I’d never seen it — focusing on the question of God’s existence in a Saturday morning cartoon. But I couldn’t help but ask if we could try. The story for “Nightcrawler” came about in the usual way. I looked through a list of the major X-MEN characters that we had yet to introduce. Kurt Wagner, true to character, lept out at me. Here was a mutant superhero whose major defining trait was that he was a devout Christian! Exploring that would lead to a unique TAS story. The challenge was that TV networks live or die by keeping their advertisers and viewers happy. Parents are particularly sensitive to what is being shown to their children, and religion is the most sensitive topic of all. The usual kids-TV rule is to not mention of it and to show no images of it, period. Luckily, my Fox Kids Network supervisor, Sidney Iwanter, is a born troublemaker. Sid insisted we do it. So we sent the idea — complete with images of the guest lead character looking like a devil with a tail — to our Broadcast Standards censor, Avery Cobern. It took her a week or two to get over the shock, but gradually, in her courageous wisdom, she came around to letting us show her that we could do a sensitive job. We specifically hired a writer who was interested in exploring issues of faith, our old friend Len Uhley, to do the script. Of course then we pushed it. Not only did we show Nightcrawler to be a devout Christian, we introduced him as someone confronting our series star, Wolverine, who had lost his faith. We set the story in a monastery, which we burn down. We show Gambit proclaim he’s an unrepentant unbeliever. Yet in the end, Kurt Wagner’s words resonate with our world-weary star, Logan, and the final images are of an astonished, conflicted Rogue watching Wolverine kneeling in church. Faith and Saturday Morning superheroes: never before and never again…
X-MEN:TAS has a complex relationship with the many series of X-MEN comic books that we respectfully mined as source material. Many fans have made lists of the connections they see, where adaptions may have been made from book to screen. Some are easy: the “Phoenix” sagas and “Days of Future Past” were direct, intentional, adaptations of well-known comics stories. Few others were. I had no agenda in adapting or not adapting stories from the books. Some of the TV writers knew and loved the books; others didn’t know them at all. There was only one rule for choosing which stories got made: which would play the best in series TV animation. The result was that only a handful of stories, like “Days,” originated with a writer saying: “We gotta do the —– book!” Far more often a writer would have a character or idea from a book, or of his or her own, and we built an original TV story from there, using names and places and characters from the books to suit our stories. Or in today’s case — the four-part “Beyond Good and Evil” — an original story was “tied in” to the Marvel Universe, late in the process, by the cameo appearance at the end by an established comics character. Writer Mark Edens created a new character, BENDER, a Robin-Williams-like, Lear-foolish jester, to hold the time-bending story together. Super-fan producer Larry Houston came up with the tag at the end, where Bender morphs into Immortus, an appropriately larger-than life Marvel character. Fans might imagine that Mark and I were trying to tell an Immortus story from the beginning. We weren’t. But Larry’s insertion of Immortus was a perfect example of X-MEN:TAS bringing the Marvel Universe into our stories in every way we could.
Names. How do you remember important characters that have multiple names? Is it Logan or Wolverine? Magnus, Magneto, or Erik Lehnsherr? Since I had to decide what people called each other in the approximately 20,000 lines of dialogue in X-MEN:TAS, it became important. Like most writers, I tried to fit the name to the circumstance and the speaker. I had Magento always refer to his old friend as “Charles.” Calling him “Professor Xavier” or even “Professor” as others might would sound silly. (Only Wolverine occasionally called him “Chuck.”) A fellow professional might refer to Beast as “Dr. McCoy,” but the X-Men never did. (I tried not to use this formal name without “Henry” in it because of the Star Trek Doctor McCoy. If anyone cares, yes, our Dr. McCoy came first.) “Beast” or “Hank” or even “Hank McCoy” could be equally friendly and informal. This seems simple, straightforward logic, but late in the first season I discovered I had a problem. Stan Lee hated using various names for characters. If in a quiet moment I wanted Professor X to call his life-long friend “Magnus,” Stan objected. Magneto was always “Magneto,” Wolverine was never “Logan.” He seemed to believe that superhero names needed to be reinforced, that audiences would get confused if variation were allowed. Despite all of Stan’s awe-inspiring accomplishments, I found this attitude limiting. I wasn’t required to follow his suggestions, but I wanted to where I could. Luckily he only gave us notes for the first dozen episodes. From then on we were free to use the name most appropriate for the situation.
The character in the top picture is clearly “Beast.” He is “Hank” or “Dr. McCoy” in the lower one. Nowhere did we call him “The Beast” as he was sometimes in the comics.
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:
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.
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.