School Is In Session & On Television As The "Degrassi" Comic Hits TV

Wed, November 1st, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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Here in America, we're keenly aware of the way that our friends up north live their lives. Sequestered in igloos, riding polar bears named Bobo to get from point A to point B, Canadians are a resilient lot who have created some of the greatest beer (Molson Canadian), donuts (Tim Horton's), and architecture (CN Tower) known to man. They're a polite people, always happy to help a friend, sometimes by sending a helpful Mountie to major US cities such as Chicago, as seen in the docu-drama television series known as "Due South." But CBR News has discovered something even more shocking – Canadians make pretty great television as well!

All jokes aside, Canada has created a strong reputation of being forward thinking in the arts, especially the realm of television, from the CBC's acclaimed programming such as "Royal Canadian Air Farce" and the short-lived "The Rez." Perhaps the most well-known Canadian television program is "Degrassi High," the teen drama whose latest incarnation, "Degrassi: The Next Generation," has been a huge hit in Canada and the US. As we reported earlier this year, J. Torres will be writing a new "Degrassi: Extra Credit" graphic novel series that ties in with the current television show, allowing for "untold tales" to see the light. With the first graphic novel arriving early for Canadian fans, the response from readers has been positive, and CBR News got some reactions from members of the cast:

"I think they've done a fantastic job capturing our characters and their personalities," said Ryan Cooley (DTNG's J.T. Yorke)

"It was pretty interesting seeing the illustrated version of ourselves. The artists did a really good job, and I like the fact that each edition is going to be a little different," said Melissa McIntyre (DTNG's Ashley Kerwin)

"It is completely surreal to see myself as a cartoon!" Miriam McDonald (DTNG's Emma Nelson) exclaimed.

Now, Torres' comic book work is receiving one of the highest compliments in the land: adaptation into animated shorts! Die-hard fans won't be surprised, as the live action Degrassi "minis" have proven quite popular and another multimedia iteration of "Degrassi" was not only expected, but also anticipated. To learn more about this initiative, CBR News spoke with Christopher Jackson, Director of Digital Media & Merchandising for Epitome Pictures Inc (the company producing the new "Degrassi" show) and he explained the origin of this adaptation.

The genesis of the animated shorts idea happened during a meeting Jackson had with the show's producers and the people from "Degrassi: The Next Generations" Canadian broadcaster, the CTV Television Network. "At the time (late 2005), I was with Madison Press Books, and did a brief show-and-tell of the concept work that Madison had originally commissioned on the series," Jackson told CBR News. "Susanne Boyce, the VP of programming for CTV, remained silent for a long while after I presented - so silent, in fact, that I was worried that she hated the graphic novel concept - however after the smoke cleared, she declared that she loved the prototype artwork for the books, and floated the idea of experimenting with some short-form, animated adaptations, primarily for Web use."

Jackson is aware of the passion displayed by "Degrassi" fans on a regular basis and their desire to see their favorite character accurately portrayed. He's been keeping a close eye on production of these animated shorts and said, " I can tell you that I spent part of yesterday in a post-production studio helping massage two animated shorts, that will be available on the Web, much as our live-action Degrassi Minis are, and mobile devices, etc. When we took a look at the stories and dialogue that J had written for the first two books, it was just so good. Ed Northcott's and Ramn Prez' visual interpretations take us so close to the Degrassi universe, and so far out of it at the same time. All this indicated to us that it might be fun to try to take two excerpts from the graphic novels and work with a really cool group of animators to bring them to life that way."

The "Extra Credit" graphic novels will all be written by J. Torres, but there will be a number of artists contributing to this television show tie-in. Book One, which debuts in the US on Nov 21, is illustrated by Ed Northcott; Book Two arriving on January 2, features art by Ramn Prez; and later books will feature art by Eric Kim (Book Three) and Ramn Prez (Book Four). With such a diverse array of art, animators will be adapting that style in spirit, not exactly as it appears on the printed page. "It will feature almost exactly the same dialogue and scenarios inspired by Ed and Ramon, interpreted by James McCrimmon and the guys at Yowza! in Toronto," revealed Jackson. "J. is really such an incredible guy, and you have to understand, Degrassi doesn't really grow from the outside in terms of pure creative; it's very much an in-house process, led by Linda Schuyler, the show's co-creator and co-e.p. When this project started more than a year ago, I was there, and while the collective decision was made to go ahead with these books, there was naturally a lot of concern about having someone who was not on an 'in-house' writing team create stories in the Degrassi universe.

"As J.'s work progressed, he and the editorial team would check in with Epitome's writers, creative exec., and Linda, to ensure that this parallel universe was taking a positive shape. After it all, we realized that J. is just an enormous talent, who's really committted to Degrassi, and gets it. Here's a fun fact: Stefan Brogren, who plays Archie 'Snake' Simpson on 'Degrassi: The Next Generation' (a character that's been with us since Degrassi Junior High), lives a double life: he helps create, and he produces, a series of mobisodes - live action shorts for Web and mobile - called Degrassi Minis.

"These are really wacky, fun, and engaging 2-to-4-minute pieces that can be viewed in The Click at The-N.com in the US, and on CTV.ca's broadband streaming service in Canada. The first 13 Minis that Stefan produced were streamed so much from these sites that we got together with our friends at The N and worked out a way to do a whole mess more."

Fans who've met Torres know that he's an ambitious man and when he was presented with the opportunity to contribute to the "minis," he jumped on it. "Linda suggested that Stefan and J. connect, to see if J. had any ideas for the live-action Minis. J. Torres has ideas. Aplenty. So it was pretty neat to wander onto the set three weeks ago to find J. standing amongst the crew while his Minis were being shot."

CBR News has learned that one of the minis will be entitled "Toby Dynamite," a name that Jackson is sure will put smiles on the face of many a "Degrassi" fan.

By now, many fans might be wondering how exactly this kind of animated project could work, since conventional thinking dictates that multimedia promotion of comic books is expensive. Sure, "Degrassi: Extra Credit" may have originated from a television program, but that doesn't reduce the cost to promote the animated shorts. " Oh, that old money bugaboo!" laughed Jackson. "Yes, cost is always a concern, but we've got great partners on-board who are committed to making it work. The story I told above about Susanne Boyce from CTV suggesting the animations is a perfect example. Our animated shorts won't even air on television - they're for broadband and mobile consumption - yet here's the big cheese of our broadcaster saying 'hey, let's give it a go.' We find that our partners such as CTV up here, The N in the US, ABC in Australia, and Filles-TV in France (to name just a few) are very often supportive of our efforts to find new and relevant ways of reaching people with Degrassi stories. And when I say supportive, I mean really supportive. As a for-instance, 10-second spots (Closed-captioning brought to you by 'Degrassi: Extra Credit,' the new series of graphic novels...) will start to run nationally on CTV on November 20th. When was the last time you remember a series of graphic novels being promoted on television? The N is planning some really cool stuff around the books on The-N.com as well, for American fans. That's the kind of support that does everyone good, and goes a long way to making sure that we've done the best we can do to make the project financially viable.

"But you know, at the end of the day, the ' Degrassi: Extra Credit' books have to be better-than-good in order for them to be viable in the long-term. Same goes for the animated shorts, and the live-action Degrassi Minis. Oh, and the television series itself, by the way. Degrassi fans will decide for us, which is why you want to load your team with people like our creators if you want to pull off some killer Degrassi graphic novels!"

It's not always easy to launch a new television show, especially one about teens (as declining ratings for the once popular "The O.C" support), but the combination of the "Degrassi" legacy and strong writing have helped to make "D:TNG" a commercial & critical hit. The show rarely pulls punches, with storylines about teen violence to stories about abortion, the latter of which has posed a problem for U.S broadcasters. " I heard Linda speak on a panel here in Toronto yesterday morning, discussing the issues of portrayal of teen sexuality in the media, and she told the room essentially that Degrassi has, for 26.5 years, tried to present both sides of an issue, to show teens that they do have choices, the that they can be masters of their own destiny," said Jackson. "A lot of other media channels/properties can sometimes lapse into judgment, for whatever reasons (and not always for nefarious purposes; that's just the way it is.)

"Anyway, Degrassi don't judge. Perfect example: Christine 'Spike' Nelson got pregnant in Grade 8 in 'Degrassi Junior High,' decided to keep the baby and continue on with school. In 'Degrassi: The Next Generation,' our character Manny Santos has an unplanned pregnancy which she chooses to abort. And later on in the DTNG storyline, Liberty Van Zant and J.T., (who were an adorable couple) face the same challenge - this time with a full-term pregnancy and an adoption being the outcome. Real stuff, real choices, real alternatives."

With even the most popular shows, such as "American Idol," it can be hard to glavanize the fanbase into purchasing tie-in merchandise. Even though Kelly Clarkson, champion of "Idol's" first season, is a success in the music industry, far less people purchased her CDs than watched her on television. "We, like all people who have anything to do with helping to make something valuable viable, have concerns over sales and whatnot, but the stories are all-new, so whether or not they've watched the show, the books are an experience apart. A complementary experience. And a good one, we hope!" said Jackson. "The launch is going well. We've heard from a lot of fans online that they've got books in their hands, and (crossed-fingers) nobody's told us anything bad yet. To the contrary, we've had several comments from people who either bought the book on a flyer, or were downright skeptical, saying that they've been pleasantly surprised by J. and Ed's character interpretations and visual storytelling, and that they're down with the whole graphic novel thing now. Stuff like that is so great to hear, after a long creative process.

"We know we'll hear some negative, but hearing is the main thing! If people care enough to commit their thoughts to the Web on these books, least we can do is listen, no?"

As CBR News alluded to in our facetious introduction, many Americans don't know what to make of Canadian culture. Is it just a politer version of the US? Why do they appreciate hockey so much more than the US? Curling's a sport? Really? To those who wonder if the "Canadian-ism" of "Degrassi: Extra Credit" might be a barrier to their enjoyment, Jackson said that you don't need to love Labbatt Blue to love "Degrassi." " Many Canadians, myself included before I joined the group here, definitely view Degrassi as a part of our cultural heritage," he explained. "There are a whole generation of people, again myself included, who not only watched previous iterations of Degrassi in our free time, but were also watching Degrassi as supplemental material to various course curricula in high school. I can remember being in my sex ed class at Leaside High and having the A/V nerds roll in one of those big old carts with the clunky VTR onboard so that the teacher could screen the Spike-gets-pregnant episodes of 'Degrassi: Junior High' for the class, and discuss it with us afterwards. So, for people of a certain age in Canada (and in some other places around the world, such as Australia, where Classic Degrassi [as we call the older series] was insanely popular), it's easy for us to find that thread of continuity that leads us to ' Degrassi: The Next Generation' today (hell, DTNG's Emma is Spike's baby from that epic Junior High storyline.).

"So, it's easy to say that Degrassi is uniquely Canadian for we Canadians, because it's been a part of our consciousness for so long, but is it really? When we see and hear how teens around the world (and not just in English-speaking markets, either) react to 'DTNG,' how they talk about our characters and storylines and how relevant they are, the argument could be made that she show totally transcends any nationalistic considerations - whatever the case, it's apparent that most of the issues that Canadian teens deal with transcend borders, too!"

After all this, you're probably a bit interested in checking out what "Degrassi: Extra Credit" and the accompanying animated shorts are like, but don't worry about being new to the mythology: it's all reader friendly. "Darn tootin'!" exclaimed the ever polite and excited Jackson, who also wanted to remind fans that episodes can be purchased from Apple's iTunes service. "From Day One on this graphic novel project, we've hung on to the notion that each book has to stand on its own as a great work of graphic fiction for our target audience And our target audience is teens, whether they're fans of Degrassi, or not. In ' Turning Japanese ,' the first book, Ellie finds herself in a situation where she has to determine whether what she's encountering at her big-time summer internship is sexual harassment or not. With a little help from her friends, of course! And J.T. deals with the pain of his loss by getting lost in something else; something that may not be entirely healthy for, or beneficial to, him. These are stories based on issues that teens have either faced or will face, so on their own, they're relevant to the audience."

Existing "Degrassi" fans will also find that their knowledge of the show will add another layer to the "Extra Credit" experience. "They'll get the little in-jokes, they'll get the allusions to the individual episodes that aired on TV, and they'll know the details of a given character's history," added Jackson. "I think it'll be this group of fans - those who also watch the show - that will have the most fun comparing the styles of our three artists as they alternate books in the series, because their styles are so varied. People are sure to have their favourites (note the Canuck spelling), and I just can't wait to see that debate bubble to the surface once ' Suddenly Last Summer ,' the second book, comes out!"

 
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