With a reboot on the horizon, continual comic book tributes, and ongoing love from fans who grew up with the show, X-Men: the Animated Series seems to be as popular as ever. 30 years removed from its debut, it might be difficult today to appreciate what made the series so unique, but certainly one aspect was its fidelity to the source material.
Showrunner Eric Lewald has discussed in recent years the crew’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 to be a natural choice for the show.
That ’90s Show
The issue with this is the awkward timing of X-Men‘s development. The show was entering production as Jim Lee was departing Marvel to become one of the co-founders of Image Comics, a company comprised of top Marvel artists and instantly the House of Ideas’ major competition. A few years back, 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 provided this quote:
My goal at that point was to do something as close to the contemporary comics as possible, so we started with the Jim Lee designs (among many available). But we had this side-trip of them because shortly after we started, after I had gotten the initial designs of Wolverine, Cyclops, and Jean approved, suddenly 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 major Marvel guys had announced that they were leaving to found Image Comics.
Meugniot later explained how he subverted this edict by turning in a “young/funny Hanna Barbera” series of designs for Marvel to approve. As he suspected, Marvel turned them down. Marvel’s hesitation about using Jim Lee’s work didn’t last long, and the series continued on in what’s now known as “the ’90s style” for the majority of its lengthy run.
The Changing Times
Debuting only a few weeks before 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 was continuing a tradition that began in the previous decade with Sunbow’s GI Joe (specifically designed to resemble a Russ Heath war comic book), Batman took an entirely different path. The show’s lead designer Bruce Timm spent time on GI Joe in the 1980s and had become convinced that the detail-heavy designs translated poorly to television animation, partially due to overseas animators who lacked the budget and time to do the look justice.
As Timm told Vulture back in 2017,
I had worked on a bunch of action-adventure shows for TV before, and every single one of them, I thought, was overdesigned. They were trying to impress people with the amount of detail. On GI Joe, especially, it wasn’t enough just to draw a belt on a character, the belt had seams and buttons and snaps and pockets. There’s no good reason to draw every shoelace on a shoe. Just make it a simple shape.
The look was so different, Timm recalls how the network reacted to the initial Batman test footage:
We did get a lot of pushback from different people, even people who had seen the pilot and were impressed by that. They would say, “Oh, you’re gonna make the show look more detailed and it’ll look more like a comic book, right?” And we were like, “No, it’s gonna look like this. This works. And we know this is gonna 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 yet, X-Men: the Animated Series remained a hit, and was very much not in the “Timm style.” And while the model sheets on X-Men look truly nice — so well-drawn and rendered they could’ve appeared in an actual Marvel comic — many episodes suffered from animation studios either 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 each time the show’s production was supposed to end. Lewald refers to that final batch as the “afterthought season,” as it was created after the crew had assumed X-Men was truly over. In this final, final season, a decision was made to update the look of the show and create something more animation-friendly. When toying with the new look, the animators at one point drew inspiration from the latest issues of Uncanny X-Men — which bore little, if any, resemblance to Jim Lee’s look.
When the Fans Went Mad
The streak of superstar artists emerging from 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 that veered far away from Lee’s stoic, idealized human anatomy while embracing the wilds of Japanese comics and animation. Artists like Michael Golden and Arthur Adams had previously brought some anime elements into their work, but it was Madureira who embraced the look and found a way to meld 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 penciling the first Deadpool miniseries in 1993, Madureira became the new Uncanny X-Men penciller in 1994 before he’d even turned 20 years old. After revamping the look of the title, redesigning the X-Men and inspiring a new wave of imitators, Marvel even asked Madureira to redesign the Avengers for a 1995 relaunch of the line. (Which was cut short when Marvel’s new management cut a deal with two Image founders to return to Marvel…and one of those creators just happened to be Jim Lee.) When Madureira left Uncanny 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 early promotion for the final X-Men: the Animated Series season surfaced, rumors circulated that the series would be adopting an anime-flavored look, inspired by the new style popularized by Joe Madureira. What eventually aired in the fall of 1997, however, wouldn’t be confused with a Joe Mad comic by anyone. The show’s new look was cartoonier and bouncier, and a source of confusion and controversy among some fans, but clearly not something drawn from the popular Madureira comics. The rumors of X-Men ever resembling the Joe Mad look had been forgotten, until the release of 2020’s X-Men: The Art and Making of The Animated Series by Eric Lewald and Julia Lewald.
The book does an incredible job of archiving every design from the series, from background extras to character revamps never before made public. In a section covering the final “afterthought” episodes, the Lewalds finally confirm what the final episodes could’ve been:
During the final, afterthought season of eleven episodes, the new design team, led by series veterans Frank Squillace and Mark Lewis, came up with a fun idea amid all the cutbacks: a fresh look for the entire cast. Longer, leaner, even more anime-influenced, these character models were proposed by our dedicated artists at exactly the wrong time. When budgets were being slashed, the last thing the production supervisors needed was the added expense of redesigning the characters (that in fact had just been severely “simplified” to save money). The “no” was quick and firm. 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.
As it turns out, those early reports were true — these designs (from animators Frank Squillace and Mark Lewis) look as if they walked off the pages of a Joe Mad Uncanny X-Men issue. The book actually reprints several more of these models, taking up quite a few pages and featuring characters who never had real appearances in the show like Mesmero. The upcoming X-Men ’97 revamp of X-Men: the Animated Series is going with its own look, inspired more by the original designs and borrowing elements from modern cartooning, but perhaps one day fans can see an animated re-imagining of this 1997 X-Men season as it was originally intended.