Raising The Stakes: Adam Beechen Talks "Justice League Unlimited"

Mon, November 21st, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

With so many eyes focused on the Direct Market (ie: comic shops) sales and pre-orders, it would be easy to ignore a comic book seeing larger distribution than has been seen in recent years. The popular Target chain of stores is now offering three, limited edition "Justice League Unlimited" action figure sets, all of which include a special copy of "Justice League Unlimited #1," DC Comics' companion series to the Cartoon Network show. With the figures being snapped up in droves by fans and collectors alike, it's quite possible that series writer Adam Beechen has the biggest audience in comics, so CBR News caught up with the scribe to learn more about his involvement with the series.

"It's surreal! I find it very hard to believe that DC lets me create stories around, and put words in the mouths of, these characters that I literally grew up reading," Beechen told CBR News. " I'm like a kid in the greatest, most imaginative playground there is, and I'm incredibly grateful that I get to play here."

Beechen's been writing TV animation in Los Angeles for a number of years, starting out on shows like "The Wild Thornberry's" and "Rocket Power," but has really only taken a single stab at writing comics with the graphic novel "Hench." But, the writer explained, he hadn't approached any of the major publishers for work and didn't really have plans to. "Along the course of my animation writing, I had the chance to write for 'Jackie Chan Adventures,' and worked with producers Duane Capizzi and David Slack, two extraordinarily talented and generous writers who'd go on to run The shows 'The Batman' and 'Teen Titans,' respectively. I was fortunate enough to work with them again on those shows, which was a huge kick, as I was always a fan of the 'Batman' and 'Teen Titans' comics.

"A little later on, I was in New York, and paid a visit to a college friend of mine, Ivan Cohen, who edits 'Wonder Woman' and the 'Secret Files' titles for DC (and does a great job with both, by the way)," continued Beechen. "He gave me a tour of the DC offices (talk about childhood wish fulfillment) and asked me if I wanted to meet the editor of the 'Teen Titans Go!' comic, which was just kicking off. I said sure, and Ivan introduced me to Tom Palmer, Jr. I asked tom if I could pitch to the book, and he was kind enough to let me, and he liked one of my ideas, which became the story for 'Teen Titans Go!' #8, called 'Naked City.' I sold another pitch for 'Teen Titans Go!' to Tom soon after (a story which hasn't seen print yet), and the next thing I knew, I got a call asking if I was interested in being the regular scripter for the new 'Justice League Unlimited' book. It didn't take me long to say yes!"

Beechen's "JLU" has bucked the trend of many superhero comic books, appealing to a broad age range of fans, from the little kids just discovering the medium to the crossover-scarred veteran. "It's been very gratifying to have positive response from every point along that range," said the writer. "The letters from kids are wonderful (and very creative -- lots of fan art has been printed on the letters page), and the letters from older fans have also meant a lot to me -- we're trying to do stories that we'd enjoy, as readers, at our current age, so to be hearing nice things from that audience is really terrific. But my favorite letters are the ones from the parents who write about reading the stories with their kids and enjoying them together. That's the best we can ask for, as far as I'm concerned.

"It's a challenge, sure," adds Beechen, regarding the difficulty of writing for that spectrum. "But I think we're aided by our format, which holds us to doing single-issue stories in 20 pages, two short of a typical, mainstream DC book. Plus, the scripts generally have no more than six panels per page, because we want everything to be clear and legible when the issues are shrunk down to their digest format for reprinting.

"There isn't time or space to do anything fancy or reinvent the wheel. The stories have to be simple and clear, out of necessity. But that doesn't mean there can't be surprises, twists and turns, comedy and cool action that appeal to everyone within that format.

"Someone wrote that the stories in 'JLU' came off as 'solid silver age stories,' which I took as a great compliment -- I grew up with a lot of those stories and still have a great deal of fondness for them, so if the audience could get the same satisfaction from what we're trying to do, that would make me very happy, indeed."

Writing a series such as "JLU," that features one of the largest casts in comics, allows for the opportunity to write many different characters, but that doesn't mean that Beechen has an easy time with all the heroes. "Favorites: Batman's always fun, particularly when we can play him for comedy. He's just a great straight man. I like Wonder Woman and Superman more than I thought I would. They're such solid icons -- what you see is really what you get with them -- that it's a challenge to come up with situations that really test them and bring out their characters. I don't know that I've done a very good job of that yet -- I've mostly played them as mentors for other, younger characters, which feels very natural for them.

"Difficult: I don't think I've served Flash very well yet. Issue #12, which teamed him with the golden age Flash, was a lot of fun, but I don't think I captured Wally as well as I wanted to. And I think I've shied away from doing much with Martian Manhunter. He's really tough for me, and I don't have a grip on him yet. Hopefully, we'll think of a good story that really allows us to get into what he's all about.

"I love the "Magnificent Seven," [the seven founders of the JLU] and we really make an effort to include them in every episode, because they are the heart and soul of the league," continued Beechen. "But one of my personal goals with 'JLU' has been to devote a bit of the spotlight to the characters that might not get the screen time in the animated series. Part of the fun of the animated series, for me as a viewer, is playing 'spot the hero' in the big battle scenes they do. 'Look, there's Nemesis!' 'Hey, there's Atom Smasher!' All of those characters have their own stories, their own takes on what it's like to be part of the Justice League, their own situations in which their unique abilities contribute something critical to the overall team.

"I hope the book can serve as 'supplementary material' to the animated series, in the sense that it shows off these characters the cartoon hasn't gotten to yet, or hasn't been able to explore in depth -- while the stories still stand on their own as enjoyable single tales. In that way, we've been able to do stories that center on folks like the Creeper, Stargirl, the Question, Deadman, Zauriel, Vixen, Adam Strange, and others. Exploring them has been a blast."

While most fans would agree that the "JLU" comic book series compliments the cartoon, there have been instances where it has confused fans of the animated counterpart. The first issue of the series featured Hawkgirl, who had been kicked off the team, back with her friends and in full costume, the latter of which hasn't happened on the show. Beechen explained that he doesn't always have advance copies of scripts or breakdowns, so he's somewhat in the dark when it comes to major changes. "Our book is very reactive to the animated series. We don't see episodes in advance, so sometimes our book really lags behind the continuity of the show. Because of that (and because of the Hawkgirl incident in our first issue -- which was my mistake all the way), I've been reluctant to mention much of the show's continuity in the scripts, opting for stand alone stories... I just don't know where the show's going to go, and I don't want to do something that contradicts the book's 'source material.' We've thrown in nods to continuity when we can -- like Amanda Waller's appearance in #10, and even that was after her storyline had largely been dispensed with on the show. So, we walk a really fine line."

With that in mind, Beechen still has some leeway that isn't seen on the animated series, as some characters are precluded from being used on the show, such as Blue Beetle, whom Beechen can use in comics. "It's been pretty funny, actually. The Blue Beetle story, which was a personal favorite, came out a month or two before the character was knocked off in the DC mainstream (which I didn't know was going to happen). And it's happened a time or two since. I don't want to say a guest-star spot in 'JLU' is a curse, but heroes would be advised to take out an insurance policy when they appear in our pages [laughs].

"The premise I was told when I was brought onto the book was that the stories can include 'anyone who's ever been associated with the Justice League.' In those terms, just about everyone can be considered a member, so we've had free rein to bring in almost any character we'd like! There have been a few exceptions -- at the outset, I was asked not to use a specific few characters because of other plans DC and Warner Brothers had for them -- but that's still left us with a ton to choose from!"

Since "JLU" is targeting the children's market, Beechen has to tell "done-in-one" stories, which don't afford him the chance to build multi-issue plots, as other superhero comics are able to do. While the response has been positive, Beechen admits that it's not always easy to tell the stories in such a small space. "Occasionally, it's been very hard! Some stories we come up with just feel too big for twenty pages (it never seems to go the other way: 'hmm...we have three pages left to fill...can we have the entire league tap-dance for eighteen panels?'). But that's a hard and fast rule, so sometimes we have to go back and cut literally everything that doesn't further a story or character arc, and that can include bits we really like."

As mentioned earlier, Beechen's writing will see an almost unprecedented distribution to children as they purchase the Target exclusive three-pack toys, meaning that his writing may be the first comic book that these children have read. "Yikes! No pressure!" he smiles. "I'd love it if the toys, with the comic included, bring kids to comics that might not otherwise have picked them up! Kids have a lot of entertainment options, and comics can get lost in the shuffle -- but comics can still fire the imaginations of kids as much as any of those other options!"

Beechen credits the book's success to the synergy of the creative team and feels compelled to share some of the spotlight with them. "I've been really lucky to work with penciller Carlo Barberi, penciller/inker Ethen Beavers, inker Walden Wong, the folks at Heroic Age, and letterers Nick Napolitano, Travis Lanham, Phil Balsman, Pat Brousseau, and anyone else I may have coldly neglected to mention. I think the big thing is that we're all fans -- of the show, of the characters, of the kinds of stories we're trying to do. It's amazing to me to send a script off, and know that the finished book is going to be better than I ever pictured it in my head.

"These folks are unbelievable talents who not only have to try and meet the demands of my often hopelessly discombobulated ramblings, but also conform to the very specific style and tone of a well-liked and well-scrutinized show. And they do a great job every issue.

"Lots and lots of credit goes to editor Tom Palmer, Jr., who threw us all together in the first place. Working with him -- and now with our new editor, Michael Wright -- has been a dream."

Fans of "Justice League Unlimited" can look forward to more fun from their favorite heroes and Beechen hints at what is to come. "Be on the lookout for stories focusing on Vigilante, Atom Smasher, and Hawkgirl, two JLU members I bet no one ever thought would get spotlight stories (one of 'em in #15), and the return of the JLU comic's 'curse'...I can say no more..."

 
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