LeSean Thomas Talks ‘Cannon Busters,’ Working With Joe Mad, And The Importance of Seeing Black Characters in Fantasy
LeSean Thomas is back with the pilot to his planned animated series, Cannon Busters. The show, which premiered for Kickstarter backers this past Friday, follows a robot named S.A.M.; an outdated maintenance service droid by the name of Casey, and a man on the run, aka Philly The Kid. Together, they travel to help S.A.M. reunite with her best friend, who also happens to be a prince.
Thomas is best known for his work on The Boondocks, Black Dynamite, Ben 10: Alien Force, Batman: The Brave and the Bold and The Legend of Korra. But Cannon Busters is special, since it serves as the first time Thomas worked on an animated series that he concocted from his imagination.
Of course, projects rarely come to fruition without help. For Thomas, he has an all-star team that includes the highly celebrated artist Joe Madureira, Thomas Roman of Code Lyoko, Tim Yoon of Batman: Under The Red Hood, Bahi JD of Space Dandy and Ghost in the Shell: Arise, and Eric Calderon of Afro Samurai. Japanese animation studio, Satelight Inc., is also at the helm for the production duties.
Thomas spoke with ComicsAlliance on what viewers can expect from Cannon Busters, working with Joe Mad, and why he chose a black woman as the lead character.
ComicsAlliance: What's the world of Cannon Busters like?
LeSean Thomas: It's basically an action adventure “dramedy” that highlights how a dangerous journey is best measured by friends and not miles. It’s a roadshow, so pretty much it's a fun display of wackiness, comedy and suspense that's showcasing a nod to classic animated shows that I grew up watching in the '90s, and video games, with a fresh new cast and adventures.
The story is basically a motley crew of travelers. The focal point of the story is a character named S.A.M., it's an acronym for Special Associate Model. She's a robot. She's a royal class friendship robot and she is programed to be the best friend of the prince of this kingdom, that is now currently under siege with the kingdom captured and the prince is on the run. And she's separated from the kingdom because of this attack by a very powerful sorcerer during a time period where magic is extinct.
So no one knows what to do about this sorcerer and the story is focused on her being separated for the first time, on the outskirts of the kingdom for the first time. She's never left the kingdom... she's never left the castle. Her whole program focus is to locate the prince, the heir to the throne, and she doesn't know how. So she meets two other individuals who help her on her journey to locate this individual. They both have their own reasons why they want to help her.
You have another character named Casey Turnbuckle, who's a pretty much lovable outdated repair robot. She and S.A.M. basically become BFFs like they're inseparable and they're on this journey together. They also meet a gentleman named Philly the Kid, who is a wanted outlaw, who is immortal, [who] they run into and get into a whole bunch of trouble with, and he just wants to drop them off at the nearest town because they're so annoying.
They eventually go on the journey together. Individually, they're a mess, but together they're a pretty good team. That's pretty much the concept overall --- the general premise. The story itself, as the adventure goes on, you learn about the characters. It's a really fun nod to the type of shows I that I grew up with as a kid and also reintroducing it a younger generation of anime lovers who don't really get to see these kind of shows.
CA: And there's the character Big Bull too, right?
LT: Big Bull...his name actually changed. His name is now Black Claw and he's the leader of a bounty hunter crew after the bounty of Philly the Kid. His role hasn’t changed --- you'll see in the pilot. So the basic pilot itself is basically a vignette of the series. The pilot actually functions as one adventure, if you will, of the overall arcing storyline. Although he's a character that shows up in the pilot, he's not along for the adventure.
CA: So now that it's done, how does it feel to have it come to fruition?
LT: Im ready to move on the next thing (laughs) Such is the case when you create something, you know. You go through a range of emotions: the excitement and anticipation of what it could be, and then the arduous task of actually visualizing what you've imagined, dealing with the emotions of not meeting up to what you've hoped vs not much there and what you can do versus what you can't and then being able to deliver it, and the anxiety and pressure that comes with that and then the overall joy you get when you show it to key people and they're just like, "Oh my God, this is awesome." It's been a range of experiences that I can't really encapsulate into one word, but I will say it's been fun so far. It's been cool.
CA: Did you find benefits from being independent?
LT: You control a lot actually. It's a gift and a curse. I always try to have a conservative point of view on these things. I try not step too outside of myself in terms of how how I look at the project and how I manage the project. I try to be conservative and be open minded to the people who have more experience in certain areas than I do. So, it can really easily fall into the case where you have too much control and you think you have too much time and you keep delaying and delaying and delaying and you never release anything or people just run out of money on you.
You have to find the balance and self control where you have to walk that line between getting what you want but also knowing when to fall back and say, "Okay, I have to save this for another time," or, "Next time I'm going to be able to do what I really want to do." And that's kind of how you learn how to discipline yourself and learn how to finish things because that's one of the biggest challenges is learning how to finish something and be happy with it.
I can say that for a lot of creators, they're never happy with their stuff because a lot of times there're disciplined enough to let certain things go. You know what I mean? So when it comes out, they're like, "Ahhhh, it's not the best." That's the biggest challenge of having control, is knowing when to be able to say, "Ok, you know what, I'm not gonna go over budget or 5-6 moths late because I want that thing to be perfect." Sometimes you got to save it for the next one. I'm sure comic book artists out there can relate. Sometimes you gotta finish that issue, do it better next time. You can be late.
CA: What is it like working Joe Mad?
LT: It was dope. Joe Mad is someone that I grew up idolizing as a teen. He was the guy who was basically doing what I wanted to do --- injecting manga and anime influence into comics.
I will go on record to say personally, he was the guy who pretty much introduced anime and manga to mainstream comic book style. No one was doing it. And then he took the world by storm by bring back the fantasy genre of comic books with Battle Chasers. Like Joe is a big deal, and he plays a big role in my formative years.
One, for him to recognize me, two, for him to be an admirer of my work, to eventually become colleagues and buddies, and then to top it all off to collaborate together, is a dream come true. It's one of my bucket list things to check off, like I got the guy who did Battle Chasers to design all my first creator-owned animated comic book project that I've animated. It's a lot to process.
That dude is... to me he's the man. I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that guy is a game changer. To have his blessing and for him to be enthusiastic and for me to give him an opportunity to work in animation, cause he's never really worked in animation before, so for his first chance to do designs for an animated project, it's awesome. It's been a lot of fun. He's been involved in every part of the process. He's seen everything at every stage and just to see him get more enthusiastic as the project get closer to completion is just enjoyed, it's worth it. I'm really excited to have him on board. He's one of my idols. I'm a fan as well as a colleague. So, it's awesome.
CA: Is he as nervous as you are about releasing it?
LT: I don't think so. I think because he's seen so much of it, it's just like, "When are we getting a show? When are we moving to series?" That's his response, we gotta go to series. This can go on for another 12-24 episodes... half hour episodes. He's really excited about it.
CA: What are you most excited for people to see once it's released?
LT: I don't wanna spoil it. I think it's a little too soon. My favorite character is S.A.M., the main character, and then Casey, her best friend, and then Philly. I think some people are gonna like Philly a lot, but I am just a big fan of girl characters, and I just like that there's a character like S.A.M. that exists even if it's for ten minutes. It's cool to see a character like that. I won't say my favorite scene because then I'll be spoiling it.
CA: I noticed that as well, You have a woman as the lead. Was that intentional or was it just something that happened?
LT: Oh, without question. Without question. I mean, of course, I mean, come one. Here's the funny thing --- all my favorite animated shows are led by female characters: Gunbuster, Ghost in the Shell, Bubblegum Crisis; and most of these shows that I'm listing are obviously Japanese animated and produced TV shows and movies. And Japanese animated shows and movies have so much reverence for female characters at least compared to the United States. Those are the shows that I was most influenced by.
So, watching those shows, obviously, it's just a staple for me, it's a standard, and me being American, having to watch all of these Japanese animated shows and then come back to the States and see what's on TV, who are so risk averse towards having lead female characters broadly in our shows.
So I'm going to go back to Japanese animated shows and watch those, because there's so much dope stuff being done over there. So much variety over there. So growing up on that stuff, I knew that when I was going to do my own animated show, I wanted to be just like the stuff that I grew up on. There's been some animated shows that I've watched that feature robot characters that are female as well, so I'm definitely taking nods from those --- Battle Angel Alita, Saber Marionette. I'm just a big fan of that kind of stuff.
So to be able to do something like that from an American lens... and the funny thing is the fact that you even asked me that proves how much we're inundated with male-only characters. That's how bad it is that you even had to ask me that. No one asks that question in Japan. (laughs) I don't need nieces and nephews and sisters to start doing it, but that adds to it as well.
CA: S.A.M. is also black...
LT: Yeah, she's a brown girl. Listen, you're talking to the guy who was the character designer and co-director of The Boondocks, whose also worked on The Legend of Korra, creative producer and director of Black Dynamite. The stuff that I'm gonna make is gonna reflect what I'm used to, and Cannon Busters is no different. It's normal to me, I think for people who aren't used to seeing it, they're gonna be like, "Oh, wow," but when you work on The Boondocks, The Legend of Korra and Black Dynamite back to back like that, it's just a normal thing. All of those shows star characters of color. Korra had a female character of color and nothing but black people in Black Dynamite and The Boondocks,
As an animator working in TV animation, I've been blessed to be in a position to contribute to that arena of content more that a lot of my peers. So, naturally if I'm gonna do my own show, it's gonna reflect the same thing. That's just something I like, that's what I grew up on, that what I know. It's normal to me. It's new to other people because, again, what we talked about before. You don't hear that kind of stuff in American TV and you don't see it much in anime either, to be honest. But it's normal to me. So when people ask me that, she's brown, "What do you think about that?" I'm like, "Ehh." So there is no agenda behind it, it's just what I like and what I'm used to, you know?
CA: I think Shonda Rhimes (creator of Grey's Anatomy, Scandal) said something similar, like she just likes creating worlds as how she sees it.
LT: Yeah, I think animation is a bit more sensitive, because we still haven't crossed certain thresholds. You know, animation is a younger filmmaking medium. What I mean by younger, I mean ... in the sense that African Americans haven't infiltrated TV animation the way that we have live action.
You know, live action, you got a bevy of black-owned movies and female characters, compared to animation. ... You got black actors, black writers, you got all black movies, black producers, but you don't see that in TV animation. Animation is still an area where we haven't infiltrated the medium, the way we have infiltrated sports and live action filmmaking, where you're seeing us behind the scenes, greenlighting and producing high quality TV shows. The Boondocks is probably the last big one, and then Black Dynamite, to a second degree, where there were people of color behind that as the driving force, representing themselves, just doing what white people do.
Animation is still relatively new, so people are going to see this kind of stuff and be like, "Huh, I'm not used to seeing that Black character in animation." Like you said with Shonda Rhimes, this is all I do.
I think the newest experience for me in regards to this project is that it's fantasy. That's new to me. I've never seen that before. I've never seen brown characters in a sort of mix genre reverse engineered Western European anime video game fantasy gate. You know, I've never seen that before. So I am aware of what I'm doing is new, but it's not because the characters are brown, it's just because the setting is new. You rarely see brown people in fantasy projects. That's not a normal thing in animation. That's probably the newest experience for me. Philly is racially ambiguous. A lot of people ask, 'Is he Black? What is he?' But S.A.M. is clearly a brown girl.
CA: Do you hope that Cannon Busters will be a catalyst for other black creators to start making more brown characters in fantasy?
LT: I don't think so, I thought The Boondocks did that already. I thought Fat Albert did that already. You know it was a massive hit. Fat Albert was one of the longest running animated TV Shows in history and no one talks about that. Bruce Smith did The Proud Family, he was the director of Bebe's Kids and the animation director on Space Jam. Like, that's a brother.
I think now you'll see more of it because social media has shrunken our planet and brought us more together. There's more visibility because of social media. I think if social media existed when Fat Albert was poppin', I think you'd see a lot more African Americans being influenced in large numbers of wanting to do their own stuff because they see brown kids being successful. However, the internet didn't exist back then. Fat Albert's exposure was limited to television, and that was a magical process. No on had access to that back then.
So I don't think Cannon Busters will be a catalyst for anyone. I think it just adds more to the visibility of what we've already built upon with the Black Dynamites and The Boondockses, The Proud Families and so on and so forth. My hope is if we go to series, it's just another addition to the ground work that's already being laid out.
I think in terms if young kids, it could be a catalyst for younger kids to want to do it. That's the hope. But I don't think it's going to be, "Oh my God! Cannon Busters is a game changer." Like, I don't see it as that. You know, I've been in the business too long. My hope is that it inspires a lot of new young kids coming up. But I don't think brown kids are going to be running to animation schools now because of my show. If it didn't happen with The Boondocks, then I don't know what.
We did The Boondocks in 2005 and now it's 2016. The only other thing that came out is Black Dynamite. ... So where is the other generation of kids? You know what I mean? It's a noble thought. I think it's great if Cannon Busters can do that, but I don't really see it that way. I think it's just going to serve it's purpose and just kind of be visibility of brown people in animation out there and that's about it. That wasn't self deprecating was that? That's just a realistic point of view, right?
CA: Yeah, it's honest. I was thinking because there's more visibility now. People see you on social media and Kickstarter. So they see the person behind it who's creating it, which they may have not seen with The Boondocks.
LT: That's a really good point. That's the other side of it. That's a really really fascinating point. I don't want to take anything from The Boondocks, because there's incredible talents on that show, a lot of people worked hard on that show. But, you're right, in terms of visibility, The Boondocks was not the show that was going to animation schools and brown kids and saying, "Hey, you guys should get into animation." I definitely don't think there was that presence on The Boondocks in terms of reinforcing kids to get into animation so that they can do their own shows and represent themselves. I don't think The Boondocks played that role. It played an important role, but it was what it was. I see your point. I am very vocal about the process online, and I like to share and I like to motivate kids.
CA: I noticed that. You give advice a lot; why do you choose to do so?
LT: I turned 40 last year, in September. I was born in 1975 and the internet didn't kick in until what 2000? Really? The internet, even then, wasn't what it is now. So you can imagine growing up as a kid as a teen in the '90s. I didn't have access to that stuff. I had to write a letter to somebody if I knew who they were in animation and mail it.
Kids today can find their favorite director in the comfort of their own homes, eating cereal, and say, "You suck." There's way more access to people now. I really wish that social media existed back in the '80s and the '90s the way it exists today. I think I would have have been more enlightened. I just try to be the guy that I needed when I was in my teens. To see someone who looks like me who's doing these cool things and is basically telling me, "Yo, this is not that difficult. If you put in the work you can do this." They're showing the process and videos and they're showing themselves overseas. I would have lost my mind if I saw a guy like me growing up at nineteen. Seeing a black guy in Korea or Japan making animes or cartoons. I would lose my mind. I would have been like, "Oh my God. This is my life. This is what I want to do."
It's like LeVar Burton and Reading Rainbow. I wanted to be that guy. I really loved that show as a kid. For me, the point is, I have this platform, however big or small a scale and I am speaking to an audience that isn't supported in TV animation and I'm not talking about black people I'm just talking about fans of all kinds of animation --- largely Japanese animation that doesn't get a lot of love in the TV network system. So, social media has allowed people to have an option to kind of bypass those and give them an alternative.
And if you have an individual who's a part of these shows that you like and he's drawing it in a way that you like to draw, but you may not necessarily be supported in your school or the studio that you work at, it's kind of reassuring to have that out there. It would have been great for me to have that as a kid. I'm aware of that and I try to be that as much as I can.
I do try to engage people because overall whether your male, female, black, whatever, being an artist is still a confusing occupation. It's not seen as a lucrative career move still to this day, believe it or not. These kids are growing up and they have the obstacle of dealing with their parent's approval and then their environments approval. Anyone who comes out of that and survives and actually makes a career out of doing it, they've been through some real stuff most of the time. It helps to have someone who's relevant and I will say that I am relevant speaking to them.
CA: What advice do you have for creators?
LT: My best advice is to for kids who graduate college, if they're not in an environment where there's work for [animation], they have to be prepared to move to where the work is. Go where their talent takes them, you know? That would be my best suggestion.
CA: What's next for you?
LT: I have another project that I'm working on that will be all hip-hop ... and I can't speak any more on it. I don't want to get in trouble.
That's the thing that I'm putting all my energy into now that the Cannon Busters pilot is finished. I can't wait to share it with everybody. I think people are going to be excited about that one. You may be hearing about it sometime this year. But who knows, if this Cannon Busters thing comes out and it does well, who knows what the reaction is?
CA: Is it animated?
LT: Ah, you'll see. You'll hear about it very soon actually. I want to try my best to express alternative ideas to what the black experience is through animation. When people look at Cannon Busters, the first thing that they do, at least people that I've seen responding, is say, "That's not black." In my point of view, they're talking about the stereotypical stuff that mainstream white American media has brainwashed them to believe is black culture. You know what I mean? It's a very sensitive thing.
For me, whenever there's a story about us in terms of media, we never get to leave Earth, we never get to imagine or fantasize, or do anything other than being stuck on Earth. [We're] in the hood, dealing with hood stuff. And it's like we never get to dream, we never get to leave galaxies, we never get to use magic, we never get to do any of these things. We don't see ourselves doing that. If we're doing anything, we're always stuck on Earth. We're superheroes, we're superheroes in the hood.
I think Cannon Busters is an example of the type of stuff that I want to make more of. Like, why can't we be robots? Why can't we be immortal bounty hunters? Why can't we be magicians? Why can't we be these things? I love that stuff, I did it in The Boondocks, I did it with Black Dynamite. I do want to show an alternative or just be creative. I think that's kind of the point of Cannon Busters.
CA: Do you have a date for when the general public will be able to see the pilot?
LT: We're still figuring out how we want to release the pilot publicly, and who we will release it to publicly first. We don't have any intentions of just dropping it on YouTube. That's not our goal. We plan to release it in Japanese as well, with subtitles. We want it to be released in Japan and in the United States if we go to series.
CA: Are you hoping that it gets picked up for a series?
LT: Without question.