by Jon Baum
ANAHEIM, Calif. — After toying with her hapless, erstwhile friends, Jean Grey goes full Dark Phoenix, launches herself into space, and begins feeding on a star – as one does.
In addition to Wolverine, Rogue, Beast, Gambit, Storm, and Jean’s great love Scott (aka Cyclops, perhaps the most dickish X-Men character — a topic for another post), well, marveling at the spectacle, others are seen reacting to Jean’s rise, including … wait, was that Thor? What the heck is he doing there?
Thor and a handful of other familiar faces not normally seen on X-Men: The Animated Series, the beloved cartoon that ran for five seasons beginning in 1992, somehow appeared in the season 3 episode, “The Dark Phoenix, Part III.”
The existence of these cameos isn’t new to many X-Men aficionados (“Eagle-eyed fans have spotted these cameos before,” Larry Houston says), but the subterfuge required to execute these appearances is kind of hilarious.
Houston, who directed 62 episodes of the cartoon, tells us how.
Fans of the X- Men franchise have been eagerly awaiting the debut of X-Men ‘97, a continuation of the ‘90s cartoon. The new show is slated to debut this fall on Disney+ (assuming the recent Marvel leadership shakeup has no impact), featuring some of the same creative and voice talent from X-Men: The Animated Series.
Houston, who is serving as a consultant on the upcoming show, led a panel here at WonderCon on Sunday looking back on history and highlights of the popular show. Some of the most entertaining anecdotes revolved around how he snuck beloved characters into episodes that hadn’t called for them.
He would only work in these cameos if they didn’t interfere with the writers’ stories. This wasn’t as simple as just dropping them onto a cell, however. Houston would have to sneak the characters past legal to avoid any potential licensing and rights issues. How was this done?
“We wouldn’t (initially) color the cells,” said Houston, explaining that what normally might look like Spider-Man’s arm would instead appear, to legal, to be a series of black lines that vaguely resembles a hand. Then the coloring would happen later.
Not that Houston would make it easy to even find those drawings, as the character’s identities were obscured.
Spidey’s hand, in fact, was referred to as “Mutant Hand” in the script. How about Black Panther? That would be “African Mutant No. 3.”
“You put ‘mutant’ in front of anything” and they let it in,” Houston said.
That aforementioned Dark Phoenix segment, in fact, also featured reaction shot cameos from The Watcher (referred to as “Mutant Alien”) and Eternity (referred to as “Space Mutant”) — characters that never before or again appeared in the series.
“I wanted to do cameos, but if you didn’t know the X-men, it wouldn’t hurt the story,” Houston told Classic Nerd. “But if you did know, you’d say ‘It’s Deadpool!’”
Houston shared with us his favorite surreptitious cameos from characters who weren’t intended to be in the series. In addition to Thor, The Watcher, and Eternity, they included:
- Deadpool (two episodes)
- Brian Braddock/Captain Britain (appeared in “The Phoenix Saga-Part IV”)
- Doctor Strange (appeared in several episodes, including the Season 3 “Dark Phoenix Saga-Part III”)
- Clea (appears in the episode “Nightcrawler”)
- Mary Jane Watson (also appears in the “Nightcrawler”)
“It’s for the fans. It’s fun,” he told us. “It makes the enjoyment of the story better when you catch these things.”
So can fans expect these same secret cameos in the upcoming show?
Houston said that because he snuck in so many in the ‘90s, the current showrunners are scrutinized much more closely.
“They told me they can’t get away with anything!”
• Houston also shared that writers on the show sometimes had to scour comic book stores in Los Angeles just to learn the backstories and characters, as this was, you know, before the internet.
• The cameo shenanigans weren’t limited to the X-Men series. When working on the Fantastic Four animated series, Houston managed to slip some X-Men into an episode as civilians.
• Houston and the panel discussed choosing which and how many main characters to include in the series. The main protagonists were Professor Charles Xavier, Wolverine, Beast, Jubilee, Storm, Gambit, Jean Grey, and Rogue, who interacted with scores of recurring allies and/or antagonists. We asked Houston if there was another character he would have liked to include as a main character in the series. “Scott’s brother Havok,” said Houston, referring to Cyclops’ brother who appeared just once in the series. “I never got a chance to bring them together.”
X-Men: The Animated Series can be streamed on Disney+.
Jon Baum, known to some as a lover of waffles and to no one as a preeminent voice of Generation X, has served as a writer and editor at ESPN.com, Yahoo! Sports, GOOD Magazine, and 2e News. He continues to profess to being one Powerball ticket away from bringing the Whalers back to Hartford.