When Disney Animation’s feature adaptation of Marvel Comics’ “Big Hero 6” won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature last month, it should have been a major moment of triumph for the members of the Man of Action creative collective that created Hiro, Baymax and the rest of the “BH6” characters. And to be clear, in many ways, the victory was a moment of pride for Steven Seagle, Duncan Rouleau and their creative partners — but one that came with an asterisk.
Along with partners Joe Casey and Joe Kelly, Seagle and Rouleau have their ideas proliferate at major media companies. Aside from “Big Hero 6,” the Man of Action team created the “Ben 10” and “Generator Rex” franchises for Cartoon Network, produce a number of Marvel animated series for Disney XD and have a score of projects in development at movie studios across Hollywood, including an adaptation of Casey and Chris Burnham’s “Officer Downe.” But even after all that success, the members of the MOA team say they still hit walls in Tinseltown when pitching their ideas.
To get an inside look at both “Big Hero 6’s” creation and the trials of modern comic creators taking their ideas to Hollywood, CBR News spoke with Man of Action’s Seagle and Casey about where they’ve been and where they’re going. Below, the pair describe how their title card credit on the Disney film came about, what the comics community as a whole continues to miss about crediting creators and whether their media success serves as a change in the tide.
CBR News: First off, congratulations are in order for the win of “Big Hero 6” at the Academy Awards. Did you confidently put the film down on your Oscar poll and then rub it in the face of the people you were watching with?
Steven Seagle: [Laughs] I was not in an Oscar poll this year at all, and if I had been, I’m not sure what I would have done. Fellow co-creator Duncan Rouleau and I were presenters at the Annie Awards where “How To Train Your Dragon 2” was the winner of almost every category. “Dragon” also won the Golden Globe, so I’m not sure I was sensing an Oscar win for “Big Hero 6.” But I certainly had my fingers crossed and was happy that it won.
Joe Casey: For whatever reason, I was pretty confident. Actually, there was a reason: thanks to whatever Hollywood political machinations kept “The LEGO Movie” out of the running, I figured they weren’t going to give it to a sequel in that category. I mean, c’mon, it was “Dragon 2,” not “Godfather Part II.”
We spoke with Steven and Duncan when the film was initially announced, and I’m sure the whole ride of development and release has been nuts for you guys since then. But over the past few years, there has been a growing tide of credit being tied to comic movies, from DC’s past financial “gifts” to those who contribute ideas to films, to Marvel Studios’ recent push for more on-screen acknowledgement and occasional creative involvement. What was your experience like on that front? Were you invited to work with the filmmakers as they adapted your characters?
Seagle: There shouldn’t be a need for a “push” to credit people. If nothing else comes from this talk, can we at least underline that? Creators of things should be credited. It’s easy to do, it costs nothing, and it’s proper.
As far as MOA’s involvement? Early on, the director, Don Hall, stopped by the Man of Action booth at San Diego and spoke to Duncan basically saying, “Hey, we’re doing a Big Hero 6 feature, and since you guys created the characters, we’d love to have you in.” And I’m sure that was everybody’s intention. But as the production ramped up, we were not brought in.
At some point later — while MOA was working on “Ultimate Spider-Man” and “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble” — people were starting to ask us questions in interviews about the BH6 film. I had really come to appreciate Joe Quesada’s creative and business sense in those Marvel Animation rooms, so I laid out the situation for him: “We are in a world where drums have been beaten very loudly about proper credit and involvement for the creators of the past, but here we are again, in the exact same situation with creators of the present. This movie is happening and we are finding out everything we know about it on the Internet like everyone else — usually later — and that’s not a good thing. There’s a better way to do this.” And much to Joe Q’s credit, he said, “I thought you were already brought in and were aware of everything.” A few days later, Don Hall and his team brought us in to show us where they were and walk us through the development that they’d done. That was great, and the work they’d done up until that point was awesome. It was a good day.
So the answer to your question is — aside from creating the team and characters that inspired the movie in the first place, we were not involved in any way until we pointed it out to people that we should be. Which is, at best, unfortunate. Creators should be acknowledged and involved from the get-go. Much love to Joe Quesada for getting us in the loop of what was happening. We appreciated that very much.
I think we’re at an interesting place for how creators are being involved with film adaptations. For so very long in comics, there were almost no specific contracts built around this stuff, and multiple lawsuits and debates have sprung up as a result. But I’ve also heard of guys who worked on books in the ’80s and ’90s saying, “We knew this was work for hire going in, and that the things we created could easily be taken out of our hands by the companies at any time.” Where do you feel you stand on that?
Seagle: We stand, as always, on the disingenuous, false dichotomy of Legal vs. Moral standing. They are not and need not be falsely presented as mutually exclusive positions. There shouldn’t be some lingering legal question as to whether the Kirbys, Ditkos, Siegels and Shusters of the world deserve credit. And beyond credit, creators are great resources that could be tapped much more fully to everyone’s benefit but often aren’t. It makes no sense to say, “We’re going to spend millions of dollars to make a movie — and we’re going to bring in an army of people to execute that movie — but we’re not going to ask you in to be part of that brain trust even though the very thing we liked came out of your brains.”
To be honest with you, the most confounding absence around “Big Hero 6” and its Oscar win for me came from our own industry press. I got deluged on Facebook from people in my other walks of life and from fellow creators within the comics industry going, “Cool man, that’s great!” But other than this CBR talk, no sites have spoken with us to say, “First comic property to win a Best Picture Oscar! That’s a thing! Let’s talk.” The slightest whisper of a comic property being “optioned” is news, but this isn’t?
Casey: Yeah, it’s a weird vibe out there, and I don’t quite understand it. Granted, we don’t shove our shit in everybody’s faces to the point that some of our peers occasionally do. (See how I’m being magnanimous there?) We tend to just keep our heads down and do the work. But the fact is, we’re comic book creators, first and foremost. And we’re proud to be comic book creators. We were proud of it when it wasn’t considered cool to make comics for a living (although we thought it was). I think whatever success we’ve had, we’ve used to try and push our own work in comics to more interesting places.
Seagle: We weren’t the least bit surprised Hollywood hasn’t reached out to say, “Want to come hold the Oscar?” But we were fairly surprised that the comics press was pretty much invisible.
What do you lay that attitude at the feet of? Is it something that comes about as a result of fandom’s focus on characters and universes first, or is it a result of the lead the companies take? I know one thing that drives me up a wall is when someone like DC will make an announcement that Vixen will get her own animated series, and the PR cites what issue was her first appearance, but it doesn’t even mention Gerry Conway.
Seagle: I’ll say it again — make it a mantra: Credit is easy, credit is free, and credit is proper. Nobody loses anything when a company or their spokesperson says, “Thanks to Gerry Conway for creating Vixen in the first place.” That doesn’t cost anyone anything but a few sentences. More importantly, it’s a statement of fact. No creation of Vixen = no Vixen animated series. No hundreds of jobs for the people on that series, no income stream for the company making that series, no Annie Award if it’s amazing. There was an artist involved with Gerry, too [Bob Oksner], and it simply doesn’t take very much effort to point them out as the starting point. There are three intros in the “Art of Big Hero 6” book, and all three talk about “origins” of the project — not one mentions us. There’s a video piece on the origins of BH6 on the Blu-ray — it doesn’t mention us. That’s just not right.
Some companies line up behind a defense that comics are cumulative works and therefore credit is tricky because there is no one creator. But that’s not the case. We went to a comic convention last year — and I won’t name names — but one of the guests introduced themselves as the co-creator of a Lee/Kirby character. Now, this person certainly worked on the character and did a great job — maybe the definitive job and certainly my favorite run on that series — but they didn’t co-create the character. Miller’s run on “Daredevil” defined that series for me, but Miller didn’t co-create Daredevil. He added to it. A lot. I worked on X-Men. I also wrote a Superman book for Vertigo that I think added something to the mythos. But I didn’t co-create Superman or the X-Men. I think it’s pretty simple to identify who created characters and say, “You came up with that. Good for you.”
Casey: When it comes to the comics press, and MOA specifically, I think maybe the perception of us is somewhat colored by the sheer amount of stuff we’ve done that has actually worked out. The press jumps on the latest comic book to be optioned by some studio, which is all fine and good — especially if the creators involved are deserving of it (and most of them probably are). But a lot of those never go anywhere. That’s just the way the world works. We make a conscious decision not to talk about things until they’re pretty far along. An option announcement just isn’t very newsworthy coming from us now, considering all the things we’ve done. But for every “Ben 10” that makes it, there are countless pitches and shows and studio meetings we’ve done that ended up not amounting to jack shit. It’s the law of averages.
And I don’t even subscribe to the notion that “fandom” — whatever that term means these days — is solely concerned with characters and/or universes. Geek culture has gotten to the point where every motherfucker on the planet is their own strange brand of media expert. And I’m not even saying they’re wrong in their various analyses, but there’s an added layer of clickbait mentality that’s laid over actual conversation that makes it all feel a little skeevy to me. I know everyone’s just trying to make their way through a very confusing landscape — but often it seems to be at the cost of, at best, simple common sense and, at worst, basic human decency.
Oh, and I worked on Superman and the X-Men, too.
Seagle: But he did not co-create them.
Casey: C’mon, Stacy X doesn’t count? I co-created her, y’know —
After you introduced Big Hero 6, it seemed like Marvel immediately started to put them in play, with other creators crafting miniseries starring the characters. Was that something you understood as part of the deal when you created Hiro, Baymax and the rest, or was it a different experience for you, to see how quickly things could move ahead without your involvement?
Seagle: When we created Big Hero 6 for “Alpha Flight,” Duncan and I immediately loved them. I mean, if you don’t love what you’re doing, then why are you doing it? And so we weren’t at all surprised when Marvel called and said, “We want to do a Big Hero 6 miniseries.” And they meant immediately — we turned in our script for “Alpha Flight,” and the marching orders for a miniseries came right back. Marvel was in bankruptcy, they were looking for new hits, and Big Hero 6 made their radar.
Unfortunately, Marvel wanted it immediately, and neither of our schedules allowed for that. So Duncan and I wrote up all of our notes about the team — bios, history, powers, backgrounds and some story elements we wanted infused — we had a lot more ideas than we could fit into a single issue of Alpha Flight — and handed it off to Scott Lobdell, who was hired to do the miniseries with Gus Vasquez, who had drawn a couple of the pages in our “Alpha Flight” issue. All we could do was watch our characters go off with their new caretakers. That’s work for hire.
Years later, Chris Claremont and David Nakayama did their “Big Hero 6” miniseries. Part of why you work in a shared universe is to watch other people play. It was mind-boggling to me that the man who wrote the X-Men stories I loved as a teenager was now writing characters I’d co-created. Chris and David added Fred and Wasabi to the BH6 mix, and there should be proper, ongoing credit for them, too. Those are two more characters in the movie that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
So, yes. Things can obviously move ahead without your involvement in corporate comics. But what’s troublesome is that a lot of press outlets got very invested in the myth of the “blank slate” Disney had in terms of Big Hero 6. I’ve read story after story talking about how little there was in the comics that went into the film. But a blank slate is a slate with nothing on it. There were some very specific things written on the BH6 slate: Big Hero 6, Hiro, Baymax, Honey, Gogo, Fred, Wasabi, a robot that was a surrogate family member, kid geniuses, the power sets, the battle-suit version of Baymax, a predominately Asian-influenced super team, the Tokyo of it all. Disney added amazing depth and detail — not the least of which being the inflatable Baymax concept — heavy, heavy props to the entire team. But we take issue with the press-driven idea of a “blank slate.”
I know that you started Man of Action as an entity to have some more hands on control of your own creative destinies and the credit that came with that. In general, what’s the level of success you feel you’ve had in accomplishing that goal?
Seagle: “Big Hero 6,” “Ben 10,” “Generator Rex” — we’ve been successful at accomplishing our goals, which is why 15 years later we’re still doing it. We’re good friends, and we work well as a collective. In relation to what we’ve been talking about, one of the coolest things we accomplished on “Big Hero 6” was a giant card in the main credits that said, “Big Hero 6 Team and Characters created by Man of Action.” That’s kind of a benchmark for us, and I think it’s awesome that Disney was willing to do it — it was easy, it was free, it was proper — but that didn’t mean it was going to happen. So thanks to them for stepping up. I’ve watched a lot of comics-based projects that have drawn on a lot of comic people’s work, and what they get is often a tiny scroll of text at the very end when, in fact, they were the main inspiration for what went up on screen. So I think it was a major milestone for Man of Action. That credit gave us a huge leg up going forward.
And all of us still make comics. We put them out primarily through Image, because they’re a great company and they let us do what inspires us. But for MOA, it’s also about being able to own our creations. The future Ben 10s and Big Hero 6s that we think up will be owned and controlled by us. There’s a weird elimination of ego when you drop your individual name and replace it with a group name. But we keep doing it because it’s working. We’re treated as a company, contractually, which has its benefits. If you’re dealt with as an individual, big companies often feel like they can push you around. They take companies more seriously. There are also protections for companies that are beneficial, so it’s worked out well. Casey may tell you, “I hate it, and I’m out on Thursday,” but I can’t control him.
Casey: It’s true. He can’t control me.
Seagle: And letting him think that is exactly how I control him.
From watching the “Ben 10” franchise develop from the outside, it felt like, in the initial seasons, you guys were running things much more directly, but as it evolved into spinoffs and live action stuff, you seem less connected. But still, you always have that created by credit on every iteration of that show.
Seagle: Actually, on the original “Ben 10,” while we did get the “created by” credit for, you know, creating it, and while we did write many episodes and we were creatively involved, we did not run the show in any of its iterations, which was frustrating. We didn’t have enough of a track record in animation for Cartoon Network to trust us initially, so it was handed off to others — including the amazing Dwayne McDuffie. But we knew that could happen — that’s the reality of selling concepts to big companies.
After “Ben 10” was a big hit, we came back and created “Generator Rex” for Cartoon Network. And while we had the experience to run that, we didn’t have the right representation behind us. So, that show was handed off as well. We went to executive produce the shows for Marvel/Disney, as well as numerous projects with international partners, and people started to acknowledge that we know what we’re doing. That’s the nature of the Hollywood machine. You have to both aspire to do something, and actually do it, before they let you do it.
We have always had our name attached to “Ben 10,” we’ve had a financial interest in the show, and we’ve had a creative interest in the show, most of the time. But we weren’t handed the keys to the kingdom. We still had to work and work and work to establish where we thought we would be at the beginning.
Over the past few years, there’s been a sea change of guys who had a track record only in comics getting more of an “at bat” in Hollywood between Robert Kirkman on “The Walking Dead” and Ed Brubaker’s various projects, and now Brian Bendis with “Powers.” Have you witnessed that kind of change in some areas thanks to the cachet that comics have in developed, or is it as hard as ever to be directly involved with material that gets adapted?
Seagle: I think there are two parts to that answer. Part one is that when you look at the Kirkman of it all, he is a massive success. Here’s a guy who every week deserves a new article written about him from our comics world saying, “Can you believe what this guy has accomplished, both in comics and outside of it?” I mean, he gets props, but he gets a lot more props in mainstream media than in our own comics-based arenas. I think he deserves far more comics-press love than he gets.
Especially when you take into account that when Kirkman’s show started, there were other people running it. If the Hollywood press is to be believed, it was through some bumpy attrition that Robert rose to the forefront of his own creation — at least that’s how it looked as an outsider. But I’m glad he got there. He should have been given that control from the get-go.
The second part is that I’ve had luck staying involved with my projects because I’m always willing to walk away from them. When “House of Secrets” was developed as a film for Warner Bros., they absolutely did not want me to write the script. I knew I’d be replaced immediately, but I still said, “I do a draft or I can’t make the deal.” Since I owned the material, they said, “Hey, do a draft.” You have to be willing to walk or you’ll never get a shot. But then you also have to deliver the goods. And I can tell you honestly that much younger me didn’t have enough experience to deliver a home-run script back then. What I gave was interesting, but too long and had some rookie mistakes. I look back at it now and think, “I wouldn’t have hired me either!”
Casey: Yeah, we’ve had the creator credit on “Ben 10” because we created the show. Pretty simple, I think. Now our credits tend to range from creators to writers to story editors to executive producers. Soon enough, it’ll be show running and directing and whatever other gigs we can put our stink on. Weirdly, it doesn’t feel like it’s peaked yet. And I didn’t used to feel that way. When “Ben 10” first got on the air, I remember thinking, “Okay, that’s cool. Another line on the MOA resume, I guess.” I never imagined there would be more shows on the air, let alone at one point four animated series simultaneously airing that we were significantly involved in. Now we’re deep in the live action space, and who knows how far it’ll go there?
But in our current Man of Action mode, we have a lot of things going where we say, “We’re going to executive produce, and we’re going to write.” And we have the track record and we have good scripts under our belts, so people say, “Cool. Go do it.”
Casey: Seagle will tell you, I’m the guy who always wants to price us out of whatever new job we might be up for. Sometimes for shits and giggles, but especially if the gig doesn’t interest me on a creative level. It’s a numbers game, and it’s fun to play. I’m sure the rest of MOA loves it when I treat our collective career as some kind of weird performance art, but it’s often the only way I can wrap my head around where we’ve ended up.
Seagle: Yeah, Joe C is always the first guy saying, “Let’s take that job!” and then he almost immediately becomes the guy saying, “Why did we take that job?” He might have oppositional defiant disorder.
Joe, it was just announced that you’ll be co-writing the screenplay adaptation of your and Chris Burnham’s “Officer Downe.” I expect that’s a pretty significant step forward for you in terms of having that additional level of creative control outside comics. What helped make that happen, and what do you think you’ll be able to accomplish with that movie that wouldn’t happen in the major studio system?
Casey: Co-writing? Who told you that? No, I wrote the script, top to bottom. And I’m producing the movie with Skip Williamson and Mark Neveldine (the guys responsible for the “Crank” films). We’re in heavy pre-production now, and we start shooting at the end of the month with Shawn Crahan (aka: Clown from the band, Slipknot) directing and Kim Coates cast in the title role. Skip and Nev found the graphic novel a few years ago — ironically, having no knowledge of the whole MOA thing — and tracked me down to make it happen. It took us a few years to find the money, because we wanted to do it independently as opposed to dealing with a studio that probably wouldn’t get the material anyway. It’s very much the Image Comics model of creation, only with millions of dollars, actors and incredibly dangerous stunt work all in the mix.
As to what we’ll actually accomplish with it — who the hell knows? We just want to make a flick that we’re all proud of. In a way, we’re trying to build a new model here. We’re taking a big swing — just in terms of how we’re making it — and if it hits, it might be a bit of a game changer for this kind of down-n-dirty action movie.
Looking back at the whole “Big Hero 6” experience, is there something that you’ve learned from that that will affect how you do things moving forward, or is it more a validation of the way you’ve taken your careers with Man of Action?
Seagle: We’re definitely going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We just set up offices in Glendale, and for the first time, we’re seeing each other face-to-face on a daily basis. The success of what we’ve done to date has drawn a lot more people and projects to us — some ours, some theirs — and we’re fielding a lot more offers, which is cool.
With the BH6 thing, the lesson there is, I think, a broader lesson. That movie is phenomenal. I love what they did with it, and I think the hundreds of people who worked on it deserved their Academy Award and whatever other kudos can be sent their way. I thought it was great. I do think, though, that if Disney had called us on Day One and said, “You guys created these characters. Come in and tell us about them,” that we could have given an extra charge to the development. That’s the part that’s still missing in the comics-to-other-media model. What should happen is for these corporations to look at the things they own and control and say, “The first thing we need to do is talk to the DNA makers of these characters, because they have unique insight that is valuable.” I don’t know why Hollywood is afraid of that. There might be one or two people who would go nuts and drive the studios crazy, but by and large, we are all creative people who can add value.
Casey: None of this is rocket science. Having operated in this space for as long as we have, I think we see most of the strings. The irony of something like “Big Hero 6” is that, yeah, the filmmakers knocked it out of the park, and, for me in particular, I just got to sit back, watch it happen, walk the red carpet and eat the food at the premiere party. But would I want to have Don Hall’s job? That’s three years minimum of his life trapped in the submarine on one project. To me, that’s a pretty long-ass haul. For showing that kind of stamina alone, they deserved the Oscar. And I can only hope they’ve got some kind of back-end points —
So, anyway, I see it as definitely a feather in our cap, no doubt about it. But we’re still full speed ahead, as we always have been, ready to fuck more shit up in the inimitable MOA style. Bigger and better is what we’re after here.
Like you said earlier, there’s still an issue in comics culture as a whole in terms of giving credit where credit is due and making noise about that. What do you think is the thing that all of us can do to help correct that imbalance?
Seagle: I think that people get — and I include myself here — wrapped up in the “big shiny object” of it all. You look at “The Avengers” movie, and you go, “Wow, that was good! It looked like a billion dollars! Look at that director and all those stars!” That’s appropriate because you’re watching a movie called “The Avengers.” But you should stop and go, “Thanks, Stan. Thanks, Jack. Thanks, everybody who contributed to this over the years. Thanks, George Perezes of the world.”
Casey: Unfortunately, the comics industry is still somewhat of a backwards culture. I guess it’s because there’s such a long, practically institutionalized history of general mistreatment, gender inequality, economic inequality, racism, ageism, misplaced gatekeeper mentality, plain ol’ bad manners — you name it, we’ve been guilty of it.
Coming out of the pulps, which were like the bargain basement level of the literary arts, this industry has taken its sweet ass time aligning itself with civilized, human behavior across the board. I really wish we’d gotten our shit together a little better before Hollywood finally recognized us in the manner they have. Actually, switch out the word “recognized” for “exploited.” Probably more accurate. So we, as creators, have to spend an inordinate amount of time fighting for our basic, human rights. Like, y’know, the actual credit for the things we’ve created.
It’s not going to get much better for quite a while, because the folks in power like it just fine the way it is. Why? Because it benefits them. I don’t think there’s any real way to “correct the imbalance” you’re referring to. We just have to keep fighting, harder and harder. Luckily, success can often give you some pretty potent ammo to fight with. And, for the most part, I enjoy a good fight. Staves off complacency, that’s for damn sure.
Finally, on your own personal Hollywood front, what is the next big thing you’re looking to get out into that world? And what’s the next comics thing that you’re looking to do purely for the comics of it all, like Steven did with his mini comic “The Bus” at San Diego last year?
Seagle: [Laughs] Well, I’m definitely doing more things with the mindset of, “This is the comic I want to do with someone who I think is talented.” I’m doing more work with Jason Adam Katzenstein who did my mini “The Bus.” I’m working on my next graphic novel with good friend and frequent collaborator Teddy Kristiansen, that employs what must be the most bizarre working method anyone in comics has ever attempted. I just met a new artist at a convention that I’m lining up a project with. All comics, and all coming out through Image, eventually.
My main focus and interest via the Man of Action of it all, is hour drama TV. I’ve got two shows based on my comics that I’ve been working on with Left Bank Pictures in London — very deep in one, getting deeper in the other. I’ve written an original pilot I’m about to take out, and next I’m working on a pilot for “American Virgin,” now that all the rights have reverted to Becky Cloonan and me. Man of Action executive produce and serve as the writer’s room on these projects — we have it built in — which is handy. And there’s Joe Casey’s movie, Joe Kelly’s movie, Duncan’s movie, and a bunch of animated projects we are working on with our friend, Jeremy Zag.
Casey: For better or worse, I’m still completely addicted to making comic books. It’s my first, best love. Everything else — including the “Officer Downe” movie — revolves around chasing that buzz. Because the fact is, without the comic book — which started as me and Chris Burnham just trying to amuse ourselves — there would be no movie.
And, to your point, we’ve never made comics to sell as TV shows or movies or animated series or whatever. We love comics, we make comics. Whatever happens after that is gravy. Usually, nothing happens, and that’s just fine with me. I don’t look at things as though there’s a “Hollywood front.” It’s just — our careers moving forward. It’s us continuing to try and make stuff. We like making stuff. So, as the “SEX” monthly (with Piotr Kowalski) keeps rolling along, and “Valhalla Mad” (with Paul Maybury) is on the launch pad for May, there’s a bunch of new shit I’m working on that’ll probably come out over the next year. Obviously, my PR skills are too well-honed to actually announce them here, but trust me, they’re coming. From Image Comics, of course.
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