EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Tim Sheridan, Writer of ‘Teen Titans Academy’ and ‘Batman: The Long Halloween (2021)’

Reading Time: 18 minutes

Teen Titans Academy #9 - But Why Tho

Tim Sheridan‘s Teen Titans Academy continues the legacy of our favorite DC teenage superhero team by putting its classic members as the teachers with new characters like Alinta (“Bolt”), Summer Zahid (“Black Ice”), Gorilla Gregg, The Bat-Pack, Stitch, Tooby, and more making up the student body. The story is all about legacy and looking forward to the future, and Sheridan, a longtime DC fan, brings together everything he loves about the Teen Titans and other DC heroes. In doing so, he meshes past with the present in his cacophony of storytelling. His writing career has extended to  DC films as well, adapting classic comics like “Batman: The Long Halloween” for the animated screen. With all of this under his belt, including writing the Shazam! comics, he’s one of DC’s most exciting writers today.

We at But Why Tho? were fortunate enough to speak with Sheridan last month. Our interview spans his career, how Teen Titans Academy got started, what he loves about writing this series and other DC stories, and much more.

The following interview has slight spoilers for the Teen Titans Academy comic series.

But Why Tho?: Tim Sheridan, writer of Teen Titans Academy and Batman The Long Halloween movie adaptation. Thank you so much for joining us on But Why Tho? today!

Tim Sheridan: Swara, thank you so much for having me.

When initially crafting the story and characters for Teen Titans Academy, what was it like planning out this story with DC and how much leeway were you given for the story overall?

I came out of the world of TV animation and movies. And there was an initiative that was happening at DC called 5G, which was going to be a new sort of a new philosophy on how the multiverse works. That had a lot of spearheading, and they brought in a group of writers from television who had worked with DC characters that had a lot of familiarity with the books and said, “Hey, we’re doing this thing and we’d like to have you all get together and work sort of like a writer’s room, in television, share your ideas and develop a larger story for a year’s worth of books together.” And that was kind of what we were pitched. And a bunch of us were rearing to go. It’s very exciting. I got to do that with the animated adaptation of Reign of the Supermen and I got to work on some great shows, like Justice League Action and more kids’ stuff like Teen Titans Go! and DC Superhero Girls, but getting to write for the comics. that’s the big leagues. That to me, that’s those the real version of these characters. I was very excited but then that initiative went away when there was a change in leadership at DC. I thought, “Oh, man, I guess this that was my shot. It’s not going to happen. Oh, well.” And then I got a call from Mike Cotton. He said, “Hey, so that’s not happening. But let me throw three words at you. And tell me what you think about Teen Titans Academy.”

And I said, well, first of all, yes, second of all, and this is the original idea for the book but not quite how it shaped up, I said, “Let’s do Degrassi with superpowers, and let’s have this be like what I remember in New Teen Titans reading it for the first time.” It was in in the best ways possible, soapy! It was relationships and complex character development through the way these characters interacted with each other, like a family. And I thought well, I can’t do what Marv and George did. But I can certainly be influenced by it and try to tell a story like that.

I pitched and said, “Look, if I’m going to do this, I need to be able to create a whole new class of new kids who are at Teen Titans Academy, and then we’ll keep the current roster of Titans, and we’ll bring back the original New Teen Titans and have them work as the faculty,” and I said I’ll never do a team book, and then I realized I was pitching a three-team book! I became a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of story that I had pitched that I wanted to tell and DC wanted me that was the other thing was like, there was a story that I wanted to tell that there’s a lot of stuff DC wanted me to tell and so that was something I didn’t expect. It’s been interesting learning. It’s a difficult thing for anybody, I think to get out there and learn on the job in a high-profile way. And that was kind of what happened. I had hoped that when I came into DC they would give me a book that nobody was reading in the back of beyond in the comic book shop and maybe I could get out a few thousand readers to it. And that would be a big victory for me. But instead, they were like here’s one of the biggest legacies in the history of comics. What would you do? For better or worse, you’re getting to see mine and Rafa’s and some of the other great artists who we’ve had Steve Lieber and Mike Norton. You’re getting to see what our sort of taking on this stuff is.

And that leads perfectly into my next question! What is it like working with Rafa Sandoval and other artists on this series and have they influenced your mode of storytelling as much as you’ve influenced theirs?

Tim Sheridan: Well, let me say I have no idea if I have influenced Rafa Sandoval mode of storytelling. I hope I haven’t because I have it’s only been for the worse. [Laughs] Rafa is the biggest gift of a person, as a talent, but also as a human being. We were partners in this from the beginning. We designed these characters together. When we came in, we didn’t know each other. He didn’t speak a lot of English, and I speak almost no Spanish, and he’s in Spain and I’m in California. But I am constantly bowled over by his ingenuity and creativity in particular. In his page layouts, he creates these really clever layouts that are visually stunning.

I think Rafa creates interior pages with panel pages that I would put up on my wall happily as art because of the way he lays them out. If not, if nothing else, and then on top of that, I love his characterizations and everything he brings to it, so I can’t say enough about Rafa and Jordi Tarragona. e also work with we’re very fortunate to have all Alejandro Sánchez doing colors. We’ve also had Alex Sinclair, whom I met for the first time in person at San Diego Comic-Con. He’s a genius, like all the rest of them. I think what these guys do is magical. I’m getting my hands dirty when I’m scripting the thing, but those guys come in and are artisans. They create these things that are beautiful and magical. And I don’t understand how they exist. I don’t understand how that comes out of your brain, through your hand, and onto a page. And the beauty of it is I should never understand it. That’s not my thing.

Rafa in particular has influenced me in terms of the way I think about page layouts, and if I have a pitch for how to lay it out. My early scripts with Rafa were the first couple of scripts, maybe three.  I really was in-depth, describing the page layout and really giving him camera angles and direction and not just that, but also the layout like this character silhouette frames the entire page and then the panels. And it was only after I started seeing his stuff come back. I was like, “Oh, he doesn’t need me at all on that.” We were very lucky to bring in Steve Lieber to work on issue five when Rafa was doing some other work at the time. That was an issue that focused on the Bat-Pack.

Who are these three kids from Gotham City? I love these kids. Because they’re me! They’re Batman fans, and in the real world, and they sort of modeled themselves in their life after different aspects of Batman that they’ve heard on the street of the legends of the Bat. Steve came in, and he’s got such a sense of whimsy and sense of humor about it all. And I found myself having just read the Jimmy Olsen book. I hit that I found myself trying to match trying to somehow keep up with that level of fun that Steve brings, sort of breaking the fourth wall maybe a little bit, just sort of twisting the angle. But because I knew his style as a fan. I wrote a little bit to his style. And then I say a little bit, I wrote a little bit in his style, and then he came in and like layered on all these other great things.

On the story itself. It seems to me like so much of this story is about legacy and how the original Titans want to impart and have their students do better. But there’s still a struggle on how exactly differently they should be doing things. So how do you approach that aspect in your writing of these different generations of Titans?

I haven’t focused on as much as I wanted to that was very much something that I felt would be a real carry-through thread throughout the book. And it’s just really the nature of writing a 22-page monthly that I realized in some ways my eyes were too big for my stomach. I guess the team and I think I had a lot of ideas about how to how I wanted that aspect of it in terms of legacy in terms of the Titans doing their best. But maybe their best isn’t good enough for these kids and maybe they made some shortcuts or took some shortcuts, or maybe they made the wrong decision somewhere along the line.

If anything in Teen Titans Academy, there are there they have made mistakes, and that’s something that comes right out of original New Teen Titans, Marv Wolfman, and George Pérez stuff. They took in a lot of kids with all sorts of varying needs and wanted to train them to be the next generation heroes, but at the same time the high school kids and they have to these kids have to go to high school as well. And like now they’re teaching high school. Cyborg is teaching Home Economics so that they can get a stipend from the government to keep the doors open. Everybody thinks that everybody’s Nightwing funds Teen Titans Academy with Alfred’s money. No, they’re a school. They’re an actual public school, but they have strict admissions guidelines. So that is essential to the story, the concept of creating a legacy. And, and, and not just a legacy of sidekicks. I think that’s what the Titans felt when they banded together. Are we just going to be sidekicks or are we going to be heroes? And, and what they’re trying to teach these kids is how to be a hero. And that they don’t have to be second fiddle to anybody else. But they’ve made some mistakes, and we’re going to see how those play out in the next few months.

On the specific characters, you all have created and expanded on so many fantastic original new characters. For the series, some brand new like Summer Zahid (aka Black Ice) and Stitch and some like Alinta (aka Bolt) and Gorilla Greg who are related to preexisting characters. So how did you approach building their unique personalities? And what’s it like creating the stories of the new generation of DC heroes?

Well, if I’m not kidding when I tell you this Swara, it is the honor of my life to get to throw a couple of grains of sand into the great canon of the DC Multiverse. I really thought when I said to Mike Cotton, “Look, I think the only way this concept is going to work is if I create this class and kids we’ve never met before,” and I fully expected him to say, “That’s really cute, but no, you can’t do that.” And Mike immediately said, “Yep, that’s exactly what I think you should absolutely do that and get them on my desk by the end of the day,” and so I sent him some ideas. We didn’t even go back and forth on stuff I sent him, well, there’s a caveat I’ll give you in a minute, but I sent him Summer/Black Ice, I sent him Alinta/Bolt. I sent him Gorilla Greg, who had a different name when I first sent it to him. It’s possible it’ll get revealed in the trades, but I mean, Gorilla Greg ended up being the absolute right name, which I’m so glad that we didn’t go with the first name.

I sent the Bat-Pack: Chupacabra, Brat-Girl, and Mega Bat. And Matt Price and Dane/Nevermore. Tooby was the only one he had a question about. He made me prove to him that Tooby could become useful in the DC universe, being able to shapeshift into a tube! And he said, “Give me three examples of when you might need a tube” and I did. I gave him three nonsensical examples of when you might need a tube. And he said “Fine.” We got Tooby in there! Which ended up being great because Tooby ended up in the beginning sort of becoming this interesting foil for Roundhouse, who was a character from the previous run, and I really loved the idea of that. What is it when you are established at school? And a new kid comes to school who is using your schtick? Who does your thing? And, has a lot of friends that you don’t have and you’re like “Wait, that’s my stuff. Who are you do?” Are you like I love that basic concept because it happens all the time in school? So, we showed a little bit of that first issue. And a little bit beyond that.

It’s the thrill of my life. I love getting to play around with those kids and see sort of how they interact with each other. One of the big things that you’ll notice about Teen Titans Academy is there are really almost no omniscient narrator captions or anything like that. If we’re going to do this over the course of a year, of a school year, let the audience find let the reader find out about who these characters are through their regular interactions with every other character, because that’s how you would do it in school. Nobody walked into school with a sign on them that says, “Here’s my code name. Here’s what I meant to and here’s what I do.” I think it’s just sort of, sometimes you’re wrong about people. Like you’re wrong about someone maybe at the beginning of the year, and by the end of the year, you have a completely different opinion about them.

To me, that’s all very real and I was interested in exploring it. I don’t know if it works or makes sense for people, but that was kind of the way in for me. It’s been really fun.  The only thing I regret is the amount of space I have, like, early on, we were getting feedback that, people wanted to see more of the new kids and they wanted to hear more about their stories, and I only had room to sort of giving you a little, like Alinta’s backstory. I only was able to give you a quick dip into what gives you an idea of who she is and where she comes from. But we could have spent a whole at least one issue in in in Australia dealing with her background. And then we started hearing well, but now, people want to hear stories about the New Teen Titans, faculty characters. But this book was always designed to be Teen Titans Academy. It’s about the students, with the faculty to guide them.

The caveat I was going to mention earlier was the two characters that Rafa and I created that were based on a prompt that there were two that were based on a prompt that we got from Mike Cotton and DC, which were Summer and Alinta. The only prompt I got for Summer was they had this and this “Endless Winter” event coming up. And we think it’d be a great place to introduce a character with ice powers. And I said, “Well, she’s Muslim,  and she’s from New York and here and you’re and she’s ‘Black Ice’ and here’s who she is,” and also she’s Pakistani-American, and we gave it away to Andy Lanning, Ron Marz, and Jesús Merino to introduce her. Same thing with Alinta. She was going to appear in the Future State Suicide Squad book. The idea was, I don’t want to take credit for it because I don’t remember I have to look back at our emails. but I think I said one of us said it maybe it was me, said, “What if we have a character who is a double amputee and has blades?” She’s also Indigenous Australian.

Why is it so important to have such diverse characters in the new generation of Teen Titans?

I’ve lived in major metropolitan areas. I’ve lived in New York and Chicago and London and Los Angeles. Teen Titans Academy is what the world looks like, and not only about what people look like. There are like 10 queer characters at Teen Titans Academy. For me as a queer creator, I think there are great wonderful books where that is a really important part of the story that is the source for drama. And there’s a there’s room for that, but I hadn’t really ever seen a book that had a bunch of queer characters and had it not be something that is part of the drama of the story. I came into this thinking this is the generation of kids that are better than my generation.

They are just like, to them, everybody’s the same. Even in the fact that they all have some of them have superpowers and some of them don’t, they don’t treat each other differently. The Bat-pack doesn’t have any powers. But they don’t get treated like they’re not real Titans, but just like the other freshmen. To me, I just wanted to see a world where it’s just like that is my fantasy. I just wanted to see a world in which none of that stuff is part of the drama. It seems Teen Titans Academy isn’t, it’s secret identities more than sexual identities. And the same thing with people’s physical attributes as well. That’s the world. So that’s the story I want to tell is show a world that looks like the world I live in.

Couldn’t agree more. But there is one major source of drama in this series. It’s essentially the mystery of “Who is Red X?”.

I like to think that the mystery is “Why is Red X?”!

Yes, exactly! What exactly is it that they want to do to Teen Titans Academy? You haven’t given too much away you’ve given maybe like a tidbit and a few panels or something. It seems to me that this Red X is coming from a place of sincere hurt regarding the Titans and Teen Titans Academy, especially in the latest issues. So how do you intend for readers to connect with your iteration of Red X?

I thank you for asking this question. First of all, thank you for saying “this Red X “because there are still some people who don’t quite get that in issue one of Academy we say this is the fourth Red X. If you are familiar with Red X from the Glen Murakami’s brilliant animated series Teen Titans, we know Dick Grayson was the first Red X. We don’t know who the second one was. And, and I think Glen is on record saying he’s never going to tell anyone. And I said I’m not going to “I know Glen and I’m not going to like, go out in the comics and say, well, here’s who it is.” I said Glenn says we’re not going to tell him that that’s a that’s for him to decide. What I will do though is continue the concept of Red X being a legacy.

I threw a throwaway line in issue one about the fact that there was even a third Red X and we don’t really ever talk about it. Hopefully, somebody will pick up that thread someday and have fun with it. But the Red X at the Academy is the fourth Red X. Now if you’ve read “Extrication,” which is the story the last story in the Titans Academy Yearbook Annual #1, you get a real sense of who this Red X is and where he comes from. And why the concept of the academy with a little nudging might offend him and put him on a crusade he came from a really crap situation, but really bad like for anybody who has anybody read it knows what the background is, but, it’s been off for a while so I’ll talk about it. , he’s a this we meet him in extrication he’s a little kid, and he’s a little kid with a group of other little kids. who are all foster siblings who are huddled in a rundown terrible apartment in Blüdhaven? It’s a fostering scam from two henchmen who are pocketing the money from the government. They’re taking in all these kids, and living off of that money.

But what they’re also doing is they’re training the kids to be future enjoyment for their boss. It’s a really awful situation and they’re like they’re indoctrinating these kids into this war that’s not theirs. But that they’re going to grow up in what their foster parents grew up in. It’s this sort of cycle of abuse ultimately of when we bring kids into our battles and our fights and so that’s what he’s living. The Red X of that time busts down the door. He takes out those foster parents and shut down their scam and ends up sort of adopting this kid. So there’s a legacy there’s to the whole thing. In the end we see we see the kid buying Dick Grayson’s Red X mask in an alley on the black market, and he’s on his way to the first day of school with Titans Academy. So, you get a sense of what the reasons are there. That’s not all. There’s another big reason why Red X is on a mission of sort of revenge. Some people might call it a cry for help. I don’t know. But there’s something else going on. And that’s going to be revealed later on in an upcoming issue.

One last question on Teen Titans Academy. Where do you hope the stories of these characters go from here? Where else would you like to see them in the DC Multiverse?

I would like to see their stories go into reprint after reprint so I can sit on a giant pile of comics. I’m just kidding! There’s not that much money and in all seriousness, it’s something that went when I put all these characters on paper and sent them to Mike Cotton. I said, “Man, creating characters is being part of a legacy.” Canon is inviting heartache. When someone else picks up that thread picks up that character and uses them down the line. Maybe they’ll write them better than you did. Which will be even more, I don’t know, maybe that’ll be wonderful. Maybe it’ll be infuriating. To be honest, I talk about it all the time. These are my kids. Yeah. And I don’t have kids. These characters are my kids, so I hope the best for them. I hope that they have a life outside of Titans Academy. I hope that somebody down the line is crafting a story and they have a need for a sort of mercurial magical animated rag doll who’s got who’s gotten used to this kind of quippy and is gender non-conforming. If Stitch gets to show up, pop up in another story somewhere down the line and it’s on the shelf at my comic shop, I’ll be the first one in line. I’ll be so excited. I’ll be pushing you out of the way so that I can get the first one! All of them are they’re so great.

On Summer, she’s a born leader. And I realized at some point I didn’t have anybody in that group whom we could see leading a team of Titans down the line. Someone who has this mix of a huge heart, these amazing powers that she barely really has begun to scratch the surface of. And a no-nonsense likeability to her as well. In Issue #3, when Summer and Greg lead the students against the Suicide Squad in the school, they say to say “Titans Together!”.  And I don’t know if you can pick it up from Issue #6, but Gregg’s got kind of a crush on Summer. She feels very deeply for him, but they’re from two different worlds. So, of course, we’ll never see any kind of relationship with them, but they accept their friendship. I think it gives a dynamic to their friendship that’s very real. For what it was for me to be a kid and have friends for who I couldn’t tell that I had any other feelings. So yeah, it’s relatable. It’s like that sort of teenager dynamic and you have that for all the characters and how you write them.

So now I just want to ask you one or two questions about another recent project you did. You were the scribe of one of the most famous Batman comics of all time: The Long Halloween. So, I’m just curious like what was it like doing that adapting this legendary work? And will you be continuing this iteration of Batman story, or other stories, in this animated universe?

I grew up reading exclusively DC Comics, and having read monthly along with Halloween when it was dropping.  Getting to sit down and try to crack the code on adapting this great work of literature into a cinematic format. People might assume that’s easy because it’s a graphic format, like basically a storyboard. That’s just not how it works. It’s a much more in-depth process of really breaking the thing down into its core elements. It’s kind of trying to rebuild it in a way that it still feels like the thing that you remember reading for the first time. It was very difficult to do The Long Halloween because it was designed to play out on a monthly basis, based on calendar holidays. And so, you knew a month had passed in between issues. Other things that happen so you don’t have that luxury without like fading to black and fading up again every two minutes in the movie. That would just be jarring and weird is no way to really tell a cinematic story. So, we had to figure out how to do it. Justice, even though we knew it was an uphill battle. I was also very fortunate I got to work on the Reign of the Supermen animated adaptation.

Those were the first Superman comics I ever bought as a kid. Death of Superman happened, and it was the biggest news all over the world. But it didn’t quite grab me enough to go out and pick up those issues. Or that book. And then Reign of the Supermen happened. To me, it just opened this whole exciting world of possibility with Superman. Is any of them the real one? “Is this the new version of Superman, what is this?” Did I want to know more? And I ran out and bought those books and then years and years later, Jim Krieg called me into his office and he said, “What do you think about working with me on the reign of the Superman adaptation?” At the time they were even calling it Death of Superman Part Two internally at Warner Brothers animation. I asked “You mean “Reign of the Supermen” right? We’re going to do that right?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s an even better title. Let’s do that”  And, and so I got to go through that process once, and I learned a lot working with James Tucker, and Jim Krieg, and Alan Burnett on that about and Mike Carlin by the way, I worked with Mike Carlin on that movie, who was the editor of Superman comics, The Death of Superman, Reign of the Superman, all those were all Mike’s books at DC back in the day.

I think Mike was the one who taught me to throw it out and build it up again. Because you’ve got to make a movie.  Your job is to make a movie.  I was so worried that Mike was going to say “No, you can’t do XYZ and you got to do this.” And he was just like, “No, that makes sense. Let’s do that.” He had some great ideas too, about streamlining things here and there, and great dialogue notes. It was a fantastic process to the point when we worked on Long Halloween. I think he trusted me in that process to make that story happen.

I went back to watch Luke Cage and Jim Krieg and said, “I can’t do this in one 75-minute movie. This isn’t going to work.”  The kind of things I’m going to have to manipulate in the structure of this story in order for it to still be a three-act movie just doesn’t play, it won’t work, and it won’t be satisfying, and you won’t get the Long Halloween experience from it. They said, “Can you do it in two movies?” And I said “How about three?” and they said no. [laughs]. But to do so that but that was really needed. It needed to breathe. You needed to have time to be able to pass. And for characters to go on a journey that wasn’t summed up in 30 or 40 minutes. It didn’t feel like it had been summed up quickly. It’s one of the some of the most fun I’ve ever had.

It’s the hardest artistic thing I’ve ever done. Maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Maybe comics are the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know because I started with such great material. I mean, Long Halloween is a classic. It’s genius. And I just hope that one day when I run into Jeff Loeb that it’s not the end for me! I hope he doesn’t feel like I trampled over anything for him. And that he knows that we came at that movie as a celebration of the book. To unlock people’s desire to go pick up that book and read it and read it again. That was for me, was the whole idea behind it.

Tim, this was amazing. Thank you so much for speaking with But Why Tho? today and we really appreciate it!

Swara thank you so much. Thank you but why though, thank you to everybody watching and to all the Academy fans out there. Keep reading!

You can read Teen Titans Academy and Shazam! wherever you find comics.

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