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.
There is an endless fascination of “who would beat who” in the immense, ever-expanding world of superheroes. I can’t imagine a more classic (and over-used) comic-book cover than the pairing of one beloved character or team against another. It’s also a no-brainer for 2-D or 3-D-Fighter video games: combat is their essence. Feature movies have tried “A vs. B” with mixed success (Alien vs. Predator, The Avengers: Civil War). It doesn’t even need to make any sense — it just sets up a challenge, a deeply human competition complete with a satifying mix of spectacle. It compels us: we gotta know who wins. I was reminded of this yesterday when I saw the announcement of the most recent Capcom-vs.-Marvel game, “Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite,” specially featuring characters from X-Men and Street Fighter (see below). This spoke to me since I and producer Will Muegniot and my wife Julia and writer Michael Edens were part of the core creative teams on both of these animated series, nearly back-to-back. Their worlds were so different that it never would have occurred to any of us to pit one set of characters against the other. But that didn’t stop a more imaginative Capcom from creating a 20-year run of incredibly successful games. Powers and fighting were an essential part of our stories on X-MEN:TAS and even more so on Streetfighter:TAS. But the human side of the characters was even more important to us. We could tell a good story with very little fighting, but we couldn’t tell a lasting story without the humanity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The two sides of the X-MEN:TAS creative team hadn’t met before the initial meeting on February 17, 1992. Mark Edens and I, leading the writing staff, hadn’t met Will Meugniot and Larry Houston, leading the art and production side. If we didn’t see the series the same way, it would be a long, frustrating, unproductive year. Fox Executives Margaret Loesch and Sidney Iwanter chose to throw us together. The two-part pilot story (“Night of the Sentinels”), which introduced the X-Men’s world (Will’s idea), would be the test. It is easy to talk like you see eye-to-eye on a project, but until something gets written and drawn, you don’t know. As Mark and I and his brother Michael sped through setting up the first 13 half-hour stories, Mark wrote a quick 14-page outline of episodes one & two, the most crucial story we were to write over four years. We spoke with Will and Larry (and Bob Harras at Marvel), trying to learn the X-Men as we wrote. But we really didn’t know how our writing would go over with X-Men experts. As we expected, Will gave us X-Men newcomers a lot of notes on those 14 pages. The good news was that most of them were positive and encouraging, even excited. We wanted to see the same series made. This would prove crucial when, for seven months, many voices wanted us to change the show. But the team hung together. Sidney and Margaret had picked 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.
We worked fast. On February 17th I was hired and told that we needed to figure out the show and needed scripts right away. We built the show in a week. Mark Edens started on the hour-long pilot 2-parter, and we had an 80-page script three weeks later — while we were crafting and getting the okay for all 13 stories for the first year (and possibly the only year). Other writers jumped in, then Mark and his brother Michael did a couple more, and before we knew it, we were done. Only one story was a direct adaptation of a comic (“Days of Future Past”). The rest were crafted on by Mark and me using bits and pieces of X-Men comic history, some suggested by artists and writers, much expanded in a hurry, all okayed by Marvel and Fox. Our one priority: focus on the characters. Below is the chart I kept of the progress we made, from day of assignment of a couple-sentence idea, through 10-page outline and 40-page script. There was a mid-season delay, then we pressed on. We finished them all before we saw a frame of finished animation. We just hoped they would look good. Enjoy a bit of production history: