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.
I’d never seen it — focusing on the question of God’s existence in a Saturday morning cartoon. But I couldn’t help but ask if we could try. The story for “Nightcrawler” came about in the usual way. I looked through a list of the major X-MEN characters that we had yet to introduce. Kurt Wagner, true to character, lept out at me. Here was a mutant superhero whose major defining trait was that he was a devout Christian! Exploring that would lead to a unique TAS story. The challenge was that TV networks live or die by keeping their advertisers and viewers happy. Parents are particularly sensitive to what is being shown to their children, and religion is the most sensitive topic of all. The usual kids-TV rule is to not mention of it and to show no images of it, period. Luckily, my Fox Kids Network supervisor, Sidney Iwanter, is a born troublemaker. Sid insisted we do it. So we sent the idea — complete with images of the guest lead character looking like a devil with a tail — to our Broadcast Standards censor, Avery Cobern. It took her a week or two to get over the shock, but gradually, in her courageous wisdom, she came around to letting us show her that we could do a sensitive job. We specifically hired a writer who was interested in exploring issues of faith, our old friend Len Uhley, to do the script. Of course then we pushed it. Not only did we show Nightcrawler to be a devout Christian, we introduced him as someone confronting our series star, Wolverine, who had lost his faith. We set the story in a monastery, which we burn down. We show Gambit proclaim he’s an unrepentant unbeliever. Yet in the end, Kurt Wagner’s words resonate with our world-weary star, Logan, and the final images are of an astonished, conflicted Rogue watching Wolverine kneeling in church. Faith and Saturday Morning superheroes: never before and never again…
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.)
The single most important creative decision we made was killing Morph in the opening two-part story. Mark Edens and I insisted that we show the audience that what the X-Men do isn’t a game — it has consequences. Larry Houston and Will Meugniot backed us up. The only problem was, you just can’t do that on Saturday morning kids shows. Luckily, Fox Exec Sidney Iwanter lived to make kids shows more real. He was on board. Now the tough part. No TV network censor (Broadcast Standards & Practices department) had ever allowed such a thing. Luckily for us, we had as our censor an enlightened, comics-loving, story-respecting executive named Avery Cobern. My first notes from her were what we expected: you can’t do that! But, as would prove to be the case for four years, she listened. I meant it when I said the killing was all about the X-Men’s grief, not some fun at seeing Morph die. We had it happen off-screen. We experienced it through the eyes of Morph’s friends. Many cried. Wolverine punched somebody (another no-no). But a shared loss brought them together.
The most important moment for me was Wolverine driving off to be alone in his grief. As Mark and I originally wrote it (see script page and storyboard page below), a story act ended with Wolverine quietly alone, his head lowered.
Someone — Larry and/or Will — suggested one more image and a line from Wolverine. They put it in a draft of the storyboard. As you can see by my red marking below, I didn’t like it as well that way. As I remember it, we compromised: We would animate and record the final image. If it didn’t work, we’d end on the quiet shot. Well, it was just my luck that Cal Dodd, who voiced Wolverine, nailed the quiet, emotional last lines: “I’ll avenge you, Morph. I swear it.” So, a combination of director’s eye and actor’s voice won that one (It didn’t happen that often.). I’m still not sure which I prefer.
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.