James Tucker Helps Lift the Limits on the Justice League
James Tucker has been working on Warner Bros. animated series in one way or another since the days of Tiny Toons and Animaniacs, but he is best known for his contributions to Bruce Timm’s DC animated universe. Currently, is a co-producer of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Toon Zone had a chance to speak to him.
Toon Zone: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from?
James Tucker: Originally, I was born in Gary, Indiana. We moved to Tennessee when I was a teenager. After college, I needed a change of scenery and moved to Chicago. I also really wanted to go into animation, and Star Toons (animation studio and subcontractor for Warner Bros. Animation), was located there. So I moved there, phoned them up, got an interview and whipped up a portfolio overnight and got hired by them.
TZ: Was animation something you were always interested in?
JT: (laughs) I knew since I was four that I wanted to draw Batman. The first cartoon I vividly remember was the old Filmation Batman show. I just fell in love with the character and his rogues gallery. That sparked an interest in drawing. From early on, my goal was to draw for a living. Specifically, draw Batman, but I wasn’t going to be picky. All through kindergarten, grade school and high school I drew. When I went to college, Middle Tennessee State University, to major in film with an emphasis on animation. I got to take a few animation classes. But they dropped the film program my sophomore year, and I had to switch majors to commercial art. After graduation I did freelance illustration and some forgettable comic book work, but I never lost the desire to get into animation or draw Batman. In the end, it still ended up happening for me. I think that as long as you have the desire to do something in your heart and you pay your dues, you’ll get there, even if there are roadblocks.
TZ: So what were some of your favorite cartoons growing up?
JT: Like I said, I liked Batman. The Adam West 60’s version was a huge inspiration for me. After that, there was the Filmation Batman series, and then Superfriends after that.
TZ: Besides Batman, what did you like?
JT: Oh, man, what did I like? Well, I liked Underdog. Frankenstein Jr., Space Ghost. Basically, I watched any cartoon that remotely involved superheroes.
TZ: Action shows?
TZ: More so than funny cartoons?
JT: Yeah, I was into the superhero cartoons, even the comedic ones like Batfink, Courageous Cat, Cool McCool. Whatever was on at the time, I got into it. Of course, this was back when the networks had decided that violence was bad, so a lot of the action shows weren’t all that exciting. I think I was drawn to the potential for action in the shows rather than what was really in them. I like to think we’re making up for that with Justice League. (laughs)
TZ: What about comic books? What did you like growing up?
JT: Again, Batman was number one. Then Superman, and Wonder Woman. The Justice League. Unlike a lot of the other guys I work with on the series, I was a DC guy from the beginning. I didn’t become a Marvel fan until later. I think DC comics at that time were easier for a kid to get into. Especially since my first exposure to superheroes came from television and not the comics themselves.
TZ: What is it about DC that you liked so much?
JT: I liked the characters. There’s a story versus character thing. That was the difference that defined DC and Marvel at the time. DC had iconic characters, these guys who were already legends, already established by the time I started reading them. Marvel characters were more specifically written. With Marvel, the back stories were very important. They were more like soap operas and they were always “To be continued.” As a kid I was more drawn to the simplicity that an image of Superman lifting a whole planet or Batman suspended over some impossible Dick Sprang-designed deathtrap.
TZ: What did you work on while you were at Star Toons?
JT: I started out as an assistant animator and doing inbetween work. I worked on the Warner Bros. cartoons they had going. Tiny Toons, Tazmania, Animaniacs.
TZ: How was that?
JT: It was great as far as work experience. Really, at the time my whole criteria for a happy job experience was just to be paid to draw. It beats bagging groceries, right? And there was a talented group of people there, who have gone on to be well known in animation. It was the best learning experience anyone could have. Better than if I had actually gone to an animation school. Getting paid to learn is always a good thing. But a year or two in I realized my forte was in the action genre more than the humorous one.
TZ: Did you have a chance to do action shows at Star Toons?
JT: Not really. Actually, I believe they were offered the chance to work on an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but they turned it down. They were a small studio, and it would have been a difficult series for them. And they were busy with other things.
TZ: Do you regret not getting to work on that series?
JT: It could have been cool to work on, but, you know, it could have turned out awful. Most of the stuff Star Toons did was humorous, and I don’t think they thought they could have pulled it off. At that time, even up in Chicago where Star Toons was, we were hearing about what a revolutionary thing the new Batman series was going to be. I think the new design theories and different take on an action cartoon baffled everyone. But eventually I did get a chance to work on the “New Adventures,” the redesigned series. I liked that series. It was more like Adam West series in some ways. The villains were broader, there was more focus on the supporting cast members like Nightwing, Robin and Batgirl and I was glad to be able to work on them.
TZ: How did you make the move from Star Toons to Warner Bros.?
JT: Well, after the contract was up for Animaniacs a lot of the original people who worked at Star Toons migrated to LA. Based on our work experience we were able to get jobs pretty easily. Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone [producers of Duck Dodgers] went out there a year before I did. I was going out there on a vacation and decided to try and get an interview with Bruce Timm, and they were able to arrange that.
This was when he was just getting ready to work on the Superman series. In fact, he had only two other hires already. Looking back on it, the odds were against my getting a job just by making a cold call like that. But that’s what it’s about sometimes, just paying your dues and being able to jump into the burning building.
TZ: So how was your first meeting with Timm?
JT: (laughs) It was horrifying. Spike took me to up his office. We get there, and it’s got this huge Boris Karloff-as-Frankenstein cutout on it. Really intimidating. And all the way up, I’m thinking, “Spike is taking me up to introduce me Bruce Timm.” So we get to his office and Spike leads me up to the door, turns to me and just says “Good luck” and walks off. He doesn’t even knock. No introductions. Just “Good luck,” and he leaves me.
So I knock and go in, nervous as hell. I think it was the last days that people were allowed to smoke inside office buildings, and Bruce is in there, hunched over his desk, drawing, with this cigarette dangling from his lip. At least, that’s my memory of it, it’s been almost ten years and I’ve seen him in that position so much that I may be imagining it.
Anyway, all I’ve got in my portfolio is this humorous-type stuff, which is all I’d been doing—and which I’ve since found out he doesn’t have a real fondness for. So I showed it to him, and he just went through it, hating it. Luckily I’d had the foresight to doodle a few things in his style in the back, and that at least showed that I could do what he needed. It sparked him, so that he was willing to take a chance on me. I also had actual animation experience and had worked in production, and that counted a lot.
TZ: What were some of the things you doodled?
JT: Just doodles, that’s all they were. They weren’t doodles of characters that he had done. They were just character types done in his style. Heroes, villains, etc. That’s the worst way to try to impress a potential employer, by the way, by drawing the characters they already draw really well. It’s best to use their style and principles but draw your own stuff. It lets them know you are creative, but you can draw in the style of the show. Words of wisdom for anyone trying to break into animation, okay? (laughs)
TZ: So you got hired on Superman.
JT: Yeah, I was there on the ground floor. There were only two other designers, Shane Glines and Tommy Tejeda, who had been hired.
TZ: What did you start off doing?
JT: My first job was as a character designer. My first big job was designing characters for “Last Son of Krypton.”
TZ: Who did you design?
JT: Most of the incidental Kryptonians. Solvan. I did a rough version of Jor-El and Lara, which Bruce cleaned up. Giving Lara the S-curl instead of giving it to Jor-El was his idea. I also came up with the playing deck cards motif that are stuck to the sides of their costumes, which is something that shows up on a lot of our futuristic designs.
TZ: Who else did you design?
JT: On Superman I designed Prof. Hamilton, Ron Troup, Karkull, and Inspector Henderson (who was only in one episode). After about six months I was made a storyboard artist on Superman. I boarded on “The Main Man, Part One,” “Father’s Day,” “Blast from the Past,” “Apokolips Now,” “Mypxilated” and “Legacy.” I was doing double duty as a character designer too, and on “New Adventures” I did the rough redesign of Baby Doll and Scarface as well as a lot of miscellaneous characters, such as the Harley replacement applicants in “Joker’s Millions” and all of the characters in the Dick Sprang section of “Legends of the Dark Knight.” On Batman Beyond, I did the initial designs for Inque, Mr. Fixx, Terry’s dad, most of the Jokerz from “Rebirth” and Stalker (with tribal tatoos added by Glen Murakami). I got to board on “Mad Love”, “Legends of the Dark Knight,” “Dead Man’s Hand,” “Blackout” and “A Touch of Curare.”
TZ: You actually got promoted to director while on Batman Beyond, right?
JT: Yeah, during the— I think it was the third season. Curt Geda was pulled into directing Return of the Joker. That left a director’s slot open, and I got to direct five episodes in the third season. So, you can blame me for “The Eggbaby,” which was my first episode I directed.
TZ: Hey, I like “The Eggbaby.”
JT: Me too! Ma Mayhem rules. (laughs) Well, I tend to lean toward humor and camp and like that kind of thing. The effects of too much Adam West, I suppose. Some of my favorite episodes I’ve worked on have been “Critters,” “The Eggbaby,” shows like that.
TZ: But you also directed “Out of the Past,” which is one of the darkest episodes.
JT: Yeah, I really wanted that one. In it’s own way it’s dark, but it’s also very campy. I mean, Ra’s putting his mind into the body of his own daughter? I had a blast directing it even though some of the animation in the finished product was less than stellar. I also boarded the musical sequence at the beginning of that one, which of course was quite intentionally campy. I used a lot of Sweeney Todd references for that section.
TZ: How much freedom do you have as a director to influence the shape of a story?
JT: You’ve got some. Bruce, since he was the producer, has final say over what ends up on screen. But he’s pretty open to hearing ideas. He may not agree with them, but he’s fair about letting you throw your two cents in. And, also, as a director, you have options if certain screen directions in a script don’t work. As long as you follow the basic idea and plot points the script is trying to get across you were free to change certain elements. I was in an unusual position when I became a director because most of Bruce’s focus was on producing Return of the Joker. I think he trusted me with a lot of decisions on the episodes I directed that he normally would have made himself if he hadn’t been busy. I think that’s ultimately what lead to me becoming a co-producer on Justice League.
TZ: Would you work with the voice actors?
JT: As a director, you can attend the recordings, but Bruce and Andrea do the actual directing of the voice cast. I would go to the recordings so I could get an idea of what was going on behind the performances. Watching the performances is just invaluable, because there’s a real difference between hearing the performance on a tape as you would normally do and actually seeing the actor act out the dialogue. You get a better idea of what is going into their interpretation of it, and you can use those expressions in the storyboard later. I’d also go so that I could get Bruce’s insights as he reacted to the performances.
TZ: You also have a story credit for the Batman Beyond episode “April Moon.” Where did that story come from?
JT: Oh yeah. That was a surprise, actually. That came out of several story ideas that I had written up. Different ideas. One idea was for a cybernetic doctor who takes kids and modifies them and then hires them out as supervillains. It was kind of a jab at the William Morris Agency, like that. I actually had five pages of story ideas. Another one that showed up in “April Moon” was one for a Shriek story, where the idea was that the story would lead you to think that Shriek is manipulating this woman, but it turns out that she’s actually manipulating him. That idea showed up with the doctor’s girlfriend.
But I was really surprised when I saw my name in the credits. I recognized my ideas, but, really, the good stuff, the sick twists, those were all Stan Berkowitz’s. He’s the master of the sick stuff. But it was a great, fun surprise to see my name up front like that.
TZ: Nowadays you’re a producer on Justice League Unlimited. What are your duties? Do you have a specific area that you are in charge of?
JT: (laughs) Oh, what do I do? Really, there’s not a set description. Whatever Bruce is too busy to handle, I handle. I lean more toward art direction duties, but I work in other areas too. I read scripts and make notes, double check backgrounds and character designs, go to the recordings, and final mixes. I have input in almost all facets of the show, but Bruce has the final say. I try to be Bruce’s second pair of eyes on elements of the production he might not have time to focus on.
TZ: Are there any areas or aspects or developments that you’d like to take credit for?
JT: No, not really. It’s such a group effort.
JT: (laughs) Well, okay, I pushed for Ultra-Humanite to be included in the show. As our resident DC fanboy, I try to push to get a lot of their characters out there. The other guys will be saying, “We need a character like this Marvel character,” and I’ll be the one pointing out that, no, DC has the same type of character. Like, I pushed for Cheetah and Copperhead.
I also designed Shade and I co-designed Ultra-Humanite (Bruce did the head, I did the body). I did the new Lex Luthor redesign. I designed the Green Lantern for JL and JLU with the new bald look, but Bruce did the goatee.
TZ: Why did you make the change?
JT: Because it represents an ending to the Green Lantern-Hawkgirl relationship. Usually when people break up, they get a makeover. We didn’t want to do a major design, but we could do tweaks here and there, and that helps to give it an evolved feeling, like things have changed, characters have moved on.
TZ: JLU has really expanded the hero roster. Have you got a favorite in the lineup?
JT: Hmmm. Of the ones we’ve done so far, I like the Huntress and the Question the best, probably. I liked the Hawk and Dove dynamic, though I know it wasn’t a popular story. But we haven’t seen a brother-brother dynamic before, and I liked that.
Overall, you know, if I had my way each episode would be the second-stringer’s show. I’m enjoying the fresh air that a lot of the secondary characters like Green Arrow and Supergirl bring to the show. I really liked the Question’s premiere episode. He’s the most eccentric character, and he’s even weirder and even more obsessed than Batman, which is interesting. The Vixen’s a hottie and has a very different personality than the other heroes we’ve done before. Vigilante rocks too. The most fun of doing this show has been being able to see the characters I loved as a kid end up on the screen.
TZ: Do you have any dream projects, things you’d like to do, maybe after JLU?
JT: (laughs) I haven’t had time to think about stuff like that.
TZ: Well, can I ask you dream about it? Pretend it’s two years in the future; what would you like to be doing?
JT: Oh, man. My dream show would be an animated Dick Tracy series. That’s something I’ve always thought about. My own style I think is close to Chester Gould’s or Dick Sprang’s. So that’s something I’d love to do.
TZ: An animated Dick Tracy. I’d watch it.
JT: (laughs) That makes two of us, but we’ll need a few more to sell it. (Laughs) It’s not a popular character currently, so it’ll probably never happen. As far as DC properties, I’d like to work on a Wonder Woman series if the chance ever came around.
TZ: What about comic book work?
JT: No, I used to want to be a comic book artist. But I found I don’t work well by myself. I like coming in to an office. I like collaborating with other people. I don’t think I could be self-motivated enough to be a comic book artist. Some guys would prefer that. I think Bruce would prefer to be doing comic books. Although I did get to do a 10-page story for Batman #600 in a Dick Sprang style, and that was a real treat and childhood dream come true.
TZ: Thanks, James!
Justice League Unlimited airs Saturdays at 9:00pm (ET) and Sundays at 10:30pm (ET) on Cartoon Network.
Certain images provided courtesy of World’s Finest.