by Stu Hamilton
March 17th, 2007
How did you come to work on Justice League Unlimited?
When Stan Berkowitz left JLU to do Friends and Heroes, Dwayne McDuffie recommended me to the other producers, Bruce Timm and James Tucker. I'd co-written a screenplay and comic with Dwayne, written and edited for him at Milestone, and by this time had racked up some good animation credits both at Warner and elsewhere. Bruce, the showrunner, has said that it was Dwayne's recommendation that meant the most to him. It sure wasn't my brilliant first interview, where I pretty much recited my resume and looked worried.
How does the story for an episode of Justice League Unlimited come together?
I don't know what came before, but my first story meeting was for "Shadow of the Hawk," which must have been the second week in December, 2004. The story meetings were very informal, whenever the three producers had time to sit around for half a day. And as the schedule got tight as the season went on, they happened whenever we absolutely had to make time. There was one session that went past midnight, but I hear other shows do that regularly.
Bruce and Dwayne did most of the talking in that first meeting, alternating between breaking the Hawkman episode and working out the bigger storylines, both the Legion of Doom stuff and the GL/Shayera backstory. Most of the Egypt flashback that became Act II of "Ancient History" came up that day, although I kind of remember Dwayne presenting it to Bruce as something he'd been working out himself. James has an encyclopedic knowledge of DC Comics and media in general, and was the best barometer of what was actually novel about anything we did. He wasn't always verbal about it, so James making a face could send the others in another direction. When he did open his mouth it was either to make a suggestion that was gold, or to crack a pretty good joke. James has an evil sense of humor and a better sense of story than most. And when Bruce, Dwayne and Alan Burnett are on the same floor, that's saying something.
I tried to pitch in when I could that day, but these guys had been doing it for several years, and were all much faster on their feet than I was. (Richard Pursel, of Spongebob, Tom and Jerry and Ren and Stimpy, was my best friend growing up. He's not very fast, either, but very funny. The two of us together are like the Bob and Ray "Slow Talkers of America" sketch without end.) My big contribution to this episode came as the others were wrapping up. I thought the mummy robots in the episode were cool but that, since it was an actual Egyptian tomb and the Thanagarians were supposed to be buried there, we should see a real mummy at some point, just to pay off the location. That's where Bruce fired back the terrific end bit, where we see the double sarcophagus open as the chamber collapses, and the mummies are holding hands. I loved it, and told Bruce as much. "It's like a Universal monster movie ending!" "Yeah," Bruce said, oddly looking like he wanted to kill me.
Now that I've worked for Bruce a bit, I've come to suspect that he's thinking about the next twenty things on his to-do list when he gives mystery-glares. But I'm never entirely sure he won't jump across a room and strangle me, and that adrenaline actually made me think fast enough to participate much more as the season went on.
Who’s your favorite character to write about in the show? On the other hand, who’s always the most difficult to grasp?
So many favorites! Vigilante and Shining Knight, and Tala I guess, were the most satisfying to write, just because I got to try and sound natural with bass-ackwards syntax and odd word choices. Batman, because he's so terse. And of course with GL, Shayera, and especially the Flash because I knew what the performers were capable of. The actors made bad dialogue good and good dialogue great. By the time I did "Alive!" knowing what Clancy Brown, Juliet Landau and Powers Boothe would do made it a joy to write the Luthor/Tala and Luthor/Grodd scenes.
I'm not aware of blowing it with any of the characters, but a few people on Toon Zone said ratty things about my Stargirl. I had fun writing her, though, because she was my first time introducing a DCAU hero and I had to make her distinct from Supergirl. There's an actually kind of tedious sequence in "Chaos at the Earth's Core" that got cut for time (my first script was WAY too long) in which Stargirl keeps making little digs at Supergirl as they climb a mountain. That was me working it out on paper. Geoff Johns was kind enough to compliment my Stargirl, which is satisfying because I went back to his first miniseries as my starting point. And if she's good enough for Geoff and the JLU producers, I have to wonder what the Toon Zone response was really about.
One of the most popular storylines to come from the DCU was the romance between Green Lantern and Shayera. With the ending foretold in "The Once And Future Thing" what thought went into writing Ancient History which concluded with Green Lantern choosing Vixen?
Did he really choose? As I mentioned, the backstory was worked out months before... as a history that Hawkman believes, and that may not be true.
I took the story credit on that one, because I wrote up the outline, but Dwayne scripted the Egypt flashback (not to denigrate scripter Geoff Johns's fine work on the episode; any freelancer knows that the in-house folks will take another pass over the stuff that's more specific to a show's tone.) This episode reflects a couple unresolved arguments among the producers that have no "canonical" answers. The Asbsorbacron (our misremembered spelling of the comics' Absorbascon) may have been, as Shayera said, broken. The Law of Succinctness makes me think that the story works better if reincarnation doesn't exist and nothing in the future is predestined, but it could be read either way. And there's nothing final in GL's admission. He loves Shayera but he's committed FOR NOW to Vixen.
If I had to pick a way to have things work out, I'd have Shayera and John have a child many years down the road, amid plenty of sturm and drang and possibly a murder or heroic self-sacrifice. And then I'd reveal it in a Warhawk story as flashback. That he was untimely ripped from his mother's egg-sac or something. A lot of that stuff isn't interesting to see as it happens, but it's great to drop as a flashback-bomb.
Orion was criticized as an odd choice for "Flash and Substance". What was the reasoning behind using him in the episode?
Plain old ineptitude on our part. Orion's a high-born warrior, the polar opposite of the Flash. What's the point of having Orion there when Batman can just study the Flash in voice-over? "Note to self: Mustn't forget that Wally's an outgoing everyman who wins through basic decency."
What was your original reaction to the fact that the Legion Of Doom would be heavily featured in the season? Did it bring back horrid memories of Superfriends or did you look forward to seeing how you could bring all these villains to the small screen?
I loved the idea. I watched Superfriends from the day it began till the original LOD (missed the 80s Super Powers version). If that stuff's horrid I wish more comics were horrid now. It was a 70s saturday-morning cartoon, not a big budget all-ages show like the ones Warner started doing years later. The original Challenge had complete stand-alone stories and threw as much action as they could into an episode. Hack work to be sure, and seldom graceful. But if I have to choose between awkward hack work and slick fan fiction, give me the hack work. At least something cool might happen.
Regarding the Legion of Doom, we never once call the villains by that name onscreen. We had planned to have Flash use it as a hyperbolic way to refer to Grodd's new Secret Society in "The Great Brain Robbery." You know, "Luthor's got some kind of, I dunno, Legion of Doom." or whatever, and then we'd have the name stick. But a mid-level naysayer at DC thought the name was too corny, and that it must never be uttered.
It wasn't a big deal, but this person apparently didn't realize that Alex Ross was doing the same thing in the comics, or that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are pretty "corny" names too, to say nothing of J'onn J'onzz, Manhunter from Mars. I have no problem with corny. No idea why it's the third rail of American comics, and boring attempts to rearrange continuity are the keys to the kingdom. To me that continuity shakeup stuff is just making excuses for something that needs no excuse. There are no realistic ways to fly and punch through buildings, just interesting and boring ones.
Did you know you were going to write complete gold when you wrote the teleplay for "The Great Brain Robbery"?
Yep. Dwayne's outline was already hysterical; the gold was mine to lose.
Hellboy or JLU - pick one!
No! (Yeesh! When did I become such a sourpuss?)
The Cadmus arc had been nicely wrapped up in the previous season, why revisit it with "Patriot Act"?
The Seven Soldiers of Victory came first. My three bosses had kicked around ideas for having J.K. Simmons back as the General, mirroring Eiling's comics continuity somewhat. Bruce came in one day with the inspiring image of the General popping the Superman balloon at the parade, and the story accumulated very slowly around it. I wasn't used to doing multiple drafts of a JLU outline; the relatively long leash Cartoon Network gave the show had made the outline stage almost completely painless. But gradually an incredibly tight story about honor emerged, as opposed to Cadmus, which was about power (and admittedly more ambitious than anything in the final season). From the Spy Smasher sequence to the kids playing Justice League at the end, I love "Patriot Act." How often do you get to write about heroes getting seriously injured and scolding the bad guy? Which, by the way, is a win.
Did you have a part in what villains would fight who in "Alive!" or was that left to the storyboard artists?
Entirely in the script. There was a list of every hero and villain in JLU stapled to the front of both "Alive!" and "Destroyer," which said whose team they were on, Grodd's or Luthor's, at the beginning of "Alive" and who was left alive at the end. Dan Riba, who directed "Alive!" had to compensate for a couple ambiguities in my script, but we really didn't want to leave it to the board artists. While the script didn't call every shot, most of the big space fight was written beat for beat.
One of the nicest bits in "Alive!" was consciously making Luthor's team the villains that the audience had seen most of, more or less, and cared about. Which was good, since we were hopefully making the audience worry about and root for Luthor's group. This also let us come as close as we could to the classic 13 LOD villains. Grodd was now the enemy; Captain Cold wasn't around; Devil Ray and Grundy were gone and we couldn't use Scarecrow or Riddler, so we were left with: Luthor (who kind of counted as Brainiac), Bizarro, Giganta, Cheetah, Sinestro and Toyman. (And no, I couldn't keep all 13 straight two years later without referring to my script and Wikipedia.)
Was the idea of having Darkseid return as an amalgam of himself and Brainiac something that was decided as soon as the season was given the go-ahead?
He's not an amalgam of himself and Brainiac! That's his Kiss costume! Dwayne named the last episodes as a shout-out to Bruce, who likes Kiss, and Bruce followed with a Kiss-inspired redesign. I was surprised to learn that people thought it suggested something else.
"I Am Legion" was written before the season was greenlit. The idea of the LOD arc predates my involvement, and Luthor talking to an unseen Brainiac, now truly both "mad" and "scientist," does too. I've heard from both Bruce and Dwayne that a lot of this came from the mind of Dwayne, but I wasn't in the room.
The Darkseid switcheroo itself was definitely the plan by the time we did "Dead Reckoning," and I'm pretty sure it was Bruce's idea. By then we realized we only had seven shows left and pretty much knew what the remaining episodes were. The Darkseid switch reminded us of that great old Ambush Bug recurring bit... the big "Darkseid!" reveal. It's funny because it's true. But there's a reason that he crops up as the Big Bad so often in the comics. When you think about it, the DC villain bench isn't that deep compared to Marvel. It was great that there were strategically placed Darkseid smithereens in the DCAU and we would get to do the classic reveal, and that it felt like a big deal! I suspect Bruce started thinking about possible ways to bring Darkseid back with a big reveal the second he got blown up in "Twilight." I wish I had that kind of head.
Writing the first draft, I had an eerie feeling that Tala might have pulled the switch to get back at Lex, and Dwayne has said as much too. She was such a wild character it's easy to forget she's the Queen of Evil, with motive, means and opportunity.
Something I did that I now wish I hadn't: The attempt at Kirby dialogue for Darkseid in "Alive!" It came off as stilted for no reason. I remember Bruce in the recording session wincing and cutting some of the needless exposition. Something I'm very proud I did: Luthor says "meet your new lord and master... Darkseid!" Which is, of course, the line that introduced Darkseid to both Mannheim and the DCAU in Superman: The Animated Series. I don't know if it's clever, but it's definitely cool.
Any stories you wanted to tell but couldn’t?
A few. I'm pitching them to DC's JLU adaptation comic and the editor's shown interest. We'll see how the chips fall.
If Justice League Unlimited had been given a fourth season, what direction would’ve you have liked to go in?
I would have liked to write more Superman and Wonder Woman, compared to the few lines I did for Wonder Woman and the zilch I did for Superman (although I had people talk about him all through "Patriot Act" and to him for "Alive!"). But I imagine another season would have meant another re-branding, so who knows what would have tickled me?)
What projects are you currently working on?
Episodes of the new Santo show for Cartoon Network, Legion of Superheroes Season 2, and no less than four other superhero shows (including writing on one "dream" show and developing another). Plus, if the schedule works out, I'd love to do more Tom and Jerry for my old pal Richard (Writing 7-minute "cartoon" cartoons is kind of a dream gig, too. TV has given me much, and I love giving back).
The World’s Finest would like to thank Matt Wayne for his
participation in this Q & A.