Marvel’s new Rocket & Groot web shorts are basically a Skottie Young comic book brought to life, so we caught up with Young and Marvel’s animation VP Stephen Wacker to talk about the shorts, the studio’s animated series, where it’s all going next, comics in general, and everything in between.
We got some fresh intel on the new Spider-Man animated series coming later this year, plus the animated introduction of a major cosmic player (hint: it definitely could rhyme with “Madam Swarlock”) in the Guardians animated series. Young also gives us some insight into his version of Rocket (it's all about the tail, y'all) and his dream project at Marvel.
[Check out the interview below, which has been edited slightly for clarity and length]
These shorts obviously draw a lot of inspiration from your artwork of the characters in comic form. Can you talk a bit about what it was like trying to bring that style to a different medium?
Young: It was really interesting; they seemed to just get it right out of the gate, with a passion. They kind of did a test short exploring the material and really sourced the books I had drawn, and it didn’t seem like much of a challenge at all. I’ve drawn a lot of panels and pages with Rocket and Groot, so there was a lot to source form. For me it was cool to see how seemingly effortlessly they took that translated it and really made what i hope worked in that medium…
When they did their first couple of passes, they nailed it so hard. When I was brought on to consult, my only advice was to go back to exactly what they did from the start. They just nailed it so well from the beginning. Anything past that was a bit left of where they were, so I just encouraged them to keep that train moving.
Wacker: I remember watching the pitch, I was peeing my pants excited to get out of there and show Skottie what they’d done. It was so cool. [laughs]
Why the decision to spin Rocket and Groot out into their own web series? Is this just a one-off web series, or an approach we might see more of going forward?
Wacker: It started with wanting to do a series of shorts, and we were co-producing them with Disney TV animation. So, we did these and the Ant-Man shorts, and we’ve been experimenting to see what we could do, and what we could push visually into new areas for us. It’s different from what we usually do, and my hope is we’ll be able to do more of these.
Skottie, can you walk us through your visual approach to Rocket and Groot? What are the most important elements to get the look right, in your opinion?
Young: With Rocket, it really was just trying to find the tail. The tail is a big thing for me. With characters, you always have eyes, mouth and hands as the big expression points. With Rocket, you throw in that one extra element: the tail. And his ears. Combine those two things, and you have a whole new emoting characteristic to play around with … Doing anthropomorphic characters it’s always a challenge to find the cartoon version where you still recognize it’s a raccoon, but not being so slavish to make sure all the raccoon anatomy works all the time. We play it fast and loose with the raccoon face, so we could really get those big mouth movements, and big eyes.
Groot is a whole different ballgame. We wanted to maintain the tree elements that make him so special, but really focus on his eyes. It’s such a big deal because he’s such a stoic, big character. There’s a scale challenge when you have those two in scenes together, and if you have them flailing about it’s a distraction. so I always tried to keep him tall and lean...you do the real work before the project starts, to get those characters ready and make those decisions up front. Then when it’s time to repeat those drawings hundreds of times, it’s just playing around with them.
Turning Guardians of the Galaxy into something kid-friendly seems like a tricky proposition, especially a character like Rocket. Can you talk about the challenge of striking that balance? Keeping the edge while making it accessible for fans of all ages?
Wacker: It’s a challenge, but we try to push it as much as we can. We know we have an audience and we have to be responsible to them, and responsible to the parents, so they feel comfortable leaving their kids alone for 20 minutes while they fix dinner. I think kids are the toughest audience of all, really, because they can see right through it if you’re patronizing or talking down. A lot of times, it’s just following instinct.
Skottie, you’ve worked on a lot of the Rocket stories on the comics side recently, so what is it that appeals to you about that character?
Young: I like the kind of ambiguity that character had, as far as what line of good he was. He was the hero, but I liked that line and the weird little arrogance and insecurity, and all the things that go along with him. What I didn’t realize I’d have as much fun with was the dynamics between those two as buddies. What I thought was going to be a real challenge, a charter who only says three words, became the most interesting to write. It ended up being the most fun, because you can really have these two go at it, but one is only saying three words. I always have an idea of what he’s saying, but not verbalize it. The trick was to make Rocket’s replies the perfect response to Groot. It became such a fun challenge.
Wacker: It fit so well for Skottie, because Rocket and Groot are two sides of the person he is [laughs]. He’s loyal and a great friend when you need him, but he is Rocket Raccoon. He just does his mischief with a pencil.
Can you tell us about what’s coming next in the Guardians of the Galaxy animated series this season? What’s the story you’re most excited about?
Wacker: This season we start out on Earth, where Season 1 was a long quest that led the Guardians to Earth, and we saw the Guardians meet up with the Avengers. That was pretty exciting, and I know a lot of our animation fans were excited to see it. We treat evert season as though we’re never going to get to do another show. I’m personally really excited about a longtime classic, high in demand Marvel cosmic character premiering this season. The one cosmic character everyone has been asking for, and i’m not sure if I can say it yet.
Blink once if it’s Adam Warlock.
Wacker: [laughs] Sorry, there’s something in my eye. [laughs]
I know the next big animated show you guys have coming is the Spider-Man animated series, what can you tell us about the approach you’re taking? How will it differ from what’s come before?
Wacker: It’s going to have a very different look for us. We found something that looks very modern, very clean and cool. But it looks like animation that would come from the future a little bit. It’s very sleek. New York is a big part of the story, and we pull a lot of stories from Dan Slott’s current run on the Spider-Man comics, but with nods to the Lee, Ditko and Romita runs, as well. Oh, and it doesn’t look anything like Skottie’s art [laughs].
Skottie, what would be your dream project at Marvel?
Young: It changes all the time, but I’d say one of my favorite series when I was younger was Generation X. I just loved the weirdness of that squad and that book, it was kind of the first time for me that I really got the idea of mutants. You were always told it’s a great burden, ‘These terrible angel wings, I can live forever and throw knives out of my hands! The horror!’ [laughs] But, Generation X had characters with powers like extra skin that can stretch out as far as you want, but when it’s not stretched out, you have that extra skin … There’s a creepiness to that. Or like a young woman in a high school who feels insecure because on a moment’s notice she will shed all her skin and become a completely different form underneath. There are all these interesting characteristics of mutants that, from what I’d read at that point, hadn’t been dealt with all that much. It felt more raw, like a problem a teenager would really face. Like, most 19-year-olds who figure out they have a super power are more likely to use it to buy beer, instead of save the world, right?
At some point, it’d be cool to go and do some sort of school-aged book over there with those types of odd, off-shoot characters. Like, the Super Bad of Marvel Comics. The two weird buddies who get into weird hijinks.
Stephen, you guys have Avengers, Guardians and Spider-Man in the animated line-up. Can you talk about Marvel’s wider animated strategy, and where you see it going next?
Wacker: The No. 1 thing we’ve been focusing on, and you’ve seen this most in Avengers, is teeing up a lot of characters appearing within the feature films. I think widening out of the main Avengers cast is a big part of what’s going on in Season 4 and beyond on Avengers, and you’ll even see it coming to Guardians and Spidey. I think, the next few years, we’ll be playing more and more with format, going beyond the 22-minute episode. We’ll still have plenty of that, but our feeling is we can go both shorter and longer, with feature length projects and shorter projects like the Rocket and Groot shorts. Playing with format and expanding our character base is a big part of where we’re going next.”
Skottie, you’ve worked on stuff at major publishers like Marvel, and indie projects like your ‘book I Hate Fairyland. Can you talk about the creative differences in working with an established franchise, compared to something more personal like Fairyland?
Young: A lot of people when they start, talk about the challenges of working with others and collaborating, but I never viewed it like that. I view it as almost feeling safer, because anytime you go into a room and sit down and make things up that weren’t there before, there’s a fear there about is it any good. Nothing was scarier than writing the first issue of Rocket Raccoon and hoping people thought it was as funny as I did. Working at Marvel, if I ever did a Spider-Man cover, you have 30-40 years of history as a safety blanket. Even if I bomb completely, the people who get it still like Spider-Man. They can hate me while still liking Spider-Man. It’s like bowling with the bumpers on. You may not get them all, but you’re gonna knock down some pins. You have smart people, smart editors, who know the characters...there’s a safety net that makes you better.
On the flip side, the challenge of being on your own and owning something outright is that there’s none of that [laughs]. I’m making something from scratch, will people like it or think it’s funny? You don’t know, then you throw it out there and wait. No one is telling you to say this or not show that. And there’s no history, so they won’t forgive you if they don’t like it in the first few pages. Each one is a very different animal.
Wacker: From my perspective, if I Hate Fairyland had happened at Marvel, Skottie would’ve given me a stroke [laughs].