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The Making of 'The New Frontier'

Andrew Farago talks to series creator Darwyn Cooke and Voice Director Andrea Romano about the creation of the new Justice League feature.

The recently released Justice League: The New Frontier stirred up excitement among WonderCon attendees. Unless noted, all images © Warner Bros. Home Video.

This past week saw the release of Warner Bros. Animations direct-to-video feature Justice League: The New Frontier, based on the highly acclaimed best-selling DC Comics graphic novel The New Frontier by writer/artist Darwyn Cooke. On Saturday, February 23, WonderCon attendees were given an advance look at the feature, and nearly every seat in the massive convention center screening room was filled with comic book and animation fans eager to get their first look at this long-awaited production. Warner Bros. also provided the audience with a sneak peek at the upcoming anime-influenced direct-to-video feature Batman: Gotham Knight, which is previewed on the New Frontier DVD.

And the film was worth the wait. Adapting one of the most popular comic books of the past decade into a 75-minute feature is no easy task, but the veteran crew, helmed by Cooke, Executive Producer Bruce Timm, Director David Bullock, Writer Stan Berkowitz and Voice Director Andrea Romano, successfully translated the 300-page graphic novel into a fun, action-packed look back at the Silver Age of superhero comics. Fans of the original series may be dismayed to discover that certain characters wound up on the cutting room floor (the Losers and Suicide Squad were M.I.A., and the Challengers of the Unknown, with the exception of Ace Morgan, play a much smaller role in the film than in the comic), but high production values and attention to detail make this essential viewing for any fan of the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini-era of Warner Bros. superhero animation.

Darwyn Cooke's career has come full circle. He got his start working on DC's animated properties and now his highly acclaimed, best-selling DC Comics graphic novel is the basis for the New Frontier movie.

Darwyn Cooke fans can also take solace in the just-released Justice League: The New Frontier Special, which hit comic shops on Wednesday, March 5. Cooke writes and illustrates the lead story, the knockdown, drag-out battle between Superman and Batman that was only hinted at in the original series. The backup stories feature artwork by New Frontier director David Bullock, who illustrates Dragstrip Riot, a fun story teaming up the Silver Age Robin and Kid Flash, plus a collaboration with artist J. Bone, who draws the madcap Wonder Woman and Black Canary vs. Hugh Hefner story that... well, lets just say that words wont do the story justice. An eight-page bonus section includes storyboard artwork from Cooke, Bullock and Butch Lukic, and a gallery of the stunning Saul Bass-inspired artwork from the New Frontier opening credit sequence. This 48-page special from DC Comics is very reasonably priced at $4.99, and makes a fine, fun-filled supplement to the DVD feature.

Prior to the February 23 screening, I was given the opportunity to interview several members of the production team, including series creator Darwyn Cooke and Voice Director Andrea Romano.

Interview with Darwyn Cooke

Andrew Farago: I first met you at WonderCon four years ago, actually, when just one or two issues of The New Frontier comic book had been released. How does it feel to be back under these circumstances?

Darwyn Cooke: It's very amazing to consider... There's absolutely no way that I could have imagined that the little book I was putting together for DC was going to get picked up and turned into a film, or to have garnered the kind of attention it has. It's really brilliant to be back here for this. I'm glad we're doing it here at WonderCon, because it's really the convention that supported the book right out of the gate.

AF: And it's full-circle -- or maybe going around in circles -- because before you broke into comics, you got your start working on DC's animated properties. Can you talk a bit about that period in your career?

DC: It is funny... I had worked at Warners with Bruce Timm, and most of the guys who worked on this film, before I got involved in comics as heavily as I have. It was really funny when we all ended up back together, to put my comic book together as a movie. [laughs] And it was a lot of fun, as well, to get back together with these guys and work with them.

This whole thing about the guys at the Warner studio -- it's all about the quality. There's a lot of love for the work, and it's a real thrill to be able to work with people like that.

The anime-influenced Batman: Gotham Knight is previewed on the New Frontier DVD.

AF: How have things changed from when you first started working for Warner Bros. versus now, when you're the driving force behind The New Frontier?

DC: When I worked at Warners, I was a storyboard artist in a crew. I'd worked on Batman, Superman, and, ultimately, Batman Beyond, and it was on that show that I was actually able to design the title sequence and show some of the other things that I was interested in doing, and bringing that into the studio. So, I guess when I left, I was a storyboard guy.

Coming back to the studio, to work on New Frontier, I basically assumed the same role. I did work a bit on the script this time, and did most of the design for the characters, but when it came down to the actual work on the movie, I was a storyboard guy, just like I used to be.

AF: And is it true that the title sequence for Batman Beyond was mostly a one-man project?

DC: It was very funny, because if you think back, it wasn't that long ago, but in 1999, nobody had any idea of what you could do with software like Adobe AfterEffects and a Macintosh computer. Warners had very little idea of the power of that kind of technology, and I happened to have a system at home. So yeah, basically, the entire title sequence was cut in my spare bedroom, on my Mac, with a VCR. It was probably the most low-tech thing Warners has ever used, but it worked out really well.

AF: So your home computer was on par with, or maybe even better, than the whole Warner Bros. Studio at the time?

DC: It was certainly more current. It allowed a portability to production that they didn't have. When you're talking about high-end filmmaking, Warners had all the facilities that they needed, but a company that big rarely has the flexibility, or nimbleness, to deal with transient technology, especially if it's the cutting-edge stuff. So yeah, it was neat, because they couldn't have put it together, especially the things we did with it.

I think they've caught up a lot in the past eight years, though.

AF: Right. Leaping way ahead, then, what sort of production values did you have at your disposal for New Frontier? Can you talk about your crew, and the effort that went into it?

DC: New Frontier, and I think Bruce [Timm] will back me up on this, has got to be one of the most difficult DTV (direct-to-video) projects Warners has attempted, because of the myriad number of things we had to deal with.

One, we had a cast that rivals The Ten Commandments in terms of size. [laughs] Another one of the big concerns for an animated film is the number of locations that we had. Every location has to be thoroughly designed, drawn, painted, etc. This feature is just loaded with complex locations that span the globe. The third problem, and probably one of the trickiest parts of this, was that the entire film takes place in the '50s, so it's all period detail. Working with our partners overseas in Korea, we have to be very careful to make sure that we've put those details into everything we've done in order for them to follow through with it properly. It made it into a very unique and very difficult job. I think the reason it's come off so well is because of our crew.

It was wonderful to go into this knowing that I had a personal relationship with these guys. We've gone out drinking together, and we've known each other for years, so that connection was already there. They brought a passion to the material, and I'm thrilled to see the way that everybody stepped up.

AF: Can you talk about the origins of The New Frontier, both as a comic book and as an animated feature?

DC: When New Frontier was first conceived for DC Comics, they had asked if I was interested in doing a book about Justice League, and this was sort of what I'd come up with. I realized that I didn't want to deal with the established continuity, and I didn't want to do anything transient. I wanted to go all the way back to the beginning and do a book that distilled everything that was wonderful about DC's universe of characters, and bring it all together into one book, and encapsulate the spirit of the Silver Age, and what these characters meant.

I think that the continuity over the years has given these characters a chance to go off in every possible direction, and the idea of The New Frontier was to get right back to the beginning, looking at what made these characters great at the start of it, and on a deeper level than had ever been done before.

As far as it becoming a movie, I really have to put the credit for the project going forward into Greg Noveck's hands. He's DC's VP, down in Hollywood. When Warners' DTV initiative was announced, and they decided to adapt existing comic book stories, Greg was adamant that New Frontier be one of the first things they put on the schedule.

So, in terms of getting it off the ground as a movie, all I had to do was pick up the phone. Greg called and said, "We're making it."

Cooke wanted to use The New Frontier to get back to the beginning of the Justice League story and to look at what made these characters great at the start.

AF: Have they given you much creative control?

DC: I think it was a very interesting process as we went through the script, and looking at the studio's impression of what we could keep, and what we should get rid of, what was important, and what was not. For the most part, they were on the ball.

"Creative control" is something you do not have in a situation like this. These are not my characters, and this is a work-for-hire situation, but I was given an incredible amount of input, and I was very appreciative of the fact that they thought it was important that I be part of it.

I know that everybody had the project's best interests at heart, but there were certain aspects or details that I don't think people realized were important until I was able to plead my case, and let them know why I thought it was important. These things needed to be articulated and explained, and so we put it together that way -- a lot of back-and-forth. If I thought we were coming up short, I tried to explain, as clearly and persistently as I could, why I thought we had to put something over here, put something over there.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. A good example would be, I wouldn't have opened the film the way we did. I would have opened on the young Hal Jordan meeting Chuck Yeager. For a million reasons, and they're all good ones, we opened on [New Frontier villain] The Centre as the starting point for the film. I lost that one, but then again, there were a lot of battles I did win.

The movie wouldn't have had Wonder Woman or Lois Lane in it, if I hadn't made a case for them, because they cut those characters out right from the beginning. It was a real fight to prove to them that those two were important to the story.

AF: How many women are left in the story if you cut them out?

DC: [Flash's girlfriend] Iris [West] and [Green Lantern's] Carol [Ferris], and those two are relegated to perhaps a scene apiece. I remember using the phrase on the phone one time, "We might as well just rename this 'White Guys in the '50s," [laughs] because everything else is gone. The women are the heart of the story. There's a sequence at the climax of the story where everybody's going to confront The Centre at Cape Canaveral, and there's a series of scenes where you see these couples saying goodbye to each other, and everybody who's read this book or seen this movie... that's the scene where you choke up. That's where you realize, they're just imaginary characters, but you relate to them. Those relationships are what give them weight, and they're a critical part of the film, and I'm glad we were able to pull that back together.

AF: I'm assuming you had a lot more creative control in your next project, a one-shot comic book featuring the characters from The New Frontier?

DC: That's right. We did a New Frontier Special to coincide with the film's release, and it's kind of like an old-time Silver Age special. It's oversized, and the stories are meant to be entertaining. There are a few gag pages, and there's a section about the film itself, and the art of the film. That's a section of the book I'm really happy with, because it gives us a chance to show everybody the immense amount of work that goes into a project like this, and what it takes to pull it off.

AF: And prior to that, you wrapped up what had to be one of the most unenviable jobs in comics, reviving Will Eisner's classic comic The Spirit.

DC: The quintessential suicide mission, as it were. They were going to bring back The Spirit at DC Comics, no matter what, and they offered it to me. I was incredibly reluctant to step into Eisner's shoes; however, this was going forward one way or another, and I thought to myself, "Do I want anyone else doing this?" So I had to do some hard thinking, and then I just figured I'd do my best with it. I put everything I had into it for a year, and we just tried to not embarrass ourselves.

AF: Did you get the opportunity to talk to Eisner about the project before you started?

DC: I never got to speak to Will directly about this. I was lucky enough to meet him a few years ago, and we had a lovely chat for about a half-hour about storytelling fundamentals, things like that, so I have a warm, personal memory of the man that I carry with me, but no, unfortunately, I didn't get to talk to him about it.

AF: Are you satisfied with how it turned out? I think you made it your own, but at the same time, no pun intended, you seemed to capture the spirit of Eisner's original.

DC: I think this is true of anyone who's really trying to achieve something creatively, you're never completely happy with what you've done. You're very happy when you see that there are other people who enjoy it. That's the most important thing. If I've got readers responding to the work, that makes me happy. When I look at my own work, I always see what I could have done better, things I could have done to make it stronger, so as a creator, it's an ongoing critical process for me. I pull it apart, I see the flaws, and I continue to try to make the work better.

AF: And what are your future plans? More animation, more comics?

DC: It's been a busy, busy eight years, and it's been non-stop for me. My first order of business is that I'm going to take a long, long holiday. After that, I plan on getting involved in a lot more creator-owned work, and some graphic novels that feature more human situations, and more down-to-earth characters, I suppose. I also have some projects on the go at DC, but most of those are just percolating, and it's a little early to start talking about them.

As for animation, there should be a surprising announcement or two within the next couple of months in that regard. There are a few things being discussed as we speak that I think will be a delightful surprise, if everything works out.

Andrea Romano has served as voice director of... almost everything.

Interview with Andrea Romano

Andrew Farago: Youre the voice director of... pretty much everything, right? How long have you been in this business?

Andrea Romano: I started working in the voice-over business, as a voice-over agent, in 1980, representing actors who did various voices for cartoons. In 1984, I was the casting director for Hanna-Barbera, working on The Smurfs and GoBots, which was their answer to Transformers, and those kinds of shows. Then in 1989, I went over with the group that formed Warner Bros. animation department, and worked on Tiny Toons Adventures and Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain... In 1991, Bruce [Timm] and I started working on some of the action series, like Batman, Superman, Justice League and Batman Beyond. So yeah, since 1980 I've been working in the industry.

AF: And is it safe to assume that you're a lifelong cartoon fan?

AR: I am maybe the biggest cartoon fan in the world. "My" era was the Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Huckleberry Hound and Quickdraw McGraw. I remember so well, when I first stated working at Hanna-Barbera, meeting voice actor Daws Butler, and I told him what a big fan of Huckleberry Hound I was, and he spoke to me as Huckleberry Hound, and I had the weirdest reaction. I just burst into tears. It's like, all of a sudden, I was just drawn back in time, to being five years old and sitting in front of the TV in my footie pajamas with a bowl of cereal, waiting for the main titles for Huckleberry Hound...

So, yes, I've always loved cartoons. They're just such a wonderful escape. You can picture yourself as one of those characters, and just escape from everyday life. Even as a kid, I enjoyed that.

AF: How much direction do you typically get from the animators? Do they provide general descriptions, or do they give you specific actors for each role?

AR: It varies. My information usually comes to me from the producer, and sometimes the writer. Those are the two people that give me the majority of the information.

Sometimes when I'm working on the direct-to-video releases, they'll provide me with a wish list, but the reality of it is that I've been doing this for so long that I know who I have access to, and what actors I can really get. And I'm not afraid to go and approach any actors -- what's the worst that can happen? They'll say no? Every once in a while, they say yes, and we'll have some wonderful actor coming in, like John Heard. I've been a huge fan of his on-camera work, and I think this may have been his first voiceover gig, entirely.

That's just really wonderful, when those sorts of things fall into place, and you can get these really fine actors. The animation director specifically might be able to tell me, in a specific scene, "we've got the characters doing this," or "they're going to be struggling with each other, physically," or [Andrea speaks in a strained voice] "they'll... be... talking... like... this... " And all of that makes a difference in the performance. That's all useful information from the animation directors.

When Romano met Daws Butler, the voice of Huckleberry Hound, she burst into tears when he spoke to her as her childhood icon. © Cartoon Network.

AF: Who are some of the biggest surprises that you've had, from the actors who've said "yes"?

AR: I also direct for various other studios, and for Nickelodeon, I worked on a series called Avatar, and I also do Spongebob Squarepants, and because Spongebob is such an enormous hit, many actors actually approach us, wanting to do it because... well, a lot of actors, the work that they do on-camera, in films, their children can't watch. Maybe they're R-rated movies, or just movies that aren't appropriate for small children... But they'll call us up and say, "My kid is a huge fan of Spongebob Squarepants."

David Bowie called and asked if he could be part of Spongebob Squarepants, Gene Simmons from KISS, and his significant other, Shannon Tweed, they came in and did some guest roles. Dennis Quaid has been asking to come in and read, and I'm a huge fan of his... I'm actually scheduled to record Johnny Depp in a couple of weeks. Those are all surprises, and those are all people who came to us.

As a matter of fact, when we were first doing the series The Batman, in 1991, Mark Hamill called me and said, "I want to be part of the series." I brought him in for a guest-star role, and he did a terrific job, and he said, "Thank you so much... but, Andrea, I want to be a part of the series." And so we ultimately cast him as The Joker, and he's been The Joker in so many episodes, so many incarnations, and he's just terrific at it.

AF: Do you ever, as a fan, cast actors that you personally want to meet?

AR: There's always a little bit of that going on. You can't help it. I want to make sure that I'm not doing something that would somehow harm the project, it needs to be the right actor for the role. To me, it doesn't matter if it's a celebrity or not. If it's the right actor, that's going to make the project be good. If it's a celebrity, but he's not right for the role, it's not going to make the project work. I'm there to serve the project.

But there are always people who I say, "I'd really like to meet... " and the agent will let me know that so-and-so is interested in animation. During the writers strike, a lot of actors were not working on-camera, and I had access to some actors that I normally wouldn't, but they were available, and they weren't doing anything, so that kind of worked out well for me, even though it was such a shame to have that strike go on for so long.

SpongeBob is such an enormous hit that many actors actually approach Romano to do something their kids can watch. © Nickelodeon.

AF: My wife and I are big fans of the Warner Bros. superhero cartoons, and whenever your name comes up on the end credits, that's our cue to hit the pause button and look at the voice-over credits. Your name turns up on quite a lot of our favorite DVDs.

AR: Thank you very much. When you listen to the shows, do you ever think to yourself, "That sounds like... "? Do you ever identify who the actor is?

AF: We'll usually go to the computer afterward, and pull up the IMDB just to make sure we're correctly remembering the actor's credits.

AR: I love that. That makes me so happy, because I paid attention to that to, even before I was in the business. I'd think, "That sure sounds like... " Like Donald Sutherland in the Volvo commercials, or whoever. That's the way I watch The Simpsons. "I think that's Glenn Close," or whoever, and that's always a fun game, to try and figure out the actor before the end credits roll.

AF: And I'll take this opportunity to compliment you on your job, because we never see one of your cartoons and think, "That voice was terrible." Just about every voice in your cartoons is the right voice. It's never "nails on a chalkboard."

AR: Thank you. I try very hard to make sure that the voice is always appealing. Even the evil characters, you don't want the voice to be so hard on the ear. I have to protect my ears, because that's how I make my living. So often I'll be watching a cartoon, and I'll hear a voice that's so grating... you may think it's appropriate for the character, but it tires the ear. No matter what kind of character it is, you have to make sure that it's something you can tolerate for a period of time, and you need something you can grasp onto and say, "That's why that voice is that way."

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and the creator of the weekly online comic serial The Chronicles of William Bazillion.