I was going to do a “Fan Fridays” blog on X-MEN:TAS swag today, but I got caught up in working on the book. Sorry — swag next Friday. But since I have a rough intro done for the “Making of… ” book, I thought I’d share it instead (along with a recent New Yorker cartoon that illustrates my state of mind).
HOW’S YOUR BOOK COMING ALONG?
I’m over half done, thanks for asking. Hoping for a July release. I have a rough intro:
This blog exists to celebrate an animated super-hero television series that we, with struggling humility and extreme prejudice, believe is among the best ever made; none better. Were there others that, in their way, were just as good? Batman:TAS must immediately be included in this discussion. This is particularly crucial in any cataloging of the merits and failings of X-MEN:TAS since we were in effect “siblings.” Both series were originally scheduled to premiere in September, 1992, on the Fox Kids Network. Both were ordered and developed by the same two executives: Fox Kids president Margaret Loesch and hands-on producer Sidney Iwanter. Both focused on popular comic book heroes. Many of the same craftsmen (Larry Houston, Will Meugniot, Len Wein) worked, back and forth, on both series. Hollywood is a small town, and animation is a smaller neighborhood in that town. So of course we were not only aware of one another, we were competitive. All that said, all I can conclude after 24 years is that we were different. Batman:TAS had big budgets and long, comfortable schedules that we, in our low-priced rush to production, would have killed for. We had an arguably more dramatic and flexible set-up (so many different interesting heroes, so many multi-part stories permitted). They had superior, stunning animation. We had slam-bang energy. In fact Sidney once described his two most successful series as “Cool jazz versus a garage band.” Amazing visuals versus compelling drama. Few people know that the constant to the various animated Batman‘s successes is one man — Alan Burnett — who is still there at Warners, assuring the continuing quality of the various TV series and DVD movies. By chance, Alan and I started out in the mid-’80s at the same place, “Hanna-Barbera III,” a tiny building across from the animation giant’s main offices. After 30 years, if I were given the responsibility of producing a block of animated programming, my friend Alan would be the first person I would hire. So it’s hard to think back to X-MEN vs. Batman as a contentious rivalry (though a blogger did, with the recent poll attached below). For us it was more a case of mutual respect.
Thanks for the reaction to the announcement of our X-MEN:TAS book, due out next year. Ten times the usual number of people checked out this site over the past 24 hours. Well, if you’re looking forward to the book, please know that you can BE PART OF IT. There is going to be a chapter made up of testimonials. We’ve published two already on this blog — memories of what watching X-MEN:TAS has meant to you. Some people gained courage from the mutants’ struggles. Some gratified viewers became animators or cartoonists or philosophy majors (Beast fans). Others simply felt a connection to a group of characters that they had experienced nowhere else in their lives. A number of authors have mentioned being inspired by the storytelling (humbling praise indeed). Attached is a quote from the biography of Stephanie Meyer, the author of the much-loved “Twilight” series of books. Artists and craftsmen hope their work can reach people. Animation writers and artists tend to work alone or with a couple of friends and rarely do we experience that “connection,” with those who are affected by our efforts, that all creative workers strive for. So, if X-MEN:TAS has meant something to you, please write us about it at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will publish a variety of them, short or long, in the book.
Yes, there’s going to be a book! We’ve resisted for two decades telling the story of how X-MEN:TAS struggled to get made and survive on the air. The 25th Anniversary of our premiere on Fox Kids Television is coming soon (October 31, 2017), and it’s time to get it done. Thanks to the continuing interest of fans everywhere, when we proposed a “Making of…” book about X-MEN:TAS we received a number of offers from interested publishers. So I checked them out to see which one might do the best job helping us tell the X-MEN:TAS history. Julia and I often make references to our fan-obsession with the original Star Trek series (1966-68), now referred to as Star Trek: TOS. Well, the most impressive behind-the-scenes Trek history I could find was the recent 2000-page trilogy (no kidding) “These Are the Voyages” (see Volume One below) by Marc Cushman. (And no, you aren’t getting 2000 pages from me — the man is a detail maniac.) The publishing company is called Jacobs/Brown, and I liked them immediately because they get the joy and magic of popular culture, they’re great folks, and they’re local (to us, anyway). So if getting a paragraph a day on this blog has been frustrating, your wait is almost over. Well, about year away (there’s a lot to write). I’ve already interviewed 30 cast members, artists, and crew, and have just a handful left to go. You won’t be surprised to discover that for many of them, X-MEN:TAS was the highlight of their long careers. They loved doing it as much as you loved watching it. We’ll keep you updated as the book progresses. Best, ERIC.
Your first thought when watching (or writing) a televised cartoon is rarely: “What would the government think of this story?” That’s good. Countries where governments completely control the content of the media are sad, miserable, oppressive places, cultures where, at the extreme, you can get fired or even shot for what you write or say. The Spain of the Inquisition, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China — these were not places to question authority and consequently, not hotbeds of creativity. So the idea that there have been people pushing to control the content of American television, especially kids’ TV, since the medium’s inception has always been a concern. Today few young people remember how restricted television programming once was. On the biggest hit show in the world (“I Love Lucy”), the lead actress, who has married and having a baby, couldn’t sit on a bed with her husband or say the word “pregnant” out loud. Warner Brother’s gloriously anarchic theatrical cartoons from the 1930s through the mid-’50s were, when screened in the 1970s, censored for violence (sorry Elmer Fudd). Censoring Bugs Bunny… The height of this frenzy for “pro-social control” of children’s media was reached in the mid-’90s during our run at X-MEN:TAS. The “Children’s TV Act” cast a pall over future programming. Much of what we were “allowed” to create in the following years had to be “educational.” Our most important notes started to come not from creative colleagues but from child psychologists. Luckily for those of us who like to create or enjoy quality animated television, the explosion of cable TV channels (looser rules) and the internet (loosest rules) broke through the artificial constraints of the well-intentioned protectors of our young people. Nowadays you can animate nearly anything you can imagine and find a place for it. Be grateful. This is not the norm in the history of artist expression but a rare exception. Government is important; life without it can be anxious and deadly. But government is never good at directing artistic creation; though it will never cease trying, it really should.
Writers have influences. TV animation writers are no different. A number of X-MEN:TAS stories had precursors, dramatic stories or moments or moods that stuck with us and informed our choices for X-MEN storytelling mood and meaning. I have mentioned that Mark and Michael Edens and I shared a love for Classical Mythology. People knew how to write heroes back then, in all their flawed glory. Decisions had consequences, and the more powerful the character, the more humbling the results. Gods and heroes had emotions, fine and petty, and their actions changed the world. Movies have provided our era’s mythology, and there were a few whose influence showed up in X-MEN:TAS. The easiest “homage” to spot is in the two-part “One Man’s Worth.” In it, we discover a future world condemned to misery for the lack of one person’s influence. That was the core idea in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the post-World-War-Two classic (1947) that is often wrongly remembered as an upbeat Christmas movie. To the contrary, Jimmy Stewart is on the brink of suicide (see image below), believing his life has been worthless. Then, after seeming to have given up, he is offered the opportunity to see what the world would have been like without him: a miserable, hopeless hell. While our structure was different (we showed the hell first), the point was the same: If one man, Charles Xavier, was removed from the equation of life, civilization would crumble. He is “worth” that much. Similarly, we took the heart-breaking idea of a blind person regaining her sight at the possible cost of losing her affection for her savior from Chaplain’s “City Lights” (1931). In our story, “Beauty and the Beast,” the problem is mutancy, not class. But the personal stakes are the same. Finally there is the fan-noticed “almost cursing” of Wolverine. Of course we couldn’t have a character curse in a kids’ show. But Wolverine is a world-weary, crusty old bastard who doesn’t suffer fools at all. In a contemporary movie or book, he would curse like a sailor. We had to improvise. Luckily, we were all fans of classic Western movies, from the ’40s through the ’60s, where hardened men fought and died without an “F***” allowed. So, fans of Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969) will notice Wolverine’s references to “egg-sucking gutter trash” and smile. To further quote that movie — and our own Cyclops in X-MEN:TAS episode 13 — I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It wasn’t all work and no play for the excellent designers and storyboard artists that drew X-MEN:TAS. They would sneak in fun bits when they could. In what was SUPPOSED to be our big series finale — the four-episode epic “Beyond Good and Evil” (apologies to Nietzsche) — Larry Houston and Frank Squillace needed more incidental characters designed than usual (more about how this story was radically changed later). So there were two “artists” created for the story, and, in another scene, two members of a “Human Assault Force.” These pairs of characters look suspiciously like Larry and Frank — just in better shape. I’ve heard dozens of tales of animation artists that delight themselves in slipping in certain images (Barney Rubble, a hint of a butt crack, etc.) into chaotic scenes when they could. Why not? If I could draw I would. Nothing brings more joy to work that taking mischievous pleasure in the doing of it.
When we all signed on to do X-MEN:TAS in February, 1992, new colleagues Larry Houston and Will Meugniot introduced me to “The Marvel Universe.” At first I believed it simply meant “the Marvel family of characters and locations,” which it definitely does. But I soon discovered that this “universe” included, well, the universe. Just mastering the X-MEN characters was challenge enough. Soon I was made aware that many of the Marvel books overlapped so extensively, like an intricate weaving, that our series might in fact stretch out beyond our galaxy (Scott’s dad and Xavier’s lasting love were both soon revealed to live “in outer space”). Marvel was not pushing this overlap to us (as they do now with cross-marketing of titles). This was all the doing of the fans within our production ranks, led by Larry. In fact Marvel often wouldn’t allow us to use most characters “outside” the X-MEN books. But Larry persevered. Here are three of his beloved “Easter Eggs” from episode #42, part of the Dark Phoenix Saga. Since Phoenix was threatening life on a planetary scale, it made sense to show a series of concerned characters from around our world and beyond. Advertisements for Dr. Strange’s first big movie have just come out, and they made me think of this storyboard page Larry recently sent me. As with Deadpool before him, Dr. Strange got early exposure in our series thanks to fan Larry’s attention to detail.
There was nothing random about the fact that X-MEN:TAS was successful on the Fox Kids Network (or “Fox Children’s Network,” or FCN). First, no one else would program it. Margaret Loesch tried pitching it for nearly ten years — sorry lady, no way. CBS, NBC, and ABC were 99% of the television market, and if they didn’t want you, tough. I remember “pitching” shows to the three networks in the late 1980s. You had three chances, period. There was a week in early February when they all decided what would be shown in the fall. If you didn’t make a sale, it was wait until next year. Then this upstart, half-network called Fox Television got thrown together. They were risk-takers enough to hire Margaret, who was brave enough to hire Sidney Iwanter, and the golden age of animated TV was born. First they grabbed Beetlejuice from ABC and made it more intense. Then they added Batman: TAS and X-MEN:TAS and The Tick and Spider-Man and the rest of kids’ television didn’t know what hit them. In those days the network’s decisions were everything. If the executives didn’t like or get your show, it didn’t happen. If they bought it and then didn’t get what about it would make it great, it wasn’t allowed to be great. They had absolute creative control; it was “their money.” I have seen more potentially good television hobbled or destroyed by a lack of executive understanding than any single factor. There are oceans of creative production talent out here. But business people who know how to navigate the terrifying waters of our demanding industry and that have a clue about the creative side are rare. X-MEN:TAS simply wouldn’t have worked for other executives at other networks at another time. We all did our part, but FCN, through Margaret and Sidney and others, made it possible. (Below see pages from the quarterly “Fox Kids Club” magazine that they sent out to make younger fans feel part of it all.)
It seems that all culture, popular and high, encourages collecting. Classical music buffs own all 68 “important” recordings of Beethoven Seventh. Lovers of literature cherish first editions. People become “complete-ists,” needing to own full sets of whatever it is that compels them. Of course, comic books have long been popular with collectors. It seems that the issue numbers, long-running series, and monthly subscriptions (remember?) have made them a pleasure to organize. Cards can be even more addictive. For one thing, they are cheaper. For another they usually are bursting with statistics that allow the owners to fill long afternoons with canonical debates. More recently, cards have even become gaming tools (Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Magic) with levels of complexity that no owner of a set of the 1927 Yankees could imagine. I am convinced that my math-graduate-student son prepped for calculus and knot theory by memorizing power-ratings and building decks. The burst of X-MEN cards that accompanied our series served another purpose. There are so many characters in the X-Men universe that they are hard to keep track of. So much of super-hero comic-book appeal is “who could take who” that knowing each of the couple hundred characters’ strengths and weaknesses becomes crucial. And woe be to the TV writer who gets some guest villain’s powers marginally wrong. So, yes, I bought a couple hundred X-MEN cards when they came out to benefit, and benefit from, the existence of X-MEN: TAS. One of the fun twists in the “Series One” batch was nine cards — numbers 91-99 — that fit together to make a dramatic image of the Danger Room in action. Since the cards were commissioned before the series hit the air, some of the characters don’t fit our team. That’s expected. What is disappointing is that Marvel or the card company seemed, in their casting, to give in to the “Smurfett rule” — all guys and a token girl (nine-to-one here). Oh well, it’s still great having the full set.
Mystique. Morph. Shapeshifters are fun in TV and movies. They’re kind of static in comics and nearly useless in print books, where there is no visual shape to shift. But in animated television they are irresistible. The X-Men character of Mystique has had an involved history in the comic books: She was everywhere, personally connected in some way to Rogue and Nightcrawler and Jean and most of the mutants who came to form our cast. In X-MEN:TAS, we used her even more. Transformations are fun, and action storytelling loves the misdirection of letting you see one character do something, then later revealing that it was someone else. Morph was different. He was new, introduced specifically to be fun and funny and loved by all, especially Wolverine, so that when he was killed in our very first story he could be grieved for by our entire X-Men team. His transformations were playful, not deceitful. Well, then after our first season, our audience spoke: bring back Morph! So back he came, now PTSD-damaged by his near-death experience. Luckily we had versatile actors to voice characters who had to take so many guises. Jennifer Dale (Mystique) and Ron Rubin (Morph) were not thought of as the “core cast,” but there were a surprising number of episodes that featured one or the other as a crucial, central character.
Who would have thought that a “boys action” superhero series played on Saturday mornings would be full of romance? Yet it was. Everyone knows that Scott and Jean were engaged to be married — and that Wolverine had to struggle with his feelings for her. Wolverine was old enough (95) and sufficiently romantic that he had former lovers littered across the globe. Professor X and Dr. Moira McTaggart had cared deeply for one another, and surely Gambit felt some true affection underneath his non-stop flirting. Beast fell for a blind girl whose sight he restored. And Rogue yearned for a man’s touch that forever eluded her. Even Jubliee had a short flirtation (Longshot). Saturday morning cartoons aren’t supposed to showcase adult love and heartbreak. Few ever have or ever will. But we insisted that X-MEN:TAS was peopled with intense adults who would have these feelings. And much to the surprise of the endless experts who constantly told us and still tell us to make shows “age appropriate,” our audience loved these moments. Five-year-olds may not know what adult love and yearning entail, but they understand personal attachment and caring and the drama inherent in threats to both. There was some basis for the Scott-Jean-Wolverine love triangle in the books (though X-MEN:TAS writer Bob Skir takes some credit for highlighting it — let the debate begin). But I’m pretty sure the Wolverine/Storm kiss in our time-travel story “One Man’s Worth” is our original. Time travelers tell future Wolverine and Storm that they must go back in time to change the world. But this would mean that they wouldn’t have each other. Wolverine says screw it — he’s not going to give up their love, even to save the whole world. To paraphrase Casablanca: “Yes, he loves her that much.” But Storm is more clear-headed: they must do their duty. She gives Logan a heart-felt kiss, and the adventure to save the planet begins.