursed me with this gift.
CF: I'll never joke with you again, Mike, I'm sorry. Bill, what are you reading now?
WK: I really am a fan of "DMZ." I love any of the DC books I still read. But I tend to go for darker fare these days.
CF: I think my original influence, my best friend at the time, his brother collected everything that was Disney, so it was a bizarre introduction to Donald Duck and his little nephews and stuff. What I'm reading now, obviously "The Walking Dead." I like Stephen King's son [Joe Hill], he's good. "Desolation Jones," I like. I think I read too much [Ed] Brubaker. Warren Ellis is the man, by the way, just to go on record.
CBR: Tell us about the superhero noir thriller that is "Sparks."
CF: "Sparks" is set in 1948, and it basically tells the story of a masked vigilante who is trying to do his best to protect and save his area of the world. Unfortunately, unlike Batman, he's not a billionaire, and he's not that talented, so he's going to learn the price of ambition. It's more set in a realistic environment, if there was a normal person who had to endure these horrible hardships and try to do the right thing. But sometimes in life, you can't do the right thing. You have to make choices, you have to cross lines. That was always the most fascinating thing when Bill and I sat down and created the character.
We both come from more of a cinematic background, so one of the biggest problems we had with the comic book was our editor getting pissed off because, "There's no dialogue over three pages here!" I was like, "It's okay." Jim [Ringuet], the artist that we got, he did such a good job showing the story. A lot of comic books, 90% of them just hit you over the head, and they have to tell you constantly what's going on, what the character's thinking, what the story is. For us, "Sparks" is a cross between "Casablanca" and "Lost." You're never going to know what his powers are until the very end of the book.
CBR: Mike, you worked with Bill on "Greatest American Hero." How did you wind up getting cast for "Sparks?"
MP: I guess it was right around this past Thanksgiving, I got a call from Dennis Madalone, who was the stunt coordinator for "Greatest American Hero," and he said that Billy [Katt] was putting together a reunion of the principal cast. And I said, "Well, I want to see everybody." So they told me what it was all about, and we all did this panel, with Stephen Cannell, and told stories about our experiences on "Greatest American Hero." We became reacquainted.
And then I got a call either from Chris or from Billy. They had a comic, because they were going to do "Greatest American Hero" as a motion comic also. In "Greatest American Hero," I was one of the smaller supporting roles to Bill. When Bill was the lead and a teacher, I was just one of his problem students, he was teaching special ed, you know? So when they said, "We have another comic where you can be the lead," I said, "Well, that sounds like a lot of fun." And I had never done voiceovers before, so they had this guy Mike Bell, who's done years of voiceover, to help me figure out how to fucking do that. And then we recorded it again and they were very happy.
You know what actually happened, when they called and told me about "Sparks?" Chris came all the way up to where I live and met me at a Starbucks and gave me the magazines, and I read it, and I called him the next morning and I said, "Yeah, I'm in with this man."
CF: He left out an important element. Mike showed up with his son, Mike, who's 15, and he said, "Dad, this is cool, you got to do it." We owe it to his son that he did "Sparks."
CBR: How have you found voiceover work to be different from live-action?
MP: Well, it's a lot like doing ADR, which is automated dialogue replacement, when they fix dialogue in regular movies. But because they don't actually see you, it's more like doing radio. And Mike Bell explained that the dialogue you're doing is almost like whispering in somebody's ear, it's a very intimate situation, and the microphone is right there. You know, it's like the difference between theater, television, movie and voiceover. It's all closely related, but a slightly different twist because of the medium that it's released on.
CBR: Bill, are you going to voice any characters in "Sparks?"
WK: Yeah, I'm in "Sparks."
CF: He plays one of the main characters named Archer.
WK: I become the evil villain, one of the evil villains -- there's many in these story arcs -- but he's one of the main villains. We don't reveal that really in the first book, but as it progresses, we see that he becomes darker and darker.
CBR: Tell us a bit about the rest of the cast.
CF: Mike Bell, everyone grew up on his voice, from "Transformers" to "G.I. Joe" to "Superfriends."
WK: Unlike Michael, I have had the opportunity to do some animated stuff, and I met Michael [Bell] doing "Animaniacs" at Warner Bros.
MP: You did "Animaniacs?" Shoot, that's a great cartoon, man. "Hello, nurse!" Right, that's from "Animaniacs."
CF: Obviously, Bill was attached immediately, and after we got Mike Pare, we went down and talked to Mike Bell. It was very important that for this motion comic book that we were going to do everything right, that we were going to use SAG actors. Mike Bell's been just a great, tremendous champion and friend, and so he co-directed "Sparks" with me on this one, and he helped get Charlie Brill.
Jeez, man, Charlie Brill's been around. Charlie Brill's just got the most distinctive voice you've ever heard in your life, and he's cool as hell. And Kevin Sherwood I've known since high school, so he was a shoo-in. And Ashley Bell, she's on "United States of Tera," and she's a young, 23-year-old actress who had the good fortune of being Michel Bell's daughter, and she is just spot on, she did a fantastic job. I met Courney Taylor doing a video session for a Pixar "WALL-E" spot that I did when I was in the video game industry. She's just so sexy, she had a great voice, and she's a wonderful actress.
WK: Whatever game you've ever played, you hear her voice. She's one of those superhero actresses, either DC or Marvel.
CF: Marc Graue did a voice, he's now the voice of CNN. We have Scott Allen Rinker, you've seen the DirecTV commercials with Hellboy, he does the voice that pops in a little bit later on. I think I covered everybody. We have one special surprise voice that we're not going to reveal who it is until book three.
CBR: What kind of changes have you had to make in translating "Sparks" to a motion comic?
CF: I've seen about three [motion comics] on the web. I've seen the one Marvel did for "X-Men," and the "I Am Legend" one, and after we did "Sparks," I downloaded "Watchmen." But the thing for us was that, it's a new medium and it's a new experience. I come from a very video-game driven background, where polish means everything, and Bill came from the film industry, and we said to each other, "Look, this is a whole new medium, we can do whatever we want. We're not going to put little pop-up things for people to read, if they want to read the book, they can pick up the book and read it." This is going to be a whole new experience.
We actually changed dialogue around, so really it's just a second chance at making the book better, and that's really how I feel about it. I think the motion comic book, when you see it, the production value for the entire piece is outstanding, the animation that Sean Ruge does, to all the wonderfully talented cast, to the music...
WK: If I could interject very quickly, one of the things that worked very well in our favor was the fact that a lot of "Sparks" is narrated, so you're listening to Ian Sparks, his thoughts, and that really seemed to work for this media.
CF: Yeah, and Michael Pare's got one hell of a voice, I don't know what his brothers and sisters did beating him up as a child, but when you hear Mike's voice, it's so distinct, and you're like, "That's Ian Sparks." Listening to his outtakes keeps me warm at night.
MP: I agree that the narration was a great idea. Because even all the comics that we read today, the narration that you read tells the story. There's dialogue from the actors, that's gravy, but the real story is the narration.
CBR: Tell us about the style of animation you're using for "Sparks." How does it differ from motion comics that have come before?
CF: On this one, you can download history today. What we've done is, we've gone up against "Watchmen," followed them toe-to-toe on the animation when it made sense. We're not leaving scenes up there just because it's pretty art. Boom, we're chopping the hell out of this thing, and we're making it flow so the story's always king.
I think the biggest problem with the motion comic books so far is that one actor doing all the voices just ain't going to work. What you've got to do, you've got to treat this medium as what it is. It's new, it's energetic, it's the future, it's happening right now, and this is going to be such a wonderful opportunity, because with everything going on with Diamond increasing their benchmark for retail sales, and all the retailers being so scared that they're only going to carry the main staple stuff, you're just going to see a big shift and a big change.
And Apple doing this thing with the iPhone, allowing you to keep 70%, this is going to be a brand new day for the indie publisher, it's basically going to give people an opportunity to make money, to make art and make it the way they want to. And when you take a look at "Sparks," it is the first one on the iPhone, and it's second to none on the iPod touch. There's nothing that comes close to it in any way, shape or form, because we covered all the bases. And that's not an ego thing, it's just the damn truth.
And you know what, if you believe in comic books, and you want to support independent comic books, go get this application, go get inspired, go make your own, seriously. We're already talking to the other publishers because of this, we've lined up a lot of things, and this is also something that's going to affect the movie industry as well. The movie industry, unfortunately, the people who are reading scripts, it's a very visual medium. And doing a comic book, even a first issue on a motion comic book, you now have something to walk into a pitch meeting and go, "This is what it's going to look like, these are the actors I want to do the voices, and here we go." It's opening doors left and right.
WK: It elicits an emotional response immediately, and that's what you want.
CBR: How long is each episode?
CF: On average, the episodes are going to be seven to ten minutes, depending on each book. Each book's about 24 pages, but you're not just getting the motion comic book, you're also getting the original book too, which is like 68 pages when you put it into the Apple thing. And also, when we do book two, there's going to be some surprises that we have that are added that no one's done. It's already the first of its kind being put up there as a motion comic book, and also the regular artwork, but there's a few new things too when book two hits in a couple weeks that will raise the bar a little bit more.
CBR: Are you exploring additional distribution avenues beyond the iPhone and the iPod touch?
CF: I think the wonderful thing about the iPhone and the iPd touch right now is that we're not only reaching comic book fans. One of the biggest responses that we've gotten so far in the tests that we've done is to show it to somebody who loves books on tape, who's not a big comic book reader, and they're like, "Jesus, I've never liked comic books, but you know what, I'm definitely getting this application," because it's a new way to tell a story. When you have great material, and you can execute it with great actors and great sound effects and great programmers, it's going to win, it's going to live strong and long, and that's what we know with "Sparks."
"Sparks" never got a fair shake in print because the retailers were too scared to pick it up, they want a sure thing, and Diamond is not the way to go if you're an independent publisher, because unfortunately, there's a lot of money you have to pay to advertise your thing correctly. This way, you put it on the iPhone, get a better percentage, the money that you would have spent on printing can be used for advertising.
MP: You do intend to release it on iTunes, so you can access it on your home computer, right?
CF: You know, it would definitely be the road to go down, but at this particular point, between the iPhone and the iPd touch, you can become a developer for those a lot easier than you can for iTunes directly. So the road that we're going, it's the best one. But as soon as this thing hits and it grows, I'm sure Apple will be more than glad to open it up to the rest of the world. For everyone that does motion comic books, everyone can eventually get it onto their iPod, that's where the future's going to head.
I mean, TV's going to die very, very soon. If you're on a plane, you're going to have the ability to watch a movie, a TV show, listen to music, boom, there's going to be motion comic books, people are going to jump on this chance because the material's been there. People have the material in volumes.
It's a wonderful opportunity to really help out Hollywood. You can go get some great actors like we have here, be fair in profit sharing, and the wonderful thing is, everyone can look up the record on a daily basis to see how many downloads you're getting. Everyone has gotten so screwed by the movie industry with distribution, that, you know what, the best thing you can do in this day and age is just distribute your own thing, and be fair with everybody, and you're going to have everyone come back because they want to work with you, and everyone can make money.
CBR: Do you see more motion comics in Catastrophic's future?
CF: We have other books that we're doing, we can't talk about them right now because we have to get a contract signed, but definitely we're looking at partnering with some other big companies, not Marvel or DC so much, but we're talking to them about getting some of their material on as motion comic books.
MP: Motion comics is kind of like doing radio, but it's a step beyond, it's a whole new dimension because it is voiceover, but it has this unique kind of visual stuff going on. This motion comic, like Chris was saying, it's a brand new medium, so it's a cross between radio and not-quite animation, so you get to perform as an actor, but you also see the image. But it's being involved in a brand new medium, it's really exciting. It's like doing a new play. It's one thing to do something that you can pick up at Samuel French, it's another to go to an established playwright and do a new production. Being involved in anything new is very exciting for an actor or any creative person, I think.
CF: I do want to say, too, that nothing has given us a greater appreciation for "Sparks" than getting the right voice for the right character, and the wonderful thing about this medium, with Mike's voice as Sparks, unlike a book on tape where you kind of zone out, we're not going to let you do that when you're watching "Sparks." Between the voiceover and the music and everything like that, we're going to draw you into that story, because it's an unnerving story to tell, and that's the funnest thing to do for that medium.
And this has the potential to surpass the regular audience for comic books, and really get into the mainstream, it's truly where the future's going to be. This is the day for independent comic books. Back in the day, when the Tucker car started up against Ford and GM, this is that day. The only difference this time is Tucker got out there first, and it's going to kick ass, and it's going to last.
And I have to take a moment to mention the programmers. There's a guy named Paul Hoffmeier, my daughter went to the same school as his son. He was out of a job, got laid off. I was at the same company, I'd left on my own accord, but we were both out of work at the same time. We're sitting there saying, "What would be something cool that we've always wanted to do?" You work in a corporate environment, creativity's only limited to a certain amount. You can't just do whatever you want, there's so much red tape. We looked at each other, "It would be really cool to get 'Sparks' as a motion comic book. We have all the artwork, we can totally do this."
In the beginning, it was just going to be a little project. What ended up happening was, we had a conversation with Bill, and he said, "Go for some better voices. Give Mike a call." And we gave Mike a call, and then Mike Bell a call, and it just blew up into a bigger thing. And then Sean Ruge, the guy who did the animation for us.
This whole project has been go big or go home. That's always been the model that Bill told us to go for, and that's the way we look at it for Catastrophic Comics, go big or go home. This is going to be the best damn 99 cents you've ever spent in your life, and if you don't believe it, then write me an e-mail, write me a letter, I'll put it on YouTube for you, because it's there.
This is a combination of people at the worst time in the economy, getting the creative juices going and reaching out to people who are generous with their time like Mike and Bill and everybody else involved, to give it a legitimate shot. It's truly an underdog story, getting something of this quality out, going toe-to-toe with Marvel and DC, looking at them and going, "Your stuff sucks, it really does compared to this. You're gypping your audience, you guys got to do a better job." We can tell you this, it will raise the bar very, very high. And all the kids out there good with Photoshop, get out there and make it happen, because you can do it. This is really where the future is, and we truly believe in it.