James Tucker Grabs A Flight Ring To Make "Legion Of Super Heroes" Soar

Fri, October 6th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

TV/Film
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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There are few superhero teams with as loyal, dedicated, and perhaps as obsessive a fanbase as that of the Legion Of Superheroes. The superteam made its debut way back in 1958, encountering a young Clark Kent in the pages of "Adventure Comics" #247, and were a group of teens from the future, meant to make just this single appearance. But in a very real case of "Because You Demanded It!", the Legion soon returned and eventually starred in their very own comic book series, leading to their continued popularity to this day. With this in mind, it's surprising that the Legion has never really been portrayed in other media, besides a few appearances here and there, the team has found a way to remain a staple of DC Comics' publishing line, but not a part of their multimedia efforts. That all changed a few weeks ago on September 23rd, when "Legion Of Super Heroes" debuted in the Kids WB! animation block on the new CW network, receiving loads of acclaim from critics and comic book fans alike. The premise is simple: the Legion is a group of super powered teens from the future who travel back in time to bring a young Clark Kent to help them fight super powered enemies. Why a young Kent and not the one who has already adopted the mantle of Superman? That's just one of the series' intriguing subplots.

One of the keys to the Saturday morning series' success has been producer James Tucker, whose name may not be familiar to you, but whose work is most definitely etched in your memory. In fact, looking at James Tucker's resume, it seems he just may be the ideal candidate for a superteam as unique and diverse as the Legion. Tucker began his animation career working on such shows as "Tazmania," "Tiny Toons," and "Animaniacs." Soon he joined Bruce Timm on the acclaimed "Superman: The Animated Series" as a character designer. Moving onto "Batman Beyond," Tucker's hard work and dedication earned him the position of storyboard artist and then director of the show. He co-produced the first season of "Justice League" and he's been a producer since then. CBR News caught up with Tucker and spoke about Legion, a show near and dear to his heart.

Before we jump into the show, it'd be egregious if we overlooked the near universal positive fan response to "Legion Of Super Heroes." It's not often that the myriad of comic book fans online seem to agree on anything and the, well, "legion" of fans rallying to support the show has been a nice surprise for Tucker. "Having worked most of my animation career on the DCUA shows, I wasn't expecting the fan reaction to be so positive," Tucker told CBR News. "I was thoroughly prepared to stay away from the message boards for the duration of the series, but I couldn't help myself and peeked the Sunday after the premiere. One of the most gratifying things about the positive response has been the amount of parents who say they are enjoying the show with their kids. 'Legion' is the perfect property to do a light-hearted, child friendly take on and I'm glad we didn't over think the premise or mess around with the formula too much."

The Legion is hardly the first DC Comics superhero team to appear on television. A live action "Justice League" pilot was produced by CBS; the Justice League appeared in their own animated series; "Teen Titans" was a wildly popular animated series that continues to boast a solid fan base; and a version of the Justice League is expected to appear on "Smallville." However, as any Legion fan will attest to, the super powered crime fighting teens from the future aren't your average heroes. Tucker has his own opinion, and said, "I think it's the fact that this is a group made up of the best of the best. Not anyone can be a Legionnaire. In the comics in particular, it was a grueling process just to be accepted. So in that way it's probably the only book that mirrors what it feels like to be in high school, on the cusp of adulthood and striving to be the best, and fit in with your peers. Oh, and also all the crushing that goes on between the members really echoes the feelings of being teenagers. Titans, on the other hand, originally, was about sidekicks who formed their own group to get out the shadows of their mentors. That has more to do with parent/child relations. I suppose Legion is the idealized version of teenhood in a structured high school setting, which is something that was a particularly good fit for the kind of show KidsWB has wanted for a while."

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In the comic book series, RJ Brande (one of the richest men in the universe) finds himself the target of an assassination attempt, only to be saved by three teens who use their super powers to help this complete stranger. Inspired by their heroism and love for superheroes of yesteryear, Brande forms the Legion Of Superheroes (or "Super Heroes" in the animated series' title) to combat crime in the future and inspire others. We've seen no sign of Brande in the animated series, but Tucker said that fans would get a proper origin story. "The origin to the team will definitely be addressed down the line. As I stated before, I wanted the audience to get to know the characters as people without all the background stuff up front. I think the best shows set up the characters and get you hooked in, then the information you find out about their pasts is ultimately more satisfying. It's not as if you know everything there is to know about people you meet at first."

There are few people who don't know all about Clark Kent and Superman, but the rest of the main players in "Legion Of Super Heroes" may be new faces to you. Have no fear, as Tucker was happy to provide readers with an introduction to a cast he hopes will soon become household names. "Lightning Lad on the surface the hotheaded jock with a chip on his shoulder about being the leader of this team with Cosmic Boy in absentia, who feels threatened by the new kid on the scene. The pressure to be the best comes from a painful childhood experience than fans of the comic should know.

"Saturn Girl is the level headed, more mature than her years, voice of reason in the group. We are reminded however that she's a teenager just like the rest of them and isn't perfect by any means.

"Phantom Girl is the daughter of the President of the Galaxy and has a tremendous pressure to prove herself as being worthy in her own right and not because she's the daughter of a powerful person.

"Brainiac 5, in our continuity, comes from the planet Colu founded by Superman's oldest foe, Brainiac. He's aware of his dark ancestor and hopes to make amends by doing good deeds and forging a friendship with the Man of Steel before he realizes what their connection will be in the past.

"Bouncing Boy is initially the comic relief in the group, but ultimately he's the heart of the group as well. He earns his place on the group by being very resourceful and a great cruiser pilot to boot. He'll definitely come into his own as the season progresses.

"Timberwolf is the cool detached but inwardly insecure member of the group. His ferocious exterior and demeanor hides the conflicted, caring person he is on the inside. Triplicate Girl is probably the most well adjusted of the group, for now."

Eagle eyed viewers have noticed other Legionnaires shown in brief glimpses throughout the first few episodes, and devoted Legion fans surely recognize the "monitor board" insignias of many other members shown in the opening credits sequence. Fans quickly began wondering if the Legion would become "unlimited," a reference to the Justice League's cartoon's name change to "Justice League Unlimited" after an influx of new members, and Tucker wouldn't rule out team expansion. "For the first season, we'll be dealing with the core group specifically and develop their story arcs and toward the middle and end of the season you'll see more guest stars. At the point we start the Legion, it's actively growing," he revealed. "You'll see characters before they've joined, current core members and members who were already a part of the Legion but not featured. Obviously, not every character will get featured treatment. Depending on how long the show is given to evolve, I can definitely see the core group expanding and shifting, much like the team did in the comics."

When it comes to villains, few super teams can boast such a diverse and diabolical set of adversaries. From the ingenious Starfinger, or perhaps the deadly sorcerer Mordru, to the threat of Darkside, the Legion has faced a cadre of villains that truly tested the team. Perhaps none are more associated with the team than the Fatal Five, who appeared in the first episode of the animated show. But as for future villains, the enigmatic Tucker remained tight lipped. "I don't want to spoil any surprises by spoiling what villains we see," he said, "I will say that a couple are traditional Legion villains with slightly new spins. A couple are Superman specific villains created for the show who have their origins in Superman's past. Some of the villains are doppelgangers for Superman's rogues gallery."

There have been rumor of a Legion cartoon for quite some years, and fans have grown so accustomed to hearing such rumors than many brushed off the rumblings earlier this year that suggested the Legion was making it to the small screen. Tucker said it was "serendipity" that finally brought the futuristic force for good to life on Kids WB! "When I was brought in during the middle of the last season of 'Justice League Unlimited,' 'Legion' was being developed for another network and Alan Heinberg [Of 'The O.C' and 'Young Avengers' fame] was doing the writers bible for it," explained Tucker. "Originally, we solicited outside artists to take passes on the characters. Eventually, I came up with the final look of the team after literally thousands of drawings. Hopefully, some of the original takes will end up as an extra on the DVD or perhaps I'll be able to put them on a blog. Ultimately that studio passed on the show and at the 12th hour we pitched it to Kids WB since they were looking for a Superman-centric show to tie into the 'Superman Returns' movie. Luckily, with a few minor alterations of the pitch art, they bought the idea and here we are. "

Thus far, as we've noted in the article, "Legion Of Super Heroes" has hit a lot of the noted that hardcore Legion fans would want in such a show. The reason? James Tucker is a fellow fan of the Legion, and when asked which eras of the Legion mythology appeal to him the most, he replied, "Well I think if you ask anyone that question, its usually the version of the Legion that was current when they started reading. I have a theory that almost every comic fan has read a Legion comic at one time or another. At least, every comic fan I know. For me, I started with the Cary Bates/Mike Grell era and stayed with it up thru the great Levitz run. I can't say any particular era appeals to me most, but the more traditional takes, especially the Shooter/Swan era, seem the most fertile ground for the kinds of stories we want to tell on the series. Luckily, anything we don't cover in the series can be adapted in the current DC DVDs that are being produced. I love the idea that they will be able to tell the darker Legion stories that wouldn't be suitable for our audience. It's like having the best of both worlds, so support those DC DVDs, gang!

For those DC Comics continuity fans - and we're not saying it's a bad thing - CBR News made sure to ask Tucker about how "Legion of Super Heroes" ties into - if at all - the rest of the DC animated universe. "I didn't go into this show hoping to link it up with what we did in 'JLU,' because it needs to stand on it's own and draw in new fans who ultimately will grow into the 'JLU' version if they haven't seen it yet," explained the producer. "However, since this team is years younger than the Legion team that was in both the 'Superman' episode, "New Kids in Town" and 'JLU''s 'Far From Home,' I'll let the fans make the connections since they see things that we as the creators don't see. That's what fandom is all about. It's not about us, the creators, spoon feeding every bit of information or perfectly laying out an encyclopedia of stories that become the gospel for fans. We the storytellers really just provide the grist for the collective imaginations of fandom and let them do the heavy lifting of making the connections."

The look of the animation in "Legion" isn't quite like anything fans have seen in superhero animated series previously. Asked to describe the style, Tucker said, "It's hard to say. Ultimately you have to design the show based on what overseas studio will be animating it. You can't create a complicated or overly stylized show for a studio that's not used to doing that kind of show. So I knew that I couldn't stray too far from what was done either in 'Justice League' or 'Teen Titans.' Those were shows with totally different styles that were still animated successfully by the same overseas studios. I tried to fit my style somewhere in the middle and push certain things like the body proportions in different directions. How some of the fans claim they see anime influences is beyond me. I guess some folks are just visually illiterate. Ultimately I'm happy with the look, but like any show I've worked on, you tweak things in the second season that didn't quite work. I knew I wanted the show to have a softer, lighter color palette than either of the other shows ('JLU' and 'Titans'), and wanted it to have a futuristic yet nostalgic feel. I didn't want to do the bleak, cold, grimy future you see in a lot of sci-fi based shows."

We're only a few weeks into the series, but fans of "Legion" already can think of the merchandise they'd love to own. Perhaps an affordable Legion flight ring (and if it works, even better!), or some poseable figures of the Legion with some interactive playsets. Considering the futuristic and alien world seen in "Legion," a video game franchise seems natural, perhaps in the style of the hotly anticipated "Justice League Heroes." Tucker told CBR News that action figures and video games are being "considered," but couldn't comment on specifics, or provide a possible timetable for rolling out these products just quite yet.

By this point in time, you're probably realizing just how much work Tucker does on "Legion Of Super Heroes." "The job description of producer is a hard one to qualify," explained Tucker. "Just speaking for myself, I oversee and approve every area of the show including character designs, backgrounds, color, voice direction, scripts, editing and the final sound mix. This is of course taking into consideration the input of my three directors, the story editor and the network, all of whom have a hand in the process. Ultimately though, it's my responsibility to pull it all together."

If you're still wondering about checking out "Legion Of Super Heroes" each Saturday morning, Tucker took a moment to explain why all superhero fans should check out the show. "Um, because I said so?" he joked. "Seriously, I think they should try it out because it's a show that can appeal to a broad range of people. Will it appeal to a certain part of the audience that's been weaned on dark, gritty, cynical stories? Probably not.

"But, if you're a Legion fan, we haven't ignored you. If you're a casual viewer with kids, this is a show you can watch with them and not feel brain dead by the time it's over. If you're a kid who hasn't found comics yet, this show is a great way to discover the world that we, as comics fans, know is full of wonder and adventure. If you're a kid with no interest in comics but enjoy cartoons, there's something for you in this show. I also think the show can have special appeal to girls because of all the empowered female characters we have. I think it's ultimately an optimistic, upbeat show about the making of the world's greatest hero and how he learns to fulfill his destiny with the help of teenagers just as amazing as he is. It's a classic coming of age story."

 
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