A few years ago, I talked about my love of X-Men, the animated series, via a book review of Previously…on X-Men by Eric Lewald. That book chronicled the development of the 92 animated series that helped propel the Fox Kids Network to the top of the Saturday morning leaderboards through notes from the author and extensive interviews with the folks that helped bring that series to life. Now, Lewald is back with his wife Julia with a complementary piece all about the artists and artwork that went into creating that series, X-Men: The Art and Making of the Animated Series.
There are probably a few individuals out there who first wrinkled their nose at the thought of an art book based on the animated series starring the X-Men. That’s because the show was somewhat famously underserved by Saban Entertainment who had little interest in sinking much money into the art and animation that went into the show. It’s not that the show was abysmal to look at, it’s more that it was always going to be compared with Batman: The Animated Series. Both shows launched in 92 on Fox, though X-Men only in a sneak preview with the proper launch coming in January of 1993. Batman was on weekday afternoons, while X-Men was allowed to reign over Saturday morning. The other big difference though was Batman had the might of Warner Bros behind it which produced the series and just licensed it out to Fox. X-Men had the backing of Marvel, which wasn’t what it is today. Marvel was a bit touch and go for many years even when it was starting to take over the news stand with a lot of help from the mutants who starred in this series. Rather than self-finance though, Marvel licensed it out to Saban who partnered with Graz Entertainment. The budget was never going to be the same, nor was the confidence. X-Men was unproven outside of the comic book world, and thus received just a one season order initially, followed by a second, before eventually the big order came in.
Despite all of that, and a legend who had no idea how the property should be presented (::cough:: Stan ::cough::), the show was a smashing success. It’s interesting to look back on because I think many consider Batman to be the superior show. And yet, X-Men was the ratings champ and my favorite of the two. And when it came to my friends, most liked Batman, all loved X-Men. I don’t know why that is, though I have some theories. Batman was a known property and the show reflected the Tim Burton films. Whenever something goes from the big screen to the small one (especially in the 90s), there’s a feeling that the TV version is inferior. The X-Men may have lacked the recognition of Batman, but it also lacked any sort of baggage. Batman was also quite great at being a moody, superhero, show with a lot of style. It was also mostly rooted in that, where as X-Men was an ensemble with more characters to lean on. Batman was almost devoid of personality as a character by choice, while basically every member of the X-Men (well, maybe not Cyclops) was rather colorful able to display a wide range of emotion and even drop a one-liner or two. Or maybe it was just the prestige of being on Saturday morning? Either way, it was a good time to be alive.
Both shows were part of a gradual maturation taking place in children’s cartoons. We basically had left the wacky and cheap 80s in favor of something that actually had respect for its audience. Shows like The Pirates of Dark Water and my beloved Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars were quite different in tone from the likes of Thundercats and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Most of those shows still featured a character that could be turned to for comedic relief, and even Batman has the Joker. X-Men didn’t really feature that though. Morph could have been that character, but he was killed off rather quickly. It’s a drama starring people in bright spandex that captivated me as a kid. The serialized nature and some of the nuance of the show asked something of me, and I was willing to rise to the program as a mere 7 year-old. It’s no surprise to me that when I look back on my youth, X-Men is there and always will be as it was far and away my favorite program.
And despite what you may think, a lot of really talented and devoted artists contributed to this show. Knock the animation all you want, but I’ve always been rather insistent that the show looks pretty great in stills. Sure, pick through it and you’ll find some weird stuff or miss-colored limbs and costumes, that’s true of a lot of shows from that era. Where this book is able to shine is with the stuff not broadcast. All of the developmental art that went into the show; costume ideas, height charts, storyboards, are quite rewarding to look at. When Lewald and his team were handed this property, there were decades of material to cherry-pick for the show and a lot of ideas were cast aside. There’s also plenty of production art, like cels and such, that are quite interesting to look at. Especially some of the backgrounds, like the lair of Mr. Sinister, which featured several layers of artwork to make it right.
And it’s not just art! The books is broken out into six chapters, plus an intro and an afterword, with each containing a detailed breakdown of what went into each section. Some of this stuff is lifted from the prior book, so it will be a bit familiar for those who read it, and some of the details are new. Since this book is focused on the art of the series, you’ll hear additional nuggets about what went into a character’s look or a particular background. There’s a lot of ink spent on the various cameos that occurred throughout the series and some of the other details may surprise and amaze. One such nugget came from Director and Storyboard Artist/Supervisor Larry Houston who pointed out how difficult it was to animate a character like Mr. Sinister. His irregular cape basically forced Houston to storyboard the character with as little motion as possible. Basically, the camera was either directly in front or behind him and he was basically never allowed to rotate. It’s fun to go back and watch the series with such information in hand and it gives some newfound appreciation for all of the work Larry and his team had to do before sending an episode off to Korea for animation.
There’s a lot to unpack in this book and I don’t want to reveal too much since a lot of the enjoyment I had was uncovering things I either didn’t know or really paid little attention to. There’s also some nice additions to this one like a collection of all of the episode logs and a picture to go along with it. Some time is spent on looking back at the X-Men craze, like the Pizza Hut promotion and the action figure line from ToyBiz, which might make you wish for a third book that covers all of that tie-in merch. The book itself is also quite lovely. It’s hardbound with new cover art from Houston, I think. There’s no explicit “Cover” credit, just a case credit to Houston with ink by Rick Hoberg and colors by Laura Martin. It’s a bit confusing as the inside of the front and back cover are storyboards which were definitely done by Houston, so the credit may be referring to that. Regardless, the cover, featuring the main team including Morph and Bishop, and the rear cover featuring the villains of the series look great. Pages are nice and thick and the whole thing totals 288 pages. Since it’s mostly artwork, it’s not a tremendously long read, but it’s hardly brief. I mostly read it while sipping a morning or afternoon coffee (first starting my read, appropriately enough, on a Saturday morning) over the course of a week. It was a wonderful, leisurely, trip back to the 90s and my youth that not only left me wanting more, but also with a desire to go back and revisit the show once again.
X-Men: The Art and Making of the Animated Series is a great companion to Previously…on X-Men. It’s a book intended to satiate fans of the show, but would also probably entertain casual fans as well. I had a great time engaging with the art from the property, and while I already had a pretty terrific appreciation of the art that went into the show, I think those who might not have that same level of appreciation will likely leave with a bit more. Eric and Julia Lewald do a great job of recounting their time with the show and the various artists and executives they speak with bring a lot to the table. It’s my assumption that anyone with a love for this old show will be delighted by this book and it’s something I plan to flip through again.