If ever there were a family of real life superheroes, it would be the Pogue Clan. Their story is an inspirational one and I’ve been proud to call these four friends (family, rather) for many years.
So when patriarch Paul F.P. Pogue informed me had a new web series in development, suffice it to say I was stoked and had to learn more about Dr. Beyond and the Agents of ABOVE.
You readers are in for a real treat. Today Paul and I discuss his new project, all things eighties, casting an Asian lead, whitewashing in Hollywood, and why diversity and multiculturalism should be a priority for everyone.
Upkins: Paul, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule for this sitdown. For the readers at large, introduce yourself.
Pogue: Paul Francis Patrick Pogue, writer/photographer, father of two, longtime Indianapolis journalist, veteran online comics and pop culture commentator and general all-around online loud mouth and big talker. Most recently, writer/director of the Dr. Beyond and the Agents of ABOVE project, which has a teaser trailer/opening credits sequence up at
Upkins: Now when it comes to cinematic projects, this certainly isn’t your first rodeo. In fact about two years ago, you and your family made national headlines with a video commemorating two of my favorite superheroes. Tell us about the incredible story behind the amazing video.
Pogue: My son, Armand, currently 9 years old, and his sister, Autumn-Rose, 6, have gone through a tremendous amount in their young lives. Autumn-Rose has significant vision issues, and Armand survived a highly fatal form of neuroblastoma cancer at the age of 2. Experimental treatments saved his life, although he lost most of his hearing and a couple of years of bodily development in the process. His therapy to rebuild his body ever since has involved a lot of physical activity like rock climbing, horseback riding and archery.
Along the way, these kids grew up, as I did, with G.I. Joe — although their brand of Joe was the modern cinematic interpretation as opposed to the Marvel/Sunbow cartoon of my youth. We had some fun dressing them up as action heroes and shooting video of them doing their thing around the park, and that quickly blossomed into a full-on Jon Chu-style G.I. Joe mini-movie.
I wrote some narration to frame it all as a tribute to their tremendous survival instincts and will to rise above obstacles, and reached out to Bill Ratner and Mary McDonald-Lewis — the voices of Flint and Lady Jaye from the original G.I. Joe cartoon — and they very generously agreed to narrate the video in character. It got a fair bit of attention online, and you can see it:
Upkins: G.I. Joe and Jem and the Holograms are definitely two prominent and influential series for you. Why are they so special?
Pogue: When you’re a kid of my era, growing up in the early 1980s, the Marvel/Sunbow cartoons — G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Jem — were the top of the line in terms of animation and storytelling. And as an adult, G.I. Joe and Jem still speak to me quite well.
They showcased a lot of strong storytelling — you had veteran comics writers like Christy Marx, Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes getting the chance to stretch their wings with some seriously weird stories. Once they “embraced the absurdity,” as Buzz Dixon liked to put it, these shows got into some gloriously bug-eyed insane stories.
Also, Cobra Commander. Most hilariously awesome villain of the 1980s and maybe the single best character of the decade. When I get super-famous I’m going to pitch an animated revival of all the Sunbow franchises that Hasbro still has the rights to. I’ll get laughed out of the room, but darn it, I’ll try!
They showcased diversity in different ways that was not very common in live-action 1980s work — or in fact sometimes today. G.I. Joe’s Lady Jaye was one of the best action protagonists of the era, and you can see a pretty clear through-line from her to today’s Captain Marvel. And Jem was so diverse that on the protagonist side, the white people were outnumbered from the beginning! That’s not something you see much in pop culture even today.
Upkins: “But Jem is for girls though…..”
Pogue: Ha, not only was it not just for girls but Christy Marx made a point of getting frequent bits of action and adventure in there to keep the boys’ attention!
I’ve been rewatching the entire series of Jem recently, and one thing that continues to strike is just how grounded the whole thing can be. Yes, it’s a show about dueling rock bands who use holograms and time machines and about two felonies per episode to mess with each other’s heads, but more often than not you also see the cast members doing the grunt work of 12-hour video shoots, hauling around sets, designing costumes, figuring out municipal regulations and staying up all night working on tax reports. For a show about “glamour and glitter, fashion and fame,” it sure focused a lot on the day-to-day stuff and did a great job of doing so. Jem was a series about the entertainment industry written by people who had worked in the industry, and it shows.
Upkins: Much like yours truly, Joss Whedon has also been an influence?
Pogue: Oh yes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was basically the kickass, long-form TV show I had been hoping all 80s shows would be, and his later work only further refined that. Though I probably reserve my softest spot for the latter half of Angel, where he was really firing on all cylinders. But his approach to an ensemble cast has always informed my approach to team storytelling, and I still look to The Avengers as a near-perfect example of how to structure a complicated cast and story and arrange the pieces so that the second half of a story pays off everything in the first.
Upkins: Dr. Beyond and the Agents of ABOVE, how did that come to be?
Pogue: It’s a long story, so I’ll do my best to summarize! I and several friends — including Kirk Boxleitner, Hollis Adler, Yaseen Hamid, Gavin Downing, Brian K Robinson — had spent the better part of the last few years sort of dreaming up an alternate take on all the genre tropes of 1980s storytelling, trying to think of ways to tell great stories with those tropes without falling into the traps of the era. We were basically writing fanfic for and about an entire decade, applying the Astro City formula to 1980s TV.
It all started with Kirk tossing out the random line, “‘Why is it, eccentric scientist Austin Kingsley, I never see you and the Star Prodigy in the same room at the same time?’ asked grizzled cop Hector Haggerty.” This was possibly the most 80s sentence ever uttered, and we all had great fun making up the adventures of the Star Prodigy from there.
One night, we were idly speculating about the lack of well-crafted female leading characters in 80s live-action. Animation, although far from perfect, seemed to treat women better than live-action did. You didn’t see too many Lady Jayes or Jems in primetime TV shows in the 1980s, and you certainly didn’t see much casting diversity.
Purely as a thought exercise, we started gaming out the concept of “What would an all-female team show in the 80s have been like if creators weren’t hamstrung by all the tropes of the era?” And so the super-science team of Dr. Bianca Yong, Columbia, Sharpe and Hiker was born. We kicked around plot ideas, episodes lists and so on, and generally had ourselves a great creative time. We took the basic concepts of Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers or Doc Savage and the Fabulous Five and tried to use those building blocks to construct something uniquely our own.
One day I made a fateful statement: “We’ll know this has really worked when we see cosplayers of these characters at cons!” This quickly led to my thinking, “if I want to see that, I probably have to make it happen myself,” leading to my getting together some costume ideas, and by that point I figured if I’m going to outfit a bunch of people for photos, I may as well get some video while I’m at it. I’m a huge fan of 1980s credit sequences, and I could clearly envision an opening sequence of this show.
We assembled a cast of great actors for the roles and filmed the credits sequence, which at the time was as far as I intended to take it, but everyone involved had such fun that we were enthused about stepping it up to another level, and so Dr. Beyond: The YouTube Series was born.
Upkins: What’s the premise?
Pogue: The basic directive was to create an action/adventure sci-fi show in the 22-minute 1980s format — an updated take on the Sunbow cartoons, The Real Ghostbusters and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. This will be a 12-part YouTube series premiering later this year.
The story follows Dr. Bianca Yong, two-fisted quantum physicist and all-around action hero, and her team of associates in the time following the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, which was a real-life New Age event in which a once-in-a-lifetime lineup of planets had people thinking a different era was at hand. Sort of an early version of the 2012 stuff that was going around a few years back. In the Beyond world, the Convergence sets off a connection with another universe, leading to new kinds of science, people gaining superpowers, and generally everything we know about physics turning out to be wrong. Dr. Beyond and the Agents of ABOVE seek to understand this new world, even as sinister types look to take advantage of it.
Upkins: Tell us a bit about the leads.
Pogue: I’ve been fortunate to gather a tremendous amount of talent around this project. Their ambition to make this go further, faster and harder than I ever thought possible has really driven me to work as hard as I can to keep up!
Hoai-Huong Oxenrider, who plays the lead role of Bianca Yong, is virtually a real-life superhero with some astounding physical skills and more energy and enthusiasm than nearly anyone I’ve ever met. The first time she put on Dr. Yong’s white coat and goggles, she looked more like the role than my own mental image of the character did. I still can’t figure out how that’s POSSIBLE.
Joanna Eve Winston, who plays cyborg supersoldier Columbia, first came to my attention a few years back at an event where she played a sort of steampunk Foxy Brown, totally taking over the stage like she owned the place. Once we established Columbia’s basic premise, I couldn’t think of anyone else more perfect for the role. She’s one of the most versatile performers I know, and the credits reel only scratches the surface of her abilities.
Isabella DiLoreto sometimes seems to me like she IS from several different time periods at once, so the role of Hiker, mysterious and mystical time-traveller with ennui, was virtually tailor-made for her. She was tremendously dedicated at every point and put up with a lot of fairly outlandish requests (“could you turn around and point the sword again, but a little faster and about two inches higher?”) with good humor, as well as adding a lot of interesting mythos to the character’s backstory.
She’s an example of how this project has grown through collaboration — my initial “origin story” for Hiker wasn’t much more complex than “medieval noblewoman falls into time portal, weirdness ensues,” but she clued me in to the real-life Hari’i, Germanic pre-medieval “ghost warriors” who struck fear into the hearts of Roman legions. Details like that have really helped improve the overall story.
Tiffany Marie Briscoe, playing Sarah “Sharpe” Faireborne, is the sort of person that, when I said “so, the role is a slightly freaked-out sullen teenager with an obsession with the morose, talks to the dead and wears a bunch of military surplus gear” immediately responded with “I like/love her already!” And she was always game for weird stuff like “hang from this tree over a green screen and look really panicked.”
Philip Schoppenhorst really brought a lot of vibrant energy to team sidekick/all-around support dude Edgar Steinfield. The character was a lot more of a blank slate to me before he came along, but he really came into his own once Philip embraced his remit of “young Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator era, but with the creepiness dialed down and the charm dialed up.”
Liz Jackson is going on her second decade of being somehow involved in mad schemes of mine, and her versatile acting style was well-suited for the villain of our piece, Caroline Regina. Her knack for expressing disdain with a cocked head and curled lip was highly evocative of the kind of “Joan Collins in Dynasty” effect we were going for.
I have a few other actors on board as well, but you’ll have to wait for the series to learn more about their characters!
Upkins: Sounds like you’re working with a very gifted and brilliant crew.
Pogue: I couldn’t ask for a better cast or team of writers to back me up. Everyone takes their roles very seriously as custodians of their characters, and they don’t hesitate to tell me if I’m going too far off-model. And I am tremendously grateful for that kind of backstop, actually; this entire thing has been a collaborative effort from beginning to end. It’s about as far from auteur theory as you can get. There’s a reason the “created by” screen in the credits lists six names. It’s nearly impossible to tell where one person’s contribution ends and another begins. (Though for the record, Hollis Adler, who created the basics of Bianca Yong, the show’s structure and its villains, is most certainly the real godfather of Dr. Beyond. I ended up handling the directing part because I was the member of the group with the visual background, inclination and possibly sheer insanity required to actually try to bring this to life.)
My wife, Katrina, has been a huge part of this process from the beginning. She has an eye for detail that I, to put it kindly, sometimes lack, and her makeup, costume design and action figure customizing has added entirely new levels to the entire undertaking.
Upkins: You’ve also got some serious players on the soundtrack end.
Pogue: The music was really one of the big starting points for the project. I had been thinking about it in sort of a hypothetical way for a while, but when my old friends Leslie Irene Benson and Jason Reed Milner of The Sweetest Condition sent me a copy of their newest CD, I listened to Control and thought it was the most perfect 1980s synthesizer pop song I had ever heard! Up until that point I had been mentally editing a Dr. Beyond opening sequence to the tune of existing 1980s songs — “Nobody’s Fool” by Kenny Loggins was one that kept popping up in my head — but this song snapped a great deal into focus in my own mind. Leslie and Jason readily agreed to let me use their song and even did some tweaks to the arrangement to seamlessly cut it down to 2 minutes and match the length of the intro sequence to the narration.
And for the narration itself, I wanted a truly authentic 1980s feel, so I asked for help from the most 80s voice I could think of: Samantha Newark, the voice of Jem and Jerrica Benton. She has long been tremendously gracious to her fans, and turned in narration that was the perfect mix of camp and seriousness we were looking for. Her involvement was one of those moments that really pushes you to want to make it better — I was like, “okay, now I REALLY have to step up my game to live up to this!”
Samantha’s a true sweetheart, and her contributions did a lot to make many of us involved feel like they were part of something very special. Sam was our 1980s patronus!
Upkins: What was interesting to me is that the same week you released the opening credits/teaser trailer for Dr. Beyond, news broke about Scarlet Johansson and the Ghost In the Shell whitewashing. Not to mention the blatant whitewashing of the Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange film. On the one hand we have Hollywood once again erasing Asians from their own culture and here you are building a universe that not only features an Asian female lead but multiple females and characters of color. Was this planned, serendipity, or both?
Pogue: The diversity was planned, but the timing that week was indeed serendipity. I think Hollis Adler put it best at the very beginning of the creative process: “Fuck having an all-white cast. That’s boring.” Our overall goal was “remake the 80s without repeating some of its most troubling aspects,” and the single greatest creative failure of 1980s genre TV was its dismal track record with racial and gender diversity. So we were aiming to correct the flaws of a genre 30 years in the past and ended up addressing an issue that’s still very relevant in 2016.
Upkins: As a white fan and creator, what does diversity mean to you and how important is it?
Pogue: I’m keenly aware of my role as a middle-aged white guy with at best a 201-level understanding of media diversity issues, so I feel like my responsibility is to approach it as respectfully as I can, learn everything I can and tell the best story possible. And a good story takes place in a lived-in, authentic world, and an authentic world is not one populated solely by white guys.
Steve Gerber once said that in an ideal story, every page should contain at least one thought that has never occurred to the reader before. If I want to see my own culture and experiences reflected on screen, there are many many MANY places I can go do that. I want to see something new. One of the reasons Ms. Marvel is such a great comic book is precisely because Kamala Khan’s life experience as a Pakistani-American superhero and observant Muslim is one that has never been told in superhero comics. You can drop her into the same plots that Stan Lee was using for Spider-Man in 1967 and the story will nonetheless be unique because the character dynamic is so different.
Honestly, I look at the tropes that are repeated over and over again and it drives me crazy — such as the “White guy joins other culture and ends up doing it better than them” trope that was already old when Dances With Wolves came along and is still going strong. I rather naively thought we’d be beyond that by now, but you just need to look at Hollywood casting notices and the ratio of white to non-white actors in major roles to see that is most certainly not the case.
There was actually quite a bit of consideration put into how we would approach diversity, both gender and racial, in the Dr. Beyond project. There’s no one set-in-stone way it should be done.
My personal take is to approach it all as an alternate creative universe in which “white male” is not considered the default mode in entertainment. Dr. Beyond and her core team are female, but they’re only all-female in the same sense that the A-Team is all male. An all-male team wasn’t even worth remarking on in 1984 because it was the presumed default. So the nature of the team is rarely commented on in the text. They just ARE.
The most depressing thing about the Bechdel Test is that it’s an incredibly low bar and so much entertainment STILL manages to fail it.
Upkins: As parents what steps do you and your wife Kat take in terms of teaching your kids about diversity and multiculturalism?
Pogue: With as much exposure as possible! Our hope is to normalize multiculturalism for them so that they don’t see it as at all unusual. We make a point of getting out there in the world as much as we can and introducing them to as many points of view and other cultures as possible.
It appears to be having some effect — for his most recent birthday dinner, where Armand pretty much had his choice of anything in the city, he wanted to go to the local Ethiopian restaurant.
Having kids has done a lot to impress the importance of representation on me. Stories create role models; kids are influenced by what they see. I’m pretty sure my daughter thinks Hoai-Huong IS a superhero, and she’s always asking to see more Dr. Beyond stuff. Representation matters.
Upkins: To other white creators and whites in general, what would you say to them in terms of diversity in media and other marginalized issues in our society?
Pogue: If you’re a white fan or creator, you should take whitewashing as an insult. Seriously. It’s the machinery of media basically telling you that you can’t be trusted to enjoy watching a dark-skinned Khan Noonien Singh, a Tibetan Ancient One or a Japanese Motoko Kusanagi. And the same goes for the need to shoehorn a white POV lead character into a story where they don’t really belong. They are literally telling you that they don’t think you’ll watch a movie about Ken Watanabe being a samurai badass without Tom Cruise being there to provide white-dude training wheels.
This kind of thing SHOULD be obvious. I mean, there was talk of digitally skin-altering actors in Ghost in the Shell to make them look more Asian. I cannot believe that it is 2016 and we are still seriously talking about the same tricks used to make Warner Oland into Charlie Chan in nineteen-freakin’-thirty-one. I find it nearly incomprehensible that the writer of Doctor Strange is actually giving interviews where he says the biggest problem with Strange’s Tibetan origin is that it has too many Tibetans in it.
The most recent Star Trek movie is literally sporting a less diverse cast than the 1982 movie it was remaking. It’s not even good business sense — the highly diverse Furious 7 is the #7 most money-making movie of all time. OF ALL TIME. More money than all but one Star Wars movie, all but one Marvel movie, and every single Batman movie. Not a hard equation to follow. Diversity sells.
One of the excuses we hear a lot from creators, and in fact is making the rounds right now regarding the Doctor Strange film, is that non-white characters create a minefield, a no-win situation where nobody’s going to be happy no matter what you do.
And you know what? It’s true. You know what? It’s true. But that’s not an excuse to punt the question and just say “oh, well, it’s safer just not to even try.” We didn’t get into writing to be safe. Someone’s always going to be annoyed with your work and sooner or later, despite your best intentions, you’re going to screw it up. Writing’s hard. It’s the risk you take when you become a creator. There are a hundred ways I might mess up responsible representation in the course of this project, and the real test will be what I do in response. Get back up, dust yourself off and get back into it. And if you’ve learned something, then try to do better next time. But if you really DO think diversity in characters creates a no-win situation, you might want to consider not using “just make them white and be done with it” as the go-to solution.
So much media has always presumed whiteness as the default, when it’s literally about as far from the default as you can get in the real world. Don’t try to tell me as a creator that you have no problem envisioning worlds of superpowers and faster-than-light travel and wizards but you just can’t wrap your mind around lead characters who don’t have pink skin.
Upkins: The teaser is amazing. For fans who want more what can they do to make this happen?
Pogue: Thanks for saying so! The easiest and most concrete thing they can do is go to the YouTube page, like and comment on the video, and subscribe to the page. The only thing currently posted is the teaser, but that’s where we’ll be putting up material going forward, including the actual episodes when they’re completed. And of course likes and subscribes help us with YouTube, including things like getting a custom channel name.
We’re also seeking crowdfunding help to finance the project. We’re doing as much of this as possible on a DIY basis, but certain elements like the more ambitious props and renting shooting sites will require a certain amount of resources. So we’ve set up a site for those who’d like to help out.
And we have some nifty rewards to make it worth people’s while to donate. We’ve designed custom action figures of all the lead cast members, and everyone who contributes at least $75 gets anywhere from 1 to 10 figures based on contribution. If we do really well, we’ll design a second wave of action figures based on some of the characters who haven’t shown up in the teaser yet.
If our funding reaches the $4,000 mark, we’ll be commissioning a full-sized 80s-style poster from Laura Martin — one of the greatest colorists in comics, whose work includes Planetary, The Authority, and Astonishing X-Men, just as a start — and will be sending all contributors of $50 or more a poster. The larger the contribution, the bigger the poster!
Plus, everyone who contributes $25 or more gets their name in the credits — anything from “Added thanks” to “executive producer” based on their contribution.
And even if you can’t contribute, it helps in a big, big way just to share around the teaser and the GoFundMe site, with the hopes that if you send it to everyone, they’ll send it to everyone else!
Upkins: In addition to the GoFundMe Page, any other places they can check for you all online?
Upkins: What lies ahead for #TeamBeyond?
Pogue: Once the funding campaign has been going a few weeks, I’ll have a very good idea of the budget and shooting locations. We start filming in late spring, and my hope is to be able to debut this in late summer or early fall, with a premiere party of the first few episodes at a local theater, followed by a weekly release of new episodes. Who knows, we may end the whole thing with another local theater event of all the episodes leading into the final week. “Dr. Beyond: The Binge Watch” has a nice ring to it!
You can look forward to fight scenes, crazy stunts, time travel, big hair, synthesizers, multiple slow-motion montages with wailing guitars in the background, the finest special effects technology 1987 has to offer, and a knock-down, drag-out throwdown between a character with glowing angel wings and another with animated spider arms. You know, stuff like that.
And if it’s a genuine YouTube success? Well, it’s an extensive universe out there — we can keep telling stories in this world for as long as people want to watch them.