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The Untold Truth Of X-Men: The Animated Series

Stan Lee helped create the X-Men for Marvel Comics in the early '60s, and Hollywood regularly churned out X-Men movies in the 2000s and 2010s. But in the 1990s, the best and most exciting place for this superhero squad was on a Saturday morning cartoon. 

From 1992 to 1997, X-Men: The Animated Series was a mainstay of Fox's weekend lineup, and it was a ratings champion, too. Years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe would regularly provide comics fans with the fare it so desired, this show was one of the few outlets for well-produced, superhero-based content taken seriously by its creators. It also introduced the general public to a massive fictional world, an alternate version of Earth where superpowered mutants with uncanny abilities lived among humans in a not-always peaceful way. Protagonist Professor X helped mutants like Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Storm learn to harness and control their gifts, while his villainous rival, Magneto, wanted mutants to admit that they were a superior race and help him take over the world.

X-Men: The Animated Series remains an enduring and influential bit of entertainment. Here's the behind the scenes story of the cartoon classic.

The X-Men series was a long time coming

In the 1980s, Margaret Loesch worked as a producer in television animation, helping to get shows like G.I. Joe, Muppet Babies, and Transformers on the air. All those shows were huge hits, but Loesch still couldn't get her passion project off the ground — a cartoon adaptation of Marvel's X-Men comics. 

But while working at Hanna-Barbera, which made a short-lived Incredible Hulk cartoon, she met Marvel's prolific creator and company face, Stan Lee, and pitched him on an X-Men show. "It's really about a group of disenfranchised teenagers, and a lot of teenagers feel that way," she recalled telling Lee in the book Previously on X-Men. "So why wouldn't this be a hit with kids?" The Marvel magnate was convinced, and the two set out to pitch an X-Men show. At various points, ABC, NBC, and CBS all passed. An executive at the latter told Loesch that "the only people interested in comics are 18-year-old nerdy boys" and that comics didn't tell "stories that are suitable for television."

Loesch had all but given up on the idea of getting X-Men made by one of the big three networks ... until a fourth broadcast network emerged. Loesch was made head of Fox Kids, the division of the Fox network responsible for its Saturday morning lineup. In a position of getting to decide what cartoons got made, she commissioned an X-Men series in 1992, as soon as it was possible for her to do so.

Source material was hard to come by

According to showrunner Eric Lewald's Previously on X-Men, the creative staff for X-Men: The Animated Series came together in early 1992, with Fox looking to premiere the series in fall of that year. Considering the long production lead times required for animation — on top of what was already a time crunch — Lewald's team had mere weeks to come up with a "series bible," a 20-to-100 page document outlining the show's world, characters, and aim. Lewald basically had to figure out the entire series in that short time period, and that was made harder by the fact that he wasn't intimately familiar with the X-Men comic books. 

A first step toward acquainting himself and his team with the mutant superheroes would be to acquire as many X-Men back issues as possible, but that proved difficult. The title was relatively obscure, and Lewald had to make do with what source material he could find. Lewald got that stuff together in a haphazard way, buying up old anthologies, borrowing issues from friends, and getting Marvel Comics (based in New York, as opposed to the TV operation in Los Angeles) to black-and-white photocopy old issues and mail them. Most of the show bible was ultimately heavily influenced by the X-Men board game The Uncanny X-Men Special! Campaign Set, which included character descriptions, a map of the X-Mansion, and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

It was tough to turn a comic into a TV show

While the look and feel of X-Men: The Animated Series comes from the post-1975 reboot of the series, showrunner Eric Lewald didn't directly adapt old issues. "We worked very hard to keep 'the spirit of the books,'" Lewald told Blast from the Past. That's in part because a comic book's method of storytelling is a lot different than that of a TV show. 

"Time the actual action in a book, and you get about three minutes," Lewald explained, meaning that a comic's basic story had to be padded out with new stories and subplots. Longer arcs from the comics "lent themselves more to adaptation," but as Lewald said, "There we had to deal with the various secondary plots that weave in and out of the main story." Some of those worked for a children's animated series, and some didn't. "If you were to compare the actual '[Dark] Phoenix' books to the animation story, I'd wager that about 50 percent of the original was trimmed away," Lewald explained.

Nor could Lewald's team just take old material and animate it because the public didn't know the vagaries of the franchise yet. When it debuted in 1992, "80 to 90 percent of our audience didn't know who the X-Men were," Sewald told Comics Beat, adding that, "When we started, we were telling stories primarily for people unfamiliar with the X-Men world."

So many mutants, not enough show to include them all

X-Men: The Animated Series featured a massive cast of characters, a phenomenon not seen much in early '90s television apart from Law and Order. About 10 to 15 enjoyed regular appearances, and many more mutants, good and bad, arrived for cameos, one-offs, or to populate finite story arcs, only to disappear again. Deciding what mutants from the comics to use as its main characters was especially challenging for the show's developers.

"With dozens of mutants to choose from, we needed to decide early what the best mix was," showrunner Eric Lewald told Blast from the Past. Marvel helped writers determine which characters were must-haves, such as Professor X, Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine. "Beyond that, any out of a couple dozen major mutants could have filled out the rest of the core." 

Lewald and his team decided on Storm because her ability to control the weather would look good in a visual medium like TV. Rogue was picked because her inability to be touched offered "an emotional draw," plus her strength and flight would add something to fight sequences. Plus, Lewald knew the show needed a juvenile character, and Marvel reps liked her more than other young mutants. Morph, based on a relatively obscure comics character named Changeling, was added "specifically to have a sympathetic best-friend-of-Wolverine's to be killed" early on.

Time was of the essence for X-Men

Fox ordered X-Men in February 1992 and wanted to debut it that fall. Considering that an episode of an established animated series may take many months to produce, it was daunting and ambitious to get a new show on the air in about nine months. But somehow, showrunner Eric Lewald and company made their premiere date, and X-Men: The Animated Series debuted on Fox on October 31, 1992 with the episode "Night of the Sentinels: Part 1." 

Fox was so confident in the series and wanted to give it as big of a launch as possible that it aired that initial episode at 7 PM — basically primetime. The series then moved to its regular, intended Saturday morning time slot, albeit sporadically. "Night of the Sentinels, Part 2" aired on November 7, but then the quickly building audience was left without a new episode for three weeks. And then, additional new installments didn't air until late January 1993. 

According to Lewald, the gap was because of animation problems, which took months to fix, leading to big production delays. But once the show got going with regular airings, ratings soared. X-Men was one of the biggest hits in Saturday morning history. As many as 8 million homes tuned in, and some weeks, it would attract more viewers than the competition on ABC, CBS, and NBC combined.

The entire cast of X-Men: The Animated Series was replaced

X-Men: The Animated Series marks a watershed moment in comic adaptations and Saturday morning cartoons. It was one of the first TV shows to present Marvel Comics characters and stories as serious and dramatic (as opposed to cheese like the '70s Spider-Man live-action show), and it was also one of the few serialized kids cartoons. Making such an ambitious series would require a very special cast of voice actors, and X-Men producers found them ... but not right away. 

The casting and voice directors, used to wacky Saturday morning cartoons, didn't understand the show's vibe, and they hired actors who did a lot of silly, broad voices. "We tried to convey to them what was different about X-Men, and they didn't hear it. They thought, 'They want to do something goofy and childish,'" showrunner Eric Lewald told The Hollywood Reporter. The initial recordings were so bad — Lewald likened them to "Scooby-Doo X-Men" — that the crew had to throw everything out and start over.

The voice team worked out of Canada and recruited veterans of the Toronto entertainment world, including Alyson Court to play Jubilee and Cal Dodd as Wolverine. Interestingly, those two already knew each other. "When I moved to this area in 1981, I had a pretty popular show in Canada," Dodd said, referring to Circus. "Alyson was probably around 12 at the time ... she and her friends would sit outside my property and wait for me to come in and out of the house."

How Wolverine found his voice

For many Marvel fans, Cal Dodd's portrayal of Wolverine on X-Men: The Animated Series is the definitive take on the clawed, conflicted, Canadian mutant. Dodd pulled from a number of disparate sources to get the voice just right. During an audition, a casting director told him to emulate '60s tough guy actor Steve McQueen, because Wolverine is similarly "very introspective and very quiet and kind of a loner," Dodd recalled for The Hollywood Reporter, adding that he threw Western star Ward Bond and Clint Eastwood into the mix. Wolverine's scrappiness came straight from Dodd (who, it should be noted, is Canadian, just like the character). "I had grown up in a small town with many fights. I had seen these kinds of guys, so I threw in a bit of Wolfman Jack," Dodd said, referring to the raspy voiced DJ and TV host.

Dodd is proud of his work, but in particular that he may have helped save a life with Wolverine. An overweight, bullied, and depressed X-Men fan sent a letter, explaining that he had considered suicide. "But he was so in love with the X-Men Saturday morning cartoon and Wolverine," Dodd said. "He was about to jump off his roof, but then he said 'I can't do this, I'm going to miss the Saturday morning X-Men episode.' That's the kind of impact it had on kids."

The X-Men movies owe a debt to the animated series

Two voice actors in the series had such an impact on the public view of the X-Men that they were instrumental in the development of the big-budget X-Men films, which would grow to a multibillion-dollar franchise of more than a dozen films. How so? Well, when Hugh Jackman landed the role of Wolverine for 2000's X-Men film, he got in character by listening to Cal Dodd's work from the animated X-Men series. 

Prior to shooting, the TV cast met the movie cast at some industry function, and Jackman approached Dodd. "He joked, 'I'm really tired of listening to your voice!' Because he had no other reference for a Wolverine but the animated series. So he had to listen to the voice to try to emulate that, or sort of feel of him and the character," Dodd told The Hollywood Reporter. "He said, 'It's a great voice. I don't know if I'll be able to nail it or not but, I'll give it a whirl.'" 

Additionally, one X-Men: The Animated Series cast member nearly reprised their role in the X-Men live-action movies. According to CBR, director Bryan Singer considered casting Magneto voice actor David Hemblen to play the part in the flesh, but ultimately, he went with Ian McKellen, instead.

How X-Men got its iconic theme song

One of the most memorable elements of X-Men: The Animated Series is its opening sequence. As character-identifying clips and scenes of mutant battles fly by at a frenetic pace, the soundtrack offers a suitably high-energy theme song built around a speedy, ominous, and totally catchy hard rock guitar riff (as well as some attention-getting keyboard stabs).

Even independently of the series, the song has brought a lot of joy to a lot of people (amateur cover versions are all over YouTube). It wasn't such a lovely experience making the song, however, according to composer Ron Wasserman. He wrote several songs for X-Men producer Saban Entertainment in the '90s (including the theme for Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers), and he says the company cut him off from talking to anyone at Marvel or Fox about how the song should sound, fearing they'd poach him for higher-profile composing work. Nevertheless, representatives of Saban were very hands-on and critical. X-Men "was just a boatload of work because there was a lot of involvement," Wasserman told Inverse. "A lot of, 'Let's tweak this, make this bigger, redo this.'" He further explained that, "We ended up with 80 or 90 tracks for that thing. They just kept trying to get more and more energy out of it."

X-Men: The Animated Series is loaded with unauthorized superhero cameos

Superheroes popping up in movies and TV shows about other characters is an almost mundane phenomenon in the 21st century. For example, Thor: Ragnarok heavily involved the Hulk, Spider-Man was a major part of Captain America: Civil War, and dozens of comic book legends converged in Avengers: Endgame. Shared cinematic universes or TV ones (like Marvel's hero-packed Netflix series The Defenders) weren't a matter of course in the early 1990s, especially since the rights to different characters created by the same publishing company had been sold to a bunch of different studios and production companies. Nevertheless, X-Men: The Animated Series dabbled in crossovers and universe sharing, even though doing so could violate copyrights and contracts.

"I never added cameos if it distracted from the story," show artist and self-proclaimed treasure hider Larry Houston told The Hollywood Reporter, adding, "Some of my favorite Easter eggs were the unexpected ones that I added for the fans, like Doctor Strange, Deadpool, the Black Panther." Higher-ups heard that Houston had added Spider-Man to a scene and ordered it deleted, "so [he] had to sneak him into another episode, but it was just an arm, shooting webbing to save someone off-camera from falling debris."

There was a lot of two-way borrowing on X-Men: The Animated Series

Obviously, X-Men: The Animated Series is based on Marvel's various and long-running X-Men comic book lines, but the show proved so popular that it also proved influential and instrumental in the development of the franchise. Over time, things introduced by the TV show's writers were integrated into the comics, making them canonical to the X-Men universe.

According to Comics Beat, the 1995-96 X-Men comics crossover event "Age of Apocalypse" was directly inspired by the X-Men: The Animated Series two-part episode "One Man's Worth." The premise involved a time-hopping, alternate history adventure in which characters go back in time to kill Professor X, altering the present, and sending several X-Men into the future. Showrunner Eric Sewald conceived the idea, but he says he got the idea from other, pre-existing media. "Most good stories have been told many times in many different forms," he said, adding, "I 'borrowed' from It's a Wonderful Life and [the Star Trek episode] 'City on the Edge of Forever' for the central idea: 'What would the world have been like without this one crucial man?'"