X-Men Articles and Interviews

How to Mutate a Story, but Not Too Much

by Steve Johnson

It's not easy to adapt a printed work to the visual media, as both the X-Men movie and animated series are currently attempting to do. Just ask Eric Lewald. He was the executive story editor for the Saban X-Men animated series of the 1990s, which Fox is rebroadcasting this summer and is still fondly remembered as one of superhero TV's finest moments.

"We felt very strongly that we had to be true to the printed material," Lewald said. "I barely knew the X-Men books when we started -- I read Spider-Man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four, only occasionally the X-Men, but I had a couple of months to read stacks and stacks of comics that they sent me. I was able to absolutely imbue myself with this stuff, but Will Meugniot and Larry Houston are intense comic-book guys, and once I fell in love with the X-Men, the question was, Why Change It?"

"But the comics are very densely layered these days. We cut through all that and tried to use the books as reference, not as something to adapt. If you look at the first season, the question was how do we tell a clean, simple story using the cool stuff, the emotional core from some of these characters, without all the minutiae that goes along with them?"

Originally, the series took the characters and some, but not all, of the situations from the then-current continuity. Jubilee's introduction in the first episode was a lot simpler -- she was attacked by Sentinels and rescued by the X-Men, period. But she still joined the X-Men on the fly, outside the normal, formal admissions process (she could hardly have qualified with such a lame superpower if there had been time to consider her calmly!) during a time of tension among the adult members, as in the comics. The facts were all different, but the emotional tone was just what the comics had been trying for and often, but not always, delivering.

Later, when the series was well established, they started adapting some of the classic stories such as the Dark Phoenix arc, although "adapting" is probably too strong a word -- they took the core idea of the story and worked with it, trying to find the best way to tell it in an animated format.

Behind the Scenes

"We were extremely fortunate that our network liaison was Sidney Iwander, a 40-year-old man with the soul of a nine-year-old boy, who wanted us to go for the deeper, the tougher, the more anguished storylines that made the comic book what it was," Lewald said. "They really didn't know it was going to be successful. Fox Kids had built its viewership on much less adult kinds of shows. There was all sorts of pressure. After production delays, it opened in Janaury, and from that week, Fox was the #1 kids' channel for the next three years. And from then on, there was no pressure."

Whereas more recent shows have been driven by their toys, and that's always a part of modern kids' TV production, the X-Men series fell into a relatively dead period for Marvel merchandising, so there wasn't much pressure to use toys in the show.

"We were literally halfway through the first season when we got a call from a new company called Toy Biz [which later ended up owning Marvel Comics] that was thinking of doing some X-Men toys. They said we've got three or four toys lying around - can you work them in? And it was stuff like a Wolverine cycle, a Wolverine phone ... We told them that either they're gonna love the show for what it is, and then they'll buy your toys, but if we put this kinda stuff in there … we had no idea who these people were!"

Marvel's Input

Although Bob Harras, Marvel's editor in chief, was the contact person with Marvel, the Saban producers also sought the input of X-Men writers Jim Lee, Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza, as well as Stan Lee, who created the team with Jack Kirby in 1962.

"It was an interesting relationship with Stan because he wanted to be involved, but he hadn't been involved in the comics for about 10 years. His input was valuable, but it wasn't coming from the same place as what everyone else was saying. He'd want to do stuff that would play out really nicely over five or six pages, with all the introspection you could put on the page, the motivations and dialogue, and we'd say 'Stan, that scene will take three minutes, during which nothing is happening on the screen, and we need to keep the jeopardy at a high pitch.' I think that given $20 million and a free hand, Stan would have made a different show, but I think ultimately he accepted what we did with a sort of mutual respect, as not what he would have done, but a worthwhile show based on his creations."

Can Lightning Strike Twice?

So what's Lewald heard about the new X-Men: Evolution animated series?

"I'm not involved in the new WB X-Men series, but I have spoken to those who are, and I know that it is a troubled project. There are good people involved, but the 'shared vision' of the '92-'96 series is absent. They have a solid story editor in Bob Forward, excellent animation producers, and bigger budgets than we could have dreamed of.

"Sadly, the new WB exec calling the creative shots has made decisions which I believe will make it impossible for it to be true to the books. She is from Nickelodeon, admits that she neither gets or likes action adventure animated television, and has decreed that the characters in effect be 'gifted children,' as in age 14 to 16."

"Serious villains are to be avoided or played down. Character conflicts among the 'team' -- the core of our show -- are to be avoided. It is more 'A mutant Doug and his pals have problems coping with the pressures of the 10th grade.'

"I was called when the first story editor quit in frustration, but I told Marvel that I saw no way to make an X-Men series under those conditions. With luck, Bob and the others may, by force of will, be able to bend the series a bit more toward something that X-Men fans will recognize. I sure hope so, but no one I know is counting on it. (Look for a similar softening of Batman, though there is limit to what [the new executive] can change in such an established WB success.) Sadly, though the talent involved may come up with something well made in Evolution, it won't be the X-Men."


By Rob Allstetter

If the voices on SILVER SURFER, FOX KIDS' breakthrough Saturday morning hit, sound familiar, it shouldn't be surprising.
Many of the Canadian actors and actresses who did voices on X-MEN are performing in the same Toronto studio -- only now for SILVER SURFER.
Does Galactus sound like Apocalypse? That's because James Blendick does both voices. Does the Kree soldier sound like Sabretooth? That's because Don Francks does both voices.
And then there's Alyson Court, who did the voice of Amber, Frankie Raye's roller-blading pal in "Origin of the Silver Surfer Pt. III." It was small role, but just a few words were needed from Amber to identify her also as the voice of Jubilee, the youngest and one of the most popular characters in X-MEN.
Court is one of numerous performers voice director Tony Pastor, who was based in Los Angeles for Marvel shows SPIDER-MAN, FANTASTIC FOUR and IRON MAN, encountered with the recording of SILVER SURFER in Toronto.
"The talent pool in Toronto is terrific," Pastor said. "Even Disney is tapping into it. There's such a theatrical background among the performers."
Pastor actually had worked with Court before when the X-Men appeared on two episodes of SPIDER-MAN. "She's terrific," he said. "Great energy."
Court recently bid a fond farewell to Jubilee. After 81 episodes and five seasons, X-MEN concluded its run on FOX KIDS in January, giving way to SILVER SURFER in the 11:30 a.m. (ET) time slot. However, the early seasons of the series currently are airing in syndication, and X-MEN will move to UPN next fall, airing Sundays at 10 a.m. No episodes beyond the 81 produced are currently planned.
"It's been great," Court said of her experience on X-MEN. "I don't know of one person who hasn't watched X-MEN -- no matter what age. I know some adults that are very reserved and when they found about (Court playing Jubilee), they went crazy talking about the show."
Court said she enjoyed the energy Jubilee brought to the X-Men.
"She's a brat," Court said, laughing. "She has an edge to her, a nice change of pace from those characters who are more stereotypical for super heroes.
"She doesn't get all that altruistic. She says, 'Let's get real. Let's go get a Big Mac and a shake.' "
Court, 23, has been working in show business since she was 6. She's been involved in more than 30 animated shows, including such regular gigs as Pixx in UltraForce, Lydia in Beetlejuice and Veronica in The New Archies. She also has many live-action credits, including playing Priscilla Presley in Elvis Meets Nixon, the recent Showtime movie.
Voice director Dan Hennessey worked with Court on both X-MEN and Beetlejuice and has known her since she was 10.
"She's eternally youthful," Hennessey said. "She's 5-foot-1 and has this real baby face. She doesn't have a wrinkle on her face. She's bubbly and perky and doesn't have to put it on because that's the way she really is."
And while we might not see Amber again in SILVER SURFER, don't be surprised to hear Court's voice again in another Marvel series down the road.
"It's amazing to me how popular these characters are," she said. "I love them."


Did you know Wolverine toured with Joe Cocker in the 1970s as a back-up singer?
Well, not really Wolverine, but Cal Dodd, who does the voice of everyone's favorite Canucklehead in the X-MEN animated series.
Dodd, one of Canada's pre-eminent jingles singers for the past 20 years, made his first foray into animation with X-MEN, winning a very competitive audition in 1992. He describes Wolverine's voice as "a mix of Tom Waits on the musical side and Clint Eastwood."
"He doesn't care a lot about authority," Dodd said. "He likes to go his own way. He just listens to himself, which is a lot like me. I really identify with him."
"He's the only Canadian on the X-Men. The writers are all Americans and they keep writing 'huh' in the script. Canadians don't say 'huh', they say, 'eh.' I'm not a writer, but they let me make changes in the lines. I really become him."
"We let the Canadian in him come out," said Toronto-based voice director Dan Hennesey. "He's the most popular, maybe because he takes no crap from anybody. And Cal's got just a great voice. He expresses that experience, that cynicism, that disbelief, just perfectly."
Dodd said he is a big hit around kids, who gather around him, just waiting to hear Wolverine talk.
"These kids are five or six years old and they ask, 'Where do your claws come out?' and 'How come you don't have your suit on?' " Dodd said, chuckling. "I say (switching to Wolverine voice), 'Get lost, punk.' "
In addition to doing Wolverine's voice in the animated series, Dodd has performed in X-MEN toy commercials on CD-ROM projects. The X-Men also appeared in two episodes of SPIDER-MAN, and Wolverine was a featured character.
"I love doing him," Dodd said. "He's such an incredible character, with a lot of different emotions."
Dodd wasn't aware of the X-Men's popularity before the series began -- but he certainly is now. "It's unbelievable," he said. "It's so big, it's scary."
X-MEN recently ended its run on Fox, giving way to the new SILVER SURFER series, but continues to air in syndication. The show is moving to UPN next fall and will air Sundays at 10 a.m. (ET). No new episodes are currently planned.
"I think what should happen now should be just like in the comics," Dodd said. "Wolverine got his own comic and now he should get his own cartoon. That would be great."


By Rob Allstetter

Calling her the woman of 1,000 voices might be a stretch, but Catherine Disher is definitely versatile.

Disher does the voice of Jean Grey in the X-MEN animated series, but she also performed several other voices on the show. One of her favorite episodes is the one where she got to do voices of frightened Eskimos in the background; she also enjoyed shifting to a German accent for a role in the "Nightcrawler" episode.

"She's very, very flexible," X-MEN voice director Dan Hennessey says of Disher. "She can do just about any age range or character point of view."

"It's a real challenge to make your voice so different that you aren't associated with one," Disher says. "He's about the best director I've ever worked with.

That counts TV, film and stage." That count would include numerous directors. Disher might be best known from a live-action show, Forever Knight, a vampire series in which she was a supporting character.

"I play the pathologist, Natalie Lambert," Disher says. "I seem to end up connecting with a lot of these fantasy things."

Although Disher's Jean Grey was in the background mostly early in the run of X-MEN, she was the focus for a bulk of the third season during the Phoenix and the Dark Phoenix sagas, which lasted eight episodes.

"I enjoyed the last of the Phoenix episodes, when I went up into the sun and burned myself up," Disher says. "The writers made some very nice speeches in that one."

Disher admits she "wasn't conversant" in X-MEN lore when the series began, but she soon understood the popularity of the characters. "People look at these shows and really dissect them," she says.

Like in the comics, Jean Grey and Scott Summers were romantically linked in X-MEN, but there were also sparks between Jean and Wolverine.

"She's very altruistic," Disher says of her character. "But there's something about Logan. Those claws! That hair! Mmmmm..."

X-MEN recently ended its five-year run on Fox, but continues to air in syndication. Next season, reruns of the series move to Sunday mornings on UPN.


By Rob Allstetter

Of all the distinctive voices of the X-MEN animated series, perhaps none stand out more than Rogue's.

In addition to the Southern aspects of her voice, which result in trademark Rogue phrases like "Sugah," there's a certain scratchy element. Lenore Zann, the actress who portrays Rogue, calls it "that crack."

And it's natural. It's not an acting gimmick.

"People see me in an elevator and they hear me talk, and they say, 'Sorry, you've got a cold,' " Zann said, laughing. "I just tell them it's my million-dollar voice."

Zann nearly didn't get the role of Rogue. She didn't feel well the day of the auditions and almost didn't go. But she did go, and as soon as she started talking, the role was hers.

"They heard me, and they went, 'That's it! That's Rogue!'" Zann said.

Casting X-MEN was a difficult process, according to voice director Dan Hennessey. The first episode of X-MEN was actually recorded in its entirety three different times.

"I helped set up the original core cast," Hennessey said. "The auditions for the core cast went two or three weeks, and we must have auditioned 300 people to find exactly the right ones.

"There was a lot of corporate concern for the interpretation of the voices. It was painful for the cast at first. Then we found our style and away we went."

The cast of X-MEN quickly became comfortable with their animated counterparts, and, at times, would contribute to changes in the dialogue during the recording sessions in Toronto. Many of the cast members of X-MEN have also been featured in Fox's SILVER SURFER series.

"I really relate to her. She touches people's hearts," Zann said of Rogue. "I love X-Men and what it says to kids: it's OK to be different. There's a lot of prejudice in the world and if we can help people deal with it, that's great."

A Meg Ryan-lookalike with Hollywood aspirations, Zann used her looks to play Marilyn Monroe in a rock musical, the first of several historical blondes she's portrayed. Since starting on X-MEN, she's had several live-action gigs, include an episode of Fox's Millennium. And she's done other animation parts, including Sizzle on Stunt Cats.

Her favorite episode of X-MEN? "Rogue's Tale," of course, which delved into the character's origin and ties to Mystique and Ms. Marvel.

"You understand where she's coming from and what she's been through," Zann said. "When Professor Xavier comes to her and says, 'You've got a mutant power. Come and be with us,' it's almost like a religious experience for her. It's a place to find sanity and a peace of mind."

X-MEN recently ended its run on Fox. Although there are no plans for any new episodes, the show is currently airing in syndication and will move to UPN starting next fall. X-MEN will air Sundays at 10 a.m. (ET).

Zann said she and the other voice performers were sad to see the series come to an end.

"All of us love our characters," Zann said. "We can all relate to them in some way or another."


By Rob Allstetter

On the X-MEN animated series, Storm is a control freak. And with good reason. If you were able to create lightning and hurricane conditions, losing control could be catastrophic.

"With her weather powers, she has to have such tight control," says Allison Sealy-Smith, the actress who voiced the character. "She's so scared to let her powers go, so she keeps her emotions in tight."

"Storm is about control, controlling the weather, controlling herself," adds X-MEN voice director Dan Hennessey. "She's always holding in her feelings -- love, lust, anger -- always holding them down. So any episode where Storm was releasing herself was great."

Sealy-Smith, originally from Barbados, has an extensive Shakespearean background, which she found applicable to the triumphs-and-tragedies world of X-MEN.

"It's removed from everyday life, but it's got that bigness, that largeness theatrically," she says. "My Shakespeare work feeds into a lot of it."

"She's an incredibly flexible performer, with such a broad range," Hennessey says of Sealy-Smith.

Among Sealy-Smith's favorite episodes of X-MEN is the two-part "Storm Front" episode, in which Storm nearly marries Arkon before learning what a scoundrel he is.

"After three years of sitting on her emotions and not letting go, we finally get to see the softer side to Storm, her vulnerability," Sealy-Smith says. "She gets to do everything in those episodes. She's a queen, regal, vulnerable and emotional."

Sealy-Smith says she hasn't always been comfortable watching X-MEN -- "I don't like watching myself," she says -- but there are fans of the show in her house. "I have a couple of kids, 12 and 5, and they both love the show," she says.

Sealy-Smith wasn't the original voice of Storm -- Iona Morris was -- but she went back in and looped (re-recorded) her version of Storm's voice onto previous episodes.

X-MEN recently ended its run on Fox, with the series finale shown again in June as Fox Kids' Pick of the Week. Although there are no plans for any new episodes, the show is currently airing in syndication and will move to UPN starting next fall. X-MEN will air Sundays at 10 a.m. (ET).

"It's sad really," Sealy-Smith says of the show's end. "It took a while to really understand the character, then it's over. But it's been absolutely wonderful. She's an interesting character."


By Rob Allstetter

After five years on Fox and a season in syndication, the X-MEN animated series is still going strong. Beginning this fall, UPN is airing the 81 episodes of X-MEN on Sunday mornings.

That X-MEN, which premiered on Fox on Oct. 31, 1992, has been out of production for two years. The fact that it still enjoys success on a network is amazing. It's a testament to the popularity of the characters -- and the way they were presented.

"We set a new standard for Saturday morning animation, which includes a very high quality of production values in the shows," says executive producer Eric Rollman of Saban Entertainment, which produced the series.

"X-Men has had an impact," producer Frank Squillace adds. "All other multi-character shows are compared to X-MEN. They all use X-MEN as the measuring stick for action/adventure shows."

Indeed, X-MEN spawned numerous would-be super-hero teams shows. Some, like Youngblood and CyberForce, never made it to the air. Others, like WildC.A.T.S. and UltraForce, lasted just a short time. None has come close to enjoying the success X-MEN has had.

The series, along with Batman, made Fox a ratings force on Saturday mornings. X-MEN became the first original animated show that was in sync a Marvel comic book's sensibilities. The show even inspired the "Age of Apocalypse" story in the comics.

"The scripts weren't written down to children," says Dana Booten of Saban. "There are lots of different A-B plots, different characters and continuing stories. That's really important and where X-Men broke through. I think kids like that."

Most agree the show improved as it went on, especially those involved early on.

"The tendency in the first two seasons was to try to get everybody in every episode," says Marty Isenberg, who, with partner Robert Skir, wrote five of the episodes. "When I got to 'Savage Land, Savage Heart,' I said, 'Five X-Men. No more. No less.'

"They seemed to get it that a smaller cast worked best. You can work on the characters that way."

The show even brought in young female viewers who usually don't watch super-hero adventures.

"The romance between Gambit and Rogue, the mother-daughter relationship with Rogue and the episode where Beast had a girlfriend -- we've gotten a lot of positive letters about this," producer Larry Houston says. "We've developed a large female audience, and they've reacted quite well.

"And with the older audience, if it (the series) doesn't make sense, they'll dis it to death. But they really like this show."

Will there ever be more new X-MEN? There's been talk of an X-MEN spin-off, perhaps featuring individual characters, or a series featuring Generation X. But as of now, there are no firms plans.

"You never know," Booten says. "X-MEN has been very successful for Fox and Saban. I don't see why there would be a reason not to develop another one of these characters. Look at all the X-MEN comics -- they're traveling through time, so many other things in the X-Men world. Wow! It's a man's soap opera."

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