Wednesday night, at the New Moon restaurant in Montrose, California, twenty of the people who worked on X-Men:TAS came together to celebrate the publication of “Previously on X-Men” 25 years after the series premiered. Great fun was had by all. Below are 15 of us. Back Row, left-to-right: Bob Skir (writer), Scott Thomas (producer), Julia Lewald (writer), Stephanie Graziano (Graz Entertainment), Dave McDermott (writer), Margaret Loesch (Fox Children’s Network), Larry Houston (Producer/Director), Me, Marty Isenberg (writer), Jim Graziano (Graz Entertainment). Front row: Len Uhley (writer), Dean Stefan (writer), Avery Cobern (Fox Children’s Network), Steve Melching (writer), Brooks Wachtel (writer). All are interviewed in the book.
People love the opening titles of X-MEN:TAS. I even have a short chapter in the upcoming book about their creation. In the short time given Larry Houston and Will Meugniot (a few days?) to create the now-memorable opening sequence, Larry’s first storyboard pass was exciting, but it just wasn’t quite right. It, perhaps influenced by Stan Lee’s attempt at coming up with a titles narration, was far more focused on the plight of mutants as hunted creatures than on the X-Men as a team. The opening “Wanted Poster” image below was followed by police helicopter.
Margaret Loesch wisely decided that we needed to focus more on our X-Men characters, so Will helped Larry re-focus the opening titles on our characters (many of whom were newer and less familiar to Stan). The first half of the 75-second sequence now became an exuberant introduction to the family of characters that we would be living with for five years, complete with their names in bold print. It worked. With the new images bonded with driving music, viewers felt the spirit of the series at the beginning of every episode. Between Larry, Will, and Margaret, they found the heart of X-MEN:TAS.
The production of X-MEN:TAS had to be patched-together to be able to happen. With sister series BATMAN:TAS, it was just: “Hey big studio Warner Brothers — you wanna do a Batman series? You do? Done.” Nothing so simple for X-Men. The TV network (Fox) wanted an animated X-Men even more than Batman. But they needed to find someone to take the risk and responsibility to produce it. Saban stepped forward — they knew how to market and package TV series, but they didn’t have a big production staff. Graz Entertainment was set up by veteran producers and crew to handle most of the art, design, and production supervision. A studio in Korea (AKOM) was chosen to do the hands-on animation work. Marvel Comics didn’t know TV production, but it was their property, so they were on-board as a partner. All this made for a VERY busy Christmas crew jacket handed out to many of us (see below) in 1993. I also believe, sadly, that the existence of this thrown-together partnership was the major reason that the series just kind of petered out. Warners (which owns DC comics) will always renew a Batman series in some form: they have a 100% interest in them. But Marvel and Fox and Saban and all the other X-Men partners that made our show happen ended up drifting on to other interests. Budgets dropped, episode orders dwindled, and we all found ourselves going our separate ways. Oh, well… still got the jackets.
We did a lot of time travel episodes in X-MEN:TAS. Always intriguing, always hard to keep the logic straight. We have all had moments when we wished we could go back in time and change something. Well, I have living proof here that the key hands-on executive of Fox’s golden age of TV animation might have just such a desire. Sidney Iwanter (“I want her!”) personally lorded it over such timeless treasures as Beetlejuice, Batman:TAS, X-MEN:TAS, The Tick, and Spider-Man. Hundreds of half-hours of subversive childhood memories were affected by one addled visionary. We can thank/blame his boss Margaret Loesch for letting him loose on hundreds of millions of impressionable young minds. Despite his impact, Sidney is an elusive creature — little is known about him, and images are few. That’s why, when I discovered a high school photo in a ’90s Fox Kids magazine, I couldn’t resist sharing it. Seeing that haunting adolescent image today, I’m sure Sidney would love to go back to 1967 and change many things. Maybe Forge can build him a time machine. I’d watch that episode.
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.
There was nothing random about the fact that X-MEN:TAS was successful on the Fox Kids Network (or “Fox Children’s Network,” or FCN). First, no one else would program it. Margaret Loesch tried pitching it for nearly ten years — sorry lady, no way. CBS, NBC, and ABC were 99% of the television market, and if they didn’t want you, tough. I remember “pitching” shows to the three networks in the late 1980s. You had three chances, period. There was a week in early February when they all decided what would be shown in the fall. If you didn’t make a sale, it was wait until next year. Then this upstart, half-network called Fox Television got thrown together. They were risk-takers enough to hire Margaret, who was brave enough to hire Sidney Iwanter, and the golden age of animated TV was born. First they grabbed Beetlejuice from ABC and made it more intense. Then they added Batman: TAS and X-MEN:TAS and The Tick and Spider-Man and the rest of kids’ television didn’t know what hit them. In those days the network’s decisions were everything. If the executives didn’t like or get your show, it didn’t happen. If they bought it and then didn’t get what about it would make it great, it wasn’t allowed to be great. They had absolute creative control; it was “their money.” I have seen more potentially good television hobbled or destroyed by a lack of executive understanding than any single factor. There are oceans of creative production talent out here. But business people who know how to navigate the terrifying waters of our demanding industry and that have a clue about the creative side are rare. X-MEN:TAS simply wouldn’t have worked for other executives at other networks at another time. We all did our part, but FCN, through Margaret and Sidney and others, made it possible. (Below see pages from the quarterly “Fox Kids Club” magazine that they sent out to make younger fans feel part of it all.)
I grew up in the 1960s watching some excellent cartoons. This was a bit of a cheat, since the best ones were originally very expensively made (in man-hours) for movie theaters. The earliest Warners Bugs Bunnys and the Fleischer Popeyes and the Disney shorts from the 1930s through the MGM shorts of the ’50s (like Tom & Jerry) were produced to delight adult moviegoers. Repeats from this golden age filled our Saturday mornings. But making good animation is hard. The staff at a major film studio could spend four months crafting the 22 minutes of material that TV would soon demand from an animated series every week. Most of the made-for-TV series from the ’60s and ’70s and even the early ’80s are hard to watch now. Miracle-man Jay Ward (Bullwinkle, etc.) managed by spending no time or money on the primitive animation while investing all his energy in the writing and voice acting (think Simpsons or South Park). But when I started working in animation in 1985, things were only just starting to pick up. Luckily for X-MEN:TAS, Margaret Loesch at Fox was far more ambitious than most people in the business. She’d help produce some of the best series of the late ’80s, and when she came to Fox in 1990, she knew it would take a couple of years to get her schedule the way she wanted it. See below what was available to her at first, then what she added: Beetlejuice, Batman:TAS, Eek The Cat, Dog City, and soon thereafter: X-MEN:TAS, The Tick, and Spider-Man. For 25 years a lot of new “children’s programming” had been uninspired. Luckily for X-Men fans, the right person came along at the right time.
Working for nearly a year before the official premiere in January, 1993, we really didn’t know if X-MEN:TAS would survive. Animation takes a long time. Many at Marvel doubted us. You couldn’t blame them — Hollywood had never succeeded with the X-Men (see article below for a brief pre-TAS history) or really with any other Marvel property. Most in the TV business doubted us: Where were the jokes and the cuddly characters? That’s one reason it was so satisfying when the show came out, and not only did tens of millions of viewers enjoy it, critics from both the comics world and television embraced us. TV Guide gave us an “A.” In Daily Variety, the “bible of the industry,” celebrated TV critic Brian Lowry praised us. In the possibly even tougher world of comic books, we were accepted as no other adapted Marvel property had been before. Wizard Magazine published the following article, tightly sourced and focused by Andy Mangels, in an issue that celebrated 30 years of X-Men comics with the acknowledgement that we, Hollywood, had finally got it right.
So who wrote the 76 X-MEN:TAS stories and turned them into 40-page scripts and why? Margaret Loesch ordered the series. She and Sidney Iwanter hired me to be in charge of the writing. I hired the Tennessee mafia. That’s what friends and colleagues called me and Mark and Michael Edens (and others). We had been friends since we programmed movies together at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in the mid-70s. We stood up for each other at each other’s weddings. When I, in 1985, got my first writing assignment in Hollywood (along with equally prolific and multi-talented animation writer, another UTK alumnus, John Loy), the first calls I made were to Mark and Michael, telling them that they should get ready to work. Over a thousand produced credits later, somehow we’re still friends. So when I was told to build/develop X-MEN:TAS and get the first 13 stories ready (oh, take a week if you need to), I of course turned to Mark and Michael. We all knew heroic storytelling: in college, we had bonded over Homer, Classic Westerns, and Star Trek. But we didn’t know the X-Men books. We learned fast, relying on mega-fans Will Meugniot (producer/designer), Larry Houston (producer/director), Bob Harras (Marvel editor-in-chief), and Bob Skir (writer) for canon details and wisdom. Though Mark and Michael have writing credit on 20 of the X-MEN:TAS scripts, they had a hand in far more — the majority of the series. Mark, for instance, helped lay out the first 26 stories with me and helped adapt the five-part “Phoenix Saga” from the excellent but not-TV-friendly books (see document cover below) and what was supposed to be the grand finale ( the four-part “Beyond Good and Evil”). If they hadn’t had another series to run and write (Exo-Squad), they would have done more. People in tough jobs tend to hire those they know and trust. I knew and trusted Mark and Michael Edens.
When Fox Kids TV, upstart also-ran among TV networks, committed to the initial 13-episode series of X-MEN:TAS in February, 1992, most people in the business doubted it would succeed. In 26 years of trying, in eleven attempts, no Marvel-Comics-based show really had. No Marvel movies had. New Fox Kids president Margaret Loesch believed that the X-Men would make great TV. The people she had to report to — senior executives, advertisers, TV station owners — didn’t. She put her job on the line to get the show made. It just goes to show what “people know” in the business of popular culture. Not only did X-MEN:TAS become the number one kids show on TV, it pulled number four-out-of-four network Fox Kids to number one in a matter of months. The amazing animated Batman series helped eventually, as did The Tick and Spider-Man and Power Rangers. But it was the premiere season of X-MEN:TAS that rocketed Fox from last to first. Have a look at the Los Angeles Times annual report on kids TV for the ’94/’95 season (our third season). Ten out of ten Fox shows. If you’d seen this report three years earlier, only Fox’s The Simpsons would have been listed, with NBC, CBS, and ABC holding the other nine spots. Every Saturday Morning series on the list had been put there by Margaret Loesch (and supervised by her crazed right-hand-man, Sidney Iwanter). Thanks to Margaret and Sidney, I was able to help on the development and pilot script of Ben Edlund’s peerless The Tick, and Julia was hired to adapt Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet. It was a great time to be working in kids’ TV, and Margaret Loesch made it all possible.