When I first heard of the new animated series based on the Marvel's X-Men, what didn't impress me was the subject matter. I'll be honest and say the last series on Fox Kids left me cold with its over-dramatic, if not darn right soap-operatic, tone and honestly strange animation. I mean, did you ever wonder how Jean Grey could run when they made her so incredibly bow-legged? Check the series out if you don't believe me.
Then I heard who the talent behind X-Men: Evolution was. That made me step back and pay attention. Look at this list: The supervising producer is Boyd Kirkland, who won the Annie for Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero among other accomplishments. His main directors are the trio of Frank Paur (the originalBatman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles and Emmy winner for his work on the first Spawn series), Gary Graham (Batman and the first Spider-Man animated series) and Steven E. Gordon (longtime Ralph Bakshi veteran who's dossier includes Lord of the Rings, Fire & Ice and Cool World; Don Bluth and Gary Goldman's Anastasia and Titan A.E.; and Disney's The Black Cauldron, Great Mouse Detective and Gargoyles). Story editors are equally seasoned vets Bob Forward and Greg Johnson. Production is handled out of the Film Roman Studios, home of TV animation ranging anywhere from Garfield toThe Simpsons.
Now that's a pretty impressive list of talent. In one form or another all the directors had their hands on two of the best animated TV series to bless the domestic airwaves in the original Batman and Gargoyles . It makes one wonder if these shows would have their effect on X-Men, not that it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing either.
'I'm always drawn into stories where motivations are clearly worked out and understood,' says Kirkland. 'I also don't believe in the cardboard cut-out good guy and bad guy; the simplistic thing you get in a lot of comics and cartoons these days. That was one of the nice things we did with Batman , and we're continuing it with X-Men. We are giving the characters realistic motivations. We give the 'why' to the choices they make.'
Another important element in both Kirkland and Paur's personal styles is their no cardboard cut-out villains. Those who remember the Gargoyles series might remember that the supposed 'villains;' i.e. Xanatos, MacBeth, Fox and Demona, weren't so much naturally evil as characters who went to the dark side as much due to circumstance as their own free will. Paur continued that tradition when he was with the Batman series, where he worked on the origins of such characters as The Mad Hatter.
As for Kirkland, one could say that he was the one who almost single-handedly gave the Batman series it's most sympathetic villain of all time, Mr. Freeze. For those who remember Freeze's animated origins, he was the victim of a number of horrible circumstances. He turned out so popular that he was last seen in the 'Meltdown' episode of Batman Beyond. Apparently, Kirkland isn't afraid of using some of that magic all over again.
'With Mr. Freeze, I was lucky in that I had a very sympathetic character to work with,' admits Kirkland, 'and again I do have those kind of characters to deal with on X-Men. Now you can't develop that as well as you can in a movie. You only have little 20-minute episodes to work with. But we do try to provide some kind of character arcs that will create motivation and understanding over time, both good guys and bad guys.'
'The Hatter was very sympathetic in a lot of ways,' chimes in Paur. 'We have a very similar treatment coming right out in the first episode with Toad. To me it's kind of interesting in that people wonder what makes a person evil, and with Toad we lay a similar foundation to the Mad Hatter in what made Toad the way he is. You see a lot of those elements in episode #1. In fact, I would say we do all our villains fairly sympathetically. They were people who life didn't treat kindly and then made a lot of wrong decisions. There's no real heavy black and white here. Even with Magneto, it's as much a personal thing as it is hatred for normal people.'
If anything, Magneto sounds like a perfect Kirkland/Paur villain. As anyone even the slightest bit familiar with X-Men lore will tell you, Magneto was a World War II concentration camp survivor. He feels that over time mutants will be given similar treatment to what he received over a half-century ago for also happening to be Jewish.
Still, what's also important to the animation team is making their own interpretation of the X-Men mythos. They didn't put the word 'Evolution' in the title for any small reason. They are literally starting from ground zero and making a new series more in their own image.
'It's starts off with Jean Grey and Scott Summers as the only two X-Men, with Xavier of course,' explains Kirkland. 'The focus of the storyline for the first season is the discovery of other mutants and their recruiting them. There's also a recruiting process going on for the dark side, with Mystique leading that effort. So there's some competition between the two groups. Magneto's not the focus of the first season. He's kind of lurking on the fringes, in the shadows. We're doing a slow build-up about what his role in the whole thing is.'
That isn't the only liberty Kirkland, Paur and company are taking, either. 'We're taking some creative license with the original Jack Kirby-Stan Lee original X-Men as far as the completion of the group, and who was where, when,' says Kirkland. 'We're also setting it in contemporary times, as if it was happening today. The basic premise of the whole world hating and fearing the mutants hasn't happened yet. The general populace, on the whole, is unaware of what's going on. The focus is more on the individuals as they come of age and their powers blossom. We're kind of taking a tip from the way they portrayed Rogue in the movie. We're looking at the emotional trauma their powers causes to their lives and then either Xavier or Mystique showing up and trying to sway them one way or another.'
'Both Batman and Gargoyles were a lot darker in tone than this version of the X-Men,' adds Paur. 'In this series they're just starting out, they haven't come up against a lot of the prejudice they would meet later on. So, in a way it's a very innocent show. The X-Men have little idea of what they are going to come up against in the future.
'In a way, that's very similar to Gargoyles. When Goliath and his company first wake up, they find themselves 1,000 years in their future, in the 20th Century. Nobody quite knows what to make of them. They are one of a kind, so they're trying to find their way. Both the Gargoyles and the mutants are very much at edge, learning and trying to cope with a world where they don't quite fit in. In fact, one of the points of this X-Men is the general populace has only heard about people with superpowers. Now here they suddenly are doing all these crazy things. You have to wonder how the public is going to deal with that sort of thing.'
The background story isn't the only thing where these directors part from the past. The animation done on this series is radically different, not only from their past work but from the Fox version of the series. Both Paur and Kirkland give a lot of credit to this different look to Steve Gordon.
'On Batman, I wasn't the stylist,' says Kirkland. 'That was Bruce Timm and his colleagues. In this one, it's not just me. I mean I directed the art direction of the show and where I wanted it to go, but I also had some really great artists working with me.'
'Steve Gordon is a real fabulous talent when it comes to characters and character design. He was the main guy when it came to all the model sheets. He really pulled it all together as far as style and putting the finishing touches on the thing. I think this is due to his background being more feature. So he brought a lot to this. He put X-Men into a quality level you don't see on television.'
'Steve is very feature-esque in the way he draws things,' says Paur. 'He's a trained animator as opposed to someone like Bruce Timm (of Batman), who's a trained comic book artist. Bruce was never much of an animator, but he's an amazing artist when it comes to designing radically different looks. That he got from comics. The difference is in animation you really do have to work with three-dimensional characters, and knowing how to move those characters. The quality Steve brings is the knowledge of how that process is done.'
Not that this crew had total freedom on the series. As can be expected there were higher-ups who had to put their two cents in. 'We actually do pay a lot of homage to the original stories, but they just aren't literal retellings of them,' says Kirkland. 'The reason is this is a different medium than comics. You have to take some creative license to make stuff work. Another thing is Warner Bros. has their agenda. Their main thing is to keep things very kid friendly, which is the audience they are trying to reach with this stuff. So we are not going into the same dark, harsh territory that the comics do.'
Yet, it seems that the team was given a certain amount of latitude. The most important one being they could throw the histrionics of the old series out the window. 'In the previous series, the stuff was so overblown and in your face that at times it really got my goat. I swore at one time that I heard the 'dirty mutant scum' line one more time than there ever needed to be,' says Paur. 'I figure it already effects a person like Wolverine as far as his personal life is concerned. I find it a lot more interesting to find an average person on the street seeing these superpowered beings for the first time than getting into all those psychological studies. Also, I don't think the average person's reaction to the mutants will be to throw a rock at them. There isn't that kind of prejudice around the X-Men at this time.
'What we have is kind of a two-fold story taking place. We introduce all these different characters in the first season, so we had to develop these special scenes that define who they are. So we have to stage all this, and we do it mainly through Scott Summers. As we add on more characters, then we can layer things in, and we do that through Nightcrawler.'
According to Paur, by the time the first season is over, the key X-Men in the series will include Summers/Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler (who is the first member they actually recruit!), Shadowcat, Quicksilver, Storm, Rogue, Wolverine and a new one they created for themselves, Spike. On Mystique's team will be Toad, Avalanche, the Blob and Sabretooth. If Kids WB! gives them the greenlight for a second season, there are already plans in place to bring the rest of the 'original five' from the comicsa.k.a. Beast, Angel and Ice Maninto the X-Men fold.
At present though, the Kids WB! has only made a commitment for 13 episodes of the series. It will debut on Saturday, Nov. 4, 10:30 eastern (9:30 pacific). Check this series out if you want to see what some of the best animation talent in the business can do.