The folks at Disney were kind enough to send me review copies of the first two volumes of the ‘90s X-MEN cartoon, which is finally out on DVD April 28th. Since the series debuted a few weeks after the widely canonized Batman: TAS cartoon, it’s often viewed dismissively amongst comics fans, which isn’t entirely fair. Bruce Timm’s stripped down, expressionistic designs bore little resemblance to the accepted look of action cartoons at the time, and while they might’ve been hard to swallow at first, it’s clear that he created a look that’s influenced animation for over ten years now. X-MEN, however, didn’t look much different than G. I. Joe, which was already getting close to ten years old when the show debuted (and X-MEN unfortunately didn’t have access to some of the higher quality Japanese animation studios Joe used in the ‘80s).
Everything about the look of the show goes against accepted animation design theories today, but in Fall 1992 this really didn’t seem that strange (if anything, Batman: TAS looked like the odd man out). The animators looked at the X-comics of the early ‘90s and faithfully recreated every detailed muscle line, strand of hair (and, boy, do Storm and Rogue have a lot of it), cheek bone, belt buckle, and fold of clothes imaginable. It really is a Marvel comic brought to life. It’s unfortunately too faithful to work with the abilities of overseas animation studios, though. The animation in the early episodes is often stiff and clumsy, and it’s not hard to spot the recurring continuity errors. However, things do improve as the first season progresses. By “Days of Future Past”, the characters have lost a bit of their stiffness, and the overall animation is much more consistent. It’s still not up to the standards of what Warner Brothers was doing with television animation at the time, but the show’s visuals are no longer a distraction and actually help to sell the stories by the end of the first season. (The two-part Season Three opener “Out of the Past” actually has remarkably fluid animation, which makes me wonder why this specific studio only worked on a handful of episodes).
The stories themselves are often faithful adaptations of the original source material, so it’s hard to fault the creators for giving Marvel what they obviously wanted. Some of the dialogue is a little clunky, but most of the X-Men’s personalities are effectively conveyed, making the show an easy introduction to the characters and concepts of the original comics. Each episode leads directly into the next (even if it’s just a last-minute cliffhanger that’s tagged on at the end of a complete story), mirroring the ongoing soap opera that brought so many fans into the comics during the ‘80s and ‘90s. The stories try to find a balance between entertaining kids and adults, and while the show obviously errs on the side of the kiddies, the material itself is rarely dumbed down. The show doesn’t shy away from death, as Sabretooth is rather unambiguously labeled a murderer, Magneto describes watching innocent women and children die as a child, and Morph bites the dust in the opening two-parter (he of course comes back, but that’s due to a fidelity to comic book style storytelling and not a squeamishness over death). Some of the episodes seem to drag on for too long, some are just silly (the less said about the Juggernaut/Colossus episode the better), but the majority of them are pretty entertaining. I always thought the final three episodes of the first season were particularly good, and was pleased to see that they hold up very well. The vocal performances are all over the place, which can occasionally distract from the storytelling. Some voices, such as Cal Dodd as Wolverine, are almost perfect, while other major characters rarely seem able to deliver a credible line of dialogue (the show could never get Cyclops or Storm to sound right).
The DVD sets contain sixteen episodes each, which means you get the first season plus the first three episodes of season two with Volume One, and the second season plus the first seven episodes of season three on Volume Two. (Despite the appearance of Dark Phoenix on the Volume Two cover, those episodes aren’t covered. It actually finishes with the original storyline that transforms Jean Grey into Phoenix, so she’s not “dark” yet.) I imagine the episode count was done solely for accounting reasons (probably to give the buyer a decent amount of episodes for around $20-$25 a set), because there’s no real reason for the first volume to end three episodes into an extended storyline with no resolution. Make no mistake that these are barebones releases, as there are no special features that I can find. You’re getting the shows as they originally aired and nothing else. It would’ve been nice to have a few interviews or audio commentaries, or perhaps even the “rough” preview version of the first two episodes that aired with numerous animation blunders, but the sets don’t seem to be aimed at the more hardcore audience that pays attention to those things. Since numerous fans were brought into comics through this series, I imagine just the nostalgic appeal of seeing the episodes again is enough to warrant a purchase for many. I was already a fan before the series aired, but I can’t deny that seeing my favorite comic so faithfully translated into an animated series was a thrill. Looking back on the cartoons of your youth is always dangerous (Thundercats didn’t seem to induce narcolepsy as a child, oddly enough), but X-MEN has its moments, even if the styles have moved on.