That’s the new title! I handed in the second draft of the book yesterday, and the publisher and I and a dozen cast and crew that I asked all agreed it’s the best title.
Previously on X-MEN
The Making of an Animated Series
Current estimated publishing date is September 1, 2017.
In celebration, Julia and I are taking a short vacation back in Tennessee, where the co-writers of much of the series live. Mark and Michael Edens wrote “The Phoenix Saga” five-part episode with me, so it’s only right that we have Phoenix, below, helping us celebrate.
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.
There’s a little known fact: we were going to change the X-MEN:TAS team. We had written the script where four members left and four new ones came on. It seems hard to imagine now. One of the strengths of the series is that we had found an excellent balance of diverse characters. How would we write stories without four of our team, mixing in four new-comers? The trick is that we were not planning to. Fox Network had decided to end the series at 65 episodes with a big story that concluded with four members leaving and four, who had proved themselves within the story, replacing them. The big four-part story was “Beyond Good and Evil,” and we had finished the four scripts — story laid out by Mark Edens and Michael Edens — with heartfelt farewells included. Then word came down that Fox didn’t want to end the series after all. They wanted another season (season five). Oops. Now I had to go back into “B. G. & E.” and take out all of the story bits that lead to four characters leaving and four new ones stepping in. Not pleasant. What was a really well-constructed 88-minute story now needed to be patched together to be something different. Fast. Oh, well. Below are our original ten X-Men (including Morph), plus some guest stars. See if you can guess which four of our ten was set to leave and who would have replaced them. Two of the replacements are among those shown below.
Stan Lee liked his villains straight and simple: evil characters to be defeated by heroes. Mark Edens and I once got in trouble during a “Thor” development meeting (the series didn’t get produced — it would have been great fun) when we tried to show some sympathy for Loki, neglected-son-of-Odin. In the orignal myths, a measure of such sympathy can be found. Stan, an advisor on the project, hated this: to him, a character was either a villain to be hated or a hero to be loved. Loki was a villain, end of discussion. Given Stan’s amazing track record, it was hard to argue that day that he was wrong. For X-MEN:TAS, however, we took a different approach. We had some out-and-out villains, but they tended to be evil, corrupt humans. When we used a mutant to pose a threat, either to people or to the X-Men, we tended to find them far more interesting if the threatening mutant had a sympathetic side. Magento is the prime example — supremely threatening, but still sympathetic (in our version, anyway). We took the idea of a sympathetic threat to its limits with the two-part episode, “Proteus.” The title creature is a huge threat to himself and humanity. He is such a violent force of nature that he makes Wolverine break down and cry from fear. But at the same time, he is a troubled teenage boy, the son of Professor Xavier’s first love, scientist Moira MacTaggart. The true villain of the story is Proteus’s abusive politician father, but the threat driving the action is his troubled son. So we had the best of both worlds: we had a spectacular creature for the X-Men to fight, but, within the same character, a loved one to save. Luckily Stan wasn’t much invovled with X-MEN:TAS after the first season, so we didn’t have to fight him over it. (By the way, the first part of “Proteus” was written by the late Bruce Reid Schaefer, a gentle soul and fellow Tennesseean who left us far too young.)
Without Mark Edens, there would be no X-MEN:TAS as we all know and love it. We would have stumbled through somehow, but Mark’s presence was critical to the storytelling. Mark and I laid out the first 26 episode ideas. He wrote the two-part opening pilot script, “Night of the Sentinels.” Mark and I built the “Phoenix Saga” five-episode TV story, adapting it from the Claremont/Byrne books. The network, knowing his value, asked him to come up with a big, Apocalypse-centered four-part finale (“Beyond Good and Evil”) which, before we were required to change it, was to be the wrap-up of the series. Mark and his brother Michael had a hand in over half of the series’ scripts. So it is exciting for me to announce that Mark has just published a darkly-comic novel, “Death Be Not Pwned.” It is available electronically on Amazon for $3.99. Even though the creative writers and artists who crafted X-MEN:TAS can no longer display their talents on that show, there are other ways to enjoy their work. Mark’s new book is one of them.
Sacrifice is central to being a hero, super or otherwise. Sadly, much of Hollywood has given up on this. All endings, it seems, must be happy. In classic storytelling, the great heroes died or at least suffered great loss. In X-MEN:TAS we had our team face personal sacrifice whenever we could. The first story climaxed with Morph sacrificing his life for his closest friend, Wolverine (see below). In the much later “One Man’s Worth,” Storm and Wolverine sacrifice their undying love to save someone they have never met in this timeline (Charles Xavier). One of the greatest moments in the history of sacrifice in storytelling was the final shot of the movie “The Searchers” (1956). John Wayne’s character has just given five years of his life, struggling, searching for and rescuing his niece. He brings her back and heals the pioneer family that had lost her. One by one the happy family go inside the house, leaving the heroic uncle standing alone in the doorway. The words “Ride away…” are sung on the sound track. John Wayne looks into the house for a moment, seeing something he can never quite be part of, then walks off alone. He did what he had to do; he sacrificed. When I meet people who loved X-MEN:TAS, nearly every one says: “You had me when you killed Morph.” This show, they decided, was different. Mark Edens and I, who made this initial choice, just took it for granted that personal sacrifice was at the center of what it means to be a hero. I guess we’re just old-fashioned.
Names matter. For Romeo and Juliet, their surnames meant they were screwed. For those of us on X-MEN:TAS who were trying to adapt a massive universe of preexisting characters, it was a challenge. How do you feature a character whose name grates on you or seems inappropriate? Some characters just sound wrong to your ear. It could be that you grew up knowing three idiots all named Fred. It could be a favorite movie character whose name you never wanted to sully (“Start the ball, Tector…”). Marvel comics creators were world-class at coming up with evocative names for their seemingly endless universe of characters, but “Strong Guy?” (Head writer Mark Edens hated that one.) I had an aversion to a character we never used because, to my ear, it just sounded goofy. It was the dragon Fin Fang Foom (see below). The fierce creature you see here would look great in animation. But I couldn’t imagine our characters saying his name out loud with a straight face. Oh, well, there were plenty of others. Which brings me around to a name almost as goofy as the fictional “Foom,” but which was absolutely real. Today, King Bhumibol of Thailand died (see lower image). He had been king for SEVENTY YEARS. My late father used to tell my sister Karen and me bedtime stories 50 years ago, some of which starred a mysterious character from the Orient named “King Bhumibol.” To our young ears, the name sounded like “BOOMY-BALL,” and its sound delighted us. We both assumed he had made such a fantastical name up; later, as adults, we discovered to our surprise that our strangely-named, legendary king was very real. But that wasn’t the point. In the fairy tales our dad told us, in his gentle voice, the name sounded right. King Boomy-ball fit. Today, as His Majesty passes, I thank him for that.
X-MEN:TAS has a complex relationship with the many series of X-MEN comic books that we respectfully mined as source material. Many fans have made lists of the connections they see, where adaptions may have been made from book to screen. Some are easy: the “Phoenix” sagas and “Days of Future Past” were direct, intentional, adaptations of well-known comics stories. Few others were. I had no agenda in adapting or not adapting stories from the books. Some of the TV writers knew and loved the books; others didn’t know them at all. There was only one rule for choosing which stories got made: which would play the best in series TV animation. The result was that only a handful of stories, like “Days,” originated with a writer saying: “We gotta do the —– book!” Far more often a writer would have a character or idea from a book, or of his or her own, and we built an original TV story from there, using names and places and characters from the books to suit our stories. Or in today’s case — the four-part “Beyond Good and Evil” — an original story was “tied in” to the Marvel Universe, late in the process, by the cameo appearance at the end by an established comics character. Writer Mark Edens created a new character, BENDER, a Robin-Williams-like, Lear-foolish jester, to hold the time-bending story together. Super-fan producer Larry Houston came up with the tag at the end, where Bender morphs into Immortus, an appropriately larger-than life Marvel character. Fans might imagine that Mark and I were trying to tell an Immortus story from the beginning. We weren’t. But Larry’s insertion of Immortus was a perfect example of X-MEN:TAS bringing the Marvel Universe into our stories in every way we could.
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.
Writers have influences. TV animation writers are no different. A number of X-MEN:TAS stories had precursors, dramatic stories or moments or moods that stuck with us and informed our choices for X-MEN storytelling mood and meaning. I have mentioned that Mark and Michael Edens and I shared a love for Classical Mythology. People knew how to write heroes back then, in all their flawed glory. Decisions had consequences, and the more powerful the character, the more humbling the results. Gods and heroes had emotions, fine and petty, and their actions changed the world. Movies have provided our era’s mythology, and there were a few whose influence showed up in X-MEN:TAS. The easiest “homage” to spot is in the two-part “One Man’s Worth.” In it, we discover a future world condemned to misery for the lack of one person’s influence. That was the core idea in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the post-World-War-Two classic (1947) that is often wrongly remembered as an upbeat Christmas movie. To the contrary, Jimmy Stewart is on the brink of suicide (see image below), believing his life has been worthless. Then, after seeming to have given up, he is offered the opportunity to see what the world would have been like without him: a miserable, hopeless hell. While our structure was different (we showed the hell first), the point was the same: If one man, Charles Xavier, was removed from the equation of life, civilization would crumble. He is “worth” that much. Similarly, we took the heart-breaking idea of a blind person regaining her sight at the possible cost of losing her affection for her savior from Chaplain’s “City Lights” (1931). In our story, “Beauty and the Beast,” the problem is mutancy, not class. But the personal stakes are the same. Finally there is the fan-noticed “almost cursing” of Wolverine. Of course we couldn’t have a character curse in a kids’ show. But Wolverine is a world-weary, crusty old bastard who doesn’t suffer fools at all. In a contemporary movie or book, he would curse like a sailor. We had to improvise. Luckily, we were all fans of classic Western movies, from the ’40s through the ’60s, where hardened men fought and died without an “F***” allowed. So, fans of Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969) will notice Wolverine’s references to “egg-sucking gutter trash” and smile. To further quote that movie — and our own Cyclops in X-MEN:TAS episode 13 — I wouldn’t have it any other way.
We’re not in it for the glamour. Writing animation in Hollywood is not the road to fame and fortune. We don’t have a lot of street cred. It’s odd — since half (most?) of the movie hits in the past 30 years (Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, Universal, etc.) have either been animated or associated with animated TV series based on comic books (X-Men, Avengers, Batman, etc.). Billions of happy viewers, all that money keeping the fading mainstream business going, and we “just write cartoons.” Even people that love our work aren’t always sure what we do (“Do you write the stories for the animators?”). It’s like that famous quote in the classic 1950s movie Sunset Boulevard: “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.” Thankfully, we love doing it. Have a look at the first page of our X-MEN:TAS pilot script, Mark Edens’ “Night of the Sentinels – Part One.” It all starts with the words.
Today we honor an exalted predecessor to X-MEN:TAS. Fifty years ago yesterday, on September 8th, 1966, the first episode of Star Trek: TOS (“The Original Series”) premiered. I know because I saw it. I still remember my 11-year-old reaction to the “salt monster” episode: “What the hell is this?!” I’d never seen a TV show like it. I was hooked. The next day our family moved 1,000 miles to a new home in Tennessee, where we didn’t get good reception (!) on the network that aired Trek, so I had to catch up on the show when it aired in syndication, Monday-through-Friday at super time. I memorized the 79 episodes. Primary X-MEN:TAS writers Mark and Michael Edens and my wife Julia were only a few of the Trek fans that gratefully acknowledge the impact that a trail-blazing TV series had on their lives. If someone were to look closely, the influences on our storytelling would be easy to find. TOS didn’t have the time or money or technology to look as slick and convincing as later, follow-up series or movies, but that didn’t restrain their ambition. They made up for their production limitations with memorable characters and emotionally compelling stories. We tried to get close to that on the similarly modestly-budgeted X-MEN:TAS. Our 25th anniversary is coming up in a little over a year (October 31, 2017). Here’s hoping that viewers are still in enjoying our show when it turns fifty.