Blast from the Past: A Nostalgic Look Back at Kid's TV from the 90's

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Interview with Sidney Iwanter, VP of Fox Kids (1990-1998)

To commemorate the 15th anniversary of the premiere of X-Men on the Fox Kids Network on Saturday, October 31, 1992, Blast From the Past recently had the opportunity to interview Sidney Iwanter, the Vice President of the Fox Kids Network from its creation in 1990 up until 1998, about his role as the creative executive at the network put in charge of overseeing the X-Men series.

BFTP: What exactly was your role as the Executive Director of the series?

SI: I was the network executive in charge of shows such as X-Men, Batman the Animated Series, Spider-Man, Beetlejuice, Goosebumps, Silver Surfer, and Sam and Max among others.  Each show that airs on a network has a 'suit' in charge of it.  The executive assigned to a show okays all premises, outlines, scripts, storyboards, first cuts and final cuts.  Usually these executives also okay all writers involved with the series.  Many times, this power goes to their heads and they lavish each script with enough notes to sink an iceberg.  Many times their notes are small minded, insignificant, and totally misread what is in front of them.  That is why they pay story editors so much money.

BFTP: Were you ever a fan of the X-Men comics before working for the series?

SI: I bought a lot of them in the sixties along with Mad Magazine, DC Comics, and Playboys.  All were thrown out by my mother in one fell swoop one day when I was not looking.  I never spoke to her again.

BFTP: Did you use the late 1980's 'Pryde of the X-Men' pilot episode as a guide on what to do and not to do with the series?

SI: I used 'Pryde of the X-Men' as a template for what not ever, ever to do with the Fox X-Men series.  I watch that video online every time I have to have surgery of any kind.  This episode so dulls my senses I have no need for any forms of anesthesia.  This was the X-Men Fox was putting on the air and not Casper and the Space Ghosts.  The opening title would be straight heroic music without any childish lyrics.  We all love Stan but we believed there was no need for any forms of internal narration.  If the viewer could not follow the story without any internal narration, the writer was shot.  We kept Will Meugniot because he is Will Meugniot.

BFTP: How much control did you have over what did and didn't go into an episode script?

SI: Well, Joe Calamari of Marvel and myself finalized all premises and everything else that went beyond that.

BFTP: Do you recall the decision process on what characters would make up the main cast on the team?  For instance, Gambit only first appeared in the comics in August of 1990, which was not long before production started on the series.  Why was the decision made to include a fairly recent character  opposed to others who already had well established backgrounds in the comics like Nightcrawler, Iceman, and Kitty Pryde?

SI: That's a real interesting question because what was missing in 'Pryde' was what we extolled in every episode: while this was a world of superheroes battling super villains, it was also a world crammed full of down and dirty melodrama. Cyclops loves Jean Grey; Wolverine love Jean Grey; Wolverine is odd man out but he is also the most popular of X-Men.  Rogue is a walking sob story.  She has all the power of the world, yet can never touch anyone without draining its life force.  Beast, a ferocious looking creature whose very appearance masks his temperament as a Bartlett's quoting college professor.  We chose Storm because of her exotic backstory and her power to control the weather.  Professor X and Magneto were givens.  Jubilee was our kid representative.  I chose Gambit because I always loved the Cajun accent and we always need an unctuous lady's man in the group.  Pound for pound, the two most powerful X-Men were females Rogue and Storm.

BFTP: The first two episodes were fairly controversial in that the X-Men lost the battle, with Beast being captured by the Mutant Control Agency and Morph initially being killed by the Sentinels.  Was there any problem with getting these episodes past the censors?

SI: The storyline was only controversial for its day because it appeared so mature for Saturday morning.  Storytelling like this had never been attempted anywhere before either on Saturday morning or in kid's syndication.  We had the brilliant story editing of Eric Lewald and his team.  When you have writers of this caliber, you can push the envelope until it not only falls off the table, but crashes through the floor as well.  The unsung hero of Fox Kids Boys Action Adventure was Avery Coburn, my Broadcast Standards and Practices person.  I will say it right up front.  Without her understanding of what we were trying to do, X-Men and most of the rest of the shows I worked on while at Fox would have ended up  mindless Saturday morning fodder.  Up to the advent of Fox Kids in the early 90's most of the Saturday Morning BSP (Broadcast Standards and Practices) personnel had the sense of humor of a rusty trap door.  They did not censor scripts and action so much as gild, geld and garrotte them.  BSP people have tremendous power to either enhance or destroy scripts because everything written must go through them.  Don't believe anything you've heard about producers or writers galloping roughshod over the network and creating their own vision as if they were running the entire show.  It doesn't work that way.  If Broadcasting Standards does not want something in a script, it ain't going to be in the script.  Period.  End of statement.  Without Avery, I could not have moved X-Men and other shows to the weekly level of writing that the viewing audience came to expect.

BFTP: Was Morph originally included in the series just to be killed off?  It wasn't really common for a cartoon series to kill of a main character and thus, was he just put in the series to show the X-Men's vulnerability and that they would not always win?

SI: We thought it would be interesting to see whether BSP would let us kill off a character if we promised that we would eventually (like in daytime soaps) somehow bring him back later on.  But yes, killing off Morph did show the vulnerability of our heroes and that not every story would end with everyone happy and laughing like a Scooby adventure.

BFTP: In the premiere of the second season, Morph returned working for the evil Mister Sinister.  Was his return due to demand by the fandom since he proved to be more popular than originally thought?

SI: No, it was because I promised Avery that we would bring Morph back and I keep my promises.

BFTP: Throughout the series, the show focused on mature social issues such as prejudice, intolerance, isolation, racism, and even religion, which is why the show holds up pretty well with adults and even with those who used to watch the show when they were younger.  Was the show specifically designed for adults or did you not question the intelligence of younger viewers?

SI: We were not going to strip away the content of what made the X-Men the comic series it was and still is.  Why was this a mature way of handling these issues?  We just didn't sugar coat the message and turn every episode into a pile of pablum.  Mature social issues sounds as if it only affects adults, but all the examples you give affect kids from the earliest.  And no, the show was always meant for kids was always a Saturday morning program.

BFTP: Was there any storyline that you had written or episode that was animated that was not approved because it was deemed to include too mature content by BSP?

SI: None that I can remember, but then again we never talked about child molestation, global warming, or flying civilian airliners into towers.

BFTP: How similar or different was it to work on X-Men than from working on Spider-Man the Animated Series?

SI: I personally like group dynamics.  I also enjoy working on superheroes that have not been done every five years.

BFTP: Is there any one particular episode that you're extremely proud of?

SI: It was the end of the series and we had a five-part time travel extravaganza involving both Bishop and Cable and just about everyone else.  It looked like curtains for the universe until Bishop saves the day.  It was not lost on those who sent in letters (this was way before the internet) that it was a black X-Men who had outwitted Apocalypse.

BFTP: The beauty of the X-Men series is that there are a ton of different characters and thus, it's easy for someone to identify with at least one of the mutants.  Which mutant do you like the most and why? 
SI: Actually my favorite X-Men on the TV series was Beast.  I just loved his soft spoken ways and his brilliant mind, both characteristics that I am totally devoid of.

BFTP: Is there anything you would have done differently with the series now that you can look back at it?

SI: I would like to have had the Warner Brothers Batman budget for animation production.

BFTP: Was there any reason for its cancellation in 1997 when it was still on top in the ratings?

SI: Like Bob Dylan would say, times they were a changing.  New forces at Fox were afoot and I will leave the alliteration at that.

BFTP: Even after all these years, the series it still beloved by fans and was even shown on American television as recently as last year.  What do you think it is about the series that allows for it to hold up so well despite its age?

SI: We made the stories multilayered and the characters, including the villains, multi-dimensional.  This is a show that is all about the writing.  Without it, X-Men would now be another in a long line of forgettable superhero programs.  We worked everyone's backstories so that when a character acted the way he or she did, it was for a reason based on their history.  It was not some meaningless bombastic gesture.  We came to understand the internal philosophies of Wolverine or Magneto or Juggernaut.  The voice over talent was superb.  With scripts way above the average of Saturday morning, the actors were able to use their theatrical skills to really emote.  The success of X-Men proved that you did not need a Superfriends script approach to success.

BFTP: Do you have anything you would like to say to long-time fans of the show?

SI: Hopefully they will one day be able to tune in again to a show as rich, fulfilling, and provocative as the X-Men.

Blast From the Past would like to thank Sidney for taking the time to answer our questions.