How do you show compelling evil in a kids animated TV series? We needed some big stakes to make it believeable that these super-powerful people, our hereos, would need to fight for justice for themselves and others. We needed nasty villains — but we had a severe limit on what nastiness we could ever show them doing. When we chose Henry Peter Gyrich during X-MEN:TAS Season One it was because he was in charge of a horrifying “final solution” set up to exterminate our lead characters and innocent others of their kind. We couldn’t depict mass slaughter. But we could make his ambitions clear and reinforce the horror of his plans with images of the weapons — towering sentinel robots (see below) — he had gathered to carry them out. Just below, Gyrich is seen doing nothing worse than simply looking down at Jubilee. But in the image of his lifeless, covered eyes, with his glasses’ reflections revealing Jubilee’s fear, his evil is palpable. (It reminds me of the mirrored glasses of the merciless guard in the movie Cool Hand Luke who shoots Paul Newman.) One of the first storytelling rules we are told, at least out in Hollywood, is that your hero is only as good as the villain you have set up to challenge him. Gyrich and his Sentinels gave us a good start.
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.
Think about it. You work on a series for five years — even one as fun as X-MEN:TAS — and drawing the same look for the same characters could get old. So imagine the fun when word comes down from the writers that we’re doing time-travel or an “alternate timeline” episode, either of which requiring new looks for the characters. Below are a couple of alternative designs for Rogue and Scott. Below those are a couple of images from one of my favorite epsisodes, “One Man’s Worth.” The first, a modern-day, idyllic moment bewteen Storm and Wolverine (having a picnic!) suddenly switches to an alternative timeline (created by evil time-travellers) where they are fighting for their lives in dystopic, miserable world. Alt-Storm is designed so much tougher, so punk, that you know her life is diferent just by looking at her. After months of drawing “normal” Storm, it must have been fun to be asked to re-imagine her. The distinctive looks sure worked for us in the story.
Below is the brilliant early poster for the movie “Logan” that will premiere four-and-a-half months from now. The simple image of Wolverine’s battered, clawed hand holding that of an unseen child is perfect. We need to see our heroes fight; we need to see them struggle to prove themselves worthy. Both are exhilarating. But “struggle” to what end, for what purpose. The second hand answers that question. In X-MEN:TAS, as in all super-hero series, personal realtionships, loves, and loyalties are as important as spectacle and victories. Sometimes creators forget the importance of one or the other. We tried never to make that mistake. We weren’t always 100% successful, but we tried. We always wanted to show both hands in the picture.
The production of X-MEN:TAS had to be patched-together to be able to happen. With sister series BATMAN:TAS, it was just: “Hey big studio Warner Brothers — you wanna do a Batman series? You do? Done.” Nothing so simple for X-Men. The TV network (Fox) wanted an animated X-Men even more than Batman. But they needed to find someone to take the risk and responsibility to produce it. Saban stepped forward — they knew how to market and package TV series, but they didn’t have a big production staff. Graz Entertainment was set up by veteran producers and crew to handle most of the art, design, and production supervision. A studio in Korea (AKOM) was chosen to do the hands-on animation work. Marvel Comics didn’t know TV production, but it was their property, so they were on-board as a partner. All this made for a VERY busy Christmas crew jacket handed out to many of us (see below) in 1993. I also believe, sadly, that the existence of this thrown-together partnership was the major reason that the series just kind of petered out. Warners (which owns DC comics) will always renew a Batman series in some form: they have a 100% interest in them. But Marvel and Fox and Saban and all the other X-Men partners that made our show happen ended up drifting on to other interests. Budgets dropped, episode orders dwindled, and we all found ourselves going our separate ways. Oh, well… still got the jackets.
I have been asked this question one way or another by TV executives for 30 years: “Why can’t you write younger?” I don’t know why. It could be that I believe in making action-adventure storytelling as believable as possible. (I happily wrote “younger” on Winnie-the-Pooh — I can do childlike and whimsical). But teens or little kids fighting city-destroying villains are less real. I also never bought the idea that young audiences need or prefer young heroes. If you were eight-years-old, who would you rather aspire to be: Batman or Robin? I always believe that a “younged down” version of a hero or team (for example “Young Indiana Jones”) tends to be a weaker, watered-down, more timid version of the original. Why do that? I understand making sure that the X-Men have a teen along — Jubilee or Kitty Pryde — for contrast and a different point of view among the team. But imagine if she were the oldest X-Man, that her colleagues were “extraordinary youngsters” like the original book envisioned. I truly believe that one reason the first book (’63-’70) failed was that the team was made up of secondary-school students, not adults. When the far more successful ’75 book was launched, everyone was an adult, led by a 75-year-old with claws. Adults have broken hearts, a sense of responsibility, regrets, long-time friends and enemies. They have love affairs. They have a sense of cities or countries or even planets at risk. Adolescents don’t tend to. (I know I didn’t.) Below are three of the youngest characters we wrote (Larry Houston designs for Mjnari, Jubilee, Longshot), and then a clever imagining of severely “younged down” mutant fighters. In one episode, Jubilee got to giggle and blush a little at Longshot’s attentions. It was a nice moment. In “One Man’s Worth,” Wolverine got to tell Storm (his wife in the future — few remember this) that he would damn the whole world to chaos and misery before he would give up their love. That is drama, and it’s adult.
You MUST believe in the details of characters’ superpowers. If we were ever to play fast and loose with heroes’ or villains’ powers, fans would call us on it. It was crucial to let the X-MEN:TAS writers know the fine distinctions and maintain them. Storm doesn’t fly — she creates winds and rides them. Cyclops’ eye beams are not made of fire or burning laser light but instead are concussive; they don’t burn things (sorry current movie), they slams things. Wolverine isn’t immortal, he just heals quickly (the movies tend to cheat this a bit as well). If some badass villain were to reach up under his adamantium ribs and rip out his heart, Logan would die. All this said, we audience members tend to accept these powers at face value as long as the storytellers stay consistent. How does Storm access the elements? Medically, how do you take someone’s skeleton out of his body and replace it with another one? Even stranger questions come up when you think hard about some of the more obscure details of living with special powers. If shape-shifters can change their own clothes when the shift, why can’t they prank other people by changing theirs? The clever question in the artwork below is a good one, and I doubt Wolverine co-creator Len Wein has a ready answer. But if we buy the magic once, and stay consistent, we will buy it always.