Long before Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau were creating all-ages animation concepts like Ben 10 and Generator Rex, the pair were were working for Marvel Comics during the grim and gritty comic book era of the 1990s.
But as they worked on the comic book Alpha Flight together, they were yearning to create something fun — a story and characters that were lighter and more upbeat than what they'd been writing about. So they took a one-month break from featuring the Alpha Flight characters, who were loosely known as the "Canadian X-Men," and instead introduced a brand new group of heroes from Japan.
And the characters of Big Hero 6 were born.
Seagle and Rouleau's creations are getting their own animated Disney feature film this Friday, when Big Hero 6 opens in theaters and becomes the first-ever animated Disney/Marvel film. Even though the characters were introduced in a story that only lasted one issue, and Seagle and Rouleau never got to work on the characters again, the team had enough staying power to spawn more comics bearing their name — and enough heart to attract Walt Disney Animation Studios to the idea of animating them.
The pair are now known for creating fun, animation-friendly concepts. A few years after creating Hiro, Baymax and most of the other Big Hero 6 characters, Seagle and Rouleau joined comic creators Joe Casey and Joe Kelly to form Man of Action Entertainment. They not only created the aforementioned Ben 10 and Generator Rex, but they were the original writers and co-executive producers for Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man and Marvel's Avengers Assemble. Under their own Man of Action imprint at Image Comics, the four also still create stories for comics and graphic novels.
On the day of the Big Hero 6 premiere, Newsarama talked to Rouleau and Seagle about their creations' adaptation into an animated feature film.
Newsarama: Steven and Duncan, when you first created this character, what was the idea behind them, and how did these characters come out of the Alpha Flight comic?
Steven Seagle: Alpha Flight was, when we were growing up, everybody just referred to it as the "Canadian X-Men." And we were doing a pretty heavy government conspiracy kind of comic.
And we just wanted to have fun. We were just sitting in Duncan's office talking about, you know, we wish we could do something lighter and have fun for a month.
And so we just started kicking around this idea of making up the Japanese version of Alpha Flight. So instead of the Canadian X-Men, you'd have the Japanese Alpha Flight.
We wanted them to be light-hearted and kind of based on the pop culture tropes of the time, that were coming out of Japan. We honestly couldn't figure out why nobody had really tapped into that in the U.S.
Nrama: And when somebody finally did tap into that, it was inside a Canadian comic. It's an unusual but interesting history for these characters.
Duncan Rouleau: Yeah. But the way that Alpha Flight was introduced in the X-Men was, like, who are these guys? Where did they come from? They're Canadian superheroes? And it just seemed funny that inside of an Alpha Flight book, we would introduce a new team, the same way that Alpha Flight had been introduced, without anything specifically with it being Canadian, other than the way they had been introduced.
Seagle: And we had a character in the book at the time called Sunfire, and she was a Japanese superhero, so it also made sense to try to tie it in to that storyline.
Nrama: Have you guys seen the movie?
Rouleau: I saw it at the New York Comic Con. They had a special screening.
Seagle: And they let the rest of us see it at the Disney lot in Burbank.
They've also been very good at bringing us in and showing us what they're doing.
And they're letting us walk the red carpet on Tuesday, and I think that's really cool. I think, in an age where some of the comic creators of these huge movies have been neglected or forgotten or passed over, they've been very understanding with us.
Nrama: Now that you've seen the movie, how much does it pull from the comics, or have they just taken the basic seeds of the characters and done something different?
Seagle: It's a re-creation of things, but what remains the same is the characters and their characteristics: Hiro, Baymax, Honey Lemon and GoGo. There are also a couple characters we didn't create, Fred and Wasabi, who were made by Chris Claremont and David Nakayama in their later mini-series.
The core of those characters remains pretty much intact to what Duncan and I had made up, in the case of the ones we came up with.
The cool innovation they made on Baymax is, our Baymax was, much like it is in the movie, a caretaker and surrogate family member for Hiro, but a lot's happened since the '90s when we made up those characters, and they specifically took Baymax and based him on some robotics experiments that were done — I think at Carnegie Mellon — that uses balloons to make robots.
And then they did the magic that Disney and Pixar have become known for, in terms of how to create a throughline in Hiro's journey.
Nrama: As you look at all the Marvel characters, many of which you guys have worked on or even created, why do you think this interested Disney as a concept they could animate for kids?
Rouleau: I think all we can do is speculate. But I think the aspect of the lost family member, and then the robot as surrogate replacement — we initially had it be the father, and Hiro had built a robot to basically take the place of him, but Disney changed it to the brother. But at its core, it was about family and how they influence you even if they're not around any longer. I'm sure that was a big part of [why Disney chose the concept for animation].
And also, the accessibility. As Steven mentioned earlier, [when we created Big Hero 6], we really wanted to just have a little bit of fun.
Comic books in the '90s — and really, anything post-'80s — they started getting heavier. So the idea of doing something light and friendly was almost counter-publishing, in a way.
And I think [Disney] responded to that, too.
Nrama: I hate to read too much into the fact that you had this desire to do something fun and accessible like this, but you've more recently done a lot of that kind of work in Man of Action Entertainment. Do you think your creation of Big Hero 6 was a little kernel that grew into some of the stuff you do now? I know you've done some independent comics that skew older, but a lot of your work is accessible to all ages. Did Big Hero 6 start that, or maybe highlight what was already inside of you guys, waiting to get out?
Seagle: Yes. In a weird way, Big Hero 6 pre-dates Ben 10, which we created, and Generator Rex, which we created, and before the Marvel shows like Ultimate Spider-Man came into the world.
But we always liked that stuff. Whenever you talked to any of us, we'd say that one of our biggest influences was Johnny Quest, which was, in a similar way, a very kid-friendly show but also crossed the line where it had interesting things for adults.
And I think Big Hero 6 is from that same DNA. It's not surprising that we made it up. It's just surprising that it perseveres. It's super exciting to think that characters you created are one of a handful of Disney animated feature films that have ever been made.
Nrama: I'm wondering too, did you think at the time at all about these characters being great for animation? I suppose you think about that with all the characters you create, though.
Rouleau: Yeah, my standard answer to that always is, whenever you're making something, you believe in it. Why put any work into it if you don't think it's the greatest thing that you've ever thought of?
So yeah, we loved them. But you don't always know that that's going to translate later, especially with something like this that really had kind of a confused publishing history, at best.
Seagle: Yeah, what's great about this movie is, when Duncan and I made them up, Marvel immediately said to us, "we want a series of these characters." And we were both too busy to do it. So we wrote down all of our thoughts and our notes, and what our intentions were. And we handed it off.
And a lot of the people who worked on the characters — Scott Lobdell and Gus Vasquez, and Chris Claremont and David Nakayama, as we said — they did cool stuff, but it was never what we wanted to do, whether the tone we set out or whether what we described [as our plans].
But this movie, actually, in a weird way is closer, actually, to the intention we had. It is that breath of fresh air. They're great, fun, likable characters. They have a good time together and they go on a big adventure, and they save the world.
It's nice that although we didn't get a chance to play around with it that way, Disney did.
Nrama: You didn't get a chance to play with them then. But would you like to play with them again? I know you guys work with Disney on other things.
Seagle: We never rule anything out. We take jobs based on whether they're going to be a blast to do.
I would never say never, but we also, at Man of Action, we make up new stuff daily. We're doing it today. We made up two new things this morning. We're always looking for what's next.
Nrama: Then to finish up, what's your review of the movie? What did you think of it?
Rouleau: I thought it was a lot of fun. I think that they've established a really deep relationship between Baymax and Hiro, and that's at the very core of it, and it works. It works fantastically, that relationship.
And then the animation itself is cutting edge. It's everything that you would hope for from a Disney movie. The city itself is its own character, which I think is interesting in itself because what really makes the Marvel stuff sing so well is that New York is such an integral part and character. This San Fransokyo that they made up is a real, genuine character and it's visually stunning.
Seagle: Yeah, the city is visually not like anything you've ever seen in another animated movie, and I hope they do a lot more with it, just because it's such a vast resource that they've created.
And I think Don [Hall] and Chris [Williams], the directors, really created a relationship between Hiro and Baymax that you can't get enough of while you're watching it. You want more.
I would definitely want to see what happens next with those characters.
And it also leaves a lot of room to develop the rest of the team, who are in it and fun, but you're given more background about the Hiro and Baymax relationship.
And we get to go to the premiere on Tuesday, so we're excited to see it again.