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.
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.
Thanks yet again. We really didn’t know how to do this. We slapped together @xmentas and this website a couple of months ago, and now they both have lives of their own. Two days ago was by far the most-viewed blog post. It’s great to have momentum. We will never take it for granted. Below is another of series producer/designer Will Meugniot’s recent sketches of a member of our X-MEN:TAS team. Storm was not the simplest character to write for. How do you make someone “regal,” “damaged,” and likable all at the same time? I think our best stories about Ororo had to do with her struggle to contain her volatile, roiling emotions — a challenge never faced for a moment by Wolverine. If you think about it, successful royal families have long had to serve their countries first, their personal feelings a distant second. It also makes for fun animation opportunities when a master of the weather “loses it.” In any case, today Storm is free to let loose as wildly as she likes. She’s hoping we soon see 3,000.
When running TV series, a tough job and major responsibility of the showrunner is “servicing the characters.” If you are plotting out 26 stories, where do you use each of the recurring characters — in our case eight of them — and what sorts of moments, scenes, and full stories do they get? Everybody cares about this. Fans care because they have favorites. Actors care because the more scenes and bigger/better stories they get, the more they get a chance to shine and the better odds they have to become fan favorites (to say nothing about the extra/bigger pay checks). In animation, artists care because they have favorites that they love to draw. Writers care because they have favorites that they love to write for (Beast, anyone?). TV executives care because series succeed or fail based on having a big enough audience falling in love with a show’s characters, having them want to “bring them into their living room” week after week. Showrunners have their own worries — how to tell consistent, strong stories that aren’t repetitive. Every story can’t be about Logan and Scott fighting over Jean. But we are not immune from everyone else’s interests. I planned on killing off Morph, but viewers loved him, so back he came. In the original Star Trek series there was a famous tension between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. “Kirk” was hired on to be “the lead,” yet producers found that viewers were going crazy for “Spock.” Lines were counted and scenes adjusted. Luckily, we didn’t have those issues. It took so long from script-writing to air time that we wrote full seasons of stories long before anyone reacted. We were able to feature whoever we loved most and, with luck, everyone else would too. Anyway, this is a roundabout way of admitting that I feel guilty about not focusing on a few of the characters as much as others. I immediately “got” Wolverine and Scott and Rogue and Professor X. Despite the fact that Jubilee, as the kid, the wide-eyed newcomer, was crucial to the balance of our team, in looking back I believe that we didn’t come up with the depth of stories for her that we did for many others. I might have said the same about Jean Grey, but then the nine “Phoenix” episodes gave her something bigger to chew on. This all came to mind yesterday when wife Julia and I had the fan-geek pleasure of meeting Walter Koenig, Ensign Chekov from the original Star Trek cast (see photo). He will be forever thought of as a “role player” in that series. Almost never was he a principal in a storyline. In fact, just like Jubilee, he was added to the cast to appeal to the “younger fan base.” Unsurprisingly, Walter’s favorite Star Trek episode (and one of mine) was the “Western” episode, where his survival was front and center and he got shot. Do the roles create the stars, or do the stars create the roles? In the cases of Jubilee (see Will’s drawing below) and Pavel Chekov, all I can say is that both played a vital part.
Even with the best of intentions, you can get in trouble. Some of you may remember that at the end of each episode during the first season, there was a primitive, spinning, 3-D, CGI (computer-generated-image) model of each of our lead characters that ran alongside the credits. Each of our eight leads was featured, turning 360 degrees, along with a brief description of his or her powers printed beneath the model. This was Will Meugniot’s idea. He understood that 80% of our audience had never heard of the X-Men before. Having a reminder of who was who in the team and what their powers were was a service to the audience. It was also time-consuming and EXPENSIVE at a time when CGI was in its infancy. Well, no good deed goes unpunished. When the shows came out in January, 1993, a cry went up that these 3-D figures of our X-MEN:TAS team looked like built-in toy advertisements. Much to Will’s disappointment, we had to discontinue showing them. Every successful show has merchandising — either before or after the fact. The “product placement” rules are silly. A show is good or bad. What it may end up helping to sell is immaterial. We got away with breaking a lot of rules on X-MEN:TAS. Here’s one we couldn’t get past.
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.