X-MEN:TAS — It Travels Well

We tell stories for a living.  A major challenge when writing television stories is the question, “Does it travel well?”  To our bosses, who are risking the millions needed to make a show, this means: Will the series stories and characters have appeal for audiences all over the world (and therefore generate enough income), or will they be appreciated only within our culture?  Many things don’t travel well.  Comedy is said to be toughest, especially the type built on word play or that makes fun of local events or people.  Physical humor seems to travel: Charlie Chaplin was the world’s first global movie star.  But there’s not a lot of slapstick in X-MEN:TAS.

Somehow, X-MEN:TAS “traveled” spectacularly.  People from every corner of every continent seem to have found a way to enjoy it.  I have had many such people tell me that they learned English watching it in their home country.  This success is humbling and gratifying, but I’m not sure I understand how it happened.  How did we connect in ways that few other series did?  Heroism?  Personal dramas?  Fun powers?  The creation of a caring family for society’s misfits?

However it happened, today, 25 years later, we all benefit from this globally shared experience.  Most recently, it meant I was able to meet a nice businesswoman from Japan (Yui Kanan) for whom Jubilee was special (see below).  With luck, our series will “age” as well as it has traveled, and more generations will continue to enjoy it.

Eric & JUBILEE.jpg

INFLUENCES: Mitchum and Logan

A thousand influences went into the making of X-MEN:TAS.  On this, the hundredth anniversary of Robert Mitchum’s birth, I thought I’d celebrate one of them.

I don’t know what models writer Len Wein had in his head when, in 1974, he first built the personality of a short, tough Canadian mutant.  Our show’s voice actor Cal Dodd says he looked at our reference suggestions of Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, and Ward Bond and focused on the strength and authority of Bond, with a bit of the loner spirit of McQueen.  For me, it was always the fourth name we put on the character sheet: Bob Mitchum.  When I was editing Logan’s dialogue in those 76 episodes, it was more Bob Mitchum I was hearing in my head (along with Cal) than anybody — a little angrier, more energetic, certainly connected to the comics, but Mitchum-like none-the-less.  Once we got the cast set, I was thrilled to be writing for Cal Dodd; for the first few months, as X-MEN:TAS was coming to life, I was writing for Bob Mitchum.

Mitchum was everything we wanted Logan to be: intense, brooding, angry, heroic, romantic, but above all, tough.  He was beyond tough: in Cape Fear (1962), he played one of the scariest villains in movie history, calmly, just staring, just talking, just smiling.  You sensed he could hurt you.  Yet something in him made for great romantic-lead heroes as well, like Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past (1947).  Finally, I often mention to people that on our show I envisioned Logan as “world-weary” (as he was in the movie Logan).  Well, no actor in history did world-weary better than Mitchum.  Watch him struggling in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), and your heart breaks. Finally, there was that voice: deep as a black pool.  When we sent in the voice suggestions to the auditioning actors, when Eastwood and McQueen were listed, I added “but deeper.”  I never had to add that with Mitchum.

MITCHUM.jpgLOGAN - Behindthevoice.com.jpg

X-MEN Hats

This is a simple visualization of what many of you have written to us about: the fact that connections to beloved popular culture can last a lifetime.  My two sons grew up sharing X-MEN:TAS with us.  The same batch of X-Men hats I bought the family in 1994 still fits them 23 years later.  In fact, they wore them to this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.  Assuming the boys have children, the hats — and the characters they celebrate — will almost certainly be a continuing legacy.  There are worse things to leave your grandchildren.

Lewald_color.jpgIMG_2895.JPG

Superheroes Were Not Always a Genre

The phenomenon continues.  The newest Spider-Man movie (Spider-Man: Homecoming) is not only attracting huge crowds, the critics love it.  Superheroes are a full-blown, worldwide, movie-and-TV genre, like Westerns were for 70 years.  It was not always so.

There were always genres: gangster movies, musicals, war movies, TV detective shows.  From the early 1900s to the early 1970s, thousands of Western stories flooded our movie theaters and then our living rooms.  Little kids wore cowboy hats and flashed plastic six-shooters (I did).  Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy had better name recognition than NFL quarterbacks or our president.  Then Westerns “died.”  The stories are still told, but infrequently: three stories a year, not three stories a day.

As an article in this month’s Film Comment points out, there had been smaller-scale attempts at bits of superhero storytelling, in newspaper comic strips, early fantastical films, in cheezy 1940s movie serials, and of course in mainstream comic books since the 1930s.  But the superhero TV/movie genre didn’t truly start until the 1990s.  Before that there were once-a-decade TV series (’50s Superman, ’60s Batman, Hulk, etc.), none really starting a firestorm of imitators.  There were a handful of successful superhero movies per decade (a Superman, then a Batman, etc.).  But they weren’t central to pop culture the way the movies are now.  Think about it: There were more successful superhero TV shows this year than in the 50 years of television from 1940 to 1990.

Then Fox Kids Network, under the leadership of Margaret Loesch and Sidney Iwanter, changed popular culture.  I know, because I was there.  While writing the book about the making of X-MEN:TAS (out this fall!) I was struck at the before-and-after of audio-visual superhero storytelling.  Before Fox greenlighted Batman:TAS and X-MEN:TAS and Spider-Man:TAS and The Tick, Hollywood never thought seriously about superhero stories.  The sporadic Saturday morning efforts were throwaways that most comics fans hated.  Then there was 1990s Fox Kids TV.

Suddenly adults were watching cartoons on Saturday mornings.  Kids were dressing as Wolverine on Halloween.  But most importantly, Hollywood could see how superheroes could be the focus of ambitious adult movies and television series.  The floodgates opened, and the popular culture of a new millennium was forever changed.  For those, like the Film Comment writer, who are ambivalent or unsure about this development, I say that heroism is heroism, however costumed.  And, if you look back at Westerns, almost all of the great ones came out during the last 30 years of  their genre’s run after 40 years of practice.  Which may mean that the best superhero movies and TV are yet to come.  Exciting thought.

Wolv-Spidey crossover - fox kids promo - PR reel Feb 1996.jpg

Fox Kids Network cartoons change popular culture: Just ask these guys.

Rogue and Gambit Celebrate: 7000 and Counting!

A year ago at this time we had just started our @xmentas Twitter feed, and we were trying to get this site up and running.  So yesterday’s passing of the 7000 mark in Twitter followers was gratifying.  In four months (October 31st) we will reach the 25th anniversary of the sneak-preview premiere, the first public showing of the first episode of X-MEN:TAS.  By then our book about the making of the show (Previously on X-Men — over 500 pages) will be out, and the celebrations can seriously begin.  Until then let’s just join Rogue and Gambit in moment of thanks for our getting this far.

Rogue-Gambit Kiss.jpg

YOUNG AMBITION

We all dream when we’re young.  Some of us dream bigger than others.  The man who designed X-MEN: The Animated Series and directed its course for its crucial first season had the nerve, as an adolescent comic-book fan, to write to Stan Lee and ask him how to get into the comics business.  I can only imagine how earnest and sincere Will Meugniot’s original letter was.  You can see Marvel’s thoughtful response below.  The vision Will had for himself was a crucial element in our show’s success.  Twenty-six years after that letter, Will cared enough about a comic-book to fight every needed fight — and there were a lot of them — to keep X-MEN:TAS on track .  I’m sure teen-aged Will had no idea that he would one day find himself responsible for much of the creative direction of what would become, by some measures, the most successful comic-book-based series in television history, animated or live-action.  But sometimes it pays to dream big.

WILL marvel_letter.jpg

LOGAN FADES TO BLACK

The Logan blu-ray that we got today has a black-and-white version of the film along with the theatrical release.  How appropriate.  Two of the characters that have meant the most to many of us for decades fight heroically and die — as all great heroes need to.  The original movie’s look is grim and de-saturated to start with, leaving black-and-white the only way it could be made “darker.”

In late 1974, Marvel Comics employee Len Wein was given a heads up by his boss that the long-suspended X-Men title might come back, but this time with a more international team.  Taking a chance, he made a guest star that he was working on for a Hulk story a short, gruff Canadian mutant – just in case there might be a place for him on the X-Men team.  There was.  Then in late 1992, thanks to the underappreciated voice-over actor Cal Dodd, we all heard Logan’s proper voice for the first time: “I go… where I wanna go…”

In Logan, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart act their hearts out, knowing this is the end.  Much as we yearn for it to be a perfect movie, it isn’t.  But Logan and Charles don’t let us down.  We have depended upon their strength and commitment for decades, and now, despite being enfeebled and in doubt, they persevere.

Logen poster 2.jpg