An accomplished storyboard artist on the previously released DC Universe Original Animated Movies “Superman/Doomsday,” “Green Lantern: First Flight” and “Wonder Woman,” Sam Liu jumped into the director’s chair for the latest Warner Bros. Direct to Video feature, “Superman/Batman: Public Enemies,” which is in stores now.
Originally released as a six-issue arc and eventual collected work in Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness’ bestselling comic “Superman/Batman,” “Public Enemies,” is a showcase for a very presidential Lex Luthor, played by Clancy Brown, and tells the tale of how Superman [Tim Daly] becomes the world’s greatest fugitive, and the only person he can turn to in his time of need is a superhero who fights crime using a different set of rules: Batman [Kevin Conroy].
Liu’s previous directing experience includes seven episodes of the Emmy Award-winning “The Batman” and the Thor ‘battle’ film of the Marvel Animation DTV, “Hulk Vs.” He’s also co-directing the upcoming DC Universe Original Animated Movie, “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths” with Lauren Montgomery.
CBR News recently spoke with Liu who shared his thoughts on the differences between animating superheroes for a television versus a done-in-one DTV and teased a few details about the upcoming “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths,” based, at least in part, on Grant Morrison’s “JLA: Earth 2.”
CBR News: I understand that you have been editing all day.
Sam Liu: Yeah, we’ve been calling re-takes and editing on “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.” It’s wrapped. And I’ve been character designing on another project too, so I’m jumping from project to project.
So never a dull moment.
Yeah, it’s nuts over here right now.
It’s good to be busy.
Were you familiar with Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness’ run on “Superman/Batman” before taking on this assignment?
Actually, I had heard about it but I never read it. Unfortunately, I’m not as avid comic book reader as I was about 10 years ago when I was in comics.
Assuming you’ve now gone back and read it, what is it about the story that you think makes it translate well to an animated feature?
When I read the scripts, I read the script first and then I read the comic, and I was really happy with what [producer] Bruce [Timm] and [writer] Stan [Berkowitz] had done. They really consolidated it and focused on some specific parts. And even though it’s like a big punch-fest type of thing, I felt there were some characters in there that would make it a pretty compelling and interesting story.
I feel like it’s a Superman redemption type of story. And I really gravitate towards that. And obviously, that goes hand-in-hand with Batman and Superman’s relationship because Batman is helping him out. So I felt like it was a good vehicle for that exploration. It’s like his friend is in dire trouble. And so even though Batman is the dark, tough guy, he’s going out of his way to help him out.
I thought Power Girl was kind of interesting too. There’s that reality that Luthor is fixing the economy to a certain extent, and that’s what gains the trust in the people, and even though Power Girl is sort of working for the government, she’s Superman’s cousin, you know what I mean? So she’s kind of torn.
I also thought Captain Atom’s story was pretty interesting, just how he is sort of the person who took over Superman’s mantle. He’s almost the right hand man of the President in a way. And he’s just trying to do a good job. He’s just a patriot, but he has to go capture Superman [laughs].
The original comic and the eventual trade paperback were both top sellers. How close did you to stick to the source material, in terms of both the story and the art?
We made a few changes, but we tried to be almost 100 percent faithful, when we could. For a lot of the big fight set pieces in the middle, Adam Van Wyk, the storyboard artist for that section, pretty much took panels from the comic and tried to fit them as best he could. And he fit a lot of it in there. So I think if you look at the comic and compare it to certain scenes, you’ll see almost the exact same poses and staging.
Superman and Batman are voiced by two actors who are very familiar to fans of DC Animation. What does voice talent like Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly, not to mention Clancy Brown, bring to a production?
I came on pretty late in the project and they were already done. It was unfortunately one of the quicker turn-around projects [I've been involved with], so I actually didn’t get a chance to go into voice recording with them. I’ve obviously seen footage of it and I’ve done enough convention panels with the three of them to recognize the kind of rapport they have with one another. It’s a pleasure. It’s great to hear and it was very easy, in a lot of ways, to work with the dialogue scenes because it all sounds very natural.
You came up as a storyboard artist. Can you talk about Superman and Batman artistically? What is you love the look of these characters?
I don’t think I really have anything specific. Outside of, obviously, they are huge icons. Batman, I just love his design. It’s difficult to make him look bad. He just looks cool in almost every incarnation that I’ve seen.
And Superman is just obviously, almost like the perfect guy. He’s this perfect and strong hero. So they’re fun to draw because they’re these icons and you just get what they’re about immediately. And sometimes it’s just fun playing with the subtleties. One of the dilemmas I had was that Superman’s character is supposed to be very patient. He’s not a hot head, so sometimes you’re playing his patience, more than his aggression. And so sometimes, to me anyway, that doesn’t lend to being really cool, like, “Look at him. He’s going crazy. Awesome. He’s beating up everybody.” You have to have a really good reason for him to act that way. And I think in “Public Enemies,” in the beginning, I remember talking to the storyboard artists a lot about how we were going to have a lot of him doing that. The first time you see him, he’s doing something very mundane. He’s chasing a speeding car. And then he has to go talk to the "government agents," and we tried to play him very reserved because even though he’s getting kind of looked down upon by his friends, he was ‘The Man’ and now he’s not. He’s doing very menial things and it’s almost humbling in a way. They’re kind of messing with him a little bit.
I remember the storyboard artist saying, “How do we give him something exciting to do?” And I said, “With him, I think you have to show his patience.” He’s the guy who is like, “Even though I’m down, I’m going to do my job and do it honorably.” I’m sure nobody is going to notice it, but those are questions that you kind of come up with about character development.
But sort of bringing it back to Superman being such an iconic character, there are almost things where you go, “Superman would do that.” And you do that and it just makes absolute sense.
Do you think your audience for “Public Enemies” is those who loved the comic and now want to see it in a different media, or will it be an entirely new audience?
I think it’s a little bit of both. We try to make it for the fans that read the source material, but we’re also conscious of the fact that a lot of people probably haven’t read it. I think that’s why there’s a lot of streamlining in the scripts. We’re trying to build things that don’t necessarily require people to have extensive knowledge of the histories of the characters. People know the general origin of Superman and the general origin of Batman. It’s difficult, doing so many Batman projects, if you have to tell his origin story every single time. The general stuff like that we’re tending to bypass but all the other stuff, we’re trying to make it accessible to people that know nothing about the source material.
You’ve worked on animated series before like “The Batman.” With this being a feature length DTV, are there major differences between overall production and pulling a project of this size together versus a series for television?
It‘s different. And it’s harder than I think most people understand, in a way. Because in a series, you’re working on it for an extended period of time, so you create a world, and you have people who maybe aren’t as familiar – and that comes from art on our side, but also the animators overseas – so there is a certain amount of time where you can get used to the world and get more comfortable. I’m sure you’ve seen shows where the first season is a little bit clunky, by the second season, it’s like they’ve smoothed out things and they understand the dynamics of characters, they see what the look of the show is or what the feel is about. These DTVs are really quick turnarounds. You have to imagine and then create the whole world, and you get basically one shot to tell the story. And hopefully you get it. And then it’s done. And then you’re on to a whole different world with whole different color scheme, and character design, and a slightly different Superman and Batman, and stuff like that. It’s exciting, but it can get a little rough.
Any plans in place to do more “Superman/Batman” stories in animated form?
I don’t know if I’m at liberty to say. I think it’s just better that I avoid that question.
You’re working on “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths,” now. Did most of the creative team from “Public Enemies” stay intact and move to the new project with you?
As far as the art side, yes, but obviously the voices, no. The action/adventure group of animation people is actually quite small. We know each other either really well, or at least we’ve heard of each other. We’re using a good percentage of the same people in most of them actually.
Can you share any details about “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths”?
I’m not sure how much I am allowed to say, and I don’t know what’s been out there already, but it’s definitely the Justice League and I think it takes reference from the “JLA: Earth 2” book, but it’s also part of something else.
I think there are a lot of elements from the Grant Morrison’s book, but it was also written as a story for something else – if that’s not too cryptic.