NYCC2010: A Roundtable Discussion with Michael Jelenic
At the 2010 New York Comic Con, Toonzone News’ Ed Liu and Todd DuBois were able to sit down at a roundtable interview session with Michael Jelenic, co-producer of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and scriptwriter for the Wonder Woman direct-to-video movie and the upcoming “Superman/Shazam” DC Showcase short film. Our questions are prefaced with “TOONZONE NEWS.” Read on as we discuss matters of Earth-shaking, world-shattering, mind-blowing importance!
MICHAEL JELENIC: You can ask me about anything but my hair.
MULTIPLE Qs: So what’s up with that hair? (laughter)
Q: It does make you look a little more like Luke Wilson.
MICHAEL JELENIC: That’s what I’m going for. I’m tired of looking like Brad Pitt, so…
TOONZONE NEWS: Or are you trying to get in character for ThunderCats?
MICHAEL JELENIC: Yeah, this is my Lion-O mane. (laughter)
TOONZONE NEWS: How is that going?
MICHAEL JELENIC: ThunderCats? It’s going well. Whenever you’re developing anything, there’s lots of challenges, so we’re going through that. With a show like Brave and the Bold, I sort of know everything about that show. It’s not a mystery. But ThunderCats is a mystery, what makes it work. We’re still very early on in that show, but it’s going well. A lot of very good talent. Studio 4ºC in Japan is doing animation and I think it will be good. Maybe.
Q: What are the pros and cons for short films vs. the full-length films?
MICHAEL JELENIC: This was a challenge. “Superman/Shazam” is the longest one of the four. The others were 10 minutes, which poses its own challenges. You introduce a character and you only have 10 minutes to work, so it’s “introduce character” and then punch line and that’s all you have. But with 22 minutes, there’s an expectation of character arcs and development, so that makes the story a litle bit more involved. But at the same time, in 22 minutes, you don’t have the stretch room that you’d have in a 70 minute feature, you know? The difference is basically how you play out a scene. If you have 22 minutes, everything has to be efficient and there’s no room to do characters just sort of talking or relating or just being characters. A lot of that stuff that I put into the script had to be cut because we just didn’t have any room. If I do something like the Wonder Woman 70 minute movie..I don’t know if you remember, but there was a bar sequence that doesn’t really propel the story forward, but it’s just sort of a humorous scene which I really enjoyed. It sets character, but it’s not necessarily essential for the plot. With these shorter forms, there isn’t room to throw in some of that stuff. So that’s the challenge. In 22 minutes, it has to feel like a fully formed story but without the luxury of the extra space.
TOONZONE NEWS: How is the 22 minute short different from a 22 minute television episode?
MICHAEL JELENIC: It’s weird…I mean, in my head, it seems shorter than a 22 minute episode, but obviously they’re exactly the same length. I guess the biggest thing is you don’t have to divide it into act breaks. When you do a 22 minute TV series, every episode has to be broken into 3 acts and you have to have a commercial in each one. When I approach a show for TV, my brain automatically thinks of 3 sections of story. With this, it’s just sort of a straight line. You don’t have that sort of cliffhanger jeopardy. I think I’m less familiar with that sort of format, but I think that’s probably the biggest difference. There’s still 3 acts in it, but the structure is just a little bit different.
Q: So do you adapt your writing style for the short films, or do you just write your own way and then cut it?
MICHAEL JELENIC: I approach everything differently depending on what the need is. I did a commercial for Brave and the Bold Wii which had to be 3 minutes long. “What does this thing need to be?” is usually how I approach a project. So I don’t necessarily write one way. It’s whatever the project calls for. I try to work around that, because if you have to do a 22 minute cartoon that’s animation for TV and you do a 22 minute short, it’s probably going to hurt the product, I think.
Q: Do you have more fun writing the more goofy stuff like Brave and the Bold than the more serious stuff?
MICHAEL JELENIC: Here’s the thing. I do, in fact, enjoy Brave and the Bold goofiness, because when you’re sitting in a room and you’re trying to come up with story ideas for something that’s serious, you’re going to serious, and you’re trying to think of what’s tragic. With Brave and the Bold, if you’re trying to come up with ideas, it’s mostly to try and make someone else in the room laugh and have fun. The other thing with Brave and the Bold is if I get a bad Brave and the Bold script, people will think I’m being ironic or the writer’s being ironic. It’s like, “Oh, this is ironic…it’s purposely bad like the old comics.” So it’s a little harder to detect when something’s bad. With ThunderCats or even this Captain Marvel short, because it’s more serious, you can instantly detect the bad (laughs). If it’s that something’s bad, you’re going to know. There’s a lot more pressure. You know, you can’t be ironically dramatic.
Q: Are you taking any of the witty dialogue that you wrote for Brave and the Bold into things like ThunderCats?
MICHAEL JELENIC: Well, I think that’s sort of one of my trademarks, if I can be so bold as to say I have a trademark, which I don’t (laughs). But I always try to insert humor into even the most serious thing in the world. So hopefully, ThunderCats is funny, I hope this Captain Marvel short is humorous because one thing about superheroes and all this stuff is that I think they need to be fun. I find it amusing that people take it so seriously. Characters who are wearing tights and capes, and they’re like, “This is not realistic” like there’s only one way to interpret these characters, like it’s life-and-death. If you say, “Hey, wait a second, the whole conceit is fun to begin with,” some people go nuts. I always try to inject everything I do with humor, because I always wanted to be a comedy writer. I find I’m funnier writing comedy for superhero stuff than if I was probably a comedy writer (laughs). The bar is lower.
MICHAEL JELENIC: Hmmm. Black Adam was a tough villain because he is so similar to the other two characters that are appearing in this short. I mean, you have Superman, Black Adam, and Captain Marvel, and if you squint, they all have the exact same powers. So, the challenge is how do you make this villain stand out and be threatening to these characters. For Black Adam, what I like about him is that he’s who Billy could become if he were to use the power in bad ways, while Superman is the other extreme of what Billy could become. It’s basically two characters, Superman and Black Adam, competing for the soul of Billy, and who’s going to win out. But as far as villains go in other stuff? I don’t know. Bat-Mite on Brave and the Bold is sort of fun. He’s not really a villain, but he sort of acts like a villain, and he lets us do some pretty absurd stuff on that show. We got some CRAZY stuff coming up with him. Gorilla Grodd is fun on Brave and the Bold, too, and Ares in Wonder Woman was a lot of fun. Actually, one character I liked was Hades. He was not necessarily a villain, but he was a dark force who was a fun character to write in the Wonder Woman movie.
Q: When you write the characters who are less iconic, do you do any research from the comics?
MICHAEL JELENIC: I’m like the laziest writer you will ever meet (laughs). I almost prefer to know less about a character. I mean, I do research. I’ve got this reputation as, like, some guy who doesn’t know anything about what he’s doing, but I do occasionally do research. On the flip side, what I like about being lazy and not doing any research is that what’s iconic about the character sort of sticks in my brain, so even for a character that’s well-known like Wonder Woman, if I come in not knowing much about her…I know she has a truth lasso and the invisible plane and the bracelets. Those are the things that speak to a larger audience. Those are the things that people have reacted to. I think that when you have a writer who’s very familiar with comic books, all the iconic stuff is boring to them. They’ve been with these characters all their life. Everything that’s iconic about Batman or iconic about Superman is stuff that they learned when they were 6, and so they’re not necessarily interested in telling those stories. They want to tell something that’s a little more complicated. They’re great stories, but I find they appeal less to a mass audience and more to the comic book audience. They want to see that kind of finer detail on these characters. So, whether I’m approaching an A-list character or a B-list or C-list, just the reacting to characters the first time helps me sort of know what is it about this character that pops. A lot of the times, I’m basing my takes on character on my initial reaction to either seeing a character like B’wana Beast and then learning about his power, and saying, “Ooh, that’s funny…this is what I want to do with that character.” Or the Haunted Tank, it’s, “What’s the visceral reaction to seeing this bizarre character for the first time?”
TOONZONE NEWS: We will get to see the Haunted Tank on Brave and the Bold?
MICHAEL JELENIC: Oh, you get the Haunted Tank. Absolutely.
TOONZONE NEWS: EX-cellent!
TOONZONE NEWS: I think it was last year, we talked about the Haunted Tank and Weird War Stories comics. (BONUS: Click here to listen to a bit edited out of last year’s Wonder Woman roundtable where we talked about the Haunted Tank.)
MICHAEL JELENIC: Yeah, so our take on the Haunted Tank is fun. In fact, I want to do a whole episode around Haunted Tank, but I think James Tucker put the kibosh on that. He didn’t think a Haunted Tank could support a whole episode. I think that’s foolish. (laughter) He can support a whole series!
TOONZONE NEWS: Speaking of adaptation research, how would you describe the creative process of ThunderCats? How do you go about updating something like that?
MICHAEL JELENIC: Well, ThunderCats has got, like, 150 episodes. It’s impossible to watch every…well, it’s not impossible, but I would have to devote a year of my life watching every single episode. You try to find the iconic episodes, the fans’ favorite episodes, and you watch those. I’m all about the iconic stuff, usually, so the secondary characters probably wouldn’t make it into an episode right off the bat. I want to focus mostly on Lion-O, Tygra, Cheetara, Panthro, Wily Kit and Kat, Snarf, and Mumm-Ra. Once we build that world with those characters, then that’s usually when we would go back and say, “OK, now’s the time to put in Pumyra or some of those more obscure characters.” The best thing, I find, for understanding what clicks about a character is to go onto the fan boards and see them argue over things like Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel. I know for Wonder Woman, the big debate is does she fly or doesn’t she fly? That’ll drive people nuts. For Captain Marvel, the big debate I’ve seen online is when he turns into Captain Marvel, is he an adult or is he Billy in an adult’s body? People go crazy over that stuff. I find the hardcore fans want him to be a fully realized adult. Sometimes, I checks the fan pages a little too late for my own good, and find out, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that!” (laughs)
Q: You’ve worked on Batman, you’ve worked on a bunch of DC superheroes, now you’re working on ThunderCats. Is there any other series you want to reboot?
MICHAEL JELENIC: I don’t know. It seems like ThunderCats is the last iconic 80′s series. Someone was telling me Go-Bots is ripe for a redo. (laughter) I would like to get behind that, because I think it could be bigger than Transformers. My favorite show as a kid was Transformers, so I would have loved to have been on that. Actually, my old boss is heading up that show, which should be great. It’s got great talent behind it, got a lot of money behind it. I’m a little jealous about that, but working on Batman is pretty cool, I think.
Q: Are there any DC characters left you want to write?
MICHAEL JELENIC: Just the Haunted Tank series. (laughter) That’s it. No, Booster Gold is a character I like. If I could spin off Justice League International from Brave and the Bold, that would be fun. I like irreverent takes…keeping that stuff serious, but having fun with it.
MICHAEL JELENIC: (click to listen to response) Well, doesn’t it make sense? “Cats”? You know? (laughter) It’s obvious. Although I have a feeling if I did that, people on this show would kill me (laughs). But I had this idea where there’s this musical villain, and the ThunderCats are forced to sing the original ThunderCats song, but that was quickly shot down. Cheetara was up there, (singing) “Thunder, thunder…” But I don’t think we’ll see that, unfortunately.
Q: Are you revisiting any of the old stories or paying homage to those stories, or is it all going to be new?
MICHAEL JELENIC: It’s a little bit of both. We’re definitely referencing old arcs and such, but it’s pretty much a new take on it. If there’s a 5-part episode like “The Trials of Lion-O” from the original series, we’ll be talking about how we do that in this series. The old series had a bunch of 5-parters because the show aired daily, so a 5-parter would be cool. Now it’ll air once a week, so it won’t have the same effect. We have those kinds of discussions. How do we do our take on the Berbils, how do we do our take on whatever.
Q: The giant castle, with lion claws?
MICHAEL JELENIC: Oh, you MIGHT see it. You might not. (laughter) The art looks great, by the way. I’ll say that.
Q: Brave and the Bold is very self-contained, very episodic. In ThunderCats, the stories go on. Which do you prefer?
MICHAEL JELENIC: I’ll tell you which is easier (laughs). Brave and the Bold is easier. I don’t have to go, “Oh, I set that up, now I have to pay that off.” Literally, Brave and the Bold…this is not a joke…was designed specifically to make my job as easy as possible (laughs). It was like, “OK, no continuing episodes, it can have any tone.” Because I remember working on The Batman and we’d have these great ideas for stories, but we’d go, “No, that story wouldn’t work in this universe. It’s too silly” or “It’s too dark.” In Brave and the Bold, everything fits, so that’s literally the question I was asking: “How do I make it so I don’t have to work on the weekends?
Q: “What continuity?” Right?
MICHAEL JELENIC: Exactly. So, ThunderCats has been a lot more difficult, but again, anything that’s a little bit more serious takes a little bit more effort. It’s been a challenge, but I think it’ll be good. Unless it’s terrible (laughs).
Q: Do you ever find yourself coming up with ideas that you can’t use on Brave and the Bold because the show is geared to the kids?
MICHAEL JELENIC: (laughs) There’s a risque song in the “Birds of Prey” episode, which aired in Australia, and it’s caught the attention of Standards (& Practices). We’re actually going to pull that episode from the schedule and rework it so it’s less offensive. Some people interpreted it…I would say incorrectly because that was not the intention at all…as being sexual in nature. But it’s not. At all. So, that got pulled. For now.
Q: Any characters that you didn’t get a chance to team up with Batman that you would like to?
MICHAEL JELENIC: I don’t know. We pretty much have got a ton of characters in there. The only person I really wanted to get in there that hadn’t been up until season 3 was Jimmy Olsen. I liked some of the old Jimmy Olsen comics, so I wanted to get him in there, but he’s in there and I think we’ve got an interesting take. Pretty much everybody we want is in there. I even got Ted McGinley into the last episode of Brave and the Bold. I know he’s not a DC character, but he’s someone I’ve wanted to put in.
MICHAEL JELENIC: I’m pretty sure we’ve got some pretty big episodes coming up. I mean, that was a two-part episode, so whenever we have 2-part episodes, we sort of…there’s got to be a big payoff and you want to throw in every single hero you’ve seen. There aren’t any more two-part episodes in the series, so I don’t know if we’ll see anything…I’m trying to think if we have anything quite to that scale. We have some huge episodes coming up, but I don’t know if it’s something where we’ll see every single characters in the DC Universe that we’ve ever had.
Q: Were there any characters that were challenging to get to fit well with the Batman you were doing?
MICHAEL JELENIC: No. I mean, again, Brave and the Bold was very versatile. You could take super-dark characters like the Spectre and the Phantom Stranger and do a super-dark episode. We just adjusted to the character. Batman is the straight man in our series, so, he’s the one who shifts. The tone of the show will work around whoever that other hero is. If we’re doing a Captain Marvel Brave and the Bold, then we’re going to use Captain Marvel’s world. So I think that’s why the show works is because Batman is the perfect straight-man. If he takes this situation seriously, whatever the situation is, the audience will, too.
Q: If there was one character from Brave and the Bold that you could do a spinoff for, which one would it be BESIDES Aquaman? (laughter)
MICHAEL JELENIC: BESIDES Aquaman? … Aquaman’s wife, Mera. (laughter) We’d have our own Mera spinoff, and Aquaman would appear in that spinoff. Take that! (laughter). I would say Justice League International. I think we have, a really great take on the JLI. I think the humor of that comic really works in the Brave and the Bold universe, and I think the lineup we picked is great. Brave and the Bold is sort of winding down, but if they were to ask for more episodes, I’d want to rebrand it as JLI. And by the way, Aquaman is part of the JLI. (laughter) Even though he’s not part of them in the comics.
TOONZONE NEWS: Who cares? Aquaman needs to be everywhere.
MICHAEL JELENIC: Exactly. I know.
Q: He’s the cowbell of the DC Universe. More Aquaman!
MICHAEL JELENIC: It’s like, “Let’s give Aquaman a musical number.” Literally, if we get a script that’s not so strong, we’re like, “Let’s, uh…put Aquaman in there. Maybe Aquaman can sing here.”
TOONZONE NEWS: Can you talk about the upcoming Scooby-Doo cameo? Did you actually work with the guys who are doing the Mystery Incorporated show to get it in there?
MICHAEL JELENIC: Just the voice cast. The episode is question is called “Bat-Mite Presents Batman’s Strangest Cases!” and it’s Bat-Mite looking at 3 different versions of Batman, so our Batman does not appear in this episode at all. We have a teaser with Batboy and Rubin, which is a famous MAD comic, so it’ll be in that style. Then we do Bat-Manga which you see in the Chip Kidd book, and it’s brilliant. It’s like a redubbed Japanese animation from the 60′s, where the lip-sync is off and that sort of thing. The great thing about that is that all the Japanese animation from that time was a lot more violent than could actually make it on the air, so it’s like you’d see characters die and the hero would say, “I’m glad he made it away” or “I’m glad he was safe.” Even though the lip flap doesn’t support that many words. Then the final segment is the Scooby one, and I can’t talk about the special guest star, but it’s a fun one. That will look literally like the Batman Scooby-Doo movies of the 70′s. I mean, look EXACTLY like it, with Bat-Mite sort of coming in and providing commentary on it. It’s a fun episode. I’m not sure when it will actually air, but it looks good.
Q: Do you enjoy doing all these homages?
MICHAEL JELENIC: Yeah. I mean, you gotta remember everyone working on this show is a fan of all this stuff and a fan of animation. Everybody’s sort of bringing in their influences and what amuses them, and because the show has that kind of versatility, it fits. It’s like “Let’s put in a musical” or “Let’s put in the Scooby thing.” Whatever amuses us is what we do. At some point, we may jump the shark, which I pretty much can gurantee. You know, we’ll take the show too far, but for now, we straddle that line in bringing in things that we could feature for one episode and then just do a traditional superhero show for the next one.
MICHAEL JELENIC: Well, I will say he may or may not make a cameo or appearance. But I think since we’ve featured Neil Patrick Harris, he’s become a lot more famous (laughs) so I don’t know if he’d have time for us. He probably would. He’s done a lot of the direct-to-video stuff and he’s worked for us in the past. The other flip side to it is topping the musical, since it was so well received. I’m sure that if we did it again, it would suck and sort of diminish what we did before. We had a lot of fun doing the musical numbers, so maybe instead of doing Music Meister, we’ll see plenty of other musical numbers except maybe not with that character. But with Aquaman…maybe five times with Aquaman. I think he gets his own 3-camera sitcom in one teaser. It’s fun. I hope.
TOONZONE NEWS: What was it like to come back to Wonder Woman for Brave and the Bold?
MICHAEL JELENIC: (laughs). I don’t know. Wonder Woman is such a tricky, tricky character. The only thing I cared about is anything that the hardcore fans hated about the movie. I was like, “Make sure she flies, James! (laughs). Make sure she’s flying in this!” I think she can fly in this. I’m not sure. He might have made her use the Invisible Plane. I guess every superhero has very specific fans, who have a little sensitive spot, and if you cross that by accident, they will kill you. I think this is a pretty traditional take on Wonder Woman. I think it’s in line of what you would expect from a Silver Age show like ours. I hope most Wonder Woman fans will like it.
Q: What would you say has been the most vocal outcry over a character you’ve wrote?
MICHAEL JELENIC: I’ve been pretty lucky. I haven’t had anybody really kill me on anything yet. There’s definitely pockets of the Wonder Woman thing, like she doesn’t fly. That wasn’t even my decision, but I’m the Anti-Christ because she uses the Invisible Plane. Mostly that was it. Other than that, I think that people have fun because I’m not usually doing super-serious takes on stuff. People will excuse anything we do on Brave and the Bold because it’s a fun take and not the definitive version of their character, so we get a lot more leeway on the show. I know James and I don’t really love our take on the Outsiders on Brave and the Bold. We were trying to do something a little bit different, but eventually, we restored them to the Outsiders that people were expecting from the comics.
MICHAEL JELENIC: Yes. Definitely. ThunderCats fans are VERY VERY passionate, so I worry all the time. I literally go to these message boards to see what lines I can cross because they will tell me. We do change the mythology a little bit, and I’m a little bit worried that we’ll make some people upset. Hopefully, they will understand we’re trying to be respectful. Even in this Captain Marvel/Superman short, Superman is now indirectly related to his origin story, so I worry about fans who will say, “Superman was never involved!” But sometimes you take poetic license based on the project and what you have to do. But I am terrified of the ThunderCats fans. I’m thinking I need to be, because it’s got to be awesome.
TOONZONE NEWS: How did you approach Superman? A lot of people say he’s a tough character to write for.
MICHAEL JELENIC: For Brave and the Bold, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with Superman. I wanted to do my take on Superdickery. This is how we’re going to introduce him. For the Captain Marvel short, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. The problem with Sueprman is that he’s perfect and he has to be perfect. That’s a challenge that people cite with him. He doesn’t have the gray area that Batman does, but in the context of the short, Superman IS supposed to be perfect. He represents the angel to Black Adam’s devil. He’s a role model for Billy, so that regard, it made it easy for him to write because he had a clear, concise role in this thing. He’s not too hard. The problem with Superman and Batman is that every story’s been told. If you have boring stories, it’s probably because they’ve already been told a million times. But you can have that any time you have 70-year old characters. How do you do something fresh and interesting? I think that’s another reason why Brave and the Bold is fun, because we’re taking these characters out of their comfort zone, and out of the stage you normally see them in, and that gives us a lot of opportunity to do a lot of different things with them.
Toonzone News would like to thank Michael Jelenic for taking the time to talk with us again, and Gary Miereanu arranging it. Batman: The Brave and the Bold airs on Cartoon Network on Fridays at 7:30 PM (Eastern/Pacific). The DC Showcase Shorts Collection is due out on November 9, 2010, and the new ThunderCats will be loose on Cartoon Network in 2011.