Happy 25th Birthday, 'X-Men'! Behind-The-Scenes Stories From The Cartoon Classic
True story: I spent a significant portion of my honeymoon sitting in a hotel bathrobe, eating room service and watching the old Fox X-Men kids cartoon with my husband. I was making up for lost time. You see, growing up, I didn’t really get to watch it — our antenna didn’t pick up Fox clearly, so I’d sit around on Saturday mornings, squinting through the static to try and make out what was happening in the episodes. That theme song, though? That always came through crystal clear.
The point is, today marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of X-Men, which debuted October 31st, 1992. It’s easy to view X-Men as just another cog in the massive Marvel entertainment machine, but back then Marvel only had one television hit to its name: the campy late ’70s The Incredible Hulk show. And this show was a tough sell: a Saturday morning cartoon aimed at kids that was more concerned with respecting the challenging source material than with selling merchandise. The Hollywood Reporter has released an in-depth look at the classic cartoon to commemorate its birthday, loaded with interviews from the creators and voice actors. And it turns out there is a lot to learn about a quarter-century old kids cartoon! Like, did you know it was the gateway to The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers hitting the U.S. airwaves? It was! But I didn’t watch that show, so whatever.
Here are some behind-the-scenes tidbits that actually ARE interesting, though! Like did you know that the voice actors who portrayed Charles Xavier and Jean Grey had a kid together in real life?
Catherine Disher (Jean Grey): My son, who is 24, was born during the X-Men years. His father voiced Charles Xavier, so it was great for him in grade school. He’d tell everyone that his Mom and Dad where Jean Grey and Professor X. They made these beautiful jackets for the cast based on our characters. I was pregnant at the time and we didn’t know the gender, so they made one for my child entitled, “Baby X.”
And the guy who played Gambit maybe took his role a little too seriously:
Chris Potter (Gambit): I was delivering dialogue in very extreme circumstances that the X-Men would encounter. I was often asking myself, “How would a Cajun sound when he’s hit in the chest with a laser beam and slams into a parked car?”
On the ways the Batman cartoon totally had it easy compared to X-Men:
Sidney Iwanter, former Fox Kids executive: [Fellow Fox Kids show] Batman absolutely had more financial resources to draw from. Whereas X-Men had to abide by the Fox license deal for each episode, Batman could go well above that and really not worry too much. It had the deep pockets of Warners to cover any production cost over runs. This enabled the Batman series much more time in both animation production and post production. X-Men was basically as ragtag and hurried as any normal Saturday morning boys action adventure production. A single hiccup down the line could cost thousands and send the broadcast schedule over the cliff. X-Men did not have a cushion for too many mishaps. Maybe that attests to its rawness.
Part of what makes this kids cartoon so re-watchable for adults isn’t the nostalgia factor — it’s the easter eggs. And they were absolutely intentional:
Larry Houston, director: Some of my favorite easter eggs [in the show] were the unexpected ones that I added for the fans, like Doctor Strange, Deadpool, the Black Panther, all of whom are now superstars in their own feature films. I never added cameos if it distracted from the main story. … The powers that be did stop me from adding a Spider-Man cameo though, so I had to sneak him into another episode, but it was just an arm, shooting webbing to save someone off-camera from falling debris. I never asked for official permission again and I never stopped adding cameos. … That first season, we were operating way below the radar of everyone’s concern, unproven, not a hit yet, which was the best place to be, for all of us involved.
On the cartoon’s revolutionary serialized storytelling:
Iwanter: Serialized storytelling had never been attempted before on Saturday morning or if it had, certainly not on this level. A story arc that extends over weeks adds all sorts of new wrinkles to the mix. Will the shows be able to run in sequence? What happens if there is a production problem and show five is ready before show two? How would our young demographic deal with an episode that doesn’t clearly end but leaves the viewer in suspense for a week? How does one bring in a viewer who might have missed the first several episodes into the show’s storyline? Hence the now quite ubiquitous invention of the X-Men’s “Previously on…” recap.
Julia Lewald, writer: The unsung hero behind those precious 20 seconds that were at the beginning of those episodes was Sharon Janice, the editor who took on it herself with no direction to cut together those “Previously on X-Men…” bits.
Cal Dodd (Wolverine): What other animated series had, ‘Previously on X-Men?’ You didn’t get that with Popeye or Bugs Bunny. The storytelling was very adult, it was brilliant.
And of course, Hollywood is still Hollywood, even when it comes to Saturday morning kids cartoons:
Will Meugniot, artist/producer: Our show demonstrated that the Marvel universe, as a whole, had commercial value far beyond what anybody estimated. X-Men was getting primetime numbers on Saturday morning. In our time slot, we were doing business nobody had done since the ’70s. Fox had this 1, 2, 3 in ratings. Batman as a daily show lit the fuse for them. They hadn’t been doing very well as a network until they got Batman and Animaniacs and those shows. Then X-Men kind of kicked it to the next level, by giving them a big, solid weekend show.
Eric Lewald, showrunner: The Hollywood normalcy is you provide a number one hit and the money starts flowing. What happened with us was we had a number one hit, but it was four or five companies working on this. One of them was Saban. What he did after the first season was cut $500 off the script fee for the writers.
Julia Lewald: Me being one of the writers.
Eric Lewald: His rationale was, “it’s a hit. They want to be part of it, so they’ll take less money.”
Julia Lewald: “And if not, there’s a line out the door of people who will.”
Seriously, the whole THR piece is delightful — full of stories about the voice actors hanging out and getting cast in the X-Men movies, or the push for more Wolverine curtains, and even the struggle to nail down the title sequence. And if it just makes you want to go and re-watch the show (pssst it’s on Hulu)… is that a bad thing, really?