An Interview with LeSean Thomas: A Conversation About Cannon Busters, Diversity, and Animation
LeSean Thomas has a collection of great titles under his belt. Working on titles such as The Legend of Korra, The Boondocks, Black Dynamite (the Animated Series), Ben 10: Alien Force he’s had a hand in a multitude of iconic cartoons over the last 15+ years. After a successful Kickstarter campaign to help launch a new show called Cannon Busters (named and based after an original comic of his), LeSean got the chance to premier the pilot episode at Otakon 2016.
At Otakon we got the chance to sit down with the man and ask him about his career, his influences, and what makes Canon Busters so important to him.
We the Nerdy: How was it having Cannon Busters here and getting to premier it at Otakon? Especially with Otakon being primarily an anime convention?
LeSean Thomas: I thought it was cool. You know, I’m from New York City, I’m from the East Coast, so I’ve been spending most of my life on the West Coast and in Asia for the last six years. 12 years combined. So it’s kind of cool being from the east coast and having a chance to publicly share my first individual creation, an animated project with a Japanese company and Japanese studio, on the East Coast. So that’s pretty cool, and it was also great to see so many brown people in the room too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.
WtN: I noticed that too. Although we didn’t get into the room because it was filled to capacity, just looking at the line of people waiting to get in it wasn’t hard to notice that it was predominantly made up of black and brown folk.
LT: It’s like there was very few light skinned people in the crowd. It just reminded me of how much brown kids love anime, y’know, and they don’t really get to see – You know, they love everything and they take what’s given to them, but it’s like a different thing when you can see characters that have the same complexion as you and you can identify with it. I think we really take that for granted. I don’t think we really take that into consideration when we’re telling stories, y’know? Especially young teens who are trying to find themselves in media and they don’t really see themselves a lot. So being able to look into the crowd and see that they were so predominately brown, I’ve never really seen that before. I don’t know if it was because of Baltimore, I know the cities demographic make-up, so maybe that’s a part of it. But when everyone piled up into the room I was like, “Oh shit!” y’know? It was cool!
WtN: That was definitely something we noticed. Well not only that but also how many people were there for it. The line was huge and a ton of us didn’t even get into the room.
LT: I didn’t realize just how big it was either, I mean, I didn’t think we were going to fill up all the chairs to be honest because they put us in a small room. I thought, “Well maybe because they put us in a small room they they thought there wasn’t going to be a big enough crowd.” But I heard there was 15 to 20 people who couldn’t get in.
WtN: There was probably more than that because we got there about a half-hour before it started and we were starting to line up, and they were telling us, “You know you probably won’t be able to get in because the room doesn’t get a room clear”, “There’s already people inside, there’s already this many in line“ So we waited for a bit but they were basically trying to tell us, you know, your chances are pretty slim already.
LT: Yeah, I had no idea it was that big of a crowd and that room was I think maybe 100 people? It was cool though. One girl, her name was Shannon, she was in cosplay as one of main characters in Cannon Busters; this robot girl named Sam. I saw that she was tweeting that she couldn’t get into the panel so I sent her a direct message and I said, “You need to come to the autograph session” and I had her sit next to me while I did autographs and it was really cool, she got a really big kick out of that.
— Shannon @ SPX L9 (@shannondrewthis) August 13, 2016
WtN: Talking about how you’re seeing the cosplayers and the fans, is that something that ever crosses your mind when you’re making these characters? That you’re opening up the pool for black cosplayers? That was one of the big things this year, like tons of people were excited to be Lucio from Overwatch or Finn from Star Wars. At times it feels like, as a cosplayer, you’re like “Woo, one more black guy!”
LT: That’s a good question. I think for me, the way I make these cartoons and the way I make these characters, I don’t make them for cosplay. I make them because I’m influenced by wild character designs from the 90’s. It’s always animation related. It’s not based on who is going to interpret the stuff. Even at a toy level, I don’t think about that while designing these characters. I’m just thinking about what’s cool to me. But it’s a nice feather in the cap that people can look at these characters and see that there is an entire culture there for cosplay. It’s like, “Oh you know that’s right, someone is going to cosplay this.” I will tell you though that Sam, the main character in the show, part of her design influence was from brown girls cosplaying. She literally is a cosplay character.
WtN: Really? That’s so cool! Can you tell us more about that design influence?
LT: Yeah. She literally is a visual representation of a cosplayer. Like, an anime character brown girl, that was how I designed her, and she’s a robot. Other than that, I never thought about cosplay, but given the nature of my creative lens and the way I create stories and characters, I believe Cannon Busters might be a well of source material for brown girls and boys to cosplay, if it becomes a popular show and goes past the pilot. I just do what I know. From Boondocks to Black Dynamite to Legend of Korra – It’s normal for me to work on shows starring people of color. And that’s a rare thing for anyone to be able to say in T.V. animation. So why not Cannon Busters you know what I’m saying? It’s normal to me. There’s no agenda behind it. I’m black, I like to draw black people. It is what it is.
WtN: When it comes to voice acting, is that another door that gets opened in regards to your animation? That you do get to have black voice actors that might have not have had that opportunity?
LT: Oh, of course. Again, should we go to series, the main character, Sam, is Angelique Perrin. Y’know she’s a black woman. Elizabeth Maxwell who plays The Major in Ghost in the Shell: Arise, she plays Casey Turnbuckle. Felipe Smith, who you might know as the co-creator of Robbie Reyes from Ghost Rider, he’s the voice of Philly the Kid, and he’s half Black and half Argentinian. Kevin Grevioux does a voice in it. I’m very conscious about that.
WtN: So, do you think it’s been harder to get these projects recognized and out the door as opposed to making something a little more vanilla or a little more ordinary?
LT: No, I don’t think so. I think the problem is that there aren’t enough experienced people of color who are really good directors and have the experience, the know-how, the connections, the relationships with top anime talent in general; that are pitching their own shows. That’s the problem. It’s not whether it’s sellable or not. It’s me and who else? You know what I mean? Name another black director in tv animation that’s creating original anime content starring people of color. Maybe you can find some writers but writers don’t count. Y’know, you need directors, you need visionaries. People who can actually make things and lead a team. There aren’t any, and if there are, my bad – but as far as tv animation goes, to my knowledge, creating the type of stuff we’re talking about, I don’t know many. That’s the problem. It’s not “If I make a black character lead, it’s not going to be appealing to markets and networks”, it’s the fact that there aren’t any at all. There needs to be at least 70 or 80 more black versions of Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, The Boy and the Beast) or black Rebecca Sugars (Steven Universe). Like where are y’all? Where are the monsters, the ones who are undeniably good? There’s a guy named Ian Jones-Quartey. He’s a colleague of mine, works at Cartoon Network, he’s creating a show called OK K.O.! – y’know he’s a number one. He comes from school of visual arts and he’s with Rebecca Sugar at Cartoon Network. Like where are the solo visionaries? They’re not around. The question really isn’t, for me, will black led content be as well received as white led content? If there are 100 creators of color who have their own vision pitching content and it doesn’t get picked up, then we can start having the conversation about “Is it a race issue?” – but one isolated incident isn’t really a fair assessment of, “Is black content, particularly anime, sellable or not?” I think the bigger problem is I’m just by myself.
WtN: There was an interview you did for another publication that I can’t remember the name of at the moment but they were talking about The Boondocks, which has been out for at leasta decade now, and how kids at least got to grow up with that and how they might be able to put their foot in the door a little bit and say, “Maybe this is something I can do.”
LT: Which door do you mean though?
WtN: Well, whether it’s just thinking, “Maybe I can animate a scene in that style with black characters.” Or even just picking up a pen or pencil to begin with.
LT: I think so. I think it played a role but it’s only at the fan-art level. There’s nobody really, really doing anything. At most you’ll probably have a few directors or storyboards artists that are working on animated tv shows, but there are none doing it at a major level. Where are they? It’s still a number game for me. And that’s not to say that it’s gonna be that way, just that it’s going to be some time before we start seeing that. With The Boondocks, I thought that it wasn’t just going to open the door for little kids but I mean, we were in our twenties, early thirties when we did that show. That was 10 years ago and we’re much older now. Where is the group of black kids who were inspired years ago who are giving us a run for our money or giving us a bar to want to do better or even work with them? The people who did Black Dynamite – that was almost 8 years after we premiered The Boondocks – guess who did that? We did. We’re competing against ourselves. So, it really is a numbers game when it’s about black infiltration into the market and that’s always going to be my answer when those types of questions come up about facing opposition about black led content. I’m not a fair assessment of a whole demographic y’know? There’s just not a lot of us.
WtN: Do you have any tips for anyone who would want to get their foot through that door? You know, doing a series, getting on tv, becoming a director of a big show – y’know is it now going to be towards Kickstarters or something like that? Making their own creator owned content online or is it going to be them still aiming to get on tv?
LT: I think it’s all of those things. I think you have to do all of those things. There’s no one way to do it. You just gotta finish it and that’s the biggest problem I see with kids today is they don’t know how to finish anything. They know how to put up sketches and some pretty digital paint concept designs with captions saying “From my future manga” or “My future idea”. But it’s just nonsense in the wind when you really think about it in the long run. Like, just finish something. Finish a volume of a manga. Let it suck, who cares? Draw well. Draw badly. But finish it and move on to your next one. Then do that again, and again. Same thing with animation. Start with shorts, but finish them. You gotta be whack for a long time and it’s just the truth. It takes a long time to get good. You can always get better but if you don’t learn the aptitude of completion, it doesn’t matter how dope you are. You could be the dopest concept designer who’s never finished anything because you don’t have the discipline to just let it go and move on to the next thing. So it’s all those things you listed, but most importantly finishing things. There’s a lot of mediocre stuff out there and the reason why it’s out there is because they know how to finish it! They may not be the best but they know how to get things out there. How to package a product. That’s just a lot of what I’ve been seeing the past few years. But I don’t know everything. I could be wrong next year and my feelings could change. But right now, particularly in the past few weeks, a lot of the stuff I’ve seen has just been a lot of posturing. Creative posturing online where people are just, “This is coming soon.” Well, where is it homie? When is it coming out? And I used to be that way but not because I didn’t have the aptitude of finishing things but because I was working on other stuff. The Boondocks, Black Dynamite, Legend of Korra. I lived in Korea for three years y’know where I was working on Ben 10: Alien Force, Green Lantern: First Flight, Batman: Public Enemies, Batman: The Brave and The Bold. I’ve been working for the past few years and it’s hard to do multiple things and I’m not really good at multitasking. So I like to focus on one thing, finish it, and move on to the next. So when it was time for me to really sit down with this Cannon Busters project – and I did a video web series too when I was in Korea called Seoul Sessions – so, I was busy just being creative and sharing information online and working and being active. When it was time to wrap up Black Dynamite, I said, “Okay, my next project is gonna be a Kickstarter.” For me, it was Cannon Busters, that project that I never really got to finish as a comic. So it was okay let me bring it back and really do this thing and put it out there. It was a challenge for me and a lesson for me too, but it’s really about finishing stuff.
WtN: Now when it came to Kickstarting Cannon Busters how did you determine how you were going to set it up? Did you look at a lot of failed projects and say “Ok this is what didn’t work” or did you take a look at successful ones and say “So this is what we need to do to make this work”? Did you think that maybe your previous success were enough to just hold you over and get you enough support for Cannon Busters?
LT: I think it was a little bit bit of both. I looked at a lot of failed Kickstarters too, not successful ones. I wanted to know what they fucked up on. When it was time to go to campaign, I remember the night I interviewed Joe Madureira for his section of the video. We were walking and he was like, “Well how much are you going to ask for?” and I said “I think I’m gonna ask for $90,000.” And he was like, “Hmm I don’t know man, $90,000 is a little too cheap” and I was like “Well, I don’t want to ask for too much money.” And he said, “Well if you ask for too little money with all this talent you have in the video – You got Peter Chung in the video, you got me, you got Sateliight involved, all of these guys – people are gonna believe that it costs a lot of money if you’ve got all of these celebrities attached to it and you ask for it” My goal was $120,000 anyway so I figured if it’d go to $90k it could go to $120. So, you see how the logic works. But we talked about it and I was like, “Okay I’ll ask for $120.” And it went to $156k. But I was really nervous because you aren’t really sure who supports you until you start asking them for money, right? That was a big unknown for me, I wasn’t sure if people were willing – and it was around Thanksgiving – so we weren’t really sure if people were willing to come out of their pockets for something they wouldn’t see for a year and a half. They wanna put that money towards their family and Christmas gifts, stuff like that. So a lot of real concerns and pressures that I just went for and people just came through that weekend and delivered. I couldn’t plan for it. You just gotta hope for the best. I think me visiting CTN Expo that third weekend really saved me because I raised like 10 g’s that weekend. It helps when people see that you are close to the finish line because then they are like, “Oh they’re gonna make it!” When we crossed a hundred, I think it was four days out, and I just breathed a sigh of relief because it was like I knew the way the money was coming in – and we hadn’t reached our final week yet – that that’s when everyone started getting really excited. Like, “Oh shit! He’s gonna actually fucking make it, this guy is gonna make his own anime.” That was cool. It worked out.
WtN: Is there anything else you’d like to say to people who want to start creating or who might look at you as a big influence? Or just anything to creators in general?
LT: I would say just finish stuff and accept being whack. You know being sucky is just a phase. Everybody was whack when they started. EVERYBODY. Beyonce, Miyazaki, you know everyone wasn’t good when they started, so it’s just learning how to have patience. And in this generation it’s really difficult. That would be my suggestion. Kids ask me, “What can I do?” And expect me to say like, “Well you do this, this, and this and you’ll be good.” And you’re disrespecting your self-growth that way. It’s not a 12-step program and it doesn’t work that way. The journey is mostly full of disappointment and it’s really about figuring who you are as an individual.
More about Cannon Busters can be found at its official website http://www.cannonbusters.com