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Matt Groening dodges Apu controversy at Comic-Con while promoting new Netflix series

Matt Groening dodges Apu controversy at Comic-Con while promoting new Netflix series
Princess Bean, left, Luci the demon and Elfo in Matt Groening's "Disenchantment." (Netflix)

A mind-scrambling, multi-layered celebration of onscreen heroes past and present, Comic-Con is driven as much by nostalgia as the thirst for the next new thing. In “Disenchantment,” the first new series in 19 years from “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening coming to Netflix next month, Comic-Con had the chance to celebrate both.

With voice talent that includes “Broad City” co-creator Abbi Jacobson (who was not on hand but sent along a video message) along with “Adult Swim” star Eric Andre, plus an eventual reunion of the voices behind “Futurama,” “Disenchantment” blends au courant comic royalty with masters of the form. What remains to be seen is how well “Disenchantment” fits with the present.

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This year has been a tough one for “The Simpsons.” The racially charged controversy surrounding the longtime character Apu, as outlined in comic Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem With Apu,” has yet to go away, and subsequent responses from longtime “Simpsons” writer Al Jean and Groening himself have not defused the issue. This week, Netflix interrupted an interview with another outlet that referenced the controversy, and the backlash to that move may have shaped its press strategy going forward.

The traditional audience Q&A that closes most Comic-Con panels was cut to just three questions in order to, as moderator Allie Goertz explained, make room for showing more exclusive footage. And the Comic-Con crowd, always friendly to their favorites, gamely kept their questions to “Disenchanted.”

And, to be fair, for anyone who’s a fan of “The Simpsons” or “Futurama,” the show looks to be in a similar vein. Unlike its predecessors, the series will carry a serialized structure upon its binge-ready release Aug. 17, and the producers said they already have an ending in mind for the next season. Groening described himself as a longtime fan of fantasy, citing his love for “Fractured Fairy Tales,” Jack Vance and Neil Gaiman. (“None of that came to pass in this show, but I read those things,” he joked)

And while the characters bear the unmistakable look of Groening’s work, from an animation standpoint, the show is another step further from the more dynamic “Futurama,” and the footage’s slapstick medieval violence and psychedelic adventures landed well amid Jacobson’s Princess Bean and Andre’s Luci, her character’s literal demon on her shoulder. “I’ve been known as a little black demon my whole life,” said Andre, whose boundary-pushing pranks and stunts on his show take comedy to its surrealist fringe.

“I like being evil because I worship Satan,” he joked. “That’s me in a nutshell.”

An editor at Mad Magazine and host of a “Simpsons” podcast, Goertz praised Bean as a strong, feminist lead for the show. “We just thought the world was ready, finally, for a female led,” Groening dryly remarked.

Josh Weinstein, showrunner for “The Simpsons’” Seasons 7 and 8, described the “Disenchantment” staff as a mix of “old farts” from “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” along with writers in their 20s, further testifying to the generation-spanning spine of the show. Nat Faxon, who provides the voice for a little elf sidekick named Elfo, described feeling “terrified” to be in the room with the “Futurama” voice vets, who include John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille and Billy West.

Asked during the Q&A why “Disenchantment” will air on Netflix instead of “The Simpsons’” home of Fox, Groening said “I just wanted to see what it was like to work with someone else,” and spoke of how easy the streaming service was to work with. “It’s really nice not to have to sell soap,” DiMaggio chimed in.

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