Taking a cue from the titular DC Comics anthology series, the aim of the DC Showcase animated shorts aim to shine a light on some of the lesser known and more obscure characters in the DC library. Continuing our previous interview coverage, we chat with the filmmakers about their hilarious take on Ted Kord a.k.a. Blue Beetle as well as giving a swan song for the Hellblazer himself, John Constantine.
The 1967 Spider-Man animated series has seen something of a revival in the past decade primarily as a constant source for internet memes. But I don’t think anyone could have anticipated a Blue Beetle DC Showcase short in that same retro limited animation style. “I just blurted it out and it seemed like a natural way to go with a Ted Kord/Blue Beetle thing,” confessed producer Rick Morales. “I think we knew we wanted to make it a little bit funnier.”
This project was right up the alley of co-producer Jim Krieg who harbors an obsession with the ’67 Spidey cartoon. In fact, on his path to breaking into the entertainment industry Krieg created and starred in the ’89 student/fan film Viva Spider-Man. Despite a much lighter take on Blue Beetle, Krieg emphasized they were in no way mocking the character or the original cartoon but consider the short a “love letter” to this era. The filmmakers want viewers to feel as if the DC Showcase short was an “unearthed cartoon pilot from back in the day.”
To craft the story outline they turned to writer Jeremy Adams, a true blue fan of the character. Adams cites the first issue featuring Ted Kord fighting the Squids as one of the first comics he remembers buying as a kid so it’s no wonder then why the villainous gang features prominently in the DC Showcase animated short. So what’s his take on the character? “He’s a happy Batman mixed with Spider-Man. The big difference is not much goes right in Peter Parker’s life and he’s poor! Aside from that, they’re both fun-loving, freewheeling superheroes,” explained Adams. “I love the fact that he didn’t have super powers. His reason for becoming a superhero was based on a vow to a dying friend. I thought that was different. Here’s this magical scarab that he can’t access so he becomes a superhero. He’s a genius and really funny.”
It’s not hyperbolic to say the last few years have been quite monumental for Adams. Not only has he worked on some of the biggest projects of his career including the final season of Supernatural, but he’s recently broken into comics penning The Flash ongoing series that finally restored Wally West to his proper place in DC’s pantheon. During our interview Adams coyly teased a major Flash event next summer. Due to his loaded schedule, Adams only had time to work on the outline and handed the full scripting duties to Jennifer Keene.
Known for her work on sitcoms such as Liv and Maddie, Keene had previously collaborated with Krieg on the Green Lantern CG-animated series and punching up some of his feature scripts. Keene isn’t as steeped in superheroes and comics as her friends and peers. Her forte is actually comedy. “Jim Krieg called me and said ‘We’ve got this great short. Jeremy has written the outline and we’d love for you to script it.’ They sent me the outline and I said, ‘This is fantastic. I would love to work on this. Wait, who’s Blue Beetle?’ I just got a ton of old comics and read those to do Blue Beetle justice knowing how much Jeremy loved him. I didn’t want to let him down.”
Actor Matt Lanter was in the same boat as Keene when he was cast to voice the titular hero, relying on the script to guide his performance as opposed to diving into comics. “Because Blue Beetle is a bit of an obscure character there’s not a lot out there. From the research I did, I didn’t find or see much. I didn’t go out and buy the comics from the past. I felt that this version that we did is unique anyway so I’m not sure it would have helped or not. I just relied on the creative team behind it. You could tell what was there with the writing on the page. Really, that’s all I needed.”
Like the majority of Generation Z, Lanter has largely encountered the Spidey ’67 cartoon through internet videos and memes. Nevertheless, he also pointed to the camp and cheesiness of other shows of that era like the Adam West Batman series or Scooby-Doo as instrumental in steering him in the right direction as far as tone. Ironically, his mother wasn’t particularly keen about him watching cartoons as a child so rubbing her nose in the fact that he makes a living doing cartoon voices amuses Lanter to no end.
Although it seems simple to deliberately replicate animation errors, the process was actually more painstakingly complicated. “What was difficult was it’s not intuitive to make cartoons like that. We have board artists who are trained not to make those mistakes specifically,” recalled director Milo Neuman. “It has to be a very conscious decision to mess something up. You’re always asking the question when you make these things, ‘Are people going to see this and think it’s a funny intentional mistake or look at it and think it’s not very good.’ I got some ridiculously talented guys working with me on that one. I remember one of them in particular I had to keep encouraging and say, ‘No, no you’re still working too hard! Don’t make it look too good. Don’t have a fully animated thing. Just have the hand slide into here.’”
This Blue Beetle short was an animator’s dream allowing for some of the most inspired and bizarre visual gags. One that’s guaranteed to get a laugh (or at least some kind of reaction) is a baby sticking a fork into a power outlet. I mistakenly assumed the baby was under the emotional manipulation of the villain Doctor Spectro and thus trying to commit suicide but I was told that wasn’t the intent. It probably says more about me and my dark inclinations than anything else, but I digress. The filmmakers themselves were flabbergasted and amused that the higher-ups had no issues with a baby in such a dangerous situation and were more concerned in ensuring that the House of Mystery short featured no depictions of smoking.
Humor also abounds in the rapport between Blue Beetle and his fellow Charlton character, the Question, both creations of Steve Ditko, a stringent follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophical theory of objectivism. Ditko incorporated and espoused objectivism in his comics and you don’t have to look further than the Question. Though the filmmakers don’t personally subscribe to objectivism (like myself and probably the majority of fans), the original Ditko version of the character was fruitful in mining comedy gold. “By being true to the Question and making him like that, you get a lot of the humor because of the way Ted is going to react to that,” said Keene. “Ted doesn’t like it [objectivism] either. He also thinks it’s a crock. You need him to be that way so Ted can play off of him.”
Adams echoed Keen’s sentiments adding, “Obviously when the original books were written they were very earnest in the fact that this was high drama. But we’re taking the piss out of it a little bit.”
Naturally, they couldn’t homage the Spidey ’67 cartoon without an original theme song of their own. “When we first came up with the Blue Beetle we knew we had to come up with a theme song. Jim [Krieg] loves song. He is a man of song. ‘I’m gonna write it.’ He came to me and he wrote a song for Blue Beetle. He even played guitar and gave me a copy of it,” said Morales. “It was actually pretty good. Andy Sturmer is a songwriter that I’ve worked with before and I knew that he could really knock it out of the park. I knew he could really put it together and get it in the spirit of what we were creating. I gave it to Andy and let him do his pass on it. He came back and it was great. Unfortunately for Jim that meant that his song didn’t quite make it, but Andy did use it as inspiration.”
In contrast to the other DC Showcase shorts that lean towards slightly older viewers, this one is something that can be watched by the entire family. As a father with a daughter, Lanter definitely appreciates that aspect. “She’s four years old and still very much in the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. She does love Spidey and [His Amazing] Friends. But that’s the closest she’s gotten to superheroes. She’s not quite there yet,” said the actor. “I’m hoping she’ll take an interest in the Clone Wars when she’s older. The DC animated content is so high quality. As a dad and a family guy there’s something to be said about family content as well.”
Constantine: House of Mystery
Back in 2020, the prior DC animated movie shared universe that spanned over 16 direct-to-video films came to an end with the aptly titled Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. Before completely closing the book however, the DC Showcase filmmakers saw an opportunity to provide a coda of sorts for the Hellblazer himself, John Constantine. It was only appropriate that they recruited Ernie Altbacker to script this DC Showcase project since he is no stranger to writing Constantine for animation including the aforementioned Apokolips War. “Jim [Krieg] said, ‘I want to do a House of Mystery.’ He came to me and said he wanted to use Constantine, my favorite character to write, and we were off to the races.”
House of Mystery finds Constantine trapped in an endless loop of his own demise as punishment for his actions in recreating the structure universe. It’s a classic premise reminiscent of Groundhog Day or Russian Doll. Considering that both Krieg and Altbacker are Whovians, the inspiration for the House of Mystery short isn’t that surprising. “There was an episode starring Peter Capaldi called ‘Heaven Sent’ where he is in a castle and being chased and killed over and over again for thousands of years. He [Krieg] said, ‘Let’s make that the gimmick.” Altbacker also cited the Supernatural episode “Mystery Spot” as well as various Twilight Zone twist episodes as influences.
Character designer Phil Bourassa has left an indelible mark on numerous DC animated projects for more than a decade decade with his iconic style. Now the lead character designer on the new Legend of Vox Machina animated series, his time at Warner Bros. is over for the moment but his colleagues like producer Rick Morales couldn’t praise him enough. “Phil is fantastic. He’s one of my favorite designers. The DC stuff obviously was based on his stuff for 10 years or more. He had a massive impact on the studio. He’s one of my best friends in animation on a personal level.”
Thus it made sense to incorporate both Bourassa’s original designs as well as the new look of the current shared animated film continuity. As Morales elaborated, “We open with the end of that film [Apokolips War] and the narrative plays into our film. I thought it was essential we used those designs to some degree. You even see his version of Constantine is in there talking to Spectre. What we were trying to do was bridge the universes a little bit from Phil Bourassa’s look to what Butch [Lukic] is doing now to some degree.”
Make no mistake, House of Mystery is still very accessible to new viewers. “Just like the Twilight Zone, sometimes it tosses you into the middle of something,” said Altbacker. “Those can get very complex and convoluted. But the story has to be self-encapsulating and good for a person who knows nothing about the character or the previous movies. This has to stand alone and be enjoyed without any knowledge of the previous movies. Some of the Twilight Zones end in a way that you don’t know what’s happening to the character but you just know they’re going to get their comeuppance.”
Describing him as a “bastard with a heart of gold,” Altbacker believes it’s a mistake for writers to make Constantine completely endearing to audiences. “I wouldn’t say he’s likable but I try to make his overall actions understandable and that he feels so badly about doing it. He’s kind of an anti-hero to me. In this one it was a unique opportunity to make everybody feel sorry for John Constantine which usually doesn’t happen. He’s always setting up his own agenda and stabbing his friends in the back if he thinks it’s for the greater good or you screwed with him.”
After coming off the recent animated Mortal Kombat films, Morales is no stranger to blood and violence. Krieg stated it perfectly, “If you watch these Mortal Kombat movies and then watch Constantine you’ll go, ‘Wow, Rick really reeled it in!” It shows a lot of restraint on his part’.” Apparently though, there was some concern late in the game.
According to Morales, “There was sort of an 11th hour thing where maybe it shouldn’t be rated R. And we were like, ‘But it’s done.’ By that point I think everybody got back on board. There was a little bit of hesitation at a certain point in the production.”
One change producer Jim Krieg did insist upon was shortening the name of John Constantine’s daughter in his fantasy life from Delilah to Della because he found the name too long. Apparently, Altbacker chose the name Delilah after Krieg’s own daughter. I’m gonna guess or hope the real Delilah is nowhere near as patricidal as her animated counterpart.
Matt Peters who directed the House of Mystery short doesn’t believe humor and darkness are mutually exclusive. “I love jumping back and forth between humor and action. I think they’re not that too different to be honest. There’s a lot of humor in the House of Mystery short and that was pretty dark. At the same time, in the humorous stuff I worked on there are some elements that we try to color in as well because I think it adds some variety and perspective to the storytelling itself.”
Between this House of Mystery short and adapting the Injustice storyline that saw Superman tricked into murdering pregnant Lois Lane into animation, Altbacker has dubbed this time in his career as his “Prince of Darkness phase.” Though he couldn’t divulge too much, his upcoming projects are much lighter in tone in comparison including something for live-action that’s more “slapsticky and raunchy.”
DC Showcase – Constantine: The House of Mystery is available be available everywhere on Blu-ray and in 4K on Digital