Boyhood fantasy a $200M franchise

When illustrator and animator Duncan Rouleau describes the adventures of his star character, Ben Tennyson, it sounds something like a childhood daydream.

"He gets a watch that falls from outer space and it is filled with alien DNA," the La Cañada Flintridge resident said. "He does not known how to use it, but when he puts it on he can move the dials around and he injects himself with alien DNA and for 10 minutes has those alien abilities."

But while the premise may be fantasy, "Ben 10" the brand is not. The Cartoon Network animated series, a smash hit since its 2006 debut, has grown into a $200 million franchise complete with complementary computer games and a Spaghettios promotion.

Rouleau developed the show in collaboration with Joe Kelly, Joe Casey and Steven Seagle, his partners at Man of Action, a production company that specializes in comic books and animation.

"It only slowly sinks in, these kinds of things, because primarily it is work," Rouleau said. "But when the show started to become popular I'd see kids wearing the T-shirts, or I would see the Happy Meals, or the toys at Toys "R" Us. I started to realize it became a little bigger than just my little office."

Growing up in Chicago, Rouleau loved comic books. But he abandoned them in his early teens and focused on acting. He majored in theater at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and moved to Los Angeles where he dabbled in the entertainment industry.

To make ends meet, Rouleau worked as a storyboard artist for feature films, including "Cliffhanger," starring Sylvester Stallone, and "Dracula," directed by Frances Ford Coppola.

In 1993, he crossed paths with the famous graphic artist Neal Adams, who asked him if he would be interested in illustrating comic books. Soon, Rouleau had gigs with Marvel Comics and DC Comics drawing major brands including X-men and Superman.

His career flourished. Rouleau helped establish Man of Action in 2002, and then Cartoon Network came calling with an invitation to create an original program.

"Having children of my own, I would be forced to watch [cartoons] with them and some of them were so awful," Rouleau said. "I wanted to make something that also parents could enjoy while they were watching with their kids."

The finished product was "Ben 10," about a young boy armed with a superpower watch who, along with his grandpa and cousin, faces down evil in a series of mishaps and adventures.

The show slices through generational and cultural boundaries, Casey said, and has been an international sensation. There are live stage performances of Ben 10 in South America, and it is rumored that a Bollywood movie is forthcoming. On YouTube, dozens of clips have more than a million views, and they are interspersed with homes videos of little boys playacting as Ben.

"It is great," Casey said of the fan's reaction to the show. "We all did it when we were kids, we tied the blanket around our neck and jump off the roof like we were Superman."

And in April, the Cartoon Network launched a second Man of Action creation, "Generator Rex," which premiered at number one on all television for its time slot among boys ages 9 to 14, and all children ages 2 to 11.

Both shows, Rouleau said, allows the creators and the viewers to dive into childhood fantasies.

"All of us have those, like wouldn't it been cool if your parents were actually spies," Rouleau said. "Or would it have been cool if you were in fact an orphan and you were actually a wizard. All those little day dreams…it is easy to draw on them. You can exploit it into a story and see what kind of message it actually has."

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