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The Animated Minds Behind ‘Marvel Super Heroes: What The–?!’ Pt. 3: Ben Morse

Since its launch in 2009, the stop motion animated Marvel Super Heroes What The–?! shorts have amassed hundreds of thousands of views from a responsive audience, but there’s no competition when it comes to holding the title of biggest fan. Simply put, Ben Morse is the champ. In addition to his usual duties as Associate Editor of Marvel.com, Morse has been instrumental in cultivating the skills of Director Alex Kropinak, writer/voice actor Jesse Falcon and the rest of the What The–?! crew since its inception. Pressing through the earliest days of the project and rising to producer/writer/voice director of the animated enterprise, Morse acts as a stalwart keeper of the series’ canon, characterization and generally toils to keep each episode on track. CA spoke with Morse for a peek behind the What The–?! curtain and got taken on a veritable guided tour of the series’ past, present and possible future.

ComicsAlliance: Can you give me a timeline of how everything came together for you guys?

Ben Morse: I had known Alex [Kropinak] from when we both worked at Wizard. Alex came over to Marvel around 2008 because we needed another guy to work with video. He had kept in touch with me and kept in touch with Ryan Penagos [Editorial Director, Marvel.com], so when he got let go he immediately contacted us. We had already wanted him to come over prior to that so it was perfect. He initially came on as kind of our third video guy, but in the back of our minds there was always the idea was that he was going to do some stop motion stuff. That was a goal from the minute he was hired.

As far as Jesse [Falcon] goes, I’ve known him for a few years and I still discover new layers to him all the time. He’s got this crazy “man of mystery” past. He’s worked at ToyBiz and stuff like that, but he’s also a comedian, an actor — he has a bunch of credits on IMDB. Jesse’s office was right next to mine so whenever Alex came to see me or anyone else that I worked with, he’d stop by Jesse’s office. Jesse has a whole wall of every Marvel Legends figure ever made, so of course Alex’s eyes would get all huge whenever he walked by there. They kind of hit it off and then Alex was discussing doing stop motion stuff with our boss John Cerilli [VP Content and Programing, Marvel Digital Media Group] and Jesse had a lot of ideas and, even more than that, Jesse could do the voices which was kind of a key thing since we didn’t have enough money to hire outside voice actors. And it just so happened that he’s a hilarious and really talented voice actor.

So, I think it was around 2008 when Christian Bale had his meltdown, which is actually important to this storyline. We knew we were going to call the project What The–?!, I think it was John who suggested the name from the old What The–?! comic series and we were getting ready to do something with it and that thing happened on the set of Terminator where Christian Bale freaked out and we came up with the idea, collectively, that it would be cool to do a teaser for What The–?! of M.O.D.O.K. spoofing [Bale's] blowup. So it was like M.O.D.O.K. basically on the set of What The–?! and he flipped out. And that was the very first What The–?!.

CA: In addition to the regular shorts you’ve also done promos for conventions like New York Comic Con and the Winter Games series. How do you keep the series “canon” straight (if at all)?

BM: Believe it or not, and this is mostly me because I’m just weird to think like this, I do actually bring up frequently when we have meetings to discuss upcoming episodes the idea of a What The–?! continuity. I do actually say “This contradicts this, which happened in this episode of what ever,” which is really dumb because I think we’ve killed M.O.D.O.K. off like multiple times, so there is really no what the continuity, but it doesn’t stop me from bringing it up all the time…I think that ‘s just the comics fan in me.

CA: What’s a typical meeting like from start to finish in getting an episode produced?

BM: When we started do What The–?! I was just one of the writers and Alex did (and still does) the hard work. He’s the guy who animates it and who does hours and hours of work and he’s a frickin’ genius. What The–?! is basically Alex and the rest of us, — with the exception of Jesse [Falcon] because he does all the vocals stuff — are basically support staff.

The original process had 10 or so people on an e-mail chain and Alex would say “Hey it’s time to do another What The–?!, Anyone have any ideas?.” Once we had an idea we’d almost write it by committee over e-mail and that’s probably how it was for the first year or so.

CA: Isn’t that how they used to write Twisted ToyFare Theatre too?

BM: Pretty much. It’s interesting because we’ve shared a lot of writers with TTFT. There’s John Gutierrez, Sean Collins — and I think Alex as well — h
ave all written for TTFT at some point or another. The most I ever did was contribute a joke or two when I was [at Wizard]. We did a bunch of episodes that way, but definitely midway through the past year the feeling was that we needed to regulate the process a bit more. Alex is the main creative force behind it and he was getting bogged down with sending e-mails and tracking stuff.

He used to live near me in New Jersey and we used to take the train to work together in the morning and so we would usually spend our train rides talking about What The–?! and just coming up with ideas and saying “This is funny” or “This isn’t funny” and sometimes he’d bring the story boards along and all that, so I was getting more involved in the process at that point.

So I talked to Alex about his workflow and then talked to John earlier this year and said “What if I step up and become the producer of this show? And my deal is I’ll basically be running things, moving the process forward, holding meetings, whatever and then Alex can really focus on the creative stuff and his work?” Jon was cool with that, so then we had a much more refined process.

When Alex was still living in the area me, Alex and Jesse would meet every week, now we’ll do a conference call once a week and Alex will come to NY when he can and we’ll try to get like several months ahead just coming up with ideas. We try to tie each episode to something that’s going on in broader pop culture, whether it’s a comic or a movie or whatever. For instance, we know we’re going to do a Captain America movie episode when that comes out. We just did a Harry Potter episode and a Christmas episode. I pitched the Super Bowl episode and had an idea involving Iron Man and Captain America, so I laid it out and we all discussed the details and then from there we assigned all the scripts.

Jesse and I will have a weekly production meeting of the current episode we’re working on and kick around ideas. So usually, either the three of us write the script, or just one of us, or if we know there’s someone from the larger group who’d be perfect for the episode then we’ll assign it to them. Like for the Harry Potter parody, I don’t know anything about HP and I know Jon Gutierrez is a big fan, so I asked him to write it. Then we reviewed the script, sent it to the larger group for review and once we’ve got the final script we record the voices. That’s another thing that’s really changed over the past few months. When Alex was here [working in the NYC office] he would bring people in individually and record their parts. Now that Jesse and I have a little bit more time than Alex did, we’ll actually bring everyone into one room at one time and do a recording session with everyone. Then I send those audio files to Alex and he does his thing and sends it back here. Then the project’s edited and it eventually comes together.

CA: Tell me more about the editorial process. Is it hard to decide what you can and can’t make fun of or whether any material has to be cut?

BM: Well, we did a Siege promo when that event was about to happen, and our idea was to have Norman Osborn talking about how he’s got this grand master plan and the Cabal would be giving him a hard time about all those things that had gone wrong over the course of “Dark Reign,” just kind of laying into him. And again, I think this started out as Alex and I on the train being like “Man, Norman Osborn keeps getting his ass kicked, you know he’s supposed to be the head bad guy in the Marvel Universe and I’ve seen like three or four different comics in the last few months where he loses, which of course is kind of the nature of comics, you can’t have the villain win every time. So, yeah, there’s some comedy there. What prompted it was the Dark Reign/Young Avengers series where he got punched in the face by Patriot. I was like “We need to use that somehow.” So, we came up with this idea and were having a good time with it, but at the same time we’re also kind of poking fun at Marvel’s biggest story. So, we went to Tom Brevoort and Brian Bendis, the guys whose work we were kind of lampooning a bit, and we were kind of nervous because we really weren’t sure what they were going to say. And they actually ended up giving us more suggestions and examples to use. The folks in editorial enjoy What The–?! and are always willing to poke fun at themselves, which makes our jobs a lot easier.

As far as the more technical aspects, we definitely have certain time limitations we try to hit. It’s not a set fast rule, but in our minds if you put something like What The–?! on the Internet and you can’t tell the jokes you want to tell and the story you want to tell in under a few minutes, then we think it just doesn’t work. We think we can tell a funny story in five minutes or less. So if something is running long we find ways to cut it and a lot of the time that means killing a lot of jokes that we think are really funny. But, the episode can still be great without [those jokes] and the flow will be better. That responsibility kind of falls on me, Jesse and Alex to self-edit as we’re going. Ultimately the person who makes a lot of the calls is John Cerilli. Me, Jesse and Alex get really close to the work and it’s nice to have Jon to come in from slightly outside with a fresh set of eyes and he can say you know, “this is good” or “this sucks.”

CA: So, I think one of the questions that a lot of people have is ‘Where do the toys come from that you use?’

BM: Well, the bulk of them are from Jesse’s office. Jesse has an absurd amount of toys as you would expect given his position. Once in awhile we’ll run across a figure Jesse doesn’t have that we know exists and a lot of times Alex will go track that down on eBay or go to like a flea market. Alex actually has a weird way of finding stuff and I think it’s probably better that I don’t know where he gets [toys] from, but he seems to be able to turn up just about everything we need. Once in awhile we’ll need to get a custom figure because something just doesn’t exist. And a lot of the time Alex will do the customs himself. When we were at the old Marv
el building and Alex was still there we had just gotten the license for TNA Wrestling figures. And actually it’s funny because some of the TNA wrestlers did voices for an episode of What The–?! More often than not when you see a figure in an episode that doesn’t actually exist it’s an old wrestling figure that Alex has basically carved up and made into a Marvel character. A good friend of ours who’s a wrestler, Christopher Daniels – who has been in a few times and is a big Marvel fan — told us that whenever we need to desecrate a wrestling figure we could use his. So with the NYCC promo we needed a guy fishing and we couldn’t use a superhero figure because that would just look ridiculous — and of course if there’s one thing we don’t want to do that’s look ridiculous — So, Alex drew a beard on a Christopher Daniels’ figure and put a cowboy hat on him and he became The Fisherman. I think Christopher Daniels has probably made more appearances on What The–?! than Spider-Man at this point. But, in the very rare case that we just can’t find a figure and don’t know where to start as far as customizing it, we’ll commission people to do it. For example in a Halloween episode we needed Xarus, Dracula’s son, and obviously there aren’t any Xarus figures since he’s only been existence for a few months. So Jesse contacted a buddy of his who customizes toys, I got a bunch of character studies from the X-Men office, we sent them to the guy and he just made the most gorgeous Xarus action figure. I showed it to the X-Men office and they were like “Oh, my God!” and got really excited. I think in the future we’d like to use more of these guys who are hardcore toy customizers just because they do a great job.

CA: How would you characterize fan response to the What The–?! shorts so far?

BM: Well, pretty much any comics related thing you put out on the Internet is going to take awhile for people to warm up to. We had a pretty positive response out of the gate. There were a lot of people who said you know, we were ripping off this guy or this show, which is understandable. There’s a lot of stuff out there and only so many ways to do it. I remember the first couple episodes, particularly on YouTube, there was a lot of coming down on us for being a rip off of other things and I remember having to physically restrain Alex from reading YouTube comments. But, I would say yes, on the whole the response has been mostly positive. We’re not perfect, of course, and the fans will let us know if we’ve put out a bad episode. We, of course, never think it’s a bad episode going out the door and we’ll fight to the death that all our episodes are awesome, but you know once in awhile we produce one that’s not as good as everything else and the fans will tell us. Honestly, what’s really cool for me is when we go to conventions and show episodes of What The–?! either on the screen at the Marvel booth or before panels and that’s almost always where they get their best response because a lot of these people haven’t seen them before. That’s obviously very gratifying to see people enjoying them in person. We’ve actually gotten some really good responses from creators too, which is really cool since we’re writing about their stuff. I know Bendis hates What The–?! because we keep using this kooky video of him and he’s told us never to use the video again and we keep using it (laughing). So he probably has more anger toward What The–?! than anybody else, but he’s still a good sport about it.

CA: You touched on some of the other stop motion stuff that’s out there. Do you have any correspondence with, or do you hear from the original Robot Chicken guys?

BM: I’ve interacted with them, but it was before What The–?! existed. We actually just missed each other at Wizard. I came into Wizard actually just weeks after the guys [Doug Goldstein, Tom Root and Matthew Senreich] left to go out to L.A. to do Robot Chicken. But I’ve spoken to Matt Senreich a couple of times and he’s a really nice guy. He’s really smart and obviously they were the ones who really pioneered this whole concept of using superheroes and sci-fi stuff with stop motion and it’s no secret that Twisted ToyFare Theatre is a huge influence on What The–?! and we’re friends with the guys who did it over at ToyFare. As far as getting their take on What The–?! I never actually have. It’d be cool if they were aware of it. I hope they are. I’d definitely be curious to hear what they have to say about it. I know the guys from ToyFare liked it because they’ve told me. We’re almost hyper-conscious of not repeating jokes that were in TTFT. There are so many times when we come up with a joke just out of nowhere and we’re like “Oh man that’s really funny, we’re really brilliant!” and then it’ll take us like five minutes and we’ll realize that we stole it from a TTFT from years ago.

One of the things about What The–?! is we have a huge pool of characters to draw from and we’re always trying to work in characters we haven’t used before. For instance we just used Dr. Strange for the first time, which was something we were really looking forward to. He’s a great character. The Spider-Mans and Iron Mans of the world aside, we have what’s kind of our regular cast. M.O.D.O.K. is kind of the star of the show and will continue to be. We use Deadpool a lot. We like to try to use lesser-known characters. And put our own spin on them. Jesse Falcon has actually found a very cool character who, I don’t believe has appeared in Marvel Comics in about 30 years…

CA: It’s not Sleepwalker then?

BM: It’s not Sleepwalker. I would LOVE to use Sleepwalker, believe me. I still haven’t used Nova, who is my favorite character, which I’ll definitely have to rectify at some point. But this character Jesse has found, you can show this character to just about anyone our age or older; someone who knows comics from the seventies and the eighties and they’re going to instantly know who this character is. We’re looking for a way to bring this character into the regular cast. We think they’re going to be a great foil for M.O.D.O.K. I can’t really say much more, other than that we’re definitely looking to expand the What The–?! Cast. We have a couple other characters in mind. But we’re really making an effort to look for fun, obscure characters that haven’t been seen in quite sometime. Certainly your Sleepwalker request ha
s been heard and the wheels are turning in my head. But you know, if anyone reading this interview should definitely make suggestions.

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