While scores of producers, glad handers and executives flocked to the recent Comic-Con International in San Diego for a chance to keep the geek culture churn of Hollywood going, the creators behind Man of Action Studios — Joe Kelly, Steven T. Seagle, Joe Casey and Duncan Roleau — spent their spotlight at the show discussing how keeping their comics at the forefront of all they do was essential to making Hollywood work for them.
Moderator Scott Brick led the four partners on a discussion of everything from their creation of the characters from the Oscar-winning “Big Hero 6” to incoming comics-to-film projects like “Officer Downe,” “I Kill Giants” and new seasons of Marvel animation shows like “Ultimate Spider-Man.”
“You should not come to a Man of Action panel without leaving with something, but if you leave early, you’re not getting anything,” Seagle joked noting that Rouleau spent the day drawing pinups of characters the collaborative have either created or worked on from Baymax to Ben 10 to Spider-Man.
And of course with the theme of taking comics to the big screen, “Big Hero 6” was an early topic of discuss. Seagle said that while the film based on their characters being the first comic book movie to win an Oscar was fun to see, “Awards don’t really matter. They’re not indicative of anything, kids. It’s the work that matters.”
He and Roleau spoke about the way they created the heroes of that Marvel-based film, with the writer noting that when he was a boy he loved the issue of “X-Men” where Canadian team Alpha Flight crashed into the mutant team’s world. So when they had the chance to do Marvel’s “Alpha Flight” comic, they wanted a team from another country to crash into things. Rouleau said he wanted to make the team Japanese because there was a lack of Asian superheroes in the marketplace and because the design and character influence of manga was exciting to him. “We liked the boy and his robot as a common trope, and we thought ‘Why not let the boy build the robot?'” Seagle added.
The pair told the oddly funny story of how they later pitched including Big Hero 6 in the “Ultimate Spider-Man” cartoon only to be asked by Marvel Animation, “What do you know about Big Hero 6?” Once they explained that they’d created the characters, Marvel admitted the then secret Disney film was in the works.
Switching up from that very kid-friendly comics-to-screen story, the panel asked Casey to explain how his “Officer Downe” graphic novel with Chris Burnham made it to production as a live action film — with many reminders for Casey to watch his language. “It’s a very adult, very violent comic book about a police officer in the LA PD who’s killed and zip-zap brought back to life over and over again in a Frankenstein kind of situation,” he said. The writer noted that the response in the comic market was tepid until a film producer known for working on action movies like “Crank” came to Casey wanting to not only adapt it but also do it with independent financing.
Now that shooting is finished on the movie, Casey said the final product is looking like everything he wanted out of adapting his own comics. “If you’ve seen the graphic novel and have questions about how far we could go…we go that far and then some,” he said. “We’re editing it now to try and avoid an NC-17 rating.” During production, Casey said the producer half of him would have to fight over what he could feasibly put in — with the producer side often winning without sacrificing the tone and madness of the comic.
Casey then played a voicemail message from “Sons of Anarchy” star Kim Coates which he left in character as Downe. “I saved that message just for this panel, ” the writer said about his “behind the scenes tease.”
Kelly is currently at work trying to make his acclaimed graphic novel “I Kill Giants” into a movie, noting that he wrote a draft of a screenplay for it as he did the comic. A producer connection at Comic-Con approached Kelly about the book and then sent his screenplay to director Chris Columbus — starting a long development process that’s still moving forward.
While many Hollywood producers give notes like “Could you put in 75 giants and give her a machine gun?” Kelly said Columbus gave great comments as a writer with the majority of his ideas asking, “How can you give it a big feel? Give it like an early Amblin feel like ‘E.T.’?”
Now “I Kill Giants” is set up with production company Treehouse and moving quickly forward. “Hopefully soon we’ll have some really cool talent announcements. I was hoping we’d get that together before the con…but we have a few more pieces to get into place,” he said. “I feel like this project is protected, and it’s great for me to be in that position.”
That brought up the idea shared by all of Man of Action that doing a movie or TV project right is far better than doing it just to say they got a movie made. “Having the ability to say ‘No’ can take longer, but it does allow you to build a body of work that gives you a level of integrity that only pays off for you later on in your career,” Roleau said.
Casey said that since they always make the comics they want to read without compromise, the creative buzz of that act carries them forward into Hollywood with confidence in their own ideas and abilities.
Brick asked about other projects in development, and Seagle said that they are working on two more Man of Action property adaptations for TV — one of which is casting and the other of which just got greenlit on Friday. He said the unexpectedly hard aspect of translating those works was that the comics were finite stories that they now had to turn them into open-ended TV serials.
Opening up to question and answer, a young fan asked a technical question about how Wasabi’s powers worked in “Big Hero 6.” Seagle said, “That’s a physics question that we’re not smart enough to answer…but here’s a prize!”
Asked about how they keep their level of creativity and inspiration high when working on projects that may take years to see fruition, the panel leaned on the key difference between writing professionally and as a pastime. “Inspiration is not the name of the game when you’re writing professionally…it’s discipline. And hopefully some inspiration will come later if you’re lucky,” Seagle said.
Asked to pick any comic to be made into a TV show or movie, Seagle said that he’d love to see his Vertigo series “House of Secrets” made into something, but since he shares the rights with DC, it likely won’t happen. The fan in Kelly said that DC’s “The Spectre” would be really great in other media, and Casey joked, “Cut to a year later and the Image debut of ‘Joe Kelly’s The Spookter.'”
Stirring up some drama, a fan wondered if there were times when the Man of Action team couldn’t agree on directions or story points. Rouleau said that while there are disagreements, they trust each other as creators to challenge each other to really justify their ideas beyond “I just want it.” Their writer’s room set up is, in a way, a “pre-vetting” of projects before they’re taking to publishers or studios.
The change in style from the animated “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” to the current “Avengers Assemble” came up, and Seagle said that the change was meant to bring clarity to kids who weren’t as familiar with the Marvel world. They in fact came up with a completely different version of an Avengers cartoon to follow “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” which was approved and in production, but then when the movie opened as the biggest American film ever, the studio said, “We love your show, but we’re not doing it. We’re doing a version of the movie.” The Man of Action team seemed more chagrinned than upset about the process, and Casey noted how it was gratifying to experience Marvel’s major moment across the media in their own way.
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