Sunday, December 23, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: X-Men -- The Crappy Cartoon Everyone Loved

L-R: Cyclops, Jubilee, Wolverine, and Beast wonder why they're animated so badly
A few months ago I marked the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, a momentous TV show whose impact is still felt in big ways and small when it comes not only to how that character is portrayed, but also in other facets of televised kidvid. Well, another twentieth anniversary that slipped right under my radar was that of another seminal Saturday AM series on Fox, X-Men, which was just as significant and made just as much of a ratings mark. But unlike Batman, which has held up remarkably well and will no doubt continue to do so, X-Men was actually pretty terrible at the time, and has only gotten worse in the intervening decades. Let's talk.

In 1992, it had been nearly several years since Marvel superheroes heroes had regularly graced animation, with NBC's Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (more on that here) ending its run in '86 (with the last original ep actually having aired two years prior). During that interim, the zeitgeist shifted toward next-gen properties like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the animated version of which started in '88, but an attempt at bringing the X-Men, Marvel's second most popular property after Spidey himself, to the screen aired in 1989 as part of the "Marvel Action Universe" syndicated package (which also included the animated RoboCop), though it didn't get past a pilot called "Pryde of the X-Men." Here's the intro:

That one-off special, which boasted an Australian Wolverine waaaay before Hugh Jackman, got a decent enough reception, but the subsequent folding of Marvel Productions meant that the X-Men would have to wait a few years until Margaret Loesch, head of Marvel Productions, had transitioned to president of Fox's then-new kids' division and took the opportunity to bring the property back as a full-fledged series. But where the '89 pilot had, if nothing else, some very nice animation to boast of, the animation quality of Fox's X-Men, produced by Saban Entertainment (they of Power Rangers infamy), was as if a Mad Max-esque nuclear apocalypse made everyone forget what good animation should look like. Thus, we got this crappy intro with the memorable theme music:

For me, the animated X-Men couldn't have happened at a better time. As a lifelong comic fan, I'd been aware of the characters' existence for years, obviously, but I'd never crossed that rubicon into fandom until 1991, just as Marvel launched a new, adjective-less X-Men title (drawn by fan fave artist Jim Lee) that was -- for awhile anyway -- the best-selling comic book of all time. In the pre-Internet age, where the development of films and TV projects wasn't tracked by every infinitesimal progression, the first inkling I had of the cartoon's arrival was some kids' magazine that ran down the upcoming cartoon shows for fall, and had something called "X-Man" listed. I didn't think twice about that until I saw this promo and had my mind completely blown.

And it wasn't just me. Chalk it up to X-fandom or the long Marvel animation dry-spell, but people tuned in. In droves. In fact, the Fox series took the X-Men property, fairly niche in big picture terms, and launched it into the mainstream. But while you have to give it up for the breadth of storylines right out of the comics the show covered, with a cavalcade of characters making their cartoon debuts, it was hopelessly hamstrung by the over-wrought voiceover work and  downright terrible animation, which used ridiculously detailed model sheets -- based on the then-current designs by the aforementioned Jim Lee -- that couldn't hope to translate well to a moving image. But there we sat, taking it all in as we grinned through gritted teeth.

In fact, so afflicted with travails was X-Men that its planned Labor Day '92 premiere, which I was practically marking days on my calendar in anticipation of, was pushed all the way back to late October -- an eternity! -- thanks to ongoing difficulties with the overseas animation house handling production (with quite a few errors making it to air due to simply running out of time to fix them). Even though they'd only aired two eps as a "Sneak Preview," that didn't stop little kids and big kids alike from selecting X-Men as their favorite Fox Kids show for a special Thanksgiving countdown culminating in the much-anticipated third episode airing (after which the series went right back into the oven, making its "actual" debut in January of '93).

X-Men ran for an impressive seventy-six episodes, all of which had terrible animation and terrible voiceover work. I tried giving it a re-watch recently, and I had to stop. Couldn't even make it through the first episode. Nonetheless, the show remains an important touchstone for the generation for the kids who grew up during that original '92-'97 run. It's a time capsule not only for the X-Men universe at that time (I can't even keep up with all the ways it's changed since), but also for everyone who watched. Many of the grown-ups who enjoy the X-Men movies today are the same kiddies who tuned in regularly, and who bought the action figures and the trading cards and everything else. In the process, they turned a niche comic into one of the most expansive superhero brands on the planet. Not bad for a crappy cartoon everyone convinced themselves was good.

1 comment:

***Dave said...

The series is available for free thru Amazon Prime, and my 12yo daughter talked me into trying it out. And, yes, the animation was just as awful (but *ambitious*) as I recalled.

What netted the cartoon endless rope, though, was how closely it hewed to the comic book. Most every major plotline from the early 90s, as well as the 80s, somehow made it in, which gave it all such a high geeklove quotient that you just had to love it, even, as you say, through gritted teeth.