With a reboot on the horizon, continued comic book homages, and the continued love from the fans who grew up with the series, X-Men: The Animated Series seems to be as popular as ever. 30 years after its debut, it’s perhaps hard today to appreciate what made the series so unique, but one aspect was definitely its faithfulness to the source material.
Showrunner Eric Lewald has spoken in recent years about the team’s determination to present a true interpretation of the X-Men, at the time the hottest property in comics. Visually, the X-Men of this era owed everything to superstar artist Jim Lee. Drawing inspiration from his style would seem like a natural fit for the show.
That 90s show
The problem with this is the awkward timing of x-mendevelopment. The show was entering production as Jim Lee left Marvel to become one of the co-founders of Image Comics, a company made up of top Marvel artists and instantly the main competition for House of Ideas. A few years ago, Eric Lewald’s book Previously on X-Men revealed that Marvel actually had issues with the series relying on Jim Lee’s designs. Host and producer Will Meugniot provided this quote:
My goal at that time was to do something as close to contemporary comics as possible, so we started with Jim Lee’s drawings (among many available). But we got this detour from them because shortly after we started, after getting the initial designs for Wolverine, Cyclops, and Jean approved, all of a sudden I got a note from Marvel saying, “You have to put away all the Jim Lee reference. We can’t do a show that looks like his stuff.” They wouldn’t say why, but of course the problem turned out to be that Jim and the other big Marvel guys had announced that they were leaving to found Image Comics.
Meugniot later explained how he overturned this edict by offering a series of “young/funny Hanna Barbera” drawings for Marvel to approve. As he suspected, Marvel turned them down. Marvel’s reluctance to use Jim Lee’s work didn’t last long, and the series continued in what is now called “90s style” for most of its long run.
The changing times
Beginner only a few weeks before x-men in the fall of 1992, Batman: The Animated Series was an instant critical favorite and a bold reimagining for action cartoons on television. Whereas x-menThe highly rendered, comic book-accurate look continued a tradition that began the previous decade with Sunbow. G.I. Joe (specially designed to look like a Russ Heath war comic), Batman took a completely different path. The show’s lead designer, Bruce Timm, spent time on G.I. Joe in the 1980s and had become convinced that detailed designs translated poorly to television animation, in part due to foreign animators who lacked the budget and time to do the look justice.
As Timm said Vulture in 2017,
I had worked on a bunch of action-adventure shows for TV before, and every one of them, I thought, was over-engineered. They were trying to impress people with the amount of detail. On GI Joe, in particular, it wasn’t enough to draw a belt on a character, the belt had seams, buttons, snaps and pockets. There is no good reason to draw all the laces of a shoe. Just make it a simple shape.
The Look Was So Different, Timm Recalls How The Network Reacted To The First Batman test pictures:
We got a lot of negative feedback from different people, even people who had seen the pilot and were impressed with it. They were like, “Oh, you’re going to make the show more detailed and it’ll be more comic-like, right?” And we were like, “No, it’s going to look like that. It works. And we know it will work.
Timm’s new style, a direct response to 1980s action cartoons, changed the landscape of mainstream cartooning and influenced the look of animation for over a decade. And even, X-Men: The Animated Series remained a hit and was definitely not in the “Timm style”. And while the model sheets on x-men look really cool – so well drawn and rendered that they could have appeared in an actual Marvel comic book – many episodes suffered from animation studios being unwilling or unable to do them justice.
In Previously on X-Men, Eric Lewald discusses the continued popularity of x-men in the 1990s, and the FOX network’s last-minute habit of ordering additional episodes whenever the show’s production was to wrap. Lewald refers to this latest batch as the “afterthought season”, as it was created after the crew assumed x-men was really over. During this final and final season, the decision was made to update the look of the series and create something more anime-friendly. Playing with the new look, the animators were at one point inspired by the latest issues of Weird X-Men — which bore little, if any, resemblance to Jim Lee’s look.
When the fans went crazy
The series of superstar artists emerging from the monthly Weird X-Men the comic didn’t stop with Jim Lee. Two years after his departure, Joe Madureira had taken over the title, with a style that moved away from Lee’s stoic and idealized human anatomy while embracing the wilderness of Japanese comics and animation. Artists like Michael Golden and Arthur Adams had previously introduced anime elements into their work, but it was Madureira who embraced the look and found a way to merge Eastern and Western sensibilities into a superhero comic. American. The “Joe Mad” style of art would soon be a staple.
Surprisingly, Madureira’s first Marvel work was published in the anthology series Marvel Comics Presents in 1991 when he was just 16 years old. After drawing the first dead Pool mini-series in 1993, Madureira became the new Weird X-Men designer in 1994 before he was even 20 years old. After redesigning the look of the title, redesigning the X-Men, and inspiring a new wave of imitators, Marvel even had Madureira redesign the Avengers for a relaunch of the line in 1995. (Which was cut short when the news Marvel management made a deal with two Image founders to return to Marvel…and one of those creators happened to be Jim Lee.) When Madureira left strange x-men, he was the most popular artist in comics and the father of a cartoony, playful style of superhero art that was taking over the industry. A 2002 issue of Wizard magazine, once the true “Guide to Comics”, would name Madureira one of the ten most influential comic artists of all time.
Fresh, inspired and rejected
When an early promotion for the final X-Men: The Animated Series season surfaced, rumors swirled that the series would adopt an anime-flavored look, inspired by the new style popularized by Joe Madureira. However, what finally aired in the fall of 1997 would not be mistaken for a Joe Mad comic by anyone. The show’s new look was more cartoonish and bouncy, and a source of confusion and controversy among some fans, but clearly not something taken from popular Madureira comics. The rumors of x-men forever resembling the Joe Mad look had been forgotten, until the 2020s release X-Men: The Art and Making of the Animated Series by Eric Lewald and Julia Lewald.
The book does an amazing job of archiving every design in the series, from background extras to never-before-released character redesigns. In a section covering the final episodes “after the fact”, the Lewalds finally confirm what the final episodes could have been:
In the eleven-episode final season afterthought, the new design team, led by series veterans Frank Squillace and Mark Lewis, came up with a fun idea amid all the cutbacks: a new look for the set. of distribution. Longer, thinner, even more anime-influenced, these character models were offered by our dedicated artists at exactly the wrong time. When budgets were slashed, the last thing production supervisors needed was the extra expense of redesigning characters (which in fact had just been severely “simplified” to save money). The “no” was quick and firm. However, thanks to modeler Mark Lewis, this potential “new look” for the X-Men team has been preserved and is shown here for the first time.
Turns out those early reports were true – these designs (from animators Frank Squillace and Mark Lewis) seem to have left the pages of a Joe Mad Weird X-Men publish. The book actually reprints several more of these models, taking up quite a few pages and featuring characters who never had actual appearances on the show like Mesmero. The next X-Men ’97 redesign of X-Men: The Animated Series goes with its own look, inspired more by the original designs and borrowing elements from modern comics, but maybe one day fans will be able to see an animated reimagining of this 1997 x-men season as originally planned.