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

PREVIOUSLY ON X-MEN: THE MAKING OF AN ANIMATED SERIES / Writer: Eric Lewald

If you were a kid in the 80s and 90s, Saturday morning cartoons were your church; if you were an X-Men fan, X-Men: The Animated Series was your sermon. Eric Lewald is most likely a name you don’t know…but you most certainly know his work. He was the main architect responsible for bringing us the Saturday morning X-Men gospel for 5 amazing years.

Previously on X-Men is an extremely personal account of the creation of the cartoon by someone who lived it. Within these pages Lewald opens the doors and educates us on everything that goes into creating an animated show. This is what I find most fascinating about the book: From writers’ roundtables, to storyboards, to sending everything to overseas studios and hoping it came back the way they wanted. It’s a combination of prayer and sorcery that any cartoon ever gets made at all.

Lewald includes interviews with everyone involved in the entire production—top to bottom, writers to the voice cast. One fascinating interview sees Lewald talking with Margaret Loesch, the head of Fox Kids at the time, who fought tooth and nail to get this show off the ground. She championed it so much that it could have cost her job—and possibly her career. On speaking to her boss about X-Men:

“Are you going to keep pushing this X-Men?” I said, “Yes, I want to pick it up.” And he said “Will you stake your job on it?”

It seems as though the entire thing was destined to fail just as the previous X-Men Animation attempt, “Pryde of the X-Men,” had fallen flat. This is one of the things so striking to me and where the book truly shines. At this time the X-Men were a known property. It was a bestselling comic. It had a hit video game, albeit one based on “Pryde of the X-Men.” And, we were on the cusp of X-Men #1 becoming the best-selling comic ever.

 

With this momentum you would think TV execs everywhere would be tripping over themselves to get X-Men for their network. But, as Lewald lays out, it just wasn’t that simple. However, once Loesch had convinced the people in charge this would work, Lewald was hit with a stunning realization: “What do we do now?”

 Lewald states in his initial meeting:
They asked for a blueprint for X-Men at the initial meeting….The advantage to having a starting point like the hundreds of X-Men books is that a great deal of the decisions have been made for you. You’re not starting with a blank page and asking yourself: “what type of stories do we tell, about what characters, about what time?” But at the same time if you stay true to the source material, you’re stuck with what you’ve got. You don’t like the Scott Summers character? Sorry, he’s a lead and you’ve got to feature him. Excited about doing something out-of-character with Wolverine? Two million comic fans may not appreciate it.
This gave me an even greater appreciation for the series than I previously had. It’s clear Lewald and the crew actually cared about making something great rather than just a paint-by-numbers cartoon. They looked to appease all sides: those who loved the X-Men and those who would be introduced to them for the first time. They had a vision:
What was our vision? The word that keeps coming back to me after 20-plus years is “real.” Real adults having real problems with real consequences….The best parts of the best comics were written that way—why couldn’t we?
Lewald knew what he wanted, and didn’t want, the series to be:
Don’t be like previous attempts. Don’t write down to children, don’t pander, don’t just play at jeopardy, do remain true to the source material, do establish a core theme, do “out” the X-Men, do establish believable X-Men vulnerability, do tell personal stories.

Even when they were constrained by censors, they found intelligent ways to skirt those restrictions to make everything they wanted the show to be work. This was especially apparent in the death of Morph in the first episode.

To show that the X-Men’s commitment had real consequences, that it wasn’t just play-violence, we felt we need to have someone die in the first story. It took lots of carefully crafted memos back and forth, and it was agreed killing a character would bring the audience closer to the surviving X-Men who cared for him.
Clearly more thought went into the series than I ever imagined.

Because it Lewald’s personal account, he holds nothing back. He regales us with his triumphs and bares his anger and frustration on the entire process. He tells us exactly what he thought of every episode and the constraints that were placed on the team. He even confesses to wanting to punch Stan Lee!

Run—don’t walk—to this party. With Previously on X-Men, Lewald has crafted the bible for X-Men: The Animated Series. If you have ever been curious about the behind-the-scenes workings of a cartoon from conception to completion, what goes into casting, ideas that worked and those that didn’t—or if you were just curious where the heck all those quotes of classic literature Beast recites came from—it’s all here!

Verdict: 5 out of 5 Banana Breads

My name is Gary, #1 New Warriors zealot, I'm an elementary school teacher, cyclist, swimmer, and lover of Pop-Tarts. Comics taught me how to read but Uncanny X-Men 118 is where the love really began which also cemented my admiration for Misty Knight. Cloak and Dagger are my absolute faves.

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