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Bringing Titans to TV

An Interview With Sam Register

This interview originally appeared in Pacesetter #4: a special Titans issue of the George Pérez newsletter. Pérez and writer, Marv Wolfman relaunched the Teen Titans as New Teen Titans in 1980 and it was an instant hit. The animated series is largely inspired by their five year run on the series. George and Marv created Starfire, Raven and Cyborg – and added Robin, Beast Boy [known as Changeling then], Wonder Girl and Kid Flash as members. The interview was conducted by Bill Walko, webmaster of titanstower.com and Animation Insider’s own Teen Titans animated site.

As senior vice president, original animation for Cartoon Network, Sam Register is responsible for overseeing development and production of original, action-oriented animated programming for the 24-hour cable service. His current projects include Star Wars: Clone Wars animated shorts, Duck Dodgers and of course, Teen Titans. Sam talks about his excitement in bringing Teen Titans to TV – and offers some hints about what to expect in seasons three and four – and beyond.

This interview was conducted in April 2004


BW: First of all, thank you for bringing Teen Titans to TV. The series has been very enjoyable and you’ve really captured the essence of the characters from the classic comic book series. How did you get involved with teen Titans the animated series?

Sam: Well I was a huge fan of the Wolfman/Pérez Titans and when my job was moved to development the first project I wanted to do – before I did anything in my new development role – was to see if the Teen Titans were available. I was still living in New York at the time so I called Paul Levitz and I went over to DC Comics. I asked him about Teen Titans and he said it was available and that was it. It was the first thing I always wanted to do and the first thing I did.

BW: Why adapt Teen Titans, instead of, say, Legion of Superheroes?

Sam: I was a fan mostly; I wanted to do something a bit younger… a lot of the super-hero stuff on Cartoon Network at the time – like Justice League – was a little more adult-oriented. I knew I would have to make a show that was a really good kid’s cartoon and a good show for what is mostly 6-11 year olds. So I thought teens and a younger-skewing hero group would be good for that.

Also, I thought that Robin – one of the A characters in the DC Universe – was both an A character and a sidekick at the same time. I thought that he – in animation – was never anything more than a sidekick. It was also a good way of introducing new characters like Cyborg, Robin, Beast Boy and Starfire – who I knew through the DC Universe but many kids seeing the show for the first time would have no idea who they were. Robin was sort of an entry-character. Kids know who Robin is.. so through Robin we are able to meet these new characters.

BW: Have you gotten any feedback or input from George Pérez or Marv Wolfman?

Sam: We have. I met with Marv a couple of times and he’s been very supportive of everything and thought it was very cool that we were doing it. He also liked the way were were doing it and the positioning. The Teen Titans comic book was much more of a soap opera – which is a direct quote from Marv – and we were obviously going in a different direction; He supported it all the way and thought it was a great way to go.

As for George… I hadn’t talked to George until we had a launch party for Teen Titans at ComiCon last year in San Diego. It happened that Teen Titans was premiering the same night as the ComiCon and George and Marv were both invited to the party and they attended to watch the premiere live at a bar in San Diego. And it was packed with people. It got to meet George for the first time and it was excellent because I got to watch Marv and George watching the Teen Titans and they were just thrilled watching it together watching their creation on TV. And I was thrilled to see these guys thrilled. And there was a lot of mutual admiration going on that night. Because I was thanking them and they were thanking me and I was thanking them and I was like “if it wasn’t for you guys there would be no show” and they were like “Thanks for doing the show…”

There was one other thing that came from George. We are thinking of mining the other Titans to use as auxillary members, [and I asked], “Is there anyone you would like us to use?” and he did mention Bumblebee. So Bumblebee will be coming to the animated Titans as a request from George.

BW: Wow… I didn’t even know he was a Bumblebee fan

Sam: I didn’t know either until he told us.

The Toon Titans and the New Teen Titans

BW: Was it a relief to learn they were so appreciative and supportive of the series?

Sam: Absolutely. I mean, you want their support and you obviously don’t want them to hate it. As you pointed out, there is a lot of stuff that we left from the comic that remains and I think we didn’t change it so much that it wasn’t theirs anymore. We were fans of their comic book and I think that comes out in the show. I think we didn’t screw with it too much that it wasn’t theirs anymore. Which they appreciated.

BW: What is the ‘mission statement’ of the show?

Sam: Well, we created something called the squint test. And as [David] Slack [the story editor] would say “If you have to think, it stinks.” Which means that we really wanted to make all the characters and all the stories really clear and easy to understand. And the villain’s motivations easy to understand. And the characters themselves and what kind of characters they are easy to understand.

And when we say ‘squint’, we mean, that in art when you squint to look at something to kind of see if it works. When you put blue and black together and you squint you can’t really tell where they separate. But when you put white and black together and you squint you can still see it pop. So we wanted everything to be very iconic and very black-and-white and easy to understand. And that’s right down to the metaphors of things kids get from the stories, like the Blackfire episode which is about sibling rivalry. And there’s an episode with Beast Boy about jokes going too far. All these things built into episodes that are actually relevent to kid’s lives.

Toon Titans vs. Comic Book Titans

BW: Who came up with the unique look and feel for the series? Was it collaborative?

Sam: That was Glen. I told Glen that I was a huge fan of the Bruce Timm look and feel but I really felt they had done that so well and for so long that it was time for something new. And I was ready to switch things up. My big rule was that I wanted it to look completely different from a ‘house [style] action show’ from Warner Brothers.

Glen came to me and showed me some anime and said “Hey, we’re thinking of doing something like this” and he kind of looked at me like I was going to hate it. And I said “If that’s something you feel passionate about and you think this is a cool way to do it, you should do it.” You want guys to come into work and enjoy what they’re doing. And it was something that Glen and his team of artists really wanted to try.

They’re all anime fans. And to see they were excited about it, I was was totally cool with it. But I was the one that did coin it as ‘Murikanime.’

BW: Yep, I’ve heard that phrase. There’s always a push or challenge to ‘make it weirder’ Can you elaborate on that?

Sam: Yeah. A lot of that was that I wanted it different. Sometimes I would say “You guys are not pushing the envelope enough” and I want different. I wanted the feeling that we were seeing something weird and something different and not to hold themselves back. And they sure as hell did it. I think I pushed them as far as they can go and they started even pushing themselves back a little.

BW: The second season has gotten a little wackier in some places…

Sam: Yeah. And that’s actually the directors. There’s three different directors on the show. One director in particular went really crazy on stuff and some of the other directors… not as much. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. But Teen Titans is kind of where you can always get away with it. Kids love it. And I know there are some of the hard-core Titans fans that don’t appreciate it, but that just shows that this show isn’t for them. It’s for their kids.

BW: If it’s any consolation, there’s been a bit of a turnaround. I think some of the fans that were dreading the show actually sampled it and kind of turned around on it. They said “well…. It’s different. But I like it. It’s fun. It’s bouncy. But it still has what the characters are about…”

Sam: Exactly. I mean, when I grew up I watched the Superfriends. And if you try watching those stories today they are horrible, horrible shows. But at the time they didn’t seem horrible. They were simple and I could totally follow what was going on. And it wasn’t complicated. The world wasn’t going to end. It was good Superfriends stuff. You remember… it was dumb. You look back on it now and you go “ugh.” But those shows were designed for kids. And Spider-man and His Amazing Friends and Superfriends… I love those shows. And I wanted to make a show that kids are going to grow up and they’re going to remember that show in the same way.

And right down to the theme song. We wanted to make a song that people are going to be singing for the rest of their lives. And make a show that people are going to remember and appreciate as nostalgic and as part of their childhood. And not as some dark thing for fan-boys.

BW: Well, the good thing about it is that it’s sort of like a good Pixar movie. You’ve got the kid appeal, but adults can watch it too. I know people that aren’t even comic fans or Titans fans and they find it entertaining.

Sam: That’s great. That wasn’t a goal. Our goal was to make kids like it first. We’ve heard a lot of moms like to watch it with their kids. And for a mom to want to watch an action show with their kids – well, that’s something that doesn’t happen a lot. But again, that was a happy accident. Never part of the plan.

BW: I think part of it too is that it’s got girl and boy appeal. Starfire and Raven are just as strong and powerful as the boys.

Sam: The very reason the girls are as strong as the boys – that was a reason why some major toy companies passed on the property. They thought the girls were too good. That’s why Bandai got it. Bandai – being a Japanese company – they understood that action cartoons can be for both girls and boys. And they understood it right away.

BW: How did you decide which characters to use on the show?

Sam: We talked a little about it. When I was first playing around with the idea I was thinking of changing up the line-up a little bit – but the original line-up was great. But Wonder Girl and Superboy were sort of out of the picture because those are different licenses within DC Comics. So with Teen Titans – which is Robin essentially – we had access to the Batman universe. But we’d have to pay a bigger licensing fee to get those other characters in because other creators are connected to those.

BW: And Kid Flash fits that bill as well…

Sam: Kid Flash as well. Exactly. So at this time there are no plans at all to see Superboy, Kid Flash or Wonder Girl in any of the shows. They’re not planned. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.

BW: And with Justice League, different arrangements were made to include those characters from the onset.

Sam: Right.

BW: Ok, That’s just a question a lot of people have asked.

Toon Titans vs. Comic Book Titans

Sam: Yeah. And we do have Aqualad – Aqualad we were allowed to use because Aqualad himself was a Teen Titan from the original Teen Titans. So they kind of gave us a little leeway on him. But Wonder Girl and Superboy and Kid Flash were out. But we’re fine… they didn’t really fit the type of characters we were doing either. Glen kind of refers to the Teen Titans as the Breakfast Club. There’s a jock and there’s a nerd and there’s a goth girl, there’s a princess and there’s a bad boy. And that kind of worked out. We didn’t need anymore for the show. And anything more than five on any team gets to be too much to deal with.

BW: Were there any other characters you wanted to use but couldn’t?

Sam: Nope. I mean, there are some other characters coming. Bumblebee’s coming. There are some characters from the Teen Titans universe that are going to be showing up. And in some cases, we are going to be creating some new characters just for the show that have never been seen before. And that’s where Harley [Quinn] and the Wonder Twins came from – they started off as cartoons first.

BW: Let’s touch on some of the characters; How did Robin evolve? He obviously has many character beats from Dick Grayson’s character in New Teen Titans. With all the different Robins, which one or ones serve as inspiration for the series?

Sam: My thing with Robin: I am so completely bored with the DC universe and continuity and all that crap. To me, he’s just Robin. I know all the fans give a crap, but I don’t. He’s Robin. He wears a mask. And he used to work for Batman. And that’s all I know. I don’t even know who he is behind that mask. And if Glen knows, I don’t want him to tell me.

He’s cool because he’s the one guy who has no super-powers on the team. He’s the team leader. And he was also trained by one of the best super-heroes in the world so he probably has some good experience.

BW: One of the interesting things about Robin is that he is the member that could potentially be the least powerful, but yet everyone trusts him and looks up to him and he’s the unquestioned leader of the team.

Sam: Right. But he also has brain power. He was trained by a detective. So there’s more to Robin than just the big boots.

Toon Titans vs. Comic Book Titans

BW: Cyborg and Beast Boy are pretty close to their comic book counterparts. Did you change anything when adapting them for the show?

Sam: No—those characters are pretty straight-on. You’ll notice with all the characters we didn’t get too close to origins on anything. Actually, the girls – we sort of get into their background a little bit. So far, with the boys, we haven’t gotten into their past. So far, there are no plans to… but you never know.

We decided from the beginning we didn’t want to get into an ’origin episode’. We’re considering doing that as a DVD – to tell the story of how they got together. That would be as a direct-to-video. Otherwise, we just see it as “they’re together. We can worry about it later.”

BW: Well, there are hints at times. Cyborg – for example – mentions how he used to be an athlete….

Sam: Right. But the origin of Cyborg is depressing.

BW: Well, all their origins are depressing. They’re all orphans or have parents that died…

Sam: Yeah – so we’re not going there. Starfire, we will be going back to her home planet on an episode and get more on her background – but not getting into too much.

But Starfire – she’s sort of like the Little Mermaid from the Disney movie. And the Little Mermaid didn’t understand the surface world. Our Little Mermaid doesn’t quite understand earth. And that allows for a lot of comedy. It makes her very sweet and very funny. So she’s worked out pretty good.

BW: With Starfire, you played up her naivetee, but her passion and warrior side were toned back. Were you looking for one defining trait for each character?

Sam: Yeah, I mean, she’s super strong. But getting into the warrior side gets into ‘origin’ and it just hasn’t really come up.

Toon Titans vs. Comic Book Titans

BW: Raven is such a dark character for such a light show. Did you find it hard to adapt her for the show?

Sam: Nah. We think of her as a goth girl. She’s a dark character – but a character everyone can relate to. She’s a recluse and sort of to herself. We thought that would be a good dynamic with the rest of the team. She does have a dark background in the comic. In the cartoon, there is talk about getting more into her past in the fourth season. We touched on it with Trigon, and we might do more.

BW: Slade in some ways is very close to the source material, and in other ways, is quite different. His look is very close to the comics, yet his motivations differ. How did you take the comic book Slade to cartoon Slade?

Sam: Yeah – we didn’t know quite was he was going to be after. We knew we needed an enemy. And in the first season, we decided he wanted an apprentice and it was sort of a Luke-and-Darth thing. And he was called Deathstroke in the comic and we can’t use the word ‘death’ so we went with his first name. So we wanted to keep him mysterious and dark and sort of the uber-villain. And he’s worked out great. And he looks pretty much like ‘The Old One’ too [from the episode “Forces of Nature”].

Again, not getting too much into his past. And no plans on getting there.

BW: You’ve also described Slade as a ‘Bad Batman”…

Sam: Yeah, I think at the time it was to make him a father-figure to Robin but as the things you don’t like about your dad.

BW: Any reason why you haven’t shown Slade without his mask?

Sam: Yeah, it’s a mystery thing. It’s fun. It keeps you guessing. Just like you never saw who Dr. Claw was on Inspector Gadget. Same thing. A lot of things in these decisions, there isn’t some master grand plan why we do things and why we don’t.

BW: Right. Some people have tried to deduce who Slade is; As if it’s going to be somebody we know. Some fans thought he was Bruce Wayne testing Robin.

Sam: I’ll put it this way: I think Slade Wilson is Slade Wilson. And I don’t know what his reasons are.

BW: How does the creative process work? How do you break down each season and each episode?

Sam: Before each season we have a meeting about the story arc. So we decide what lished in the larger arc. Like what we want to do with Terra, for example. And decide how we want to plan that out. Like how we want to tell the Terra story for how many episodes in the season and how many we’re going to need with Terra in it. I think Terra’s in four or five episodes in the second season. And after that it’s a lot of one-offs.

And there are episodes we all want to do. Like I wanted to do Thunder and Lightning because I liked that from the comics. And then Glen will have an episode he wants to do. And then an artist will come up with an episode. The writers obviously have episodes they want to do. They come back and pitch episode ideas and things they want to try. Usually we’re for everything. There’s always something someone has a passion for. That’s about it. Then they write outlines and there’s an approval process. But we’re pretty hands off at Cartoon Network to let the creators have as much freedom and have as much as fun as they want.

Toon Terra vs. Comic Book Terra

BW: Season Two is tackling the classic Judas Contract story. It’s quite ambitious to retell that story in a cartoon geared towards kids. Can you tell us about why you decided to adapt that story – and what challenges it presented?

Sam: We chose that because of all the Wolfman/Pérez stories, that was probably the best story that they did. It was sort of their uber-story. It was one I remembered as a kid. I talked to Marv Wolfman and he said, at the time, Kitty Pryde was really big at Marvel on the X-Men. And they wanted to do an evil version of Kitty Pryde. And that’s where Terra came from. And from day one, when they greenlit the show, me and Glen always knew we wanted to do Terra. So second season is when we decided to do it.

There was some issues with how bad we could make Terra – and how we end it. Obviously, it comes to a pretty sad end in the comics. So how do we end it in the cartoon so it still means something, but maybe isn’t as violent. And how to deal with having her smoke and drink which she did in the comic – we couldn’t do that, obviously.

But other than that, it was a very simple story about betrayal. And you didn’t have to change too much to make the idea of betrayal work for the show.

BW: One thing I thought worked for the show that they didn’t do in the comics is that you see more of Terra before she goes bad. You see more of the potential of the girl she could have been.

Sam: Yeah, for the Beast Boy and Terra relationship to work we really needed to not make her completely evil – otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. And we have a shorter amount of time to tell a story than they do in the comic books. We can’t write as much as they wrote in the books.

BW: Are there any comics characters or stories from New Teen Titans where you said “Yeah, we HAVE to do this!”

Sam: Ummm.. other than the Thunder and Lightning story – which we did – and the Judas Contract…. Well, there wasn’t so much. As I said, we are probably going to explore some other Trigon episode ideas. Other than that, it’s just that Wolfman and Pérez gave us some really great characters to play with to tell a lot of great stories with.

BW: Each season has a specific arc with a serious tone, and then standalone episodes that are sometimes serious, and sometimes all-out comedy. Is there a formula or ratio you use to balance each season?

Sam: Mostly, it’s an action show first. Then we like to do comedy. We like to do one or two crazy episodes a season, absolutely. Usually we like to dedicate four or five episodes to the arc itself with a two part ending at the end of the season. And that’s about it. And the rest are one-offs. We do push for them to do the goofy one.

In the fourth season, I asked them to do a mystery episode where they will get pre-approval from me on outline and story. But I am not going to look at story boards or go to the record[ing session] or anything. And I am going to watch that episode on TV with them when it airs. I want them to surprise me.

BW: One of the goofy episodes I thought was very creative was the Mad Mod episode. It not only had goofy fun things for kids, but it had a lot of things for adults. You put in a lot of little references. There’s some nods to Clockwork Orange and some other stuff. Are you looking to do more episodes in that vein as well?

Sam: Yeah. I think there’s one in the second season that’s going to be a real fun alternate reality episode. They’re planning another Mad Mod episode for season three. There’s a pretty crazy Mumbo episode coming in season three. So yeah. We like to do the weird ones. And I think it’s good for them to really push themselves and try something new.

Part of what we like to do is surprise people. We want them to tune in because they aren’t quite sure what they’re going to get. And if every show is the same kind of straight-ahead adventure with a beginning middle and end – I think you may not want to check out what’s on Teen Titans this week. I think doing these crazy episodes – or even switching out the Japanese and English versions of the theme song – that’s us keeping the kids on their toes.

BW: Any more scripts from Marv Wolfman coming up?

Sam: I think so. I’m pretty sure he’s planning on doing some more.

BW: How far ahead do you plan the series? Are you already breaking down fourth season?

Sam: We are delivering the third season right now. And the fourth season is being plotted out even as we speak.

BW: The series has been a tremendous success for Cartoon Network and has been ordered for four seasons. What does the future hold for Teen Titans beyond that?

Sam: Well, there’s talk of a direct-to-video, as I talked about. There’s different things they could do there. There’s a possibility of an origin to be told in that or maybe not… maybe we’ll try something else. And then after that, I don’t know. I think there’s always a possibility of a fifth season. I’m reluctant to do a fifth season but it’s not completely my decision obviously. But I think after the fourth season Glen and his team will have done a great job and I think that we should put those guys on a new show.

Possibly four seasons and a DVD and we’re done.

BW: Will you be bringing in even more characters from the comic books in the future?

Sam:Yeah. We’re doing that in the third season. Speedy’s going to show up. And Bumblebee’s going to show up. And there’s some other lesser characters from the Teen Titans universe that make an appearance here and there. Some original characters. There’s not a big goal to go back to the comics and see what we can get.

I mean, I’m thinking out loud right now.. maybe the only way to do a fifth season is completely change out the roster. And maybe we get on out hands and knees and ask DC if we could use Wonder Girl and Kid Flash. Get rid of some characters and bring in some new ones.

BW: One thing I’ve noticed that’s kind of funny, is that people who aren’t familiar with the comic are shocked when they see the characters that inspired the cartoon. Like Starfire…

Sam: With her big 80s hair? Well, yeah, it’s funny because the animated version is now becoming what everyone is going to be thinking about Teen Titans. Because millions of people are seeing it.

BW: Right. Television gets far more exposure than comic books ever will. Sam, thanks for your time today. Is anything else you’d like add before we wrap up?

Sam: Just that Marv and George obviously created something that touched us as fans and we felt like we wanted to go back and redo it. That’s an amazing thing that you can make something like that in a comic book. It had such an effect that we actually really wanted to go back and do it again. So that’s very cool.

Toon Titans vs. Comic Book Titans



Visit the Teen Titans Animated Series Guide for more information. Titans Go!


End of titanstower.com transmission. About this author:  Bill Walko is an author and artist and the man behind titanstower.com. He's been reading and drawing comics since he was 5 years old and hasn't stopped since. Read more from this author