By John Peters
(Originally published at Killer Movies)
Pryde of the X-Men
It late 1989, the X-Men started off as a one off pilot episode, trying to get the Fox network interested in the property, called Pryde of the X-Men. Focusing on Kitty Pryde, the episode was well animated, but a flop in every other regard. It felt like a collection of bits, edited together like a superhero introduction montage. Wolverine was vastly butchered as they cast him having an Australian accent. Sidney Iwanter, a Fox Kids network executive at the time recalls this pilot: “It was crap! I remember making a real smart ass remark about that, and that was a Marvel production in 1987, in one of my interviews. It was like every conceivable mistake that could be done to the X-Men series, was right there in that show. I’m not talking about the animation compared to ours, that’s a financial problem, but storytelling-how you developed the characters, like the slip-shot approach to who Wolverine was. I think they gave him an Australian accent! It was the worst kind of slopping storytelling. Why in the name of God would you do a show around Kitty Pryde?! I don’t understand that, I mean who the f**k is Kitty Pryde! She’s not one of the major X-Men! It was a simple show; it was a throwaway. They used it as a pilot to get the network interested. The network looked at it and said, what’s the point? We don’t get it, who cares.”
The majority of fans felt the same way, despite it airing a few times before being released on VHS.
“I’ve looked at that, and I was slack-jawed!” he confesses. “This was Marvel and what the hell were they trying to do? I knew what they were trying to do, they were being safe. They were trying to take Moby Dick, and turn it into the most generic fishing story! When I got hired and my boss said, ‘What would you do?’ Remember, I was never a comic book geek. I would read them every so often, but I was not somebody who knew what was going on, on panel 62, issue 312. I was a normal reader of comic books as a kid, then moved away to the graphic novel later on. But a fanatic I wasn’t. However, I was aware of the history of the X-Men, like many of the story lines, but I was also aware of how complex and sophisticated these characters had become. Remember, the X-Men started in 1961, and so as they grew, their world grew, and more characters came to developed within the universe, the stories became very sophisticated especially with the Claremont stuff. You can’t do X-Men properly until you really, really, do them as sophisticated as ever been seen on a Saturday morning.”
Even though the property failed to excite the network, Sidney was well aware of how to get it right. Luckily, Marvel was listening.
We are talking about 76 of the best action/adventure shows for kid’s programming!
Sidney Iwanter had an idea of how to get this property the respect he knew it deserved, as well as the fans. “You have to ask yourself: what was it about these episodes that made you want to sit down in front of the TV on a Saturday morning? I’ve given a couple of interviews on this in the last couple of years, and I’ve been in this game for a long time, I just turned 60, and I’m one of these geeks. When you look at these shows from your age, you see the type of sophisticated writing- forget the animation, the animation was what it was, and that was due primarily to budget. They didn’t have the same resources as Warner Bros for Batman: The Animated Series, who spent $500,000-$600,000 per episode, that’s the reason they look as good as they do.”
Scott Thomas, the supervising producer for the series adds this about the animation quality control of the show: “You know, it was later with this studio, a good Korean studio, but I don’t think the problem was there with them. The cost of the episodes were getting more expensive, so they were experimenting with looking at a studio in China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. They would all do one minute tests. It’s amazing to see the differences in each studio. Some would have good animation, but the characters would be completely different. It just would be to much of a change so we stuck it out with the studio we had, but they were experimenting with different avenues.”
“I was the network executive for Fox for Batman, Beetlejuice, Spider-Man, Silver Surfer eventually, and X-Men,” says Sidney Iwanter, “all of the shows the kids watched in the 90s. I remember when I first got into this business, the Hanna Barbara from the 60s, and I knew the guys who did Scooby Doo, and I examined the scripts and they’re okay, it’s Scooby Doo. But when they do action/adventure shows, they were very linear storytelling. It was like reading spark notes all the time.”
“So I thought to myself: why do they have to be this simple?” remembered Sidney Iwanter. “Somebody once asked me who my influences were. My answer was this: it was not animators, when it came to this kind of world, mainly because I can’t draw. I liked cartoons and all of that, but I was always intrigued by story. Why do some shows work and others don’t, whether it be live-action or animation? It always boiled down, not to the visuals, it was story. Go back to Scooby Doo. It’s visuals weren’t anything to write home about; sure you got a cute dog, goofy characters, but there’s nothing really about those characters that are life affirming. The stories were very simple, but were always very show eccentric. You really couldn’t have any new format. Scooby always had to get scared, Shaggy and Scooby, there was a format that worked. In an action/adventure shows, that’s not that easy to do. You can’t really do formulaic writing because what happens is that you know exactly what happens. In comedies, that works. When Scooby opens a door and gets scared it works. Okay, fine, we laugh.”
Iwanter continues: “You can’t do that in action/adventure. You’re not going for humor, you’re going for drama, suspense, and mystery. In the 1980s, I spent a lot of my time watching prime time shows, even though I was in children’s programming. The shows that I saw that moved television way beyond anything prior to the 60s and 70s, were Hill Street Blues. I looked at Hill Street Blues and I saw “holy mother mackerel! This is sophisticated storytelling, multi-dimensional characters, didn’t end at end the of each episode, as they continued. It had the level of characterization that I had never seen before on prime time programming in this country. I thought: ‘I wonder if you could do the same thing in kids programming?’ You would have story and character arcs, sophisticated dialogue that didn’t sound generic or without meat behind it. Wonder if you could do characters with depth. If you remember the G.I. Joe, the Transformers, stuff like that, those were very, very, linear, straightforward stories. Did you know anything about these characters before hand or after? No, not really. Those G.I. Joe’s were G.I. Joe’s, you know, sometimes they would delve into something or another, but there wasn’t meat behind those characters.”
“We did stuff here that had never, ever been done on a Saturday. Fox had just started in 1990, one of the first networks who got into the market since the 50s. I kept saying to people, how do we make this not to look like G.I. Joe? Let’s go back to the stuff I’d seen in Hill Street Blues. Everyone thought I was nuts, crazy. Multilayer story arcs, that remained open week to week, character development that dealt way beyond the superficial, you know?”
The kids aren’t stupid!
“From Saturday morning to Saturday morning, how are you going to keep kids interested? You’re going to have to remember what happened the week before. It was a totally different kind of world back then. Why don’t we do what they did on prime time, like the previously on? If I remember correctly, I don’t think anything on Saturday morning prior did that. I got a lot of blow-back on that idea. They said, you can’t do that, kids aren’t going to follow that, no matter how sophisticated the ‘previously ons’ are. I don’t believe kids are that stupid. I have never underestimated my audience,” remarks Sidney Iwanter.
“If its edited properly,” says Sidney, “then I’ll give you a one minute recap that will bring everyone up to speed. If adults can figures this out, then kids can figure it out. So that’s what we did. They hit the high points of the previous episodes, really edited well. Also, I wasn’t afraid to get melodramatic. There was a love gist between Wolverine, Cyclops, and Jean Grey. I had people question why I was getting involved with that. ‘Why would an 8 year old want to see that? They are going to turn this off!’ You don’t understand kids I said, this has nothing to do with girls having koodies, this is exactly what life is about. Kids see this all the time, whether its their parents or siblings liking each other. We’re hardwired for this stuff, hardwired from the womb. You can have this stuff as long as it’s between fight sequences. No matter how powerful the X-Men are, let’s face it: they’re f**ked!”
“People don’t like them although they’re saving the world, they go to jail, their social lives suck and with all that power they have, they somehow can’t settle anything in their own lives. That was the key. Seven or eight year old kids are powerless. No matter how much power the X-Men had, they too were powerless. Not to be feared, not to be alone. We were tapping into the basic nature of being a kid. That was the genius of the creation of the X-Men; when you developed you’re powers it was at puberty. The world gets more confusing. Society is forcing limitations, but you’re branching out socially and intellectually. Okay, that’s exactly what we did with these characters. No matter how much power Cyclops has, he still cannot get the girl of his dreams.
Wolverine is more than insubordinate. Here’s a guy who is really pissed off. His life didn’t go the way he thought. Even Beast would’ve loved to be a simple professor. Giving Beast a form of intellectualism when he spoke was a character trait. I said to Eric (Lewald, the story editor for the show) you put into his mouth stuff as if he lives by a Thesaurus. So in the middle of fights he would quote philosophers as if they were throwaway lines. It’s a personality quirk. I wanted to make sure none of these characters talked alike. Even thinking as logically as that, was break through,” confesses Sidney Iwanter.
“Sidney (Iwanter) was really involved with this series,” remembers Scott Thomas. “We’d have fights with the censors, sometimes our villains and characters were rather risqué, for Saturday morning, so we had to go back and change that, which was always funny to me. Each episode was different, and we would get a memo saying what was way too risqué, you know and changed it. Little things like you couldn’t have a devil’s tail on this character, you know all kinds of different things.”
“If it wasn’t for the writing this show would be as forgettable as anything in the 80s,” Sidney Iwanter proclaims. “It all boils down to how good the writing was on these characters. For what we were trying to do, and we couldn’t do this without Eric Lewald and his team of writers, the reason for the shows success was the writing.”
To be continued….
Come back soon for part two of this multi-part look at Remembering the X-Men: Animated Series as Eric Lewald joins us, along with Sidney Iwanter and Scott Thomas again, as they give us a detailed look at the writing of the shows episodes and the casting of the X-Men. Future parts will include the voice talent and their fond memories, so don’t miss out on those!