“I think I’ve always been inspired to do what I do,” explains Laura Jean Shannon, who goes by “LJ” and is a Costume Designer who counts among her credits Requiem for a Dream, Iron Man, Black Lightning, Stargirl, Doom Patrol, and The Boys. “And then, when it appeared to me that what I do was an option, it was a light bulb moment, a little a-ha moment. I genuinely believe that the trajectory of my life led me here. It’s not by accident that I’ve ended up doing what I’m doing.
“Starting with being a kid, and my mom and my brother and I are all science fiction geeks,” she continues during a recent conversation with Below the Line. “Long before I even was reading novels, though, I’d pored through every Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven novel. As a kid, I was loving Saturday morning cartoons, and I was always drawn to the ones that had epic, heroic characters and that had superheroes. I’ve always been an artist, even when I was a little kid, and really driven by nature and the sort of shared consciousness, that I always was tapped into from a very young age that I think is very much what art and filmmaking and TV production is about, if you’re lucky enough to work with the people that I work with, anyways.
“And so, when my brother and I were young — he’s six years older than me — we were in Cape Cod in the summer, and Star Wars came out,” Shannon adds. “He and I went to see it 16 times in the movie theater, because it just opened up this whole other kind of, literally, universe in our minds. My brother went into the film business before I did. He’s a DP and a Gaffer. So, I used to visit him when I was in college, studying art.”
Shannon vividly recalls visiting Doug Shannon in New York City, on the set of Director Spike Lee’s drama, Malcolm X. Doug, whom she considers her best friend, “very patiently and lovingly” showed her the ropes, explained what job each person on set did, and what that job entailed. Two costumers caught LJ’s eye. They were, as a tandem, rolling a rack of clothes through the streets of Harlem in the middle of the night.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is great. I could be an artist and make a living in the film business. Sign me up!’” Shannon recalls. “So, right after UMass Amherst, where I went to school, when I graduated in ’91, I moved in with my brother in Hell’s Kitchen, back when it was Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, and wrote a letter volunteering my services to any film starting production.”
Shannon landed a job with the costume department on Scent of a Woman. And that proved to be another lightbulb moment.
“My whole life, I had been really into clothing and fashion and costumes, actually, and character development,” she says. “As silly as it sounds, I had the world’s greatest-dressed Barbie dolls. So, I think that it was just one of those things where the universe presents things in your path that are meant to be presented to you. I became a costume designer and it was important to me to really not pigeonhole myself down a direction of my specific passion in terms of the types of designs that I love, which is fantasy and science-fiction, but to actually get a really broad base. I worked on contemporary projects. I worked on period projects and superhero projects. And it was important to me to really tick all those boxes so that I could really build my toolbox and flex my creative muscles in all different directions.
“I really think that all of that has led to why it’s been such a wonderful experience for these last four years with my amazing team, that I’ve been able to carry it over the course of that time, working on all of these superhero shows,” Shannon continues, referring to Black Lightning, Stargirl and Doom Patrol. “Certainly, it’s culminated with The Boys, where we’ve become these sort of co-architects, I always say, with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and Eric Kripke for the Vought Cinematic Universe, and being given the opportunity to take all of those things that have been building, over the course of my lifetime, to this moment. It just all feels very organic and natural and right.”
Shannon describes herself as a “comic book fan, inspired by the genre, and a geek,” but not necessarily obsessive about it all. As such, even as she tries to think outside the box, she strives on The Boys to do her part to ground the characters in the real world, or at least the real world as presented in the show’s interpretation of the Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson comic book. The show recently concluded its second, even more outlandish season on Amazon Prime Video, and the stellar work of the show’s below-the-line crews – including Shannon’s team — will surely be considered by Emmy voters. Among Shannon’s key contributions were evolving Starlight’s (Erin Moriarty) costume and creating one for Stormfront (Ava Cash), who, it turns out – Spoiler Ahead – is a baddie, as in Nazi-bad.
“It’s a science-based reality that our superheroes exist within in The Boys‘ universe,” Shannon notes. “It’s not magical. It’s not mystical. They’re not gaining their powers from some planetary fill-in-the-blank. It’s very specific – spoilers – that they have been bestowed these powers scientifically. So, it’s an interesting and exciting opportunity that they’ve given me to really take our designs off the page and really focus on how they work best for our specific needs on our project, cinematically in the show.”
Shannon’s team, as noted, works on several shows simultaneously. That fact begs a couple of questions. First, how does she create something different from what the world has seen before? And, second, how does she prevent herself and her team from repeating themselves?
“That is a challenge that my team and I take very seriously,” Shannon replies. “First of all, I’ll say that in terms of working on all of these shows at once, it’s actually really exciting and dynamic, because we’re always really busy. And you know that saying of, ‘If you want a job done, give it to a busy person.’ We are always just moving and shaking, and we’re really lucky that we’ve been able to create this way of working, where we collaborate with these amazing Costume Designers who designed the show. Rebecca Gregg designed The Boys Season Two, and we have a longstanding collaborative history together. I didn’t have to even worry about the show. I knew she was going to make it look totally awesome, and we could really focus our energies strictly on the superheroes.
“Each show has a very unique story and environment and world,” Shannon continues. “That has been created for the show. And with that comes a very distinct visual language for the show itself. That already gives us a very specific visual language that we create for our characters within those environments. That immediately puts us in a position where, even if we’re using some of the same tricks of the trade and some of the same techniques of our built technologies, we’re doing it in such a way that the end result is very different visually. So, for instance, if you look at Doom Patrol, which my husband’s watching in the other room right now, I have Robot Man, who’s literally a robot, Cyborg, and Negative Man, they have absolutely no relationship to what my characters on The Boys look like.
“Titans might be the closest in terms of, if you’re talking about a grounded world that has some grit to it, but Titans is very dark, whereas The Boys is a bit brighter, and then Stargirl is completely evocative of a bygone era,” she adds. “So, we already have the differences in the shows themselves, and then each character has differences within them that are unique to the character. It really starts with research and pulling together influences from every corner of the globe. Anything you can possibly imagine, nothing is off-limits in terms of what we utilize for inspiration, for the characters. We continually are pushing ourselves to utilize different techniques, and then using other techniques that we’ve used in the past in different ways. So, for instance, where on one character we might use a high-density screen-printed fabric and a sculpted element and a laser-cut aspect, we might do that on a different character, but we’ll use a completely different scale of design. Repeat for the fabric, and we’ll do a paint technique over the top of it that takes it to a whole different place.”
Shannon reports that an Emmy nomination would “mean so much to me and my team,” and they all “pour our hearts and souls into everything we do together.” And she’s quick to share credit, noting that the Actors and Stuntpeople are a major part of the process and insisting that “I couldn’t do my job without my amazing team,” and then citing several of them by name. “I have the world’s best Assistant Costume Designer, Sarah Mgeni,” Shannon begins. “I have the world’s best Manufacturing Foreperson, Agnes Grzybowski. I have the world’s best Concept Artists, Greg Hopwood and Gina Flanagan DeDomenico. And then I have the world’s greatest Costumers: Maxine, Jien, Ellen, Mayumi. I have Debra and Michelle, who are my Supervisors. And then I have my set team. Each of my shows has a team of eight people who help keep the suits looking good, because, as you’ve seen, they see a lot of action and blood and guts and gore.
“So… I want everybody to know all of the people that it takes to create these suits, and their proper names and spellings and all that because it really does take a village,” Shannon concludes. “It’s almost embarrassing when I get accolades and attention without me being able to have enough of a platform to really share all of that with my team.”
The first two seasons of The Boys can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video. All photos courtesy of Amazon, except where noted.