Interviews with Larry Houston and Frank Squillace about the X-Men Cartoon Series
By Steve Fitz
(Originally published by Yahoo! and Associated Content)
There once was a time when erudition for all things comic book was considered less than useless. Larry Houston and Frank Squillace have a different opinion about that. After all, their scholarship of the X-Men comics helped create one of the greatest animated superhero series of all time.
Houston and Squillace sat down for an interview about X-Men as the last season of the cartoon series arrives on DVD. On May 4, Disney released the last season as volume five of a series of double DVD sets. This will be the first time in more than a decade that the entire series is again available to fans.
Laying the Groundwork for the X-Men Series
"I first got into the animation industry working for Filmation on their adventure shows," Houston recalls. "I did Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Lone Ranger. Then I moved to Marvel Animation when Stan Lee first set up the company in 1980. I worked on Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends. Then I did all the GI Joe specials...and directed the regular series.
"I loved working there because it was the one place where all the useless trivia I picked up as a child could be useful. I grew up Marvel. I knew its history like the back of my hand."
Still, while Houston had landed his childhood dream job, he was unsatisfied. He had yet to work on his favorite Marvel creation of all, the one featuring the X-Men, those uncanny students of Dr. Charles Xavier.
Yet a change in the TV tides was rising. Spearheading this paradigm shift were two unsung heroes of TV animation, Margaret Loesch and Stephanie Graziano.
In the 1980s Graziano and her husband, Jim, had one of the hottest studios in the United States, Graz Entertainment. In the '80s they produced a wide variety of hit animated TV shows, from Muppet Babies to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
"Stephanie was amazing," Squillace says about his former boss. "She was very professional but also very personal. There wasn't a time when you couldn't walk into her office and talk to her. It was one of the few times where I felt like I was part of a family. Everyone could do multiple tasks and there was teamwork. Everyone also wanted to do a good job, and she promoted that. Also, people who worked on one show could also move to another show. It was a really good feeling."
"Margaret Loesch was originally in charge of Marvel Animation while I was there," Houston says. "Then Margaret went over to head up Fox Kids, and that's when we knew we had our shot. So we used her to get X-Men on the air. We did an X-Men episode on Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends. Then we did the Pryde of the X-Men pilot."
Actually, the way the story goes is one of the first things Loesch did was to contact some of her old friends at Warner Bros. Along with Steven Spielberg, she approved a deal that would create Tiny Toons and Animaniacs. As DC Comics is a subsidiary of Warner Bros., and at that time Tim Burton's Batman movie was a monumental blockbuster, Loesch also contracted WB Animation to do Batman: The Animated Series.
This didn't mean Loesch forgot her former colleagues. She agreed with Houston that it was time the No. 1 comic book in the U.S. became a TV series. So Batman made its debut on September 1992; X-Men followed six weeks later that October. Heading the X-Men production was Houston.
"Between Tiny Toons, Batman and us, we gave Fox Kids the punch to be the No. 1 kid's network in the country," Houston says.
Indeed. X-Men became the top show on Fox Kids for years to come, only losing its top slot with the introduction of the Power Rangers. Even then, it would stay in the top 10 of children's programming for its entire five-season run. Now, on May 4, Disney released the last season of the series.
Still, what many fans don't realize is X-Men had to have one of the most complicated production deals in animation history. It was supposed to debut the same week as Batman, but didn't because of its production process.
"Fox contracted out to Saban Entertainment, who was in charge of all production," Houston recalls. "Saban then contracted out to Graz. That's who I was worked for. Then we shipped out to Akom, who was based in Korea."
If that wasn't enough, all the voice work was done out of Canada. By comparison, Batman was a relatively in-house production, and according to Houston, it also had twice the budget of X-Men.
Houston also made things a little difficult for himself. He tried to be as close to the original comic book as Fox Kids standards and practices and Akom would let him. If the stories themselves weren't complicated enough—this was an X-Men series after all—the animation involved tons of lines, making movement look slow and jerky if not handled exactly right... and Akom was often prone to not handle it right.
"It was difficult to animate, especially with the studio overseas," Houston admits. "We did try to simplify the designs to better animate, especially the shapes. We ended up using an anime approach when it came to shapes that were difficult to design. For example, we wouldn't do too many 360-degree turns. Those would drive an animator crazy.
"The best example would be Mr. Sinister. He has a costume that has all these things on it. His cape has all these individual strands. His teeth are pointed. What I would do is we would never turn him. We would do creative cutaways; a full shot, then a head shot, and then when we went back to full body, he would have changed his position. My training at Filmation taught me how to get around that, especially through layout."
X-Men Takes Off and Frank Squillace Joins Team
"I thought we would have one good season and that would be it," says Houston. "I had designed the last episode we were contracted for, episode 13, so all the characters would take on all the Sentinels. We thought that would be it. We had a great run, but didn't have any expectations of going beyond that.
"Then Fox got ratings. It made them turn around and pick us up. So, at the last minute, the ending was altered to include Sinister. That way we let the fans know there was more coming."
Houston saw something else coming: There was no way he could supervise another season like the first on his own. He needed someone younger, more energetic. Enter Frank Squillace.
"I worked at DiC for barely a year on Captain Planet," Squillace recollects. "That was my first stint in animation. I did everything from in-house storyboarding to color comps, backgrounds, everything. I didn't know the industry would lay people off and then hire them back. So I got laid off. I went to Arizona to work on comics. Then I got a call from Larry. I sent him some Planet material and he hired me right over the phone."
"For one thing, Frank's an excellent artist," Houston says. "He also knew Marvel as well as I did, so we ended up almost doing shorthand with each other. It would often go something like 'Remember issue #5 of X-Force?' and the Frank would go 'Yeah! Let's do that!' It got to where we brought in our own comic collections to use as model sheets. It was our research."
"Larry Houston was a producer/director," Squillace says. "I didn't know it when I signed on that I would be a producer/director, too. There was no such thing as a straight director."
Yet the two became a quick and incredibly tight team.
"There was an episode where Sauron kidnapped Jubilee," Houston beams. "If you look carefully, you'll see we drew ourselves in as two artists working as Sauron flies by."
As for the series' success? Both animators openly say it was because they were as loyal to the original comics as possible.
"We absolutely were pulling them right out of the comics," Squillace boasts. "Yes, the series did have a separate continuity from the comics, but everyone who worked on the show was a fan. So we tried to bring in everything that we thought was great about the comic into the show.
"If it worked in the body of the script, then we could use it," Houston adds. "The way I see it is comic books are like snapshots of an action sequence. When you do a film, you got to fill in all that's missing from the shots. If the snapshot worked, well that was great. If it didn't, we had to rely on your own creativity to keep the story moving."
"It was absolutely script-driven," Squillace agrees. "It would start with story meetings at Marvel where they would plan everything out. Then we would be called in. Eager beaver me! The first time I did a pitch meeting, I came in with about 12 stories I wanted to do, replete with storyboards. I pitched a Captain America/Wolverine story, a Beast fairy tale story, Storm getting married. I pitched all these stories, and they took them all. It was definitely script-driven."
At first, things would go relatively smoothly for the two director/producers because they had Loesch in their corner.
"Margaret was our greatest cheerleader and also knew her comics," Houston remembers. "The one thing she told us to do, because she also knew the complicated history of the X-Men, was say we always had to have a beginning, middle and end. That was the main caveat. The rest of the time she let us do what we wanted.
"You can really see this with the Phoenix saga, which would rise up and then go down again. It was hard on our storyboard artists. Oddly enough, one of the storyboard artists on that was Frank Paur, who has gone on to become quite a name as a director. He worked on the Dark Phoenix story and I remember him pulling exact panels from the John Byrne pages."
X-Men Success Pulls Team Apart
Still, things did come apart. Because of the success of X-Men, it didn't take Fox long to greenlight a series based on another hit Marvel character, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, which became another huge hit. After that, Marvel felt it was time to keep more of the swag and start syndicating its own shows. One of the first of these Marvel-only productions was The Fantastic 4. Houston was moved to take over, leaving Squillace without his teammate.
"I actually left, if I recollect correctly, around episode 55," Houston says. "Most of season four is not me, even though my name is on there."
There were other problems, ones that Squillace would have to face on his own. The biggest of them being Loesch left soon after Houston. Then Graz was taken out of the picture. The new management had its own agenda.
"At that time, what I discovered was the more popular a show was at Fox Kids, the more they would cut its budget," Squillace said. "I guess that logic made sense to a businessman. What I found were the resources got less and less while the schedule got shorter.
"For me personally, they wouldn't let me do the job. They wouldn't tell me when I needed to cut corners. I'm probably going to get in trouble for this, but non-creative people had taken over and when you're already walking on your knees because they cut you off at the legs, I felt I couldn't produce the show anymore. I couldn't keep up the standard of quality we worked for. So that's when I left... I left the show right when we were doing the Captain America meets Wolverine episode. Len Wein was writing it and it would have been amazing."
It wouldn't be long after that the series would collapse completely. The last new episode would air in 1997. When the first live action X-Men movie came out in 2000, Fox reran the animated series for a year, but in a truncated fashion only featuring key characters from the movie. Then Saban sold its rights to Disney. Oddly enough, rather than fight it, Marvel would license X-Men to Warner Bros. for a new series, X-Men: Evolution, then later to Nickelodeon under the title of Wolverine & The X-Men. While both are good shows in their own right, that strict loyalty to the original comics was gone.
Ironically, when Disney finally decided to release the DVDs 12 years after the original series ended, they never sent any copies to Houston or Squillace. Even after that snub, both still look at the series with Pryde...err, pride.
"It was my second project ever," Squillace says. "You know, I now have almost 20 years in the industry and I think that there were exactly three shows that I felt were really good. X-Men was the very first time I felt it. I felt I contributed from story to storyboard to getting it to air. Also, I was getting paid to learn on a show I loved to be on."
"It was a high point in my career. It was a childhood dream," adds Houston. "The X-Men have managed to keep a high profile, too. I think Boyd Kirkland, who is a personal friend of mine, did an excellent job with X-Men: Evolution. Basically, without going into the details of straight numbers, we had only half the budget of Batman and X-Men: Evolution. They both had a lot more time to do better jobs, but I think when all is said and done we were every bit as good as them."
Take one look at any of the five volumes of the DVD set, and it's impossible to argue that comic erudition doesn't have its value.