If you don't know what Degrassi is, ask your 12 year old niece… or your 20 year old girlfriend. Dozens of fans attended the "Degrassi: Extra Credit" panel on Sunday at the New York Comic Con. One fan in her twenties succinctly described the show as "Canadian middle and high-school melodrama." For many fans, however, it's much more. Several were dressed in homemade shirts featuring iron-on pictures of their favorite stars and carried well-worn scrapbooks packed with magazine articles and personal letters to the characters. One young girl carried a detailed banner decorated with cut-outs, quotes and declarations of love.
Chris Jackson was already on a first-name basis with many. He's the director of Digital Media & Merchandising for Epitome Pictures, the production company behind "Degrassi" and "Instant Star", which both air on The N in the United States and CTV in Canada. Currently the show airs in 102 countries. Jackson moderated Sunday's panel, which featured J. Torres, writer of the "Degrassi: Extra Credit" graphic novel series, Ramon Perez, who penciled the second volume, and Sarah Barrable-Tishauer, the seventeen year old high school student who plays teen mom/class president Liberty Van Zandt on "Degrassi: The Next Generation."
Jackson talked briefly about the show's background. "Degrassi: The Next Generation" the fourth iteration in a franchise that has been around for almost 27 years. It is now in its' 6th season, and has just received an order for 24 episodes of season 7. Epitome's "Instant Star" has also been ordered for 13 episodes of season 4.
Jackson said Torres, the writer of the Degrassi: Extra Credit graphic novels, was "instrumental in launching this publishing program." According to Torres, "the goal of the books was to try to fill in gaps in between episodes and in the summer months-that's what [series creator] Linda Schuyler wanted."
Both of the first two volumes occur in the gaps between seasons 5 and 6. Books 3 and 4 will come out in late April and middle of May. Book 3 will feature Barrable-Tishauer's character Liberty dealing with the adoption of her baby and the breakup with boyfriend JT Yorke. Also look for former bad-boy Spinner going trying to win back his conservative girlfriend Darcy. Book 4 has Marco and Dylan and how they got the house together. The book's "B-plot" features Ashley and her hat. "The hat goes missing," Torres said. "Who took it?"
Torres said the writers do advance him the scripts and he usually sees pre-air episodes that often feature scenes that won't make it to air. He said that has made it tough at signings, where recently he'd been asked if JT was going to die. Torres said he gets mail a lot from fans and posts through his website and Myspace. "It's great because writing is a solitary thing," he said. "Sometimes you feel bad because you can't respond. You don't have the time or you just can't answer." Torres added that he has to be careful with people's ideas. "I feel that I can't review fan-fic, but if there was any similar ideas we could get into trouble."
Torres has also gotten the opportunity to write a number of short live-action "webisodes." "Toby Dynamite," a takeoff on "Napoleon Dynamite", "Bring It On" where the guys try out for spirit squad, and "Da View," a parody of "The View."
The artist behind the second volume in the series, Ramon Perez, said he's working on an upcoming Justice League miniseries and as a backup on a Vertigo series. Perez also continues to work on the online comic "butternutsquash" which he described as "slice of life, thirtysomething-esque humor."
Perez remarked on the challenge when dealing with characters based on real people. "I've worked on some Star Wars stuff where the characters are iconic but don't have to look like the actors," he said. "The audience is very familiar with Degrassi characters." Perez said that he hadn't seen the show beyond season one and watched the entirety of season five, focusing on Manny and Emma. He also picked up fashion catalogs to find out "what the kids are wearing" and visited the Toronto sets to ensure accuracy. "I've worked on enough properties to know that if you get something wrong, the fans will let you know about it." He added that he's drawn Emma a half dozen times at different shows. "It's a lot different since it's a real living person and not Superman." Perez said that he'd be willing to do another Degrassi graphic novel.
Sarah Barrable-Tishauer has been on Degrassi for six years. "You've seen my awkward years documented in season one." Barrable-Tishauer was also featured in a production of "The Lion King" in Toronto. She said she was surprised to see the show move into graphic novels. "It's the most bizarre thing to see yourself in comic form," she said. "When I showed myself talking to JT in book two to my family, they were like 'that's totally you!'"
She said that sometimes people have difficulty seeing past her work as Liberty. "Definitely, when you're on TV you're going into someone's home. But it's difficult for people to see that difference." Still, she said, the actors put bits of themselves in the characters. She explained that Liberty didn't exist when the show was originally cast. She had gone out for the character of Manny. "It's weird because I totally remember sitting with Cassie and talking about this character," she said. "I went in and read for her and I didn't feel a connection with the character." She said another actress also read who was a lot like Liberty, leading the show's producers to realize that they needed a highly-structured character. Ironically, Barrable-Tishauer "out-Liberty-ed" Liberty and in casting beat out the girl the character had been based on. She pointed out that had she played Manny, "you would have seen a completely different show."
In episode 6-11, Liberty's ex-boyfriend and father of her child, JT, falls victim to a school rivalry. Barrable-Tishauer said that when the cast found out about the character's death at a read-through, she thought it was a joke. "Sometimes the writers like to throw in that 'everybody dies in a fire at Degrassi'….Ryan [Cooley] knew but hadn't been allowed to tell." She said that she and Cooley were "like best friends on set" and that his last day on-set was depressing. "Removing that from the cast that's been together for six years, we just didn't know how to handle it." Barrable-Tishauer added that it was bittersweet because Cooley is "onwards and upwards, going to University."
Barrable-Tishauer is still in high school and attends after doing her work on the show. She said it's pretty close to a real high school experience and not glamorized. She said that the cast is a "really close family-some of us go to school together." She said she's close with Cooley and that she and Shenae Grimes (Darcy) hang out all the time. "You'll see the whole cast going out to dinner sometimes." Ironically, she said that she and Jake Epstein (Craig) have never been in a scene together even though they've worked together for five years. Several audience members wanted to know her music tastes: she likes alternative rock, and named the Arctic Monkeys, the Fray, Coldplay, Broken Social Scene and Feist as favorites. "Although," she said, "it's always fun to listen to Justin Timberlake." She also said her favorite actor is Edward Norton. Barrable-Tishauer was asked which "Degrassi" actor was the most like or unlike their character. "Ryan and JT are pretty close, really funny and crazy." She said that other than herself and Liberty, the least was Paige and Lauren Collins. "Lauren's the sweetest girl ever."
Jackson said two animated "Mangasodes" drawn from the Extra Credit books were produced. He said that producers are watching fan sites and Myspace pages and the N's website. Jackson said they he'd like to do more and is working for that.
Jackson said his office is close to the room where the mail comes in. "A lot of the things that come in are inappropriate and may make people feel uncomfortable." The show's staff keeps a "Hall of Fame" of the best of the best of fan weirdness. One example he mentioned is that they've been getting random bottles of shampoo in the mail-each tagged with a different reason why Craig should rekindle his romance with Ellie.