First published in 1956, DC Showcase was a comic book anthology designed to test the waters for new or reimagined versions of characters for DC Comics publishing. The introduction of Barry Allen a.k.a. The Flash of the Silver Age was arguably the most successful superhero to debut in the pages of Showcase, but that’s not to diminish the other characters or concepts that the publication spawned. If anything, it served as way to expand the storytelling possibility of the DC Universe to become what it is today. Shining a light on the more obscure characters from the DC Comics library is very much the goal for the DC Showcase animated shorts when they were first introduced more than a decade ago.
That aim still remains for DC Showcase – Constantine: The House of Mystery the latest compilation which includes the shorts Blue Beetle, The Losers and Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth! and is now available on Blu-ray on Digital. Ahead of the release, The Beat had the pleasure to speak with the filmmakers in person at WonderCon as well as over the phone. Check out the first half of our press coverage below.
Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth!
Any comic fan worth their salt is well aware of the tremendous impact of creator Jack “King” Kirby on the medium. However, attempts to translate his storytelling sensibilities and distinct artistic style into other media, particularly live-action, haven’t always been able to properly capture the magic of Kirby. Among the many criticisms for Eternals from Marvel Studios (and trust me, there are many!) was the bland visual style compared to the Kirby comics. Unlike live-action, animation has had a better track record preserving Kirby’s vision and this Kamandi DC Showcase short is no exception. Producer Rick Morales astutely observed, “As far as live-action interpretation of Kirby, that’s always going to be extraordinarily difficult to pull off to people’s liking.”
He further added, “The direction I gave to our artists and designers was actually really simple, ‘Take this panel and make it animate-able. Try to get it as close as you possibly can to this Kirby drawing.’ It’s an easy thing to say but not quite so easy a thing to implement. That was where we started. Try to make it as close to Kirby as we possibly can. It took some figuring and breaking down to find how he handles anatomy, what line he chooses to convey it, and nailing all that down. For the backgrounds, we literally took panels from the comic books and recreated them as closely as we possibly could. Even down to the color palette in these books. A lot of those color choices are things we obviously wouldn’t normally pick but are very particular to the look of comic books in the ‘70s. We just tried to reference it as closely as possible and bring it to animation as best we could.”
“You couldn’t keep me away,” said director Matt Peters when he heard the pitch. “Rick really focused on making sure it looked like a comic. The designers and Rick are really the unsung heroes. They made it look fantastic. I always tip my hat to them because my jaw drops every time I see that shot.”
Peters elaborated, “We had those comics right there. Ethan Spaulding [is] another director at Warner Bros. [and] I worked with him on the Mortal Kombat films. He had a stack of those comics just lying around. So when he heard that was happening he said, ‘Here, take a look.’ And we ended up passing them around to one another all the time. Those poor comics were already in a certain amount of abuse after being around for 50 years. So now they had even more abuse with other artists and designers looking at them. Jack’s spirit was always there with us when we were working on it. We never got too far away from that comic. It was a labor of love on everybody’s part.”
Unlike the other DC Showcase shorts which are all original stories, this project is an adaptation of an actual comic book story “The Mighty One” as featured in Kamandi #29. “When [producer] Jim Krieg approached me about writing this, it was just ‘short’ and ‘Kamandi’,” explained screenwriter Paul Giacoppo. “While I’m familiar with the character somewhat, he sent me a couple of compilations. I was overwhelmed by how dense [it was]. The world was much more developed than I had remembered. There are so many characters in that world. We were originally going to do something that was a mashup of everything. Ultimately when I got to the story of ‘The Mighty One,’ I said, ‘This is the one I want to do.’ It was the perfect story. It had a beginning, middle, and an end. And it has this payoff.”
Nevertheless, Giacoppo found it necessary to flesh out the DC Showcase animated short by incorporating elements and characters from the larger Kamandi mythology. “For the story to work we needed to at least infuse a few things from his previous stories. We needed to know his backstory, who some of his friends are. Do we put Doctor Canus in it or not? There were some elements and imagery from issues #1 and #2 like how he became Kamandi. In issue #2 there was a setup of Tuftan and him being captured by rats. We thought that would be a cool teaser setup.”
As any writer can attest, things are inevitably cut due to time constraints as well as other factors and this Kamandi short was no exception. “There was one sequence we took out. There was one test they didn’t have time for,” divulged Giacoppo. “It was this rolling ball that was going back and forth into these channels and they had to make it through. When they finally make it through, they manage to crash the ball and Kamandi reads something on the side of the ball that we don’t see. At the end we see the ball is the top of the Daily Planet. They still show that but it would have been really cool to see an actual Indiana Jones ball as the Daily Planet ball.”
In case you haven’t already figured it out, the Mighty One is in fact Superman. This revelation for readers in the ‘70s helped connect Kamandi’s world of Earth-AD to the larger DC Universe. “In the comic it was evident right away who the Mighty One was. They wanted you to know from page one it was Superman,” said Giacoppo. “We wanted to make it a story about discovering [it] and trying to hide it from the audience as much as possible. Maybe the audience would see this caveboy kid and think we’re doing our version of Planet of the Apes with the serial numbers filed off and then we’ll reveal it at the end. I got to see it with my wife and son and they went, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s him!’”
Despite some similarities to Planet of the Apes, Giacoppo felt Kamandi is a much more relatable hero than the human protagonist as played by Charlton Heston. “I wanted to portray him as a heroic character and distinguish him from an adventurer like Indiana Jones even though he has that type of adventure. And he’s not a burnt out on humanity, anti-hero like Charlton Heston. He actually is at his heart a hopeful character who lives in a dark, fallen future and he’s one of a kind.”
It didn’t go over Giacoppo’s head how much Kamandi and his post-apocalyptic world can resonate with viewers right now. “I literally finished this story and just a few weeks later I left to work from home. And here we are two years later still doing that. When I watched it I thought, ‘I had no idea about being in isolation and the world changing outside around you.’”
In these precarious times, Giacoppo believes Kamandi sets an example we all should follow. “The story also has a morality of what a hero really is. What I like about the character is that he’s just a regular person in extraordinary circumstances. He’s the kind of hero we can all be. So while everybody is trying to emulate the strength of the Mighty One, [such as] his invulnerability and his flight, he’s showing the real true traits that we all can show. Wisdom, ingenuity, and love for your enemies which I think we really need.”
War comics are a hallmark of a bygone age but have waned in popularity among mainstream readership. Just ask Tim Sheridan, the screenwriter of the DC Showcase Losers animated short. As he admits, “This is where I am going to absolutely embarrass myself. I didn’t read war comics as a kid. There were people in my family who probably did. When I was coming up, they weren’t quite as popular so it wasn’t the kind of thing I would pick off the spinner rack.”
It was only after his experience co-writing the Sgt. Rock DC Showcase animated short (originally titled Weird War) with Walt and Louise Simonson that he truly gained an appreciation. “When I saw a stack of WWII comics, I thought that’s not really my interest area so that’s going to be impenetrable. I’m not really going to find a way in. And then I picked these books up and [realized] these are just comics. The characters are great and believable and go on these weird missions. They’re not just fighting a battle on a beach somewhere. There is some weird comic book stuff that happens. It was a big eye-opener for me during Sgt. Rock. So when they asked me if I would write the Losers I said, ‘Now that I know and love them, absolutely!’”
I think it’s safe to presume that aside from the live-action film based on the unrelated Vertigo Comics reinterpretation, there’s a scarcity of diehard Losers fans, much less people who have even heard of them. I’m willing to wager that the majority of people who do know the Losers were likely introduced to them through their appearance in Darwyn Cooke’s timeless classic DC: The New Frontier where they met their demise rescuing Rick Flagg Sr. on Dinosaur Island. That was certainly the case for director Milo Neuman who like Sheridan credits New Frontier as an inspiration for this short.
“I knew them through the Darwyn Cooke book. I was excited to do something with them because I love the New Frontier. It’s one of my favorite comics,” said Neuman. “It wasn’t until I was asked to direct that I really dug into exactly who the Losers were and started reading some of their older comics. I’ve been describing them as a WWII Avengers. They were characters who had been in other books and I think The Losers was the crossover book that pulled these characters together and made a whole team out of them. They weren’t fighting dinosaurs or doing anything fantastical. They were WWII adventures. I think those books were published in the ‘70s. There was another series of comics [The War that Time Forgot] that was about WWII soldiers fighting dinosaurs and I think Darwyn Cooke took those two concepts and mashed them together. He took the more recognizable WWII team, the Losers, and used them for the New Frontier prologue.”
The mashup of genres was something that appealed to Sheridan, “We see the sci-fi genre which we often saw in the old war comics, and there’s a spy intrigue story going on as well. At its core you have these characters who are brothers-in-arms and a family and have these very strong relationships. We knew going into this that the Losers do have an association with Dinosaur Island. There is precedent. It’s not something that people will reject right out the gate. It sounds a little nutty when you first hear it.”
Surprisingly, the only person I interviewed who had some prior familiarity with the Losers before this project was actor Dave B. Mitchell who does double duty voicing Sarge and Gunner. “I was aware of The Losers but it wasn’t one that I had read. I’m a lifelong comic book guy. I was definitely a big Sgt. Rock fan as a kid. I loved Haunted Tank and Sgt. Fury. Just the fact that I was aware of it, I thought it was cool that they were bringing [the Losers] back.”
For Neuman, who is making his animation directorial debut with these Showcase shorts, the Losers turned out to be fraught with its own challenges. “We definitely revised the script. I remember coming on and not being particularly happy with the third act. I asked if we could get a rewrite and we made some adjustments. Just weird technical storytelling stuff,” he recounted. “I felt like it didn’t culminate quite the way it needed to. Even after we got through our first round of [story]boards that third act was still kind of a problem of the whole short. That was a bit I ended up going in myself and not throwing out the script because we kept the dialogue but throwing out the action as described in the script. We created it so it was a little bit more tense and dramatic [like] having the characters get cornered by the T-Rex and being down to the wire. There were some logistical things with the big wall of energy that they have to fly through and blow up. That was a little messy up until the very end but I think we got it to work.”
Perhaps the biggest change from the original script was the removal of Mademoiselle Marie, a classic character from the French resistance in DC Comics canon. “She was fun. We had a fun angle on her. She was a little bit more brash and experienced in the ways of war and guerrilla warfare,” revealed Sheridan. “By no means did she take the center of the spotlight. She was just a really great colorful character. One of the inside baseball things about animation is you just get down to asset counts. We can only design so many characters. If a character is not integral to the story, sometimes you lose that character and some of their lines and moments go to another character. It pains me that we lost Mademoiselle Marie because I loved writing that character.”
Mademoiselle Marie would definitely have added a female presence into the predominately male story. Luckily, there’s still the character Fan Long voiced by Ming-Na Wen. “Fan Long is an original character,” said Sheridan. “We needed a character with baggage. I came up with the idea for this character. We were talking about a secret agent who’s essentially not really a member of the team. She is their charge basically. She’s their attaché. They’re working for her on this mission that they don’t know anything about. She’s the only one who really knows why they’re there. And there’s more going on than she’s letting on throughout the movie. The name Fan Long means ‘Lethal Dragon’ which is a clue for anyone right at the beginning at the movie. It slipped by most people so it was more of a surprise when things took a turn.”
Just like in the source material, the duo of Sarge and Gunner are an archetypal pairing of experienced and hardened versus young and naïve soldiers. Mitchell joked that he stumbled upon a niche having played a similar duo of dinosaur hunting mercenaries in the latest season of Camp Cretaceous. Over the course of his career, Mitchell has had the privilege of voicing characters previously portrayed by other actors such as Knuckles in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise and even the Joker in a Batman arcade game developed by Specular Interactive and released by Raw Thrills. This DC Showcase animated Losers short provided a unique opportunity for Mitchell.
“It’s interesting trying to do justice to the character and also someone else’s performance. It’s a tricky thing because you want to keep the fans happy. And I’m a fan and we want to respect everyone’s take on it but also bring something else to it and respect the writers if they found something different. In a case like this, there were no performances to look back on for Sarge or Gunner except the archetypical characters. The way that they were presented and written made it pretty easy to find. For Sarge I drew from the image of the tough veteran soldier who’s got it together but it’s all about his men and getting them home alive. Gunner is cracking jokes and has that gallows humor that soldiers will have because they’re surrounded by insanity and inhumanity. It was right there on the page.”
Sheridan jokingly compared Sarge and Gunner to canine father and son Spike and Tyke from the Tom & Jerry cartoons, but the description actually speaks volumes and was valuable shorthand. “Gunner and Sarge have this really great bond in the comics. There’s something really sweet about all that. Also Pooch we can’t leave out of the equation. Ultimately the sweetness in that is laid out in contrast to where we’re going with them in this story and the unfortunate stuff that happens to a couple of those characters. There’s a lot of built-in goodwill that you get from those guys because they represent such a classic archetypes in the war movie genre. In a short movie it’s really helpful when you can introduce a couple of characters and not say a lot about them. Even if you don’t know the Losers you kind of know who they are right away.”
Much like the New Frontier comic, this short was built around the premise that this is the final mission for team. Sheridan, however, wouldn’t be opposed to finding a way to bring them back (this is comics after all). He appreciates the function of these DC Showcase animated shorts. “The idea [is] that we can take characters and genres in the great DC canon and put them on screen and shine a light on them just for a little bit. I love writing Batman and Superman movies but you wouldn’t necessarily expect you’re going to get a Losers, Sgt. Rock, or Blue Beetle movie. These are great proving ground for these characters and show them onscreen. If enough people are interested and excited we can explore them more. Hopefully it’s the kind of thing we’ll get to do more in the future.
DC Showcase – Constantine: The House of Mystery is available be available everywhere on Blu-ray and in 4K on Digital