J. Torres Goes Back To School with "Degrassi: The Next Generation"

Thu, February 9th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

Alex, one of Degrassi's "bad girls." Character sketch by Ed Northcott
People love a lot of things about Canada: free health care, Kiefer Sutherland, Canadian bacon and "Degrassi High." The television series was a staple in many North American households and its new incarnation, "Degrassi: The Next Generation," has proven to be a monster hit as well. Canadian writer J. Torres, of "Teen Titans Go" fame, will be bringing Degrassi to fans in comic book form this year, from Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster. There are plans for multiple graphic novels, as announced recently, and when Torres spoke to CBR, he was excited about the book and happy to present the basics of the series, "Degrassi: Extra Credit."

"It's a teen drama set in a fictitious Canadian high school," says Torres of "Degrassi." "Just like its predecessor, it tackles some tough subject matter and doesn't pull any punches. For that, it's received both accolades and its share of controversy. Episodes dealing with abortion, for example, have been censored or banned in the U.S. But the previous incarnations of the series got the same kinds of reaction in the '80s and '90s, yet it's survived and is bigger than ever, winning more and more awards, and pissing off more and more censors.

"As for my involvement, I owe it all to Jennifer Lum, art director at Madison Press Books, the Toronto-based company packaging the series. She came up with the idea for Degrassi graphic novels in the first place and pitched it to her superiors. They went for it, and then Jen approached me about writing it. I helped them figure out format and a conceptual direction, and it went from there."

"I was a fan or the original series and I'm a fan of Next Generation. Because of that, and just like Teen Titans Go, I couldn't pass up the chance to work with the characters and play around in their universe. And also like 'Teen Titans Go,' here was an excellent opportunity to potentially reach a new audience."

If you're new to the series, but you think a realistic look at high school life might interest you, Torres is happy to inform you that all the "Degrassi" books will be new reader friendly. "We're doing our best to make it as accessible as possible to new readers. We're still working on it, but there should be a couple of pages devoted to bringing everyone up to speed in terms of what has gone on before with the characters. And the way I'm writing it, you should be able to catch on whether or not you've seen all the episodes."

The series takes place within the continuity of "Degrassi: The Next Generation," which has led some fans to worry about stories that don't quite jibe with what's happening in the series, but Torres has a little insider information. "I'm fortunate enough to have writers and producers from the show, including Linda Schuyler herself, to bounce ideas off of, ask questions, and guide me along the way. I think this will show in the series, especially the first volume where I try to make like Tom Stoppard weaving in and out of an episode, showing things from a different angle, and telling stories that occurred off camera.

"Originally, the series was going to show what happens to the kids over summer break between seasons. The first volume, for example, takes place at the end of the school year in season five, the current season, while volume two takes place over the summer. But we've also discussed other ideas including telling stories that occur after school, in between episodes, and possibly even in the past. We'll have to see how the first set of books does. Where we go from there will obviously depend on fan reaction, sales, etc."

A prototype cover for the series. Will not be published.
Having written "Teen Titans Go," the comic book counterpart to the "Teen Titans" animated series, Torres knows a few things about adapting a popular show and explains how it is different on "Degrassi." "You're obviously going to get a lot more action in 'Teen Titans Go and more drama in 'Degrassi: Extra Credit,'" says Torres. "But 'Teen Titans Go' is also all-ages, while in 'Degrassi: Extra Credit' we get to tackle subjects like sexual harassment, masturbation, eating disorders, and so on. But that's not to say there won't be any action in 'Degrassi: Extra Credit.' One of the things that impressed Linda with the first script was how I included certain things that would've been too costly for the show to shoot. So, please stay tuned."

Torres has been an outspoken proponent of continually pushing comics into new markets and bringing in a variety of fresh talent, as he did with CBR in the "Comic Book Idol" contests, and this book is all a part of his ambition. "With Fenn publishing the series in Canada and Simon & Shuster publishing it in the U.S., you should be able to easily find 'Degrassi: Extra Credit' in book stores as well as comic shops. And with the way other Degrassi related publications were recently promoted here, I wouldn't be surprised to see 'Degrassi: Extra Credit' advertised on TV in Canada. I'm also going to a few conventions this year to promote the series and, in some cases, members of the cast will be there, too. I can't say which cast members and which cons just yet, but announcements should be made shortly."

Artist Ed Northcott handles the penciling duties on "Degrassi" and Torres has nothing but praise for his partner in Canuck crime. "I guess you can say I was to Ed what Jennifer Lum was to me. But Ed closed the deal with his artwork and professionalism. We've known each other for a number of years now and have been threatening to work on something together all this time, so I'm glad it's finally happening. And the stuff Ed's turned in so far is just awesome. It even impressed Ellie and Emma!"

While there isn't an end in sight for the "Degrassi" graphic novels, Torres is honest about the fact that fan response will determine the stay of the series. "Well, as I said it all depends on how the fans react and how well the books sell," says Torres. "So, every Degrassi fan out there reading this should prove their loyalty to the show by buying two copies of each volume. Everyone else can just buy one copy. Except members of my family who must also buy two whether or not they watch the show."

The first two volumes are scheduled to be released this October. "Volume 1 is tentatively titled 'Turning Japanese' and stars Ellie, Marco, Paige, JT, and Toby with cameos by others," Torres continued. "I haven't given volume two a title yet, but I can tell you that it features Jimmy, Peter, Emma, Spike, and Snake with cameos by others. The next two books are tentatively scheduled to come out early next year if all goes according to plan.

"As the advertising on The N says Degrassi 'goes there.' No other teen drama out there is as well-written, topical, real and daring. We're trying to emulate that with the graphic novels. And even if you aren't a fan of Degrassi, you probably know someone who is, so consider picking up the series for them. If you're a retailer, you don't want to under order this. Degrassi fans are hungry for Next Generation product. And not only are we already hearing from potentials readers but also schools and libraries and book buyers overseas requesting more about 'Degrassi: Extra Credit.' I'm really excited about this. Possibly even more excited than Kevin Smith in the presence of Stacie Mistysyn."

 
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