STAS 10th: Monkeys, Shock Jocks, and Supergirl – Evan Dorkin & Sarah Dyer
To commemorate the impending 10th anniversary of Superman the Animated Series, Toon Zone News and the World’s Finest Online have teamed up for an interview series with an assortment of people associated with the show or the tie-in Superman Adventures comic book series.
Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer have accumulated an extensive pedigree in the world of independent comic books, both independently and as a team. Dorkin’s work includes the long-running Dork and Milk and Cheese comic books, while Dyer’s Action Girl Comics anthology/’zine showcased a variety of female cartoonists to create “girl-positive and female-friendly” comics that were not anti-boy. The two made the jump into animation writing with a gig on Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and have also done a pilot for Adult Swim (Welcome to Eltingville, based on Dorkin’s Eltingville comic strip).
Toon Zone News and the World’s Finest Online caught up with Dorkin via e-mail and with both Dorkin and Dyer in person at the MoCCA Art Festival in June to ask them about their episodes of Superman the Animated Series and the four issues of the Superman Adventures comic book they collaborated on.
WORLD’S FINEST/TOON ZONE NEWS: How exactly did you guys get the job to write for the TV show and the tie-in comics? Which came first?
EVAN DORKIN: We had become friends with Paul Dini after meeting him at the San Diego Comic-Con several years before we worked on Superman. He had bought a page of Milk and Cheese artwork from me at the show and introduced himself, and we stayed in touch. Originally, Paul had asked me to write something for Freakazoid, while the show was starting up. I was working on the plot breakdown when Paul and several other people left the staff of Freakazoid, and my job went south along with them. From what I was told – and what the original development material bears out – Freakazoid was changed by the top executives from a funny action/adventure superhero show to a Tiny-Toons-style superhero comedy, and several of the producers balked at this. They also wanted to severely ramp up the merchandising potential of the series, which certainly didn’t quite work out like they wanted it to.
Anyway, when Superman ramped up Paul contacted Sarah and I – we had been working on Space Ghost Coast to Coast at the time – and offered us a script. It was originally supposed to be about Funky Flashman and Goody Rickles, two insane characters Jack Kirby created for his Fourth World books at DC in the 70s, but those plans never panned out. Instead we were assigned the Livewire intro, which was intended for season one but ended up in season two.
As for the comics, Sarah had the idea to gather up a lot of material we liked for the Supergirl two-parter that WB cut and work it into a one-shot story for DC. The original “Little Girl Lost” plot was changed significantly fairly last-minute and we had a significant amount of backstory worked up for it as well. In a nutshell, we approached DC, and they went for it. The Supergirl comic was supposed to be a one-shot, but because of scheduling delays with the two-part episode, DC held it, and it ended up becoming a giant-sized issue of the regular Superman Adventures book (Superman Adventures #21 – ed). We did three more issues, including a sequel to the Supergirl issue.
ED: One of the reasons Paul wanted to use us was because he knew we liked superheroes, but we weren’t so reverent to them that we’d do the same old thing. There’s not a lot of room in animation done for a corporation to do anything really crazy. A lot of our goofier ideas and crazier dialogue got kicked out, but that happens to everybody. It’s not like we were trying to be animation rebels. We weren’t trying to make it South Park or anything like that. We just wanted to make it cool and hopefully it was.
It’s Superman, and Superman’s hard. There are very set parameters on him. If you mess with him, people think it’s retarded, and when you don’t mess with him, people think he’s boring. That’s why I thought it was a great idea to bring the Kirby stuff in there. I wish we got to work more with that ourselves, and I think that really worked well. I was really sorry when they pulled the plug on the show, too. I always felt that Superman was the red-headed stepchild of the Warner Brothers shows. As soon as they got the rights back to Batman, it felt like everybody ran from Superman. The fans loved the show, but when Batman came back, they were all so excited. To be quite honest, when it all calmed down, I think people were more excited about the second half of the Superman shows than they were about the new Batman shows. The Superman shows got really solid, and in some ways it became the Justice League. I don’t know if they knew that was coming, but they really just became the DC Universe show. A lot of what drives a Superman show is what’s going on around him, whereas Batman you can do a show without a villain.
But Superman is really tough – he’s an old character and he relates to a different time. He’s very black-and-white, and when you gray him up, it becomes a lot harder. I think that’s another reason why Captain America suffers. I’m not a social scientist, but they just don’t work as well as the grittier characters, who have their own problems, but nowadays guys that pick up guns do a lot better in superhero comics.
WF/TZN: You were one of a small number of people who worked on both the show and the comics. Did you get to communicate more with the show producers for your comic book work as a result, or get the flow going in the other direction?
ED: We didn’t communicate much at all with WB in regards to the comics. I think we asked Paul a few things regarding continuity, and requested some reference material on Mala and Jax-Ur, things like that. We didn’t have a lot of close communication with WB on the whole. We dealt mainly with Paul, and we were freelancing out of NYC while they were in L.A. I’ve met very few people from the series – Bruce Timm several times, and Glen Murakami – but that’s largely it. We did get to work with Bret Blevins on two of the comics, he was one of the main board artists on Superman the Animated Series and did a fantastic job with the comics. We were very happy with what he brought to the material.
WF/TZN: There are a lot of writers credited for the two-part “Little Girl Lost” episodes. How did your contribution fit in with the other writers on those episodes?
ED: Sarah and I have writing credits on both episodes. Paul and Alan have co-writing credits on part one, and we have a story credit on the second episode, but I forget the name of the writer (Rich Fogel — ed). The second half was changed fairly last minute and a regular series writer reworked the plot. Originally, Granny Goodness was bringing together wayward teens and training them with Apokolips technology because she was harvesting them as source material for creating new Parademons. It was a riff on Pleasure Island from Pinocchio, where the kids are taken in and transformed into donkeys. Here, the kids were taken to Apokolips to be transformed into Parademon troopers to bulk up Darkseid’s army. It was going to be revealed that Parademons were all genetically-engineered beings: Armaghetto inhabitants, slaves, captured aliens (Thanagarians, Martians, etc). We were going to show this huge, Nazi-like Krupp Works for Parademons with beings on chains being dragged into chambers where they’d emerge as soulless Parademons. The two-parter ended with Supergirl and Superman in full-scale battle on. Anyway, from what I was told, a producer who had signed off on the original premise balked and then asked for changes. We had already done several drafts, and after they handed us the new plot, we ended up doing another slew of drafts. It was nuts.
We were pretty disappointed, to be honest. I still like the episodes a great deal, but we preferred the original premise, and after all was said and done we were no longer the sole writers on the shows.
WF/TZN: It seems that a lot of the comics you worked on involved Supergirl. Was that a conscious choice on your parts?
ED: WB asked us to work on the Supergirl intro, and we enjoyed working with the character a lot and wanted to write more material for her. We never got to do any more work for STAS (we were hoping to work on the Supergirl/Batgirl episode, and at one point it was floated by us, but it just kept floating by, unfortunately). As I said, Sarah had the idea to rework a lot of the extra Supergirl material and notes we had into the DC one-shot. Then we had an idea for the sequel story where she goes back to Argo to bury her family (in Superman Adventures #39, “Reunion” — ed). That was really all that was behind it. We always wanted to do more with Supergirl, but we also had about a dozen plots for Superman stories we hoped to do as comics. We just never found the time to work it into our schedule.
ED: Generally, Sarah and I talked about a script, and then did separate passes, I’d start writing, then she’d rewrite and add material and edit my stuff, then back to me, then eventually we both did a polishing draft together. It didn’t always work like that, but in general that was the approach. On “Livewire” we were handed a pretty loose springboard, which we fleshed out and then reworked after cuts and changes were made by WB, and then we wrote the script.
I’m not crazy about the episode, I wanted a bigger ending and I think a few things fall flat, partly because of our inexperience and partly because the producers were getting the hang of the series themselves. The earlier shows are stiffer than the later ones. “Livewire” was supposed to be a first season episode, and the early premise had a lot more material about how people were coping with the concept of having Superman in their midst. He was supposed to “come out” in the episode, appear publicly for the first time and address the citizens of Metropolis, answering public concerns about his being a potential threat, or posing as a hero to cover a plot to invade the planet by his fellow super-beings. I think that lent itself to some more interesting material than what we got, which was fairly standard. There are a few nice bits, but the animation is a little choppy and we had a more explosive, violent ending, which wasn’t how it ended up. These things happen. I think we turned in better scripts for “Monkey Fun” and “Little Girl Lost” based on the experience of seeing our first script animated. You can’t really call Space Ghost “animated”, so this was a big first for us.
WF/TZN: Did you follow Livewire’s migration to the regular Superman comics at all? If so, did you like it?
ED: I didn’t even know she was featured in the regular-continuity comics until someone wrote something about it on my LiveJournal a few weeks ago. I don’t know anything about it.
WF/TZN: “Monkey Fun” introduced Titano, and felt a lot like a 50’s-era Superman story. Is there a story behind that episode? Or was it just a great excuse to put a gigantic chimp on the show?
ED: Who needed an excuse? Everyone likes monkeys and Titano was already an old Superman character, so it was a natural. I was really pleased with this one, and glad they gave it to us to do. My only regrets about this show was I wished we could have had at least one standard Toho/Harryhausen-type shot of Titano rampaging through Metropolis and causing some major destruction. If you have a giant monster on the loose, you have to show them really cutting loose at least once. All the rampage stuff had to be cut for time. But they should have had at least one, brief city stomp shot to put the monster stuff over a little more effectively. Minor complaint aside, I really like that one, I think it works. I don’t think the fans thought much of it because it was a humor episode and Titano didn’t constitute a “cool” cameo, but I really like it.
WF/TZN: Did you have any input on what Livewire or Supergirl or any of the other characters on the show would look like?
ED: Livewire, we had nothing to do with. We just saw the sketches as they came in. For Supergirl, Sarah went to L.A. and hashed out a lot of material with Paul Dini and a lot of the other people.
SARAH DYER: With Supergirl, we didn’t really have a lot. I was out there, but I wasn’t really involved. Some of the artists seemed to say that they did keep writers in mind. For example, for the “Livewire” episode, Superman saves a baby, and they deliberately drew the baby so it would look like Evan drew it, they told me, as a little tribute. Some people would say that they would keep you in mind, but we didn’t have any involvement. We didn’t do any sketches or give them any ideas. If we had any effect on it, it was really just the artists saying, “I want to make it go with the writer a lot more,” but we didn’t have any direct involvement.
WF/TZN: Did your work with Action Girl affect how you wrote Supergirl at all?
SD: I wouldn’t really know. Possibly, but I couldn’t say. I’d be a huge egotist if I did (laughs).
ED: I think that when we were writing it and where she was coming from with Action Girl, we would talk seriously about what we didn’t want to do with the character. Girl characters are always written kind of like how minorities are written in animation and film way too often. It’s like this Batwoman they’re putting out there – “She’s a Lesbian!” is all you know about her. It’s ridiculous.
We wanted to make sure that she was someone who didn’t have a lot of angst. She liked her powers – if you notice in the episode, she’s not like Superman at all. The whole point was that she was pretty comfortable with powers. She didn’t have “girl” problems. It wasn’t “a Very Special Episode of Superman…with Girls.” I hate this term, but we just wanted it to be kind of kick-ass without calling too much attention to it. The contrast was that she was very confident – in fact a little overconfident – and she really enjoyed her powers.
We not saying it was a political issue – you know, “we gotta do this for the little girls of America” – but we got really good feedback from the comic, especially, from parents whose little girls really loved the character and really got into her. In some ways, that’s the spillover from Action Girl. We didn’t want to do anything condescending with the character and any comments we made about her being a girl were tongue-in-cheek or natural, we hope. We didn’t want to have any “…and she’s a GIRL!” moments.
I mean, she gets her head kicked in. She’s a superhero. This is the genre. She hits people, but they also hit her. None of that stuff where the girl only gets tripped or hit with energy beams. In the comic, we worked her over, but we didn’t treat her any differently that way. Her fears and problems had nothing to do with her being a girl and everything to do with her being a person, and we did get a really nice response to that.
WF/TZN: Did you ever consider doing the artwork for one of the Superman Adventures comics?
ED: Not really. I mean, sure, I had the urge, but I know my limitations as a superhero artist. For me to do a halfway-decent job on a single issue I’d need several months because I’d sweat it. I’d sweat doing the Timm-style and worry it didn’t look good enough. There are a lot of talented people who work that animated style, I’d need a lot of lead-time to look one twentieth as good as Rick Burchett or Bret Blevins or Mike Manley or Ty Templeton, to name just a few at random. Not to mention the WB artists and designers.
I did design some of the characters for the comics we wrote, like the General Zod design and the design for the female Brainiac from the “Reunion” issue. That was a lot of fun, but it was isolated and I could spend a lot of time trying to get it right. And even if I didn’t, my drawings never saw print – they were interpreted by Bret Blevins, who did a great job. I also did a Solomon Grundy re-design in the animated style for a proposed comic script, but we never got to write the story.
WF/TZN: Was there anything special in your landing the assignment to write the last 2 issues of the series?
ED: Not at all. We took so long to get those scripts in that they simply ended up as the final two issues. They were never assigned as the series ender. If I knew we were writing the final storyline, we would have gone all-out. I still cringe at the fact that the series went off on those two issues, since they weren’t supposed to be the finale of the series and, quite frankly, they weren’t all that good. They just didn’t come off the way we would have liked them to. Our scripts were over-written and needed more editing by us (and there was some confusion that led to one issue being lettered from an unedited version of the script), and the art was a bit of a mess. I’m not happy with those issues at all. I like the plot and the premise and a few bits of business, but that was no way to end a really nifty series.
WF/TZN: Did you ever get the urge to go all “Milk & Cheese” with Superman to see what would happen?
ED: It’s not something I’ve given any real thought to. Maybe Milk and Cheese go all Milk and Cheese on Superman, he’s usually a real uptight character. I’m more inclined to have Milk and Cheese go all Superman, actually. I have a Milk and Cheese superhero strip in my files that I may do for the next issue.
ED: Well, there’s the stuff I mentioned before, but that’s pretty much it. “Livewire” was supposed to have a lot more about Superman’s position in Metropolis and people learning more about him and how his legend was growing, and was to have a more packed ending. “Monkey Fun” lost some giant monkey city trampling, and a scene where Superman was swallowed by Titano and spit out into a car like a bullet, and finds himself completely covered in giant gurvy monkey spit. Nothing major, just some cute bits, we thought. A lot of stuff was changed in “Little Girl Lost,” as I said, but we got to use a lot of our back story and some bits of business in Superman Adventures #21 issue.
I do wish the Apokolips ending was retained. I always thought the giant meteor/comet from space was hokey and made very little sense as a reason for Granny to break the pact and traffic with a bunch of useless kids. Body harvesting kids for shock troops was creepier, made somewhat more sense, and was very Kirby/Apokolips in tone (at least in my opinion).
I can’t think of much else. There’s always dialogue and sequences that are changed, lost, or truncated, but everyone goes through that – its not just our scripts by any means. We were very lucky in many ways, because a lot of our material remained after the process. On the whole, it was a very good experience. Only some of the Supergirl changes smarted, especially after we went though over 20 drafts, major and minor, between the two scripts. That was a real haul.
WF/TZN: What was the biggest surprise for you while writing for the show and/or the comic?
ED: No surprises working on the comic, other than the fact that the animated shows were really popular but DC couldn’t get anybody to read the comics – even though creators from the cartoons often worked on them and people would buy the action figures in droves. Working on Batman Beyond was more of an eye-opener than working on Superman, because we got to see what it was like to work on a show that wasn’t firing on all cylinders. We learned about how budgeting affects a script or episode, what it’s like to work on a show without a complete bible, and how writers and board artists can extensively alter your script. We didn’t experience many of those things – at least not to that degree – on Superman.
Other than that, the biggest surprise was that the WB unit had a rift of sorts between the writers and the artists, more or less two camps that didn’t always get along and didn’t always communicate well enough. It affected at least one script of ours, the Batman Beyond one. Very weird. But we were able to avoid office politics, because we were far away, low-level freelancers, and no threat to anyone.
ED: Punch up and polish and edit. Especially on “Livewire” – it needs some added energy, no pun intended. And I would try harder to get a few script assignments, which were dangled in front of us but never came about. We were too laid back, and nervous about asserting ourselves, myself more than Sarah. On several occasions someone would ask us how we felt about doing a script with such-and-such a character, and I’d get all excited but wouldn’t follow up. I was just so happy to have the gig I never really pushed. I’m bad at that sort of thing. The phone has to ring, I’m not good at making the call. We were asked about doing some Batman scripts, and I still remember getting very worked up when the Creeper episode was mentioned, but instead of keeping on it, we waited to hear from the producers. I’m not implying we would have gotten the Creeper episode, or any additional work, but I wish we had tried for more. We were pretty busy with Space Ghost and our comics, but I did want to try a Batman episode, or another Supergirl episode. I’m happy we did what we did, though.
WF/TZN: What are you working on now, separately and as a team?
ED : Sarah and I are about to go into production on a pilot for the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim called Tyrone’s Inferno. It’s a fifteen-minute pilot, about a demon who’s so obnoxious he gets kicked out of Hell to spend Eternity on Earth. He lives in a trailer park where he plots various revenges or just eats crap and watches TV. It’s sort of Milk and Cheese-like in tone and extreme violence, sort of Little Rascals meets The Young Ones in The Twilight Zone in pitch-speak. Hopefully it’ll get made.
We’re also doing the English scripts for an anime series that Funimation has licensed (since revealed to be Crayon Shinchan – ed), and we’ve recently done comics and spot illustrations work for Mad, Mad Kids, Nickelodeon Magazine, Spin and Maxim U.K. Sarah’s doing rewrites for several Tokyopo manga series. I’m working on Dork #11, new Milk and Cheese strips for the Negative Burn comic anthology, and some scripts for Bongo’s Bart Simpson comic. We’re also working on a set of Milk and Cheese vinyl figures with Slave Labor Graphics for later this year, and I’m doing a 20-page horror story with artist Jill Thompson for the upcoming Dark Horse Book of Monsters.
Toon Zone News and the World’s Finest Online would like to thank Dorkin and Dyer for their time. The pair’s website is at www.houseoffun.com, where you can keep up to date with the latest from the duo.
This interview co-published with the World’s Finest Online. Images from Superman the Animated Series courtesy of the World’s Finest Online.