Two new projects that will be of particular interest to comic fans for different reasons were highlighted on the last day of the recent Comic-Con International in San Diego at the Cartoon Network: Tower Prep with Firebreather Sneak Peek panel. Ostensibly an advanced preview for the kid-focused cable channel's next live action drama and CGI original movie respectively, the event drew an assembly of creators and talent that are mostly well-known and well-respected by comics readers. In the case of "Tower Prep" – the live action mix of mystery, sci-fi and prep school drama – the series was conceived and created by "Batman" comics and animation writer Paul Dini who was joined on stage by show runner Glen Morgan ("The X-Files") and four cast members. With "Firebreather" – an CGI movie adaptation of the Image comics hit about a teen superhero son of giant monster demons – creators Phil Hester and Andy Kuhn took the mic along with director Peter Chung (creator of "Aeon Flux").
The panel got underway when moderator Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News opened the floor for Dini to describe how he came to be producing a live action show on the Cartoon Network. "Almost two years ago, I met with [development executives] Rob Swartz and Tramm Wigzell, and we were talking about a new direction Cartoon Network was taking, and that is to do programming for a family audience in live action," the writer explained, saying the team wanted "to create shows that were compelling and fantastic that spoke to an audience in a way that hasn't been addresses before. To create something totally new that really doesn't exist on TV, and that is big, compelling shows for a younger audience that just doesn't exist for them anymore."
What those discussions and gold yielded was "Tower Prep" – a show that focuses on a secret academy where teenagers with enhanced abilities are spirited away to be prepared for a mysterious fate even they aren't sure of. As for the influences that affected what the show became, Dini said, "I thought about incidents when I was a kid. I went to a prep school, and I leaned back on my feelings of what it was like at the time – the strangeness and the alienation. The first year was absolutely ghastly, and I always wrote those things down and thought, 'You know, I'm going to use that some day and put it in the realm of fantasy.' So that was one of the first things we talked about, and they thought it sounded very interesting for a series. As time went on and we did the development, we realized we needed some very special people to bring this to life. So Glen Morgan came on with his brother Darin from 'The X-Files' and they have made the show their own and made it unique and wonderful. I couldn't be happier with the result."
The audience was then treated to a large, cliffhangery chunk of the pilot episode – something Dini was particularly excited about as Comic-Con was the place where he helped launch "Batman: The Animated Series" and "Lost." In the episode, the audience is introduced to lead character Ian Archer (played by the in attendance Drew Van Acker). After Ian is thrown out of his public school for sticking up to bullies on behalf of a rather bookish friend and meeting the mysterious Whisper 119 in an online game, he wakes up far from his home in the strange Tower Prep, where the other uniformed students seem much more accustomed to the schools system of taxing attendee's mental and physical abilities. After interacting with some of his new classmates and the school's staff – who are referred to only by the subject they teach (i.e. "Science") rather than their names – Ian attempts to escape the school only to be confronted by grounds that end in a treacherous seaside cliff and woods populated by strange creatures with glowing eyes.
After the clip, Van Acker expounded on his character's view of the school. "Tower Prep is a place that I can't accept. I can't accept being there. I can't accept why I'm there," he said before explaining what special ability Ian carried. "My character has what we call preflex, and the best way to describe that is as a kind of Spidey sense...he can pretty much react and see things in brief moments, a split second before it actually happens...These are not superpowers by any means. It's basically [enhanced intuition.] Each person has an ability or talent that is heightened to a certain degree."
The rest of the cast in attendance was then given a chance to explain their particular power set. Ryan Pinkston, who plays know-it-all Gabe explained, "My ability is what we call hypersuasion, which is a form of hypnotism in a way. I think it's kind of like if we were at the X-Men level, it'd be an Xavier-like mind control, but it's the grounded level of that. I use my voice and mix a little eye contact in there, and I can basically get whatever I want. I can talk my way into anything or out of anything."
Elise Gatien, who plays Ian's potential love interest C.J., noted "My ability is to read people, which can be very convenient as well. I can pick up little eye twitches or a clench of the jaw and know what their true intentions or what it is they're feeling."
Finally, actress Dyana Liu, who plays Suki, said how her character utilizes a kind of muscle mimicry which can allow her to copy things like voices and handwriting. "You can hear someone or see them and take on their persona," she said before Pinkston added of the show in general, "It's a little bit of everything. There's mystery and romance and comedy."
As a final tease for the 13-episode season debuting this fall, Morgan said of his role, "This is a show where I came into the room at Cartoon Network...and they said, 'We want something that's not on TV.' You hear that all the time, but these guys mean it. As we go through episodes – we're doing our last one this week – and we go, 'What if this? What if that?' These [actors] don't even want to read the scripts in advance. They just want to start and see what's going on. There's a whole 'nother level to the school, and every week there's a different mystery. We worked very hard to keep those mysteries going, but [also] to answer them. So every week, you don't just go, 'Oh! That's really cool, but it never gets answered!' So there are puzzles, and they advance.
"And we're all very proud. I really believe that this is a thing that is not on TV. You've seen the pilot, and the pilot's really terrific, but we go so far beyond that. The action that we have every week – a couple of the episodes are so bizarre and so funny. It's not really something that's reflected in what you've seen. We've advanced so much."
Dini added, "One of the things that was key in the writing process was what we took from our high school experience because Tower Prep is a school and to some degree there are school stories to tell. But we want to take those stories and put a twist on them whether it's an election or dance or something like that. It's like, how can we can that and spin it into something really grotesque or really imaginative with puzzles but that's also relatable on multiple levels? It is school and it is rivalries, but it's also this mysterious place."
When it came time for "Firebreather" to take the spotlight, co-creator PhilHester took the lead first to explain a bit about his original conception of the comic character. "My favorite superhero is Spider-Man, and the reason Spider-Man is great is because he has all these great powers and abilities, but he still has girl problems," the cartoonist said. "But even Peter Parker got to stop being Spider-Man and take off his mask. I wanted to create a character who had all these cool powers, but had all those problems 24 hours a day. We wanted to create a character that was physically an outcast and had been driven into that high school mix."
Asked about the influence of the "pre-Marvel" Marvel monster comics by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others, Hester noted "I always tell people the impetus behind the book was that it was an excuse for me to draw giant monsters. So we're definitely schooled in those old pre-hero Marvel Comics. Seeing those kinds of giant monsters come to life – especially under Peter's direction – is pretty amazing."
For his part, Chung explained that he'd been working for two years on developing on the project, mostly due to his love of the genre of monster fiction as well as the superhero genre. "The attraction for me was being able to tell a story that continues for over an hour," the director best known for his shorter animation work explained. Knowles asked the animator about moving from traditional 2-D animation to a computer-generated variety, and Chung said, "At the beginning, when we first started talking about this, we weren't going to do this as a [CGI] film...it was a little daunting at first, but in the end, you're working with the same storytelling values – good animation, good design, good writing."
The clip from Firebreather – a part of which made it online shortly after the con wrapped – focused mostly on the pre-transformation life of Duncan Rosenblatt who during the course of the film is changed from typical teen to the scaly son of the King of Monsters. Included in the clip package was a very Aeon Flux-inspired scene where Duncan evades a group of bullies through some aerial acrobatics and a scene where the teen ventures into his father's realm where the cabal of monolithic monsters turns him into the first version of the Firebreather character, complete with a mystical amulet of sorts powering his chest.
"There was a challenge in making the giant monsters feel like they were really giant," Chung said after the reel had run. "I have to say, that stuff comes pretty second nature to me. The stuff that was most challenging to me was on the human scale and getting to do those character beats and making those scenes interesting in their own right."
Asked by audience members how close the movie would hew to the comic series, Hester explained "It got its basis in those comics, and Peter and the people at Cartoon Network took it and did their own thing. If you like the comics, you'll definitely like the movie. But they're both their own thing, and they're both really cool." Another fan then asked if viewers were going to see Firebreather's wings appear in the movie, to which Chung replied, "I don't want to give away that part. You'll have to watch it, although there was a little clue in the clip you saw."
No ties to the loose "Image universe" of characters will appear in the movie, as other heroes Firebreather has interacted with are owned by other creators, though the panel did laugh at the suggestion that a character in the animation could wear a Savage Dragon t-shirt.
Near the end of the panel, the question of live action vs. cartoons on Cartoon Network was raised by a fan who felt the channel was moving away from what had made it popular. "I don't think that's entirely true," Dini responded. "Knowing what we know of the Cartoon Network's schedule and their plans for the coming year, they're planning for more new cartoons than ever and putting them on the air. I think what they're looking in doing is broadening their focus and their viewership by making things that are more family oriented, so they're taking a chance on some live action shows that appeal to that. There's nothing really on broadcast on major networks that appeals to a family audience in live action drama. There's nothing that crosses that line. There's no Walt Disney hour or a younger-skewing family show. Cartoon Network recognized there was a need there and an audience for it, so they investigated there. I think we've done pretty well, and from what I know of what they've got coming up, I think there's a good, even mix of what's coming up...including animation."
Chung took the final word, saying that while there may be more live action, "There's more of everything. When I was coming up, you could only watch cartoons at a certain time on a certain day. Now you can watch cartoons any time you want."