An Interview With Glen Murakami
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.
It’s Glen Murakami – Producer of Teen Titans the animated series – in perhaps his most comprehensive TEEN TITANS interview ever. Glen takes some time to talk about how he translated the classic New Teen Titans to TV – infusing it with his own unique vision – and preserving his love for the original characters.
This interview was conducted in April 2004
BW: First of all, I’m a huge fan of the Titans and I really like what you’ve done with the characters. The series is a lot of fun. How did you get involved with Teen Titans the animated series?
Glen: I was working on Justice League at the time and Sam [Register] came aboard as VP of Cartoon Network. Sam and I are about the same age and one of the things he wanted to develop was the Teen Titans. It was something he always wanted to do. And I guess he had already started developing it when I met with him. So he said “Here’s something I really want to develop and here’s some stuff I had in mind.” And I said “Well, do you want to do something really different with it? I think you should go in this direction with it.” I thought the direction they were going was really different from the Wolfman/Pérez comic, but I thought it could be even weirder than say, what we were doing on Justice League.
BW: So it was your idea to bring some of the Japanese influences?
Glen: I just thought that language of storytelling really hadn’t been done in a Western style superhero comic or cartoon. I mean, we’ve been seeing that Japanese and Manga influence in comics, but I’ve never seen anyone that went that far with it in a cartoon.
BW: Right. And pairing that with traditional DC superheroes is certainly something that hadn’t been done before.
Glen: Right. And the direction was to really do something quite different from Justice League. So we kind of went around and around on it. And I grew up reading Titans and X-Men in the 80s – they were the two hot books. So [George] Pérez and [John] Byrne were probably the two biggest influences on me during that time period. Before I even got into animation I wanted to be a comic book artist.
BW: So how did you go about adapting the Teen Titans characters for animation? How did you decide which characters to use?
Glen: Well, I think a lot of people don’t realize that comics and animation are really apples and oranges. It would be really, really complicated to animate something like Pérez’s Cyborg design. Just the detail and the complexity and subtley of it. There’s just no way we could do that on a TV show schedule with a TV show budget. It’s sort of a lesson I learned from Bruce [Timm] from working onBatman and Superman and all that stuff. You kind of just have to take the best parts of it. You kind of have to know what to keep and what to throw out. And it’s really difficult. In some ways, you can’t be too close to it – you have to distance yourself from it and realize you’re doing it for another medium.
So we tried to take the best of the Wolfman and Pérez stuff and just distill it down into 20 minutes. And do it for fans who have never seen the Titans before. And take into consideration that maybe they are only going to see one episode. So you don’t have time for back-stories or all the subtleties of their secret identities or their origins. So you have to make the characters really, really super-iconic.
Glen’s Teen Titans and the New Teen Titans
BW: Right. And part of the success of the Wolfman/Pérez Titans was seeing these characters grow and come into their own – which is something you won’t have the benefit of doing.
Glen: Exactly. It’s sort of the difference between the movie and the novel. I think sometimes fans don’t understand that dilemma we’re in. I grew up reading Titans and Pérez’s Avengersstuff. I’m a fan of that stuff – but at the same time – I have all these other things I have to take into consideration to adapt it.
BW: Did you design all the characters for the show?
Glen: I designed all the new versions of the characters.
BW: I’d like to touch upon each of the characters. Let’s talk about Robin. What did you take and leave, visually, from the comic book Robin?
Glen: I wanted to make Robin cool. I think when we talked about Robin in the beginning, we were concerned that everyone’s perception of Robin. That he would always be thought of in terms of “Batman and Robin.” So Robin always has that ‘and’ attached to the front of his name all the time. So whenever you show anyone a picture of Robin they always ask “Well, when is Batman going to show up?”
BW: And people have asked that…
Glen: And that really bothered me. I didn’t want Robin to just be the little kid who gets into trouble. I don’t want him to seem like he needs the father-figure. I don’t want him to just be the sidekick. So when we talked about him, we talked about how we could make him really cool. And I made everyone to look sort of awkward, like teenagers. They have big hands, big feet and big heads – they’re kind of gangly and scrawny. I thought that awkwardness made them look kind of anime.
I just didn’t want them super-buff like the Justice League characters. I wanted them to have a clumsy quality about them. And like all teenagers, they would really be into footwear. Big clod-hopper shoes. That’s why I gave him the metal [steel-toe] combat boots. The spiky hair. I wanted to get rid of the shorts. I just wanted him cooler. Like a Bruce Lee or something like that. I just didn’t want him to copy Batman. I wanted him to be his own person.
BW: Although there are no secret identities, it seems Robin is strongly modeled after Dick Grayson. Is that where you draw inspiration for Robin? Or is he an amalgam of different Robins?
Glen: Ummm… hmmm… Well, the reason we never got into the secret identities and stuff like that is it just gets really complicated. Instead of all the characters having one name, they now had two names. We just felt that would get confusing and we just really didn’t want to get into that.
It was really important to me that little kids watching it could identify with characters. And I thought that the minute you start giving them secret identities then kids couldn’t project themselves onto the characters anymore. And that was important to me. I know it’s kind of important to have secret identities and stuff like that but we wanted everything to be really, really, iconic. Like, “Oh, there’s the robot guy. There’s the alien girl. There’s the witch girl. There’s the shape-changing boy.” There’s the we just wanted it really clean like that. We wanted it like old Star Trek. We just wanted it simple.
When I was growing up, I didn’t like the old Adam West Batman. But I did want more humor in the series. I was struggling with how you do a show with more humor in it without it being a parody. I didn’t want to make fun of the characters. Because I think as a kid, the Superfriends and the Adam West Batman drove me nuts – they didn’t make sense to me. Because then I read the comics and I didn’t understand why the characters were so much cooler.
And then watching the cartoons, they seemed like old guys. And that always really bothered me. So I wanted to take some of that Adam West stuff, but do it so it’s not a parody.
BW: I think of Teen Titans as an action-comedy, whereas Justice League is an action-drama. I mean, In Teen Titans, even though there’s comedy, there’s also jeopardy and action and moments where the characters have real heart.
Glen: Well, I think the humor is there to make the characters likeable. I think when the characters were created in the 1980’s version, that was just the direction of comics at the time. It was difficult to take that aspect of the comic. To look at it and say “Well, I think maybe those characters skew a little too old.” We were making something for a younger audience. So how can we take the aspects of something like Justice League – and take the good parts of that – but do something different. So it’s difficult to take all those elements and boil them all down.
BW: Well, I think what comes through is the essence of the characters. It’s all sort of been stripped down and streamlined.
Glen: Well, exactly. That’s important for me that the fans understand that. It’s not like “We’re going to change the designs just to change the designs. We’re not going to have secret identities just to make it confusing.” We thought doing the secret identities would be confusing.
BW: Well, even in the comics, the secret identities don’t play a part. I mean, they aren’t two separate people like Bruce Wayne/Batman. Dick Grayson is essentially Robin. Starfire doesn’t really have a secret identity. Raven doesn’t have one.
Glen: That’s pretty much why we didn’t go in that direction. And the whole “Who’s Robin?” controversy is really kind of interesting to me. My big concern is just trying to make Robin cool. And just really set Robin apart from Batman. So if it seems like I’m avoiding the question, I sort of am. Because I don’t think it’s really important. My concern is how do I make Robin a really strong lead character without all that other stuff. And I feel that way about all the characters. How can I keep all the characters really iconic and really clean.
BW: You talked a little about Cyborg and how his original design was much too complicated for animation. So how did you go about developing Cyborg? Did you go through a number of variations?
Glen: My biggest concern with Cyborg is how to make him look like a robot without looking clunky. I wanted his overall silhouette to look human. I didn’t want him to look like he just had robotic limbs. That was my biggest problem; So that’s how I ended up with those clear parts. He kind of has a real Micronaut look. That was the idea.
And I grew up watching a live-action Japanese show called Kikaida and I think subconsciously I channeled that too. I’m realizing that a lot of stuff with Titans is stuff I grew up with. All those shows I watched as kid mixed with all the comics that I liked.
Toon Titans vs. Comic Book Titans
BW: So does that mean you subconsciously channeled The Munsters when designing Beast Boy?
Glen: That was something that everyone brought up “Oh, he looks like Eddie Munster.” But I don’t think that was really conscious. I think I was just trying to match the name more so when you look at him you go, “Oh, OK. That makes sense.” I just thought doing a normal boy who was green just didn’t make too much sense. I didn’t think he fit the name enough.
That was the thing with all the characters. How much do we exaggerate them? Even color-wise.. that’s why I changed the color on some of them; Raven, she’s the blue one… Beast Boy, he’s the green one… Each of the characters have two colors but I tried not to repeat any of the colors on any of the other characters so they’ll set apart from each other. Starfire is the orange and purple one. Raven is the blue and black one. Cyborg is the white and blue one.
BW: Raven’s another character who emerged differently from the comic book version. Was it problematic adapting such a dark character?
Glen: No [Laughs]. I think I used all the elements of the character’s costumes. I was just trying to strip it all down. That dress that Raven wear s in the comic is just too complicated. In the comics, there’s always that drawing of her with that split dress and her leg sticking out. I just chopped that off – I still had the leg showing – I just changed it to a leotard kind of thing.
So I think if you look at all the characters costumes I kept sort of the basic elements of everything. I mean, I think Beast Boy’s costume is the Beast Boy costume – I just made it black and a purplish-red color rather than just red. I didn’t want it to compete with Robin.
And Starfire’s costume – I think I kept the elements. I just tried to keep the elements of everything. I’m looking at a picture of both of them now comparing them [laughs] … I can’t honestly tell you why I went in that direction. I think I was just like “Oh, I’ll keep the armband, keep the color scheme..” I didn’t think it was appropriate to give Starfire flaming hair. I just thought that wasn’t such a good idea: a character whose hair is on fire [laughs]. I just didn’t think that was a good idea for a kid’s cartoon.
I think I kept the essence of the character. I just made them all younger.
BW: Oh… you did give Star pupils rather than the blank eyes. Was that to make her more expressive for animation?
Glen: Yeah. But when she gets all charged up she gets the glowing green eyes. I mean things like that were the reasons we made some of the decisions we did. I definitely started there… then I was like, “Well, you need to take this out, and this out… this won’t animate…. This is too complicated…”
I just wanted to make the characters look different from one another too.
Toon Titans vs. Comic Book Titans
BW: How did you come up with the design for Terra?
Glen: I just felt like I wanted to make her more contemporary looking.
BW: She was probably due for an update from her original look.
Glen: And I sorta felt like kids nowadays dressed like super-heroes more than ever before. You can go into Hollywood and see kids who are flashier-looking than super-heroes. Kids dress like anime characters now. So I think that’s my whole theory on the Titans. I wanted them to look like they were wearing super-hero costumes, yet at the same time I knew I wanted to do this Monkees kind of thing… where they were super-heroes 24 hours a day. They would go to the movies wearing their costumes. To me, I thought that was cool. That they were so much ‘their character’ that they just lived that way. They didn’t think anything of it. Their costumes were their personalities.
BW: And no one reacts to it either. No one thinks it’s strange that they are at a party in their costumes, or whatever…
Glen: I think if you’re a kid and you want to be a super-hero, you don’t ever want to go back to being normal. I think you’d want to be a super-hero 24 hours a day if you could. So that was the thinking – if that makes any sense at all.
BW: No, it does make sense in that context. Now: Deathstroke. You’ve kept that recognizable mask – which works well …
Glen: Actually, I tried to change the costume. I tried to go in different directions. – but I felt the more I went in different directions, the more it wasn’t Slade.
BW: Any reason he hasn’t been unmasked yet?
Glen: I just think it’s cooler. My same theory about no doing secret identities. I just think it’s cooler – to keep the bad guy a secret. I just don’t think that’s ultimately what the stories are about.
BW: Some people thought Slade might be Bruce Wayne testing Robin.
Glen: [Laughs] That’s funny. I think I can say exactly what stuff is and people would still come up with different theories.
I guess when I go through the comics now and look at them, I am sort of surprised at how many of the elements we have done.
BW: Oh, there’s a lot. There’s certainly little bits and pieces that creep in.
Glen: I think after awhile I just forget – you know what I mean? I was picking up the comics the other day and I noticed I had changed the color of Starfire’s starbolts. And I think I just made the connection that if her eyes glow green, then the power she shoots out would be green. But in the comic, I think they’re magenta. So things like that, I’m like “Oh, I didn’t remember that.”
I don’t know if I made a conscious decision to change it. It’s things like that – that after awhile everything just seems to blend together. We were going through things the other day, and I had forgotten that Terra had that first costume. And we actually have her making those costume changes.
We didn’t copy it, but it’s interesting that in the back of my mind I thought “Oh, when we first see her, she won’t have this costume… and then she’ll get this costume [when she joins].” Things like that.. I don’t know if I remembered that, or that it’s just so subconscious now.
BW: She has goggles now in the comics, too… the second Terra. I don’t know if you’re aware of that.
Glen: Oh, really? I just thought it would be cool. See, that’s the thing. It gets to the point that I don’t know if I saw it somewhere, I don’t know if I remembered that.
Toon Terra vs. Comic Book Terra
BW: Some characters look very much like their comic book counterparts, like Slade or Mammoth… while others are drastically different, like Jinx or Gizmo – who are also made to be teenagers. When you go about adopting the classic characters, do you always go to the source material? And how do you arrive at the changes?
Glen: We talk about the villains being all adults. We talked about different ways of doing it. I dunno… Gizmo as a little kid seemed funnier. Making them relateable just seemed more interesting. It wasn’t like “Oh, we’re going to change it just to change it.” We wanted to talk about the story and figure out how it works. I think it’s the essence of everything.
Same thing with Jinx. Let’s make her more goth. It’s this blend of how to make it a little more anime… how to make it a little more contemporary… how to make it more iconic… I think we wanted to make Jinx similar to Raven but different than Raven. It’s a back-and-forth process that – after awhile – I forget exactly why we made a decision.
BW: Which designs for TEEN TITANS are you most proud of?
Glen: Ummm… When David Slack [the story editor] and I were going over the series in the very beginning, we were trying to talk about the characters flaws – because that’s really important to build character. I think we were still scratching our heads wondering if we got it quite right yet.
But when we did the casting and we recorded the first episode and we heard all the actors together, suddenly everything came to life. All the characters had their voices. That’s kind of the thing I’m happiest with I just that it all really gelled. I think we have a really great cast. And I think all the characters have really distinct, individual personalities. That, I think, makes the characters more than just visually just a design. I think it’s a combination of everything. It’s the writing. It’s all the aspects of it that breathe life into the characters.
BW: Are there any Titans characters you haven’t gotten a chance to adapt yet that you’d really like to use?
Glen: I think we talk about everything. We always go “What about this character? What about this character?” I think it’s about figuring out what’s organic to the series. We don’t want to stick in characters just to stick them in.
I was glad that we did Blackfire. And I thought it was funny to do it in that kind of I Dream Of Jeannie/Bewitched way. I thought it was cool to do that with the characters. And again, it’s like, how do we take this big dramatic Blackfire story arc – how do we do that and distill it all down into one episode? And I think we did it. I think you get it; You instantly understand their relationship. I think we held true to the character – but we just crammed it all into 22 minutes [laughs].
BW: Well, I think the core of their relationship comes through: the sibling rivalry, their antagonistic relationship. And this is also from the comics: Starfire just keeps giving Blackfire a second chance and Blackfire always comes back and tries to kill her again [laughs].
Glen: Yeah, if you think about it, it’s kind of funny.
BW: Right. And at the end of the episode, even as Blackfire is swearing revenge, Starfire just says, ‘It was still very good to see you.” I mean, that’s the essenese of their relationship.
Glen: Yeah. I think we’re the Cliff’s Notes version of the comics.
Toon Titans vs. Comic Book Titans
BW: Do you collaborate with the head writers on the show? How do you break down a typical story?
Glen: I think our main goal has been telling stories that relate to our audience – and not get bogged down in comic book lore. And that’s what we go back and forth on with the stories. That’s when we go back to the Titans comic to find the messages and the morals in it without being too After School Special. We want the stories to have action and drama but we also want it to have heart. Those were the main goals in the beginning when we talked about doing the show.
The show just isn’t going to mean anything if you don’t like these characters – and if you cant relate to the characters.
BW: Right. Justice League is about those big save-the-universe battles, but Teen Titans has always been about the characters – and you care what happens to them. Most of their conflicts are tied to something personal. Raven and Trigon. Blackfire and Starfire. The whole Terra story.
Glen: I think that’s why it was really important to ask “What are their problems?” Another reason I didn’t want the characters to have secret identities was because I wanted people to relate to their characters; I thought if they became too special or too super, you just couldn’t relate to them anymore.
BW: Yeah. As you mentioned, they have their flaws.
Glen: Right. And it’s all things kids go through. They’re all problems you go through at puberty or adolescence. When we did Batman it was cool because no one was taking superheroes and playing them that way. No one was playing them that straight with that much drama. And Batman is a cool character – but I just thought you can’t take that same roadmap and stick the Titans into it. So a bank robbery or a charity function – I just thought kids can’t relate to that.
We think about that a lot [with the Titans]. I mean they’re going to fight crime – but HOW are they going to fight crime? We wanted the problems to stem from them.
BW: Well, there’s a mix; Sometimes they get that ‘crime-stopping’ alert – and sometimes trouble finds them.
Glen: I think a lot of times people complain our stories are thin – but I object to that. I think we pare the stories down so they’re more about those emotional things rather than sometimes the logic or “Well, how did this character do ‘this’ – or “where does this guy get his powers from?” I think sometimes maybe it seems sloppy – but I think it’s meant to be more entertaining than exacting.
The stories are more character-driven and they’re more about the mood or feel – than about all that other stuff.
The menace of Slade – by way of Glen and George.
BW: Marv Wolfman and George Pérez attended the premiere of the show at San Diego. Did you get a chance to talk to them?
Glen: We just talked to Marv the other day. We did a convention in Pasadena and Marv was there. From the very beginning Marv said “I completely understand why you guys have changed this. If we were doing Titans today, I wouldn’t have done it the same way.”
Bruce Timm was at that party, and he told me that he saw them watching it together. I was at one end of the room and they were somewhere else – so I didn’t get a chance to talk to George. I dunno. I guess I am kinda curious what his thoughts are about the show. I heard he liked it.
BW: I believe I had read somewhere that he did like it. I was just curious if you were able to touch base with him.
Glen: In some ways, I think I’m afraid to… “Hey – I took your babies and I changed them!” [laughs] I mean, I grew up reading their comics. I remember the Pérez Avengers, when he was doing Fantastic Four, that X-Men Annual he did…. I couldn’t wait for that X-Men/Titans crossover. I remember all that stuff. The Justice League/Avengers crossover and all the fan magazines that would print the pencils from it. Are they using any of that art in the new crossover?
BW: No, it’s all new.
Glen: See, that’s too bad. I remember seeing the pencils from that. And Crisis [on Infinite Earths] was a big deal. I mean, I am a comic fan. I wonder if people realize that. Titans is a comic I grew up reading – and Pérez was one of the guys I wanted to be like.
BW: Do you ever pay any attention to the fan feedback on the series on the message boards?
Glen: I do and I don’t. I try not to get too involved with it because I don’t want it to skew my decision-making sometimes. I’m interested in what they have to say, but I don’t want to get so caught up in it that it will change my decision making – where I’ll start second-guessing myself. So it’s really difficult – how much do you listen and how much do you tune out?
BW: Right. Well, reaction’s been pretty good. Some people that thought they would hate it have come around to liking it. Some people wish it was more like the comic book, but for the reasons you mentioned, you went in a different direction. Some people won’t be converted, but the show isn’t for them.
Glen: And I COMPLETELY understand that – so it’s not like I’m not sympathetic to that. And I’m glad people ARE fans of it. In the beginning, I knew I wanted to take this radical departure – I was really pushing to make it different but at the same time, it was really hard to reassure everybody “Hey look, I’m gonna change it. But trust me I’m not gonna change it so much that you’re going to hate it.” It was really hard in the beginning to tell people that.
So in the very beginning people would ask “How do you describe the show?” and I didn’t know how to describe it because I knew how different I was going to make it. How that you see the show, you say “Oh, it makes sense.” But in the beginning, if I told you the premise for the Blackfire episode, you would have said, “Oh, that sounds stupid. How can you take this epic story and turn it into a big joke?”
So how do I tell people, “Don’t worry. I’m taking it all and I’m gonna pare it all down into this one thing.”
Teen Titans - by way of Glen and George.
BW: Well, I also like the fact that the show surprises even long-time fans. In the Terra arc, she doesn’t start off corrupted, as we later learned in the comics. She’s actually confused, and it appears that Slade puts her on this dark path.
Glen: Well, it goes back to what we said in the beginning. You really have to care about these characters for it to have any kind of drama. So you have to see how funny Beast Boy is. You have to see him with faults, to really get a range of character. That’s the goal behind all the characters. You have to like them.
I think we try to keep the best of the comics. Still keep it fresh. Still keep it a surprise.
With Batman we had 40 years and many different interpretations of the Batman character to say, “Here’s the Batman we’re going to do.” I think with Titans, it’s harder because the Wolfman and Pérez stuff was so specific. So I think we’re having a tougher time maybe with the fans than with Batman. That was a challenge from the very beginning. People have such a strong opinion and impression of these characters because that series was so strong.
In the beginning, I explained to people that we’re taking a bit of the Nick Cardy Titans. That 60’s feel but sticking the Wolfman and Pérez characters into it. [laughs] I think that’s kind of an accurate description of it.
BW: Well, the Teen Titans have been a major success for Cartoon Network. It must be very gratifying. Do you feel Teen Titans has been a major turning point for you?
Glen: I guess so. It’s the first time I’ve really had to run a show on my own. I think working for Bruce [Timm] all that time on Batman,Superman and Justice League – I think I learned a lot.
I worked really hard to make something different. To do something you haven’t seen done with superheroes before.
BW: Well, I think we’ve covered everything. Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up, Glen?
Glen: I don’t know that I need to say anymore geeky, gushing things about George [laughs].
I just learned how different comics were from animation. So I think the most important thing I want people to understand is that I come from there too and I respect that stuff – but working in this different medium I’m sort of forced to take the stuff they like about George’s drawings… and have to kind of… leave them out. And that’s the thing I feel funny about. I feel I’m sort of “anti-what-the-Titans-are-about” – at least, visually. I see those aspects he put into the characters, and then I have to remove them all. Being in a publication about George Pérez, I feel a little awkward about that. [laughs]
And there’s no way we could have done the series without those characters.
Visit the Teen Titans Animated Series Guide for more information. Titans Go!
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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