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Len Uhley Talks Iron Man

A veteran of various animated shows throughout the years, Len Uhley has written for various Marvel cartoons since the mid 1990’s. The Marvel Animation Age caught up with Len to talk about his freelance assignment on Iron Man, the critically acclaimed "Armor Wars" storyline.

MAA: How did you get your start in the animation biz?

Uhley: It was kind of a happy accident. A voice actor I knew introduced me to Jymn Magon, the story editor on Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears. I did freelance assignments for that show and for DuckTales, after which I joined the staff at Walt Disney TV Animation. I was there for five and a half years, during the busiest days of The Disney Afternoon, a syndicated two-hour block of cartoons. After leaving Disney, I transitioned from comedy adventure to superhero action, and have been moving between the two ever since.

MAA: You wrote two episodes of Iron Man as a freelancer. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working as a freelancer in the animation industry when compared to working on staff?

Uhley: Unfortunately, staff positions are much less common these days. They’re great, because it’s guaranteed work for several months or longer. If your employers provide you with an office at a studio, you also get to work alongside other writers and artists. Oh, and you eat a lot more lunches in restaurants.

The freelance experience is quite different. It’s just you tucked away in your home or office, getting notes via phone or e-mail from the story editor, the only writer-type person who’s on for the run of the show. Also, because it is piecework, you’re always trying to land the next job before you’re done with the current one. It’s a seasonal, feast-or-famine situation.

MAA: Apologies if this sounds like an odd question, but how does one actually get freelance work? Do story editors approach you or do you ask them for work?

Uhley: Both. It’s a business of relationships, like any other. Naturally, story editors prefer to hire people who share their sensibilities and who are quick studies. If you make the story editor’s job easy, he or she hires you again. If you make it hard by, say, packing a preschool show with Bill Maher jokes -- nobody answers your calls next time.

MAA: How much of your work usually ends up on the screen when freelancing? Do you find it’s edited more to fit in with the tone of the show?

Uhley: The answer to both questions is, “it depends.” Whether you’re on staff or a freelancer, it’s the story editor who does the final pass, whether that’s a tiny polish or a total rewrite. Assuming you’ve integrated the notes satisfactorily, the script is pretty close to final. However, even if the story editor loves every word you wrote, he or she must answer to others (studios, networks, toy companies, the boss’s kids). If you’re on staff, they can have you redo the thing for as long as the production schedule allows. If you’re a freelancer, there are limits to how many times they can go back to the well, since that means you’re doing more work for the same amount of money. Then the story editor has to do the heavy lifting.

MAA: When a show uses a serialised storyline over the arc of the season like Iron Man did, how difficult is to incorporate the storyline into the show especially as it’s possible the prior episodes are still being written at the same time as you are scripting yours?

Uhley: It’s the story editor’s job to know what is in the works and to make sure that your script conforms to that grander vision. The episode writer’s job is to do the best work possible, as quickly as possible.

MAA: The Armour Wars was one of the more intense storylines in Iron Man’s comic book lore, with the main character almost reaching his breaking point. However, in the animated version, he completely snaps. Was it difficult to write a hero who was almost becoming that which he fought against? What did you think to the original comic storyline?

Uhley: It's always interesting when a character loses touch with himself (so long as that personality is well established previously). I remember it being a very good comic book. But, as usual, there was too much plot for 44 minutes of screen time (two 22-minute episodes). So even if the thing was solid gold, lots of it probably fell by the wayside.

MAA: In the original comic storyline, Iron Man fought The Captain in The Vault, rather than Hawkeye. This has been chalked up to rights issues but the majority of fans believe that the Iron Man/Hawkeye confrontation was one of the show’s highlights. What’s your opinion on the scene?

Uhley: As happy as I am to take credit (deserved or otherwise) for a highlight -- I can't tell you my opinion of the scene (it was a long time ago), but I do seem to remember that Captain America was not available for our use. Too bad, I've always liked Cap, but never had a change to write for him. I did get a chance to write the Sub-Mariner a couple of times, though: once for The Avengers animated series, story edited by Eric Lewald, and once for the most recent version of The Fantastic Four, story edited by Christopher Yost. So, I got my Classic Marvel Character fix.

MAA: You’re working on the upcoming Iron Man: Armoured Adventures for Nicktoons. What can you tell us about your work so far on that?

Uhley: Again, I was freelancing for Christopher Yost, but in this instance, I only wrote one episode, entitled “Field Trip.” He’s a great guy, and I’m sure he’d be happy to fill you in on the series.

MAA: What do you consider the highlight of your career thus far?

Uhley: I have several favorites. I wrote three episodes of the Saban/Fox X-Men series, including one called “Nightcrawler,” which was, I think, the first superhero cartoon to deal with issues of faith. I had a wonderful time writing three home video features for Universal (Land Before Time VII, An American Tail III and An American Tail IV). A couple of years ago, story editor Stan Berkowitz hired me to do several episodes of a British Bible-based adventure series, Friends and Heroes. I really enjoyed doing an episode of The Batman for Alan Burnett, which guest-starred my favorite superhero, The Green Lantern, Hal Jordan. Still, I think that I am most proud of my contribution to Static Shock, a KidsWB series. I wrote about a third of the episodes as a freelancer and as a staff story editor. I was fortunate to work with many talented people and we made a show that successfully blended action and comedy with some rather serious issues.

MAA: What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

Uhley: In the short term, I have some episodes coming up on Cartoon Network’s new Ben 10: Alien Force, story-edited by the great Dwayne McDuffie. My first two will air on May 17 and June 21, 2008, but check your local listings.

The Marvel Animation Age would like to thank Len for his participation in this interview, and his work on the show. Cheers Len!