Behind The Scenes of the Marvel Action Hour

by Tom Russo

Herbie the Robot has had his day.

Like The X-Men and Spider-Man before them, Iron Man and The Fantastic Four are being geared up for the kind of faithful television treatment for which Marvel fans have long hungered. Conplete with The Human Torch, the FF return to the screen in September as half of Marvel Action Hour, a brand new animated anthology also featuring the armored founder of Force Works.

The syndicated program will air on weekend mornings, and thirteen episodes have been ordered, with more expected to follow next season.

While Marvel Action Hour promises to dazzle readers of THE FANTASTIC FOUR, IRON MAN, FORCE WORKS, and WAR MACHINE, the question still remains: With such a packed stable of available Marvel characters, how did Stan Lee and his collaborators at Marvel Films Animation ever decide on the show's stars? The X-Men had been an obvious choice for the screen. So was Spider-Man -- the company's signature character. But who to follow? The Hulk? Captain America? The Avengers?

"The F.F. just seemed like a natural," said Lee, who will be hosting a live-action segment at the opening of each show. "They were our first characters. Also, you can do so much with four characters, and get humor in there... There wasn't even a question -- The F.F. was what we wanted to do."

"As far as Iron Man goes," he continued, "we thought we would look into something that would be totally different, IRON MAN involves so much science and so many gadgets, we felt it would be a great high-tech show, and in animation you can do a lot with that."

A similar rationale was offered by Marvel Films President and Chief Executive Officer Avi Arad who, like Lee, serves as co-executive producer on all of the studio's animation projects. "The Fantastic Four is funny, imaginative, and intelligent," Arad said. "Iron Man is very today, very techno, and has a very different look. Each one covers a different area in our universe, and we're looking for versatility."


According to Ron Friedman, the Marvel Action Hour's supervising producer and story editor, the TV-readiness of these characters lies in the values they represent -- not family values per se, but a hipper Marvel Universe equivalent. A large part of the F.F.'s appeal to him, he said, is the very fact that they are a family.

"Everybody recognizes that you have do have crazy relatives," Friedman said. "What could be crazier than having The Thing as the uncle in your family? And then there's Reed and Sue as this loving couple... Like all the characters that Stan Lee helped create, they have human failings, all these flaws and problems, yet they hang together as a family and do miraculous things.

The Silver Surfer

"They don't have misgivings as heroes," he added summing up his take on the FF. And as for their foes: "Even though the villains all have magnificently interesting back stories -- as Doctor Doom does -- this doesn't excuse their being monsters. We don't deal in gray areas here, where the only difference between the flawed hero and the dangerous pimp is that one had a nice history teacher. It's refreshing, because The Fantastic Four is hopeful, and hope is really what fuels all entertainment, from pulp to great works of art."

Iron Man, meanwhile, stands to be a bit more grounded, showing the precariousness of The Fantastic Four's heroic ideal.

Tony Stark and Iron Man

"I think Iron Man is the perfect companion piece for Marvel Action Hour, because it's a more complex look at what our world is like," Friedman said. "Tony Stark is a dashing billionaire industrialist in great pain because of an accident arranged by The Mandarin. Nonetheless, he always has a light remark and doesn't visit his problems on others. When he goes to the armory and becomes Iron Man, though, the laughs are over, because he's in this deadly secret war against The Mandarin." The very existence of that war will be kept from the public since, Friedman explained, "if everybody knew that The Mandarin and his forces were out there, people wouldn't even bother getting up in the morning. They'd run and hide.

"For me, the analogy is like the father trying to raise a nice family in a rotten neighborhood," he said. "He tries to present the view that life is hopeful and worth living. He copes with whatever disasters there are and frees his family from the burden of fear." So it's not a bad idea to have a heavily armored backup positioned at the city limits of a place called "Hope."


The closest members of Shell-Head's "family" will, of necessity, differ slightly from their comic book counterparts. Work on the series began at a point when the transition from Avengers West Coast to Force Works was still being delineated, so Friedman and his creative team opted to simplify the group's link to Iron Man. In the show, War Machine will again hold a civilian post with Stark Enterprises, as will the Scarlet Witch and Spider-Woman. Hawkeye, a loner, will supply outside assistance -- sometimes against his will. Rounding out the unnamed unit will be Century, the towering, time-traveling alien introduced in FORCE WORKS # 1. (Charter members of the U.S. Agent fan club can look for a guest appearance later this season or next.)

Production Manager Marianne Steward

"Iron Man has been around for a while, but the people around him are not as well developed as The Fantastic Four, so we have a bit of leeway," said Producer Glen Hill. "We're really developing how they respond to their environment and the trouble they find themselves in."

A new-look Mandarin will dominate Iron Man's rogues' gallery, playing an even more prominent role than he does in the comic book. One planned storyline will have the ring-wielding villain dispatching a zombie legion to overrun Tony Stark's armory and, ultimately, the entire planet. In another story, The Mandarin will reprogram Stark defense satellites to touch off a worldwide military panic, framing our hero for the act. The series' other recurring menaces -- Modok (who returns as a major character in the series), Dreadknight, Whirlwind, Blizzard, The Grey Gargoyle, and Fin Fang Foom -- will all serve as minions in these sinister campaigns.

Color design artist Pam Long makes sure character colors remain consistent

Mighty Marvel synergy, always impressive to witness in cases like The X-Men and Spider-Man, was on display again in the effort to retool Iron Man for television. Although Editor Nel Yomtov was already looking into a redesign of The Mandarin for the comic, he had artist Dave Ross steup up the pace to meet the show's production deadline. When it came time to streamline the supporting cast, WAR MACHINE writer Scott Benson contributed biographical sketches, with an assist from partner Len Kaminski.

"Once they worked out which characters they wanted on the show, Scott had to very cleverly come up with something that would make us happy in the comic book area and also make it palatable to a younger [television] audience," Yomtov said. "So he remodeled some of the characters with slightly different origins and motivations, and that's acting as an important reference for the screenplays."

The Fantastic Fourhas involved less reshaping of story trappings than of tone, since the show's creators aim to give a contemporary feel to the old Lee-Kirby spirit. The landmark MARVELS series recently underscored the idea that the F.F. are supposed to be celebrities in the eyes of the common man. On television, fans will see that celebrity juiced up for the video age, with Reed, Sue, Ben, and especially Johnny reveling in their VIP status. (This is particularly ironic given that The Human Torch was replacedby Herbie the Robot in the 1970s FF cartoon, due to character rights complications.)

"The Fantastic Four are like rock stars," Friedman said. "We've even got them being interviwed by Dick Clark on the first show -- they retell their origin during a telethon he's hosting for the Reed Richards Scholarship Fund.

Namor, the Sub-Mariner and his realm of Atlanis

"Everybody knows who they are because they've saved us from horrible things so many times," he added, ticking off a "public enemies list" that will include The Pupper Master, the Skrulls, and The Sub-Mariner and the hordes of Atlantis. "Even though the danger, the menace, is always real, they still can have fun. Iron Man, on the other hand, is far more subdued and serious, because it's a secret war he's involved in, and it's necessary for him to keep it a secret in order to preserve any sense of well-being in the world."


Just as Marvel editorial gave its early super-hero titles their own distinct identities, so too does the Marvel Action Hour crew want this show to stand apart from X-Men and Spider-Man. One means of ensuring this has been to peg M.A.H. for syndication, a measure which gives Marvel literally 100 percent control over the program's content. (Genesis Entertainment, Marvel's partner in syndication, is offering M.A.H. as a complete, finished product ready for domestic distribution. Marvel turns in the shows, and Genesis lines up stations to air them. Internationally, the series will be offered by New World Entertainment, who is also financing the Marvel Films animation studio.) In view of Marvel's thriving relationship with the FOX network, it was hardly essential to go this route, but it was an option worth exploring, according to Arad.

"We already have X-Men and Spider-Man on FOX, so that's two very important shows on a sensational network," Arad said. "But we want to have other avenues as well, because we have so many characters -- that we need our own turf, our own real estate."

Marvel Action Hour will distinguish itself even more visibly through Lee's live-action introductions. The one- to two-minute segments will offer behind-the-scenes glimpses of Marvel at work, along with a bit of comics history. As a way of further capturing the industry's atmosphere, Friedman plans to shoot some of these openers at this summer's San Diego comic book convention.

The live-action intro concept "was Ron Friedman's suggestion, and I liked it," said Lee, who previously stepp

ed in front of the cameras for the video version of his best-selling book How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. "He asked if I wanted to do it, and I'm pretty much a ham, so I said, 'Sure, it sounds like fun.'

Studio artist Caesar DeCastro

"I think it's a chance to make the show seem a little more personal," he added, "sort of like when Alfred Hitchcock did his television series or when Rod Serling did The Twilight Zone. It gave those shows more personality, more of a friendly feeling."

"Stan Lee is to Marvel what Walt Disney was to Disney," Friedman reasoned. "What better spokesman to head up Marvel Action Hour than Stan?"

"It's not going to be a seminar -- it's for entertainment value -- but we're going to be discussing topics that a lot of viewers will be interested in," he said. "I think we should have had Stan out there before the public in this mode long ago, because he is Marvel, and it just adds a wonderful historical and intellectual note to the whole proceedings."


Robert Hays voicing Tony Stark/Iron Man at a recording session

Marvel's founding father won't be the only luminary on the program. As Arad noted, "The show is really pretty star-studded. Some interesting names are going to pop out at you." Among the biggest is Beverly Hills, 90210's Brian Austin Green, who's supplying the voice of Johnny Storm. Robert Hays (Airplane!, TV's Starman) will talk the talk as Tony Stark, while James Avery (Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) lends Jim Rhodes a baritone worthy of a hero dubbed War Machine. Even Stan Lee's wife, Joan, will be getting into the act, playing the Baxter Building's cantankerous owner, Miss Forbes.

Beau Weaver (Mr. Fantastic), Lori Alan (The Invisible Woman), and Chuck McCann (The Thing)

Musically, the show promises to put Aerosmith's Simpsons cameo to shame. Green Jelly, the band that put punk in "The Three Little Pigs," is recording a similarly spirited hard-rocker called "It's Clobberin' Time!", while Foreigner is cutting the signature track for Doctor Doom. Both songs will also air as videos on MTV.

"We expect to land a lot of big names," Friedman said. "The interest is really red hot because there are so many musicians who grew up with these characters and are Marvel freaks, and they just want to be affiliated with this. This is not a wish list, it's a 'do' list."

The program will even have something of a classical bent. In much the same way that timeless compostiions were used to pump up Die Hard and Apocalypse Now, Friedman is using the music of renowned pianist Van Cilburn to give Iron Man added muscle.

"The quality and strength of the music is something that Iron Man can actually access" as an emergency power source, Friedman explained. "It's an opportunity for young people who otherwise would not experience great classical music to come upon it in an interesting and entertaining way. And hopefully it will catch people's fancy. In fact, I know it will."


Given that both Iron Man and The Fantastic Four feature brilliant scientific minds pushing the technological envelope, it's only fitting that the Marvel Action Hour animators should pursue cutting-edge technology as well. One of the effects they hope to incorporate most heavily is compositing, in which animation is melded on screen with deep space shots and other photographic images (Think of it as IRON MAN # 152's memorable stealth armor cover set in motion.)

Glen Hill and M.A.H. Overseas Production Supervisor Paul Strickland were careful to choose studios with the mixed media expertise needed to make compositing work. For The Fantastic Four they decided on Wang Films, the Taiwanese animators responsibile for episodic versions of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Iron Man will be brought to life by Korea's Rainbow Animation Group, the studio which produces Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?

Iron Man's Hall of Iron

In Iron Man especially, morphing looks to be another key effect. Hill grew positively rhapsodic in describing the show's handling of Tony Stark's steely transfiguration: "His armory will be infinitely deep and infinitely high, and all around him will be hundreds of suits of armor. He'll walk in and he'll speak to this beam of light which shoots down from what looks like miles above -- it's actually a computer -- and he'll say, 'I need deep space-capability armor, cannon on the right shoulder.' The computer will say, 'Step into the light, Mr. Stark,' and the beam of light will check his body proportions, [morphing on] pieces of armor from the suits all around him. The platform he's standing on will lift upward until he's fully armored, then he'll blast off straight into the light and out of a dome at the top of the armory."


Marvel Action Hour's manic techno-affinity will spill over into product tie-ins as well. Shedding their former affiliation as part of the Marvel Super Heroes action figure collection, both the Fantastic Four and Iron Man will receive their own eponymous Toy Biz lines, complete with vehicles and other accessories. The attachment heavy Shell-Head figure is already being touted as a "Transformer for the new millennium."

The Mandarin's Sky Saucer

Similarly, the show itself is being built for adaptability, ready to receive any number of interlocking components. Constantly brainstorming, Arad would like to see a fan mail segment worked into the program. He also noted that the anthology format leaves the door open for other Marvel heroes to join the roster.

"That's definitely something we're going to do," Arad said. "We want to continue in developing Marvel Action Hour. If The Fantastic Four turns into a daily show, then we'll put another Marvel property in its place."

Likening the creative platform M.A.H. provides to the old Mickey Mouse Club, Arad began warbling a familiar tune. "It's our version of M-A-R...V-E-L..."

And the increasingly apt Stan-and-Wait analogies just keep on coming.

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Featuring Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, and the Silver Surfer.