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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Satirical Superheroes for the Rude Set

Satirical Superheroes for the Rude Set

By LOLA OGUNNAIKE
They don't leap tall buildings in a single bound or scale skyscrapers. They don't transform into not-so-jolly green giants or zoom around in tricked-out sportsmobiles. Instead, Minoriteam — a motley band of minority superheroes — uses stereotypes to fight their archenemy: racism.

Created by Adam de la Peña, Todd James and Peter Girardi — all alumni of the ribald Comedy Central puppet series "Crank Yankers" — "Minoriteam" is a provocative animated show that sends up bigotry. It makes its debut tomorrow night on Cartoon Network's late-night "Adult Swim" block of animated shows for viewers who have outgrown the Disney Channel.

Having found success with "The Boondocks," the animated series based on Aaron McGruder's comic strip that takes a satirical look at race and class in America, Mike Lazzo, the network's senior vice president for "Adult Swim," said he was more than willing to invest in another show with a distinctive voice on issues. "I think television is well served by social commentary, especially if you can make it feel like it's not a lesson that's being slammed over someone's head."

Metropolis had Superman. Gotham City had Batman. And Corporate City has Minoriteam:

The team's leader, Dr. Wang, is an Asian, wheelchair-bound mathematical genius with a freakishly large brain. He speaks with a heavy Chinese accent and is in the laundry business.

Non-Stop is the alter ego of Dave Raj, an Indian, former professional skateboarder turned convenience store clerk who is incapable of being killed by firearms. After having been shot 235 times during various attempted robberies, his skin is saturated with lead, which serves as a bulletproof armor of sorts; when necessary, his skateboard morphs into a flying carpet.

Landon K. Dutton, a black man awkwardly teaching women's studies at Male University, turns into Fasto, the world's fastest man. His extreme rage propels him to travel at breakneck speeds. When not fighting crime he spends his time "studying" the opposite sex; during one episode, it takes him only seconds to satisfy a roomful of Thai prostitutes.

Richard Escartin, a Mexican oil baron, trades his tailored suits and silk ties for a giant sombrero and a leaf blower when he becomes El Jefe, Minoriteam's hardest working member. El Jefe's blower is no ordinary garden tool. It can suck and blow with deadly force and rip holes through time and space. His kryptonite? Tequila. "I think a lot of people can relate to that," Mr. de la Peña said.

Neil Horvitz may be a wimpy mail clerk in his early 20's, but his alter ego, Jewcano, is a muscle-bound 62-year-old who sports an XXXL yarmulke and has all the power of the Jewish faith and a raging volcano. Watch him shoot molten lava from his wrists (move over, Spider-Man).

The multiethnic crew battles a gang of villains including the sniveling Corporate Ladder (an anthropomorphized ladder with a cape and a pipe), Racist Frankenstein (a bigoted monster) and Standardized Test, whose head is shaped like a No. 2 pencil and whose body resembles a Scantron test. White Shadow, the bad guys' bumbling leader, has a head that looks eerily like the pyramid found on the back of a dollar bill. He spews nonsensical corporate-speak, using words like "synergy" and phrases like "Let's all get on the same page."

"He's an amalgam of a thousand morons that we've all dealt with in our lives, starting with the lackey at the D.M.V. and all the way up to Dick Cheney," Mr. Girardi said. "Shooting your friend in the face is totally something White Shadow would do and Corporate Ladder would be like, 'Boss, I'm sorry my face got in the way of your gun.' " For recreation, the villains enjoy a nice relaxing game of Oligarchy or a racist version of Scrabble.

In one episode White Shadow and his minions travel back in time to destroy the accomplishments of minorities throughout history. Another episode finds Minoriteam on trial in a parallel universe. Their crime? Not being racist. And during the season opener, White Shadow, bothered by the rising power of black-owned business, kidnaps Sebastian Jefferson, a prominent African-American mogul. Grape-soda factories and soul food restaurants immediately close.

But it will take more than playing the race card for this show to succeed, Mr. Lazzo acknowledged. "You have to empathize with the characters," he said. "If the characters aren't interesting, then it will be a one-trick pony and it won't last because our audience will suss that out in a few weeks."

The creators have braced themselves for negative feedback. Surely someone will be uncomfortable watching a Jewish superhero get aroused while chasing a giant glowing nickel, they said. "But who exactly will it offend?" Mr. de la Peña asked. "I have no idea. We're really targeting Eskimos."

Unlike "The Boondocks," which is drawn in a sophisticated anime style, "Minoriteam" is crudely drawn and the show's color palette is limited to those available for comic-book printing in the 1960's, Mr. Girardi said.

"It's not a true animated show," he said, "it's more like a moving comic book, moving very little actually, which is on purpose. Using that style of animation is part of the humor. But we're not parodying those cartoons or cheap animation. We actually really love cheap animation."

The three self-professed comic-book junkies happily recall many an afternoon spent at their favorite local comic-book stores. "Mine was named Comic Book Castle and it was not a castle," Mr. de la Peña said. "It was run by a lunatic man who had a parrot on his shoulder that didn't talk, so it might as well have been a pigeon."

Based in Hollywood, their headquarters is a veritable shrine to Jack Kirby, the comic artist whose résumé included such iconic characters as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Incredible Hulk. Kirby's work fills the cramped office the animators share, and each can discuss the legendary illustrator's contributions to the world of comics in exhaustive detail. "I think that's why we get along so much, because we don't have hierarchal distinctions between fine art and vernacular art," Mr. Girardi said. "To us good is good and Kirby is right up there with Picasso."

Mr. Girardi and Mr. James have known each other since they were adolescent graffiti artists, altering subway trains and abandoned buildings around New York City. "We expressed our youthful rage through urban artistry," Mr. Girardi joked.

Mr. de la Peña, a fourth-generation Mexican-American, was raised in a racially diverse community in Orange County, Calif. He has been a staff writer for "The Man Show" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and he co-starred in the 2003 Comedy Central series, "I'm With Busey," a reality show involving the actor Gary Busey.

Mr. Girardi's background is in digital media design. In addition to his "Minoriteam" work, he still runs Funny Garbage, the design company he started more than a decade ago. Mr. James has created logos for rappers like Eminem, Red Man and the Beastie Boys, and he was the puppet designer for "Crank Yankers."

Coming episodes of "Minoriteam" will poke fun at the Internal Revenue Service, illegal aliens and an assortment of conspiracy theories. But Mr. James said, "We're not sitting around and saying, 'Man, we've got to talk about this 'cause it's heavy.' That's not our m.o. It's about justice and condemnation of everyone for everyone."

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