It’s sometimes hard to believe there was a time before the X-Men was the universally recognized franchise and beloved phenomenon that it is today, but back in the early 90’s Professor Xavier’s team of mutants were pretty much known primarily by diehard comic readers. Then, in 1992 a little show called X-Men: The Animated Series debuted on Fox Kids that changed everything. It was a ratings hit, putting Marvel’s merry mutants on the map, lasting over 5 seasons with 76 episodes.
While X-Men:TAS was a product of its time and certain aspects of the cartoon may seem quaint today, there’s no denying the unmistakable impact the show had on the culture. I’m betting there’s an entire generation who have that amazingly awesome theme song and opening title sequence seared into their memory forever.
Recognizing the cult status of the animated show, two of the principle people involved with it, husband and wife writing team Eric and Julia Lewald have worked together on a book detailing the history and making of the cartoon fittingly titled Previously on X-Men: The Making of an Animated Series. While the Lewalds both together and individually have worked on major properties in the entertainment industry, Eric Lewald served as the co-developer and executive story editor for X-Men:TAS.
I had the privilege to meet Eric & Julia Lewald at the San Diego Comic-Con back in July where they first brought the book project to my attention. As a 90’s kid myself who watched X-Men:TAS religiously I’m a bit biased, but it couldn’t be released soon enough.
I chatted with Eric Lewald about how the book’s genesis, the impact of the show in the animation industry, some behind-the-scenes tidbits to expect in the book, and more.
Taimur Dar: Let’s start with the obvious question. How did a book about the history of the X-Men: The Animated Series come about? Was releasing it in time for the 25th anniversary of the show’s debut intentional or just a coincidence?
Eric Lewald: My wife Julia convinced me to write the book. She pointed out that however beloved and influential the series may have been, it and the X-Men had become kind of orphaned. With Fox owning the movie and TV rights, and Marvel/Disney owning the rest, no one was looking to celebrate a show, however popular, that had no home. Batman:TAS has Warner Brothers behind it; Star Trek has Paramount. Both had been written about at length. X-Men:TAS, more initially successful than either franchise, is the child of an angry divorce (Marvel bankruptcy, rights sales, etc.). No books, no celebrations beyond a heartfelt, continuing fan commitment. If anyone was going to celebrate it, it had to be those of us who worked on it. And yes, we were aware of the anniversary. It provided a hard deadline for us as the book got put together around our day jobs writing scripts for new series.
Dar: Our mutual friend Charlotte Fullerton, who worked at Fox Kids doing promotions, played an instrumental role with the book. Care to elaborate?
Lewald: Charlotte came in late, but her help was crucial. Charlotte had kept the original digibeta copy of almost six hours of Fox Kids promos that she assembled. This is crucial because we have had to make the book without Marvel’s participation (no screen grabs from the series), again due to the rights quagmire. Promotional materials are “fair use” in publications, so we were able to use images from Charlotte’s TV promos (and the Fox Kids magazine) to help illustrate the book.
Dar: Before working on the cartoon, were you a comics reader growing up or already have a familiarity with the X-Men? If not, did an etic perspective actually turn out to be a blessing?
Lewald: I read some comics when I was young, though I was more passionate about Mad Magazine. At 17, when I became movie-crazed, I gave my modest comics collection to a friend and didn’t look back. Luckily, half the staff on the show (some writers, most artists) were X-Men fanatics, so the show was not allowed to stray from canon. It’s odd, but I believe that my lack of previous knowledge of, or love for, the X-Men, was a benefit to the project. I had to learn them quickly and understand what it was about their nature and stories that made fans so fanatical. My and head writer Mark Edens’ entire agenda was to tell compelling heroic stories that suited TV animation. There were writers who loved the X-Men too much and would submit stories that were bursting with characters and events from their world (everything X-Men but the kitchen sink) that were an absolute mess as 22-minute TV animation stories. The fan writers sometimes couldn’t see past their passion. Our distance was important because, hard as it is to imagine today, in 1992, 80-90% of our audience didn’t know who the X-Men were. Most who loved the show went back and learned the books, but when we started, we were telling stories primarily for people unfamiliar with the X-Men world.
Dar: Margaret Loesch, a television producer/executive and a legend in animation and entertainment, is probably one of the most important people responsible for getting an X-Men cartoon on the air. Does the book focus on her time at Marvel Productions and her earlier attempts to develop an X-Men cartoon?
Lewald: Yes, the show was completely Margaret’s baby. No Margaret, no show. We rightly start the book with a detailed interview of Margaret about her work in Hollywood up until the time she got our show greenlighted. Her many years at Marvel Productions were a necessary prelude, in more than one way, to her getting the job to run the Fox Kids Network. She grew experienced and confident as she produced many hit shows – but to her frustration, none of them were Marvel comics properties. No one would program them! She worked hard for years with Stan Lee and Will Meugniot and others, but no luck. So, when she finally got in a position to make the programming decisions, X-Men and Batman were among her first calls. Even then it was a fight – with advertisers and affiliates – to get X-Men:TAS on the air (see the book). But her Marvel Productions years were critical.
Dar: I often hear from many female comic readers that X-Men:TAS was their entry into comics. Both the characters on the cartoon and the creators behind it boasted a strong female presence. At the time there was a popular misconception (which still exists today!) that superhero shows only attract a male audience. Was the female viewership of X-Men:TAS something you were aware of during production?
We were completely aware of how different X-Men:TAS was regarding women. First, the series existed because Fox Kids Network president Margaret Loesch willed it into being. Second, everyone on the creative side had been working in the TV animation business for years, and we were tired of putting up with its many stupid, constraining rules, one of which was that in “boys’ adventure” series, the audience is almost all boys and they won’t watch female heroes. No one was consciously trying to make stories featuring the female characters, we simply were trying to tell the most intense stories we could – and it happened that half of these featured the women. We could have tried making the team eight guys and a girl (as other TV networks probably would have insisted), but that just weakens the stories, limits variety, and is just plain stupid. Looking back, it seems that few series have followed our lead on this. Even the X-Men movies, which I respect and enjoy, have seemed to had trouble featuring the women as action heroes central to the stories. Storm and Rogue were our two most powerful X-Men: not in the movies.
Dar: Since working on the show, how has the animation industry changed from your perspective, in particular for these major superhero properties?
Lewald: It’s grown amazingly. When X-Men and Batman started in 1992, there had been very little before that that had been successful. The early 1940s had those glorious Fleischer Superman cartoons. Then, for 50 years, what? Single-season Marvel misfires (Hollywood’s fault, not Marvel’s). Super Friends? The Thing with a robot? Spider-Man with a dog? We – and I think the Batman:TAS team as well — got SO much resistance in our attempt to take the heroes seriously. Margaret Loesch and Sidney Iwanter stood by us and we were able to do it. Now everyone understands that you can tell serious adult stories with superheroes (like Logan). In 1992, almost no one understood. So I’m thrilled for the explosion of opportunities for people to tell these stories in TV and movies, in animation and live action. Where there used to be three or four superhero movies or TV shows a decade, now it seems like there are three or four a month.
Dar: Don’t know how aware you are, but X-Men:TAS has generated some of the most popular memes on the internet such as “Wolverine Crush.” How do you feel about these, for the most part, loving parodies?
Lewald: Any awareness of our work is welcome – especially when it is clever and respectful. Having a TV series or a movie or a book or a song resonate with audiences after 25 years is every creative person’s dream. My younger son, in 2010, asked his date to the high school prom in Klingon, a word that someone scribbled for the first time in a script in 1967. Just think how good that must make Star Trek:TOS writers feel.
Dar: It’s not unusual to see elements of comic book television to be incorporated into the comics themselves like Harley Quinn from Batman:TAS. Though some specific details changed, the basic premise of the ep “One Man’s Worth” basically inspired the big X-Men “Age of Apocalypse” publishing event. What was it like to see something from animation influence the comics as opposed to the other way around?
Lewald: Of course it was gratifying. “One Man’s Worth” was a story I came up with and one of the ones I was most proud of. But it’s also a reminder – most good stories have been told many times in many different forms. Writers of all ages and all times “borrow” plot points from each other. I “borrowed” from It’s a Wonderful Life and City on the Edge of Forever for the central idea: “What would the world have been like without this one crucial man.” It’s all in the execution. “One Man’s Worth” came out well; so did “Age of Apocalypse.” If we or the comics’ writers had done weaker work, using a good idea wouldn’t have helped us. That’s a reason I never had a prejudice for “original” material over “adaptations.” There are so many hundreds of creative decisions to make in any story, by the end, you’ve made it personal.
Dar: I’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss writer Len Wein who recently passed away and not only helped redefine the X-Men but also created everyone’s favorite Canadian mutant, WOLVERINE! What kind of influence did he have on the animated series?
Lewald: Quite simply, X-Men:TAS would not have existed without Len. The 1960s X-Men book was discontinued in 1970 for a reason – it was an interesting idea that wasn’t right yet. When Len was entrusted with reinventing the book in 1975, he and Dave Cockrum and Chris Claremont and the others made it what it is today: international cast, serious, adult. So in that way, his presence was crucial. As to the actual writing of the series, I didn’t speak to Len until after we had done the first season. I simply didn’t know he was in LA doing animation. Almost all comics people were back in New York busy writing comics. We started the first season in a hurry, and I grabbed the best TV animation people I knew, which didn’t include Len.
Dar: I only recently realized that Wein wrote a few episodes of the cartoon, and that the majority of them were Wolverine-centric. Was that intentional? What did Wein think about the cartoon?
Lewald: When the first season was an unexpected success and the series was renewed, writer Bob Skir said: “You ought to call Len Wein. He’s out here.” I owe the intro to Bob. And yes, of course we wanted to have Len as a writer for Wolverine as much as we could.
He told me he liked the cartoon a lot. He appreciated that we respected the original material. You will see in his interview in the book (the longest?) that he above anyone understood the need to adapt characters and storytelling to the medium you are working in – in this case, from comics to TV animation. I never heard a word of dissent from him about how we treated any of his characters – Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus. I believe that he was pleased at most of the efforts, over the past 25 years, to use his characters in movies and TV.
Dar: Any other thoughts on Len Wein you’d care to share?
Lewald: Many, but most of the best ones are in the book, so I don’t want to spoil those. He was a gracious, thoughtful man. As you may know, he had had health issues since he was young, and I think they made him cherish each day he had. He loved telling stories; he had lifelong friends. The large crowd at his funeral just couldn’t imagine – as his wife Chris suggested – that he might not just pop up, in comic book fashion, not really dead, but… Len wrote for me on a number of shows, and he was always patient and professional, no matter what the challenge. He was one of the nicest people I ever met.
Dar: Where will the book be available for purchase?
Lewald: The book will be available in hardback and, soon thereafter, in paperback (same size: 7”x10”), at bookstores, comics stores, Amazon. It will also be available at the publisher’s website: Jacobsbrownmediagroup.com. The advantage of buying from the publisher is that you will be guaranteed a SIGNED COPY (by me). There will also be a Kindle version for sale on Amazon. Tentative release date is EARLY NOVEMBER.
Dar: Any final words on why people should check out the book?
Lewald: If you have an affection for our series, this is the first chance to get to know more about it. The book really is a 450-page celebration of the show. There are photos of the cast and crew and nearly everyone who had a vital role in making the show happen. Looking back, it’s been humbling to understand that nearly everyone’s good effort was needed to hold the show together and keep it on course. Many of these people worked five years on something that, mysteriously, has become cherished by millions of people around the world. I wanted the fans to meet them.
For more information on Previously on X-Men: The Making of an Animated Series, check out the website and Twitter. Both Eric and his wife Julia Lewald will be appearing at the The Perky Nerd bookstore on Saturday October 21st for the 25th Anniversary X-traordinary Celebration and Q&A. Event information can be found here.
For the first time ever, you’ll get a chance to peek behind the curtain and see how X-MEN: The Animated Series came about.
Eric Lewald has opened up his personal files going back over 25 years and reached out to dozens of people who helped make X-Men: TAS happen. Voice actors, artists, writers, and executives look back at the project that everyone in Hollywood thought couldn’t work, and how it became the country’s #1 hit animated program, running for five remarkable years. It all comes together in Eric’s new book: PREVIOUSLY ON X-MEN The Making of an Animated Series arriving this fall from Jacobs Brown Media.