Last January, DC Comics announced an all-new imprint centered around Hanna-Barbera’s long-dormant stable of iconic cartoon characters. There would be a zombie nightmare take on Scooby Doo in Scooby Apocalypse and a Mad Max–inspired incarnation of the Wacky Races called Wacky Raceland, all debuting this May. One of the standouts of these ambitious revamps is Future Quest, a globe-spanning retro epic featuring nearly all of Hanna-Barbera’s more serious-minded action heroes, from boy adventurer Jonny Quest and galactic lawman Space Ghost to even-more-obscure characters like giant robot Frankenstein Jr. and Beatles-inspired superhero boy band the Impossibles. And unlike the post-modern take on Space Ghost in the turn-of-the-millennium talk show Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, these stories will be earnest adventures in the pulp sci-fi tradition.
Vulture spoke with writer Jeff Parker (Agents of Atlas, Batman ‘66) and artist Evan “Doc” Shaner (Flash Gordon, Darkseid War: Green Lantern) about what we can expect from this unprecedented team-up book in advance of their appearance at this weekend’s Emerald City Comic Con.
How would you describe Future Quest to someone who is aware of the characters involved — Jonny Quest, Space Ghost, the Herculoids, Birdman, etc. — but just now hearing that they’re all going to be in a comic together?
Jeff Parker: I think a lot of people think back to watching Saturday-morning TV as a kid, and a lot of the stuff kind of melds together. Like, “Gosh, you know, I used to watch all these great cartoons like Jonny Quest and Space Ghost and The Impossibles and Mightor.” In a sense, we’re picking up with that. Since they already land in your head as one thing, we’re going to make it all one great big story that could potentially spin out into individual stories. But if you liked the kind of action-adventure tone of Jonny Quest, that’s sort of the one I picked to hold it all together.
What can you tell us about the opening arc of Future Quest?
Parker: You find out that that [Jonny’s father] Doctor Quest and his team have been racing around the globe tracking down this phenomenon that keeps happening: something keeps breaching into our world. And some of his old enemies and Birdman’s enemies at F.E.A.R. are also involved in it. Doctor Quest doesn’t know whether they’re causing it or not but he does realize that it has something to do with a huge power that they want to control. We also jump back in time and go into the beginning of how Space Ghost was created, and how that’s all tied together with this.
So are Jonny and Space Ghost our viewpoint characters? What's their perspective within Future Quest?
Parker: We’re a bit removed from Space Ghost’s point of view at the beginning and handle him more as a legend, almost a mythical figure who becomes more real as the story unfolds. Jonny and [his friend] Hadji — I think of them almost as one character because they’re always together — are still pre-teens who are extremely worldly from constant globe-crossing adventures, but perceive and react like ordinary kids. And this is the biggest adventure/threat they’ve ever known, where the grown-ups are unsure of what to do, so they have to step up.
You mentioned that Jonny Quest and Birdman’s villains are at the forefront here, are we going to see classic Space Ghost bad guys like Zorak or Moltar?
Parker: Not really. They appear very briefly. The major villain is one you haven’t seen before, a great big enormous villain.
As far as the genesis of Future Quest, was this a situation where you knew DC was looking to get a Hanna-Barbera imprint off the ground and you pitched this book or did they approach you?
Parker: As far as I understand it, [DC Comics co-publisher] Dan [DiDio] had been wanting to do something big with making the Hanna-Barbera cartoon properties come back. I believe he initially approached [writer/artist] Darwyn Cooke, asking [him] how he’d do what I refer to as “all the cool ones” and Darwyn was nice enough to say, “I’d get Jeff and Doc to work on it with me.” So, initially I was planning on working on this with him but due to the nature of the thing — you have to get a lot of approvals — Darwyn just couldn’t stick around, he had a whole bunch of things to work on. Then it was down to me and Shaner to just start spitballing stuff. I didn’t want to make him do anything he didn’t want to do, but so far, he and I have always had kind of a mind-meld sort of approach where we get freakishly close to what the other one wants.
These characters have all been around since the 1960s. Were you guys fans of the Hanna-Barbera action characters growing up, or is this something you rediscovered later on?
Evan “Doc” Shaner: I was a fan of Jonny Quest and Space Ghost, for sure. I came to Space Ghost through Space Ghost: Coast to Coast first, because that was around at the time, but then, later, I caught the original cartoon.
It’s sort of funny that Space Ghost has all this cultural cache because of his weird portrayal in Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, and the same goes for Birdman in Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. Now, seeing straight superhero takes on them is almost a novelty.
Parker: Yeah, what they started as! [Laughs.] Now we’re in this weird situation where everyone’s going to see Jonny Quest and they’re just going to relate it to The Venture Brothers, which has now been on the air a lot longer than Jonny Quest ever was and has jumped all over that aesthetic.
How did you both approach reimagining the Hanna-Barbera characters in a modern context? Especially a character like Hadji who, as originally conceived, was a pretty broad stereotype.
Parker: Well there’s weird inconsistencies with Hadji. Like, he kind of has a Muslim name, he dresses like a Sikh, and yet doesn’t act like either of those things. People were writing me early on, saying, “Don’t have him say [his catchphrase] ‘Sim sim salabim,’” and I was like, “I get it, I’m not going to do it.” But most of the time [on the show], he was treated like a regular kid. Which I loved and which was really cool for the time. There’s stuff I’d like to get into with Hadji [for Future Quest] but there’s no room because our big super-story that connects the galaxy together kind of takes precedence. I have backstory in my head and if we have a chance to put it in somewhere, I’m ready to go with it.
In a broader sense, is Future Quest set in our present or is it sort of a nebulous idea of the ’60s?
Shaner: My thinking, since we’re doing the stories through the scope of Jonny Quest, has been something like the 2006 Casino Royale. It’s clearly present-day but has a very ’60s feel, aesthetically.
Parker: It’s set in modern day. You occasionally see people use cell phones in it, but we don’t go out of the way to have a character say, “Oh you’ve got to check out my iTunes playlist.” That’s where I feel like, when people try to modernize something, they go off track. But no, it should still feel very classic and that’s what we did on Flash Gordon. Flash Gordon was completely contemporary, but when it gets the Shaner touch, he’s just going to give it the most classic look possible. I mean, the characters in Future Quest never talk about what’s going on with the space program or anything like that. The major political situation is that F.E.A.R. really gives everyone a hard time.
Doc, as far as character designs for the book, are you staying pretty close to the original looks of each character — obviously you’re walking in the footsteps of greats like Space Ghost and Herculoids creator Alex Toth and Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey — or are you going in a much different direction?
Shaner: I’m keeping it pretty close to the classic designs, as much as possible. Jonny looks exactly the same, Space Ghost looks exactly the same. The only time I’m changing things is like with Birdman, who might be one of the more drastic changes.
Parker: Everyone will still recognize him as Birdman. Probably the biggest change is Buzz Conroy and Frankenstein Jr. The Impossibles, too, now that I think about it.
And that’s in terms of just the look or is that the underlying concept as well?
Parker: Going back to what we talked about with Hadji, we’re getting more diversity back in. Kids want to have someone to imprint on. I don’t think anyone feels super solid about what Buzz’s ethnicity is in Frankenstein Jr. There’s some you can get away with tweaking and there’s some you can’t. We’re also messing with their backstories a little bit because there’s a whole bunch of dead moms in these Hanna-Barbera cartoons, so we’re trying to get away from that.
With Buzz, the Impossibles, and Birdman, how have you updated those characters?
Parker: Buzz is Asian-American and this time his mom is the pioneering robotics engineer. Losing his father impacted him heavily, and he drew up an idea he had for a friend: Frankenstein Jr. His mother built this protector for him to help fill that void in his life. It’s like, we’re pretty sure that women can also build giant destroyer robots and be good role models. We’re also leaning in on Tara — the Herculoids “mom” — letting her take point for their crew because otherwise you’ve just got a bunch of Space Ghosts and Birdmans all over the place who all sound like [original voice actor] Gary Owens.
The Impossibles, we go more into how they’re connected to the mysterious [character] Big D, [whom] they answer to, and their cover as a band, even though they’re being groomed as special agents with abilities. The world sees them as a novelty band that uses special effects, and that distracts from their powers. Big D is actually more concerned about keeping them out of mischief, but does hope they’ll prove to be world-class operatives one day. The main thing is, we keep the tone the same. We don’t really have anyone acting out of character. We took some liberties with Birdman because he generally just hung out in a volcano and talked to a big TV on the show. We’re playing a little close to the vest about his origins right now. What’s more interesting is to show that he’s kind of a relatable guy instead of the stoic figure you might expect.
Doc, can you tell me about some sequences in the book that you think readers will be excited to see? The roughs of the Space Ghost flashback look really cool, very Green Lantern-y.
Shaner: Drawing the Space Ghost flashback was really exciting, particularly because if you're going straight from the cartoon, we don't really know anything about the guy before he was Space Ghost. There's a chase scene with Jonny and Hadji in the first issue that I won't say anymore about but it's really fun. We also get into how Mightor came to be and that sequence is very exciting for me as an artist and fan of both Mightor and caveman comics like Joe Kubert's Tor.
You both have been working as a team for a little while on books like Flash Gordon and last year’s DC’s Convergence: Shazam mini series. As collaborators, why do you find it so easy to work together?
Shaner: For me, it’s just so —I don’t want to say “easy,” but simple. We’re very similar in the kind of stuff that we like, so when Jeff references something in the script or we’re talking over concepts and he brings something up, I know exactly what Jeff’s talking about because we’re into a lot of the same things. I think we have similar sensibilities.
Parker: Yeah, we hate all the same stuff. [Shaner laughs.] And we like a lot of the same stuff. One of the things that kind of mystifies other people is that after a while I get real secondhand-y with my scripts. All I’ve got to do is put a keyword in and Doc will get what I mean. And he does, somehow. But then other people will read it and go, “I can’t figure out what’s happening here.” So then I have to back off and start writing it so the editor and everyone else can understand what’s going on. And then remember to give [Future Quest colorist] Jordie Bellaire some notes or she’ll get mad. [Laughs.] You can’t always do it but I’ve been really lucky to work with some great collaborators. [Doc] knows he can pretty much just change whatever he wants and I’ll make it work.