With a reboot in the offing, continued tributes to comic books, and continued love from fans who grew up with the show, X-Men: The Animated Series seems as popular as ever. 30 years away from its debut, it may be hard today to appreciate what made the series so unique, but certainly one aspect was its fidelity to the source material.
Showrunner Eric Lewald has talked in recent years about the crew’s determination to give a true interpretation of the X-Men, the most popular character in comics at the time. Visually, the X-Men of this era owed everything to superstar artist Jim Lee. Taking inspiration from his style seems like a natural choice for the show.
That show from the 90s
The problem with this is the awkward timing of X-Men‘s development. The show went into production when Jim Lee left Marvel to become one of the co-founders of Image Comics, a company made up of Marvel’s top artists and immediately the major league of 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. Animator and producer Will Meugniot gave this quote:
My goal at the time was to do something as close to today’s comics as possible, so we started with the Jim Lee designs (one of many available). But we had a trip from them, because shortly after we started, after I approved the initial designs from Wolverine, Cyclops, and Jean, I suddenly got a note from Marvel saying, “You need all the Jim Lee reference. We can’t do a show. do that which resembles his stuff.” They wouldn’t say why, but the problem, of course, turned out to be that Jim and the other Marvel big boys had announced they were leaving to start Image Comics.
Meugniot later explained how he undermined this edict by submitting a series of “young/funny Hanna Barbera” for Marvel to approve. As he suspected, Marvel turned them down. Marvel’s hesitation to use Jim Lee’s work did not last long, and the series continued in what is now known as “the ’90s style” for most of its long run.
The changing times
Debuts just a few weeks early X-Men in the fall of 1992, Batman: the animated series was an instant critical favorite and a bold reinvention for action cartoons on television. While X-Men‘s heavily rendered, comics-loyal look continued a tradition that began in the previous decade with Sunbow’s GI Joe (designed specifically to resemble a Russ Heath war comic book), Batman took a completely different path. The show’s lead designer, Bruce Timm, spent time with: GI Joe in the 1980s and had become convinced that the detailed designs translated poorly to television animation, in part because of foreign animators who didn’t have the budget and time to do the look justice.
As Timm told Vulture in 2017,
I’d worked on some action-adventure TV shows before, and I thought they were all overdesigned. They tried to impress people with the amount of detail. Especially with GI Joe it wasn’t enough just to draw a belt on a character, the belt had seams and buttons and snaps and pockets. There is no good reason to pull every shoelace on a shoe. Just make it a simple form.
The look was so different, Timm remembers how the network reacted to the first one Batman test images:
We did get a lot of pushback from several people, even people who had seen the pilot and were impressed by it. They’d say, “Oh, you’re going to make the show look more detailed and it’s going to be more like a comic book, right?” And we were like, “No, it’s going to look like this. This works. And we know this is going to work.”
Timm’s new style, a direct response to 80s action cartoons, changed the landscape of mainstream cartoons and influenced the look of animation for more than a decade. Still, X-Men: The Animated Series remained a hit, and was not at all in the “Timm style”. And while the model sheets are on X-Men look really nice — so well drawn and rendered that they could have appeared in an actual Marvel comic — many episodes suffered from animation studios that didn’t or couldn’t 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 extra episodes every time production on the show would end. Lewald refers to that last batch as the “afterthought season,” as it was created after the crew hired X-Men was really over. In this final, final season, it was decided to update the look of the show and make it something more animation-friendly. At one point, while playing with the new look, the animators took inspiration from the latest songs from Uncanny X-Men — who bore little or no resemblance to Jim Lee’s appearance.
When the fans went crazy
The series of superstar artists coming out of the monthly Uncanny X-Men comic didn’t stop with Jim Lee. Within two years of his departure, Joe Madureira had taken over the title, with a style far removed from Lee’s stoic, idealized human anatomy, while embracing the wilds of Japanese comics and animation. Artists like Michael Golden and Arthur Adams had brought some anime elements into their work before, but it was Madureira who embraced the look and found a way to fuse Eastern and Western sensibilities in an American superhero comic. The “Joe Mad” style of art would soon be inescapable.
Amazingly, Madureira’s first Marvel work was published in the anthology series Marvel Comics presents in 1991, when he was only 16. After drawing the first Deadpool miniseries in 1993, Madureira became the new Uncanny X-Men pencil in 1994 before he even turned 20 years old. After revamping the look of the title, redesigning the X-Men and inspiring a new wave of impersonators, Marvel even asked Madureira to redesign the Avengers for a relaunch of the line in 1995. (That was cut short when Marvel’s new management struck a deal with two Image founders to return to Marvel…and one of those creators happened to be Jim Lee.) When Madureira left Uncanny X-Men, he was the most popular cartoonist in comics and the father of a cartoonish, playful style of superhero art that took over the industry. A 2002 edition of wizard magazine, once the veritable “Guide to Comics,” Madureira is said to be one of the ten most influential comics artists of all time.
Fresh, inspired and rejected
Early promotion for the final X-Men: The Animated Series As the season surfaced, rumors circulated that the series would take on an anime-esque look, inspired by the new style popularized by Joe Madureira. What finally aired in the fall of 1997, however, would not be mistaken by anyone for a Joe Mad comic. The show’s new look was cartoonish and bouncy, and a source of confusion and controversy among some fans, but clearly not something borrowed from the popular Madureira comics. the rumors of X-Men that once resembled the Joe Mad look was forgotten, until the 2020 release X-Men: The Art and Making of The Animated Series by Eric Lewald and Julia Lewald.
The book does a great job of archiving every design in the series, from background extras to character updates that have never been made public before. In a section covering the latest “near-episodes”, the Lewalds finally confirm what the final episodes could have been:
During the final, 11-episode reflective season, the new design team, led by series veterans Frank Squillace and Mark Lewis, came up with a fun idea amid all the cuts: a fresh look for the entire cast. Taller, slimmer and even more anime-influenced, these character models were suggested by our dedicated artists at just the wrong time. When budgets were cut, the last thing the production supervisors needed was the extra cost of redesigning the characters (which had in fact just been seriously “simplified” to save money). The “no” was quick and clear. However, thanks to model designer Mark Lewis, this potential “new look” for the X-Men team has been preserved and is presented here for the first time.
It turns out those early reports were true – these designs (from animators Frank Squillace and Mark Lewis) look like they came from the pages of a Joe Mad Uncanny X-Men matter. The book actually reprints several more of these models, takes up quite a few pages, and features characters who never actually appeared on the show, such as Mesmero. The following X Men ’97 refurbishing from X-Men: The Animated Series goes with its own look, more inspired by the original designs and borrows elements from modern cartoons, but maybe someday fans can see an animated re-imagining of this 1997 X-Men season as it was originally intended.