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.
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.
MYSTIQUE JENNIFER DALE
MORPH RON RUBIN
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.
X-MEN characters exist in the books and the animated shows and the live-action movies. In the books, their voices exist in our imaginations. In the various animated series and the movies, the characters live concretely in the voices of their actors. Everyone hears them the same. The current live-action movie guest-stars one of my favorite X-MEN characters: Apocalypse. The actor portraying him is among the great performers of our time, Oscar Isaac. He does a fine job. Yet, for me, and for millions of fans around the world, “our” Apocalypse will always possess the uncannily resonant voice of the late John Colicos. One of my great regrets while making X-MEN:TAS was never having a chance to meet John. This was not only because he contributed so much to our show. I was stunned to discover that he was my single favorite Star Trek villain, KOR (“koor”), the first Klingon commander ever portrayed. John’s performance as Kor was first broadcast 49 years ago. I’ve enjoyed it many times since, but it burned into my memory in one viewing. He promised to turn Mr. Spock’s mind into a “ve-ge-ta-ble,” and I never pronounced the word the same way again. On our series, he was the single most larger-than-life villain we had. John made Apocalypse’s ancient soul believable. He made a horrifically powerful villain vulnerable as he pondered the Sisyphean of his existence. He made us feel for him. (Oscar Isaac was quoted as saying he “Went to the cartoons for a deeper take on the character.”) So when we leave the theater after enjoying the craft of X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, let’s remember the man who made the character immortal.
Writing for animation is different from, say, poetry (or blogging) because you’re writing for artists. Graphic artists and actors and sound designers and editors bring what you write to life. Like composers, animation writers must consider interpreters and performers when they commit a thought to paper. Creative people like to have fun. So whenever we considered a story for X-MEN:TAS, one of the first questions we asked was: “Is this good for animation?” Some stories aren’t. There’s no reason to animate Twelve Angry Men with its dozen jurors standing around arguing for two hours. The Phoenix Saga, on the other hand, is bigger than life and visual. So we felt confident that episode #45 (“Love in Vain”) would be popular with our artists and actors. Alien life forms were inhabiting and transforming our characters. Instead of just drawing and voicing Rogue, Larry Houston and Lenore Zann got to re-imagine her as she transformed into an alien creature. Below are a couple of Larry’s drawings of Rogue — one standard, one half-transformed. Challenging your colleagues is always a good idea.
Animated TV series have “lead character” actors just like any TV series. But what they also have are what sports teams would call “utility players” — like a baseball player that can play any of the positions on the field. Teams learn to depend on them. Some of the voice actors in animated series end up playing a bunch of very different characters. Cal Dodd was our Wolverine. Alison Sealy-Smith was Storm. But we had performers that played five or six different roles, each with its own voice and character. Lawrence Bayne was one (see picture below). He was best known for voicing CABLE, who made appearances in every season and who had the challenge of sounding larger and tougher (?) than Wolverine. Lawrence told me that he did that by underplaying his brutish character — which played nicely against Cal Dodd’s fiercer interpretation of Wolverine. But then Lawrence also played the regretful father of Scott Summers, a man who has to explain to his adult son why he had abandoned him. He was Captain America, an iconic hero in no way like Cable. He even played a sly villain (Fabian Cortez) who had the guts to betray Magneto. So what do we tell X-MEN:TAS fans when they ask: who was Lawrence Bayne? He was Cable, but he was more. He was one of our utility players. We came to depend on him.
There have forever been questions about art, how it affects us, which elements are most important. Is it the images or the words? Movies and TV and live theater and comics share the advantage of having both — with sound effects and music included in what we do in animation. The philosophical positions (writer: “I thought it up!”; artist: “I made it real!”; actor: “I gave it life!”; composer: “I gave it context!”; etc.) have been argued since before Aristotle made his points millennia ago. To me, the disputes seem not only wrong-headed but futile. No one can ever prove that the words of a poem or the style of a painting or the lilt of a melody or the dynamism of an actor’s reading provoked the most profound artistic experience. To pretend otherwise may make for fun arguments, but it is sheer indefensible arrogance. Creative people tend to get so caught up in their craft that it “feels” like a creation is theirs alone. But in a collaborative art like animation, all contribute. Look at the moment below from Episode Two (“Night of the Sentinels – II”), where Jean has sensed Morph’s pain at his death. When Charles Xavier reaches out with his mind to locate his friend, the deftly-written and sensitively-voiced line is simple: “I don’t sense anything… At all.” The scene is precisely sketched and directed by Larry Houston in the storyboard. The audience can feel the sense of loss in actor Cedric Smith’s quiet reading. The sound track and music were thankfully restrained. Editor Sharon Janis paced the cuts just right. Change any of these elements, and the power of the moment vanishes. Above all: collaboration.