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.
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Animation writer-producers depend on the talent of the series’ designers. We can structure the stories, name the characters, and write their dialogue. We can pick the actors, direct their voices, and add evocative music and sound effects. We can push the studio to animate smoothly and edit seamlessly. We can get 99 out of 100 elements right, but if our series’ character designs are off, none of it matters. Think about “miscasting” movies, or even just screwing up the costumes a little. It takes you right out of the movie. You leave saying: “I would have loved that movie about the Los Angeles Lakers, but I found Danny DeVito as Kobe distracting.” Below are a couple of mashups that confirm this. The Simpsons is as great an animated series as will ever be invented. So much of the spirit of the series is evident simply in Matt Groening’s designs. While imagining our X-MEN:TAS characters drawn like Simpsons characters or those from American Dad (both below), is harmless (and clever) fun, it reminded me how much TV and movies demand that you believe their images. Theater can get away with cheesy costumes and 60-year-olds playing young lovers — and books don’t have this worry — but people really watch what we produce as well as listen to it, so if the images don’t feel right, nothing does. Still, Barney as Beast is pretty funny.
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.
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.