behind-the-scenes, Uncategorized, X-Men Show

THANKS FOR WATCHING

We who work in television get graded every week.  If you viewers don’t watch our show, we get fired.  Almost all TV series fail,most very quickly.  It’s a weird career, but you get used to it.  The main numbers that the business uses to grade us are “ratings” (the percentage out of 100% of all possible US households that are watching us,  over 1,000,000 households per point) and “share” (the percentage of total households watching TV — half are off doing something else — that are watching us).  Below are this week’s prime-time ratings and shares in 2016.  It’s summer, and there are hundreds of choices these days, but The Big Bang Theory was pleased to be the top comedy with a 4.9/9 rating/share.  Then look farther below at the cover of industry bible Daily Variety’s annual animation special edition, which showed how X-MEN:TAS was doing only five weeks into it’s initial run in early 1993.  Not only were we getting over 10-point ratings, but nearly half of the households watching TV those mornings were watching us.  We had been working just under a year to produce the show.  Most doubted it would work.  Only the first 13 episodes had been budgeted.  Viewer reaction like this allowed us to continue for 66 more.  Thanks for watching.

nielsens 8-16Variety cover 2-93

X-Men Show

IMMORTALITY – XMEN:TAS GETS PARODIED

We knew we had arrived when our series got the full-parody treatment in both Mad and Cracked humor magazine late in 1994.  When I was growing up in the ’60s, Mad was our favorite monthly bit of irreverence (I think my buddy Free Barbour’s older brother John had a subscription).  But the larger point is the same: to be the subject of a parody aimed at a nationwide audience, you had to be known by a nationwide audience.  X-MEN:TAS, after two years on the air, was now a vibrant, central part of world popular culture.  Our characters mattered enough to enough viewers that Mad and Cracked bet that readers would enjoy seeing them made fun of.  (I’ve posted a Cracked image because it was the magazine cover and was in color.) There are many ways to gauge the impact of your work.  Having your characters re-imagined as a team of laxative-taking super heroes is high among them.

X-lax Men CRACKED

Uncategorized, X-Men Show

IMAGES & WORDS: EQUALLY ESSENTIAL, STRONGER TOGETHER

There have forever been questions about art, how it affects us, which elements are most important.  Is it the images or the words?  Movies and TV and live theater and comics share the advantage of having both — with sound effects and music included in what we do in animation.  The philosophical positions (writer: “I thought it up!”; artist: “I made it real!”; actor: “I gave it life!”; composer: “I gave it context!”; etc.) have been argued since before Aristotle made his points millennia ago.  To me, the disputes seem not only wrong-headed but futile.  No one can ever prove that the words of a poem or the style of a painting or the lilt of a melody or the dynamism of an actor’s reading provoked the most profound artistic experience.  To pretend otherwise may make for fun arguments, but it is sheer indefensible arrogance.  Creative people tend to get so caught up in their craft that it “feels” like a creation is theirs alone.  But in a collaborative art like animation, all contribute.  Look at the moment below from Episode Two (“Night of the Sentinels – II”), where Jean has sensed Morph’s pain at his death.  When Charles Xavier reaches out with his mind to locate his friend, the deftly-written and sensitively-voiced line is simple: “I don’t sense anything…  At all.”  The scene is precisely sketched and directed by Larry Houston in the storyboard.  The audience can feel the sense of loss in actor Cedric Smith’s quiet reading.   The sound track and music were thankfully restrained.  Editor Sharon Janis paced the cuts just right.  Change any of these elements, and the power of the moment vanishes.  Above all: collaboration.Jean senses MorphXavier senses Morph

 

 

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY JACK

Today is evidently Jack Kirby’s birthday.  I know this only because hundreds of artists have posted images honoring him all over the web.  I haven’t been able to save many books over the years, but the ones I have tend to be his covers.  I know that X-MEN:TAS could not have existed were it not for Jack’s vision and artistry.  So, since I can’t draw, I’ll just post a bit of Jack’s art for us all to enjoy all over again.

Kirby Thor

behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

DEADPOOL GETS HIS SCREEN DEBUT

This year’s Deadpool feature movie was a fun mega-hit.  Ryan Reynolds nailed it.  What few fans realize is that the character Deadpool got his first bits of screen time on our series in 1993 and 1994 in cameo appearances in episodes #4 (“Deadly Reunions”), #16 (“Whatever it Takes”), and #30 (“The Phoenix Saga: Part 2”).  Liefeld and Nicieza’s unique self-aware, dark-comic hero was created only months before we started working on X-MEN:TAS.  Obviously his first books made quite an impression on producer-director Larry Houston.  When, in episode #30, Charles Xavier was having hallucinations, one of the scariest had Wolverine being attacked in a subway train.  Enjoy a panel from Larry’s storyboard, inked by Mark Lewis.  X-MEN_OddsAndEnds_11

behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

MY MUTANT INTERNET – 1992

Those of us entrusted with writing X-MEN:TAS stories only had a couple of weeks to figure out who and what the X-Men were and what they meant to each other and the world.  Our bosses wanted 13 half-hour stories sketched out right away.  There was no internet.  Friends lent me a few old books, but Marvel, edging toward bankruptcy, was 3000 miles away and didn’t have much of a staff to dig through old boxes to ferret out old books that might best reveal the new team’s characters.  There were few reprint collections.  Fans like Larry Houston, Will Meugniot, and Bob Skir helped with advice, but they had their own jobs to do.  Of all things, I found real help at an old-school gaming store, where I picked up a copy of an X-Men “Special Campaign Set.”  It had blueprints of the X-Mansion and the Blackbird and detailed histories of the characters.  This and a copy of Larry’s “Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Master Edition” helped me quickly learn the complex and sometimes contradictory world of 25 years of X-Men storytelling.  Fans know this stuff.  They know the rules.  Mark and Michael and I couldn’t start building stories until we did as well.  Thanks to a table-top game and an encyclopedia, we learned fast.Roster Book Coverwhat are mutants

behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

ANIMATED TV – REBORN IN THE 1990s

I grew up in the 1960s watching some excellent cartoons.  This was a bit of a cheat, since the best ones were originally very expensively made (in man-hours) for movie theaters.  The earliest Warners Bugs Bunnys and the Fleischer Popeyes and the Disney shorts from the 1930s through the MGM shorts of the ’50s (like Tom & Jerry) were produced to delight adult moviegoers.  Repeats from this golden age filled our Saturday mornings.  But making good animation is hard.  The staff at a major film studio could spend four months crafting the 22 minutes of material that TV would soon demand from an animated series every week.  Most of the made-for-TV series from the ’60s and ’70s and even the early ’80s are hard to watch now.  Miracle-man Jay Ward (Bullwinkle, etc.) managed by spending no time or money on the primitive animation while investing all his energy in the writing and voice acting (think Simpsons or South Park).  But when I started working in animation in 1985, things were only just starting to pick up.  Luckily for X-MEN:TAS, Margaret Loesch at Fox was far more ambitious than most people in the business.  She’d help produce some of the best series of the late ’80s, and when she came to Fox in 1990, she knew it would take a couple of years to get her schedule the way she wanted it.  See below what was available to her at first, then what she added: Beetlejuice, Batman:TAS, Eek The Cat, Dog City, and soon thereafter: X-MEN:TAS, The Tick, and Spider-Man.  For 25  years a lot of  new “children’s programming” had been uninspired.  Luckily for X-Men fans, the right person came along at the right time.

Fox Kids 90-93Red Dawn cover

behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

ARTISTIC INSPIRATION: LARRY CONJURES UP AN ALIEN QUEEN

Many X-MEN:TAS characters were set in stone.  No fan wants to see a blond, willowy Wolverine.  Often the creation of guest characters allowed our artists more room to personalize their designs.  Late in the series run, in episode #45 (“Love in Vain” — thanks for the correction, Nathan), Larry Houston had the fun challenge of coming up with a look for a race of threatening aliens (“The Colony”) and their ferocious Queen.  For some reason, Hela, the Asgardian Goddess of Death from the Thor comics stuck in Larry’s mind as a starting point.  First drawn in the 1960s by the immortal Jack Kirby (below), Hela had recently been modernized by artist Bruce Timm (next below).  Larry gave the two images of Hela to artists Mark Lewis and Frank Brunner as inspiration for our rapacious alien “Colony Queen.”  You can see the final result — original, yet a respectful nod to the early work that had inspired Larry since his childhood.

hela01

Hela02100-56_08

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CHARLES & MAGNUS

There is no more intense relationship in the X-Men universe that than between Professor Charles Xavier and his longtime friend and adversary, Magneto (or “Magnus” or “Eric Lehnsherr” — he had many names over 50 years).  In the books, which began in 1963, they had met as young men right after World War II, a time when teenaged Lehnsherr had lost his parents in Hitler’s Holocaust.  Each was was idealistic and driven; they bonded over hopes for a better world and the fact that each was discovering the astounding mutant powers growing within him.  When their ideals grew apart, Charles and Magnus became adversaries, never enemies (at least in our interpretation).  We chose to stress this relationship in X-MEN:TAS more than it had been in the books since each man represented a philosophical choice for the many mutants we would meet over 76 episodes: to cooperate with humans, or to separate from them.  This was not the traditional hero/villain set-up.  We wanted Magneto to be at times as sympathetic as Charles.  We wanted to show the deep affection each had for the other.  We even threw them together in The Savageland for short bits of eleven episodes in Season Two.  To showcase this relationship, the many X-MEN movies have chosen four of the finest dramatic actors in the world: Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy to play Professor X at various ages, and Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender to play Magneto.  Every X-Men fan knows their names and faces.  The actors that you may not know as well are the two men who so beautifully established the characters eight years earlier in our X-MEN:TAS show.  Cedric Smith (pictured on the right) was commanding and compassionate as Charles Xavier, and David Hemblen (on the left) was his equal as Magnus.  It was no accident that, in the series finale, when the X-Men team had to bid a final farewell to their beloved leader, Magneto was there as well to say goodbye.

 

 

behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

WHY WOLVERINE?

Every lead X-MEN:TAS character was important to the storytelling.  Different fans have different favorites.  We couldn’t have crafted the 59 stories we did without all of them.  But if push came to shove (not something you would be encouraged to do around this guy), one character emerged as the heart and soul of the team: Wolverine.  Logan was such a compelling character (thanks, Len Wein) that we had to fight the urge to overuse him.  People forget that he was nearly 100 years old when we told our stories, that he had lived through two world wars and “seen it all.”  He either cared too damn much, or he’d find himself, like Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show, “just tired of putting up” with things.  He was world-weary and a hopeful romantic at the same time.  He must have had a dozen doomed loves over the years, probably sure in each case that “this was the one!”  He just felt things so deeply that watching him we had to feel it as well.  With all that said, I think that our team was the perfect set-up for his character to flourish.  He wasn’t the team founder — that was Xavier.  He wasn’t the field leader — that was Scott.  Despite his anger and frustration, he respected their authority and his place in the team.  But if he needed to bust loose and leave for a week, he could.  That’s something Charles Xavier or Scott or Jean would never do.  It’s like making him a sergeant in the army instead of a general.  That’s where he belongs.  I think that may be why it has been tough to make him “the lead” in follow-up movies and TV series.  It’s not a natural place for Logan to be Logan.  He’s at his greatest when he overcomes personal demons for the X-Men, or a lover or a friend, not alone.  We all know he can always “Go where I wanna go!” as he famously proclaimed as he stormed off in an early story.  The fact that he stays, for the X-Men, is what makes him great.  Below is a recent sketch by X-MEN:TAS designer Will Meugniot which conveys for me some of the pain and regret felt by this memorable hero.

wolverine_cardboard_02_hlf_tone

X-Men Show

EVERY X-MAN MATTERED

How did we decide on the nine lead X-Men charcters out of the dozens available to us for the animated series?  They made themselves necessary.  Every one of them mattered.  The team’s ideals resided most powerfully in Professor Xavier.  Their mutant sense of isolation was given life by Rogue.  Storm embodied their majesty.  Beast personified their thoughtful side, their kindness.  Scott was dutiful above all, Jubilee curious.  Gambit charmed us, and Wolverine seethed with the fury and frustration of the unjustly oppressed.  Finally, holding them all together, was Jean.  We and the powers that be hadn’t planned it this way — the team grew into what it had to be.  There were many chances to change it.  Nightcrawler?  Colossus?  Cable?  Iceman?  Archangel?  We even planned to have four of them leave after episode 65 (“Beyond Good and Evil”), originally the “final” episode (we were asked to do eleven more at the last minute).  It wouldn’t have been the same.  This was our team — they had a balance and chemistry that allowed us to write the stories the way we wanted.  Below is a recent casual sketch of the X-MEN:TAS team of nine by the man who designed our series, Will Meugniot.  It’s fun and simple, but it reminds me of why we chose them — or they chose us.

x-men

Uncategorized, X-Men Show

FAN FRIDAYS: LARRY’S EASTER EGGS

Today starts a tradition of fan-focused posts once a week.  Testimonials — like that of Jenee Darden back in July — will be popular.  We’ll start with a special contribution by arguably the biggest fan working on the series, producer/director Larry Houston.  Mark Edens and I and the other writers who contributed to the challenging adaptation of The Phoenix Saga, from a dozen excellent comics to to a 105-minute TV story, are proud of our written work.  But in this instance, producer Houston let his fan-love of the Marvel universe shine through above and beyond our storytelling.  As the Earth shakes from a galactic threat, superheroes around the globe rush to help out.  Usually Marvel wouldn’t let us use other major characters (they’ve learned since the value of cross-overs).  So for Larry to show some of his fan-favorites, he had to sneak many of them in.   Please see his recent note to me about Spider-Man’s only appearance in X-MEN:TAS.

The Spider-Man wrist cameo was in The Phoenix Saga part 5, “Child of Light.”  That’s all I could sneak by.  Back in season one, a full model sheet of Spidey was disallowed by Marvel, even though he was on the same Fox network.  This time, I made sure to not label it Spider-Man’s wrist when I submitted it for approvals. It was called just a “miscellaneous arm,” to the best of my memory.  And it was b/w, not color, too.  Everything I did back then (and you did) to add to the experience of watching the X-Men could never happen today. Too many cooks in the kitchen.  LH

Spidey wrist