Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Childhood Memories: X-Men - The Animated Series

The Emblem of my Pre-Teen Years



As I've already described in my previous Cyclops article, I was not allowed to really watch superhero stuff much as a kid. There was a point when I did get to watch He-Man, and Thundercats and Silverhawks, cartoons like that, but in general, my grandmother didn't like superheroes, and certainly didn't ever want me reading comic books about them. The irony is, she dressed me up as first Spider-Man, and later Superman, for two Halloweens when I was probably around 4 and 5 years old. As I've said many times in the past, her obstinance when it came to what I could or couldn't partake in, was also often inconsistent.

But a certain cartoon debuted, as it turns out looking back, exactly on Halloween, October 31st 1992, that would, in some ways, change my life. That is a bold and arguably hyperbolic statement, and yet, I feel in my heart that it's also true. Now, I am pretty certain that I didn't actually see the pilot episode of X-Men when it originally aired. For one thing, it was Halloween and I was probably far too busy with that kind of stuff to notice. But it's also very probable that my grandmother wouldn't have let me watch it anyway. BUT, as events would turn out, we wound up moving to a new place down the street from where we lived at the time, and because it was a bigger place where I finally had my own room again (we were poor), she also splurged and surprisingly, got me my own television. What THAT meant, I don't have to tell you, is that, with us having cable, I could shut my door and technically speaking, watch whatever the hell I wanted. Of course the catch was, that if she ever caught me watching anything she didn't approve of, like say, MTV, I would get my TV taken away, probably for good. Needless to say, I DID sneak-watch MTV, but I also got to watch what would finally become arguably my favorite cartoon series of all time...



My Saturday mornings were dominated by this.



Now while I do believe I missed the original air date, I did subsequently start catching the show as I would watch cartoons on Saturday mornings on Fox. As I understand it, the original pilot had some issues, with animation and such, but they re-aired them in 1993, likely in the off-season (between seasons, reruns), and I got to see it then, along with all of Season 1. Needless to say, I fell madly in love. Mind you, I had already had a deep, abiding love of cartoons as a child before then (around age 10 or 11). I speak about some of those cartoons I loved in the 80s in my recent Count Duckula article, but some of them included great shows like David the Gnome, The Raccoons, The Smurfs, The Littles, Inspector Gadget, Garfield, Heathcliff, The Real Ghostbusters, etc. And in the 90s, I also loved other cartoons that came along, most especially on Fox, such as Spider-Man and Batman, my other introductions further into the superhero world, and shows like Bots Master, and Tiny Toons, etc. But none of them quite equaled my growing, rabid love for the X-Men.




The cartoon that could have been.


Now before we continue forward, let us first take a brief half-step backwards. The early 90s X-Men show that people to this day know and love so well, was not actually Marvel's first attempt at trying to get the X-Men onto television. In fact, they had a pilot episode for a very different X-Men show, that aired in 1989, and definitely seemed VERY 80s. It was very much in line with the tone of most other mainstream 80s action cartoons of the era, like Transformers or GI Joe (Real Ghostbusters was definitely VERY unique for it's time), in that it was very bright, and loud, and slightly goofy. As you can see above, the look of the characters (and the characters chosen) were based more off of the early 80s X-Men (as opposed to the very dark, not-so-great LATE 80s X-Men). Which was the second run of the team, started in the mid-70s, with Cyclops as the leader, and Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, and Dazzler as his team.



The only thing to really come of that pilot.



The name of the pilot was "Pryde of the X-Men", kind of a pun, because the show was introducing the teenage girl Kitty Pryde (the character later known as Shadowcat), as a new ward of the team. In some ways, she was used in the same way Jubilee would be used by the '92 series, as the character that children watching could most identify with, as a kid in this strange new world. In the show, the X-Men are up against the threat of the villain Magneto, and a strange kind of mishmash version of his old group "The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants". Originally in the comics, this group consisted of Toad, Mastermind, his children (though they didn't know it at the time) Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and various others. The cartoon threw in The Blob, Juggernaut, and The White Queen, which is random because Juggy and the Queen never really worked with Magneto. Regardless, Magneto was threatening to use his power to endanger the earth if they didn't hand over control to him, etc, so the X-Men had to save the day.

The pilot was never picked up as a full show, and it kind of faded into obscurity. I had certainly never heard of it as a kid. In fact, the only reason I originally became aware of it, AFTER the 90s show had already debuted, was because the same friend's mom's boyfriend who had hooked me up with the awesome Fleer Ultra cards I mentioned in my Cyclops article, also had in his collection a graphic novel they made of the pilot. It basically used frames from the cartoon directly, so in a way I "saw" the episode by reading it. I wouldn't actually get to see it for real until my adult years, thanks to the internet. But as you can see above, I DID get to experience the only thing that really came of that pilot, which was a tie-in arcade game, made by Konami, starring the exact same cast. It was a beat 'em up in the vein of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Final Fight, though it was rare in that some cabinets actually let you play all six characters (talk about a crowd). The plot of the game was almost exactly the same as that pilot. It is a very fun game, though. I only wish Konami had followed it up with a "sequel" of sorts, that was based on the 90s cartoon instead. I feel it was a major missed opportunity that they didn't.



Don't mess with the Juggernaut!


So, getting back on track, while it is, in a way, sad that the 80s X-Men never turned into a full show, while I think I still would have liked it (had I been able to see it), it WAS very hokey compared to the 90s show (I mean Wolverine had an Australian sounding accent for no reason!). And I think this is one instance where it's a GOOD thing that it didn't get picked up, because instead, Marvel had to go back to the drawing board, and the X-Men that I would come to know and love eventually got developed instead. And unlike the 80s pilot, the 90s X-Men was a VERY different creature, to be sure. It had a very serious tone, like the comics, and confronted many very serious issues that were analogous to real life, such as racism, bigotry, the AIDs scare, war, coming to terms with the death of loved ones, etc.

To my young mind, I was enthralled. Granted, the super powers were what "brought me to the dance", so to speak, as I was absolutely taken by the idea of super-powered characters, and as many kids do, dreamed of having special powers myself (most especially, the ability to fly). In fact, watching the X-Men cartoon in the early and mid 90s, directly inspired me to start creating my own superheroes, including one of my personal favorites, Wyldcat, which I talked about in articles earlier this year. But my imagination was also set alight by the serious stories and topics the show tackled. It wasn't JUST a kids show with fights and explosions (though it had plenty of those too). It was also a show that contained deeper layers, and asked its audience to think, to ponder these things.




One of my first favorite characters.


Around the time that I was getting to catch up on Season 1, for some reason, probably related to my long-held wish to be able to fly myself, I'd say that the very first character I tabbed as my "favorite", was Warren Worthington III, also known as Archangel, seen above. Which is kind of funny in a way, because while as I finally got to dip into the comics in my early teens, I would learn that he was one of the original five X-Men (then known as Angel), in the show, he was a side character who only made a few appearances. But something about him and his image, really stuck with me. I imagined myself being Archangel, even with the metal wings.




The epitome of Bad Ass.


Which also brings me to my first, and honestly forever favorite X-Men villain, Apocalypse. I don't mind saying that he became that way specifically because of the cartoon, how he was depicted as almost invincible (kinda like Godzilla), supremely powerful, and of course, quite mad. Yeah, he's a genocidal maniac, who wants to see the world burn, and remake the ashes into his own image. But he's so damn good at being bad though! His voice actor, John Colicos, was amazing, and his timing and verbiage totally sold the character as timeless and sinister. The voice acting for most of the characters was awesome, in fact, but I feel like out of all the characters they really nailed, Apocalypse might have been the very best. He almost sounded like a god, which he practically was.

I'll really have to go more in depth on Apocalypse in a later article, but it is enough to say for now, that specifically because of how he was depicted in the cartoon, the voice, the mannerisms, his verbose speeches and one-liners, it was all just too compelling. Sure, you had the slimy schemer in Mr. Sinister. You had the "respectable" business-suit wearing clowns like Henry Peter Gyrich and Graydon Creed, who presented themselves as good men but secretly plotted to destroy mutants because of their own prejudice. And of course you had the Master of Magnetism, the original X-Men villain himself, Magneto, who was very well depicted in the series too. But Apocalypse was just on a whole other level to me. Perhaps part of it was that he was so over the top, but it wasn't over the top in a cartoony, ridiculous way. It was over the top in a very Shakespearean way, like "Yeah, this guy could back his shit up".


His very first appearance on-screen, in Season 1, he appeared on a cliff overlooking the sea, as the character Mystique (his servant in the show, though she never worked with him in the comics) was looking for him. He made a statement to the effect of "I am far older and have seen far more of this world than you can imagine". That right there, to my pre-teen mind, floored me. Like "WHOAH, just how old is this guy?" And I instantly wanted to know more about him, this mysterious, ancient being. And every appearance he made in the show from then on, just made him look more bad ass, and gave us even greater quotes. Such as his quip to a mutant-hating human about "I am as far beyond mutants, as they are beyond you". And certainly one of his best quotes of all time, in a battle against the X-Men himself, "I am the rocks of the eternal shore, crash against me and be broken!" Let's face it, the dude was a monster, but he sure had some class when it came to his eloquence and verbosity!




The majesty of Phoenix!



By Season 3, I was in deep with the X-Men cartoon. I would wake up every Saturday morning, and while I thought cartoons like Bobby's World and Eek the Cat, or shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, were neat in their own right, the truth was, I often not so patiently was waiting, for the X-Men to finally come on! I was so stoked for a new episode to air, and would sometimes literally be excited all week, waiting for that following Saturday so I could see what happened next. I certainly had other things I loved during that same time-span, ages 11 to 15 or so, like video games, and Godzilla movies, and other old monster movies, and Mystery Science Theater 3000, etc. But the X-Men show was absolutely one of my favorite things, and I would think about every episode all week til the next one aired, analyzing what took place, and what could possibly happen next.



The fury of Dark Phoenix!



Now by the time Season 3 rolled around, in 1994, I certainly had my other favorites as well. I had really come to love Beast, who had mostly been incarcerated by the government, and was thus a side character in Season 1. He was, similar to Apocalypse, but far less megalomaniacal, a very eloquent and verbose character, someone who preferred to think and talk over fighting, even though he was a super-strong blue ape-man. I also had a bit of a pre-teen crush on Rogue, and loved that she could fly and was super strong. But two characters, as covered in my Cyclops article, that really resonated with me, were Cyclops and Jean. Poor Jean, she didn't even have a cool code-name! And the thing was, that wasn't even the cartoon's fault, that was something they had done to her character in the early 90s comics too. From the 60s through the 80s, her code name had been "Marvel Girl", but for some reason, the writers decided to just call her Jean Grey when the X-Men comics reorganized themselves around 1991. She was the only character on a secret, clandestine superhero team, who very stupidly used her REAL name, instead of a secret code-name to hide her identity. But hey.

Cyclops and Phoenix, as she would later come to be known (in the comics, for reasons I won't get into here), resonated with me for different but similar reasons. Scott reminded me in certain ways of myself, someone who had grown up largely without family, without many friends, very isolated and alone, often picked on and misunderstood. But he was basically adopted by Charles Xavier as a teen, and he bought wholesale into Xavier's dream, both because he wanted to believe a better world was possible, but also because I think he felt he owed Xavier for taking him in, the first person since his own parents to do so. More than any other X-Man, past, present or future, Cyclops embodies Xavier's dream, and fervently believes in it. And Jean, in her own way, is right there with him, as she too strongly believes in it and fights for it. In many ways, these two characters are the "Heart and Soul" of the X-Men, as well as, in some respects, kind of like a surrogate "Mom and Dad" to the rest of the team (even IF certain members, like Wolverine, are older).



Heart and Soul.



I also just so happened to basically have a crush on Jean, as well. She is, after all, a super-kind, compassionate, smart, strong, courageous, and gorgeous redhead. She was treated, in the first season at least, perhaps even a bit in the second (when she and Scott were kidnapped by Mr. Sinister), as a somewhat secondary character, I felt. Even in the first season, when the other X-Men like Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, etc. are off stomping bad guys, she was often back at the mansion or not even mentioned. Which is really a shame, because she's an amazing character. But in Season 3, due to much of the season being based around the 80s "Phoenix Saga" stories, she finally was put front and center.




The 80s Dark Phoenix Saga.



Naturally, as you can see above, the way things played out in the cartoon version of the "Phoenix Saga" and subsequent "Dark Phoenix Saga" were fairly different. The biggest departure being certain characters that were featured. In the early 80s, when the stories originally took place in the comics, the X-Men consisted of Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and sometimes Marvel Girl. The original X-Men had left (nonsensically) after the new crew showed up in the 70s, but Cyclops stayed on as leader, because he basically knew no life beyond the X-Men. Although, it just so happened that Jean somewhat briefly leaving the team to go live on her own in New York City, also eventually gave way to her and Scott (FINALLY) having a relationship. Beast, Iceman and Angel all did their own thing, Beast having a stint on the Avengers (after turning himself blue and furry, on accident), and Angel and Iceman floating around to different superhero teams (mainly because the writer, Claremont, didn't like the original team, the jerk).

But seen above, when the events of the Phoenix Saga started unfolding, but particularly when Jean, as Phoenix, started going nuts and they had to try and save their friend, Beast and Angel returned to help. Iceman should have been there too, but rumor has it that Claremont liked Iceman least of all, so even though he absolutely would not have missed out on helping his friend Jean, he was nonsensically MIA. To be fair, he WAS at Jean's "funeral" the next issue, but it's still dumb. Regardless, Storm went to the moon in the final fight for Jean against the Imperial Guard, and Nightcrawler, Angel and Colossus were the original team, along with Wolverine. In the cartoon, to fit the team they had at the time, they instead had Rogue and Gambit, while Storm for some reason stayed on Earth. Rogue wound up having the epic knock-down fight with Gladiator, instead of Colossus, though the outcome in both versions was the same: Gladiator won.




The more things change...



For the changes they made, though, the show creators also did the storyline service, and the Phoenix AND Dark Phoenix Sagas, for the most part, followed the same basic course as their original comic book incarnations. One major difference, was that Jean, as Phoenix, didn't dive into the sun and be taken for "dead" in the comics...she just kind of stuck around on the team, AS Phoenix, with awesome Phoenix powers. And then she became corrupted by the Phoenix being unable to deal with human emotions. The spoiler there, while Claremont originally intended for Jean to die and stay dead, was that later it was revealed that that was never Jean to begin with! That Jean had, as in the cartoon, been dying from radiation on re-entry to the Earth, and the Phoenix Force offered to save her life, in return for taking on her form. It was Phoenix, basically pretending to be Jean, who saved the universe, but then eventually also endangered it by going out of control.

In a very large way, it was actually the cartoon that lead people to the belief that Jean had been possessed by the Phoenix, and that Jean herself had always BEEN the Phoenix. The comics, specifically the ones that lead to the creation of X-Factor, changed all that, and Jean was found, alive in a cocoon at the bottom of Jamaica Bay. But OTHERWISE, differences aside, the show really did nail the key points. And I don't mind telling you, as a kid, I was absolutely taken by the whole thing. I wanted to BE Phoenix (a boy version, obviously) myself, because hot damn were her powers cool! But I was also very touched (including tears) by the relationship between Scott and Jean, and I myself was temporarily heartbroken when I thought she was dead. The part (made up for the cartoon) at the end of the Dark Phoenix Saga, where the entire team, Xavier included, all agree to give up a piece of their own life-force to bring Jean back to life, gave me chills, even at like 12 years old.

It was largely due to the cartoon's depiction of the Phoenix Saga, that I became a huge fan of Cyclops and Phoenix, individually and as a couple, and not only do they remain my favorite superhero couple of all time, but in my more recent adult years, I came to the realization that Cyclops is, again thanks largely to the cartoon, more or less my favorite superhero of all time.




In the comics.

In the cartoon.



The cartoon was hardly perfect, mind you. It had animation errors here and there, and every once in awhile, looking back, certain things that make you go "Huh? Why did they do that?". But in general, it was very compelling TV, for kids OR adults, and great storytelling. They definitely did their own thing, but they also took a lot of elements of the comics, especially the look and tone of the comics at the time in the early 90s. Which, to me, is a very GOOD thing. A cartoon based more on the 80s Chris Claremont stories, would have been kind of a mess, and a headache, just like his comics eventually got. In the course of the 80s, a bunch of crazy shit happens, from former villain Magneto having a stint as headmaster of Xavier's school while he's away (and thus also kinda leading the X-Men), to Xavier going off into space with the Shi'ar, because he almost dies. To the character of Storm becoming a team leader, which was kinda cool, except then her character (in my opinion), was also almost ruined by just...some REALLY dumb character and storyline decisions. She was not made out to be the best leader, though I'm sure Claremont thought differently, and the X-Men in general got very dark, and...just kind of not what I love about the X-Men.



The Gold Team, and Blue Team.



In the meantime, the original five X-Men had reunited, Scott left all of the crappy storyline baggage that Claremont had left him with behind, got back together with the newly living Jean, and they formed the awesome team X-Factor. Which, as far as I'm concerned, was THE best X-Men comic of the 80s (though Excalibur does have its moments). So by 1990, they finally had ol' Chuck Xavier come back to earth, and after a big connecting storyline involving the villain The Shadow King (an evil telepath), after over a decade apart, the WHOLE X-Men team (basically), finally came back together at the Xavier Mansion. The whole comic kind of hit a soft "reset", in a way, and they left behind the increasingly bizarre and out there storylines of alternate realities and demons and space adventures and possible futures and more demons from the 80s, and kind of just calmed down. The focus came back to where it had originally been in the 60s, using the backdrop of mutant issues, to parallel real-world, real life issues, like race relations, and war, and social outcasts, etc. Just, in the 90s, it was now more sophisticated and bold, whereas in the 60s, comic creators were kind of handcuffed by the "Comics Code".



The early 90s X-Men Blue Team.

The early 90s X-Men cartoon team.


So as you can see, in the early 90s comics, the X-Men, now having two monthly titles, and around a dozen characters to play with, decided to split into two teams, that largely had their own adventures, though of course they crossed over for big stuff (and they DID all still live in the same house, after all). The Gold Team consisted of leader Storm, with Jean, Colossus, Iceman and Archangel, with the addition of the time-flung Bishop, after he shows up early on. The Blue Team, which is more what the cartoon resembles, had leader Cyclops, with Wolverine, Beast, Rogue, Psylocke, and Gambit. Jubilee was kinda like the "house kid", and while she was technically on the Blue Team, being about 13, she didn't go on too many missions early on.

The team the show used, was basically the Blue Team, with the additions of Storm and Jean. Archangel, Iceman, and Colossus, would all have cameos, and even Psylocke showed up late in the show. The character designs were largely based off of artist Jim Lee's early 1991 work, and the tone, and even many direct story elements (such as the Legacy Virus, the Friends of Humanity, Magneto's Acolytes, etc.), were lifted directly from the pages of the comics that were going on at the same time. Much of those story influences were written by my TOP favorite comic writer of all time, Scott Lobdell, who wrote a large portion of the X-Men stories from 1991-1997. And again, I feel the cartoon was better for that, because it gave the show a more grounded, almost "real" feeling, tackling social issues and reality, along with monsters and super-villains.



By and large, THE most popular character from the show.


Not too dissimilar from the comics, the most popular or well known character in the cartoon, was Wolverine. I'd like to point out that he was never MY favorite, or even one of my top characters, though I do like him. I think part of the reason he was so popular to viewers of the cartoon, is that especially in the first couple of seasons, likely for dramatic purposes, they kind of lifted an earlier, more aggressive version of Wolverine, from the 70s and early 80s comics. Back then, he was very much a loner, and didn't take orders or work with the team super well. He also had an antagonistic relationship with Cyclops, mainly due to his attraction to Scott's girl, Jean Grey. This is the Wolverine we're presented early on in the show, and I think a lot of kids (and adults) just thought this devil-may-care guy was super cool, that he did whatever he wanted, and screw everyone else. Just in the same way that many viewers thought that Cyclops was a "boring" stiff who always followed orders, and was basically no fun at all. Of course neither view of either character was totally true, as there is a lot more to both of them. And as the show went on, we the audience started to see this.



Audiences learned there was more to Scott Summers.



For one thing, by the early 90s, in the comics, Cyclops and Wolverine were not really at odds that much anymore. Hell, if they had been, I doubt Xavier would have chosen to put Logan on Scott's team. By the 90s, Logan had calmed down a lot, he had largely gotten over his interest in Jean, accepting that she and Scott were a thing. And while they were never best friends, he and Scott respected each other, and worked as a team. That started to come more in line with this in the cartoon around Season 3 and later, I'd say, as Logan there too started to calm down a bit, stopped pining after Jean all the time, and was more of a team player. Audiences also got more background on both Logan and Scott, and while they are two very different people, it turned out that they had one very key thing in common: part of the reason they both stayed with the X-Men, is because they both wanted somewhere to belong, they both needed family. And that included each other.




The Spider-Man crossover.



I loved the X-Men because the characters were so well written. I felt like I got to know Scott, and Jean, and Ororo, and Rogue, and Remy, and Hank, and Logan, and Jubilee, long before I got to actually read the comics and get to know the "real" characters. And I'm happy to report, that while the show certainly had a lot of differences with the comics, the one thing they inarguably nailed, was the characters. The writing, the voice acting, the personas. Even today, when I go back and read old X-Men comics, it is the voices from the cartoon that I still hear. Whether it be for Wolverine, or Gambit, or Rogue, or Apocalypse, or Sinister, or Magneto, those voices became THE voices of those characters to me, because of the show.

The X-Men Animated Series was my introduction to the larger world of superheroes, really. And while I also watched, and loved, shows like Batman, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Iron Man, the X-Men was still my top favorite. Even though, similarly, it is those 90s depictions and voices of Batman and Spider-Man I still hear in my head when I read old Batman or Spider-Man comics (Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill will ALWAYS be Batman and The Joker to me), and while those shows were themselves pretty great, the X-Men cartoon just had..."something" to me, that the others didn't. It had an allure that nothing else quite did, not quite the same. And for that, it will always be one of my favorite shows of all time.

I could go on for a lot longer, as there is SO much to say, whether it's just about the cartoon, or the X-Men in general, and I may well write another article talking about both. But for now, I'll just say that if you've never seen the 90s X-Men show, please do yourself a favor and see it. It's high octane action, fights, explosions, and fun. But it's also dark, gritty, serious, and heartfelt. There have been by my count two X-Men animated series since then, Evolution, and Wolverine and the X-Men. But both, in my humble opinion, pale in comparison, in every meaningful way, to the 90s show. And I'd like to think that isn't merely nostalgia talking, but rather, it's indicative of JUST how good the show was (even IF it did start to fall off a bit in the last season...more on that another time).



Two of the creators of the cartoon.



On a final note, I'd like to give a shout-out to Eric and Julia Lewald, a husband-wife team who have worked in animated TV production for decades, and were two of the key figures responsible for the X-Men animated series. They have recently taken to the internet, both with a Twitter account and a blog site of their own, to share a lot of awesome behind the scenes information and memories on the show, and to connect with fans. I'm happy to say that they are very approachable, and talk to fans on Twitter regularly. I have talked to them a bit myself, and would love to talk to them more, but it's cool just to be able to actually communicate with some of the folks who helped make some of your happiest childhood memories.

So I'd like to say to them, officially on my own blog, THANK YOU for your hard work, and for reaching out to fans! I'd also like to share with everyone their info, so you can connect with them and the great X-Men goodness as well!  Make sure to check out them, and tell them Retro Revelations sent ya!

X-Men: The Animated Series Blog Site - https://xmentas.com/https://xmentas.com/

X-Men TAS Twitter - @xmentas






2 comments:

  1. Great article as always! Excellent show, and excellent time for the comics. Too bad the movies didn't follow suit.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Indeed. I wish Scott Lobdell had hung around longer. He was the main brain behind Generation X, Age of Apocalypse, Operation: Zero Tolerance, etc.

      The comics gradually started to go downhill, from 98 onward, after he left.

      Delete

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