Blogging X-Men: The Animated Series

X-Men: The Animated Series is not anime, and even the most vocal proponents of widening the definition of the term would not label it as such. It’s an American cartoon, and arguably doesn’t belong on a blog called Otakusphere, which is mostly about anime most of the time. However, X-Men:TAS was kind of like my gateway drug to everything otaku: discovering the X-Men cartoon led to a passion for American comics, which led to a passion for anime and manga, which led to me becoming…well, me. If I hadn’t become a huge X-Men fan at the age of 11, chances are I would be a vastly different person today.

Maybe I would be a better person. I mean, maybe if I hadn’t wasted so much time with cartoons, comics and anime, I could have become a doctor, found a cure for cancer, and already gone down in history as one of the most important people to have ever lived. Maybe I should be pissed as hell at the X-Men for keeping me from sundry achievements in medicine, astronomy, or theoretical physics. Instead, I became the kind of person who writes thousands of words about cartoons on the internet, and I think I should probably just go with that at this point.

I tried to have my cake and eat it too by blogging the 2011 X-Men anime; it was anime and X-Men at the same time, score! Unfortunately, it was a pretty terrible show. Still, I was probably harder on it than I should have been because I was mad at it for the unforgivable crime of not being the X-Men show I really wanted to write about. So I apologize, X-Men anime; you were kind of bad, but I could have been nicer to you.

Now I want to cut the nonsense and go through my childhood obsession show episode by episode, which I think I’ve really wanted to do for a long time without consciously thinking about it. This will probably be like my Tomb Raider project, something I dip into from time to time when I’m taking a break from anime.

Let’s start by going down the cast list before diving into the show proper, so I don’t drag the individual episode posts off-topic by waxing poetic about certain characters. It’s funny that I think of this roster as being the “classic” X-Men line-up, when it’s really not at all; in fact, to comic fans at the time, this team probably seemed like a slap in the face. Where were X-Men stalwarts like Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Kitty Pryde? Why was Gambit included, when he was only created about ten minutes before the show aired? Even so, for better or for worse, I’ll always think of this team as my X-Men.

Cyclops

Character created: 1963

Power(s): Constant beam of concussive energy issuing from his eyes.

Voice Actor: Norm Spencer

At the time, I didn’t care much for Cyclops; he was just a boring authority figure. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate him. He’s usually a competent leader, but suffers from the deep-seated fear that if he ever screws up, Professor X might just drop him back in the orphanage where he found him.  He loves the professor as a father figure, but on another level he resents the hell out of him; on the show, he never seems to realize this. In the comics, he absolutely did.

The comics-version of Cyclops is one of the few characters who went through genuine character development, without said development being constantly compromised by resetting him back to the status quo. Cyclops, towards the end of his life, had changed dramatically from the person he was introduced as. Unfortunately, he’d changed into a person I didn’t like at all, but that doesn’t take away from the achievement that he was a Marvel Comics character who actually (and believably) changed as a person due to his experiences. He’s dead now in the comics, but his entire character arc represents a singular achievement; until they inevitably revive him and screw it all up again, that is.

It’s nostalgic to see this innocent version of Cyclops, basically a big Boy Scout troop leader who’s trying so hard to please his adoptive father and his girlfriend that he can’t see that he’s grinding himself down in the process. In the world of the animated series, Cyclops seems to agree with the Professor’s principles, whereas in the comics (I almost said “real life”), he finds that he doesn’t. In a way that makes Cyclops problem more subtle on the show than it was on the page; the problem isn’t the ideas he’s being forced to represent, its the fact that he never was given a choice in the first place.

Wolverine

Character Created: 1975

Power(s): Enhanced agility and senses, super-accelerated healing, claws protruding from hands; skeleton bonded with super-strong metal, which is not a natural power but the result of tampering by Those Evil Government Types.

Voice Actor: Cal Dodd

Another character who’s grown on me tremendously over the years. At the time, it bugged me that Wolverine was so obviously the star and we were all supposed to like him; it annoyed me how much screentime he got, and I wished everyone else would get equal time in the sun. I didn’t really care for his gruff attitude, and I thought that having knives come out the back of your hands was a boring superpower; to be fair, it still is.

Once you crack the Wolverine code, and realize that Logan is the most sensitive of all the X-Men– even moreso than teenaged Jubilee– then he suddenly becomes much more interesting. He’s been deeply scarred by losing practically everyone he’s ever cared about, but his memory has been so tampered with over time that he’s not even sure who those people were. He’s always mourning someone, but he doesn’t always know who it is. Both in the comics and on the show, Wolverine’s stories have tackled surprisingly complex themes about identity; if you as a person are the sum of all your previous actions, how can you even know who you are if memory is fallible?

I think the X-Men movies to date missed a lot of opportunities to take advantage of the strengths of the comics, but one area where they absolutely succeeded was with Wolverine: casting, attitude, etc. And Logan is one of the best superhero films ever made, to the point of not feeling like a superhero film at all. Wolverine’s cinema presence is having an odd effect on me though; I never found cartoon Wolverine attractive in the slightest, but now that I associate him with Hugh Jackman, I’m finding early ’90s Wolverine to be oddly sexy, and it’s weird. I really need this to stop, because everyone and their Mom knows that Gambit is supposed to be the sexy one.

Rogue

Character Created: 1981

Power(s): “Life-sucking” touch that sucks out other people’s strength, memory, and superpowers, either temporarily or permanently; flight, super-strength and near-invincibility have been permanently stolen from Carol Danvers, AKA Ms. Marvel.

Voice Actor: Lenore Zann

Everyone loves Rogue. You can tell even the animators loved Rogue, because whenever she’s onscreen, the art quality seems to go up by about 30 percent. Everything about the show will look dull and kind of muddy, then Rogue flies into the room, all crisp linework, and suddenly, it almost looks like an anime.

Rogue was my favorite character for a long time, even though as a kid, I really didn’t understand the nature of her problem. I remember thinking it was weird that she complains that her power doesn’t allow her to touch anyone, whereas she touches people all the time; that’s what her gloves are for! It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that Rogue’s real problem was that she couldn’t have intimacy. I guess this is what happens when you discover X-Men before you discover sex.

The animated series version of Rogue has a bit of a problem though, because she’s much, much more open to using her life-sucking power than she is in the comics. This changes the nature of the character a bit, because it’s hard to believe that she deeply hates her superpower when she uses it all the time. The problem is, if she didn’t use it, then the audience wouldn’t really know who Rogue is supposed to be. I think Rogue’s issues, and her moral issues with stealing other people’s powers and memories, were on the cusp of being too dark for a kids show to deal with. They tried admirably though, as the Ms. Marvel flashback episode demonstrates.

One thing that used to really bug me as a kid was that Rogue would always get thrown around, run over by trucks, etc., just because she was the only one who could survive that kind of punishment. I hated seeing my favorite girl get pummeled just to show off how strong the enemy was. It still kind of bugs me, but now I understand that one of the reason that happens is that Rogue intentionally takes hits for the rest of the team; at the time, it seemed like all the villains were just being really mean to her. Stop throwing Rogue into things, meanies! What has she ever done to you? Besides possibly stolen your memories and powers, that is?

Storm

Character Created: 1975

Power(s): Ability to manipulate the weather, which manifests as wind-riding (flight), throwing lightning, making snow, and doing basically whatever the writer can think of that is even vaguely weather-related.

Voice Actors: Iona Morris, later Alison Sealy-Smith

There are almost as many versions of Storm as there are comic books published. You have original, Earth-Mother Storm, Saavy Thief Storm, Megalomaniac Storm, Competent Leader Storm, Vicious Brawler Storm, etc. She’s a character who’s gone through a lot of changes over her publishing history, but with much less consistency than Cyclops. When Chris Claremont was writing her back in the ’80s, she had a definitive personality; ever since then, every writer has put their own spin on her. You never really know what you’re going to get with Storm these days.

Almost by necessity, the cartoon goes with the most boring version of Storm; naive, Earth-Mother Storm. This is because if she was shown as being as smart and competent a field leader as she often is in the comics, then she’d be taking over Cyclops’ role. Plus, her backstory– the stuff that makes up the core of Storm’s personality– actually was too dark for the cartoon to deal with. We’ll get to this in more detail in episode 4, but basically, we got a severely watered-down version of Storm on this show because the real one just wouldn’t have worked on a program rated Y-7.

Even Storm’s skin color is toned down; on the show, she could pass for a white woman who just got back from Hawaii and has a great tan. It was a little bit of a shock when I read the comics and realized that Storm was actually black. From our modern perspective, it’s  appalling that they changed Storm’s character design to make her more appealing to white people, but I think it’s better to shrug this off as a bad decision and let it go; it was 25 years ago. We have enough to worry about with racial representation in today’s programming.

Even with all these limitations, the TV character still has some charm. I love when she gets snarky, because it’s such a contrast to her typically grandiose way of speaking. But it wasn’t until I read the comics that I realized why Storm was actually an interesting character, as opposed to a boring character with interesting powers.

Beast

Character Created: 1963

Power(s): Enhanced agility, with enlarged hands and feet. Technically his blue fur and ape-like appearance isn’t a mutation, but let’s not get into that. Also genius-level intellect, although it’s never been clear if that should really count as a mutation.

Voice Actor: George Buza

One part mad scientist, one part Frankenstein’s monster, one part loopy English professor who really wants you to do well on the exam; I love this version of Beast, full-stop. He’s like a blast of pure joy whenever he’s on screen. In the comics they tried to give him this existential angst, and it was usually more annoying than interesting. Even on the show, he still had a dark, brooding side, but they didn’t overplay it the way they did in the comics.

What’s really fun about going back to this show as an adult is getting all the literary references centered around Beast that went completely over my head as a kid. One thing that sticks out in my mind is when Rogue and Gambit go to visit him in prison during Season One, they bring him a copy of You Can’t Go Home Again, to which Beast responds “Thomas Wolfe; an old friend.” Any old friend of Thomas Wolfe’s is a friend of mine!

As much as I like the character, I find I have very little to say about him in this incarnation; he’s just wonderful. Wonderful things are self-evidently wonderful, you don’t really have to explain it.

Gambit

Character Created: 1990

Power(s): Ability to kinetically charge objects so they’ll explode, enhanced agility, some kind of hypnotic tomfoolery that the show wisely ignored completely.

Voice Actors: Chris Potter, later Tony Daniels

I’m going to break with protocol and give away a closely-guarded secret here. If you know any female, any woman at all, who was on the cusp of puberty in 1992, she was in love with Gambit. Like, if you gave her a form and asked her to fill in her sexuality, if she’s being honest she would ignore the boxes for “straight” and “gay” and add a box called “Gambit,” then check that box three times.

I didn’t have relationships until relatively late in life, and up to this point, I have allowed people to believe it was because my standards were very high; in reality, the reason why I didn’t date for so many years was because I never ran into anyone who looked sufficiently like Gambit to make it worth the bother.

Why was I so into Gambit? Why were so many of the girls I knew into Gambit? I think it’s because he’s kind of like the archetype of the mysterious, handsome guy who knows a lot of stuff you don’t know. Adults often find his character grating for just that reason, but when you’re 11, you’ve never seen that kind of character before, it’s still exciting to you.

Gambit was another character where the show wasn’t able to explore his darker aspects, but unlike Storm, I think this actually worked in his favor, making the cartoon version the superior incarnation of the character. The trick with Gambit is he’s supposed to have some really dark stuff in his past, and oh, if only the X-Men knew what it was, they’d be forced to kick him out in disgust. But the moment you reveal that stuff, if it really is dark and sinister, he stops being viable as a hero; if it’s not dark enough, then the audience feels lied to. The comics successfully threaded this needle until about 1995, then after that most of what they did with Gambit was just embarrassing. Even now, most writers have no clue what to do with him.

A part of me will always love Gambit the way he appears here, An 11-Year-Old Girl’s Introduction to Sex. I have changed over time, and am no longer strictly Gambit-sexual (I also found a place in my heart for Squall Leonhart from Final Fantasy VIII), but this cartoon character with an odd obsession with playing cards and the color pink will always be my first love…I mean, my first cartoon crush. Same thing?

Jubilee

Character Created: 1989

Power(s): Ability to discharge brightly-colored energy from her hands that functions similarly to Cyclops’ eye lasers. Ability to make ’90s slang sound even more cringeworthy and painful than it actually was at the time. Ability to be a brat.

Voice Actor: Alyson Court

If Wolverine was the obvious star, Jubilee was the obvious Point-of-View character for the young audience, and I resented her for it. It was so obvious that I was supposed to relate to Jubilee, when I vastly preferred Rogue, Gambit, or Beast. I think her dialogue, peppered liberally with early-90’s slang, sounded incredibly dated even at the time, but that could just be my memory playing tricks on me.

That said, Jubilee has a lot going for her as a character. She took over the role that Kitty Pryde had in the ’80s as the X-Men’s resident teen sidekick, but while Kitty had to be annoyingly perfect at just about everything (at least to me), Jubilee is refreshingly average. She’s not supposed to be gorgeous, or brilliant, or particularly powerful as a mutant, but she knows what she wants and goes after it with considerable aplomb. She also has about zero tolerance for bullshit, something not true of the more romantic Kitty; as an orphan on the streets, she had it rough way before she found out she was a mutant.

Like Storm, Jubilee was basically turned white for the cartoon; you would never know that she was supposed to be Chinese. However, unlike Storm, this was true of Jubilee in the comics until pretty recently, so at least it was consistent.

Right now I kind of feel bad for Jubilee, because she’s been a horrendously abused character. First she was kicked off the X-Men on to a satellite team where she didn’t really belong, then she did nothing for about a decade, then she lost her powers, then she got turned into a vampire (seriously, a vampire), and God knows what else. I think they restored Jubilee to normal recently (meaning, she no longer drinks blood and is back to shooting fireworks out of her hands), but to say she’s been through the ringer would be an understatement.

Even though I wasn’t fond of her initially, it’s nice to see Jubes here as she was meant to be: energetic, bratty, and really excited about being part of a superhero team. To me, the most interesting thing about Jubilee is the fact that Wolverine was (and is) a much better father to her than he ever was to any of his actual children, but this show takes place before Wolverine’s kids were invented, so we’ll have to put that aside for now.

Jean Grey

Character Created: 1963

Powers: Telekinesis and Telepathy. Ability to become a giant, invincible firebird flying in space, but that may be from an alien possessing her, or maybe it was really her all along? It’s complicated.

Voice Actor: Catherine Disher

It has recently come to my attention that I have no clue who Jean Grey is.

On this show, she’s very feminine and altruistic; definitely the Mom of the team. However, for most of her character’s history, she wasn’t like this in the comics. When Stan and Jack invented her in the ’60s, she was Stan Lee’s typical “pretty girl” character; practically indistinguishable from Sue Storm or any of Lee’s other female creations. When Claremont reinvented her in the ’70s, it was as a fiery redhead, with special emphasis on the “fiery” part. The character died in 1980, then after she was revived years later, writers tried to write her kind of like Claremont had written her, only a little less fiery. (At least, that’s what I think; to be completely honest, I haven’t read the early issues of X-Factor yet.)

In the early 2000’s, written by Grant Morrison, she was a brainy, aggressive genius, who was very interesting but seemed to come out of nowhere. Then she died again, and they’ve since brought her back, as recently as a few months ago. I have no idea what her personality is like now, because I’m not buying X-Men Red: it’s not happening, Marvel.

I’m kind of fond of the motherly, calm version of Jean we get on the show, even if she’s not really consistent with her comic counterpart, because at least I know who she’s supposed to be. Towards the end of the show they tried to play up the “fiery redhead” angle a little more, and it mostly just felt forced. TAS Jean is like your Mom, or rather like a mom on a 1950’s sitcom, and trying to give her an edge just doesn’t work.

One thing to note about Jean is that her Jim Lee-designed costume made the worst transition from page to screen. Her ’90s outfit was just some strange aerobics-type getup, but when Jim Lee was drawing the X-Men, everyone looked so damned gorgeous it didn’t even matter what they were wearing. On the show it just looked dumb, even when it was on-model, which wasn’t often.

Professor X

Character Created: 1963

Power(s): Extremely powerful telepathy. Technically has the ability to use mind control, although he never does it because if he did, the X-Men would have no enemies and it would be a very boring series.

Voice Actor: Cedric Smith

Just like TAS Gambit and Beast are my preferred versions of those characters, the cartoon Professor Xavier will always be the real professor to me. As much as I enjoyed Patrick Stewart’s portrayal of the character (especially in Logan), I felt like his Xavier never quite escaped the shadow of Captain Picard. When I think “Professor X,” I hear Cedric Smith’s voice.

A lot of the character’s appeal can be pinned on Smith’s performance, which was serious and intense without quite crossing the line to sounding pompous; well, okay, sometimes he sounded pompous, but I’m pretty sure it was intentional. But I think the cartoon distilled what was good about Xavier without getting caught up in his domineering, paternalistic baggage. He was commanding, and a father figure, but generally always seemed like a nicer person to me than his comic counterpart.

What was really striking to me (though I only realized this recently), is how much of his dialogue on the show takes the form of questions. Xavier is supposed to be very intelligent, but sometimes his arrogance undermines this; on the show, he had the humility to always know how much he didn’t know. I wish his comic version was as perceptive.

In the name of “progress,” the comics have ditched Xavier and his dream of human-mutant peace; I think that was a terrible mistake. I have no interest in a group of paramilitary fighters with superpowers who grumble about how “naive” Xavier was with his dream of coexistence; I get enough ideological terrorists in the real world, thanks.

Where the X-Men are concerned, my happy place will always be a relatively small team, holed up in a nice mansion in Westchester County, with Professor Xavier at the helm. If I think the X-Men were more likable and interesting in this incarnation than they are currently, it’s undoubtedly part nostalgia, but it’s not only that. To me, for all it’s flaws– often hokey dialogue, limited animation and all– this show really captured what the X-Men are supposed to be about. I wish they were still like this, but if I can’t have that, at least I’ll always have this show.

Next time I feel like writing a silly amount of words about the X-Men, we’ll tackle the pilot episode of the series, and how you know a kids cartoon means business when they kill off a character in Episode 1.

4 thoughts on “Blogging X-Men: The Animated Series”

  1. Oh man this this should be fun! I remember loving this show as a kid. Cool music, awesome action and likeable characters. With Wolverine still being one of my faves. This didn’t propel me into fandom or comics because I was a naive kid who just thought this was a cool cartoon, of which I also thought of anime at the time. Crazy huh?

    This was probably my first introduction into something serialized with a somewhat continuous story. I remember being blown away with the whole idea of Jean becoming the Phoenix in a later season.

    1. I think it was my first introduction to an animated cartoon with a continuous story too. I watched stuff like Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles when I was younger, but that tended to be pretty episodic. Maybe a knowledgeable TMNT fan will come and correct me that the show actually had multiple-episode arcs, but at least I remember that show being episodic.

      It’s interesting because at least part of the reason I fell in love with the X-Men was because it was like “Oh my God! A continuous narrative!”

      By the time the show did the Phoenix Saga, I had already jumped ship to the comics and thought I was “too mature” for the show; I only ended up watching it years after it aired. I was such a snotty kid, lol.

  2. If I may suggest my personal order for the majority portion of the series following the First Phoenix Saga, it mostly goes off the chronological order and provides a pretty solid way in following the less serialized remainder of the show. The “Volume” numbers listed with each episode refer to the DVD releases they can be found in.

    “No Mutant is an Island” (Volume 5)

    “Longshot” (Volume 5)

    “Cold Comfort” (Volume 3)

    “Obsession” (Volume 3)

    “Savage Land, Strange Heart” — Parts 1-2 (Volume 3)

    “The Dark Phoenix” — Parts 1-4 (Volume 3)

    “Orphans End” (Volume 3)

    “The Juggernaut Returns” (Volume 3)

    “Love in Vain” (Volume 4)

    “A Deal with the Devil” (Volume 5)

    “Sanctuary” — Parts 1-2 (Volume 4)

    “Xavier Remembers” (Volume 4)

    “Secrets, Not Long Buried” (Volume 4)

    “Nightcrawler” (Volume 3)

    “One Man’s Worth” — Parts 1-2 (Volume 3)

    “Courage” (Volume 3)

    “Proteus” — Parts 1-2 (Volume 4)

    “Family Ties” (Volume 4)

    “Weapon X, Lies, and Video Tape (Volume 3)

    “The Lotus and the Steel” (Volume 4)

    “Have Yourself a Morlock Little X-Mas” (Volume 4)

    “Bloodlines” (Volume 5)

    “Beyond Good and Evil” — Parts 1-4 (Volume 4)

    “The Phalanx Covenant” — Parts 1-2 (Volume 5)

    “Storm Front” — Parts 1-2 (Volume 5)

    “The Fifth Horseman”

    “Jubilee’s Fairytale Theatre”

    “Old Soldiers”

    “Hidden Agendas”

    “Descent”

    “Graduation Day”

  3. Interesting. I know you have to watch No Mutant is an Island after the Phoenix saga in order for things to make sense, but I didn’t consider changing the viewing order for the remaining episodes. It may be a while before I get up to Season 3, but I’ll keep your suggestions in mind.

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