In the early ’90s, Fox Kids needed attention. The nascent Saturday morning programming block was part of the youngest network on TV, and Margaret Loesch, head of the children’s division, knew a risk could net a high cultural reward. So she greenlit X-Men: The Animated Series.
A Marvel comic book series with a sophisticated sensibility sounds like a no brainer by today’s logic, but in 1991, there were reservations. Most comic book shows were light-hearted, borderline goofy fun, while the last Marvel cartoon, The Incredible Hulk, had been off the air for nearly 10 years. As creator Eric Lewald, and his wife and fellow writer Julia Lewald, tell Polygon, no one in TV animation up until that point had really been given the go-ahead to tell serious stories like the ones found in the pages of X-Men, which in the early ’90s were selling like crazy. “The networks would just say: Are you kidding? Dumb it down. Make it younger. Put in a goofy dog,” Eric says.
But Loesch, along with producer and fellow executive Sidney Iwanter, knew that an action-forward show with flashy animation and actual storytelling would resonate with their maturing audience. She was right: X-Men: The Animated Series debuted in earnest in January 1993, airing alongside Fox’s Batman: The Animated Series, and in just a few weeks, became the number one Saturday morning program for kids 2 to 11. The show would ran five seasons, becoming a pillar of Saturday morning entertainment and mainstreaming the X-Men into a property worthy of the big screen in the 2000s.
With all of X-Men: The Animated Series available to discover on Disney Plus, and with Eric and Julia’s in-depth new book, X-Men: The Art and Making of The Animated Series, now on shelves, we asked the pair to name a few of their favorite episodes and reveal what went into putting together the quietly revolutionary cartoon.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
“The Night of the Sentinels,” season 1
Eric Sewald: The first two-parter, the pilot: There hadn’t been any Marvel movies at the time, and we were told 80 to 90 percent of our audience wouldn’t know who X-Men were or what a mutant was because only a couple million people knew the comic book. We needed eight or nine million people to have a good show. So the task of the pilot was, besides telling an exciting story, to introduce the strange new world with a dozen characters, all of them are important. You have to get to know them and you have to deal with what you’re seeing. So, yeah, that was really hard.
Julia Sewald: A little side note on that: When you and your head writer sat down to plot this out, because you didn’t know you were going to get more than 13 episodes, you guys just thought, and all of us thought, “13 episodes and we’re out.” Because they didn’t think it’d work. The decision was made to set Sentinels and human hatred as Big Bad versus mutant-of-the-week kind of fighting, which could have sort of developed quickly into just bad mutant versus good mutant.
Eric: When we tried to do this episode, [Marvel] said, “You should completely redo it. You’ve got to put in Magneto and Apocalypse.” We said, “No, it’s animation, and Wolverine is our number one character, and we need him to be able to slash something.” He wasn’t allowed to slash creatures on Saturday morning. So you couldn’t do an animated show without the Sentinels. They are key. And they were also a better example of human suppression and an embodiment of human fears about mutants, so they worked better than us than any mutant villain. We had a big fight with Marvel about that. That lasted about a week. Luckily we won.
We tried to avoid [creating characters], and we bent over backwards to use as many characters in the Marvel universe that were available to us. We knew we wanted to kill somebody in the first episode, and in the first draft of the script it was Thunderbird, who was in X-Men in the mid-’70s. But he was our only Native American in the show, so we didn’t know if we wanted to kill him. So instead of just making up an interesting person, we looked back through X-Men lore to find somebody that died or sacrificed himself to help the X-Men. One of them was named Changeling, who sacrificed himself to save Charles Xavier. So we put him in, and were doing storyboards, but someone said, “There’s a DC character named Changeling!” We could get lawsuits. Marvel’s version was first, but they didn’t want to risk it. So we had the drawing of Changeling, the character of Changeling, the powers of Changeling, and we changed his name to Morph.
“Red Dawn,” season 2
Julia: Got to give credit to [series director] Larry Houston with his staging of action.
Eric: He directed the first 65 episodes and was in charge of the storyboard choreography. We had limits. One time, we had an X-Men punch somebody. It was in the opening episode where Wolverine is grieving so hard that he punches Cyclops for leaving Morph behind. Besides that, you never saw an X-Men’s fist connect with another human’s body. There were serious limitations on what we can do, and so we tried to make the emotions all that much more intense. There was a discussion, and I can’t remember the episode, but a couple of supervillains were just leveling a city while they were fighting and it happened a week after the LA riots. So we got that note: “You’ve got to tone the carnage down because this is just going to be too upsetting.” The episode wasn’t going to come out for nine months, but real life did intrude on some of those decisions.
With [Omega Red in “Red Dawn”], there’s something about his tentacles that are really nasty, and yet we were allowed to do it because ... when censors get into stuff, they don’t want you to do imitative behavior, so that’s why they don’t like you to use realistic guns or knives. But tentacles are so weirdly not human. He was a creepy, nasty thing and he was just irredeemably evil. That was another thing. He wasn’t like some of our more layered characters where there’s something else to him. He was created to slaughter things and was bitter about it.
“Beauty & the Beast,” season 2
Julia: The episode “Beauty & the Beast” has a special place in [Beast voice actor] George Buza’s heart because he’s falling in love with a blind girl. She gets her sight back. She still loves him, but the Friends of Humanity are driving them apart because they’re evil. But in that, Wolverine has to kind of pull back his natural feral instincts to try infiltrate Friends of Humanity and get along with them. It’s a really fun role reversal.
I got to write on “Days of Future Past,” and taking a comic property that itself is iconic and being able to translate it into a different medium with different characters ... yet it worked for a lot of people, well, I’m proud of that one. But god, I just love “Beauty & the Beast”
Eric: When we were brainstorming for the second season, Julia came up with the idea for “Beauty & the Beast” and we got our dear friend Stephanie Mathison to write the script. It was a little self-serving [laughs].
“The Phoenix Saga,” season 3
Eric: A huge one obviously was the Phoenix Saga because it was five parts, and over 100 minutes of story. It was a feature. It was this massive part of the books, like 68 issues, and it was all over the place. We really trimmed it down, and then simplified it a bit.
Julia: By the time Phoenix came along, she was a character that you knew and mattered to you. But as far as how the story of the Phoenix saga itself had an impact on people, it wasn’t because it was just dropped as a one off in the middle of nothing. You know, it had two years of learning who these people are, how they reacted to each other, how they behave.
Eric: In the wonderful Chris Claremont books, he was famous for having like six or seven different plots going at once — accelerating some, decelerating some, all overlapping. It’s a hard thing to juggle, which is cool when you’re a comic book reader and have like a year and a half to ponder. But when we’re trying to tell this simplified story, I think what made it work for us was focusing on who it was happening to. It’s happening to Jean. Who does that mean the most to? It means the most to Scott. So we’re going to see this through Scott’s eyes.
So we had two parallel things going on: Scott and Jean, and Professor Xavier and Lilandra. This galactic crisis was coming together and we tried to tell a story through these two couples and keep it at this personal level so that, with all the spectacles going on, if you’re having a hard time keeping track of who’s battling who and who’s blowing up what and who’s getting absorbed and eating what planet, you have these two basic things. Can Scott save Jean? Can Xavier, being driven crazy by something that’s contacting him, resolve that and help Lilandra solve this large problem? We just kept on focusing on those two problems, and put everything else through those lenses. I think it held the story together.
One advantage for us was that, Julia and I, and Mark and Michael Edens, who are my writing buddies from college, who did all the writing on the Phoenix Saga, we were all fans of the original Star Trek series. We’re that old. But we were able to think of space aliens as humanoid creatures that are normal characters, like any other normal character, and not be put off by it. We just thought, “OK, these are just different characters that they’re meeting each week. Like Kirk and Spock used to meet each week.” So that was a big advantage.
Julia: Larry Houston was also a Star Trek fan and if you go back and find the ones where they are in space on a spaceship, the seal is a variant on a Star Trek insignia.
“Longshot,” season 3
Julia: Mojo really creeps me out. I don’t like the whole concept of being held captive under those circumstances, it’s very Twilight Zone.
Eric: And it’s very different from the rest of the series, which is odd. We have a reference point of the Star Trek original episodes. There were 79 of them, and two had to do with Harry Mudd, and they were completely different, totally, from the rest of the series. I think what happened was the first one, everybody loved the first one, which is what happened with Mojo after “Mojovision” back in the second season. Marvel said, “You’ve got to do another, you’ve got to do another Mojo.” OK, so we did another one. Some people love it and other people say, what the hell is it doing here?
“Sanctuary,” season 4
Eric: Obviously the Magneto-Xavier connection was endlessly fruitful for us. We loved the fact that these two guys loved each other, were each other’s best friends, and respected each other, but were polar opposites who had different visions for what the world needed to be.
Julia: And they both believed that they weren’t being the bad guy for the sake of being the bad guy. They each had profoundly different philosophies that made up who they were.
Eric: Yeah, so we loved using Magneto because he’s such a sympathetic villain. One of the better episodes was Sanctuary, the two-parter where he gets Asteroid M, the separatist world that he’s been yearning for. He gets what he thinks is going to be utopia and it looks like it’s going to work, and then someone betrays him and it falls apart, as all utopias do. Your heart goes out to this guy. It looks like he’s worked everything out and he’s your supervillain. And the whole thing in the second season when we had them together in the Savage Land — our lead hero and our lead villain spend nine episodes saving each other’s lives. That’s not usual for Saturday morning.
“Nightcrawler,” season 4
Julia: We were huge fans of [writer] Len Uhley’s work on the episode that introduced Nightcrawler. It dealt with all things religion in a way that, to this day, I still feel we could never get away with that today. It’s respectful. It’s not pounding it down your throat that you have to be religious or that it’s wrong if you aren’t. It’s just an examination that still astonishes me.
Eric: That one took a few weeks. We built up goodwill with our censor, Avery Coburn. She was amazing.
Julia: If it weren’t for her, there wouldn’t be an X-Men anyway. Morph wouldn’t have died.
Eric: This one woman, who actually liked the comics and loved storytelling, supported us when we’d bring stuff to her. “Can we kill somebody off? Can we have a story about God?” The breath would go in. “Okay, let’s talk.” And, and we’d go back and forth about what the limits would be, but she would trust us to be sympathetic and not gratuitous and to be thoughtful about these things.
Julia: So with the Nightcrawler episode, the idea was that part of his being is his profound Christian faith. Sidney Iwanter, the Fox executive at the time who was the one who was on top of every script, said, “We’re going to do this story.” And Sidney, to his credit, said push it, push it, push it. “We have to make this about something.”
“One Man’s Worth,” season 4
Eric: I was in charge of the writers, and it was a strange group to try to keep on the same path. So I had great sympathy for Charles Xavier. I also loved the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, and the Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever.” They’re both stories about if one person wasn’t there, how would it change the world?
And so I came up the idea for “One Man’s Worth” and, where somebody goes back in time and kills Xavier and suddenly the world’s completely different because he wasn’t there to build the X-Men. That was the perfect story for me. This is why the X-Men exist.
Julia: What I love about the “One Man’s Worth” two-parter is in the horrible universe where Xavier has been killed and there are no X-Men, we see Storm with her mohawk and she’s married to Wolverine and, like, of course they’re supposed to be together. They make so much sense as a couple! And then you come back to our world and OK, it’s been saved and Xavier lives, but the fact that they have to sacrifice that ... those moments in that episode just kill me.
Eric: We worked for five years to come up with these stories and maybe a couple dozen of them really were exactly the kind of story we wanted to tell. And the other two thirds, we do the best we can, they’re good. Some of them are a little weaker, but there were at least a dozen, were we said: “We got it right this time.” I discovered “One Man’s Worth” was one because Bob Harris, our advisor at Marvel, and who was in charge of all the X-Men books, said that a little over a year later, Marvel built the Age of Apocalypse series off of that idea. We’d taken all these cool stories from them and used them in our show. The fact that they would take a story we came up with for the show that was original to the show and, you know, 18 months later, build this massive series of six or seven different books out of it was just amazing.
“Beyond Good and Evil,” season 4
Eric: Back then, the standard was that you try to get 65 episodes of a series, so we could play it forever in syndication. So we were under the impression we would do 65 X-Men, and Fox was under that impression. We were going to go out with the big four-part “Beyond Good and Evil” where all the psychics get together and time is threatened. And so basically Sidney Iwanter at Fox came to me and said, we need to go out with a huge bang. Throw all these people together and then have a cool twist at the end of the episode. Have four or five of the X-Men leave and have four or five of the people that fought with them during this be the new X-team.
Julia: And then wrap on that.
Eric: So we set it all up. We’d written all four scripts. The boards were half done. Storyboards were half done to where Xavier and Storm and Jean and Scott were all leaving. Bishop, Psylocke, Archangel, and Shard were going to stay and become the new X-Men. Then we were told, “Oops, we need more episodes with the original team, so don’t have them leave.” So they ordered six more episodes, and then ordered five more. The last 11 were absolute afterthought. Saban had just bought the Fox Kids network.
“Old Soldiers,” season 5
Eric: All these people are leaving. And were told to do the last 11 episodes. “Write them the best you can. Who knows who’s going to be drawing them? Who knows who’s going to be animating them? All we know is that the budgets are being cut and finish up, please.” And that was that.
Julia: But I’ll still stand by an episode like “Old Soldiers.”
Eric: Wolverine was so easy to write for. We tried to pass around the stories and make sure everybody got a few and so. He’s so soft. He has so many former loves. His heart’s been broken so many times. But the Captain America episode where goes back to the grave of somebody he thought betrayed him in World War II ... It was last season so the animation was a lot cheaper because they’d cut back the budgets, but he’s remembering this adventure he had in 1945 with Captain America and he’s an old man and he’s feeling it and there were, there was some serious stuff going on inside him on that one.
They were very restrictive about who you could show and who you couldn’t. And back in the ’90s, just keeping the rights straight, as Marvel was going bankrupt, was difficult.
Julia: We weren’t allowed to say, “Hey, let’s do a crossover with Spider-Man.” Spider-Man could do that with X-Men, but X-Men couldn’t do that with Spider-Man. It’s like, wait, what? Or Omega Red, we’ve been going through some old files here and found a letter from whatever year: “You have permission for one episode of Omega Red and if I see him in something else, we’re coming out.” OK!
But “Old Soldier” was written by the late great Len Wein, who was Wolverine’s co-creator. We got him to write that episode, which makes it extra special.
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