Interview with Shaun McLaughlin: From Aquaman to Justice League and Beyond
Today we have a super cool interview for ya’ll with writer Shaun McLaughlin, who has worked on a ton of amazing stuff, from such shows such as Batman Beyond to Justice League: Unlimited, to comics like Aquaman, Hawkman, and much, much more!
Let’s get down to it!
COMIC ATTACK: You’ve done everything from comic books like Aquaman and Hawkman, to cartoons like Pinky and the Brain and Justice League: Unlimited. What projects on your resume are you most proud of?
SHAUN MCLAUGHLIN: It’s always the latest thing. My most recent animated picture Gene-Fusion because it was a great concept, had great people to work with like Gabriel Benson, Jeff Amano and Francois Brission and I think I really got to stretch when I wasn’t under the WB umbrella.
From the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth: Batman Beyond because that show broke new ground in style and storytelling. That show was going into uncharted waters and did some things I wish we’d been able to push farther on the next shows.
And Static Shock. The first season with Scott Jeralds running the show was one of the best times I had. Scott, because he’s firmly rooted in the Hanna Barbara style, never gets the credit he should for being the stylist he is. He’s too often dismissed as “retro” when he is a realist who looks at the available resources and uses those and only those to tell the story in the best possible way.
For a while, Static was the highest-rated show on Cartoon Network and it wasn’t even first run and everyone seemed to ignore it.
CA: How did you get into writing comics?
SM: Back room deals, payoffs and coercion.
I had been trying for a long time. I was sending out a lot of over the transom material. At one point I was working for Fantagraphics and there I met Kevin Dooley. He went to DC as Andy Helfer’s assistant and got Aquaman as one of his books. After a couple of known people dropped out of the running for the book, I got a shot.
CA: Many folks seem to still fondly remember your run on Aquaman. In fact Aquaman #3 that you penned is one of my favorite comics of all time; from the cover of him fighting the shark to the last page, it was all very magical for me as a child. How does it feel to know that between comics and cartoons, you’ve had an impact on children who loved your work and are now adults in the real world?
SM: It makes me feel REALLY old and I only started in the business 15 years ago. I can’t imagine how people like Timm and Dini feel.
I usually look at my own work in the context of how it doesn’t measure up to what I wanted it to be. Aquaman was a bitter disappointment for reasons that have been documented elsewhere. After I left came the whole maiming heroes cycle including the one-handed Aquaman and it seemed my series was forgotten in favor of the Aqua-amputee.
I’m grateful that in the past couple of years I’ve heard from people who have carried the work with them and hope that it was indeed something I did that touched them. I’m still surprised when someone pings me on Facebook and tells me how great they thought Aquaman was.
It’s amazing, really. For years I was told that no one remembered that series and now it seems that it’s – um – remembered.
CA: You’ve worked on a ton of WB cartoons as mentioned, like Batman and Justice League: Unlimited. How did that transition happen from comic books to cartoons?
SM: Pure luck.
Well, that’s not true. It was persistence. I actually went to three interviews before I got the job.
Again, it was someone I knew who was looking for someone to be a production assistant at WB. I came in on the bottom of the animation food chain and had to claw my way to the middle. I think part of why I got moved over to the guys in tights shows was because I did have that background. By that time I had done Aquaman, a few other things and had been a Consulting Editor at Malibu comics working on some of their promotional stuff.
When a position became available, I guess I seemed like the logical candidate. It saved having to interview anyone and I didn’t have to learn a new commute and it was just better to have someone on staff who already knew who B’wana Beast was and could reference Mort Meskin.
I was never aiming at a career in comics. I wanted to do comics, but not make a life out of it. Nor animation. When I was growing up and in college I never once thought of a career in animation or even working in it so it was providence that I got the job I did. Providence and a terrific command of minutiae.
CA: How was working with Paul Dini on those animated projects?
SM: I’ll tell you a Paul Dini story. We did Return of the Joker under severe time constraints. Not only did we have to deliver the movie in, if I remember right, just under a year, but we were doing the series and I think finishing up Superman at the same time. We needed the script on a deadline and Paul, as great as he is, is not a deadline’s best friend. He repaired to Casa Dini in Burbank to work without distractions.
Once a week we would have this conversation:
“Hi, Paul. It’s Shaun.”
“So when are we getting the script pages this week…?”
“Well, I dunno. I’ve kind of hit a spot and I’m not sure how to…”
“Paul, if you meet me at Marie Calendar’s on Thursday, I’ll buy you pie.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Remember. No pages, no pie.”
Paul gets a lot of deserved credit, but I think it’s sometimes at the expense of people like Alan Burnett and Stan Berkowtiz who were really turning out a bulk of the scripts, especially on Batman Beyond. It’s easy to point at one person and say they were/are the show but all the Warner’s shows I worked were collaborative efforts. If someone got hit by a bus, the show would have gone on.
CA: Do you like working on comic books or cartoons better, and why?
SM: I’ve only started thinking about doing comics again recently, and, like I said, I fell into animation. I guess the straightforward answer to your question is that it’s the project and not the format. I’ve done comics, animation, live-action and prose and it’s always been the project, not the format. I do like working with actors, though, so I might be leaning toward more live-action simply because that’s day-to-day actors.
That’ll probably change at some point. I’ll get nostalgic for the smell of pencil shavings and the whiff of ozone from the PhotoShop starting up.
CA: What are the inspirations for you and your work?
SM: I go through periods where I’m intensely into someone’s work and then I overload. So, in no particular order: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, Larry McMurtry, Damon Runyon, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Robert E. Sherwood, Mamet, P.J. O’Rourke.
In comics: Jack Kirby (who I had the honor of knowing a bit), Roy Crane, Howard Chaykin, Keith Giffen, Alan Moore, Steve Englehart, Steve Skeates, Romona Fradon, Berke Breathed, V.T. Hamlin, Tezuka and Yoshida.
I’d say if I had to point to one thing, it would be film. All kinds of film. I’ve been a movie nut since I was around 8 and I’ll watch almost anything – especially with a remote when I can turn it off. I really like King Vidor’s silent pictures, Christopher Guest, Gilliam, Sturges, William Witney’s Republic features.
There are some lesser-known writers, especially radio writers, which exert a pull on me when it comes to dialogue and timing, guys like Don Quinn, Ray Singer, and the Jack Benny/George Burns coterie.
I’m also a pretentious twerp, so I bring that with me.
CA: Are there any titles or shows out there that you’re reading or watching right now that you’re smitten with?
SM: I’m mad for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stuff. I’m anxiously awaiting the next volume of Century. I’m also really looking forward to Stephen Destefano’s Lucky in Love. I think he’s one of the best people working in comics today and he did my all-time favorite Superman storyboard. I’m reading a lot of oddball Showcase Presents stuff like Blackhawk, Metamorpho and Strange Adventures.
As far as shows, Entourage, Big Love, I’m almost afraid to mention Mad Men because it seems so cliché, but I do love it. I recently discovered Have Gun, Will Travel which I love because it’s the most morally ambiguous show in the history of television.
CA: I heard somewhere one of your favorite animated films is My Neighbor Totoro (which is one of my favorite films as well). Everyone who loves Totoro that I’ve met is a fan because it strikes a different chord with them; whether it’s one moment in the film or the whole piece. What is the magic in it for you?
SM: It’s the magic of the unexplained and it’s allowed to go unexplained. It’s just there, there’s not a whole ton of backstory as to who anyone is, especially Totoro. I love that. I was just reading Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla and I couldn’t agree more in that current films feel a need to explain everything to the point that they are stopping the story and sucking out the chance that anything surprising might happen. No executroids were on this picture saying: “But people won’t understaaaaaaaaaand. What’s a Totoro?”
I also love the juxtaposition of the magical (Totoro) and the mundane (the umbrella).
I got to visit Miyazaki’s studio when I was in Japan and meet the great man. The really sad part was that I was with some other Warner’s people who had no idea who he was or how privileged we were to be there and to meet him.
CA: Any projects in the pipeline for you right now?
SM: I’m attached to direct two live-action films. One is a script of my own and the other is an adaptation of Gabriel Benson and Jeff Amano’s graphic novel Fade From Grace. I’m really excited about that. I think we’ve cracked an approach to the superhero movie that hasn’t been touched before.
I’m writing a direct to video feature for Omens Studios that I can’t name now, but it’s a re-launch of a MAJOR 60′s cartoon character. I think it’s going to be a great re-interpretation of a classic.
And what I think might be of most interest to you is a graphic novel called Cheapjack Shakespeare. It’ll be a comic done with 3d modeling and I’ll be handling the whole shebang. It’s an experiment, but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the results. It will be serialized as a Kindle download first, and if that’s going well, we’ll branch to other platforms and then to a print collection. It’s the first salvo in a few projects I’ve been working on with Gabriel Benson (The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty). We’re looking for a more traditional artist to work on other projects. I’ve never enjoyed working with anyone as much as I have with Gabe.
Other than that, I’m teaching acting for animation and talking about taking over some other courses at a local college.
I’ve also been writing a blog about moving my family out of L.A. (www.itsnottrundra.blgospot.com) that I hope to publish in book form.
And, in the midst of all this, I still have time to try to make the perfect pumpkin pancake.
CA: Awesome! Thank you so much for the interview! We’ll talk again soon!