by John W. Smith, Contributing Writer
If you dont know what Degrassi is, ask your 12 year old niece or your 20 year old girlfriend. Dozens of fans attended the Degrassi: Extra Credit panel on Sunday at the New York Comic Con. One fan in her twenties succinctly described the show as Canadian middle and high-school melodrama. For many fans, however, its much more. Several were dressed in homemade shirts featuring iron-on pictures of their favorite stars and carried well-worn scrapbooks packed with magazine articles and personal letters to the characters. One young girl carried a detailed banner decorated with cut-outs, quotes and declarations of love.
Chris Jackson was already on a first-name basis with many. Hes the director of Digital Media & Merchandising for Epitome Pictures, the production company behind Degrassi and Instant Star, which both air on The N in the United States and CTV in Canada. Currently the show airs in 102 countries. Jackson moderated Sundays panel, which featured J. Torres, writer of the Degrassi: Extra Credit graphic novel series, Ramon Perez, who penciled the second volume, and Sarah Barrable-Tishauer, the seventeen year old high school student who plays teen mom/class president Liberty Van Zandt on Degrassi: The Next Generation.
Jackson talked briefly about the shows background. Degrassi: The Next Generation the fourth iteration in a franchise that has been around for almost 27 years. It is now in its 6th season, and has just received an order for 24 episodes of season 7. Epitomes Instant Star has also been ordered for 13 episodes of season 4.
Jackson said Torres, the writer of the Degrassi: Extra Credit graphic novels, was instrumental in launching this publishing program. According to Torres, the goal of the books was to try to fill in gaps in between episodes and in the summer monthsthats what [series creator] Linda Schuyler wanted.
Both of the first two volumes occur in the gaps between seasons 5 and 6. Books 3 and 4 will come out in late April and middle of May. Book 3 will feature Barrable-Tishauers character Liberty dealing with the adoption of her baby and the breakup with boyfriend JT Yorke. Also look for former bad-boy Spinner going trying to win back his conservative girlfriend Darcy. Book 4 has Marco and Dylan and how they got the house together. The books B-plot features Ashley and her hat. The hat goes missing, Torres said. Who took it?
Torres said the writers do advance him the scripts and he usually sees pre-air episodes that often feature scenes that wont make it to air. He said that has made it tough at signings, where recently hed been asked if JT was going to die. Torres said he gets mail a lot from fans and posts through his website and Myspace. Its great because writing is a solitary thing, he said. Sometimes you feel bad because you cant respond. You dont have the time or you just cant answer. Torres added that he has to be careful with peoples ideas. I feel that I cant review fan-fic, but if there was any similar ideas we could get into trouble.
Torres has also gotten the opportunity to write a number of short live-action webisodes. Toby Dynamite, a takeoff on Napoleon Dynamite, Bring It On where the guys try out for spirit squad, and Da View, a parody of The View.
The artist behind the second volume in the series, Ramon Perez, said hes working on an upcoming Justice League miniseries and as a backup on a Vertigo series. Perez also continues to work on the online comic butternutsquash which he described as slice of life, thirtysomething-esque humor.
Perez remarked on the challenge when dealing with characters based on real people. Ive worked on some Star Wars stuff where the characters are iconic but dont have to look like the actors, he said. The audience is very familiar with Degrassi characters. Perez said that he hadnt seen the show beyond season one and watched the entirety of season five, focusing on Manny and Emma. He also picked up fashion catalogs to find out what the kids are wearing and visited the Toronto sets to ensure accuracy. Ive worked on enough properties to know that if you get something wrong, the fans will let you know about it. He added that hes drawn Emma a half dozen times at different shows. Its a lot different since its a real living person and not Superman. Perez said that hed be willing to do another Degrassi graphic novel.
Sarah Barrable-Tishauer has been on Degrassi for six years. Youve seen my awkward years documented in season one. Barrable-Tishauer was also featured in a production of The Lion King in Toronto. She said she was surprised to see the show move into graphic novels. Its the most bizarre thing to see yourself in comic form, she said. When I showed myself talking to JT in book two to my family, they were like thats totally you!
She said that sometimes people have difficulty seeing past her work as Liberty. Definitely, when youre on TV youre going into someones home. But its difficult for people to see that difference. Still, she said, the actors put bits of themselves in the characters. She explained that Liberty didnt exist when the show was originally cast. She had gone out for the character of Manny. Its weird because I totally remember sitting with Cassie and talking about this character, she said. I went in and read for her and I didnt feel a connection with the character. She said another actress also read who was a lot like Liberty, leading the shows producers to realize that they needed a highly-structured character. Ironically, Barrable-Tishauer out-Liberty-ed Liberty and in casting beat out the girl the character had been based on. She pointed out that had she played Manny, you would have seen a completely different show.
In episode 6-11, Libertys ex-boyfriend and father of her child, JT, falls victim to a school rivalry. Barrable-Tishauer said that when the cast found out about the characters death at a read-through, she thought it was a joke. Sometimes the writers like to throw in that everybody dies in a fire at Degrassi.Ryan [Cooley] knew but hadnt been allowed to tell. She said that she and Cooley were like best friends on set and that his last day on-set was depressing. Removing that from the cast thats been together for six years, we just didnt know how to handle it. Barrable-Tishauer added that it was bittersweet because Cooley is onwards and upwards, going to University.
Barrable-Tishauer is still in high school and attends after doing her work on the show. She said its pretty close to a real high school experience and not glamorized. She said that the cast is a really close familysome of us go to school together. She said shes close with Cooley and that she and Shenae Grimes (Darcy) hang out all the time. Youll see the whole cast going out to dinner sometimes. Ironically, she said that she and Jake Epstein (Craig) have never been in a scene together even though theyve worked together for five years. Several audience members wanted to know her music tastes: she likes alternative rock, and named the Arctic Monkeys, the Fray, Coldplay, Broken Social Scene and Feist as favorites. Although, she said, its always fun to listen to Justin Timberlake. She also said her favorite actor is Edward Norton. Barrable-Tishauer was asked which Degrassi actor was the most like or unlike their character. Ryan and JT are pretty close, really funny and crazy. She said that other than herself and Liberty, the least was Paige and Lauren Collins. Laurens the sweetest girl ever.
Jackson said two animated Mangasodes drawn from the Extra Credit books were produced. He said that producers are watching fan sites and Myspace pages and the Ns website. Jackson said they hed like to do more and is working for that.
Jackson said his office is close to the room where the mail comes in. A lot of the things that come in are inappropriate and may make people feel uncomfortable. The shows staff keeps a Hall of Fame of the best of the best of fan weirdness. One example he mentioned is that theyve been getting random bottles of shampoo in the maileach tagged with a different reason why Craig should rekindle his romance with Ellie.