When it was announced last year that the first-ever Marvel property that Disney Animation was going to tackle as a feature film was Big Hero 6, there was collective head-scratching amongst the fanboy community. For even the most die-hard comic book geek would be forgiven for not recalling the franchise that debuted in 1998, featuring a Japanese boy genius named Hiro Hamada and his beloved robot-slash-caretaker Baymax.
The series, whose cast is rounded out by an eclectic group of grad school nerds turned super heroes–including Honey Lemon, who hurls villain-eviscerating balls from her Power Purse, and GoGo Tomago, a tough, gum-smacking biker chick–was created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau when the pair was at Marvel Comics working on the kind of “dark, nihilistic characters–like Wolverine,” says Rouleau–that were the mode at the time. The writer-producers (Rouleau also draws) created Big Hero 6 as a lark. They wanted to go against Marvel type, and so they dreamed up a whimsical story set in Tokyo (the movie takes place in a fictionalized mash-up city known as San Fransokyo) that had more heart than heavies.
“To have this positive, extroverted, light-hearted team of super heroes was out of step with what Marvel was publishing in the ‘90s,” says Rouleau. “Not to say that they don’t have those characters scattered throughout the decades, but that wasn’t really the trend. So they did buck that trend and that was one of the exciting elements for us.”
But despite its novelty, and despite the fact that after the first issue was published, Marvel ordered up a Big Hero 6 mini series–which was followed nearly a decade later by another TV series–the property never really captured the zeitgeist. And so it came as some surprise when Seagle and Rouleau learned that all these years later their low-profile baby had been selected as the inaugural Marvel-Disney production.
“The people at Disney had to present a few different projects to (Chief Creative Officer at Disney Animation) John Lasseter and when they came upon this boy and his robot caretaker, apparently Lasseter said, ‘That’s the one,’” says Seagle. “He understood the emotional core.”
Rouleau and Seagle, who are principles at Man of Action Entertainment, a “writers collective” that produces graphic novels and TV and feature animation projects such as the Cartoon Network hit Ben 10, recently spoke with Co.Create about the advantage of working under the radar; the secret sauce of super hero chemistry; and how a freestyling creative process produces the best work.
Fast Company: What is the process you go through when you sit down and decide to create a superhero world. Where do you begin?
Steven T. Seagle: Joe Kelly, one of the members of our writers collective, Man of Action, is the resident expert on a thing called the “character wheel.” It’s a way of putting characters in opposition so that you have good conflict. So Duncan and I started with Hiro, who is a boy genius, and we immediately wanted to give him a counterbalance of authority without having that be a parent. So Baymax emerged as kind of this caretaker.
In the movie, he’s a nurse. But for us he was more of a butler, Man Friday, and also a protector. He’s a lot more robot–the armored version that you see in the movie in the darker moments. That’s who Baymax becomes to protect Hiro. So you immediately get a kid who’s got a great toy but that toy has a responsibility to protect that kid. And that puts him in opposition. So you round out the cast by creating more pulls against that main character to create conflict.
When you want to commit those ideas to paper, how does that process work? Writing–and illustrating–are solitary activities yet you work as a team.
Seagle: We write in all imaginable ways. We write individually, we write in pairs, we write collectively as the four of us. We have a lot of different working methods. It’s how you keep it fresh so it doesn’t become a chore for us. When Duncan and I were creating Big Hero 6 for Marvel Comics, I would literally just go to his office every day and we would sit in a room and while he was drawing the previous issue, we would sit and talk through the next issue. So it was a very verbal storytelling mode. But that’s the oldest storytelling mode there is. And it was funny because we then had to create a script for Marvel, even though we didn’t really need it, because we’d already talked everything through and fleshed it out. The script kind of became this proof of document as opposed to anything he or I needed.
Duncan Rouleau: What Steve just described is called The Marvel Way. That’s the Marvel style. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby established it, they’d usually talk things through. They’d talk through an idea and Jack would draw it up and Stan would then dialogue it. It’s a very common practice over at Marvel. It’s the kind of style that Steve and I were practicing over there, but that can be very different from company to company.
What about Man of Action? What is the creative process like there?
Rouleau: You know, on each project the process, logistically, is a little different, but it always starts with us just sitting and talking. We argue out ideas and all of us have very different ideas, but what we do have is, we know what’s cool. We all trust each other on that. So when we center in on something that we think, hey, it works–tonally, thematically, all of that–what I’ll do is I’ll go and sketch out ideas and everybody will have their input and we’ll implement it that way. We’ll find the right visual vernacular.
Rouleau: Everyone at Man of Action has a very different creative aesthetic, but we respect each other’s aesthetic and we do gravitate in quickly on what we think is unique, interesting, never-seen-before, cool. I think some of the franchises we’ve created have borne out that that process is working for us.
Back to the Marvel days–what was it like working on a low-profile project? Did that give you a degree of creative freedom?
Seagle: They weren’t paying a ton of attention to what we were doing, which is kind of how we got away with doing something like Big Hero 6. Duncan and I just wanted to have fun. We were like, what would be fun this month? It would be fun to see the Japanese version of X-Men. We started with that. And then we build just a much more light-hearted kind of fun romp than Marvel in the ‘90s was interested in doing. Because our book was a little off the radar, we got away with it, and that was awesome.
Duncan and I were working on a lot of projects at the time and we were on the X-Men books. Those were under a lot of scrutiny because they were the top books, financially, at the company. But Big Hero 6 came out of a book called Alpha Flight, which was a little cult-favorite book. It wasn’t that no one was paying attention to it, it’s just that they weren’t micromanaging our creative decisions on that book. And the minute we finished the issue, immediately someone at the top of Marvel said, ‘We want a Big Hero 6 series right away.’ It’s like, this fun thing came out of a free place, and at the time they weren’t really recognizing or rewarding creativity out of a free place so much. But they did at least go, oh, the fruits of this turned out really well.”