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BEST INTENTIONS

Your first thought when watching (or writing) a televised cartoon is rarely: “What would the government think of this story?”  That’s good.  Countries where governments completely control the content of the media are sad, miserable, oppressive places, cultures where, at the extreme, you can get fired or even shot for what you write or say.  The Spain of the Inquisition, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China — these were not places to question authority and consequently, not hotbeds of creativity.  So the idea that there have been people pushing to control the content of American television, especially kids’ TV, since the medium’s inception has always been a concern.  Today few young people remember how restricted television programming once was.  On the biggest hit show in the world (“I Love Lucy”), the lead actress, who has married and having a baby, couldn’t sit on a bed with her husband or say the word “pregnant” out loud.  Warner Brother’s gloriously anarchic theatrical cartoons from the 1930s through the mid-’50s were, when screened in the 1970s, censored for violence (sorry Elmer Fudd).  Censoring Bugs Bunny…  The height of this frenzy for “pro-social control” of children’s media was reached in the mid-’90s during our run at X-MEN:TAS.  The “Children’s TV Act” cast a pall over future programming.  Much of what we were “allowed” to create in the following years had to be “educational.”  Our most important notes started to come not from creative colleagues but from child psychologists.  Luckily for those of us who like to create or enjoy quality animated television, the explosion of cable TV channels (looser rules) and the internet (loosest rules) broke through the artificial constraints of the well-intentioned protectors of our young people.  Nowadays you can animate nearly anything you can imagine and find a place for it.  Be grateful.  This is not the norm in the history of artist expression but a rare exception.  Government is important; life without it can be anxious and deadly.  But government is never good at directing artistic creation; though it will never cease trying, it really should.

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X-Men Show

STRANGE DOCTORS, GODS, & ALIENS: THE MARVEL UNIVERSE

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.

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behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

THE FOX KIDS NETWORK

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.)

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behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

SHAPESHIFTERS

Mystique.  Morph.  Shapeshifters are fun in TV and movies.  They’re kind of static in comics and nearly useless in print books, where there is no visual shape to shift.  But in animated television they are irresistible.  The X-Men character of Mystique has had an involved history in the comic books: She was everywhere, personally connected in some way to Rogue and Nightcrawler and Jean and most of the mutants who came to form our cast.  In X-MEN:TAS, we used her even more.  Transformations are fun, and action storytelling loves the misdirection of letting you see one character do something, then later revealing that it was someone else.  Morph was different.  He was new, introduced specifically to be fun and funny and loved by all, especially Wolverine, so that when he was killed in our very first story he could be grieved for by our entire X-Men team.  His transformations were playful, not deceitful.  Well, then after our first season, our audience spoke: bring back Morph!  So back he came, now PTSD-damaged by his near-death experience.  Luckily we had versatile actors to voice characters who had to take so many guises.  Jennifer Dale (Mystique) and Ron Rubin (Morph) were not thought of as the “core cast,” but there were a surprising number of episodes that featured one or the other as a crucial, central character.

MYSTIQUE                                        JENNIFER DALE

 

MORPH                                                RON RUBIN

behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

GREAT VOICES: “OUR APOCALYPSE”

X-MEN characters exist in the books and the animated shows and the live-action movies.  In the books, their voices exist in our imaginations.  In the various animated series and the movies, the characters live concretely in the voices of their actors.  Everyone hears them the same.  The current live-action movie guest-stars one of my favorite X-MEN characters: Apocalypse.  The actor portraying him is among the great performers of our time, Oscar Isaac.  He does a fine job.  Yet, for me, and for millions of fans around the world, “our” Apocalypse will always possess the uncannily resonant voice of the late John Colicos.  One of my great regrets while making X-MEN:TAS was never having a chance to meet John.  This was not only because he contributed so much to our show.  I was stunned to discover that he was my single favorite Star Trek villain, KOR (“koor”), the first Klingon commander ever portrayed.  John’s performance as Kor was first broadcast 49 years ago.  I’ve enjoyed it many times since, but it burned into my memory in one viewing.  He promised to turn Mr. Spock’s mind into a “ve-ge-ta-ble,” and I never pronounced the word the same way again.  On our series, he was the single most larger-than-life villain we had.  John made Apocalypse’s ancient soul believable.  He made a horrifically powerful villain vulnerable as he pondered the Sisyphean of his existence.  He made us feel for him. (Oscar Isaac was quoted as saying he “Went to the cartoons for a deeper take on the character.”)  So when we leave the theater after enjoying the craft of X-MEN: APOCALYPSE,  let’s remember the man who made the character immortal.

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behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

DEADPOOL GETS HIS SCREEN DEBUT

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.  X-MEN_OddsAndEnds_11

behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

MY MUTANT INTERNET – 1992

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.Roster Book Coverwhat are mutants

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CHARLES & MAGNUS

There is no more intense relationship in the X-Men universe that than between Professor Charles Xavier and his longtime friend and adversary, Magneto (or “Magnus” or “Eric Lehnsherr” — he had many names over 50 years).  In the books, which began in 1963, they had met as young men right after World War II, a time when teenaged Lehnsherr had lost his parents in Hitler’s Holocaust.  Each was was idealistic and driven; they bonded over hopes for a better world and the fact that each was discovering the astounding mutant powers growing within him.  When their ideals grew apart, Charles and Magnus became adversaries, never enemies (at least in our interpretation).  We chose to stress this relationship in X-MEN:TAS more than it had been in the books since each man represented a philosophical choice for the many mutants we would meet over 76 episodes: to cooperate with humans, or to separate from them.  This was not the traditional hero/villain set-up.  We wanted Magneto to be at times as sympathetic as Charles.  We wanted to show the deep affection each had for the other.  We even threw them together in The Savageland for short bits of eleven episodes in Season Two.  To showcase this relationship, the many X-MEN movies have chosen four of the finest dramatic actors in the world: Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy to play Professor X at various ages, and Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender to play Magneto.  Every X-Men fan knows their names and faces.  The actors that you may not know as well are the two men who so beautifully established the characters eight years earlier in our X-MEN:TAS show.  Cedric Smith (pictured on the right) was commanding and compassionate as Charles Xavier, and David Hemblen (on the left) was his equal as Magnus.  It was no accident that, in the series finale, when the X-Men team had to bid a final farewell to their beloved leader, Magneto was there as well to say goodbye.

 

 

X-Men Show

EVERY X-MAN MATTERED

How did we decide on the nine lead X-Men charcters out of the dozens available to us for the animated series?  They made themselves necessary.  Every one of them mattered.  The team’s ideals resided most powerfully in Professor Xavier.  Their mutant sense of isolation was given life by Rogue.  Storm embodied their majesty.  Beast personified their thoughtful side, their kindness.  Scott was dutiful above all, Jubilee curious.  Gambit charmed us, and Wolverine seethed with the fury and frustration of the unjustly oppressed.  Finally, holding them all together, was Jean.  We and the powers that be hadn’t planned it this way — the team grew into what it had to be.  There were many chances to change it.  Nightcrawler?  Colossus?  Cable?  Iceman?  Archangel?  We even planned to have four of them leave after episode 65 (“Beyond Good and Evil”), originally the “final” episode (we were asked to do eleven more at the last minute).  It wouldn’t have been the same.  This was our team — they had a balance and chemistry that allowed us to write the stories the way we wanted.  Below is a recent casual sketch of the X-MEN:TAS team of nine by the man who designed our series, Will Meugniot.  It’s fun and simple, but it reminds me of why we chose them — or they chose us.

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Uncategorized, X-Men Show

FAN FRIDAYS: LARRY’S EASTER EGGS

Today starts a tradition of fan-focused posts once a week.  Testimonials — like that of Jenee Darden back in July — will be popular.  We’ll start with a special contribution by arguably the biggest fan working on the series, producer/director Larry Houston.  Mark Edens and I and the other writers who contributed to the challenging adaptation of The Phoenix Saga, from a dozen excellent comics to to a 105-minute TV story, are proud of our written work.  But in this instance, producer Houston let his fan-love of the Marvel universe shine through above and beyond our storytelling.  As the Earth shakes from a galactic threat, superheroes around the globe rush to help out.  Usually Marvel wouldn’t let us use other major characters (they’ve learned since the value of cross-overs).  So for Larry to show some of his fan-favorites, he had to sneak many of them in.   Please see his recent note to me about Spider-Man’s only appearance in X-MEN:TAS.

The Spider-Man wrist cameo was in The Phoenix Saga part 5, “Child of Light.”  That’s all I could sneak by.  Back in season one, a full model sheet of Spidey was disallowed by Marvel, even though he was on the same Fox network.  This time, I made sure to not label it Spider-Man’s wrist when I submitted it for approvals. It was called just a “miscellaneous arm,” to the best of my memory.  And it was b/w, not color, too.  Everything I did back then (and you did) to add to the experience of watching the X-Men could never happen today. Too many cooks in the kitchen.  LH

Spidey wrist

behind-the-scenes, X-Men Show

WOLVERINE GRIEVES FOR MORPH: The Art of Collaboration

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.  scr 2, end act 1

scr 2, Wolv alone

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.

I'll Avenge You board

X-Men Show

GOOD NEWS FOR WOLVERINE FANS

There are a thousand things to remember and celebrate about X-MEN:TAS, but at or near the top of the list is the presence of the character Wolverine.  Logan, as he was also known, was front-and-center in the rebirth, the super-charging of a once-dead comics title called “X-Men.”  The man who co-created that character (for an editor, with an artist — it’s always a group effort) is owed our gratitude.  X-MEN:TAS — and the many movies and TV series that followed — would not have been the same without him.  Today my wife Julia and I heard the good news that Len’s stay in the hospital has been a complete success and that he will be coming home soon.  Len would probably tell me to stop with the testimonials already and get back to talking about the show, so this is it.  But I thought it would be nice to show an original image of Logan, to those who haven’t seen one, as he first appeared from the fevered imaginations of Len, Roy Thomas, and John Romita, Sr.  A year later, Wolverine would be one of the X-Men.

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