If you’ve been following Marvel Animation on DisneyXD for the last few years, Eugene Son is a name you would do well to remember. Previously a story editor/writer for Season 3 of Ultimate Spider-Man and currently Avengers Assemble, Eugene Son has been involved in bringing sophisticated storytelling and themes to some of Marvel’s iconic characters and help make them accessible to viewers of all ages. Even before Marvel Animation, Son has worked on some of the biggest cartoon franchises such as Ben 10 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I had the chance to talk with him to discuss his career, hobbies, the changing business of animation, and how Dwayne McDuffie approved a cartoon episode involving alien poop.
There’s no better place to start than the beginning. Where did you grow up and what was your career journey?
I grew up in Los Angeles. I was born in Los Angeles and I grew up in the LA area all over the place. The toys I was into had Marvel comic tie-ins so I found my way to Marvel comics that way and that got me into DC comics. Growing up I was your standard $20/25/30 a week comic addict. [Laughs]. I graduated from high school and went to UC San Diego. I wanted to be a writer working in television or movies, so I put the comic books away. I thought, “I’ve got to be serious now. I’m going to be a serious screenwriter. I’m going to work on serious films and serious TV shows.” And then my first gig ended up being Ninja Turtles. [Laughs]. Looking back now it makes total sense that I ended up here but along the journey I never would’ve dreamed it.
I remember that previous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from 2003! It took a lot of cues from the original Mirage series by Kevin Eastman/Peter Laird from the 80’s. Were you familiar with the original TMNT Mirage comics?
Yes. Absolutely. I’m trying to remember what issue of the original Mirage series I picked up from the comic shop. But yeah, I read the original Mirage series. The “Return to New York” miniseries was one of my favorites. That I can reread over and over again. And getting my first start on that Ninja Turtles series was a tremendous blessing.
You actually wrote some episodes of the current TMNT show on Nickelodeon that definitely has a different feel and tone from 2003 series. How did that writing experience differ from the previous TMNT series?
At their core, they’re still the Turtles. You could turn on the original ’87 series and underneath it they’re still the Turtles. You still get a lot
of the wonderful stuff from the original source material. For the episodes of the current Nickelodeon series, they had episode ideas that they wanted me to write. The one that cracked me up the most was the “Mazes and Mutants” one. I have enough sufficient background in role playing games and that sort of thing to be able to do that one and make Lord of the Rings jokes. That was a tremendous one. I think all of those [episodes] had springboard ideas where they would go from and I expanded on them. The original germ of the idea was always Ciro [Nieli] or Peter [Di Cicco] or Brandon [Auman].
Before writing TMNT you also created an animated pilot called Don’t Drink the Water. How did that come about?
Years ago before I broke in, I was entering writing contests and there was a small one sponsored by the animation studio Klasky-Csupo. At the time they were doing all their work for Nickelodeon like Rugrats, Rocket Power, and As Told by Ginger. They had two [animation contests], one for adults and one for children. I took 2nd place in the one for children. That was a pilot I had written with a friend of mine called Don’t Drink the Water and as part of the contest it got optioned but nothing came of it. But that jumpstarted by career once I had that and I had something on my resume I could use to talk to people. That helped get things started.
I’m curious to know what the pilot was about.
It’s about a boy. He and his family move to a community east of Los Angeles where there’s something in the water that makes children super intelligent. So as a result all kinds of insane adventures happen in this housing community because the children are super intelligent. The catch is the super intelligence only works when you’re a kid and as you become an adult you lose that super intelligence. So then by the time you’re an adult you totally forgot that you were travelling dimensions, communicating with aliens, or averting disaster on a regular basis. In the pilot there’s a space alien and they have a peace treaty that needs to be renegotiated and this kid who just moved into the neighborhood has no idea what’s going on. At its core was the magic of youth. The amazing things you can do as a kid. It opened a lot of doors for me which was nice.
Know you’re a Woody Allen fan, so I’m assuming the pilot title is a little nod to the Woody Allen play of the same name. Besides Allen, who else has influenced your writing?
Yeah, Woody Allen is definitely an influence. I always joke that everything I’ve ever done is just me ripping off Chris Claremont. Everything I’ve ever said or ever done is just a complete rip off of anything Chris Claremont wrote between X-Men #94 and X-Men #300 or whenever he stopped writing the X-Men. Chris Claremont was a huge influence. Michael Chabon was a big influence. The short stories of Tobias Wolff. He’s written some amazing short stories. Michael Crichton was another big one. That was one where I couldn’t believe that every book couldn’t possibly be a page turner like his last one. I obsessed over all his books. And a huge number of the comic book creators growing up were just a huge influence.
As a Crichton fan, don’t suppose you’ve seen the HBO Westworld series?
No, I haven’t! My Netflix queue and backlog of unwatched movies, TV, and comic books is really, really, really sad. The writer’s conundrum that another brilliant writer named Jon Spaihts talked about is, “The busier you are, the more important it is for you to keep up with everything but you don’t have the time. When you do have the time, it’s less important for you to keep up with everything.” That’s the conundrum. But I am so far behind on television I am not caught up on. When I do get 30 minutes here or there inevitably I will squeeze in a single episode of Bob’s Burgers or Archer or something that I can fit into 22 minutes.
I’m sure many people can relate to that! Anyone who reads your Twitter feed knows you’re a fan of the LA Kings hockey team, but I didn’t realize you also play hockey yourself. How long have you been playing?
It’s hysterical to me because it is the one time that I have to force myself to get up from my desk, push away from the computer, and go and really push myself. It’s something I’ve done for years. Knock on wood, I’ve stayed healthy and hopefully will keep playing it. Once a week I’ll play with my friends. Being a kid in Southern California, playing ice hockey is extraordinarily expensive so as a kid I couldn’t afford it. I would just play roller hockey. When I became an adult, more rings opened up and I’ve gotten the opportunity to play for 20 something years.
It’s funny, because I know you’re friends with Marvel letterer/writer Joe Caramagna who’s an unabashed NJ Devil fan. Don’t suppose there’s any friendly rivalry between you two as hockey enthusiasts?
[Laughs]. It’s not even a rivalry per se because it’s opposites ends of the coast. Also the people and their localities and loyalties and such adds more character and fun to a lot of these things. For example, a bunch of The Simpsons writers are huge hockey fans and the loyalties there between Los Angeles, Boston, or Detroit is a lot of fun.
You’re Korean American born in the United States. Were your parents born here? What was your own Korean American experience growing up in Los Angeles?
My parents were born in Korea, I was born here in the United States. It’s fascinating talking with other Korean Americans because my Korean American experience was very different growing up in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has one of the bigger Korean communities in the world outside of Korea. So my experience was pretty normal. Los Angeles and New York are the two places where there’s a large enough Korean community where the experience isn’t so fish bowl like. As opposed to a lot of people outside of those two major cities, it’s fascinating to see.
Greg Pak is another Korean American writer whose work I admire and who has incorporated his own experiences growing up in Texas in his work. Both you and Pak are actually familiar with each other but have never met in person. I would definitely love for you two to meet in person someday.
I’ve communicated with him online and we have mutual friends in common, and I rave about him but I’ve never gotten to meet him in person yet. There was a convention we were both at but we missed each other. He’s awesome.
Speaking of Greg Pak, one of the popular characters he created for Marvel is super genius Amadeus Cho. You brought him into the 3rd season of the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon when you were the story editor. Was Cho a character in the comics you were already familiar with beforehand?
Yeah, I read the comics. I actually worked him into two episodes of Super Hero Squad back over 10 years ago. For the first episode of Super Hero Squad I wrote, I needed a book that the Hulk is reading that would make people go, “Wait! The Hulk is read
ing that?” A book on quantum mechanics and physics written by Amadeus Cho and the Hulk is carrying it around. I actually wrote Amadeus Cho into another episode of Super Hero Squad. It was really just a small cameo appearance. The character Reptil is being assigned his partner for science fair and his partner ends up being Amadeus Cho so he jumps up and says, “YAY! Easy A here I come!” Then the teacher says, “I’m sorry, I can’t read my own handwriting. You’re going to be paired up with Angelica Jones.” Who’s Firestar. At the end of the episode, Reptil and Firestar work together and are like, “We can’t fail. We’re going to take 1st prize.” And then they take 2nd prize. We cut to Amadeus Cho who of course won the science fair, and won it by cloning Stan Lee who played the mayor so we got a shot of hundreds of Stan Lees talking over each other. [Laughs].
So yeah, I was aware of the character and loved the character. On Ultimate Spider-Man, we were tinkering around with interesting characters from the Marvel Universe to toss into the Iron Spider armor. Somebody who would fit well as a Spidey friend but also butt heads with Peter Parker. We kicked around a couple of name and when somebody mentioned Amadeus Cho, that was perfect. The character worked out really well and Eric Bauza the voice actor did a great job with it. It was really gratifying to see how well that character took off.
The character is already brilliant. I tried so hard to find a way to do the version Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente were doing in the Incredible Herc. That run has so much goodness. Anytime great character are created in the Marvel comics and you get a chance to bring them on screen, you got to do it.
Besides animation, you’ve had the chance to write some licensed comics. I’m constantly hearing that writers who have worked in both mediums tend to prefer animation over comic books. Is that the same case with you?
I loved writing comic books. At the moment I don’t have time to do it. [Laughs]. But the experience of writing the licensed books and getting to take those characters, working with an editor, coming up with ideas, and seeing the work of amazing artists. I had a tremendous time and I would very much like to do it again.
Obviously you’re a comic book fan, especially vintage comics from the Silver Age. Until you posted it on social media I wasn’t aware of the issue where Thor went to Vietnam! [Journey into Mystery #117]
[Laughs]. That’s the one where people say, “You’re making that up.” But no, it was Jack Kirby’s idea, Thor fighting the communists. It’s amazing because it predates the American entry into the Vietnam war. It has some very strange ideas on what Vietnamese people were like. But at the same time it’s a testament to Stan [Lee], Jack [Kirby], and those early people at Marvel comics. There’s nothing racist in them. Some of the views are a little outdated or based on the ideas of the time, but there’s nothing really racist or hateful about them. It’s fascinating because you don’t always see that, but at the same time Wonder Woman is fighting Egg Fu. [Laughs]. You look at Egg Fu and it’s “Oh my goodness!” [Laughs]. But Thor goes to Vietnam and he helps the villagers fight against the communists. The idea that that story was done cracks me up.
I buy most of my new comics digitally now. That saves me a lot of space because I just don’t have the room anymore to keep a ton of comic books. But I’m still a sucker for old comic books. At WonderCon, I picked up a couple of old Avengers with some amazing John Buscema artwork and some Tales of Suspense #97 with some Jack Kirby Captain America in it.
I’m a huge fan of the late/great Dwayne McDuffie. You were lucky enough not only to work under him but also be his friend. Where did you meet McDuffie and how did your relationship develop?
The first time I met him was at one of the Writer’s Guild get-togethers they do once a month for animation writers and at one of them was Dwayne McDuffie. So I had to go up to him and ask what was going on with Damage Control. I was a huge fan of Damage Control and asked what was happening with that as a movie or TV show because it would be amazing. He honestly said there was talk about a movie at the time but then 9/11 happened, and the idea of blasting a building apart was not really something they thought audiences would go for. I told him I was a big fan, asked if he had a card, and he gave me his business card. I asked if I could bother him for lunch one of these days and he said yes. I emailed him and we tried to find the time but there wasn’t a time. So I kind of let it drop and that was that, I didn’t keep up with it. Over the next year, I became friends with Matt Wayne while working on similar stuff and the same shows together. So we would carpool to these get-togethers and a couple of times he said he was going to pick up his friend Dwayne. So the three of us would have these fascinating conversations. We became friends that way just by hanging out with each other. On the drives we would talk about comic books, movies, books, and all sorts of topics.
You wrote some episodes of the Ben 10 cartoon McDuffie story edited and produced. Was it weird to have your friend as your boss?
It’s actually fun to work with your friends. A huge part of it is that they’re more forgiving. [Laughs]. But at the same time you respect their talent and it was a chance to pick Dwayne’s brain, how he works, and his process. I’ll tell this story but I’ll leave some names out. My first time working for him was writing an episode of Ben 10. They had an approved story that they wanted to do. There was some comic book short hand involved. “Do you remember those original old Hulk comics where Bruce Banner knew he would turn into the Hulk at nights so he would hole himself in a cave, and seal it to try to save the world from the Hulk? We want to do something like that with this character.” And then the network came down and said they didn’t want to do that story. So Dwayne and the executive knew they needed another story. I pitched them the idea of aliens on spring break. It came about from reading an article talking about how cheap airfares in Europe had changed the way parties had taken place. People in England who would normally party in England were now going to eastern Europe because the plane flights were so cheap. So I thought if something like that happened in the Ben 10 universe, what if it was easier for aliens to go to Earth to party. And that turned into the episode “Fool’s Gold.”
I remember that episode! Wasn’t it the one with the aliens pooping gold?
Yup! We were trying to figure out what was the unique hook about these aliens. A guy in the room said, “It’s gotta be something like they poop gold.” And Dwayne says, “Why can’t they poop gold?” We wondered if that was too goofy but Dwayne said, “No, it’s weird! We can do weird!” I think there was also an undercurrent if the network was going to complain. The network killed our last story and we’re giving them aliens pooping gold, so they have no one to blame but themselves. [Laughs].
We broke that story and that was also hilarious because near the end of it, somebody was in the offices and was having a fight with their girlfriend that spilled out into the hall. It was very emotional and Dwayne and I were there and got dragged into this argument. We tried to calm things down and smooth things over between the couple. After it was over and the meeting was done, I asked Dwayne if he wanted to get coffee and he said, “YES!” We were walking to the Starbucks and decompress it and talk about it. “That was…odd.” We ended up refereeing a boyfriend/girlfriend fight and it was another one of those things where it was a shared experience. Dwayne had done that kind of thing in college when he was a resident advisor. He was able to talk with people and use conflict resolution skills and I took those exact same things when I was an RA in college. We joked about it. Not a lot of writers feel comfortable being thrown into a weird emotional situation like that but the two of us were. It was after I wrote the script.
I wrote a second one for him and on the second one I asked him afterwards how I did. He said I did fine, but I said, “Ok, keeping in mind that we’re friends now, what could I do differently?” He thought about it for a second and gave me some tips and I took them. I know he was stressed I was going to be angry at him, but it was all good stuff. We became friends that way. I think if in the case that my work had been crummy, he still would’ve been my friend. [Laughs]. But he thought I had some talent and he was constantly telling executives, “You have to hire Eugene. He’s really, really good.” He was a great friend and a great writer.
From my perspective as a fan, superhero cartoons today seem so different than what I watched growing up as a kid in the 90’s like X-Men on Fox Kids. As a professional animation writer, what has changed the most between then and now?
It’s fascinating seeing the changes that have happened even in a short amount of time. But specifically your example of the X-Men cartoon 25 years ago, one huge difference is that internationally it’s so much more important now to get a global market. That X-Men cartoon was written and produced for an American audience because that’s where the money was. Now because of globalization, we know that the cartoons we do now are going to air in Southeast Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa. It’s just as important for kids to get hooked on those characters there as it is here in California and New York. The international nature is a big part of it.
Also the fact that it’s not about action figures anymore. A huge part of that X-Men series was to sell action figures and toys. The stuff that we do now is still marketed towards children and families but we’re not being pushed to feature certain action figures. It’s not really what we do anymore. The action figure market is a lot smaller piece of the pie than all of the other consumer products out there. Back then, they weren’t selling X-Men animated t-shirts for adults. Now they’re making Spider-Man t-shirts for adults and Captain America shirts with the shield on it are in every Target store in the world.
We’re also part of a bigger machine now. Even just a few years ago, superhero cartoons were done in a vacuum where it didn’t matter that much what you did with the characters as long as it was selling action figures. What we’re doing now is part of a bigger machine in terms of working in conjunction with television, live action features, publishing, consumer products, and video games. All these people are doing their thing so we have to work with them, and there are people whose job is to make sure it’s all coming together. On one hand, we’re a little more limited in some senses. But on the other hand it’s amazing when we get to use these characters who are going to be appearing in movies. Ten years ago, we comic book fans loved Black Panther and knew how cool he was. But nobody ever dreamed there would be a huge motion picture with toys and be a massive deal. That’s the fun part of seeing that kind of change.
What’s next for you?
Avengers: Secret Wars – coming to DisneyXD in 2017. Also a bunch of other great stuff that I’m not legally allowed to talk about yet!
Thanks for chatting with me!