The Disastrous Launch of the X-Men Animated Series

When it comes to animated series from the 90s, it doesn’t get much more memorable than the X-Men, but the launch of the series was anything but successful. Let’s look back and see exactly what happened 25 years ago.

We’re in a wondrous time for X-Men anniversaries right now. September 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the finale of X-Men: The Animated Series (which you can listen to on Thirty Twenty Ten below). However, October 2017 marks a quarter-century since the show’s debut (feel old, 90s kids?). However, it wasn’t exactly the smoothest launch, for a wide range of reasons…

THE SHOW WAS AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER AT FIRST

The fall season of 1992 was a crucial one for animated shows for comics, and would see 2 of the most influential series launch within days of each other…or at least that’s what was planned. But to understand how that came to be we have to make a quick stop in 1989, when Tim Burton’s Batman was released in theaters and the TV pilot “Pryde of the X-Men” debuted on television.

DC and Warner Bros. immediately saw the success of Batman and were inspired to create an animated Batman series to coincide with the character’s rising popularity. On the flip side, the X-men didn’t have quite the same success, and “Pryde of the X-men” wasn’t picked up by FOX. Marvel went back to the drawing board and eventually came up with a newer, more modern series that would replace Kitty Pryde with a more contemporary central character, Jubilee. At that time FOX Children’s Network had appointed Margaret Loesch as the head of the department and since she was a big fan of the “Pryde of the X-men” pilot she quickly set an order for 13 episodes of the newer series.

FOX informed both studios that the airing date would be Labor Day weekend, inadvertently setting up a bit of a rivalry between the two shows. There was only one problem with this situation; the X-Men’s pilot was nowhere near complete but the Batman pilot had been finished for some time. In fact, when the X-men pilot was finally turned in, FOX claimed it was completely unairable.

South Korean studio AKOM refused to fix the multitude of errors at first, claiming that it would be impossible to fix the hundreds of mistakes that had been left in. After FOX threatened to pull funding, AKOM marathoned the retakes in a 24 hour session and managed to get the show to air. The pilot episode was still plagued with errors though (shown above), Cyclops’s civilian sun-glasses weren’t ruby-quartz, Rogue drained Wolverine’s powers with her gloves still on, and Gambit’s eyes were miscolored several times. But the problems didn’t stop there as AKOM then turned in part two of the pilot with around 50 scenes missing. It wasn’t until DECEMBER (nearly 3 months late at that point) that AKOM managed to turn in a version of the episode that didn’t have any mistakes.

BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES FIRED AKOM, WHICH ACTUALLY MADE X-MEN BETTER

So AKOM royally screwed up X-Men’s chance to go directly head to head with Batman TAS. What’s really interesting is that AKOM actually animated the first aired episode of Batman and they managed to screw it up too! Warner Bros. handled the consistently crappy animation a bit differently and decided to simply fire AKOM after they had completed only 11 episodes.

This was a bit of a shock to AKOM, whom Bruce Timm guessed, “ …had never been fired from a series before.” AKOM subsequently were out of a contract and forced to take their remaining work much more seriously. Unlike Warner Bros., Marvel was hurting for money and couldn’t fire the extremely affordable AKOM.

FOX, as mentioned before, were nearly ready to cut funding to AKOM and potentially cancel the show but at the last minute AKOM and FOX eventually compromised. AKOM would provide all future episodes on time, but would provide a list of instructions that they wouldn’t be able to animate on a budget. This would give Marvel a lower show budget, and would keep AKOM in work.

In case you were curious, some examples of AKOM’s exclusions include: Characters with complicated designs (like Mr. Sinister) were not able to do a 360 degree turn, characters couldn’t hold objects in their hands for too long as they had potential to disappear between frames/scenes, and Wolverine’s claws couldn’t remain in a close up for too long because keeping their width at a uniform distance was extremely challenging.

CENSORS WEREN’T REALLY COMFORTABLE WITH THE SHOW

Though the series was aired before a TV age rating system was put into place, the Broadcasting Standards & Practices (BS&P) had a lot of say in what could and couldn’t be shown in the X-men cartoon.

Now, a cartoon in 1992 wouldn’t usually be so heavily looked at, but you have to understand that BS&P had a bit of grudge against FOX. When it came to censorship X-Men writer Stephen Melching wrote,
“I’ve seen some of the letters that these people write, threatening boycotts of shows and sponsors over the strangest things. Also keep in mind that the FOX network in particular was under a lot of scrutiny at the time due to its prime-time programming…the specter of government regulation of content was looming ever closer.”

This “specter” would boil over into the X-Men cartoon, causing it to be ridiculously toned down from its comic book counterpart. Perhaps the most noticeable change when watching X-men is the lack of actual hits landing during a fight. BS&P were quite adamant about keeping the X-men from ever actually killing a living creature, no matter how silly it would make a scene. In fact, the most prominent note writers received from BS&P was something along the lines of “Please show that the two guards are alright after they are blasted off their feet.”

BS&P were very particular when it came to the words used within the show and would regularly reject lines from the show due do concerns of the language used. Words such as “butt”, “savior”, “dang”, “lord” and “Hoover Dam” were asked to be deleted or replaced. The reasoning behind these deletions were to omit any references to real world locations or religions. BS&P were so strict when it came to religious references that they actually forbade the villainous team known as “The Acolytes” from being referred to by name within the show.

Romance would be neutered as well, with all kisses asked to be under 2 seconds, and all potential romantic terms (such as “lover”) replaced with something else. Surprisingly enough, BS&P were okay when it came to the sex-appeal in the design of many characters, noting that the more buxom X-Women were tolerable as long as they didn’t have a lot of cleavage.

IT WAS GOOD IN SPITE OF FOX

Today, Marvel fans often lament the fact that the X-Men are being ruined because their movie rights are owned by FOX. What’s interesting is that FOX nearly ruined the X-Men through their meddling all the way back in 1992.

The X-Men series is now famous for pushing the boundaries of children’s television with mature and complicated story lines. The series was actually one of the first cartoons to be serialized, and the writers intended for it to have an actual airing order (though problems often prevented the show from airing in the correct order). We now look back on this fondly, and champion the show for paving the way for superior writing in animation, but back in ’92 FOX absolutely hated it.

FOX felt that 10 year olds (their target demographic) wouldn’t be able to comprehend the intricacies of a show that had connected episodes. FOX even pushed for less of a love triangle between Cyclops, Jean, and Wolverine because they didn’t think boys would be interested in it. Marvel insisted on keeping the “mature” aspects of the show, and thankfully FOX was wrong. The show became such a huge success that FOX decided to give the Marvel mutate Spiderman his own show.

Marvel’s original plan was to have the two series share a universe and have several cross overs. (Sound familiar?) They even wanted to eventually launch an Avengers TV show. They had planned on doing this through episodes based on the extremely popular comic series SECRET WARS.

Unfortunately, FOX didn’t want to foot the bill of having the Canadian voice cast of X-Men record with the L.A. based crew of Spiderman, so the entire story line had to be rewritten with only Storm appearing, because Storm’s voice actress happened to live in L.A. The epic planned crossover ended up more of a dud than the epic climax that it should have been, and the Avenger’s series never got off the ground because of it.

In the end, X-Men’s legacy certainly lives on in many people’s memories because it took kids seriously. Instead of dumbing itself down and being another lame Marvel cartoon (I’m looking at you Spiderman and His Amazing Friends) it took the time to explore difficult topics. In this way, it is the perfect companion to its comics, which explored the same topics in a time when comics were severely handicapped by the Comics Code Authority. Check it out and see the innovation it spawned. Your nostalgia will thank you.

Speaking of nostalgia, watch us play through the X-Men Arcade game below! Do you have fond memories of X-Men: The Animated Series? Let us know about them in the comments!

4 thoughts on “The Disastrous Launch of the X-Men Animated Series

  1. Nice write-up. I always felt the X-Men cartoon looked pretty great in still in shots, but less so in motion. AKOM definitely seemed to improve as the series moved along and I feel like the first two seasons hold up pretty well. I remember reading in TV Guide back in the day that X-Men was Fox’s highest rated kids show until something called Power Rangers came along, which still surprises me to this day because of how fondly everyone looks back on Batman. I don’t know what the gap between the two was and its possible it had more to do with X-Men’s Saturday morning timeslot vs Batman’s afternoon one. I also loved the serialized nature of the first two seasons, which is something I liked as a kid about Bucky O’Hare and, surprisingly, the Teddy Ruxpin cartoon. I would not recommend revisiting Teddy though.

  2. Always fascinating to learn something new about our old shows. I’m so glad that we got a more maturish X-Men, in spite of FOX. My childhood was better off for it. Thanks for writing 🙂

  3. Great article! Growing up as a 90’s kid and watching so many cartoons, this article was insightful for the behind the scenes look at this series. I hope there are more articles like this for other animated series.

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