Engineering The Excellent: Greg Johnson Talks 'Iron Man'
With Iron Man season one reaching new levels of mediocrity in animation, Marvel revamped the show and replaced the existing staff with an all new crew, resulting in a huge renovation for the show. But how do you rework a show this bad? The Marvel Animation Age/Toon Zone News caught up with writer/story editor Greg Johnson for his insight on Iron Man.
MAA/TZN: How did you come to work on Iron Man? How did the change in production houses that so greatly changed the show between seasons one and two occur?
JOHNSON: I was fairly new to animation when I became involved with the Iron Man series. Prior to that I’d been a freelance writer on Biker Mice From Mars – a New World Animation project – and during the run of that show I became a staff writer. As Biker Mice was wrapping up, Iron Man was in production on its first season.
Without naming names or pointing fingers, it’s safe to say that the directive for the Iron Man series (and Fantastic Four as well) was to feature as many of the characters in the toy line as possible. Which is fine, because toy sales were and are an integral component to getting a show on the air. And that business model works for the majority of animated series, particularly boys action. I think the problem comes when characters are shoved into the cast just to get “screen time” because of the toys on the shelf, and not because they have a real purpose in the storyline. This is just an unsteady foundation to build a series on, in my opinion.
Marvel knew the show wasn’t clicking. So they handed the creative reigns to Tom Tataranowitz, a very quality conscious, detail oriented guy, and he basically wanted to strip the show down to its basics, and start over. We’d worked well on Biker Mice together, and he wanted to give me a shot at Story Editing. But I was still too new to the biz to immediately helm all thirteen episodes of season two, especially with the schedule as tight as it was. So I took on a third of the season, with Eric and Julia Lewald taking a third, and Dean Stefan taking a third.
MAA/TZN: Was there ever any resistance to getting rid of Forceworks? What made you decide to focus on Iron Man as a lone wolf for the remainder of the season?
JOHNSON: I’m sure Toybiz had reservations, since there was already an investment in place for Forceworks merchandise. But trimming the cast was essential and they were keenly aware of that. Changes had to be made from the concept up, so I was tasked with coming up with episode 14 to transition us. That meant establishing a dramatic reason for the various departures while setting into motion the new agenda for the series. And that agenda was to keep more focus on Iron Man and his relationships.
MAA/TZN: Given that the Mandarin had been treated as an embarrassment for much of the first season, was there ever any resistance to use him again as the main villain in season two?
JOHNSON: The Mandarin is a great villain regardless of how he was interpreted in season one. And we didn’t want to toss the baby out with the bathwater. We just opted to take him more seriously, give him an agenda, and make him a threat worth waiting for. A contribution I made to the season was the Mandarin’s ongoing ring search. I wanted him building steam in the background, so that when he finally did have another showdown with Iron Man, it was something viewers had been waiting for. With the Mandarin in the background, we then focused on Hammer as Iron Man’s principle foil.
MAA/TZN: You wrote “Empowered” and Fantastic Four‘s “Hopelessly Impossible,” both of which are clip shows. What’s your opinion of clip shows and how does one approach them?
JOHNSON: Obviously clips shows are there to save time and money. But not necessarily because someone wants to pocket the savings. When a schedule is so brutal that quality suffers across the board, a clip show can give everyone a chance to catch up – including the overseas studio. For Iron Man, when such an episode was deemed necessary, I felt it was important to at least give it some meaning, by having it further the continuity in some fashion. That said, I personally do not care for them, and I think other means of controlling costs and keeping to a schedule should be considered first before going the clip show route.
MAA/TZN: You also helped pen “Hulkbuster.” Was this actually used as a backdoor pilot for The Incredible Hulk cartoon that followed Iron Man? Again, how does one approach an episode that could lead to a potential spin off?
JOHNSON: Yes, “Hulkbuster” was indeed a vehicle for a Hulk series. But since The Incredible Hulk series had yet to be developed, the most we could do was establish the basics of his origin and his character. It was also important that we weren’t just pimping out the Iron Man series for this backdoor pilot, but that this episode felt organic to the kinds of stories we were already telling.
MAA/TZN: Iron Man later appeared in the aforementioned Hulk cartoon. Was there any deliberate attempt to create continuity between the various Marvel shows at the time, even the ones that you didn’t work on?
JOHNSON: Those of us in the trenches did want to keep the Marvel Universe somewhat consistent through the various series, but casual connections are pretty much the extent of what we could do. Most of the time we’re just happy if we don’t contradict the continuity of other shows. That way, viewers who want to make connections aren’t deterred from doing so.
MAA/TZN: You’ve written various different versions of Iron Man – this show, the Ultimate Avengers version and the solo DTV. Which do you prefer and what are the main differences in your eyes?
JOHNSON: They’re all the same guy, really, with just different aspects of his personality more featured than others depending on the vehicle. The nineties series played him a little cheeky, but much more earnest. Ultimate Avengers played up his coolness, with a hint of his tortured soul. And The Invincible Iron Man focused more on the baggage of his life, his insecurities, and how that shaped him. My favorite version is probably from the Ultimate Avengers, because his character didn’t have to go through a huge arc like it did in his own movie. That meant I could have more fun with his wit and nonchalance.
MAA/TZN: What’s your overall opinion on Iron Man? How did it differ from the majority of the other shows you worked upon?
JOHNSON: Being my first story editing job, it’s kind of a blur, actually. It’s a good thing that my episodes alternated with the other story editors’ because I’m not sure I could have pulled it off and still kept to the schedule if I’d been doing it all by myself. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
MAA/TZN: How is Wolverine And The X-Men shaping up? What else do you have in the pipelines?
JOHNSON: The scripts were finished last summer, and the last handful of episodes are now in post. None of us have really been at liberty to discuss much about it, since the promotion of the series is usually reserved for the network. Now that we’re set up with Nicktoons, you’ll be hearing more and more about it. In fact I just did a “behind the scenes” interview for them. I’m very excited by Nicktoons’ involvement. They’re really embracing the chance to showcase both the Wolverine and the new Iron Man series, and they’ll be seriously promoting it in the coming months.
Content-wise, this is an ambitious series. The guest star list is notable, varied, and sometimes surprising, yet they all service the overall story arc in some fashion. There are also some plot twists that will keep most viewers guessing until the very end.
After I completed my work on Wolverine, I jumped immediately onto the Direct-to-DVD movie Thor: Tales of Asgard and then I recently completed the script for Planet Hulk. Both are shaping up to be beautiful films.
The Marvel Animation Age and Toon Zone News would like to thank Mr. Johnson for his participation in this interview, and his work on the show. Cheers Greg!