It’s hard to imagine a world without billion dollar superhero film franchises, but back in October of 1992, that world didn’t exist. What did exist was a daring new animated series based on the Uncanny X-Men, who at the time were well known to those people who frequented comic book shops, but were a mystery and unproven commodity to the general public and TV executives.
Luckily, comic fans and young people (and their parents) embraced the unique X-Men: The Animated Series, making the band of mutants world famous and helping pave the way for the eventual superhero-dominated world that we live in today.
Original showrunner Eric Lewald and original writer Julia Lewald’s new X-Men: The Art and Making of The Animated Series is the perfect companion piece to the series for those who fondly remember the series from their youth and new converts who have just discovered the animated adventures courtesy of Disney Plus.
Eric and Julia detail the exhaustive process of locating the art necessary for the book and their memories of an animated series that stands as one of the best adaptations of superhero material in the history of comics in this exclusive interview.
Where did the idea for a retrospective on the X-Men animated series originate?
Eric Lewald: It was Julia’s idea. It had been twenty years since the show ended and no one had written about it. It was also a challenge to start a project based on the animated series since Fox and Marvel both owned the rights, and no one was interested in it, so we did an unofficial book in 2017 called Previously on X-Men: The Making of an Animated Series.
Julia Lewald: It wasn’t easy either since we could only use images that were fair use and everything back then was on paper; the scripts, storyboards, etc. So we had to search through the archive above our garage! And then we contacted the voice actors that we could locate and tried to stitch together the oral history of the show
E. Lewald: Pre-internet, you never got the sense of the affection that people had for the X-Men series. After the first book, we were contacted by Sven Larsen from Marvel and we thought we were going to get in trouble over the first book, but he called and said that he loved it. He also told us that the rights were sorted out and asked if we would be interested in writing a new book with Marvel and Disney.
What was the process of assembling the book like, especially since much of the animation was not saved in the 1990s?
J. Lewald: It was really hard! We reached out to people on a wing and a prayer as we didn’t have a cache of the gorgeous art that was produced for the series. Back then, none of the animation was done on the computer.
E. Lewald: Luckily, artists kept the stuff and collectors. There were hundreds and thousands of hand-painted cells used for the show; just beautiful artwork. Half of the major cells we used in the book were on loan from the Van Eaton Galleries in Sherman Oaks, California.
J. Lewald: It is a real testament to the love that people had for the show that they kept the art and wanted to display it/collect it.
How did you and Eric become involved in the initial animated production?
E. Lewald: Margaret Loesch loved the X-Men and was dead set on making an animated series based on the characters.
J. Lewald: ABC, CBS, NBC, all turned her down and were not interested in making the cartoon and then this upstart network Fox came along and she was tapped to be head of Fox Kids. So once she was in a position to make the decisions, she greenlit X-Men and Batman: The Animated Series.
E. Lewald: At the time, I was writing for the Beetlejuice animated series and someone suggested me for X-Men because they thought it was the right tone. When I got the job, I couldn’t tell you anything about the X-Men, not even their names!
J. Lewald: That’s right! Neither of us did. We knew who Batman and Superman were, and Spider-Man, and said to each other “Spider-Man is Marvel, right?” So we needed a crash course in who these characters were, but the key to the series was treating them like human beings and focusing on the human struggle.
E. Lewald: We did have people back then that knew the X-Men inside and out, backwards and forwards. That mixture of long-time fans and newcomers helped the show. Sometimes people who are ferocious fans can get lost in the weeds of fandom, when it really boiled to asking if the episode was a compelling story.
What did you uncover in your search through the archives that will surprise fans? Did any of the discoveries surprise you?
J. Lewald: The finished product on TV was composed of such beautiful art, which is on display in the book.
E. Lewald: Looking back at the art, we found the art to be stunning. Some of the three cell wide backgrounds of a lair or city really showed off the craft of the artists that made the series look great. Again, the quantity of the work produced was really something.
What was the market for animated programming like when X-Men debuted? Was there an element of risk in taking on the property?
J. Lewald: At the time, there was tremendous pushback. People at the network were saying The X-Men was too dark, too adult, and they asked Margaret if she was willing to stake her job on the success or failure of the series. She said she was and we made the first thirteen episodes.
E. Lewald: We were actually all let go from our contracts after the season. Before the show aired, advertisers and local TV affiliates were saying “We can’t sell cereal with this”. They couldn’t understand how this would appeal to kids as they saw it as an adult drama. You have to remember that before The X-Men, not many people attempted to adapt any Marvel properties.
What was your favorite memory from your time on the series that is displayed in the book?
J. Lewald: It would have to be the “One Man’s Worth” episode. We pitched the idea to Marvel’s Bob Harras about a world where Xavier never formed the X-Men and we ran with it. There was so much great, original art and designs like the tricked-out Beast or Jean Grey wearing a nurse;s cap!
E. Lewald: Yes, that alternate timeline story had a direct influence on Marvel’s Age of Apocalypse comic series because once they saw the episode, Marvel Comics wanted to do their version of it.
Do you think that the series helped pave the way for other adaptations of the X-Men across a variety of media?
J. Lewald: I am a strong proponent for the world it opened up for everything that came after it. We have to remember that the genre of superhero films that we are all familiar with didn’t exist when The X-Men series aired. I believe that it was the bridge or gateway for all of the X-Men material that followed it.
E. Lewald: We were dropped into the deep end of the pool right from the start and we couldn’t look around to see what others had done. Cartoons based on superheroes were not something that people succeeded with.
When you look at what Hollywood thought of Batman, it was all about the camp of the original Batman television series until Tim Burton broke that mold. With the X-Men Animated Series, we started with five to ten percent of the audience and ended with 55%.
In 2000, when they finally did an X-Men film, it was nice to have something for fans who loved our program and now the floodgates have opened.
J. Lewald: It was a show about ostracized adolescents that felt different about themselves and their world and we’ve heard from so many folks who saw the show as a little ray of hope when they were young and watching it. The message that you can find and create your own family is a powerful one and one of the main reasons that The X-Men resonated with so many people.
Abrams Books X-Men: The Art and Making of the Animated Series is currently available at your favorite book store or comic shop.