Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Men: Jeph Loeb and Paul Dini
by Dan Casey on April 2, 2012
What’s red and blue and covered in a sticky film all over? That’s right, it’s your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (what did you think I was going to say?)! America’s only acceptable arachnid turns fifty years old this year and, like SNL’s Sally O’Malley, he’s still kicking. The world eagerly awaits this summer’s blockbuster movie, but I had the chance to catch the premiere of Disney XD’s brand new Ultimate Spider-Man, which airs Sundays at 11 AM EST/PST on Disney XD, and it may just be the most exciting Spider-Man I’ve seen in ages. This lucky Webhead also had a chance to catch up with Marvel Head of Television Jeph Loeb and series writer Paul Dini at our base of operations at Meltdown Comics to talk reinventing the Spider-Wheel, the future of Marvel animation and the joys of smashing stuff.
Nerdist: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. I really appreciate it.
Paul Dini: Not a problem. So, did you enjoy the show?
N: Hey! I’m asking the questions here. Seriously though, I loved it. I had a blast. I was pleasantly surprised because I know that I’m not necessarily the demographic that Disney XD is shooting for.
Jeph Loeb: Thank you. And you only got to see half. The pilot is a two-parter, but for the rest of the series, nothing else is to be continued; it’s all self-contained stories.
N: So this is the first project from Marvel Animation Studios?
JL: Well, it’s the first one that we like to think of as done entirely with Marvel people. Super Hero Squad and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were steps in that right direction, but this is really the first time that everyone who was involved from the top down was much more involved with Marvel both on the creative and the production side.
N: What lead you to set this series in the Ultimate universe?
JL: Other than the fact that there’s, obviously, as we all refer to it, the Samuel L. Jackson version of Nick Fury, it takes place in the Marvel Universe. There’s no two ways about it. It’s really best explained in that, in 2001, they really set out to reinvent Spider-Man for that particular generation. So, ten years later, we sat down and said, “Okay, what is that version? What is the animated version of that?” If everything else that came before it – whether it’s Spectacular or Classic or Amazing, the previous animated series that came along – how would you then take that and make it into something new the way the Ultimate universe did? It’s really taking the Ultimate concept and applying it to Spider-Man animation as opposed to literally being within the Ultimate universe.
N: Do you find it allows you more freedom to tell the kind of stories you’d like to tell?
PD: Well, it certainly allows us freedom to change things up a bit from the way that they’ve been over the last fifty years of Spider-Man’s history, and that actually includes some elements from the Ultimate universe. What we do with these shows is look for these elements that, one, serve Spider-Man well and, two, serve a TV show well. That’s one of the things that’s wonderful about the comics; I read every issue of Ultimate Spider-Man that’s come out and re-read them in preparation for the show and there are certain things that work great, certain things maybe not so well.
Certain characters come and go and I maybe wanted to use different characters from the supporting cast, but after going back and forth with Joe [Quesada] and Brian [Michael Bendis], they would say things like “you know, Kenny Kong was a big part of the book, but we’re not feeling him as much for the show.” So, we dropped him out and went back to some elements from the original Spider-Man back in the 60’s and tried to distill those down to their essence. Like Flash Thompson: He’s a bully, he’s the guy that Peter pretends to be afraid of, but let’s start him at that point and see where we can take him in a slightly different way so that, by the end of the first season, maybe he’s not exactly the same jerk and maybe in future stories we see that there’s something likable or understandable. That keeps in line with what they’ve done in the Ultimates territory, but, at the same time, we’re changing it for the show.
N: Obviously you have an animation legend in Paul, but we understand that Brian Michael Bendis is also involved in the project. To what extent is he involved in production?
JL: Brian’s there all the time and he’s written some of our funniest episodes of the season. Between Brian, Joe Quesada, the Man of Action guys – Joe Kelly, Joe Casey, Steven Seagle – it really was to go out and not just get the best people who work in the business, but to get people who love Marvel and who love telling Spider-Man stories. Y’know, it’s funny because Paul is so well-known for his extraordinary work with our Distinguished Competition, but I knew Paul because we worked on Lost together and had that secret piece of information that, if you peel Paul just a little bit, there’s a Marvel zombie right there just bursting to get out. It literally had just been that no one had ever asked him. I happened to be the lucky guy who said, “We’re starting Spider-Man; would you like to do it?” and he was like, “Would I?!” So, it’s kind of hilarious to me that he’ll out-geek us. He’s a Marvel zombie and he’s amazing.
N: I was pleasantly surprised by how funny the pilot was, especially considering some folks like myself might be outside of Disney XD’s target audience. There’s a nice balance of content for younger audiences and older viewers alike, sort of the Pixar idea of a movie for kids and a movie for adults. Was that the intention?
JL: I think in many ways – and I don’t dare to compare us to it – certainly Pixar was one of our inspirations along the way. It really is important that it is a show that kids can watch, that our fans can watch and that families can watch together. To be perfectly honest, it didn’t really have anything to do with being on Disney XD, it had to do with what Marvel wanted to do and I think that’s one of the nice things about what we’ve accomplished in working with our friends at XD. The idea of Marvel Universe, the block, is for people to really understand that while it may not be the first place you would think to come to, our hope is that within a year from now, people understand that if you want to see Marvel animation, the newest stuff that’s coming out and you want to see stuff that’s directly from the Marvel tap – it’s not going to be created by other people and just has Marvel’s name on it, it wasn’t licensed out or anything like that – the place to go is Disney XD. It’ll be one of those things where again, hopefully a year from now, it hopefully isn’t that kind of question. I like to think of it like this: I remember when AMC was the American Movie Channel and that it ran black-and-white movies all day long and that’s what they talked about and now it’s The Walking Dead channel, so a different identity can come into that world simply by having a show that people want to watch.
PD: Well, it’s always been in the back of my head, and I’ve discussed it a little bit with the other writers, sort of a secret plan, that this show will be on the air for more than a few years. Hopefully, it will be. Well, for one, it stands alone as a fun show that you can always watch and then a kid – the target audience, I think, was ages 6 to 11 – they’re really gonna get into it, they’re really going to dig it and it’ll be a part of their life. What I’d kind of like to put in as we go along, is – the storytelling is really reflective of where Peter Parker is at this sort of stage in his life. He’s been doing the hero bit for about a year, life is free and easy, he’s living with Aunt May, who’s out of the house most of the time, he’s palling around with characters like Hulk and Thor and this whole new team of superheroes. Life is good. I’d kind of like it to be that the more seasons we do, we change his world around a little bit so that the kids who started watching at age 6 going through age 9… so that the stories have a little bit of gravitas with them.
N: So that they get to grow up with Spider-Man?
PD: Yeah. I don’t want him to be always static because, by then, we might have a new crop of 4-year-olds just discovering the show, which is fine, but I’d like the show to grow a little bit with the audience. There are certain characters I grew up watching from the ’70s or the ’60s and those shows are sort of stuck in time. They’re quaint, they’re fun, they’re charming, but I can maybe only watch two episodes of Space Ghost before giving up. At the same time, we want to keep it fun and exciting and give the full Marvel experience as you’re watching so that you’re invested in the villains and characters that show up, whether they’re classic Spidey villains or Dr. Doom pays a visit.
N: You handled exposition in such a clever manner with cartoony cutaways that explain facts and backstory that you need to understand the world of Spider-Man while keeping the action moving and keeping it fresh.
PD: Yeah, I think that was important because this is the visual language that children are learning to speak now. I didn’t want to do a very linear show where things are talked about and never seen because I think that’s death on TV, especially in animation. But also, kids are watching all sorts of different shows now; they’re watching reality shows that have a lot of breaking the fourth wall through cutaways. Maybe they’re sneaking out of bed late at night to watch Family Guy, which breaks that wall too. This is the way in which they’re learning cartoons and we should be out leading that and showing the way – a split-image of a hero’s head, where he goes to in his imagination – because who has a more vivid imagination than Spider-Man?
N: I’m glad you mentioned that. It reminded me a bit of Deadpool, but rated G. Another thing I noticed – and this might just be me – is that The Daily Bugle is more of a big-time news program with J. Jonah Jameson as a pundit-type.
PD: Yeah, he’s kind of like [Glenn] Beck or something like that.
N: Was that a conscious decision to make him similar to those Fox News-y types?
PD: Yes, very much so and, again, that’s the language in which kids are learning about media. The day of the Ted Baxter reporter is gone; the day of the Perry White news editor – that’s gone too, it’s on its way out. What they do know is this guy proselytizing and espousing his own views, for better or for worse. The guy with the money has the media and he’s up there shouting. We made Jameson a very vital part of the show. It’s almost like in the old movie Metropolis, he’s this presence lording over the city and espousing his views, and it’s up to the people on the street to make up their own views about Spider-Man. Is he a good guy? Is he a bad guy? There’s a moment in the pilot when he saves a cop’s life and the cop says, “Maybe Jameson’s wrong about you.” Spider-Man’s out there doing a one-man PR job.
N: Apart from Ultimate Spider-Man and a second season of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, are there any other Marvel animation titles that we can expect coming up?
JL: The only one that we’ve announced – there’s obviously things that we’re working on that are being held in security at S.H.I.E.L.D. – that is in the next stage of development is called Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.. This is Hulk more in the superhero vein, working with the various Hulks that exist within the Marvel Universe, which I unabashedly had something to do with. So, we have Red Hulk, we have She-Hulk – a lot of people giggle when they hear She-Hulk, but she’s been around now for thirty years. She deserves to be part of the show as far as we’re concerned. We love Jen. There’s Skaar, who’s sort of the teen barbarian Hulk, and then Rick Jones, who was always the sidekick during my fortunate run with Ed McGuinness, who through a series of accidents got turned into a blue kind of Hulk known as A-Bomb, so that’s the group. They’re known as the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. and there’ll be an awful lot of smashing going on in that show.
PD: I love that show dearly. I think it’s going to be a terrific show. I’m working with some great people on that; it’s a take on the Hulk that I’m really loving and I think it’s something kids are going to want.
JL: We have an extraordinarily close relationship with our friends at ABC and ABC Studios. We have in development – we’ve announced this – The Hulk will be coming back to television with any kind of luck. We have Jessica Jones, who came from the Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos comic Alias. The Punisher is another character that we’re developing. At ABC Family, we’re developing Cloak and Dagger and also Mockingbird in a way that’s sort of fun and different – that’s a very cool show. But, until we start actually turning the crank and shooting film, all that stuff is in development, which people understand now is the long process of doing it. Much like anything else that Marvel does, we want to take our time and do it right.
N: Jeph, we have to know: have you seen MTV’s Teen Wolf series and what did you think of it?
N: Paul, I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but your wife Misty Lee (Aunt May in Ultimate Spider-Man) looks startlingly like Zatanna.
PD: Yes, she does! We went to a party once and she went in full Zatanna regalia. She looked better than I did as Green Lantern, I’ll tell you that.
N: Well, there’s many members of the Green Lantern Corps; don’t sell yourself short.
PD: Uh…yeah. I’ll just leave it at that. She could’ve beaten me in a fight; I’m pretty sure of that.
JL: It was called Avengers: X-Sanction, which I did with Ed McGuinness, and we brought Cable back into the Marvel Universe and had a really good run up to AvX. I think next on the horizon – we haven’t picked the date yet, but have been telling people – Simone Bianchi and I are coming back to Wolverine in order to finish telling the story. I don’t think people really understood that when we chopped off Sabretooth’s head, five years ago believe it or not, there was the rest of the story. Just between our two schedules, we haven’t really had a chance to tell the second half of that, so that’s all a big part of it. I continue to work with my partner Tim Sale on Captain America: White; I know it’s been a long time, folks, and it will continue to be a long time, but it is absolutely there. Also, Ed McGuinness and I are workin’ on a little somethin’-somethin’ that we’ll probably announce this summer.
N: And what about you, Paul? Are there any other projects that you have coming up this year that you can share with us?
PD: I’m really excited about everything that I’ve got in the works, but, unfortunately, I can’t really share anything at the moment. Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. is in the works. Like I said, I’ve got a slew of other things in the works, but I’m just not going to talk about them right now.
Ultimate Spider-Man airs Sundays at 11AM EST/PST on Disney XD.