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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.