Interview: Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood Take You on a Tour of ‘Danger Academy’

Where do spies send their kids to school? Well, in the world of writer Tony Lee (Doctor Who, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Graphic Novel) and artist Dan Boultwood’s (The Gloom, Agent Mom) December release, Danger Academy, we learn that it’s the mysterious Spychester Academy for Gifted Teens, tucked away at some out-of-the-way location in North America where the offspring of the world’s best and most dangerous spies are shipped off to be kept safe and maybe learn a thing or two about the finer points of international espionage.

MTV Geek spoke with Lee and Boultwood recently via e-mail about the series, its genesis, and where the world’s youngest spies are going next.

MTV Geek: Tony, could you tell us a little about the genesis of Danger Academy?

Tony Lee: It was one that hit us out of the blue, to be honest. We were pitching a series of books called Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars to Franklin Watts/EDGE in April 2010 and the editor on the book, Adrian Cole wasn’t sure whether the books would sell at the higher levels of the company, so suggested that we work out a “backup” series that we could pitch just in case the Baker Street books didn’t fly. This email came on the Friday of the 2010 Bristol Comic Expo, where Dan and I were guests, and we had a weekend together to hammer out a new idea.

Dan Boultwood: It involved lots of shouting, I recall.

Lee: We’d been playing with an idea of children of spies since 2008, but had never done anything with it, so we sat and started working out the basics. Son of a spy, someone like James Bond Jr., fish out of water, fighting Bond-level villains with his friends. We came up with the title – Danger Academy—wrote it up as a pitch and sent it out to Franklin Watts as a backup.

As it was, we didn’t need it–the Baker Street Irregulars sailed through the process and we found ourselves working on that and forgetting the Academy.

Fast forward two, three months and I’m at San Diego and I’m meeting Samantha Olsson of Kickstart Entertainment, with a plan of doing something with them. The two books I have with me don’t fly, however—one’s too mature, the other is too similar to something they’re already doing. With the clock ticking and almost time to leave, Samantha asks if there’s anything else I have—she loved Dodge & Twist, a graphic novel I was once doing with AiT/PlanetLar and genuinely wanted to do something with me—and I mentioned Danger Academy to instant interest. An hour later I’m on the phone to Dan in the UK, asking him to mock up some character concepts. By the time I get up the following morning Dan’s inked and coloured three of the main characters—Johnny, Brella and Numbers—and they’ve been sent, with fully written out pitch to Kickstart.

Boultwood: We already knew the characters from when we discussed them back in May, and even though the book never happened back then I’d been itching to draw them for a while. So even though it was a fast turnaround, the base working had been done.

Lee: I think it was the fact that we turned it around so fast that impressed them. But due to the fact that Dan was still drawing The Baker Street Irregulars, The Gloom and Agent Mom at this time, we decided it was best to ease the load, and brought on board good friend Ciaran Lucas as Colourist – he was already working on Agent Mom with Dan, and knew Dan’s style. With the team in place, we started work.

Geek: What attracted you to the material? How did Tony sell you on the pitch for the book?

Boultwood: As soon as Tony mentioned doing a book set in a school for spies, then I was in. It’s also a bit of a change of scene for myself as an artist, as I usually veer towards doing period pieces and Danger Academy is anything but, though I did still get to draw people in shirts and ties so I wasn’t hyperventilating to badly at the thought of leaving my comfort zone.

I also liked the thought of doing a “what if” scenario, as in what would the children of famous spies and secret agents be like?

Lee: I also offered to buy a round of drinks.

Boultwood: I’m always sold on any idea that has Tony and myself gradually getting louder in a pub corner, as we come up with the concept.

Geek: So walk us through Spychester: some of the ideas behind the school and how you arrived at the final concept of a school for the children of spies?

Lee: I think it was very much decided as “Hogwarts meets the Xavier Academy,” with each kid having a back story for being there. We wanted these kids to be relatable to the kids reading it, and at the same time we wanted adults to recognize the hypothetical “parents” that birthed them. But of course, for copyright reasons we couldn’t have the actual kids of spies, so we decided to unify them, give them all the name “Smith” while there. Anonymity stops kidnapping etc.

Boultwood: I wanted it to have an Xavier school for gifted youngsters feel about it, in that it’s a juxtaposition of “stately home on the outside, modern and high tech on the inside.” Apart from H’s office that is, which is done out in oak paneling, even though this itself is a façade. The nice thing about a setting like this is that as a significant chunk of it is underground then you can cater it to what you need without upsetting the overall feel of the location so it doesn’t end up looking like a super exaggerated Hogwarts.

Lee: We decided that if you’re a stupidly hard Ethan Hunt-level spy with a kid, they can’t really hang out in Eton waiting for the news that you’re dead or captured—they’ll want to learn what you know. And a school for these kids keeps them all out of harm’s way, especially if due to an agreement we have kids of rival organizations there as well. The Headmaster was named “H” in honour of “M” in the Bond movies, Doc Violent is based on Doc Savage, the Gym Coach bears a strong similarity to a Russian Rocky villain, and the school scientist looks like he’d be happier going back and forth to the future… But this is the fun of a book like this—part parody, but mostly adventure and excitement.

Geek: Tell us a little about the kind of spies you two have cooked up for the story. Some of the tone feels like The Prisoner more than Bond.

Lee: Depends on the way you look at it. For example the hero, Johnny, is the son of one of the greatest tuxedo-wearing superspies in the world, and because of that thinks he’s better than all of these others.

Boultwood: And when he arrives at Spychester by force, he immediately wants to escape.

Lee: But to many of the others, it’s a refuge from the insanity of their parents lives. Brella is a pinstripe wearing, half Asian girl with a skill with a pop up umbrella that’s unmatched. Hand Me Down is half trionic due to an accident and can access computers. Spychester accept him, the world wouldn’t. Numbers does want to escape, but only so he can come back. Lucas is too cool for school, Kitka’s father was killed by Johnny’s mother and she therefore wants revenge and Ernest, the son of Viktor Von Die, just wants to continue the feud that their parents have into the next generation.

But there are others: Chuck’s Cherubs, three girls who get homework assignments from a computer, the boys from NEPHEW—we had a ton of fun playing with these ideas and we barely touched the surface of what we can do.

Geek: Dan, how did you and Tony arrive at the look for the book? Were there any points of reference you guys discussed when prepping it?

Boultwood: One of the main points in the deciding on the look of Danger Academy is that we wanted it to be fun. It was a lot of fun to do after all, so I hope that comes across in the finished work. The trickiest part was actually getting Johnny right as he had to look quite a bit like a famous film spy but not enough that it would be problematic with licensing and the like—though I did miss the martini glass filled with cola that he originally had.

The look fell into place quite quickly; Tony and I have been working together for a good number of years now so we trust each other in our fields. In fact, there’s never been anything Tony’s written that I haven’t wanted to draw, even if my style hasn’t been quite right for it. Ciaran’s [Lucas] colours were amazing and added a whole new nuance to the feel of the book, they really added that Saturday morning cartoon serial feel to the whole thing and are just perfect.

Geek: Jonathan and Ernest are more or less the two points around which the rest of the story revolves. Tell our readers a little about their relationship, and their particular father issues.

Lee: Well, it’s father and mother. Johnny’s mother is the tuxedo wearing superspy here—the last thing we wanted was James Bond Jr. references. But to be honest, Johnny’s mother and Ernest’s father are the Bond and Blofeld of this world. The Holmes and Moriarty. The Batman and Joker. And to suddenly have the sons of both at the same school? It’s bound to have repercussions. Especially when Viktor Von Die and the agents of S.M.A.S.H destroy the school and kidnap the spy parents on Parent / Teacher night!

It’s weird though, because when I started it, I saw Johnny and Ernest as very much the Clark/Lex dynamic from later Smallville episodes, but I actually started to feel sorry for Ernest. He so wants to be his father, but when he has the chance, he realizes that the boots are too big to wear, and that he can’t do the things that his father does… yet. Whereas Johnny only wants to become the best so that he can help his mother, whether she wants him to or not.

Geek: The idea of legacies and living up to the previous generations is peppered throughout the book. Why was that something you wanted to explore here?

Lee: I think it was more the kind of question of “what would I liked to have done if my Dad was a spy” question that most boys ask themselves at some point after deciding that when they grow up they want to be a spy or a ninja or a pirate, usually after watching an appropriately related movie. But I think that as franchises move on, we always look at the “hereditary hero,” whether it be the next Bond actor, of the next Green Lantern or Batman or whatever. And as more well established characters move on and we get these “next generation” shows like 90210 or next year’s Dallas reboot, both looking at younger groups while keeping the original cast in, it makes sense to look at what would happen for spies—Anthony Horowitz did it with the Alex Rider books, Robert Rodriguez did it with Spy Kids, so it’s not the most original of concepts. Our twist was to throw all of them into the melting pot and see what happened.

Geek: You guys leave the door open at the end of the story for another visit to the world of Danger Academy. What kind of discussions have you had about what you might want to do here?

Lee: I actually sat down with Samantha over a year ago in New York, while we were still playing with the format, and we worked out that there was every opportunity here to make this a trilogy book—we end the first story with the possibility of something massive about to happen at Spychester unless Johnny can stop it, but if we don’t get a second book, then it still works as a nice, open-ended standalone [story].

I’d like to do a massive love triangle between Kitka, Johnny and Brella—I hint at it in the book and there are scenes at the end that emphasise this. I’d like to have the kids stuck with no gadgets and forced to “MacGyver” their way free. I have loads of ideas, and just hope we’re allowed to do them! Buy the book, ensure that we can!

Geek: What do both of you have coming up next? Any other collaborations on the horizon?

Lee: Well, a lot of the time for me is spent adapting a book we did in 2008, Hope Falls into a screenplay, as Future Films bought it in September and they’re looking to move fast on that. Also, The Times newspaper in the UK commissioned us to do a one-page Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars story for 2nd January, which is a massive honour and we’ve just finished that.

Boultwood: I’m doing final edits on the Times page while also working on Hope Falls, as we need some revised characters for the concepts. It’s interesting to see how my art has changed since I first started working on the book back in 2008, and as these are going to film producers and suchlike, I’m having to really bring out the guns for this one.

Lee: I’m also currently adapting the Vladimir Tod series for Penguin, writing a MacGyver series with original creator Lee Zlotoff for Image and working with some interesting Doctor Who things that can’t be mentioned yet. With Dan we’re working on something new and quite epic for Kickstart to yay or nay on, we’ve just had The Gloom and Agent Mom land on Comixology at MTVComics’s new imprint on it and we’re working on a new series, Department PULP, for them for 2012. Are we doing anything else?

Boultwood: Possibly something on David Niven? And Miss Britannia for MTV, maybe a superhero book…

Lee: Yeah, we’re definitely hoping to do something with Niven in it, maybe something else… in comics, your “to do” list changes daily!

Danger Academy is available now from publisher Kickstart Press. You can download it from the ComiXology site as well.