At this point in their life, direct-to-DVD animated features have become a central if anticipated part of each year for comic fans. But despite the multiple entries from both major superhero companies, many of the creative minds behind the growing wave of feature-length animated adventures remain lesser known to fans than their comic book counterparts, including Greg Johnson. While he started out as a writer for some of Marvel's cartoon shows of the 1990s, Johnson has made a huge impact on the company's movie-length DVDs (released in conjunction with Lionsgate) by penning six of the seven films to hit stores so far including "Ultimate Avengers," "Hulk Vs." and now "Planet Hulk," which hit stores yesterday.
"I'm always surprised by the time a movie is ready for release because it's always a much more tremendous experience than seeing it on a little screen in rough cut footage," Johnson told CBR of the experience of working on the very early stages of a DVD and then coming in to help shape it before its debut. For his run adapting Greg Pak's epic story of a Hulk gone gladiator on an alien world, bringing hundreds of pages of comics to an animated feature meant a focus on character first.
"I think the only thing we had to have in there was Hulk's arc – it had to keep his journey intact," Johnson explained. "It had to go somewhere and start with the Hulk people recognized from other shows. In the books, he's gained intelligence and gone back and forth, but the general public doesn't recognize that. We had to start him off at a place where people started recognizing him, then slowly adding more intelligence as he's forced to exist on this wold. His language is expanded. He starts making decisions and having opinions, and he's dealing with something you don't usually see the Hulk deal with: betrayal. He's coming into this with a huge bag of rocks in that his friends betrayed him and launched him into this world.
"As long as we were cognizant of the fact that it was that story we were telling, then it became a matter of which characters supported that without taking a left turn to explore the back story of the world and then coming back to the story. We just didn't have time to do all that. It really needed to be where everything was assisting the story. "
And one thing the writer found particularly freeing about the story of Hulk's being drafted into gladiatorial games with a rag-tag group of alien slaves was the fact that only the green goliath would be rearing his head on screen. "What was exciting was knowing I didn't have to worry about [Bruce] Banner. He shows up in the books a little bit, but we decided for this movie that it was kind of a monkey wrench, so we decided to maintain the fact that this is Hulk's journey and not Banner's. That opened up all kinds of things. We wanted to give Hulk a voice of his own without betraying the fact that he's a monster. What did he want? He wanted to be left alone. So what does someone who wants to be left alone sound like when they talk? Curt and brief and walking towards the exits. That's how we started portraying him. He could care less about anybody around him and care less about the plight of this world. So we've maintained the essence of what his character is – someone who wants to be left alone but isn't left alone."
Just like its comic of origin, "Planet Hulk" the movie builds up the character of Hulk in a way that relates to his life on earth without referencing it at every turn. "What's interesting is what's behind that. In this movie, that's a sense of betrayal. He's been used. He basically wakes up on earth in the middle of a fight every time he's around, and they steer him in the right direction and hope the collateral damage is not too great. Then he goes back into Banner, and they say, 'You're too much of a risk...so long!' I loved this character who felt betrayed by that. The arc that brings him back is that he begins to care for these people he's found himself in league with and ultimately makes a selfless decision to help them. That's a tremendous arc."
Riding shotgun are Hulk's "warbound" brethren such as Hulk's love interest Caiera and his #1 alien fan, the bug-like Miek. "We knew who the characters were going to be, and we tried to weave their arcs into the Hulk's arc so they did impact one another. With Miek, his story was huge in the books and extends well beyond 'Planet Hulk,' but to have our movie begin and end in a satisfactory manner, we couldn't go so far as to get involved with something only to launch the next potential movie. We needed resolution. When you have those kinds of things dictating what could go in it, it all starts to make sense. You start analyzing and holding things up to the light to say, 'This is great, and I love it, but it's not moving the story forward. It's moving it sideways.'"
Overall, "Planet Hulk" allowed Johnson and the rest of the Marvel Animation team to come full circle with their DVD projects, which started in 2006 with another adaptation of a major comics story line. Though this time, the writer said that viewers can expect fewer changes to the core of this story than in the version of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's "Ultimates" that hit a few years back. "The mandate when this started when they chose to do 'Ultimates' – a lot of that decision involved 'Let's get all our best players on the screen at once.' It was an exciting story, and the process was a little different than 'Planet Hulk' because the books had a little bit more of an edge to them. Even though these movies are PG-13, it was important to widen the audience appeal to younger members of the audience. The mandate came down that we needed more of a classic take on the Avengers mixed in with 'The Ultimates' story, and that's why it became 'Ultimate Avengers' – a kind of hybrid of the two.
"That was a challenge knowing that the fans of 'The Ultimates' were going to be expecting things they enjoyed in the books while finding a way to deliver the intent of the story in a way that moms and kids could enjoy. That was different compared to now adapting 'Planet Hulk' where the source material didn't have a lot of those issues. The only issue it had was that it was so huge it wouldn't fit in the runtime of 81 minutes. I was at least not having to reinvent the wheel in terms of broadening the audience. Everything that was there would appeal to young and old alike. The actual process of adapting the 'Planet Hulk' books into this movie was ultimately a much easier and cleaner process."
Though from film-to-film, Johnson didn't think that the studio had employed a game plan for returning to direct comic adaptations once some lesser-known players had been established. "I don't think [there was an over-arching method to the releases,] he explained. "There were lots of characters getting love out there like Spider-Man so it made more sense in this venue for guys like Iron Man – he'd been on the screen before in animation, so it made sense to get him out there. The biggest risk was Doctor Strange because very few people outside those reading the comics knew who he was or what he is or anything about him. However, to me it was somewhat of an educated gamble because it dealt in the world of sorcery, which a lot of fans find enticing.
"But I don't believe there was a plan to go, 'Let's start with something established and then get into something nobody knows' – there was no process like that. It was more 'What character do we want to promote now?' Doctor Strange was a favorite of [former Marvel Films executive] Avi Arad's at the time, so it got pushed forward. Iron Man had a movie coming out. So 'Planet Hulk' isn't a return to the roots so much as us wanting to do a Hulk movie because he was popular and looking at what was going on in the books. Seeing the sales numbers for 'Planet Hulk' probably didn't hurt this movie's chances either."
Truly, the ties between comic and cartoon have become much stronger in recent years, and Johnson has worked those ties both on DVD and television as he serves as a head writer for Marvel's "Wolverine & The X-Men" animated series, which is currently in the midst of producing its second season. "I think it was the parting gift from Avi Arad when he left the company. Basically, he gave the green light for us to do 'Wolverine' in a way that was different than 'X-Men Evolution' – a more serialized 26 episode-long story rather than individual adventures of the X-Men. When I presented an idea for the series, I started thinking of 'Days of Future Past' and how it would be fun to work with two different timelines. I honed that with Craig Kyle, and people were a little nervous about it at first, but ultimately they said, 'Let's do it.' I think with season sets on DVD, it's a wise choice because people want to sit and experience the whole story."
And while he'll continue to script both DVD titles ("Thor: Tales of Asgard" as penned by Johnson will hit in 2011) and TV series, the writer admitted that sometimes the two can crossover creatively in unexpected ways. "When I did the pilot for 'Wolverine & The X-Men' I unintentionally started bringing some pacing from the movie into the episode. 'Planet Hulk' is paced quickly, but when you hold it side-by-side to an episode of something, there are differences. There's more time taken in conversation, and you know the animation is going to be a little better so you can depend on the characters acting more. When I finished it, people were looking at the first draft of 'Wolverine' and saying, 'We're not going to get the animation that we've had. We can't have those expressions in the scene because they're not going to be there [on screen].' The approach changes on each project."
"Planet Hulk" is on sale now from Marvel Animation and Lionsgate Entertainment.