Dr. Toon sat down with Glen Murakami to rap about his latest superhero excursion, Teen Titans.
Glen Murakami spent the last 12 years working on such notable shows as Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, Batman Beyond and Justice League prior to being tabbed as producer for Cartoon Networks new Teen Titans series. He won an Emmy in 2001 for his work on Batman Beyond.
Dr. Toon: Congratulations, Glen, on your new series, Teen Titans. I was wondering how it was decided to go with the 1980s version of the team as opposed to the 1964 originals or even the Titans of the mid-90s?
Glen Murakami: Sam Register (svp of original animation), who came aboard at Cartoon Network, was really interested in developing it since it was a comic he grew up reading. Then I was brought on board. Im from that generation where those were the characters that I read about growing up too. That led to the decision as to why the 1980s (Marv) Wolfman and (George) Perez Titans were chosen. I think we wanted to portray characters that hadnt really been seen before, and we were trying to make something that was different from the Justice League.
Using Robin as the lead, well, hes the type of character that everyone can identify with. We definitely wanted to show the audience a different Robin than they thought they were going to see, rather than someone whos normally a sidekick character. Its like taking Batman and putting him out of your mind: How would you portray Robin? We made him confident and really kind of cool. A lot of people say, Well, Robin has no superpowers. I dont think that matters. Theres kind of a nice balance to the group now an alien, a robot, a shape-changer and a witch. Its very iconic.
Dr.T: Is that why Donna Troy (Wonder Girl) and Wally West (Kid Flash) didnt make the cut?
GM: Pretty much. We wanted to show characters that hadnt been seen before.
Dr.T: Glen, Batman The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League, all of these series you worked on before taking on Teen Titans were very popular with a late-teen to adult audience. Sam Register stated in an interview that he was going for a slightly younger demographic with this cartoon. Was it difficult for you to switch gears after doing those other shows and design a show for younger viewers?
GM: No, it really wasnt. After working on those shows since 1991 10 years of working on those shows it was kind of nice to move in a different direction with superheroes. The show is more for kids, but I dont think it excludes an adult audience. I think Teen Titans is lighter and has humor, but I wouldnt say that its a parody or a spoof, and I dont think were making fun of the essence of the characters. I think we stayed true to the intent of the characters, we just skewed it a little bit younger. Ive gotten a chance to do the darker, more adult stuff, I think, with Batman and Justice League, so we felt it was OK to go in a very different direction with the Titans.
Dr.T: When I remember the series from the 1980s, the New Teen Titans could be a pretty adult comic book at times, what with inter-dimensional rape by demons, traitors who committed suicide and some adult-style relationships including a broken heart or two. What sort of challenges did you face in turning this kind of material into an animated series?
GM: When youre working on Batman youve got 40 or 50 years worth of material to take and distill down into its best parts. Same for us. We kind of have to take into consideration that were not making this cartoon just for fans of the comic book, the ones who know all the backstory and know all the continuity. We have to tell the Starfire story in half an hour! I think we took all those things into consideration, but theres just some things you cant do for childrens programming. David Slack, the story editor, and I even talked to Marv Wolfman about it. He said, You know, if I was doing the Teen Titans today, I would do them completely differently than how I would have approached them in the 80s. Because in the 80s the Titans were sort of a response to what was going on with Marvel Comics and the X-Men.
Dr.T: One of the most unique aspects of this Teen Titans series is its visual style, a merging of American animation and anime. Sam Register describes your look as Murakanime. How did you come to develop this style and what influenced it?
GM: (Laughs) Well, I think the Batman and Superman series I worked on was part of that. When those shows were being done, no one else was doing those kinds of things. Batman is more filmic and more film noir, and even the kinds of stories that were being told in the two series, I dont think anyone had ever done that with comic books before in an animated context. So, when we talked about doing Teen Titans we wanted to go in a different direction than what Bruce [Timm] had done with the other DC properties. We were fans of anime for years while working on the other shows, and it seemed natural to use that as the new direction to go in.
Todays generation is growing up with Pokémon and all the shows now available on Cartoon Network Cowboy Bebop, Gundam, other things like that I think theyre used to that. When we were growing up, I think anime was considered really foreign, really different. I came in at like, the tail end of The Amazing Three and Gigantor. I grew up with Speed Racer and Kimba, and then, in the 80s, with Akira. It was kind of always there, but I think the direction Bruce wanted to go with Batman was a little more traditional, a little bit more pure. I had seen a lot of different things being done with anime, and I thought that was a wonderful opportunity to tell stories in a different way, a very stylistic way. So it just seemed sort of natural that a hybrid would occur.
Dr.T: After the overwhelming success of anime in America, audiences seem more ready to accept facial and physical distortions, or characters going way off-model for a couple of shots, and youre integrating those elements into the new series. Do you sort of feel that youre pioneering a new style for American audiences?
GM: I dont think I am maybe its new to western superhero fans who arent used to that sort of thing. Even though weve added humor to a superhero show, its not the same kind of humor as the Adam West Batman or like Superfriends. Youre laughing at the show. I dont think were making the characters silly. And a lot of the animation is actually being produced overseas, so it just seemed natural to use what they do best, you know, to bring the two styles together, the U.S. animation side and the Asian overseas animation side.
I think that the Titans kind of has a sixties-seventies feel to it, but its not retro. I like to describe the Titans as having the feeling of the Nick Cardy Titans mixed with the Wolfman/Perez characters. The Nick Cardy Titans are really colorful I dont want to say psychedelic or groovy, but theyre very charming. The Wolfman/Perez Titans was during an era when everything got heavy and serious, so we took some of the 60s feel and mixed it with the 80s. Did you feel that it was pure, still kind of true to the comic?
Dr.T: I think it was, considering the changes that you had to make, and the fact that you had to style things that American kids and teens would really connect with like making Raven kind of a Goth I liked the way you did that. When I originally saw the character designs, I was very curious about how they were going to animate. And they animate beautifully. Theyre thin and shadowy, but when they move, especially with some degree of speed, well, the action is terrific to watch. You noted, Glen, in the Cartoon Networks preview tape that sometimes you were told that the show wasnt weird enough and that you should push it even farther. That had to be fun! What were some of the notable instances when you and your team really pushed the package?
GM: Were doing something that I think anime fans are familiar with; its called Super D. Its the equivalent of, say, a Tex Avery take. So, for example, when a character is feeling angry they get big or when theyre feeling sad they shrink down small. I guess it gets kind of surreal, but it seems its an effective way of telling the story, of conveying emotion in a really stylistic way. I think its something that fans arent really used to seeing, so it seemed natural to go in that direction with it.
What else did we try to do weirder? I think the music is different because the style of music changes with the style of the show. I think the story structures are different compared to what youve seen from Batman and Superman. Theyre not as linear not as if theres a crime where the Riddler steals something, and Batman has to solve the crime and then, in the end, Batman defeats Riddler. In some of our Titans episodes we have the villain appear and then just go to jail right away and then we introduce a different villain.
Dr.T: Well, thats in the anime tradition, too. You mentioned Akira earlier that was a wonderfully nonlinear film.
Anime classics Akira and Speed Racer had a major influence on Teen Titans. Akira image courtesy of Pioneer Entertainment. Produced by Akira Committee Kodansha. © 1987 Akira Committee. Speed Racer image courtesy of Cartoon Network.
GM: Akira was more intellectual, more heady. I think Im going more back to things like Kimba and Speed Racer where there was sort of a moral to the story. I think were trying to do it without making it sound like an afterschool special, you know, hitting the audience over the head and saying Heres the moral of the story! Even if we were saying that, Id like to think that at the end of the episode you had a good time watching the show while you were being given the moral.
Dr.T: Your second episode, Sisters, was very much like that. It gave a lesson about the meaning of true friendship, and the message didnt feel heavy-handed.
GM: Well, to me thats just good story. In the beginning, when David Slack and I were talking about developing the stories, we said that they should be about things that kids could relate to. The whole story shouldnt involve building a laser cannon it should be about how people interact and get along. We wanted all of the stories to have heart. We wanted the show to be able to focus on one or two of the characters and their relationships. So we wont really focus on Cyborgs origin or Starfires origin, but throughout the course of the series therell be little glimpses into the characters and what their backstory is. We took things from the comics, but we sort of twisted them around to fit. We had to cram material from well, how many issues of Titans into 22 minutes and figure out which parts to use to tell the stories.
Dr.T: The only character I noticed that doesnt have an anime feel in fact, he feels like a throwback to you earlier work on Batman is Slade the Terminator. Was that done on purpose to set him more apart from the Titans characters?
GM: I guess so. The threat should seem real; the villain should be serious, because if hes not then you wont have any tension or drama. The Titans have to behave like normal teenagers, but in the case of Slade, I dont think you have to humanize him.
Dr.T: The original Teen Titans writer Marv Wolfman has already penned an episode for the upcoming season. Have any other comic book writers stepped forward to take a crack at the show as well?
GM: If there has been I really dont know about it, because that would be trafficked by David Slack. Theres nothing wrong with that, but I really want to make something thats more of a companion piece, rather than an extension, of whats been done before.
Dr.T: I understand that DC Comics has some influence over the show. Have they ever supplied you with a specific list of dos or donts.
GM: Not really. The Titans are their characters, so we do have to honor their property, but so far theyve been very good about what we can or cant do, and not in a restrictive way.
Dr.T: Do you feel that your team has a really good feel for the show right now?
GM: Yeah. It was real learning curve but weve pulled it off. I think weve made an entertaining show that we think people will really like.
Dr.T: A real learning curve in what way?
GM: After working with Bruce Timm for 10 years, Ive learned to focus on stories and to tell then the way that Bruce would tell stories. So I had to learn to go against what I learned from Bruce.
Dr.T: Sam Register stated that there would be no continuing episodes or event movies. If the Teen Titans really take off, could we see a direct-to-video release or feature-type events in the future?
GM: I have no idea at this point. That would be cool, but there are no plans right now. Im just trying to finish up the first two seasons at this point and then see where were at.
Dr.T: Since youve begun your career in animation, youve been working on DC Comics properties. Are there any original ideas of your own in the works that you would someday like to produce?
GM: I guess someday, but for right now Ive been pretty happy with what Ive had to work on. Hey, Batman, Superman and the Justice League thats not too bad. Sure, Id like to do my own thing someday but right now, I like what Ive been doing.
Dr.T: Some of your most important influences in terms of comic book artists were Jack Kirby, Alex Toth and John Byrne. Do you feel youve absorbed any of their influences into the style you use?
GM: Yes, I do. Byrne was my idol in junior high and high school. As things went on after high school I got more into undergrounds, things like that. And the independent comics. Some of the influences on the show would be Love and Rockets, Betty and Veronica, The Hernandez Brothers things like Mister X were a big influence on Batman, and Kirby was an influence on Superman. I think even growing up at that time I was exposed to a lot of variety as far as independent comics. Im sure that affects the show. Titans, though, has been more influenced by anime than anything else.
Then there are some weird, more obscure things for Titans, I went back and reviewed stuff I grew up with like Little Rascals, and for story inspirations I thought, What were some of the shows I watched as a kid? Brady Bunch, I Dream of Jeannie, things like that. Even with the Titans theme song, I wanted it to reflect how shows used to be. I feel that TV shows dont really have cool theme songs anymore. I dont know why the trend moved away from having a great theme song to hook you into the show! Like that title sequence from the Wild Wild West now that was really stylish!
Dr.T: That title sequence reminds me of the one on your show.
GM: Yeah, kind of. I dont know if I just absorbed a lot of that stuff or if its from working with all those guys on Batman theyre all slightly older than me, and some of those influences rubbed off on me.
Dr.T: Going back to your career, Glen, its been about 12 years since you came to work at Warner Bros. with no previous experience in animation. And now youve won an Emmy and are executive producer of your own series. How would you sum up your progress at this point and what are you looking forward to?
GM: Im actually surprised Ive gotten this far. Im just trying to be open-minded and see what happens next. Batman wasnt anything I had planned on doing, Batman Beyond wasnt anything I was planning on doing, same for Justice League and even Teen Titans . Its pretty weird that I grew up reading all that stuff and now Im working on it. Ive been pretty lucky, getting to meet the people who Ive met and worked with. Everythings going fine right now. This is my first time running my own show. Ive produced alongside Bruce Timm, but he was definitely the lead on all those other shows.
Dr.T: Were things Bruce took care of and shielded you from that later you wanted to go back and say, Why didnt you tell me about this?
GM: Ill be honest. I wasnt ready before to run my own show. In the past there might have been opportunities for me to leave and get my own show, but Ive been working on great shows for 10 years. There was no reason to leave. And during that time Ive learned, well, tons of things and its really paid off. Hopefully, it shows in the final product.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.