Marco Lopez writes,
Generally, for Bleeding Cool I have been covering unknown comic talent, indie creators and with Nerd Fight tackling serious and not so serious industry issues with my co-writer on that Gene Selassie. Besides being a huge fan of comic books and especially creator-owned and indie comics I am also a big fan of animation and Japanese animation.
I geek out hard when it comes to voice actors, animation directors and animators themselves. Which is why it’s such a thrill to be able to set up this interview with LeSean Thomas. For those of you who don’t know who he is. LeSean back in the day was an artist for Dreamwave Productions Arkanium comic and their TMNT comic book based on the 2003 animated series. He also had a short-lived creator-owned comic called Cannon Busters.
But what he’s really known for is all the wonderful work he’s done in animation. He has produced, directed, animated, done character designs and worked as a storyboard artist. Working on such shows as Showtime’s web series Whirlgirl, Kim Possible, Ben 10, The Batman, Batman Brave and the Bold, The Boondocks, Legend of Korra, Black Dynamite and I’ve probably missed some other shows here and there. In 2014 he launched what turned out to be an immensely popular Kickstarter for a Cannon Busters animated pilot and he’s currently working on the upcoming Crunchyroll animated series Children of Ether. And here is a summary of the show.
Children of Ether follows Rhonda, a woman with a dark past and a mysterious power, as she is pursued by an unknown assailant after the death of her father. Aided only by her wits and a pair of orphans, Rhonda journeys through a decaying, dystopian metropolis populated by raiders, gangs, and the supernatural. As she struggles to survive in this harsh urban tangle, she meets both friends and enemies and searches for answers about this power, “The Ether”, awakening within her.
It pleases me immensely to be able to bring this interview with him to Bleeding Cool and I hope all my fellow animation lovers out there have fun reading it.
Marco: Now I know your journey to where you are today is a long one and I don’t want you to have to write a novel. But why don’t you tell us (for those out there who may not know you) in a cliff notes version what made you fall in love with comic books and animation? And how you got your start in comics and then animation leading up to where you are today? I want to include both given that I’m sure both fields have had a strong influence on you and the work you’ve done in each.
LeSean: Well comic books were the cheapest form of entertainment for me when it came to visual art & storytelling, which were my favorites to combine as a kid. So naturally, it was my preferred choice of expression when it came to illustration. But it wasn’t until I got older that I started paying attention to the artists and writers in them, and ultimately learned that I could potentially make a career out of it. After being discovered online by now defunct comic publisher Dreamwave productions president Pat Lee, I got an opportunity to work on not 1, but 2 comic titles under the imprint. That eventually led me to an interest in animation production after several chance opportunities with freelancers and production artists in the field.
The introduction of Macromedia Flash (later bought by Adobe) got me close to digital, 2D animation production which later led to me meeting folks working for bigger networks in New York and eventually Los Angeles, which started with The Boondocks as Co-Director & Supervising Character Designer on Season 1 and Sup. Character designer on Season 2.
Marco: As an ethnic creator in animation and given the shows you’ve worked on such as The Boondocks, Legend of Korra and Black Dynamite how important is it to you for there to be a strong ethnic representation behind the scenes and in the characters of the animated series? And is it something you’re always striving for?
I know given one look at the trailer for Cannon Busters or the poster that went out when Children of Ether was announced the obvious can be made that it matters to you. But do you also feel it matters to the audience and makes for not only better product across the board but brings in a wider audience? Especially in a field like Japanese animation.
LeSean: What is it about the Cannon Busters pilot/trailer & the COE poster to you (and assuming everyone else) that the obvious can be made?
Marco: Well to me it’s the look of the characters from Sam and Philly the Kid in Cannon Busters to Rhonda and one of the two orphans on the poster of Children of Ether. At least to me as a child of the 80s and then getting into anime in the early 90s it’s a great thing to see. Being latinx myself you didn’t see in the 80s any cartoon characters’ that I could say hey that’s me and if there was a latinx character then generally it would be a stereotype. If I remember correctly shipwreck in GI Joe is Hispanic but it’s never touched on. Most likely in the comics but I don’t ever remember in the show. Of course, later more so in the early 2000s to now we’ve seen more representation in anime. As an example, Rex Salazar in Generator Rex to Michiko Malandro in Michiko & Hatchin.
LeSean: You asked a lot of compelling questions, so I’m going to have to answer them all carefully. Firstly, thanks for clarifying your point, bro. I think that’s a fascinating POV to have. As a creator, I personally don’t see anything noteworthy about my character’s aesthetic, other than the style, which is Hiroshi Shimizu’s (Children of Ether) awesome flair and Suezen’s (Cannon Busters) Gainax magic. Making a big deal, as a black creator, to point out that my lead characters are black (or racially ambiguous, or –non-white looking) is a bit redundant and overzealous to me. As you mentioned, we’re not used to seeing that sort of thing, so when it happens (Boondocks, Black Dynamite, Legend of Korra), I believe that in and of itself is noteworthy, not worth jumping up on a table and screaming “By the way, they’re BLACK/BROWN Characters Y’all! Power to the people!” ha, ha. I find no value in pointing it out myself because the act itself, the fact that this exists is enough.
In that sense, one would argue that it would be made obvious that having an all-white cast in an animated show matters to the creators of Ben 10, or Gravity Falls, Rick & Morty, Clarence, Power Puff Girls, we could go on…. which we could also argue that based on the lack of diverse, ethnic makeups in those creations, it is clearly about race with them, if everyone important is all white. But I don’t think the creators of those shows get those questions regarding the race of their lead characters when asked about their shows. It’s not pointed out because lead roles as white characters in animation at big networks in this country are largely the default…because of the creators and showrunners/producers behind them. They’re just doing them. They aren’t tasked to represent white culture in their medium, just themselves.
However, although I do believe more POC with actual skill and know-how to produce and direct their own animated content of high quality with a fan-base to support it is key to increasing visibility, I don’t have an “agenda” to strive for more representation in animated media these days. I’m not out to “prove a point” or be “defiant” towards the status quo, as apparent it may appear to others. It’s not a “hey look” campaign for me. I’m just simply operating under the function of normalcy.
Being a person of color is normal to me, making my characters in my stories brown-skinned like me and my family and the friends in the city I grew up in is normal to me. Just like it’s normal for white creators who don’t share the same experiences as I do to make their lead characters white (or white-ish) like their family and friends or whatever. I’m more concerned about it being good and well produced.
Besides, we could both agree that there’s a lot of content out there that’s all white or all black (or all latinx) for example, that’s sub-par and poorly produced. Where does representation fit there? It’s not just about representation to me. It must be good too. I feel it’s important to take the quality of your work as seriously as you do the representation in your work. And there’s more of the latter and less of the former to me these days.
I do know that above-mentioned behavior is pervasive amongst the black community & I also feel it’s sort of an extreme reaction to overt exclusion (and lack of mass interest) in the animation medium over the years, but I prefer the act of doing rather than chest beating for darkening the hue on my characters. I let the consumers and critics wax poetic about what it all means. It’s not my job to interpret art for them, nor do I think it’s right to.
In answer to your other question, I think great stories, with appealing & entertaining characters matters for global appeal. It could be just about the corporations willing to market them globally. I don’t believe the skin color of a character factors into that. And this seems to be a pervasive argument amongst noncreative people in charge of how creative content is marketed. I think how the creators/owners, networks, and marketing teams –working together–choose to sell the product globally that matters. These days it seems to me that there’s a lack of risk in that arena, not in the diversity of the content produced.
In regards to the “is it anime” argument, the word “anime” アニメ is a Japanese word. It’s just a shorter way of their word “アニメーション” Which just translates to “Animation”. I believe the “anime” word in Japanese just became a term in the West that only matters to those who stand to exploit the exotification of what it means as a marketable category (or worse, a genre), and the consumers who feed into it. To me, “anime-not anime” is a pointless argument that only matters to those outside of Japan. People should learn Japanese, it’s a cool language!
Marco: So, how did something like Children of Ether come together? Especially with the involvement of Crunchyroll?
LeSean: Well the Cannon Busters Kickstarter’s success drew them to me. They wanted to launch their own content and saw working with me as an opportunity to cross-pollinate markets. Connecting with someone like me who operated under a creative meritocracy with talent abroad, had ideas (lots of them) and more importantly, access and relationships with Japanese animation talent that can produce finished content. I think it’s working out well for them so far.
Marco: Also, do you feel that this project could have only been made in this era of streaming networks? Or do you think even without companies like Crunchyroll and Netflix it still would have found its way to the networks?
LeSean: Without a doubt, absolutely. I get the sense that everyone is scrambling for new original content now, since the advent of the SVOD platform, especially with globalization becoming more pervasive in our daily lives. It’s opening a door outside of the iron hand of kids programming (boys 6-11 years old), and more so the advertising revenue models everyone’s been eating off of for so many decades. Some would be afraid, but honestly, TV isn’t going anywhere. It’s just becoming an option now. The sky isn’t falling, it’s just expanding and changing, and the way consumers absorb content along with it. Everyone just has to adapt.
Marco: I can definitely agree with that. Ever since Netflix started becoming a dominating force in original content programming there has been this sky is falling mentality that one day there won’t be traditional television anymore but I don’t think that’s ever going to be the case. As they say, variety is the spice of life and I like to think that what’s going on in the SVOD world of programming will influence network and cable television. Just like the kind of content provided there ultimately influenced what Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others did when it came to their shows. I think the best influence SVOD television could have on old school television is (as you said) opening animation to a broader appeal beyond just the boys 6-11 crowd. Had that been the case a few years ago, Young Justice wouldn’t have been canceled. But thanks to Netflix it’s coming back. The power of the streaming platform and audience.
LeSean: Perhaps, but keep in mind Young Justice’s inability to last beyond a second season back then was allegedly attributed to the lack of revenue generated from the merchandise (kid’s toys). In that light, SVOD platforms generate their money from subscriptions, not so much advertising (which is the core revenue stream for kids programming outside of merch), so in that context, yes, SVOD platforms can benefit. Ratings on these platforms are another discussion altogether, though…
Marco: Not wanting to veer away from Children of Ether or Cannon Busters. Given how well the Cannon Busters Kickstarter went and the final product and how it lead to Crunchy Roll and your current show is there any further development going on with it beyond just the pilot that was produced? Has maybe Crunchy Roll (or another company) taken an interest in that as well?
LeSean: I cannot speak to it at the moment, but we’re working towards finding a carrier to release the pilot publicly. And we’re still working on the backer rewards. Once more news is released you’ll know.
Marco: With Children of Ether at NYCC there was a lot of great talent behind the project announced. Hiroshi Shimizu is a personal favorite of mine. Especially with the work, he did on Michiko and Lupin III, Space Dandy and The Rolling Girls. One thing I didn’t see and maybe I missed it was the writing talent behind the project. I’d love to know some more about that person or them if it’s a group. Also, how many episodes can we expect from the show?
LeSean: At the moment, we have a newcomer named Nicholas Thurkettle who is on board. Eisner-nominated scribe Brandon Easton (Agent Carter/Thundercats (2012)/Transformers: RescueBots) assisted with the development of the world based on a story I developed for COE, in addition, me creating it. As for more news on the production, you’ll just have to wait until Crunchyroll announces it.
Marco: Also, was the animation/creative team something you personally had a hand in putting together? Forgive me if that sounds ignorant of the process. I consider myself a huge animation fan and generally when I’m a fan of something I like to know how things operate behind the scenes. And as a fan of animation, yourself were some of them personal favorites of yours? Like maybe individuals you dreamed of one day working with.
LeSean: Yes. Eddie Mehong, one of the founders of Yapiko studio in Japan was a gentleman I met last year during the production of Cannon Busters. We talked about the possibility of working together on something and when this project fell into my lap, I reached out to him to work with me on it and we picked all the talent attached to the project. Crunchyroll was on board with pretty much everything I proposed and put together. It’s what’s great about them: creator-driven project development. Hiroshi Shimizu (Michiko To Hatchin) was a must. In fact, I recall telling Eddie I didn’t want to do the project at Yapiko unless he was involved haha! Working with Shingo Natsume, the director of One Punch Man (And the director of Space Dandy) was another dream-come-true for me. Learning that he was interested when we asked him to storyboard the project had me over the moon. I’ve spent so much of my career emulating and admiring these elite, Japanese talents from afar, it’s elating to actually work with them on my original ideas.
Marco: I guess one of the last things I wanna talk about is merchandising. This may be too early in production to talk about but is that something that’s being taken into consideration with the development of Children of Ether? Have you guys been approached by anyone? Or is that more of an afterthought right now and all that matters is the show? If merchandising does happen is that something you would take a vested interest in?
And finally, being a fan of your work in comics as well I had to ask. Do you to ever continue the Cannon Busters comic? Maybe as a graphic novel? I think you might have touched on this before long ago.
LeSean: I can’t say much more on Children of Ether beyond what Crunchyroll chooses to release, so you’ll have to sit tight. Merchandise is always good as it creates an additional revenue stream and maintains the culture behind the IP. No plans to finish the graphic novel at this time, but anything’s possible in the future.
Marco: To wrap things up I just want to say thank you so much for this interview. I had a great time talking with you. Especially about some of the topics we discussed and your shows themselves. I’m sure you’ve heard this a hundred times already but I hope this show is a HUGE success and I can’t wait to check it out when it’s released. I hope it leads to many more shows by you and the others involved. I especially hope it leads to a lot more collaborations like this one and more shows like this being done by companies in the U.S.
LeSean: No problem bro, and thanks for the interest and reaching out. I hope it does well and the fans like what we have planned. It can only go up from here.
Marco Lopez is the co-owner of the website Atomic Rex Entertainment. Where you can find the ongoing weekly webcomic Massively Effective, that Marco describes as Bill and Ted in tights. Also hosted on the site is Marco’s web strip series Orion’s Belt that follows a family of adventurers in space and his anthology series A Shot of Whiskey. Marco has also written for Zenescope Entertainment and Lion Forge Comics.
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