People love the opening titles of X-MEN:TAS. I even have a short chapter in the upcoming book about their creation. In the short time given Larry Houston and Will Meugniot (a few days?) to create the now-memorable opening sequence, Larry’s first storyboard pass was exciting, but it just wasn’t quite right. It, perhaps influenced by Stan Lee’s attempt at coming up with a titles narration, was far more focused on the plight of mutants as hunted creatures than on the X-Men as a team. The opening “Wanted Poster” image below was followed by police helicopter.
Margaret Loesch wisely decided that we needed to focus more on our X-Men characters, so Will helped Larry re-focus the opening titles on our characters (many of whom were newer and less familiar to Stan). The first half of the 75-second sequence now became an exuberant introduction to the family of characters that we would be living with for five years, complete with their names in bold print. It worked. With the new images bonded with driving music, viewers felt the spirit of the series at the beginning of every episode. Between Larry, Will, and Margaret, they found the heart of X-MEN:TAS.
Happy New Year! 2017 is the 25th anniversary of the premiere preview of X-MEN:TAS (10/31/92). It’s going to be quite a year. In February we’re going to be at San Diego Comic Fest with three other X-MEN:TAS writers and Series Producer Larry Houston. If you can, swing by and say hello. We’re going to have 4 or 5 panels about the series on Saturday and Sunday. We should also have more news about THE BOOK — our history of the series. Publishing is currently set for this summer, so we’re going to be incredibly busy trying to finish it up. As a fun remembrance, I thought I’d put up a storyboard page from 1989’s “Pryde of the X-MEN” (courtesy of X-MEN:TAS leader Will Meugniot). So many of the people that got our series on the air and made it as good as it was worked on this one-off attempt at getting the X-Men right for TV. It didn’t succeed, but without it, we very well might not have had the opportunity to do our version of X-MEN:TAS.
Staging a character — whether within a camera frame or on a storyboard panel, can be the difference between success and failure. We just screened the recent feature X-MEN: APOCALYPSE. There was all sorts of cool stuff in this movie (way too much — a bit of a “kitchen sink” problem). One of the few things that I felt was mishandled had to do with the title character. Oscar Isaac is a great actor. His lines weren’t bad, and his interpretation had weight and intensity. His costume worked (not a small thing with a “living god”), and he had majestic, scary powers. Why, then, wasn’t I overwhelmed by him as I was by the Apocalypse in X-MEN:TAS? True, John Colicos’s voice was awe-inspiring — but there are many ways to sound formidable, and Oscar Isaac’s was fine. It was something more subtle: it was where the character was placed and how and why he moved. The Apocalypse in X-MEN:TAS was massive, immobile. His opponents “crashed against him” (see just below). In the movie, the filmmakers sometimes worked to keep Apocalypse larger-than-life, but often they neglected to, as in the scene below, where 5’9″ Oscar Isaac (the man can’t help his height) looks like adolescent Storm’s playmate. If Apocalypse is larger-than-life, he can’t be smaller than Michael Fassbender. Also, there are scenes where Apocalypse walks over and interacts with people (including a fist-fight with skinny, 5’7″ James McAvoy). Our Apocalypse didn’t walk over to interact with anyone — they came to him. I doubt we were even aware of this as we wrote him and posed him and drew him. It was just his nature. And in that subtle lack of physical deference (posing, movement) to the character’s stature, the movie lost something for me.
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.
When we all signed on to do X-MEN:TAS in February, 1992, new colleagues Larry Houston and Will Meugniot introduced me to “The Marvel Universe.” At first I believed it simply meant “the Marvel family of characters and locations,” which it definitely does. But I soon discovered that this “universe” included, well, the universe. Just mastering the X-MEN characters was challenge enough. Soon I was made aware that many of the Marvel books overlapped so extensively, like an intricate weaving, that our series might in fact stretch out beyond our galaxy (Scott’s dad and Xavier’s lasting love were both soon revealed to live “in outer space”). Marvel was not pushing this overlap to us (as they do now with cross-marketing of titles). This was all the doing of the fans within our production ranks, led by Larry. In fact Marvel often wouldn’t allow us to use most characters “outside” the X-MEN books. But Larry persevered. Here are three of his beloved “Easter Eggs” from episode #42, part of the Dark Phoenix Saga. Since Phoenix was threatening life on a planetary scale, it made sense to show a series of concerned characters from around our world and beyond. Advertisements for Dr. Strange’s first big movie have just come out, and they made me think of this storyboard page Larry recently sent me. As with Deadpool before him, Dr. Strange got early exposure in our series thanks to fan Larry’s attention to detail.
There have forever been questions about art, how it affects us, which elements are most important. Is it the images or the words? Movies and TV and live theater and comics share the advantage of having both — with sound effects and music included in what we do in animation. The philosophical positions (writer: “I thought it up!”; artist: “I made it real!”; actor: “I gave it life!”; composer: “I gave it context!”; etc.) have been argued since before Aristotle made his points millennia ago. To me, the disputes seem not only wrong-headed but futile. No one can ever prove that the words of a poem or the style of a painting or the lilt of a melody or the dynamism of an actor’s reading provoked the most profound artistic experience. To pretend otherwise may make for fun arguments, but it is sheer indefensible arrogance. Creative people tend to get so caught up in their craft that it “feels” like a creation is theirs alone. But in a collaborative art like animation, all contribute. Look at the moment below from Episode Two (“Night of the Sentinels – II”), where Jean has sensed Morph’s pain at his death. When Charles Xavier reaches out with his mind to locate his friend, the deftly-written and sensitively-voiced line is simple: “I don’t sense anything… At all.” The scene is precisely sketched and directed by Larry Houston in the storyboard. The audience can feel the sense of loss in actor Cedric Smith’s quiet reading. The sound track and music were thankfully restrained. Editor Sharon Janis paced the cuts just right. Change any of these elements, and the power of the moment vanishes. Above all: collaboration.
This year’s Deadpool feature movie was a fun mega-hit. Ryan Reynolds nailed it. What few fans realize is that the character Deadpool got his first bits of screen time on our series in 1993 and 1994 in cameo appearances in episodes #4 (“Deadly Reunions”), #16 (“Whatever it Takes”), and #30 (“The Phoenix Saga: Part 2”). Liefeld and Nicieza’s unique self-aware, dark-comic hero was created only months before we started working on X-MEN:TAS. Obviously his first books made quite an impression on producer-director Larry Houston. When, in episode #30, Charles Xavier was having hallucinations, one of the scariest had Wolverine being attacked in a subway train. Enjoy a panel from Larry’s storyboard, inked by Mark Lewis.