By Nikolai Fomich
Ask me who Man of Action is and I'll tell you – they're the creative collective of comic book, animation, television, and film writers Duncan Rouleau, Joe Casey, Steven T. Seagle, and Joe Kelly. They're the creators of Ben 10 and producers on Avengers Assemble, each member a veteran comic book writer of both mainstream superhero and offbeat indie works.
Ask Joe Kelly – and you might get a different answer. "If you take a brain and divided it into four parts, that kind of makes up Man of Action," explained Kelly. "I am of course the scary, disturbed, sometimes funny part you don't really want to bring home to your family. Duncan is the part that loses your keys while they're still in your hand, but also the creative genius. ["No, just the part with the keys is true," said Duncan.] Steve is the logical, ordered center of the brain, that has bursts of genius that are constructed through mathematical algorithms. And Joe Casey is the amygdala – the lizard brain!"
Whichever the case, with over a dozen new and ongoing projects, Man of Action shows no sign of letting up. I chatted with the team at San Diego Comic Con about their latest comic books, like Von Voom, Imperial, Valhalla Mad, and Kid Savage from Image, their television, animation, and film projects, and even Big Hero 6, created by Seagle and Rouleau.
Duncan Rouleau – on Big Hero 6, The Great Unknown, Von Voom, The Nightmarist, and Avengers Assemble
Nikolai Fomich: Duncan, how does it feel to have your co-creation Big Hero 6 be chosen as the basis for the very first Marvel film created by Disney Animation?
Duncan Rouleau: Truly amazing. It really is. I find it hard to wrap my head around it, because I'm such a fan of John Lasseter. That he would look at something without me pitching it to him, without me trying to tap dance in front of him like you're supposed to do – it's a very humbling and wonderful experience. My joke answer is: Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, Steve Seagle and Duncan Rouleau – we're all the inspiration for Disney. [Laughs]
NF: Your Image comic The Great Unknown, about a slacker who believes his incredible ideas are being stolen from his mind, is being developed by New Line Studios, with Saturday Night Live's Jorma Taccone directing and Michael Starrbury writing the script. When can we expect this adaptation to hit the big screen?
DR: We are in pre-production and we're talking to several well-known actors and waiting for their responses. We're making sure their schedules line up – I'll just say one of them has a really unique laugh!
[The Great Unknown]
NF: I understand you're working on an all new TV show, which is also being produced by your fellow Man of Action members. Anything you can tell us about that?
DR: We are going to make a big announcement about it, and it is not my announcement to make really. I will say that it is Steve Seagle's announcement to make. But we are in the process of actually writing the series right now with the executive producer who is – I can't tell you. I can say that it is live action, a one hour drama, based on one of [Steve's] graphic novels, and that it will be in a long story format, [a format] sort of like House of Cards or Breaking Bad.
NF: What new comic projects are you working on?
DR: I have a comic book that will be coming out early next year [through Image] that I'm working on with Shawn McManus. For people who don't know, Shawn worked with Neil Gaiman for a while on Sandman, and he drew Swamp Thing for many years for DC, and currently he's working on Fables for Vertigo. But my project with him is something called Von Voom – it's Addams Family, with Speed Racer, with Tim Burton.
NF: So if you like any of those three things…
DR: That's right! Is that a wide enough net?
NF: Definitely. What else can you say about this project?
DR: Well this is actually my first comic that I'm not drawing, that I am solely a writer on. So it's an interesting departure for me.
NF: And how do you think that's affected the way you approach the comic?
DR: That's a great question. I can't shorthand when I'm [only] writing. When I know I'm [both drawing and writing] I can put placeholders [in the script], and that allows me to think it through while I'm drawing. So this project forces me to approach the story in a different way. I really have to think out a lot of the details that I would have saved for later. That gives me a different responsibility, to make sure that it's clear for somebody else. I think I was never really challenged like that – for the smell test so to speak, for making sure that it translated from thought to an idea for somebody so that they can see it clearly. It's actually really been an eye opener, because most of time I've been interpreting other people's work, or in a weird way my own work, and this has just been very different.
NF: Have you seen any of the finished pages?
DR: Yes I have.
NF: And what was your reaction to seeing them?
DR: Very interesting. I write, and I draw, and I ink, and I color…because I probably have a problem, [with] proprietary kinds of ideas that I have. But this collaboration has been really great. I think Sean is a much better visual storyteller than I ever will be, and it has forced me to focus on my job, which is to write, in a way that has been really beneficial.
I'm also doing a re-master of The Nightmarist through Image as well. It's going to be hardbound, it's going to be in a much larger format, and it's also going to have a lot of color elements.
NF: The Nightmarist was your psychological horror story about a woman whose nightmares and reality seem to blur together. Why did you feel the need to go back and re-master that book?
DR: I really loved the smaller format, but me as an artist – I have a tendency to put a lot of stuff in the panels, maybe too much stuff, and in a larger format a lot of the artwork read way better. I think it needed to be seen on a much bigger page, and even though the story itself couldn't be more psychological and more intimate, the visuals were not. They were if anything cinematic. So I wanted to put it in a larger format. And the color – to say it's full color would be misleading. It's color treated, so it's still kept within a real thin bandwidth, but some of the colors used are much more psychological [than the black-and-white], and they add to the story in a way the black-and-white could only hint at.
NF: And when can we expect the re-mastered edition of The Nightmarist?
DR: Early next year.
NF: Finally, you and the rest of the Man of Action team are producers on the cartoon series Avengers Assemble. Anything you can tease about the upcoming season?
DR: Let's just say things you saw in the Guardians of the Galaxy – elements you saw in Guardians of the Galaxy – will find its way into this season.
NF: Will we see Surtur return?
DR: Not in season two!
Joe Casey – on Officer Downe, Sex, Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers, and Valhalla Mad
NF: You've written a script based off of your graphic novel Officer Downe, starring an LA police officer who is repeatedly killed and resurrected in his war on crime. It's now being made into a film which will be directed by Slipknot's Shawn "Clown" Crahan. Any word on when we can expect casting announcements and a release date?
Joe Casey: If it's going to happen it's going to happen very, very soon. It's an independent film, so it's independently financed, so there are lots of moving parts to do it the way we want to do it. As of today, there's some key cast in place, and we're right on the cusp of doing this thing.
NF: How was the experience writing that script?
JC: Easy actually, because it was just myself and the producers. There was no studio – I just wrote what I thought a cool movie would be, and was able to expand the graphic novel quite a bit, add some new characters, add some new set pieces. But anyone who's read the graphic novel, when you see the movie you will absolutely be able to recognize the story itself. It's a literal adaptation of the Officer Downe comic.
NF: Sex #15 comes out in August from Image and features a brand new storyline. Your first arc with artist Piotr Kowalski took a close look at ex-hero Simon Cooke, while your second followed the interwoven lives of Saturn City's expansive cast. What can fans expect from Sex's third arc?
JC: More of the same. It's become this sprawling soap opera of a comic book, which is what I originally intended, but I knew I had to get in a lot of high concept stuff out there first – the salacious nature of the material, the ex-superhero now retired, the cast of characters. Now that everything is set up, we're just exploring that world. And [that's] the way I like to write long term comic books – set up all your players on the chess board, so to speak, and then you just start playing the game. With #15…it's not that people who have never read the book are going to be able to come in cold and get everything, but it's definitely the beginning of some new threads with the characters, and some new plots and subplots.
The focus will be less on Simon Cooke and more on the surrounding cast, particularly Keenan. He has finally joined up with the biggest street gang in the city, and #17 will see his first gang related activity. And I can say #18 is going to be a flashback issue that will delve into the history of the character the Prank Addict. We'll see his backstory, we'll see where he comes from, what his whole deal is…I've kind of been peppering in the past lives of all the characters every so often, and #18 is where we do it with him.
NF: Any other characters that are going to get the spotlight soon?
JC: I will say that Simon and Annabelle are going to get a lot closer very soon. So people who have taken issue with Simon Cooke not doing anything – he's going to do something now. Probably not what they expect.
NF: In addition to your original work, you also have an all new ongoing based off a Kirby classic coming out in August from Dynamite, in collaboration with several stellar artists – Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers. What drew you to this underrated creation from the King of Komics?
JC: We want it to be a very forward thinking comic. Captain Victory the original comic is very important. It was one of the first big-name, creator-owned comics for the direct market, which was very young at the time, and it's just another example of Kirby being ahead of the curve. It's a property that the Kirby estate owns, so we're really proud we're able to work on a Kirby creation that actually goes back to the Kirby estate, whatever money is made. There's less quicksand.
[For the book] we're…bringing in lots of special guest artists. It's probably one of the coolest looking books I've ever done, because I'm a fan of all these guys – Nathan Fox, Jim Rugg, Ulises Farinas, Jim Mahfood, Farel Dalrymple, Michel Fiffe, Connor Willumsen, Benjamin Marra – it's an embarrassment of riches. It's going to be a great looking comic.
[Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers]
NF: And what other future comic projects from you can we look forward to?
JC: I just announced a book at the Image Expo called Valhalla Mad, which is a new book at Image drawn by Paul Maybury, who I worked together with on Catalyst Comix over at Dark Horse. It's about a trio of fun loving gods who return to Earth to have a big drink up. It's a lot more lighthearted than something like Sex, which is intense. So it's a chance to have some fun and write that great faux Shakespearean dialogue that Stan Lee pioneered in Thor comics, that no one else seems to do – not even Thor talks that way anymore! [Laughs] These guys will talk that way.
Steven T. Seagle – on Imperial, his mystery television project, Big Hero 6, his new work with Jason Katzenstein, Mercury, and 7Cs
NF: Your new series from Image Imperial debuts in August, with art by Mark Dos Santos, and promises to bring humor into the superhero genre. Pairing superheroes and humor might seem like a no-brainer to some, but for whatever reason, superhero comics seem to avoid humor like a plague. Why was it important to you that you write a superhero comedy?
STS: Because humor's been drained out of that part of our medium. The genre of superheroes has gotten grim, and gritty, and bleak. And I loved when it did that – I loved Watchmen, I loved V for Vendetta, I loved Dark Knight. But we're still there. Still in so many books people are being eviscerated, raped, and [having] their heads cut off – and that's the heroes, the villains are worse. So I just thought, "Can we do something a little lighter?" Superheroes for me is a way to look at other things, so [Imperial] is looking at the idea of pulls – everybody's got relationship pulls, where your friends want you to go one way, your significant other wants you to go another, your work wants you to go to yet another. So I thought it would be the right metaphor to pit a guy between his fiancée and a superhero who wants him to assume the next superhero mantle in his place, and see who would win. That's a battle.
NF: That is a battle. It's funny because – it almost sounds like…let's just say it doesn't seem too farfetched a metaphor for a few fans.
STS: [Laughs] Maybe. And maybe our lead character in the book is also named Mark, who might also happen to be a comic book collector and figurine/sculpture maquette enthusiast – that might have something to do with a few things.
NF: Given its lighter tone, did you approach Imperial differently?
STS: My books are always different. My running joke these days is that my market niche is alienating whatever market I built up last time. Because I don't like to repeat myself, I'm interested in a lot of different things, and so when I start a new project, I [think about] what's interesting to me right now. And so [with Imperial] I was really thinking about a completely different relationship I have with a person, where I [thought], "I wonder what pulls them? I wonder what they're making these decisions based on?" And I started thinking about the way we make decisions, the way other people influence those decisions. And I wasn't even thinking comedy at first, but then when I sat down and started writing Imperial, it just seemed to me to be funny – goofy funny, just laughable in some ways. [I thought] this book should just be funnier than usual. I like dark stuff – I don't like dark superheroes though, I like psychologically rich things. And this is psychologically rich, but because of the superhero part I just thought – it'd be fun if this was not such a groaner.
NF: Right, and we already have so many options for that on the market.
STS: All of them. I don't want people to think, "Oh I'm going to read this book and just laugh, laugh, laugh." I think it is funny, I think it's light, I think it's amusing. And I think it's interesting – it's about something… I'll tell you this about Imperial – for me the book is not about Imperial, it's about Mark, the lead character. Imperial serves a function for me to illuminate what's going on in Mark's head. In a way his fiancée does the same thing.
NF: Would you say that they're almost as much ideas as they are people to Mark?
STS: I will not comment on that – which is a comment in and of itself!
[From Imperial #1]
NF: You're currently working on a new TV series in primetime with a well-known director and the Man of Action team writing and producing. Anything you'd like to say about that upcoming project?
STS: I can't say anything, except that we are actively working. We just spent four days actively working on the project that cannot be named right now, with a very famous gentleman who cannot be named right now. Have we had a better time working on anything? Probably not. As soon as we can talk about it, there will be a lot to talk about. Bleeding Cool, because of its ethnic origins, will be particularly interested in in it.
NF: I asked this question to Duncan and I'll ask it to you: how does it feel to have your co-creation Big Hero 6 be chosen as the basis for the very first Marvel film created by Disney Animation?
STS: Super exciting. It's something Duncan and I made up just for fun and kicks. We were working on Alpha Flight together and we used to meet in his office, sit around, and just kick ideas around. And it was – I won't say a whim, I structured that book a little bit more carefully than that, but it was literally, "What can we do for fun this month and just have a good time?" And that's where that team came from – it's where Hiro and Baymax came from, and Honey Lemon and GoGo Tomago. It was literally just pure id going, "Fun with superheroes!" I liked them a lot, and I knew a lot could be done with them, but I didn't think they'd be lasting, just because the time that that book came out is a passed over part of Marvel's history in general. And I think it was a pretty cool book, we did a lot of [cool] things – it was written in 2nd person, which was really weird for a superhero book, nobody had done that at that time that I know of. So I just thought it would evaporate and not last. The fact that that's a Disney movie is incredible to me.
NF: Getting back to your comic book work, what else do you have coming up?
STS: I've got a couple of projects lined up with the guy who I did my new mini-comic The Bus with, Jason Katzenstein. Super young, super crazy talented, works so fast I can't keep up with him. So I'm trying to line up as many projects with him as I can. We're doing both a longer graphic novel and a series.
I'm doing another book with Teddy Kristiansen that we've been working on for about a year. It usually takes us about two, two and a half years to get these things done. That one is called Mercury, and I say currently because I don't know what it's going to be called because I don't know what it's about. Teddy doesn't know what it's about, but we're about fifty pages into it. We don't even know who the lead character is, we don't know his name, we don't know what year it takes place in – but it's half drawn.
NF: So – what is it not about?
STS: Well here's what it is. Teddy has an idea in his head, about something. And I asked him not to tell me what. And I told him to just start painting. It's in two panel pages. And the panels – I don't even get the pages, I get them separately. So I don't know the order in which these panels were intended to go together, but when all two hundred and forty of them are done, I'm going to put them in a sequence, I'm going to write a script – that's the book.
NF: Wow that's kind of awesome.
STS: So I'll never know what Teddy thought the book should be, and he won't know what it'll turn out to be until I'm done. And then we're just going to commit to that – that's what it is. This is neither Marvel nor DC style – this is Man of Action style.
NF: And are all these books with Image?
STS: Most of my books are Image, not all. Certainly any that they're interested in I'm interested in having them do. I did Genius with Teddy for First Second, had a great time with them. So I'm not opposed to other publishers, it's just hard to go anywhere else. At Image I can do exactly what I want, in the format that I want, coming out when I want. You own it. What's the better deal in town?
NF: And when will these projects be coming out?
STS: We're hoping that Mercury will trickle out mid next year, and the projects with Jason – one will be done early next year, and the other will be a monthly comic [which will come out later].
We're also working with a company called Zag Studios, which is…an international animation company. Man of Action is doing a lot of stuff with them, we like them a lot. We're doing animation projects, film projects – you'll hear a lot more about those shortly. [One of our projects with Zag] is 7Cs, which is a long percolating project we've had with them. It's already in production. It's an animated series. The title may change, because sometimes that happens with those things.
NF: What is 7Cs about?
STS: It's a wild romp set in the Bermuda Triangle with a kid who is trying to get out of the Triangle, which is basically the junk drawer of universe – pirates, soldiers, Amelia Earhart – everything wound up there.
NF: I've got to visit.
Joe Kelly – on Bad Dog, Four Eyes, Kid Savage, and Bang! Tango
NF: Earlier this month, the first six issues of Bad Dog came out in trade paperback. For those who haven't yet joined the party – the wild and crazy party – talk a bit about this outrageous and raunchy series, which you created with Diego Greco. What can new readers expect?
Joe Kelly: Hopefully they're going to get a lot humor out of this – but dark humor. It's a story about these two bounty hunters that are probably the world's biggest screw ups. One of them is a werewolf, who hates himself and people so much that he chooses not to become human again. And the other one is a preacher who's fallen from grace with a Napoleon complex. And they kind of go out and are ostensibly trying to find bail jumpers, but usually end up drunk and making a mess of things.
NF: So it's autobiographical?
JK: Exactly. A lot of autobiography, I am a rather hirsute man –
NF: "Hair suit man"?
JK: Hirsute – that is the actual word unfortunately. It really is too close to "hair suit." Hirsute means hairy. It's easily heard as hair suit – and it kind of means the same thing. But anyway, the part of it that is sort of autobiographical, I suppose, is Lou, who is the main character. He really is searching for meaning in his life, because he knows that he could be something better, but doesn't really have a lot of faith. So the book is about a lot of things – faith, and 'where's my place in the universe?' So a lot of raunch, a lot of violence, and a lot of existential angst. With a lot of hair. [Laughs]
NF: What other new comic book projects are you currently working on?
JK: Well Bad Dog, even though it took a while to get there, we are working on the next arc right now. When we started the creator owned books through Image, I think I was a little overambitious, and I had to learn from a few mistakes. So that's why there were such big gaps with Bad Dog and Four Eyes. But I feel like I've got a better system now number one, and number two I know not to solicit things until they're really done. Both Four Eyes and Bad Dog I am now getting back to, so we're going to see more of those. #8 is being drawn of Bad Dog right now and #6 is being drawn of Four Eyes – in that particular case, Max [Fiumara] has become superstar. He and his brother are doing all this stuff over at Dark Horse, and he's super busy. Which is great, but he always keeps a place in his heart for Four Eyes. We figured out a way to make it work, so we're doing that.
NF: I'm glad to hear that Four Eyes, your Depression-era revenge fantasy about a boy and his dragon, will be coming back. Do you know when exactly it's returning?
JK: The plan is to do an arc a year, which is always in four issue chunks. The earliest it's going to show up would be in early 2015. Just because of schedules – I wanted to make sure when we solicit them, there's not a huge gap. So there might be one every two months – we're just trying to figure that out… Rafael Ortiz is also [on art]. We're trying to do it so that it's two of Max's and two of Rafael's, so that's what we're shooting for. Because I love the story, and I really want to get to it and finish it up.
NF: It's a crazy idea to mash up dragons and the Great Depression.
JK: For sure! You can do it in comics, and really enjoy and luxuriate in that world. I love the Bad Dog world, I love the Four Eyes world.
NF: Any other new comic projects coming up?
JK: I have a book called Kid Savage which I'm really looking forward to. It's kind of a Hanna-Barbera homage but with a modern spin on it. Parts of it are like Herculoids, Thundarr the Barbarian – those things were really influential to me when I was a kid. Kid Savage is about the first family in space, and something goes wrong, and they're stuck in this really hostile environment and their only guide is this feral kid.
We're also doing a remix of Bang! Tango, which was a Vertigo book. It's going to come out through Image as a one shot. It's all six issues as one story as intended, and we're doing a lot of art, color, and kind of modernizing it. It was with Vertigo, but I got it back. I always loved the story, so it's a chance now to get it back out. So I'm excited to see that because it's a weird, provocative, sexual crime noir story.
Many thanks to the entire Man of Action team!
Nikolai Fomich is a college teacher and writer in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @brokenquiver