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SDCC2009: Toon Zone News Interviews Greg Johnson on "Wolverine and the X-Men"

At the San Diego Comic-Con 2009, we caught up with one of the Marvel Animation’s main writers, Greg Johnson, after the Marvel Animation panel. Johnson has been a driving story force for Marvel Animation, having worked on Ultimate Avengers, Ultimate Avengers II, Iron Man, and X-Men Evolution, and is currently one of the driving forces behind Wolverine and the X-Men, the latest series starring Marvel’s mutant superhero team. In talking with Johnson, we finally got to address many hardcore fans’ specific criticisms of show Wolverine and the X-Men:

TOON ZONE NEWS: One year ago fans got to see the pilot of the series at Comic Con and the show had just got picked up by Nicktoons. I remember first reading about the series in development several years ago. Is it a relief that all this time and effort put into Wolverine and the X-Men is finally paying off?

GREG JOHNSON: It is an absolute relief to finally put this show out there. I’ve been living with it for years, starting with its development. Craig [Kyle] and I knew we were trying something new, and for the most part, we were left alone to pursue it, but we also knew that the true test would be in the viewership numbers. Nicktoons understood the importance of a big launch for a series that had a season arc, and they really sold the show as an event. As a result, the numbers have been huge for them, and pretty much holding steady even through the breaks. When the show started airing overseas in other languages, and hastily written summaries were appearing online, it was so disheartening. We really endeavored to create an X-Men experience for the fans that unfolded over the course of 26 episodes.

TZN: I talked with Chris Yost a little bit about this, but Colossus was in a lot of the early promo materials for the show, and he’s only seen for a short time in the first episode of Wolverine and the X-Men. Josh Fine announced that Colossus will come back and have a larger role in season 2. Some fans were disappointed we saw so little of Colossus in the new show. Was the time just not right to bring Colossus back into the story fold for the first season where the X-Men have been broken down and need to be rebuilt from the ground up?

JOHNSON: We really did plan to weave Colossus into the show, and so he ended up in a lot of the promotional material as a result. Not to mention he looks good in the team lineup. Basically, we developed the overall season arc during the development phase, as well as the characters we wanted to focus on. And then Craig Kyle and I, usually joined by Josh Fine, and sometimes Chris Yost, would meet weekly to toss around episode ideas that would fit into that arc. And each week, Colossus would come up. We all wanted him back on the team, but we also wanted to make sure he had an exciting re-entry. Nothing ever felt good enough. That said, we did find a very cool place to bring him in for season two, and that involves his sister, Illyana.

TZN: I’m very excited about the prospect of Deadpool in this series with Nolan North reprising the character. Since the new X-Men show has generally been able to get away with a lot content wise, do you expect to push the limits with Deadpool making his debut on the show?

JOHNSON: Deadpool is a very funny character for a lot of reasons, not just the shocking comments. Yeah, we still push the limits with him, more so than most characters in the cast, but we can’t go PG-13. When you watch him, there will be no doubt that it’s Deadpool.

TZN: Some fans have say that Wolverine acts “hypocritical” at points in the show in going after Cyclops for doing things on his own, but then going off alone to investigate Weapon X.

JOHNSON: You’re likely referring to the episode “eXcessive Force” which aired on Nicktoons recently. On the one hand we have Wolverine haunted by his past, and drawn to discover the truth. On the other hand, we have Cyclops haunted by the loss of Jean, and drawn to discover the truth. Whenever Wolverine goes off on is own, he endeavors to keep everyone else out of it. His edge is that he can survive almost anything. When Cyclops is ready to go pick a fight with Sinister in his quest to find Jean, it’s clear to Wolverine that this is not going to end well. Cyclops had just proven how reckless he is by the way he went after Harpoon. In Wolverine’s mind, Cyclops wouldn’t survive a clash with Sinister. Maybe the old tactical, level-headed Cyclops would have, but not this emotional wreck. He tells him to back off. Cyclops ignores him. So when Cyclops gets pulled into Sinister’s trap, Wolverine – as the leader of the X-Men – has to go in and get him. That’s why Wolverine lectures him about either being on the team or not. At first glance it may seem like a double standard, but Wolverine’s job is to keep the team together and focused on their ultimate goal – to save the future. Wolverine believes his side excursions don’t threaten the team or the goal. Cyclops’ excursion did.

TZN: I feel Rogue’s story is one of the strongest ones in the show. However, I also feel that maybe on Rogue’s part there could be a little deep seated frustration to Wolverine then when he just “leaves.” Do you think there could be any frustration because Rogue likes Wolverine and Wolverine does not acknowledge those feelings, or is it what Steve Blum says that it’s more like a big brother/little sister thing?

JOHNSON: Steve Blum is correct. When I was writing the scene in the first episode where Logan says goodbye to her and she gets angry with him, I made it a priority not to insinuate any romantic feelings. Rogue is an outsider with feelings of abandonment, and Logan understands her better than anyone. When he goes off on his own, she always feels left behind. That’s not to say these familial feelings can’t become something else later on, but that’s not what we were going for here.

TZN: Forge in the series gets a new take in making him younger and a bit of a geekier scientist type. Forge’s personality gives a little levity to the series, and Wolverine takes great twisted comedic pleasure in torturing Forge by doing things like scratching the Blackbird. Why the change to Forge’s personality from the older, wiser Native American type of character?

JOHNSON: If I was forced to make Forge a dramatic character, I’d probably have opted not to include him in the cast. That’s because there’s no shortage of drama in Wolverine and the X-Men, and keeping characters light whenever possible is essential. So when we decided we needed a fun character to act as a wrench jockey, we opted to lighten Forge up instead of inserting someone else. Yeah, it’s a different take on him, but he’s so enjoyable to be around. I expected to take some heat for this, and I’m sure certain fans prefer the more established personality, but from what I can tell, most enjoy this version.

TZN: Some fans think that the writing stacks the deck too much to make Wolverine look like “Grandpa X-Man” and make Cyclops look weak for abandoning the team over losing Jean. However, Cyclops’ behavior in the show is similar to how he’s behaved in the comics before, like leaving the X-Men after Jean’s “death” in the 80’s, or marrying Madelyne Pryor and having a child with her but then dumping them the second he found out Jean was alive. Do you think some of the writing might have made the show too much of a Wolverine “lovefest?”

JOHNSON: In early discussions between the co-producers, the original idea was for this to be a Wolverine solo series. But it was quickly determined that it would be a more viable project by including the X-Men as well. What was agreed upon was the idea to feature Wolverine in a new way, by putting the anti-hero in charge. So with that model, it would have been very easy to make this series all about Wolverine’s exploits, with the X-Men backing him up. Obviously that’s not what we did.

When I was asked to pitch my take on this, I came in with the basic concept of Days of Future Past, but with Xavier in the future. Craig and I then developed it into what it is now. It was always important to us that we keep Wolverine a little off his mark as the leader, while he deals with an unknown past that continues to dog his heels. He’s still a surly, short-tempered guy forced to keep this team together when he’d much rather ride off and leave it all behind. He’s the same character, given new responsibilities. I don’t see him as a Grandpa X-Man. If this truly were a Wolverine “lovefest” then we wouldn’t have at least a dozen episodes where other characters are the main focus.

As for Cyclops, I found him much more interesting as a heavily burdened character. We could have very easily made this a pissing contest between him and Wolverine over leadership. Then he would have been angry all the time, going nose to nose with Wolverine, and as a result, probably becoming unlikable. But seeing him at his lowest, watching him struggle with his emotions and his responsibilities, while we cheer for him to become the hero we all know he is, that’s an arc worth tuning in for.

Toon Zone News would like to thank Greg Johnson for taking the time to talk with us again, and to Lionsgate for arranging our time with him. Johnson’s work on the Marvel direct-to-video animated movies is available now on DVD and Blu-ray disc, along with vols. 1 and 2 of Wolverine and the X-Men. New episodes of Wolverine and the X-Men will begin broadcasting on August 1, 2009, on Nicktoons network.

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