ANIMATED TV – REBORN IN THE 1990s

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.

Fox Kids 90-93Red Dawn cover

OUR TOUGHEST CRITICS

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.

wizard article

Wizard - X-Men cartoon 2 (1)

 

Wizard - X-Men cartoon 3

 

THE TENNESSEE MAFIA: MARK AND MICHAEL (AND ERIC, AND JOHN,…)

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.

Mark and Michael 2011

Phoenix prem cover

WOULD WE SUCCEED IN 1992? MARGARET BETS THE FARM.

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.

Fox ratings 1995