behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

THANKSGIVING THOUGHTS: THUNDERBIRD, The X-Man We Tried to Use but Couldn’t

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.

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behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

WE CHEATED: Making Connections in the Savage Land

The first season of X-MEN:TAS we got away with something rarely seen in American animated television: we showed a continuing story set over 13 episodes.  For us to be allowed to do this was a tough fight since every business interest invovled worried that delays unique to animation could make us miss our planned air dates.  In the end they were right, and our connected storytelling cost them a lot of money.  They made much more when the series became a hit, of course, but the damage had been done: no more connected stories.  Occasional multi-parters might be okay (we pushed that hard), but episodes must STAND ALONE.  Well, we cheated.  We gave the network a two-part episode, then nine “stand alone” episodes, then a two-parter.  The trick was that the final two-parter resolved a problem (Xavier and Magneto kidnaped together) that we had set up in the opening story, and the nine episodes in-between all “touched base” with the kidnaped characters.  So to our audience, it felt like a continuing story.  This continuing background “B story” seemed to knit it all together.  I’m not sure what would have happened if the middle episodes had been shown out-of-order.  Our theory was that they would still make sense that way.  Perhaps we one day will make an experiment — starting with eps. 14/15 (“Till Death Do Us Part”), then mixing up episodes 16-24 at random, then concluding with the planned season finale of 25/26 (“Reunion”).  Or maybe some fans could make a weekend of it and let us know the results.  In any case, apologies to our network for bending the rules.  But we like the results.

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X-Men Show

OUR WISEST, KINDEST SOUL: The Beauty of the Beast

Hank McCoy is the most thoughtful superhero character I know, anywhere.  He didn’t start out that way.  In the first dozen books in 1963, he’s just one of the the guys, a big lug who wisecracks and leers right along with the other regular-guy, street kids taken in by Dr. Charles Xavier.  Then, to someone’s credit (Stan’s?) Hank McCoy started sounding distinctly more well-read.  Not wise or thoughtful yet, but he started to conspicuously use “big words,” a fancier vocabulary that set him apart.  The idea evidently was to contrast the fact that he was “the Beast,” erudite despite his appearance.  When years later he gained acutal fur the contrast increased, and as he and the other X-Men became accomplished adults rather than mouthy teens his wisdom and eloquence gradually increased.  We at X-MEN:TAS ran with this idea, supercharged it.  Our constant method was to differentiate our characters as much as we could, so we wrote Hank to be as thoughtful and considerate as we could make him.  Wolverine cared deeply about people but, in true rebel-hero fashion, he’d be damned if he’d show it.  Our Beast was so confident, so at home in his own blue skin, that he openly displayed his kindness and compassion with no fear of diminishment or ridicule.  He was big, strong — and kind.  He loved to read, as did we on the X-MEN:TAS writing staff.  Below is an image of Beast, at the end of “The Phoenix Saga” when the team has just realized that Jean Grey has decided to sacrifice her life.  Moments later he manages to conjure one of his most heartfelt poetic quotes, from Emily Dickinson: “Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell.”  Thank you Hank, and flawless voice-actor George Buza, for giving us that moment.

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behind-the-scenes, the book, X-Men Show

THE NEW TEAM THAT NEVER WAS: The Book Will Tell the Story

When I mentioned yesterday how we had written out four team members from X-MEN:TAS and written in four new ones in what was to have been the series finale, I thought it would be just a fun note to fans.  Then last night Julia told me: “People are guessing on Twitter.  You have to tell!”  Okay, fine.  I was going to just wait and let folks read the retelling of the 10-page, 4-episode discarded premise in our “Making of X-MEN:TAS” book next year.  But she’s right: I brought it up, I need to answer the question right away.  First, who was to go.  Jean and Scott, who we’d tried to marry off and get pregnant as early as episode 14 were now married and leaving to start a family.  Makes sense.  Xavier was leaving, in this case to take on a new set of much younger mutants (the at-the-time new “Generation X”).  This is kind of like Vince Lombardi winning a couple of Super Bowls and deciding to go back to coaching highschool football, but there you are.  Finally Storm decided that she too had other responsibilities.  Bam.  After an 88-minute, time-torturing, mega-villain-filled story, the X-Men are four folks short.  Well, in our original story, we made Psylocke  a major player, and she ended up asking to stay around (fitting in with some of the recent books).  Same with Archangel.  The two larger surprises were Bishop and Shard.  The hard-fighting brother and sister from the future had become stranded in the present time (1996?).  Since they too had proven themselves, the X-Men welcomed them.  So there you have it — four out, four in.  I have no idea how the delicate balance of our core team would have been affected.  Making the new team work as well would have been a huge challenge.  I’d like to think that if asked we could have risen to it.

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Proteus: Villains vs. Threats

Stan Lee liked his villains straight and simple: evil characters to be defeated by heroes.  Mark Edens and I once got in trouble during a “Thor” development meeting (the series didn’t get produced — it would have been great fun) when we tried to show some sympathy for Loki, neglected-son-of-Odin.  In the orignal myths, a measure of such sympathy can be found.  Stan, an advisor on the project, hated this: to him, a character was either a villain to be hated or a hero to be loved.  Loki was a villain, end of discussion.  Given Stan’s amazing track record, it was hard to argue that day that he was wrong.  For X-MEN:TAS, however, we took a different approach.  We had some out-and-out villains, but they tended to be evil, corrupt humans.  When we used a mutant to pose a threat, either to people or to the X-Men, we tended to find them far more interesting if the threatening mutant had a sympathetic side.  Magento is the prime example — supremely threatening, but still sympathetic (in our version, anyway).  We took the idea of a sympathetic threat to its limits with the two-part episode, “Proteus.”  The title creature is a huge threat to himself and humanity.  He is such a violent force of nature that he makes Wolverine break down and cry from fear.  But at the same time, he is a troubled teenage boy, the son of Professor Xavier’s first love, scientist Moira MacTaggart.  The true villain of the story is Proteus’s abusive politician father, but the threat driving the action is his troubled son.  So we had the best of both worlds: we had a spectacular creature for the X-Men to fight, but, within the same character, a loved one to save.  Luckily Stan wasn’t much invovled with X-MEN:TAS after the first season, so we didn’t have to fight him over it.  (By the way, the first part of “Proteus” was written by the late Bruce Reid Schaefer, a gentle soul and fellow Tennesseean who left us far too young.)

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X-MEN:TAS WRITER E-PUBLISHES DARK COMIC NOVEL

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.

X-Men Show

EVIL IN KIDS TELEVISION: PICKING YOUR IMAGES

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.

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behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

HEROIC SACRIFICE

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.

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behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

ALTERNATE TIMELINES: MORE FUN FOR THE ARTISTS

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.

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X-Men Show

THE TWO SIDES TO A GOOD HEROIC 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.

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X-Men Show

WHY WASN’T X-MEN:TAS “YOUNGER”

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.

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X-Men Show

SUPER-HERO LOGIC

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.

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