Back in the early '90s, the pop-culture landscape didn't look at all like it does now. Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when it was really stinking hard to get a superhero pitch past the Hollywood suits, many of whom obviously lacked the mutant power of foresight. But in the fall of 1992, two Fox Kids animated shows emerged – Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men: The Animated Series – and would change all that.
As opposed to most of the superheroes previously shown on TV, live-action or otherwise, both Saturday morning cartoons took a decidedly darker, more adult look at the comic book source material. We know today that the approach was the right one — major studios and toy companies are now churning out superhero fare for the masses — but none of that was guaranteed when Eric Lewald signed on as the showrunner of X-Men: The Animated Series.
Throughout the production, Lewald — who hadn't read one issue of X-Men prior to getting the gig — and the rest of the team (including X-Men creator and TAS executive producer Stan Lee) had just as many adventures as the mutants they were bringing to life. On the occasion of the show's 25th anniversary and Lewald's new book, Previously on X-Men, The Making of an Animated Series, SYFY WIRE got the scoop about some of those adventures first hand, from the story editor, writer, and showrunner for the series' entire five-year run.
Check out the full SYFY WIRE interview below, as we cover some epic ground, from Jubilee cashing in on Kitty Pryde's failure, to an exec suggesting the show's focus be Xavier and Cerebro "in a van driving around, Scooby-like, solving mysteries," to seriously-taken superheroes ultimately taking over the world!
I heard that you read every single issue of X-Men at the time in order to prepare for the showrunning gig; is that correct?
Eric Lewald: The answer to your question is that the truth is almost the exact opposite. The day I was offered the X-Men:TAS showrunning job I had NEVER read an X-Men book. None. Neither had my head writer Mark Edens. And we were starting a couple of months late, so there was no down-time to catch up and no internet to find the stories (there had been at least five or six hundred issues out by then, in February 1992).
To learn this world quickly as we laid out Season 1, I relied on fan-colleagues like Larry Houston, Bob Harras, Will Meugniot, and Bob Skir to fill me in. I bought perhaps a dozen comics at our local store. I bought the trading cards (!) and a tabletop game, and Larry got me a copy of Marvel Universe that had all of the characters listed with mini-bios.
That's one reason the first two seasons were so character focused. Mark and I learned the characters and, except for "Days of Future Past," didn't focus on specific issues at all. And so while we worked hard to honor the spirit of the books, we found ourselves creating stories that worked for us as half-hour TV episodes, then going to the reference materials (and fan colleagues) for proper X-Men Universe people and details to fit our stories. We never used an original new character (though they are fun to create) when we could find an actual X-Men Universe character to fill a role.
Why did Jubilee play such a big part initially, and why isn't she as big as the rest of the team now?
Jubilee was chosen on day one as part of the core team by Marvel, Fox, and the creative staff for a couple of reasons. First, they wanted a teen character as balance amid the very adult world of our older X-Men. Marvel at the time was pushing Jubilee over alternative Kitty Pryde (possibly because of the failed pilot attempt "Pryde of the X-Men").
For the writing team, Jubilee provided the key element for introducing the television audience – 90% of whom did not know the X-Men – to the world of mutants. It was through her amazed, questioning eyes that the two-part "Night of the Sentinels" introductory pilot story was experienced. Given that major Jubilee focus as the start to the first 13 episodes, we felt it appropriate for the resolution of the first season to end with her truly proving herself: thus, her initial strong presence. Later, other characters took more central roles. And while many viewers loved Jubilee, much of the audience was (and many of the writers were) drawn to the darker drama of the older characters' lives.
I read that you guys were fighting executives about dumbing down and goofing up X-Men: TAS. Can you recall more vividly some of the more ridiculous requests you got, and how you had to defend your vision?
Interestingly, the usual source of dumb-it-down pressure, the TV network, was 100 percent behind our vision. Pressure instead came from secondary people with self-interests. A fast-food company with a deal with Marvel insisted that their kids-meal toys of the characters be shown in every episode. Haim Saban [whose Saban Entertainment was contracted to produce the show], who was paid the same fee whether we spent $50,000 or $500,000 per episode making it, suggested on day one that the show be focused on Xavier and Cerebro in a van driving around, Scooby-like, solving mysteries (less to draw).
Advertisers and affiliate stations were freaked out at the "adult" storytelling. Stan Lee, of all people, pushed me to take out "all those big words" that Beast was saying. And he was sure that the audience would forget who everybody was and what their powers were, so he pushed to narrate all the episodes so he could tell the kids who and what they were watching.
How did you know that the Saturday morning cartoon crowd could keep up with more grown-up fare? What did kids understand about X-men that the execs never got?
We, the creative core group, remembered being children and yearning to be challenged. Many of us had children of our own and were constantly surprised and pleased to discover what they could enjoy and grasp intuitively, even if they didn't understand everything. We knew older audiences would like it and younger audiences would aspire to it. Still, 25 years later, most TV executives don't get this.
Is X-Men: TAS the best on-screen representation of the comic book characters?
It's hard to be objective about this and retain an ounce of humility, but in general I believe that they are. Conversely, I believe that the animated Avengers that many of us did in the '90s was the weakest ever. It's a team effort, and for X-Men we had the right team. Beyond that, there was luck and magic involved.
I wrote a 460-page book trying to figure out why, out of dozens of projects I've worked on, X-Men:TAS came together as wonderfully as it did. I'm still not sure. The senior critic of animated TV, Brian Lowry (LA Times, Variety, CNN) believes that comic book superheroes are inherently better suited to animation than live action. But while it is impossible to beat moments on screen with actors like Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy, I have come to appreciate that for millions of people, X-Men: TAS is "their X-Men."
Looking back, how important is the show, as far as the current pop culture market place goes, which is packed with superheroes and comic book characters?
At the time, I was aware of none of this. But I've come to see X-Men:TAS, along with more beautiful sibling Batman:TAS, as the spark that has brought comic book superheroes from a corner of pop culture out to reigning atop it. In the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s there were occasional attempts to bring superheroes to a wider audience (cartoons, an occasional movie, a rare TV series). When X-Men:TAS was pitched, very few people in Hollywood believed it had a chance to succeed. I believe that our success with audiences of all ages showed Hollywood that there was a huge audience for superheroes if they were taken seriously. I believe that we showed them how it could be done, and then the floodgates opened. "Superhero" is now a full-fledged genre, like Westerns or Romantic Comedies. Before us it was not.
When you were fighting to get and keep the show on the air, did you have any idea how it would impact the pop culture landscape?
None. We were simply trying to do our jobs the best we could so that the work would keep coming. We felt a duty to the characters and the spirit of the books, but none of us had a clue that it would touch as many people as it did.
Has there been a day since it was recorded that you haven't woken up with the theme song in your head?
Not many. I have enjoyed a lot of good TV over the years, and I appreciate great theme songs, even when the show is so-so. It's an art form all its own – creating an emotional hook to sweep viewers into another world. To Ron Wasserman's credit, there have been none better than the theme he gave us. And credit to Will Meugniot and Sidney Iwanter for pushing Ron past version twenty to get it just right. I had no hand in this glorious creation other than nodding and saying, "Yeah, that's it!"
Was there a cameo character or two you wanted to expand upon, but didn't get the chance to for some reason?
We focused our storytelling on the core group. We tended to see the guest cast in terms of what their presence meant to one of our regulars. So, for instance, Lilandra or Proteus were compelling primarily for what each meant to Xavier, Deathstrike for what she meant to Wolverine. I'd say we got to know Nightcrawler best of the guests.
If you ever wondered what might have been if a Season 6 got green lit, check out Lewald's pitch, which we simply must get a Kickstarter project going on. And for a whole lot more about the seminal show, check out Lewald's Previously on X-Men, The Making of an Animated Series, shipping now.