Tag Archives: eric lewald

Marvel Legends X-Men Retro Card Series Apocalypse

“I know more of this world than you could even dream, that is why I must…destroy it!”

It is Halloween and that means it’s time for costumes, candy, and spooky fun. It’s also Halloween 2022, a pretty important date if you grew up loving those mutants who ran around in colorful spandex fighting for a better tomorrow. That’s because 30 years ago on this very night, the animated series X-Men premiered on the Fox network. The decision to debut a cartoon in prime time with characters still on the periphery of mainstream appeal was both a bold choice and one brought about by necessity. Fox had done the same recently with Batman – The Animated Series, but that hardly feels like a gamble considering that was coming hot on the heels of Batman Returns. You see, the show should have premiered in September on Saturday mornings, but the project was fraught with delays and the early animation sent back from studio AKOM was said to be a disaster. And since the show wasn’t going to be able to premiere as planned, the producers involved decided to focus on the first two episodes to get them ready for a Halloween premiere with the rest of the season to follow in early 1993. Marketing dubbed it a sneak peek, and it must have worked because before long the show was a ratings hit and the rest is history.

Given that it’s such an important day for an elder X-Men fan like myself, it only felt appropriate to forego something spooky this Halloween in favor of something celebrating that show. Now, I originally intended to debut my review of Hasbro’s Morph, but I received that figure in late September and I was just too eager to talk about Morph. The timing just didn’t make sense, so we’re pivoting to something else. Had Mystique, the next planned figure in Hasbro’s dedicated X-Men animated line, arrived this month she would have been featured here. And she even embodies a bit of that Halloween look with her blank eyes and affection for skulls. Instead though, I think we have the next best thing with one of the major villains from the show: Apocalypse.

This card is stupid big.

Hasbro’s retro card series of Marvel Legends has caused some confusion in the collector community, and I’m afraid this Apocalypse only adds to that. It started a few years ago as an homage to the classic ToyBiz line of figures from the 90s. Hasbro created updated blister cards based on those styles and packaged Legends in them. They had to be slightly oversized to accommodate the larger Legends figures compared to the classic ToyBiz ones, but who in the collector community doesn’t love a good dose of nostalgia? They’re definitely neat, and since the designs of the figures are largely based on their 90s appearances they hit pretty hard when it comes to nostalgia. It was successful enough that Hasbro then did the same with Spider-Man. Unlike the old X-Men line, the Spider-Man line from ToyBiz was a direct tie-in to the animated series that premiered on Fox (in sneak peek fashion as well since it worked so well with X-Men) in 1994. As a result, collectors weren’t sure if these new Spider-Man retro card releases were based on the animated series as well. I’ve seen many collectors refer to the Hobgoblin, especially, from that line as being animated inspired, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The only one released that is definitely based on the cartoon is the PulseCon exclusive Venom from last year (which is being followed-up with an animated Spider-Man this fall).

The actual figure though? Not really that big. I would have actually liked a little more height out of this guy.

Now adding to any confusion that still exists out there is this Apocalypse figure. Apocalypse had multiple releases in the ToyBiz days so a retro card release makes sense. However, this particular figure features a purple and blue deco. That is significant because that’s the color scheme Apocalypse had in the animated series. No where else has Apocalypse ever looked like this. And to drive the point home further, he comes with an interchangeable gun attachment for his arm that is pulled right from an episode of the show which has left many to ask “So why is this not a release in the VHS line?” And the answer is, “I don’t know.” I don’t think any of the marketing team for Legends has explained that one. My guess is that someone on the team really wanted to do this character in this look, but the budget for the VHS line couldn’t accommodate it so they did it this way. It’s bizarre, because this figure does not feature the cel-shading paint job of the VHS line so it’s not just a difference in packaging. This figure is also based on the build-a-figure Apocalypse released a few years ago, so disassembling it to fit in a VHS box would not have been problem. Plus, as illustrated with Mr. Sinister’s VHS box, Hasbro is willing to adjust the sizing when necessary on those boxes so there’s really nothing stopping Hasbro from releasing the figure in that line from a design standpoint. I know the cel-shading is a bit of a contentious topic in the community, but this figure is so cartoon specific that I can’t imagine there was a ton of demand from collectors not interested in the animated series. This version of Apocalypse has always been viewed as a little “goofy” because of those colors so comic collectors are most certainly not the target audience, but here we are.

This is unquestionably supposed to be Apocalypse from the cartoon, you can’t fool me Hasbro!

Because of the colors on this guy, I definitely consider him to be part of the animated series line of action figures. It’s bizarre, and if it’s simply a matter of budget then I don’t know why they didn’t just hit this guy with more paint so he would fit in, but here we are. That said, I’m happy to have Apocalypse in this deco as it’s been perhaps the figure I’ve wanted most to come out of the animated line next to Morph. This funky color palette just hits right for me. Like most kids in the early 90s, I was confused why Apocalypse looked like he was painted for Easter in the show and would have preferred him in black and blue, but over time this look has just become a hallmark of the series for me and I appreciate it more as a result. Plus, Apocalypse is so bad ass that he can look like this and still be feared!

The figure does come on the aforementioned blister card and it is pretty massive. It’s almost comical to look at how big this thing is relative to other retro card releases and even more ludicrous compared to the 90s cards. It features some nice artwork, though not in the animated style aside from the suit colors, and definitely has that old school ToyBiz feel. Many like to keep these releases mint-on-card, but I am not one of them. If you want to preserve the card as much as possible, I recommend slicing the bubble from the bottom with a blade which will allow you to slide this big boy out. And once removed, he is indeed rather big standing at around 8.25″.

Even this gun attachment is taken right from the show.

In looking at this figure, what immediately stands out as “animated” aside from the colors is the sculpt of the chest. I mentioned earlier that this figure is based on the build-a-figure from a few years ago, but it’s been re-tooled in several places and the upper torso is one such place. The musculature has a very soft look to it which is in-line with the show. There’s basically just a hint of pectorals and nothing more. The other details of the costume, such as the shoulders and the collar area, look as they should. The only parts not exactly screen accurate are the boots and the gloves. The boots are just all-together busier in their design, something an animated show would strive to eliminate. The hands are similar, but they’re also just not sculpted right as he should have a blue knuckleguard on each hand. Lastly, the cables that connect his arms to his back should plug-in around the elbow and not the forearm. Obviously, these inaccuracies exist because Hasbro is reusing old parts and I would say it’s mostly fine. While I would love to buy action figures that are committed to matching the source material to a more exact specification, I know that’s not Hasbro’s approach. They do things mostly with cost in mind and basically think giving us a new torso is good enough. The issue now is that approach was more acceptable when these figures were a lot cheaper. It’s something that will bother some folks, and for others it won’t. In my experience Hasbro has done a good job of conditioning its fanbase to accept these figures for what they are so my expectation is most will be unbothered.

In typical Hasbro fashion, they give you some of what you want, but not everything. This gun has four barrels, but you get just 3 blast effects.

As a last bit of aesthetics, we should talk about the paint job. Apocalypse is quite purple and quite blue, as he should be. Hasbro prioritizes using as much colored plastic as possible with their figures and this one is no exception. The paint is mostly limited to the head, upper torso and the gauntlets. The head is where the most paint was needed and it’s done well enough. We’ll talk about the appropriateness of the expressions when we get to the accessories, but there’s enough paint to bring out the sculpted details of the face with minimal slop. He’s not the easiest face to paint as the lips basically wrap around the whole head and he has that gap in the blue on top of the head, so Hasbro did a very nice job here. What is unfortunate though is his head is in two pieces glued together and there’s a blue seem as a result between his forehead and the portion of his flesh that runs up his head and it looks stupid. Otherwise, the paint details are fairly simple and done well enough. The chest even has this really nice, matte, finish which looks great, but also makes the shiny, plastic, portions look worse by comparison. Where they had to match colored plastic to painted, the figure also looks fine.

The source material for the gun is clearly the show, though it was simplified a bit for this release.

The elephant in the room when it comes to paint is obviously the exclusion of cel-shading. This is a retro card release, so cel-shading isn’t normally expected, but he’s also animated Apocalypse and the other X-Men animated figures all have it. Personally, I would like characters based on a cartoon to feature a paint job that reflects that medium. On the other hand, I concede that the cel-shading in the VHS line has been applied poorly. Part of me would like to give Hasbro some credit here in thinking that with a bigger figure to work with, the cel-shading would turn out better, but there’s no guarantee of that. They seem to struggle just finding the right colors to use when shading (see the hideous mustard color they use to shade yellow). Ultimately, it is what it is. I would love some shading on the torso, especially, but it’s not here. Maybe that’s a good thing? I don’t know, but that’s just my opinion. I don’t think he clashes in a significant manner amongst the other figures in the VHS line so I guess it doesn’t matter that much. As was the case with the accuracy of the sculpt, the absence of shading is going to matter more to some, and not at all to others.

Would it have been hard to just give us one more teeny, tiny, piece to stich in that bottom barrel? Though the proper thing to do would have been to sculpt a new, double-barrel, blast effect that plugs into both at the same time.

Moving on to accessories, Apocalypse is pretty much par for the course when it comes to Legends these days. He doesn’t have a lot, but at least here what he does have is done well. First of all, he has two sets of hands: fists and open, “clenchy,” hands. That’s fine as it allows him to look menacing, dramatic, and you can even get those clenchy hands to grab onto another figure. He also has two heads: an angry one and a stoic one. The angry one is reused, and the stoic is new. As a comic inspired sculpt, I think the angry head is fine. As an animated Apocalypse? It’s terrible. He basically never looked like this in the show so I probably won’t be using it. The stoic head is more my thing. It’s still done in the Legends style so it’s not a toon-accurate look for the character, but that’s been true of almost every release in the VHS line as well save for Wolverine. I refer to it as stoic, but he is frowning and looks kind of ticked off. I do wish the shape of both was different as Apocalypse tends to have a wide jaw compared with the top of his head, in both the comics and the show, but these heads are pretty uniform. If it were up to me, I’d have gone with this head, but with less detail to remove the frown and paired it with a laughing head. Imagine a laughing Apocalypse on your shelf with his fists on his hips or his arms crossed? Perfection. Lastly, we have the optional gun part. It attaches to the forearm and the cable can even plug into it. It is taken directly from the “Beyond Good and Evil” plotline when Cable confronts Apocalypse at the start so it is pulled right out of the show. It looks nice and Hasbro even included some blast effects for it which I would not have expected. It’s nice to have as it allows you to display Apocalypse as a menacing overlord on your shelf, or as someone willing to get his hands dirty which was rather true of the character in the show. They could have loaded him up with more arm attachments, but this feels like a fine selection of stuff for Apocalypse. It just would have been nice to get a new effect part for the main part of the gun that plugs into both of the center barrels. Since they instead gave us three separate pieces, one barrel will always be empty.

The gripping hands are wide enough that you can make your Apocalypse perform chokeslams on Wolverine.

Time to talk about the articulation. Despite being a big boy, Apocalypse moves okay and is pretty standard for the line. We have the ball-hinged head that lets him look up and down, all around, and even tilt the head a smidge. The collar doesn’t really get in the way until you try to rotate the head, but the range is decent. The shoulders are just ball-hinged and he can raise his arms out the side and rotate them pretty well even with the shoulder pads getting in the way slightly. The elbows are single-jointed and he can’t quite hit a 90 degree bend, so that could be better. The wrists rotate and hinge horizontally. In the torso, we get an ab crunch that lets him bend back a bit, and crunch forward a decent amount. It’s mostly colored plastic here so paint rub shouldn’t be of great concern, but it’s worth being mindful of. The waist is just a twist and the legs are ball-pegs. He can damn near do a full split and is capable of kicking forward just fine, though the cheeks will prevent much rear leg motion. There is a thigh cut which does what thigh cuts do and the knees are double-jointed. There’s no boot cut, but down in the ankles you have the usual hinge and rocker combination which works just fine. More importantly, everything is nice and tight so he shouldn’t be toppling over on your shelf. Apocalypse really only needs to hit a few poses and this figure is capable of doing that.

He is here to crush the mutants, and seems capable enough.

All in all, I am quite pleased with this release for Apocalypse. Yes, I would have preferred this come in the VHS line for both the packaging and the cel-shading, but since it didn’t, at least we got a fairly robust release as far as accessories go. I’ve been pretty disappointed with the majority of the VHS line because of the poorly applied cel-shading, inappropriate reuse of some sculpts, and the dearth of worthwhile accessories. It’s really been a money-grab kind of line and at least this Apocalypse feels more substantial and like a better value. They actually did some re-sculpting to make the figure more cartoon accurate, and while they didn’t go as far as they could with that, I think most will find they went far enough. My preference would have always been to receive figures with sculpts actually designed to mimic the animated look, but Hasbro was never committed to doing that for one reason or another. This figure does suffer a bit as a result because the head isn’t right and the veiny biceps look stupid on Apocalypse (and they would look stupid on any version of Apocalypse so I don’t get the thinking here). The rest of its shortcomings are just par for the course with Marvel Legends, like the dearth of paint apps (the cables look especially plain), so regular Legends collectors will likely be content. Unless someone else can get the license to produce animated X-Men figures (highly unlikely), this is unfortunately the best we’re likely to get. And at least with Apocalypse, this one does indeed feel good enough. Most of the VHS figures are not and the feeling of settling is palpable with each one, but here I don’t feel that way. At least not as much.

Apocalypse does come at an inflated price though of $40 which is obviously a lot for a Marvel Legends release. This one at least feels more worthy of that price compared with the VHS figures at around 28 bucks. A comparable figure would probably be NECA’s Chrome Dome from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line which was also $40. I would argue that the NECA release is a better value than this as it came with more stuff, more paint, and was 100% new tooling, but it also came out a year ago so maybe in 2022 it would be $45. Value, as always, is rather subjective, but in this case I think the value is there. If you’re interested in picking this one up, you may have to dig around a bit as it is sold out in several places. Hasbro Pulse still has it open for order so that may be the safest bet. Amazon does as well, but they can be hard to trust. Re-stocks may be on the way too so I don’t think it’s one you’ll have to spend a fortune on eBay for, but I also would recommend acting fast since I don’t think this one is ticketed for big box stores which would indicate there will be fewer of these out in the wild than the Age of Apocalypse version, by comparison. More importantly, if you can find some time today (admittedly, difficult given the holiday) or maybe even just this week throw on some classic X-Men and take a trip through time. It’s incredible to think I was watching the show as a kid 30 years ago, and while it may not hit the same as it did for me then, it’s still a worthwhile nostalgia binge and a show I think is worth celebrating. Or if you want to read more about it, I’ve covered both Previously on X-Men and the X-Men art book and recommend both to fans of the show. Here’s hoping the sequel series due next year is able to carry on its legacy.


It’s Finally Happening – The Animated X-Men are Coming Back in Figure Form!

Eric and Julia Lewald have something to share!

It was almost two years to the day where I made an entry here expressing a wish for Hasbro to tackle the X-Men. And not just any X-Men, the now classic animated series from 1992. That was probably my greatest obsession as a kid. I loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I grew out of it after 3 or 4 years. X-Men filled that void and my obsession lasted longer. I collected the toys from Toy Biz and it was the first time I displayed my toys like collectibles instead of just dumping them in a large bin when I was done playing. I still played with them too, but when I was done I had makeshift shelves to pose them on. It was a large shelf that went three or four rows deep and eventually I had to add another. I was able to separate heroes and villains, though with how quickly things can change in the comics, sometimes I had to move guys back and forth. I don’t think I stopped collecting though until I was in high school in the very late 90s. By then, the X-Men line was nearing its end anyway and Toy Biz was pivoting to more collector-focused lines for their legacy properties while the kid-friendly stuff was focused on new shows like X-Men Evolution and the movies.

There weren’t a lot of toon-specific figures back in the 90s, but Morph was definitely one of them.

Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles though, the thing with the old X-Men toyline is that it wasn’t really an animated focused line. It started as a comic book line with the inaugural first wave reflecting the 80s costumes and lineup for the team. It was only once the show became a hit that the toyline started to mimic it to a point. One of the first instances of that I can recall is the wave one Storm, who was released in a black costume, getting repainted silver with two ring-capes added on to kind of match her show appearance. Toy Biz would also repackage some of the previously released figures with new card backs advertising them as from the show, but the figures were basically the same comic book inspired releases we already had. Wolverine, for instance, still had his giant buckle on his belt instead of an X logo. Storm did get repainted yet again though, this time white and with a more elaborate cape. The most well-remembered instance of the line matching the show was in the Morph figure. Morph was famously created for the show, though he was modeled after the character Changeling from the comic, and killed off in the second episode. Kids loved him though, so Toy Biz made a figure with swappable heads to mimic his shape-shifting powers. He didn’t look much like the cartoon character aside from the general costume, but it was still one of my favorite figures because it was freakin’ Morph! Toy Biz would also do a Phoenix Saga wave of figures clearly inspired by the cartoon, and other figures here and there appeared to match some show designs, but for all intents and purposes the toys from Toy Biz were comics first and the show a distant second.

2022 will mark the show’s 30th anniversary, and as I hypothesized two years ago, Hasbro is finally going to do proper action figures based on the show. This past week saw Hasbro host its own virtual convention, Pulsecon, and the guests of honor for the final panel on Saturday were Eric and Julia Lewald, authors of the wonderful X-Men: The Art and Making of the Animated Series. Eric was the showrunner for X-Men and his wife Julia a veteran TV writer who contributed some scripts as well and the mere fact that they were announced as guests had my juices flowing all last week. Surely, they were there to pitch their book, but also to reveal something. What we didn’t know is what that something would be. It would likely tie into the animated series, but did we dare hope it would be an actual line of Marvel Legends based on the show? Maybe it would just be more retro card-back releases, which is what Hasbro has been doing for the Spider-Man cartoon lately. There’s also the new retro, five points of articulation, line. I was both optimistic and guarded, but I’m happy to report my dream has come true!

This is glorious!

Hasbro had the Lewalds show off two figures for the new X-Men animated series line of toys: Wolverine and Jubilee. The figures will come in an oversized VHS styled box with new artwork and product shots. They’re meant to be displayed as one would those old VHS releases and they look positively striking. I don’t know if Hasbro got the idea from NECA’s TMNT releases, or if it was an organic thing, but either way it looks fantastic. Not to be outshined though, are the figures themselves. They are indeed Marvel Legends-styled releases and I’m sure there will be a lot of parts reuse between these figures and previously released editions. Wolverine could very well be the same Wolverine body that’s been released before, though it looks like he has new heads to better reflect the show art design. What stands out most though is the paint application which has that cel-shaded look to better match-up with the show. He’ll come with the now standard swappable hands, one with claws out and one claws retracted, but he also gets to bring along the photo of Scott and Jean (just like the upcoming Mondo release) so fans can reenact the most memed scene of the show. Jubilee, for her part, appears to mostly be the same release as before too only I don’t think she’s getting a new head. She’s less impressive as a result since she’s lacking her show-specific earrings on one head, but she does have yellow gloves now. Like Wolverine, she’ll have two portraits and she also has some effects pieces. I do wish they worked in a show specific accessory for her as well (maybe some chili fries? A Genosha collar?) to up the fun factor. One show specific accessory per figure would be a nice goal for Hasbro to have.

Only thing missing is a turkey leg.

These two figures are definitely promising and they’re pretty much exactly what I hoped for, even though they weren’t announced as one big wave as I had previously hoped for. There are a few things to nitpick based on the few shots we were given. Wolverine’s hands appear to lack the claw channels on his non-claw hands which isn’t show accurate, and Jubilee’s head just doesn’t look very “toon” to me. I’m hoping Wolverine is more indicative of where the line is going as opposed to Jubilee, but only time will tell. Otherwise, I like this direction and that parts reuse doesn’t bother me. Now if they try to re-release Sabretooth and pass him off as animated that will be worth criticizing because the Sabretooth on television was pretty different from the comics. He was just huge and honestly a little weird looking, but not in a bad way. Hasbro is a company more focused on price and keeping the price low. These figures already run high by their standards as they’re currently available for preorder at $27 a piece. Wolverine is slated for a May release with Jubilee following in June. Not shown, but announced, are figures for both Storm and Jean, two characters who should be easily adapted from recent releases with some paint modifications. No release date was announced for them, but maybe July and August? A monthly schedule would be fine with me and maybe we’ll learn more in early 2022. Or maybe Hasbro is saving something for Halloween, the 29th anniversary of the show’s premiere, to give us a peek at either Storm or Jean.

Less impressive than Wolverine is Jubilee, but there’s still time for things to change.

What is great is the goal of Hasbro’s to make this a full line. It’s going to be a slow release compared to some of the others, but I can be patient. I’ve waited nearly 30 years for this, I can wait longer. I know some fans were disappointed in the character selection. Wolverine is a given, but he’s also a character that’s been made and released over and over while Jubilee is…Jubilee. A lot of fans were hoping for Morph as he’s become synonymous with the show and is a character that collectors have wanted for years now. I feel very confident that Morph is coming, so I’m not sweating his exclusion for now. He’s the character Hasbro has to hit a homerun with, and hopefully they do. He seems like the most obvious candidate if they want to time a figure with the 30th anniversary on Halloween of 2022. Will they time the reveal or the release with that date is the big question. This is a good time to be an X-Men fan though, and I’m already brainstorming ways to display this line. It’s going to be a long wait until May, but it’s going to be worth it!

Preorders for Wolverine and Jubilee are currently available on Hasbro Pulse (no premium membership required) with an expected release on Disney’s shopdisney website at some point. These are not planned for mass market retail so get your orders in if you want them.

UPDATE: Just a few days after the big reveal, Hasbro went and revealed a third figure in the wave. And despite having already soft announced Storm and Jean, the third figure shown off is none other than Mr. Sinister! He’s available for pre-order on Pulse and currently has the same release date as Jubilee. He is almost a straight repaint of a previously released Mr. Sinister (they may have had to swap out the neck, or it’s just now painted white instead of blue) and will come in an oversized box. Needless to say, it’s a good sign that Hasbro is willing to do villains alongside the X-Men!


X-Men: The Art and Making of the Animated Series

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.

X-Men on the front, bad guys on the rear. What does it say about me that I think I prefer this to the cover?

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.

It’s an art book, so expect a lot of artwork!

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.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the book is getting to read the descriptions that go along with each storyboard panel.

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.

When the X-Men ruled the world!

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.

One of my favorite inclusions in the book is the visual episode guide with accompanying logs, a tremendous resource to have on-hand.

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.


Previously on X-Men: The Making of an Animated Series

previously

by Eric Lewald, published by Jacobs Brown Media Group LLC

A lot of cartoons made an impact on me as a child. My first love was The Real Ghostbusters. Its goofy cast of characters and excitement were plenty of fun and there were interesting toys to supplement the series with, which was pretty much the goal of all cartoons in the 80s. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would come along and supplant Ghostbusters for me. For several years I was all about the Turtles, with a flirtation with Bucky O’Hare mixed in, though sadly the funky fresh rabbit never made it past 13 episodes.

In 1992 things changed, in more ways than one. My family had just been uprooted moving from the cozy confines of New Hampshire to what felt like a different world down in Virginia. For the first time ever, I was a fish out of water. As I was gearing up to start 3rd grade in a new state, a new town, a new school, I would be tasked with forming all new friendships either at school or in my new neighborhood. It’s not a task I’ve ever been particularly good at. Shy and a tad awkward, I wasn’t outgoing, nor was I particularly talented in anything so I had few ways of attracting people. As a result, my television was sort of my best friend for a time and thankfully I had a new friend in Batman who had just debuted on week day afternoons on Fox Kids, a network I really only knew of thanks to The Simpsons. Batman was all fine and good, and I consumed every episode as it aired (and have since gone on to write about, if you hadn’t noticed), but it never hooked me like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, even though that was a program I found myself outgrowing. What did resonate with me almost immediately though was the cartoon that premiered not long after Batman, I’m talking about X-Men.

The X-Men were known to me in basic terms before the animated series premiered on Fox. About a year prior to the show debuting Marvel had launched a toyline complete with TV spots, even though there was no companion television series to pair it with. I suppose the toys could have been developed in conjunction with the Pryde of the X-Men pilot that had premiered and failed in 1989. The roster was pretty similar, though then relative newcomer Archangel replaced Dazzler in that initial run of toys. Aside from that though, I don’t think I had ever picked up an X-Men comic book and I may or may not have played the side-scrolling beat-’em-up arcade game that was also based on Pryde of the X-Men. And I didn’t even actually catch the sneak peek preview, which aired on Halloween of 1992. I had seen all of the television spots leading up to it and was very interested in the show, but I had tricks or treats to get and wasn’t good at working a VCR.

X-men_pryde_of_the_x-men_cover

The first attempt at bringing the X-Men to television did not go very well.

At school, I would hear about it though. They had cool powers, but people hated them. Why? It seemed like such a foreign concept. One character got arrested and another died! Wow! Perhaps morbidly, I really wanted to see that character death, whom I’d come to know as Morph. Frustratingly, it would be awhile before I finally saw it. Somehow, whenever “Night of the Sentinels:  Part 2” was aired on television I would miss it. I wasn’t allowed to stay home alone, since I was only 8, so if my family had plans on Saturday morning I had little say. My mom even enrolled me in CCD, or church school, which convened at 11 on Saturdays, much to my horror. I think I only went to two of those classes before my mom got sick of the revolt each Saturday, finally freeing me to enjoy my new favorite program in relative peace.

In no time I was obsessed, and X-Men was my favorite show for basically as long as it aired. I still have the many toys I amassed during that period in my life, and though I no longer read the comics, I still enjoy revisiting this cartoon. It’s why when I heard that showrunner Eric Lewald was releasing a book all about his experience in making the show and bringing it to television that I had to get a copy. I received a copy last November, and I’m a bit disappointed in myself since it took me this long to finally finish it and get to writing this post, but life is hectic.

Previously on X-Men is an account of how this unlikely hit came to be. When Fox premiered X-Men and Batman it was still a fledgling network. The Tracey Ullman Show and Married… With Children got the network its initial audience, and The Simpsons would then establish it as a viable alternative to the big 3:  ABC, CBS, and NBC. It was still struggling during the other parts of the day with programming often ending before 11 PM. Recognizing that there was a place for children’s programming, Fox brought together a web of studios and producers in a mostly haphazard manner that somehow led to network dominance. Shows like Bobby’s World and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes were filling out the kids portion of the programming early on, and while it sounds like they did okay numbers, they weren’t going to raise the network’s profile much. It would fall to the superheroes to do that.

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Julia and Eric Lewald

Lewald’s book does a great job in capturing those early days while also contrasting X-Men with its daily counterpart Batman. Batman was a show with tremendous financial muscle behind it in the form of Warner Bros. and DC. It was coming off two successful Tim Burton movies and featured a character recognized around the globe. As a result, it was largely an internal production at Warner and Fox got to enjoy the benefits. And then there was X-Men, the troubled property that seemingly no one believed in. Thanks to so many television failures by Marvel in the past, there was almost zero enthusiasm for a show based on the property. Margaret Loesch, who formerly headed-up television at Marvel and was hired away to run Fox Kids, was one of the few who believed in it. Having failed to get the show going while at Marvel, she knew a producer who she had hired and fired on more than one occasion that could handle the task. That man was Sidney Iwanter, and he produced the show along with many others for Fox Kids. Citing a belief that kids were smarter than network executives gave them credit for, he demanded excellence from the writing staff of X-Men, who were overseen by Lewald. These three probably deserve the most credit in getting X-Men to television and for it being the number one kid’s show when it finally did get there.

haim-saban

Haim Saban, who is both a hero and a villain in this story.

The first 200 pages of the 400 page book are devoted to the development process and it’s a fascinating read. Lewald, who had no experience with the X-Men before getting hired to run the show, was entrusted with those initial 13 episodes. He had people at Marvel he could go to with questions, but in a pre-internet world that meant a phone call, fax, or worse. It wasn’t like there was a Google equivalent in 1992. Artist Larry Houston is credited with the look of the series, as he was one of the few onboard who was a fan of the comic. Also the Edens brothers, Michael and Mark, were Lewald’s main contributors in the writing department. Lewald’s wife Julia was also a part in the initial season and contributed to the book as well. It’s very interesting to read as Lewald takes the reader through that initial writing process, and it’s easily the most captivating section of the book. Their approach to character showed in the episodes, so a lot of what is said here was previously assumed. Such as the belief that killing off poor Morph in the second episode would create stakes and pull the viewer in.

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The early days of Fox Kids.

If there is an MVP character for the book though it just might be Haim Saban. Saban was a newcomer to television when Fox Kids partnered with him to bring the X-Men to air. Saban collected a fee for those first 13 episodes, but then it was on him to pay the writers and editors. Graz handled the art, while AKOM was contracted to do the animation. Saban is a notoriously cheap man, and reading about all of the accounts of his cheapness is both hilarious and frustrating. It’s well known now, but bares repeating to emphasize how cheap he was that Saban docked the pay for all of the returning writers for season 2. His reasoning? The show was a success, so now more people would want to write for it and therefore he could pay them less. The man is now a billionaire, so obviously he’s pretty good at making money, though he’s also a reminder of a lot of what’s wrong with modern capitalism. The second half of the book is comprised of interviews with the cast, writers, producers, and other executives and almost all of them have a comment about how cheap Saban was, and likely still is.

Many battles took place to bring X-Men to Saturday morning. Some I knew about before reading this book, and others I did not. It’s probably common knowledge that the first episode from AKOM was utter garbage in terms of animation quality. It’s a big reason why the show had to premiere as a sneak preview because the studio couldn’t get the episodes ready to premiere in the normal Fall window due to all of the animation fixes that needed to take place. A lot of money was spent getting it right, and it almost blew everything up. The original voice cast also had to re-do the initial episodes because the first takes were so bad. Saban, in order to save money, hired Canadian actors to voice the show because they were famously non-union, so casting, supervising, and ultimately editing the audio for the show was cumbersome. Having to send individuals up to Canada in order to re-dub the initial episodes was obviously time consuming as well.

X-Men (FOX) [1992-1997]Shown from left: Wolverine, Morph, Beast

Oh Morph, I still mourn for thee.

And then there was Stan Lee. Stan Lee is a pretty famous guy. I’m not sure if he’s today more known for all of the comic characters he had a hand in creating or if he’s more famous for being that old guy who cameos in every Marvel film. Stan Lee created the X–Men alongside Jack Kirby in the 60s, but after that initial unsuccessful run, he turned it over to other writers and artists so he could focus on other things. As a result, come 1992 he basically knew nothing about the modern X-Men and yet he insisted he knew what was right for the show. Lewald and Iwanter had to fight with Stan on everything in those developmental days. He insisted on narrating the episodes, as he had done with previous Marvel television shows, and his approach was entirely wrong for the show they were trying to create. Supposedly, he even proposed the premise of the show should be a few members of the team driving around and solving mysteries. Imagine Wolverine in the role of Scooby Doo? Who would Shaggy be – Gambit?! They somehow managed to placate him, without really giving him a voice in the show, and eventually he went away as the show moved along through its first season and became a smash hit. The frustration in having to deal with Lee, and the many other challenges, is felt in reading this and I ached for Lewald even though he’s more than 25 years removed from this aggravation.

spiderman 94

The success of X-Men helped pave the way for more Marvel cartoons like Spider-Man.

That first season was only 13 episodes, a far cry from the 65 episode order Batman received. Fox was so unsure about the property that it wouldn’t commit beyond that, forcing basically everyone involved to move onto other shows. Lewald went on to helm Exosquad with the Edens, and thankfully that too only received a 13 episode order so he was available to return to X-Men when it finally received the full episode order. Others did not, because that’s how television works. If a show isn’t in production, you’re not getting paid. That first season’s decision to present itself in a serialized fashion also presented problems for the network, as production delays on one episode messed up the order of everything. As a result, the network demanded that season 2 be more episodic, but Lewald and his talented team of writers still managed to give it a serialized feel with The Savage Land segments and reoccurring villains like Mr. Sinister and The Friends of Humanity. A wise move, since the serialized nature of that first season is a big reason why it’s so special.

Nightcrawler (1)

“Nightcrawler” is frequently cited as a favorite episode of many of the creators involved with the show. The book also contains a deep dive into its creation.

Like the show itself, which I think produced its best work in those first two seasons, the book somewhat suffers from a strong first half that isn’t matched by the second. The many interviews that span roughly 200 pages are informative, but some more than others. The voice cast mostly repeats itself with remarks about how it was fun to work on something that felt different and how they came to understand their roles. The actual writers and producers offer the more interesting nuggets. There’s a lot of praise thrown around which might get tiresome for readers, though they all have reason to praise each other since it’s easy to forget how successful this show was. Especially when taken alongside the production and development hurdles. Of the interviews, I think I actually enjoyed the executive ones the most. Loesch and Iwanter were candid and did a great job of transporting me back to the early 90s and the hurdles they faced in backing this show. It’s fun to read about how close these people were with these characters that meant so much to me as a child. They cared about them, which is ultimately why the show ended up being as successful as it was.

X-Men-92

Marvel has resurrected the 92 X-Men for its comics line, but the results weren’t enjoyed by this blogger.

It should come as no surprise that, as a longtime fan of the show, I fully recommend Previously on X-Men to other fans of the show. Even if you were only a casual fan, but tuned into the animated scene at the time, you might enjoy reading this one. It’s fun to read the comparisons of how this show came to be with the experiences these people had with other shows. X-Men was a production mess, a wonderful, beautiful, mess. It was still garnering good numbers when it was cancelled, and one has to assume it was due to costs. By then, Saban had Power Rangers and was able to bring more stuff in house. X-Men had all kinds of hands on it so a lot of people had to get paid, and as we already covered, Saban wasn’t a fan of paying people. Even so, it’s hard to argue that the show was cut-down in its prime or anything, but reading this book and revisiting the show really made me realize how much I’d love to come back to this world. Marvel did launch an X-Men ’92 comic, but it did not satisfy me nor did it read like an episode of the beloved cartoon, rather it felt more like a parody. Marvel is now under the gigantic Disney umbrella and its films basically print money. With the Fox acquisition though, suddenly the X-Men are back in play. Marvel hasn’t bothered with animated films in awhile, though it’s sort of bringing that back with Into the Spider-Verse. Maybe a direct to video follow-up for the 92 X-Men could one day be in play. Pretty please? At the very least, how about a Blu Ray collection with episode commentaries, Disney? The people who created this wonderful show obviously wish to talk about it and they still have a lot to say.


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