An African goddess clad in silver and a Southern belle in yellow and green spandex soar into the night sky as a blue-black jet flies in behind them. As they fly, the women and the jet weave and spiral around each other. The perspective zooms in and out of the aircraft, showing other colorful characters before ultimately shifting back to the women and the jet, now flying in parallel across the screen with one word in the background: X-MEN.
This is the memorable opening scene of X-Men: The Animated Series (1992–97), one of the most popular and beloved shows in recent television history. And just as the show’s characters had X-factor genes that gave them amazing superpowers, three UT alumni combined their own X factors to create a cult classic that made Fox a competitive network and spawned a multibillion-dollar movie genre.
Eric Lewald (’76), Mark Edens (’79), and Michael Edens (’73, ’78) had been in Hollywood for nearly a decade writing (sometimes together and sometimes separately) for kids’ series like Winnie the Pooh, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Beetlejuice, Chip ’n’ Dale Rescue Rangers, and TailSpin. Though it came later, the trio also worked on the live-action series Young Hercules, starring a teenage Ryan Gosling.
When Lewald—who details his experience in the book Previously on X-Men: The Making of an Animated Series—landed the job as showrunner for a new X-Men venture based on Marvel’s classic comic books, he knew there was no one else he trusted more than the Edens brothers to help him translate the comic books to a series.
“I loved writing for Winnie the Pooh,” says Lewald, “but X-Men was an action show, tough, and something heroic. These guys will always be my first choice for that.”
Lewald says the trio got to know each other while programming films on the UT Film Committee and writing stories together.
“I get crap from other people in the business because when a show like this would come up, I’d hire these two guys and a couple of other UT alums, John Loy and Bruce Reid Schaefer. They called us the Tennessee Mafia,” says Lewald. “But you hire who you know. When you’ve got people you trust and have a shorthand with, they’ll always be the first people you call.”
The bond they formed at UT resulted in the Edens brothers becoming writers and series co-developers. Lewald created the series “bible” (the show’s blueprint), Mark wrote the pilot episode, and together they set up a season-long story arc—something that had rarely been attempted with an animated show.
“Comics tell long stories, like soap operas,” says Lewald. “They hook you to come to the next show.” The network initially resisted, saying kids won’t remember the story from one episode to the next. Eventually, a 10-second recap was placed at the beginning of each episode. Hearing “Previously, on X-Men” became a moment of true excitement for diehard fans.
Mark ended up writing five of the first 13 scripts, including the popular premiere episode “Night of the Sentinels,” which featured the death of one of the X-Men—a first for an animated series.
“I was not a comic book person, which might have helped in a way,” says Mark. “I just approached it as if the X-Men comic books were like the real world we were making a TV show about. You tried to stay true to the reality of the comic books as much as you could while adapting it to a different form.”
Like his younger brother, Michael also had no experience with X-Men but liked the idea of working on a different kind of animated show.
“I knew it would be fun working with the people involved,” Michael says in Lewald’s book. “It sounded like something that would push the envelope on the usual Saturday morning animated action-adventure genre.”
Saving the Tennessee Theatre
It’s hard to imagine Gay Street without the magnificent Tennessee Theatre sign illuminating the night, but that’s what nearly happened in 1977 when the theatre closed. If it hadn’t been for a UT professor and a few young alumni, the theatre may never have become the showplace it is today.
THE UT FACTOR
While creating X-Men: TAS and other series, the trio often tapped into the education they received at UT.
Lewald and Mark were among the very first College Scholars, an interdisciplinary honors program in the College of Arts and Sciences that allows students to craft their own majors. Lewald was one of UT’s first three graduates with a major in cinema studies (which is now an established program), while Mark combined history and creative writing. Michael started out in journalism and switched to history, earning an undergrad degree in European history and a master’s in modern British history.
All three took creative writing classes from Professor Robert Drake—which, coincidentally, is the real name of the X-Men character Iceman—who inspired them to focus on storytelling. The knowledge they gained from Drake, along with their history classes, turned out to be important to their scriptwriting.
“Studying history helps you see how things interconnect,” says Michael. “It helps you put together a believable world for your characters to inhabit.”
The story of the X-Men and other mutants being hated and feared by humans appealed to Mark’s love of history. “It really tied in with discrimination and racism,” he says. “We didn’t browbeat people with it, but it was really clear.”
He references an episode when a young mutant gets captured and asks the villain, “What have I done? What did I do wrong?” The villain replies, “You were born!”
“It’s a really powerful statement,” Mark says. “That was a big thing in the comic books that translated really well into the animated show.”
THE X-MEN INFLUENCE
After production delays and problems with animation caused the show to miss its September premiere mark, a prime-time sneak peek aired on Halloween 1992. Once the Fox Kids show officially premiered in January 1993, the show began pulling in six to eight million viewers a week.
According to Lewald’s book, the Saturday morning show would sometimes draw over half the TV-watching households in America—more than NBC, ABC, and CBS combined—vaulting Fox into serious contention as a big network and essentially disrupting TV as the viewer had known it for the previous 50 years.
“We had hit on something and captured some lightning in a bottle,” Lewald says. But the success was bittersweet since no one on the production had a contract past the first season. “It caught fire, and they were a little red-faced about it and had to rehire us.”
X-Men: TAS lasted for five seasons and set off an avalanche of superhero shows and movies. The first X-Men movie hit the big screen in 2000, and there have been 11 more since that time. Separately, Marvel Studios has produced 18 movies since 2008—a few of which have earned more than a billion dollars at the box office—and six more are slated for the next two years.
However, it’s the way the show inspired people that is more impressive. In Lewald’s book, fan testimonials praise the show for teaching tolerance, being an escape from a troubled life, and, in the case of one blogger who was bullied in school, stopping him from taking his own life.
“At the time, making the show was just our job, something we all tried to do to the best of our ability,” writes Lewald. “How it grew to be something larger remains a mystery to me, though one for which I will be forever grateful.”
Photographs by Erik Campos