23 June 2009

Making New Donald Duck Adventures: Tamers of Nonhuman Threats! (Part One)

I've spoken much on this blog about favorite creations of the past—but as a comics editor and writer, I've personally had the honor and privilege of working with some stellar creators in the present. One of my most exciting experiences began in the summer of 1999 at an Egmont Creative task force meeting, where I learned about a project provisionally called "Goosebusters."

What: A strange (in the good sense) branded series starring Donald and Cousin Fethry as paranormal investigators/"men in black"/secret agents.

Egmont is a Denmark-based Disney licensee. Every year they produce several thousand pages of Disney comics stories, written and drawn by talents around the world. From 1997 to 2004, I was part of the Egmont editorial team, supervising some of these writers and artists under Editor-In-Chief Anna Maria Vind and Creative Director Byron Erickson. My "unit," as I called it—I was the only editor to use animation studio terminology!—included talents such as Stefan Petrucha, Sarah Kinney, and Don Markstein, and we produced more Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Uncle Scrooge stories than anything else. But there was room to expand. In 1998, for example, I was on hand for the revival of Fethry Duck.

Story Type: Comedy/Adventure (predominately a lot of fantasy).

Fethry, as past readers of this blog will know, is Donald's obsessively nerdy cousin. In classic 1960s comics created by Dick Kinney and Al Hubbard (example from "Weaving and Ducking" [1964], right), this geek gained fame through his highly unique mix of creativity, selflessness, and unwitting thoughtlessness. But it was a hard balance to pull off just right. By the late 1970s, many Fethry stories featured a distorted duck, often shown as dumb and egotistical. In 1992, Egmont ceased using the character, determining that this version was more unpleasant than funny. A few years later, though, the question came up: could the original, more interesting Fethry be brought back?

The Purpose of the Series: In general, to take advantage of ongoing reader interest in [science fiction] stories.

As a longtime aficionado of the Kinney-Hubbard stories, I wanted to give this a try. With my writer friend, Fethry expert Lars Jensen (left)—then working under a different editor—I created a character guide on the "classic" Fethry; scripted a few short stories myself, then handed the character over to writers in my unit. Still, the results were only three- to six-page tales at first; and working with my then-regular team, I could not involve Lars at the time. I wanted to produce more ambitious Fethry projects and see Lars get a crack at them, too.

Supporting Characters: The Head (maybe a literal alien head) of a secret non-specific-government organization, and maybe other members of this organization. The main Disney Duck characters have roles only as appropriate to individual stories.

Which brings us back to that 1999 editors' meeting. While we Egmonters decided on many of the themes for our story production from scratch, this time our publishers had given us some rough plotlines upon which they wished to see new ongoing story subseries—or "branded series"—based. One was provisionally titled "Computer Kids": tales about Donald's nephews in a computer club. One was called "Football": Mickey's nephews, Morty and Ferdie, were to join a soccer team. And then there was "Goosebusters," the series I volunteered to edit. Publishers wanted to capitalize on the popularity of science-fiction media—Ghostbusters, Men in Black, Goosebumps, The X-Files—and show Donald and Fethry as part of a huge, secret monster-, ghost-, and alien-hunting organization.

The Tone of the Series: The key word is "fun", but not camp... Donald might know what a loon Fethry is sometimes, and the Head might get ulcers from Fethry’s doings (if he had a stomach), but the point is not to do stories in which the only purpose is to point to Fethry and laugh at what a moron he is. This same point is also true of Donald...

Adventure stories featuring Fethry? Wak! I was there. Then again—wait a minute. Donald is a duck bent on self-preservation. And Fethry drives Donald crazy, however unknowingly. Now Donald was willingly going to subject himself to a dangerous monster-fighting job... with Fethry as his partner? Making this believable would be part of the assignment, just like making any comic book plotline relatively convincing. I needed to work with a writer who knew Fethry well and was up for a challenge! It was time to get Lars Jensen—and though he didn't usually work for me, I received special permission to work with him now. Then it came time to pick an artist; who better than Lars' fellow Dane Flemming Andersen (above), whose wild, bouncy linework struck me as perfect for the lunacy of Donald-Fethry teamups. With my creative team established, then, it was soon time for writer, artist and editor to spend a week away from the Egmont office and our regular lives, brainstorming each day from morning to night...

Imagine: There’s a secret government agency that’s a combination of ghostbusters/alien-sitters and or -fighters/paranormal investigators. And imagine that, through a twisted string of circumstances, the Head of this agency gets the idea that Cousin Fethry is an expert in the field. And imagine that Fethry gets so enamored by the Head’s recruitment pitch that he accepts. Further imagine, that Fethry somehow manages to talk Donald into joining him as his partner. The result of all this imagining? All hell breaks loose!

This last paragraph marked the heart of the document I've been excerpting: the "Goosebusters" assignment sheet that Flemming, Lars, and I were given by Byron Erickson. It reflected a mixture of wishes and decisions from Byron, Maria, Egmont management, and the affiliate publishers. Now we three creators got to spend a week holed up in Copenhagen's Hotel Neptun, enjoying the perk of all the food we could eat at any restaurant I chose. The price of these luxuries? We were sworn to translate our assignment into a series—and come back with a complete series bible by the Monday following!

It was going to be fun, yet a little stressful—handling the writing and editing side, Lars and I almost felt like we were characters in a slightly tense comic book story, ourselves. And well, what do you know? After less than a day at Hotel Neptun, our tension became Donald's own. Who gets stuck with all the bad luck? Who feels like a loser compared to successful Uncle Scrooge? Who's always being run out of town due to crises he's caused—but can't afford to clean up? No one but Donald Duck, of course (whose team headgear I tried to envision in crude thumbnails, above left). So what if joining the "Goosebusters" became the answer to these problems? The flip side of the danger in being a secret agent, after all, is the feeling of being a winner when a mission goes right; the feeling of bravado when you get to handle cool secret agent gear. And if being a monster fighter also paid really, really well, Donald would have no choice but to lean on "Goosebuster" missions after his domestic Duckburg disasters caused expensive trouble.

Suddenly Donald had a reason to be a "Goosebuster"! Lars compared it to making a sick patient's body accept a complex medicine; sometimes medicines B and C are required to make medicine A go down. But do it right, and the result is health; or in this case, healthy logic. On a good day, Donald could actually enjoy his secret agent job. On a bad day, Donald would still be forced to stick with it—kvetching all the way.

And Fethry? Well, what if the Head was, in fact, halfway right about Fethry's being "an expert in the [paranormal] field"? A cryptid-obsessed Fethry might be too eccentric for a real scholar, but he could believably learn enough to be helpful to missions in spite of himself. Maybe Donald could use this...

Wow! While Lars and I were figuring those relationships out, Flemming was drawing! The images you're seeing show some of the first results this master came up with—an improved version of Donald's headgear and uniform, an elaborate interior view of what a secret government agency might look like, and then a slick lady "Goosebuster" agent. This was the heyday of early video game action heroines like Lara Croft, Jill Valentine, and Claire Redfield, so we all felt like sourcing that same trope... but with a twist. Imagine Lara, Jill, or Claire ten years further on in their lives, when the thrill of adventure has been replaced by grim world-weariness. What if such a jaded action heroine were Donald's trainer? We'd have a clash of titans! In that spirit, Lars called our frazzled senior agent Kolik, "a name that sounded rock-hard... like you could bruise yourself on it." It also sounded like colic—a kind of pain, just like she and Donald would give each other when they argued! The character first called Anya Kolik became Katrina, then Brandy, then finally Katrina again. Lars and I loved the great helmet Flemming created for her, too, though even today we haven't yet explained why she's the only agent who wears one—or how exactly it hides her huge mop of hair. Suction?

The gadgetry of "Goosebusters" quickly went beyond Kolik's helmet. Soon Lars and Flemming were devising futuristic flying scooters and the "weirdness radar," with which paranormal activity could be detected from afar. We decided agents could store their gadgets in special armbands that seemed to compress the gadgets down to a small size. But this goofy hi-tech came with problems—the "armband compressors," as we called them, almost never seemed to contain everything a mission called for. I may have been the first to sketch an armband compressor (above left), but Flemming (above right) outdid me for believability! I'm a writer; he's an artist.

Speaking of believability, you'll recollect that we were asked to make the series' characters sympathetic, not parodic or silly ("...[avoid] stories in which the only purpose is to point to Fethry and laugh..."). And this led to an important question regarding our opening setup. If we were to take the characters' situations seriously, then the "Goosebusters" had to treat their missions seriously. So how seriously could the Head ever take nerdy Fethry? Could the Head believably become convinced on his own that Fethry was an expert paranormalist, or did Fethry have extra aid or circumstances on his side? An early suggestion from Lars, preserved in my notes, plumped for the latter:
Either Fethry or Donald works for Scrooge [on a project]; somehow [the nature of the project means that] they either work opposite the Goosebuster organization or against them. At the end of the story, Scrooge manages to pass them onto the organization. They’ve caused so much destruction for the Goosebusters that the Goosebusters make them work it off, hence their continued employment.
Nope... wouldn't work. Editor Dave and Writer Lars hashed it out: after being introduced to the "Goosebusters" as visibly destructive characters, the Ducks weren't realistically very likely to be employed as agents—an obviously sensitive position—to work off their debts. And how much Scrooge/"Goosebusters" contact could take place without Scrooge learning the nature of their work—and thus becoming permanently aware of his nephews' "Goosebuster" identities? We'd been asked to create a secret agency; if other Ducks learned about it, the consequences could be serious (sketch from Lars, above right; no, not that serious).

We needed a new way for the circumstances to favor Fethry's—and, eventually, Donald's—hiring as secret agents. Version two sounded significantly better:
Night at Fethry’s; he’s watching monster movies or reading books and going on about his obsession. Shadowy figures (emissaries of the [Head]) have [a] weirdness radar that has led them there. Fethry is talking out loud about how he’d like to get Donald involved. "Are you interested in the paranormal?" comes a voice. "Yes!" gushes Fethry. [The next day we find Fethry] bursting in on Donald. Donald hears his pitch, and after first rejecting it, decides to go along—cynically saying "Great, I'll bust one ghost with [you]"; ghosts don't really exist, Donald thinks, so he isn't afraid at all.
Still a problem here, though; Fethry seemed to be the focus character, sidelining the more sympathetic Donald. There had to be a way to get Donald into this setup from the start. Third time was the charm...
In a moment of weakness, Donald has reluctantly joined Fethry for a night of movies about Fethry’s latest kick: the paranormal. After one too many installments of “The Meatloaf That Ate Vegas"... a sickened Donald pushes off for home, but overenthusiastic Fethry will not be stopped. Even alone, he continues... obsessing about his latest fad. It’s now that outside Fethry’s home, we see two shadowy figures passing by... talking to Agent Kolik on the phone [though] we won't see Kolik at all... as yet; the [agents] are in the neighborhood to watch Fethry and dialogue reveals they (or their organization) has done so from a distance for a while... "I want to investigate the paranormal!” Fethry says to no one in particular. “And I wish Cousin Donald could join me, because it's so obvious he wants to!" BANG! Next day Donald is grabbed from his garden (or wherever)...
Bingo. Rather than be recruited directly by the level-headed Head, Fethry could instead intrigue two low-level agents who would help make the case to the Head for him. Should Fethry (and by extension, Donald) then fail to live up to expectations, those other agents would take the brunt of the blame—and never forget it. In later stories, they could even become resentful rivals on the force! At first, the recruiters-turned-rivals were simply called "the two agents" or "two guys" in our notes. They spent awhile as Yin and Yang before crystallizing as Jackson and Finch, a steely-eyed Puritan and his oafish cool-dude partner. While not incompetent, Jackson and Finch are average, imperfect, and insecure enough to feel threatened by their hirees; Lars once accurately stated that "Jackson and Finch would probably be the Donald and Fethry of the group if Donald and Fethry were not there." With Donald and Fethry there, the results were dynamite!

Hmm... dynamite. As noted on our assignment sheet, the name "Goosebusters" had always been just a provisional name for our secret agency. Lars noted that despite being an obvious Disney play on ghostbusters, it "would only be believable in the context of the series if our heroes were constantly fighting Gus Goose." Over racks of ribs at Copenhagen's Hard Rock Cafe on January 19, 2000, Donald's and Fethry's paranormalist employer became TNT—initially "Terror Neutralization Taskforce" and finally Tamers of Nonhuman Threats.


I'm glad we didn't go with my earlier (joking) suggestion, "Monster Butchers." We wouldn't have been allowed to kill them off, anyway.

Hey, it's the end of the post but we're not through yet. I'll return to TNT soon to tell about how more new characters were created; how the Head got a body; and how a highly reluctant Donald got sent on his first few missions.

11 comments:

Thad said...

So when do Fethry and Donald take on the one-eyed snake?

Great post man. I love that Fethry dude in just about anything.

Matthew Hunter said...

What really strikes me about this whole idea is how well it would translate into animated form, if done RIGHT. Sadly, I doubt Disney would do it.

Chuck Munson said...

David,

Thanks so much for posting this. You seldom get to see/read/hear an in-depth treatment of the creative process in action. I have to admit that a long time ago in soe of the very rare things I saw with Fethry I was initially turned off by the character - totally turned off - few people fact or fiction irritated me more. Then you reintroduced me to him and he was, well, goofy, charming, enthusiastic and not-quite-on-the-ball. And obviously still not an easy challenge!

Chuck

Деян Мавров said...

Looks very interesting! Too bad Egmont Bulgaria don't publish three-row comic books since 1995, otherwise I would probably have seen it somewhere. Having seen Fethry only two or three times before the three-row Donald Duck magazine was canceled, I still miss these longer stories... I hope they start printing them again, but after the four-row Mickey Mouse was made shorter in January, I doubt they will.

Anyway, great job, the basic plot can surely lead to many strange adventures (which I suppose it did), and putting these characters in weird circumstances makes the stories even more thrilling.

Thad said...

BTW, I just noticed: HARD ROCK CAFE? Isn't that a little mainstream for you, smexy?

Keep the Fehtry luv alive.

warren said...

Awesome post! Can't wait to see more - and yeah, of all places in CPH, the Hard Rock?! Nyhavn too touristy for you? :P

I love hearing how the comics are put together - keep going...!

King of [Silent] Cartoons said...

ME...WANT...TMNT!

ramapith said...

Easy there, Rocksteady. Wrong acronym. Your guys are across the street... see that pizza joint? Yeah, the sign says "Archie Comics," but it's a pizza joint. Honest. You go, rhino boy.

Ryan said...

Fascinating stuff. As an aspiring comics writer myself, I find your processes and collaboration extremely interesting. I'm still hammering out my first scripts now and searching for an artist, so seeing how you did things is great.

Can't wait to read more.

Gabriel said...

I always did say that Disney comics were far better than the crap movies from the 90s and on.

I love TNT, it has a old school, retro feel to it. Screw modern day Disney.

erpegis said...

Wow, excellent.It's amazing now to see how the stories I've enjoyed were planned.