Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse in 1928. After years of toiling in Hollywood, the animator joined the vanguard of the talking-picture revolution when he produced Steamboat Willie, a cartoon that synchronised sound and animation featuring the good-humoured rodent that would become iconic (and maybe immortal). Two years later, Walt and his brother Roy licensed Mickey-related merchandise. And from the humble birth of Mickey Mouse 85 years ago, the Walt Disney Company has grown into a massive global business empire with a catalogue of nearly a thousand characters, complete with movies, animation, television, music, games and consumer product divisions. The acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel and LucasFilm have expanded the Disney universe and pop-cultural influence, especially among young audiences.
Sofia the First debuts on Disney Channel and Disney Junior on Jan 11. The new animated series is about a girl learning how to adjust to royal life after she becomes a princess overnight.
On Oct 19, Disney will go live with Disney Channel, Disney Junior and DXD on the TrueVisions cable network, a move that completes the company's portfolio in Thailand.
The statesman of Disney, Mickey Mouse, may not be a regular fixture on the channels, but the long list of offerings will bring hit shows such as Phineas and Ferb, Gravity Falls, Pirates and Princess and Dr McStuffins to Thai tubes. While young fans will certainly rejoice, the expansion of Disney also offers a convincing lesson on how an entertainment business can build solidly on a foundation created almost a century ago and employ a mix of marketing and creativity to ensure its global influence on successive generations.
Walt Disney was born in Chicago and lived in Kansas City over 100 years ago, but Disney now offers Hari Raya TV specials to kids in Muslim-dominant Southeast Asian countries and High School Musical: China, among other territory-specific programmes. The management of global characters that also have local appeal is one of the priorities and recipes of success.
"Many of our characters have a long legacy that goes back many decades," says Robert Gilby, Managing Director, the Walt Disney Company Southeast Asia. "Most of our stories are timeless, and the idea is to bring them alive in a new way. Television [the launch of the Channel] makes it more accessible for all. The Disney Channel and Disney Junior are relaunched as a dedicated service for Thailand. For instance, we dub the shows into Thai to make them more relevant to the market.
"Another example is our Princess Brand _ which we put together from various princess characters. In the US we created a show that plays with the value of being a princess _ like sometimes you have to be brave or sometimes you're scare, or sometimes you're both brave and scared. The thing is, it's made for the US audience, then recreated using children from Thailand and other markets. Sleeping Beauty came out in 1959 but it's still relevant _ and next year we'll release the film Maleficent, which tells another aspect of that story. This is how the brand brings together these characters in a meaningful way."
Beyond princesses and Mickey Mouse, Disney also finds itself staying in tune with the fast-changing tastes, especially that reflected in visual culture. Speaking about relevance and the idea of keeping everything fresh, Nancy Kanter, senior VP, Original Programming and General Manager of Disney Junior, says, "When you reinvent something, you have to move the story forward, and make it part of 2013. What was it that resonates with the story and the characters? How do you reimagine them for today's audience?"
An example is the cartoon series Dr McStuffins, about a young doctor, which for the first time features an all-black family as the protagonists. Kanter says the show is "an opportunity to reflect the world as today's kids see it". She adds, "In the show Miles from Tomorrowland [a cartoon about space and science], you may notice that Miles' mother is Chinese. We don't make a big announcement about it, but we make that part of the show."
In Latin America, the success of High School Musical prompted a local version of the TV musical series, which became as successful as if not more so than the original. In China, High School Musical: China also represents a localised attempt and a way to diversify the appeal of established content. Southeast Asia, while a huge market, may have to wait for such spinoffs. "We certainly look at the opportunities," says Gilby of Walt Disney SEA. "We look at [the future] market by market. We don't have an immediate plan but we keep looking for something.
"Southeast Asia is a high-growth region. There 70 million children there, while parents and families are potentially large for us to develop more products," he adds. "In the last five years Disney has accelerated how we build our global business and how we build the Disney brand at the local level. In Thailand, for example, we want to be the Thai Walt Disney, not Walt Disney Thailand."
Calling the good guys
Now that Marvel is part of the Disney empire, Thai viewers will get to see more superheroes on the small screen
From Spider-Man to Thor, from Iron Man to the whole class of The Avengers, the universe of Marvel Comics _ its Big Bang taking place over half a century ago _ continues to exert its heavy influence on the imagination. Audiences today are more familiar with Marvel superheroes from the movie versions (the Thor sequel, for instance, is opening next month, while Thor first appeared in a Marvel comic in 1962), but their deep history and endless reincarnations have their origin in the colourfully drawn comic series.
And since Marvel has become part of the Walt Disney Company, the launch of Disney channels on Thai cable TV this Saturday means greater accessibility to Marvel TV content, with its parade of superheroes and villains in all their possible adventures.
Recently, we got an opportunity to discuss the art and legacy of Marvel with two insiders: CB Cebulski is senior VP, Creator and Content Development of Marvel Entertainment who's also a former writer and editor who worked on various comic titles including Mangaverse and Loners; Cort Lane is VP, Animation Development & Production for Marvel Television, and he's responsible for transforming the key content of the comic series into television animation. Here are their takes on Marvel and the irresistible appeal of superheroes.
You worked on several comic books for Marvel, notably Mangaverse, which was inspired by Japanese manga. In Thailand, Japanese manga are very popular. Could you tell us the differences between Marvel-style comics and manga?
Cebulski: I started my career in Japan, in the manga industry. I moved to New York to work with a manga company, and that was how I came into contact with Marvel [since it was] interested in bringing that storytelling sensibility and that artistic style. The Japanese comic books' storytelling sensibility is a little bit different from Marvel's sensibility. The artists who are now working on our monthly titles do draw inspiration from this Marvel-meets-manga hybrid style.
Can you give us an example of the visual difference between the two styles?
Cebulski: When you talk about the drawing style, there's no big difference. When it comes to manga, people think about speed lines and big eyes. But the core difference is more in the storytelling. Japanese manga are meant to be read very quickly. The pacing is much faster. The average 22-page manga story is designed to be consumed in a minute and a half. The average comic book experience for Marvel comic is anywhere between 10-12 minutes.
A typical scene in a manga, say, when you have one character punch another character, you'd see this character crash through the window, and you have this character on the ground outside the building. In the American storytelling, you're going to have a whole-page scene. You'll actually see the punch, then the character falling back, then you have another panel in which the character crashes through the window that focuses on the character's face, and you get the sense of the actual fall from different angles. It's more slow and drawn-out.
Do you agree that Japanese manga is more edgy and violent?
Cebulski: It depends. There are such a wide range of manga. Their standards of practice are a little looser in some regards [compared to American comic books]. They're able to get more violent content in, but certain manga comics draw more specific demographics than Marvel. We try to have our comics drawn so they can reach all audiences, from kids up to adults. We have our own personal standards from the days back when Spider-Man first came out. Those are the standards we set for ourselves back then and still live by today. Japanese manga, meanwhile, tend to reflect the changing Japanese market, influenced more by outside cultures that come into the Japanese entertainment industry.
Marvel Comics has such a rich trove of stories and characters. How do you keep them all alive after all these years?
Cebulski: For us even back in the days when the Marvel Universe was budding, there was a feeling that it should reflect the world outside your window. The Marvel characters are actually real people _ people who are relatable, people who have everyday lives just like you and I. So it's about the human first, and the superhuman second. It's not so much about the mask as it is about the person beneath the mask. The Spider-Man story is more about Peter Parker. The Iron Man story is more about Tony Stark. Captain America is more about Steve Rogers. No matter what any of them has gone through _ someone with a bad temper like The Hulk, or someone who has problems with his family like Peter Parker _ there are these touch points that all the Marvel characters have in their alter-ego, and that's what makes them timeless. Those touchstones in their lives are what people can relate to.
Some of the Marvel heroes were born back in the 1950s, the Cold War era. How do Marvel artists adapt these same characters over the years now that the world is so different?
Cebulski: We've adapted more artistically with the changing times. It's a very long and complicated answer _ we have to touch on market share and sales, and changes in distribution. All that aside, Marvel is always at the forefront of cutting-edge art. Wally Wood and Jack Kirby back when Marvel started in the late 50s, Steve Ditko with his Spider-Man [co-creation] and Steve McNiven and David Finch now _ Marvel also hires the best and the brightest. The beauty of Marvel is there is no house style. And while our characters inhabit the same universe, they tend to be different in how each artist approaches the storytelling, the face and expression, the body language, the general design. If you don't like the way one character looks in one book, another artist will maybe draw him up [in another book] more to your liking. That diversity has kept Marvel vibrant and alive throughout the last seven decades.
What's the key idea when you oversee the adaptation of Marvel comic books into TV animation?
Lane: We're very focused on the key characters. We rally around the touchstone and franchises and use those characters to introduce many other characters to children. Our creative process is very story-driven, we try to come up with a version of the characters and stories that, even though they are in comics, they have new twists that work for kids and teenagers, since we always strive to create something fresh that they haven't seen in animated series before. The shows have their own special appeal.
This is unfair to ask, but what's your favourite Marvel character?
Lane: I went crazy for Hawkeye. In the Avengers, he doesn't have any superpower, only sheer skills and hard work. And he has a purple costume, and not many superheroes have a purple costume.
Cebulski: I always gravitate to the X-Men. Again going back to the relatability, the X-men are young characters who are feared and hated, and they have to overcome that. They have a younger, more positive outlook on life. No matter how hard life becomes, if you fight for and if you believe in your dream, you'll be able to get it. I have two favourite X-Men characters: one is the obscure Danielle Moonstar, who's one of the new mutants, and the more mainstream would be Nightcrawler.