Recently, I found one of history’s greatest cartoons among Hulu.com’s goodies: the 90’s hit X-Men: The Animated Series, a show that redefined what it meant to make children’s entertainment. What, you might be asking, does a twenty-ish year old cartoon have to do with being an awesome writer? And that would be an excellent question and one I’m happy to answer. So let’s begin, eh?
THINK BEYOND THE ONE EPISODE (OR BOOK)
Back when X-Men TAS premiered, Saturday morning cartoons were only concerned with the day’s thirty minutes (and they only went that far when a show wasn’t a collection of shorts a la Animaniacs) so there was never any kind of story that connected to other episodes. X-Men TAS took that old kiddie show idea and crushed it beneath Juggernaut’s (who is NOT a mutant as X-Men: The Last Stand falsely claimed) massive boot. From the premiere episode, viewers were introduced to ongoing storylines that, in its Marvel Universe for kids way, tackled big issues (more on that later).
X-Men TAS had multiple story arcs – some huge, like The Phoenix Saga, some smaller, like my personal favorite, the two-parter One Man’s Worth – and even with their stand alone-ish episodes, there were call backs to what came before. When something happened, it wasn’t forgotten and even brought back in way that affected the new stories. It helped create a continuity (that, admittedly, the show sometimes oop’d on) that made you crave the next episode.
YES, YOU CAN JUMP AROUND – WITHIN REASON
The writers knew that kids were smart enough to follow along and you should treat your readers the same. As X-Men proved, you are allowed to shift gears and leave a certain storyline alone; it’ll be waiting there for you when you get back from your happy little diversion. When Xavier (and Magneto) got lost in the Savage Land, every second wasn’t spent with them; there were plenty of other characters to follow as they dealt with the loss of their leader. Now, if we’d been kept from the professor for too long and forgotten what happened, when we were brought back, we could’ve been all “eh” but the timing was perfect. Yes, it’s a measured risk cause you could annoy the unholy heck out of your precious readers but it’s one def worth considering.
WOMEN KICK BUTT & CHEW BUBBLE GUM
Ladies are good for more than just the DID as X-Men TAS showed with the likes of Storm, Rogue and Jean Grey (when she was Phoenix cause honestly she was pretty useless otherwise, sorry not sorry). And not only were they fighters, they weren’t always saved by one of the boys and that’s something that seems to be lacking in even SFC stories. Believe it or not, a girl can carry a book; in fact, you can write one boy-free. She can take it and so can your readers. So let your estrogen flag fly free.
BRING ON THE HEAVY
Some authors are afraid to tackle things like abuse, racism and other not mentioned in polite society things. But authors are like artists and can help shape the world in ways both good and bad. While the KKK never attacked the School for Gifted Youngsters, the X-Men did have to deal with other extremists who wanted to rid the world of their presence. They also had to contend with other mutants trying to wage war on their neighbors – sound familiar, anyone? – and these sorts of stories helped mold Millennials into, hopefully, open minded individuals who want true equality for everyone. You have that power, too; you can take the ugly in life and use it as a teachable moment and instill something good and kind (or reinforce, even) in your readers.
Don’t be afraid of going too far; stories that show the world for what it is help change it into something better; take a cartoon’s lead and give voice to the parts of society that don’t have the chance to speak for themselves.
EMBRACE THE ENSEMBLE
X-Men had a large cast of characters and while some may find that idea daunting, it’s well worth the extra effort. Each member of the team brought something unique to the team without being defined by a single aspect of their personality. This is a balancing act that any author needs to master, even when there’s only two characters to follow. Having multiple characters to delve into is a great way to keep things interesting and bring new points of view to tired clichés. It also allows you to examine a single scene through more than one pair of eyes; think of the possibilities that could create.
And speaking of group things…
DIVERSITY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE
There were more than white Americans making up the superhero team; throughout the show’s run, we were introduced to the Colossus, Nightcrawler, Alpha Flight and many more non-U.S. residents and saw how far beyond our own borders the world went. And, of course, we cannot forget that at the heart of the team was a black woman who was quite possibly the most powerful of the bunch. Now, y’all should never feel pressured to shoehorn anyone into your story but don’t just assume that someone of a different color couldn’t be perfectly at home within your book’s pages.
There’s more to learn from this amazing animated series that still holds up in a world of Big Hero 6s and How to Train Your Dragons. While I’ll be back to talk more about what we can all take away from this series, I highly suggest you all spend some time taking it in personally. It’s not just a great lesson, it’s an awesome show.
NOTE: X-Men: The Animated Series is owned by Disney.