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X-Men: The Animated Series’ Eric Lewald talks adapting ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’ for TV

Story Editor Eric Lewald on creating what remains the best adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”

To celebrate the release of Giant-Size X-Men: Jean Grey and Emma Frost, AIPT proudly presents JEAN GREY + EMMA FROST WEEK – seven days of original articles and interviews about two X-Women so eXtraordinary, they don’t need codenames!
X-Men: The Last Stand and Dark Phoenix: Regardless of how these films performed at the box office, it’s fair to say they didn’t provide inspired takes on Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s iconic X-Men storyline. Fans of the ’90s X-Men: The Animated Series, however, were treated to what, in my opinion, remains the best adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”

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As both Jean Grey and Emma Frost played a role in this four-episode arc, AIPT’s Jean Grey + Emma Frost Week was the perfect time to revisit Dark Phoenix and “The Phoenix Saga” that preceded it with the cartoon’s Story Editor Eric Lewald.

AIPT: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Eric! How did you and the rest of the X-Men: The Animated Series team decide it was time to tackle “The Phoenix Saga” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga”?

Eric: Fox TV and Marvel Comics decided. By summer of 1993, the show had been a runaway No. 1 hit for six months and we had completed writing the second season of scripts, bringing the total stories to 26. At that point, Fox committed to three more seasons (39 more episodes), and I, executive Sidney Iwanter, producer Scott Thomas, and director Larry Houston visited Marvel’s New York offices to brainstorm and discuss various characters and bits of storyline we would all like to see in the next 39 half-hours. “Phoenix” and “Dark Phoenix” were at the top of Marvel’s list.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

The only direct adaptation we had made so far was “Days of Future Past,” which we had suggested, and it and the two Phoenixes were the only direct adaptations we ever committed to. Every other story used bits and pieces from the books, but these were the “big three.” 

AIPT: How did you approach adapting the two comic book epics? Obviously, there were a lot of extra plot points and characters in both that there just wasn’t space for on TV. How did you decide what to cut and what to add?

Eric: Primarily we focused on Jean Grey (who was going through the Phoenix transformation) and on those people who cared most about her. Secondarily, we focused on Xavier, whose connection to Lilandra brought the worlds beyond Earth into our stories for the first time. When we looked at the many subplots in the books, we trimmed them away or bolstered them, depending on how they helped support these two central through-lines.

AIPT: When we last spoke, during AIPT’s Uncanny X-Month, you mentioned that Jean Grey was initially considered a “secondary character” on the show. Were you at all nervous about putting her front and center in the two storylines?

Eric: No, for two reasons. We were excited to do it because we had felt that we had underused her in the first two seasons and this gave us a chance to give her more screen time. Second, by now we had established that she was a kind of emotional center for the team–someone who could talk honestly with any of the others, who understood them–so we knew she would sustain a good story focus for our team of X-Men.

AIPT: I’m curious, did you run into trouble adapting the Hellfire Club to kids’ TV? The name was changed to the Circle Club, after all. And, obviously, Emma Frost’s White Queen and Jean’s Black Queen costumes were a bit racier in the comics–was that a problem?

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Eric: As a “children’s show for Saturday morning TV,” we were always aware of the tight limits we had on sex and violence–limits far tighter than the comics had. Luckily, since we were focused on Jean/Phoenix and Xavier and Lilandra, adjusting secondary characters wasn’t a big worry for us. Also, we believe we got the intensity of Jean’s Black-Queen sensuality across in her dialogue and in Catherine Disher’s performance. Jean-as-Phoenix is so much bigger, more dramatic, in animation than Jean-as-Black-Queen that we never felt the loss.

AIPT: Jean’s story in the comics obviously takes a much darker turn, as she destroys an inhabited planet and is killed at the conclusion of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” Did you ever consider killing off Jean, or was that always out of the question?

Eric: First, we knew from the beginning we couldn’t have Dark Phoenix destroy an inhabited planet, so we worked with that disappointing limitation from day one. We hope we got across how deadly she could be. Second, we very much believe that killing Jean off would have been the proper heroic sacrifice for the story. We didn’t for two reasons. First, we needed her for the remaining 20 stories–a problem in all comics and serialized TV. And second, we’d had a convincing seeming-death in “Phoenix,” which was then revealed to not be Jean’s end after all. We didn’t want to repeat that. We thought up the shared sacrifice of the rest of the team (10% of their lives–a handy cheat) as a way around it.

AIPT: Filmmakers have tried twice to adapt “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and both films have received mixed reactions from fans. What advice do you have for those who may one day, once again, try to adapt this classic storyline to the big or small screen?

Eric: I wish I knew (and that they had asked us to help). Animated TV comics-adaptations and live-action feature comics-adaptations are similar but not the same. The great TV critic Brian Lowry thinks animation suits super-hero-comics adaptations better than live action–something about suspension of disbelief. Mutants with super-powers are hard enough–then in these cases you add space aliens. You can get lost in the spectacle. I believe that the recent Spider-Man animated feature was better than any of the live-action movies, most of which I enjoyed a great deal. When in doubt, keep the story simple and trust in the characters to propel the story (the movie Logan is a good example).

AIPT: Before X-Men: The Animated Series, Jean Grey wasn’t a part of the various X-Men animated casts, on Pryde of the X-Men and assorted Spider-Man cameos. What made you include her over other characters like Psylocke, Colossus and Iceman in the main cast?

Eric: She asserted herself. As writer Mark Edens and I laid out the first, then the second season of stories, we kept coming back to needing to use her in scenes, often to reveal depths of other characters. She was an emotional center, trusted, a glue that helped keep the disparate team together. Luckily, she was a true legacy character, so no one ever felt we were being intrusive by featuring her.

AIPT: Finally, so many people are rewatching and discovering X-Men: The Animated Series on Disney+. How exciting has that been for you and the rest of the show’s cast and crew to see?

Eric: We have been going to a lot of Comic Cons since finishing the book Previously on X-Men in 2017. We’ve brought in artists, writers, and, more recently, a number of the cast members. It has always been gratifying to meet some of the millions of people who love the show. So many have shared it on DVD with their kids or wanted to. Now it is out there again so everyone can enjoy it. And yes, to have not only been involved with a show that got through to people, that was “their show,” but to have it continue on, not “dating” or being forgotten nearly 30 years later is incredible.

AIPT: Incredible and very well deserved. Thanks again, Eric!

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