Welcome, True Believers!
Just in time for San Diego Comic Con 2016, The Hollywood Reporter released episode 1 of Stan Lee’s Cosmic Crusaders, a digital comic series only available at THR. Written by Fabian Nicieza (co-creator of iconic Marvel characters like Deadpool and Shatterstar, and one of the original writers on New Warriors and X-Force), the series is original, off-beat, and very entertaining!
Cosmic Crusaders centers on seven super-powered aliens who crash land on Earth and get taken in by none other than the legendary Stan Lee himself. In the show, Stan schemes to cash in on these extraterrestrial outcasts by molding them into a new superhero team, but the “heroes” prove disinterested in the whole idea of … being heroes.
Of course, being written by Nicieza, the series is self-deprecating and irreverent of the superhero genre status quo. Honestly, I expect nothing less from Nicieza, considering that he shares some responsibility for the Merc with the Mouth – Cosmic Crusaders definitely has hints of that Deadpool-style humor.
I had the honor to chat with Nicieza about Cosmic Crusaders (the full interview is available below), and he described the series as “superheroes meets Archer”. What drew him to the premise, he says, was the potential for turning superhero tropes on their head, as well as the combination of an exaggerated version of Stan Lee as a driving character and alien criminals turned reluctant heroes.
Several super-powered entertainment companies came together to bring Cosmic Crusaders to life, including The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard, Stan Lee’s very own Pow! Entertainment, and Genius Brand International. Episodes 1-3 are available to view now at THR’s website, and one episode per day will be dropping until the entire 24-episode series has been released.
(The following interview transcripts have been minimally edited for clarity.)
Ben Ravensdale: Mr. Nicieza, good morning! I’m calling to discuss the Cosmic Crusaders project that you’re working on currently. Do you mind if I launch right into some questions about the series?
Fabian Nicieza: Go for it!
BR: Awesome! First things first – for our readers who may not be familiar with Cosmic Crusaders yet, how would you summarize the premise and plot?
FN: I would probably summarize it as “superheroes meets Archer and Silicone Valley”. It is taking the superhero genre and the kind of tropes you expect out of it and giving a little bit of a twist. And that twist is that the creator of so many superheroes, Stan Lee, is the actual mentor for these aliens stranded on Earth, and none of these aliens really want to be superheroes – it’s not in their calling, it’s not in their nature. But Stan, the character of Stan in the storyline, certainly has some slightly selfish motivations involved in wanting to turn them into superheroes, so the whole thing is not exactly, you know, your grandfather’s superhero team.
BR: I actually got the chance to watch the first episode this morning, it’s up on THR.
FN: Yeah, I think it was dropping today.
BR: So I did get to see the fictionalized version of Stan Lee in action. I have to ask – how much of that was Stan Lee’s idea versus your writing?
FN: It is much more of Stan than you would think it would be. Your expectation would be that he didn’t have any involvement in it, but the truth of the matter is I have like nine drafts of the first version of that script, because Stan kept editing it and adding ideas and tweaking lines and stuff like that. But look, I’m creating a caricature of Stan, and what you generally sometimes see in public is a little bit of a caricature too because often he’s performing and promoting and marketing. It’s not Stan Lee having lunch with friends, so we knew that we were kind of taking that rubber band and stretching it, and the question was how far can we stretch it. What I was trying to do was stretch it further on purpose just so that he could bring it back a little bit and ground it a little bit more, because who better to write an exaggerated version of Stan than Stan himself?
FN: So it really became a matter of Stan providing the right balance and tone for how far to take this character… who just happens to be Stan Lee. And you get a little nervous – I’ve known Stan since 1985 and I’ve worked with him countless times when I was at Marvel. But, you know, this is a little bit different. You’re co-writing with him, you’re writing a character that is based loosely on him, so you have to understand what your parameters are going to be. And I’m the one who was really pushing that kind of “adult humor” – and I always put adult humor in quotation marks, okay, because it’s not adult at all, it’s incredibly immature humor. I’m the one who was pushing the tone, which I wanted to be more Archer than Transformers, you know?
BR: Oh, totally! And I think that definitely came across. I’m a huge fan of Archer, and a huge fan of Deadpool, who of course you helped to create, and so I feel like this series has a bit of that Deadpool flare in there.
FN: Yeah and I think you’ll see a little more of that too in the subsequent episodes as well. And really all it is taking preexisting tropes of the genre and figuring out where they can be tweaked, within the context of 3-4 minute videos – it’s not long form storytelling, so you have to hit that nail with the hammer pretty hard, pretty quick.
So the second episode is a little play on the whole idea of superheroes getting costumes. The third episode is a bit of a play on aliens being fish out of water when they’re in a new environment. And the last episode is really a play on “When the cat is away, the mice will play”; Stan’s not really in the fourth episode and the other characters are trying to do some stuff on their own.
BR: I’m really looking forward to that fourth one. I love Stan Lee, obviously, but it will interesting to see how the other characters get on without him serving as a central lynch pin in some episodes.
BR: So what initially drew you to the project?
FN: The thing I liked about the original premise that they had set up is that, within the context of very traditional, standard setup, they had already embodied a lot of twists and a lot of potential to play off of what we were being given. The entire idea that Stan is their mentor, when Stan has been a writer of fiction, creating characters like this for his whole career, is an interesting play, because you get to see what is truth and what is fiction in a way.
FN: The idea of seven aliens being stranded on Earth, that’s been done a million times before. But the twist I liked is that these guys were prisoners. Why were they prisoners? How many of them are really bad guys? We don’t know yet. How many of them were misunderstood? How many of them were improperly incarcerated? Combine that with their cultures and their personalities being very dissimilar from each other, and now they’re in a whole new culture and they have to adapt being on earth. So you get to play with a whole bunch of fish-out-of-water scenarios, which I think is always good for character by-play.
BR: Did you pursue the opportunity to work on Cosmic Crusaders, or did they come to you?
FN: Genius Brand came to me because one of the muck-a-mucks there, Stone Newman, worked with me a couple years ago on a kids’ sports-themed virtual world. So he and I have known each other for a few years now. He knew that they wanted to take this property and find a new approach for it, without fundamentally altering what it was, and he was confident that I could bring some of that to the table with my experience.
FN: So the combination of Stone, who is a friend of mine, being the one who made the call to me and the words “Stan” and “Lee” put together made it pretty easy. Because to me, anytime you say Stan Lee, I’m in. I’m there. This is a guy who’s been a part of my life since I was seven years old and I’ve been lucky enough to work with him professionally and spend some time with him socially, as well.
FN: It wasn’t hard for them to get me, let’s put it that way.
BR: I can understand that – if you’re given a chance to work with a legend, you take the opportunity!
BR: If I may ask, why did they decide to publish Cosmic Crusaders through a digital news outlet as opposed to, say, an established comic book publisher?
FN: I think because Genius Brand had a preexisting opportunity to develop content with The Hollywood Reporter, and doing it around Stan lee’s 75th anniversary in the industry was a perfect confluence of idea and timing.
BR: What drove the decision to do the series as short, 4-5 minute videos?
FN: Basically, they came to me and said “We’re going to do these as short videos”.
FN: But really, you can do a 20-minute animated episode or you can do 4-minute animated episodes, it doesn’t matter whether it’s digital or it’s going to air on tv. Entertainment content is entertainment content, and you tailor it to the requirements of the format. They told me they had a company that was doing the digitally animated comics stuff, and I have some experience with digital comics and that kind of storytelling, so it was a very easy thing to adapt to. I wrote scripts as if they were just basic animation scripts. Then the animated comics guys storyboarded them, within the limits of what they could do – it’s not full animation, but there’s a lot of stuff happening in it.
FN: As a writer, and especially a writer who has grown through the advances in digital platforms and storytelling opportunities, I have never ever hindered myself or encumbered myself by the platform. I feel that all platforms are viable and are worthy of exploration. I’ve done choose your own adventures, books, comics, animation, video, and I’ve done virtual worlds. None of that is a limitation, it’s just an opportunity.
BR: I think that’s a great approach to creative endeavors, because with technology as it is, pop culture is thriving and growing, and the more ways you can bring it to us – as the audience – we can definitely appreciate that.
FN: Yeah! And that’s what I’ve been doing outside of comics for the last 15 years, is working on cross-platform development of franchise properties with studios and video games, and stuff like that.
BR: If I may ask, in Cosmic Crusaders, which character is the most intriguing to write?
FN: Stan! Stan is the most intriguing to write, and challenging because I’m taking a real person, and then taking that person’s exaggerated public persona, and turning it into another exaggerated public persona. So that is the most interesting character to write.
FN: As far as the Crusaders themselves, I have a real soft spot and a real jealous spot for any really well-built man who walks around naked and requires a black [censor] bar of that length to cover him up. So out of sheer jealousy, probably Strongarm. But almost every character gets a bit – it was hard to develop bits for everyone in short episodes like this – but once you see what Rollerman does in episode three, you’re gonna hate to love him too. So I think every character has a little bit of something.
FN: Going back to your question about the video length, here’s the drawback for the short-form: You usually start to have more ideas than you have room for, you know? You usually have more character stuff that you want to flesh out than you have the space to do, within the context of trying to tell a self-contained story. A lot of characters don’t have the opportunity to do as much as I would have wanted, so now I want to do more with them because now I have more ideas for them than the room allotted to me.
FN: So the truth of the matter is, I think there is a lot of potential for all of them to be really kind of funny, quirky, interesting characters. And to keep you coming back the same way that shows about heels, something like Silicon Valley, or Michael Scott in The Office, they keep you coming back. There’s not a likable character in Archer, but we like all of them.
BR: Have you considered doing some “deleted scenes”, like snippets, to flesh out some of those character ideas that you’ve had?
FN: It would be great, but it really depends on Genius Brand the others having the bandwidth to do it. It’s easy for me to say I’d love to do that, but it costs money to do it. I’m sure Genius Brand would love to say “Sure, we can do those things, are you going to pay for it?” At the end of the day, it’s business, it’s commerce – people are doing their jobs, and they want to get paid for it.
BR: That’s a good point!
BR: I know we’re running out of time, but I have one last question if I may.
BR: Will you be at San Diego Comic Con this weekend?
FN: I will not be at San Diego Comic Con this weekend. I feel that I have done my bit for king and country by going to SDCC as often as I did. If you’d caught me between ’88 and ’02 you would have seen me there pretty much every single year. But then the girls started playing travel soccer, and I started coaching travel soccer, so I didn’t feel like going to conventions every weekend on top of that.
FN: I am doing more conventions now, because the kids are older, but I’m trying to go to conventions in places that I haven’t been to before, when I can. Or places I haven’t been to as often, and I’ve been to San Diego so many times, and it’s grown to be a little bit unwieldy and a little bit uncomfortable when you can’t navigate a section of a hallway in less than 45 minutes.
FN: So I haven’t been going as much.
FN: They had asked me to come out for Cosmic Crusaders, but I originally thought I was going to be on a business trip in China. Turns out that deal is still being negotiated so the trip was delayed until probably the fall. And I’m going to a convention in Hawaii next week.
BR: Oh, that will be nice!
FN: It will be nice, I’ve never been to Hawaii before – I live out on the East coast. But I didn’t want to do two conventions back-to-back like that.
BR: I understand that, take this weekend to relax.
FN: That’s what I’m going to do, that’s what I tend to do during Comic Con – while I hear all my friends whining about how crazy it is, I’m usually just hanging out with a beer in my hand, so there.
BR: I’m sure everyone embroiled in the crazy that is Comic Con will be very jealous of that.
FN: Well, I get jealous of them too, because I see all the fun, cool stuff that’s happening and you almost want to be a part of it. Until I realize that in order to be a part of it, you actually have to go to Comic Con.
BR: *laughs* That’s absolutely true.
BR: I could ask questions all day, but I know you’ve got several other interviews lined up.
FN: I do, I have one lined up now. I do appreciate your time, thank you very much!
BR: My pleasure! Thank you for answering my questions, and I hope you have an excellent day!