It’s happening. Our brand new book – X-Men: The ART and MAKING of the ANIMATED SERIES – arrives this October 13 from ABRAMS BOOKS! It weighs in at nearly 4 lbs. of gorgeous full-color images that haven’t seen the light of day in nearly 30 years. We spent nearly 2 years combing through everything we could find, from high-end art galleries to X-Men: TAS artists’ half-forgotten storage units to cardboard boxes collapsing in the back of hot garages. We’ve pulled together the FIRST and (in our opinion) DEEPEST examination of the art of the show. We are proud to present it to you.
SDCC 2018 was a great X-MEN:TAS experience! First, Julia and I were accompanied by six “Team X-Men” volunteers (some family members), all decked out in “Previously on X-Men” shirts and hats. Amazing fun had by all.
We had two panels. The one celebrating producer/director LARRY HOUSTON’s career was topped off with the SDCC’s highest award for lifetime achievement, the INKWELL. At the other panel, which celebrated 25 years of X-MEN: TAS, we received a standing ovation (our first) from the standing-room-only crowd.
At a massive panel hosted by our friends at SCREEN JUNKIES, there was a “Battle,” a five-minute debate whose theme was: “What is the greatest animated series ever — X-MEN or Batman?” It was close, but the thousand-plus crowd voted for X-MEN!
And finally, we and X-MEN:TAS writer Len Uhley were able to grab some table space beside guest-of-the-Con Larry Houston and sell some copies of “Previously on X-Men.” Five days of fans, fun, and exhaustion that were truly memorable for us.
We opened our @xmentas Twitter account late last May. Thanks to your kind words and daily diligence from Julia (who manages the account), we have grown steadily. So much has happened so quickly. When we started, the movie “X-MEN: Apocalypse” was just opening; now “Logan” is assaulting the world. The X-MEN:TAS book was half-done, and now it’s with the publisher, getting polished up for a hoped-for summer release. We have had a great first-Con experience, thanks to Mike Towry and his partners, at Comic Fest, with producer/director Larry Houston and three series writers on panels. We hope to appear at a Con or two each month for at least a year once the book is published. But today we simply want to celebrate our growing Twitter community by marking another “1000” milestone. The X-MEN:TAS art below is courtesy of stroyboard artist Keith Tucker, an old friend, whose work appears in around 20 of the X-MEN:TAS boards.
As the X-MEN:TAS book races to its thrill-packed conclusion (late June?), I find that I am discovering more people who made major contributions (artists, voice actors) but with whom I never had a chance to work directly. Storyboard artist Keith Tucker has worked on possibly more series with me than any other artist: X-MEN:TAS, Exosquad, Streefighter, Iron Man, some Disney shows — all the way back to the long-forgotten Sky Commanders at Hanna-Barbera. We writers and artists so often work separately, that a memory of Keith stands out in my mind. Sky Commanders was the first series on which I supervised the writing (along with fellow Tennesseean John Loy). I distinctly remember getting a call from Keith, who I’d never met, about an action scene: he had ideas for expanding and complicating the choreography and wanted to run them by me. They sounded great. At H-B at the time the pressure was on the creative staff to rush through production. Here was a storyboard artist asking to take an extra few hours to make a scene I had signed off on more exciting. I remember seeing the board and seeing how good it looked. I wondered how often we would have to time push the stories like this. So it’s no surprise that Larry Houston used Keith a lot on X-MEN. The odder thing is that, while working for 4 years on the stories, I never knew who all of the artists were. Thanks to the book, I’m finding out.
The celebrations have begun.
This past Friday, February 17th, marked the 25th anniversary of the green-lighting of X-MEN:TAS, which officially premiered 11 months later. The wonderful folks at San Diego Comic Fest (including Comic Con co-founder Mike Towry) asked Julia and me and four other members of the X-MEN:TAS creative team to hold four panels. Seated with us in the first picture below is producer-director Larry Houston. Also featured were writers Len Uhley, Dave McDermott, and Steve Melching. (Steve and Dave Join us in the panel shown below.). As a nice complement to our presentations, the fest theme this year was a celebration of the 100th birthday of Jack Kirby, co-creator of the X-MEN comic and so very much more. The audiences were friendly and, as is often the case, many among them knew our series better than we did. We watched old episodes and discussed how they and the rest of the series managed to get made. It was great fun for us and was a reminder of why we are writing the “Making of” book, now scheduled for publication this summer. Once the book is ready, we hope to visit Cons around the country, perhaps one a month. We hope to see you at yours.
Happy New Year! 2017 is the 25th anniversary of the premiere preview of X-MEN:TAS (10/31/92). It’s going to be quite a year. In February we’re going to be at San Diego Comic Fest with three other X-MEN:TAS writers and Series Producer Larry Houston. If you can, swing by and say hello. We’re going to have 4 or 5 panels about the series on Saturday and Sunday. We should also have more news about THE BOOK — our history of the series. Publishing is currently set for this summer, so we’re going to be incredibly busy trying to finish it up. As a fun remembrance, I thought I’d put up a storyboard page from 1989’s “Pryde of the X-MEN” (courtesy of X-MEN:TAS leader Will Meugniot). So many of the people that got our series on the air and made it as good as it was worked on this one-off attempt at getting the X-Men right for TV. It didn’t succeed, but without it, we very well might not have had the opportunity to do our version of X-MEN:TAS.
Yuriko is all up-in-arms over the fact that we have reached another Twitter milestone on @xmentas. 4000 followers. Real fans, no bots. Thanks again for your continued interest and for telling your friends about us. It seems we have established a basic pace — adding 1000 people about every month-and-a-half. We appreciate the response and will never take it for granted. As we look forward to the publication of the X-MEN:TAS book (currently set for mid-July, with 32 cast and crew interviews completed so far), a little teaser of a look ahead: There’s a sub-chapter about a controversy over Lady Deathstryke’s design. No spoilers. You’ll just have to guess for now.
When Mark Edens wrote the pilot script for me for X-MEN:TAS, there was an X-Man in it that never ended up apprearing on screen as an X-Man. It was the Native American John Proudstar, known as Thunderbird. When the X-Men books were re-started in 1975 (after their suspension in 1970), Len Wein and Dave Cockrum were given the job of coming up with a new team that was far more diverse and international. Fans got a German (Nightcrawler), a Russian (Colossus), a Canadian (Wolverine) and a Native American. In writing stories, they soon learned that they had a problem. To quote Cockrum: “We created Thunderbird as an obnoxious loudmouth, and we already had an obnoxious loudmouth in Wolverine. So one of us decided to kill him off.” Which is why we X-Men newbies (Mark, me, Micahel Edens) decided to use Thunderbird as the character we were going to kill off in our opening story (we were trying to stay true to the spirit of the books). Atop our todo list during the first week was: “Kill off Thunderbird.” Well, somebody somewhere noticed that the only X-Man that we were planning to kill was Native American. Sorry: we don’t care if they killed him in the comics, we can’t do it on Saturday morning TV. Fine. So I dug around and found another character who had died, sacrificing himself for the X-Men: Changeling. Only we couldn’t use the name (long story). So the lone sacrificial X-Man became “Morph.” The rest is history. By the way, to show you how much Thunderbird was in everyone’s mind early on, take a look at an image from the opening credits, on the “opponents” side. There is John Proudstar, next to Juggernaut, angry as ever.
How do you show compelling evil in a kids animated TV series? We needed some big stakes to make it believeable that these super-powerful people, our hereos, would need to fight for justice for themselves and others. We needed nasty villains — but we had a severe limit on what nastiness we could ever show them doing. When we chose Henry Peter Gyrich during X-MEN:TAS Season One it was because he was in charge of a horrifying “final solution” set up to exterminate our lead characters and innocent others of their kind. We couldn’t depict mass slaughter. But we could make his ambitions clear and reinforce the horror of his plans with images of the weapons — towering sentinel robots (see below) — he had gathered to carry them out. Just below, Gyrich is seen doing nothing worse than simply looking down at Jubilee. But in the image of his lifeless, covered eyes, with his glasses’ reflections revealing Jubilee’s fear, his evil is palpable. (It reminds me of the mirrored glasses of the merciless guard in the movie Cool Hand Luke who shoots Paul Newman.) One of the first storytelling rules we are told, at least out in Hollywood, is that your hero is only as good as the villain you have set up to challenge him. Gyrich and his Sentinels gave us a good start.
Think about it. You work on a series for five years — even one as fun as X-MEN:TAS — and drawing the same look for the same characters could get old. So imagine the fun when word comes down from the writers that we’re doing time-travel or an “alternate timeline” episode, either of which requiring new looks for the characters. Below are a couple of alternative designs for Rogue and Scott. Below those are a couple of images from one of my favorite epsisodes, “One Man’s Worth.” The first, a modern-day, idyllic moment bewteen Storm and Wolverine (having a picnic!) suddenly switches to an alternative timeline (created by evil time-travellers) where they are fighting for their lives in dystopic, miserable world. Alt-Storm is designed so much tougher, so punk, that you know her life is diferent just by looking at her. After months of drawing “normal” Storm, it must have been fun to be asked to re-imagine her. The distinctive looks sure worked for us in the story.
Staging a character — whether within a camera frame or on a storyboard panel, can be the difference between success and failure. We just screened the recent feature X-MEN: APOCALYPSE. There was all sorts of cool stuff in this movie (way too much — a bit of a “kitchen sink” problem). One of the few things that I felt was mishandled had to do with the title character. Oscar Isaac is a great actor. His lines weren’t bad, and his interpretation had weight and intensity. His costume worked (not a small thing with a “living god”), and he had majestic, scary powers. Why, then, wasn’t I overwhelmed by him as I was by the Apocalypse in X-MEN:TAS? True, John Colicos’s voice was awe-inspiring — but there are many ways to sound formidable, and Oscar Isaac’s was fine. It was something more subtle: it was where the character was placed and how and why he moved. The Apocalypse in X-MEN:TAS was massive, immobile. His opponents “crashed against him” (see just below). In the movie, the filmmakers sometimes worked to keep Apocalypse larger-than-life, but often they neglected to, as in the scene below, where 5’9″ Oscar Isaac (the man can’t help his height) looks like adolescent Storm’s playmate. If Apocalypse is larger-than-life, he can’t be smaller than Michael Fassbender. Also, there are scenes where Apocalypse walks over and interacts with people (including a fist-fight with skinny, 5’7″ James McAvoy). Our Apocalypse didn’t walk over to interact with anyone — they came to him. I doubt we were even aware of this as we wrote him and posed him and drew him. It was just his nature. And in that subtle lack of physical deference (posing, movement) to the character’s stature, the movie lost something for me.
Today, I am told, is Hugh Jackman’s birthday. When his next movie soon comes out — said to be his last as X-MEN character Wolverine — he will have been in our heads as that seminal character for 17 years. It’s hard to overstate how important casting can be to a timeless character. There are plenty of talented people that are dead wrong for their roles. We take for granted that great characters are meant to be, just as they are. But so much goes into the creation of a character that moves us — story, design, voice, attitude, dialogue, look, fellow cast members, budget, cultural climate — that the norm is a missed opportunity. Not this time.
So, happy birthday, Hugh. Len Wein (see middle below) created Wolverine’s essence in 1974. Cal Dodd (see beside Len) brought us Wolverine’s voice in 1992. Then Hugh Jackman (near below) finished the job in the year 2000 by bringing us Wolverine’s living incarnation. As we celebrate a special Wolverine Wednesday with X-MEN:TAS designer Will Meugniot’s recent sketch, we thank these three and the hundreds of others who have contributed to making this character important to us.