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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Previously on X-MEN…

That’s the new title!  I handed in the second draft of the book yesterday, and the publisher and I and a dozen cast and crew that I asked all agreed it’s the best title.

Previously on X-MEN
The Making of an Animated Series

Current estimated publishing date is September 1, 2017.

In celebration, Julia and I are taking a short vacation back in Tennessee, where the co-writers of much of the series live.  Mark and Michael Edens wrote “The Phoenix Saga” five-part episode with me, so it’s only right that we have Phoenix, below, helping us celebrate.

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Celebrate NATIONAL SUPERHERO DAY!

Who knew that there was such an X-MEN:TAS-friendly day?  Not me.  Whose heroes are more super than ours?  You can go back to Homer and the Bible, and our team of misfits holds its own.  Thousands of superheroes have come and gone over the millennia; the best struggle and suffer great tragedy.  Compelling interest in larger-than-life myth and legend endures.  A superhero’s gotta do what a superhero’s gotta do.  Here’s thanks that the heroic ideal has survived all these years and that, through the X-Men, we were able to participate in the storytelling.  Happy National Superheroes Day.

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“Dark Phoenix” Next X-Feature

We were pleased to see this morning that the web was buzzing with the news that “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is to become Fox’s tenth X-MEN movie.  Among the 76 episodes that we produced for X-Men:TAS, this was one of only three stories we were asked to directly adapt for the screen (along with “Days of Future Past” and “The Phoenix Saga”).  There is always a challenge when adapting an admired or beloved story: fans have expectations.  For our 88-minute animated version, we greatly streamlined — paring away interweaving stories within the run of books (#129-137) — concentrating on Jean and the X-Men’s effort to save her.  I’m curious how the feature folks will tell the story in a 2-1/2 hour movie.  It’s funny to look back and realize that on kids TV we couldn’t even call the villains “The Hellfire Club” as the comics did (network censors), and we surely couldn’t have Jean/Phoenix devouring inhabited planets.  But we were allowed great spectacle, and, more important, great emotions among the X-Men team as serious sacrifices were contemplated.  Here’s hoping the new “Dark Phoenix” takes the story even further.

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