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.
Those of us entrusted with writing X-MEN:TAS stories only had a couple of weeks to figure out who and what the X-Men were and what they meant to each other and the world. Our bosses wanted 13 half-hour stories sketched out right away. There was no internet. Friends lent me a few old books, but Marvel, edging toward bankruptcy, was 3000 miles away and didn’t have much of a staff to dig through old boxes to ferret out old books that might best reveal the new team’s characters. There were few reprint collections. Fans like Larry Houston, Will Meugniot, and Bob Skir helped with advice, but they had their own jobs to do. Of all things, I found real help at an old-school gaming store, where I picked up a copy of an X-Men “Special Campaign Set.” It had blueprints of the X-Mansion and the Blackbird and detailed histories of the characters. This and a copy of Larry’s “Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Master Edition” helped me quickly learn the complex and sometimes contradictory world of 25 years of X-Men storytelling. Fans know this stuff. They know the rules. Mark and Michael and I couldn’t start building stories until we did as well. Thanks to a table-top game and an encyclopedia, we learned fast.
Today starts a tradition of fan-focused posts once a week. Testimonials — like that of Jenee Darden back in July — will be popular. We’ll start with a special contribution by arguably the biggest fan working on the series, producer/director Larry Houston. Mark Edens and I and the other writers who contributed to the challenging adaptation of The Phoenix Saga, from a dozen excellent comics to to a 105-minute TV story, are proud of our written work. But in this instance, producer Houston let his fan-love of the Marvel universe shine through above and beyond our storytelling. As the Earth shakes from a galactic threat, superheroes around the globe rush to help out. Usually Marvel wouldn’t let us use other major characters (they’ve learned since the value of cross-overs). So for Larry to show some of his fan-favorites, he had to sneak many of them in. Please see his recent note to me about Spider-Man’s only appearance in X-MEN:TAS.
The Spider-Man wrist cameo was in The Phoenix Saga part 5, “Child of Light.” That’s all I could sneak by. Back in season one, a full model sheet of Spidey was disallowed by Marvel, even though he was on the same Fox network. This time, I made sure to not label it Spider-Man’s wrist when I submitted it for approvals. It was called just a “miscellaneous arm,” to the best of my memory. And it was b/w, not color, too. Everything I did back then (and you did) to add to the experience of watching the X-Men could never happen today. Too many cooks in the kitchen. LH