An Interview With Robert N. Skir

When it comes to X-Men cartoons, the first one that many think of is X-Men: The Animated Series. While it’s certainly worthy of the attention, people tend to overlook its underrated successor X-Men: Evolution

In contrast to The Animated Series, X-Men: Evolution took a smaller, more character driven approach to its stories. Reimagining most of its heroes as high school teenagers, the show displayed a refreshing spin on the universe. It allowed audiences to see different sides of mutants like Cyclops, Rogue, and Storm while also presenting some notorious original characters like X-23 and Spyke. Even though it took several creative liberties, the show never lost the core spirit of its source material. 

X-Men: Evolution ran from 2000-2003 on Kids’ WB before meeting an unfortunate cancellation. Twenty years later, it is still just as fun and heartwarming to watch as when it initially aired. All four seasons are currently available on Disney+ if anyone is looking for a good autumn nostalgia binge!

For the recent 20th anniversary of X-Men: Evolution, Andrew spoke to the show’s co-developer Robert N. Skir to learn about its early creative stages. Check it out below!

Your association with the X-Men franchise goes back to the original animated series. How did you first become involved?

I’ve been a Marvel fan since I can remember. I’ve always loved Marvel comics. I think I started out as more of a DC fan, but when I was eleven or twelve I moved over to Marvel because I found them to be a lot more emotionally satisfying. I was at a convention in 1975 when they published the new “Giant-Size X-Men #1.” Now, I was never an X-Men fan before that. Visually, I found them really unappealing and kind of silly. Then a really weird thing happened: they announced they were going to be doing the X-Men with a whole new team. I was like, “Wait, that’s not fair to the other guys! What about the original team?” Suddenly I was feeling nostalgic for a whole group of characters I didn’t care about. As the X-Men books went along, they became cooler and cooler to me. I became obsessed with the characters and loved them.

Cut to years later, I went to the University of Virginia and I studied for four years as an English major. While I was there, I would spend my summers at NYU taking film classes. One of the film classes I took was on screenwriting as opposed to film production. I started thinking “I wanna do an X-Men movie.” Around ‘83, I started writing an outline for it and I came to UCLA to study screenwriting. I was a graduate screenwriting student. I only wanted to write an X-Men screenplay. I told one of my professors who was the head of the program, “I really wanna write an adaptation of X-Men.” He goes, “What’s X-Men?” “Well it’s a series of comics.” As soon as I said comics, this light went out in his eyes and suddenly I just became someone he didn’t need to take seriously anymore.

That’s interesting considering how common superhero movies are nowadays.

They’re driving Hollywood. But in ‘83, the thought of doing a comic book movie was kind of idiotic. Anyway, I was learning how to write screenplays and figuring it out. I got my degree and wrote a short film that got produced. I was writing spec scripts with my then writing partner. Then Batman came out and was a mega hit. A few months later, they came out with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and everyone knew what mutants were. They were turtles who yelled “Kowabunga!” and loved pizza. That’s what mutants were. I was like “Okay, someone’s gonna find the X-Men one day and they’re gonna fuck it up. I want to write an X-Men screenplay. I want to know that it was done right at least once.” I sat down and wrote a screenplay that distilled the best of what John Byrne and Chris Claremont had to offer. It was how Wolverine joined the X-Men, but it borrowed a bit from “Days of Future Past” and the Magneto story where they get hijacked. I took the best little bits and made a two hour presentation that told you everything you need to know about the X-Men universe. I showed it to my then writing partner. He called me later and said “When I opened the cover and saw the title, I groaned. I can’t believe you wrote this. You’re never gonna sell it. I can’t believe you wasted your time.” But I had to write this. That thing I wasted my time on wound up making my career. 

A few years later when Fox Kids announced they were going to be doing X-Men, my writing partner was working at Fox and said “Hey, I know a guy who you should talk to.” The people they hired were terrific at doing TV animation, but they didn’t know the X-Men. They could read a pile of comics, but at that point they had thirty years of comics to read. I had already assimilated it. I knew which books to read, I knew which characters to focus on. So I wrote all the character breakdowns for it. Around that time, there was talk of doing an X-Men movie and my friend managed to get my script to Avi Arad. He read it and said “I really like it, but when we do an X-Men movie, it’s gonna be much later than this.” In my screenplay, the team was very secret and the world didn’t know about them yet. 

How did you become involved with developing X-Men: Evolution?

When the X-Men series ended, a few years later they decided they wanted to do a new series. Avi remembered my screenplay and he said “Listen, I remember your screenplay and how you handled the characters. I think you’re the right guy to do this.” I’m thinking to myself, “What would you do?” The X-Men series they did was pretty much the definitive way that you would handle the X-Men. They’re mutant freedom fighters, they’re doing what they can to stop the world from being afraid of the bad mutants causing problems. That story had already been told, so what do you do that’s different? What made sense to me was why don’t we take it back to the beginning? Why don’t we show them just starting out? Here’s a radical idea – let’s show them as teenagers! 

My original title for the series was X-Men: Children of the Atom. It’s a cool title and it was the title of an X-Men book at the time. I was told by the network, “Our audience doesn’t like to be called children.” So I came up with another title. Do you want to hear how lucky we were? My title was X-Men: Ground Zero. We would have had to change that title! After I left, they changed it to X-Men: Evolution. 

Was the idea to make the characters teenagers entirely yours or did it also come from the network?

What’s wonderful was at Kids’ WB, they only wanted shows set in high school. If you watch the shows they did like Static Shock, they were all set in high school. So what I wanted to do lined up completely with what they wanted to do. The big contribution that I made that was controversial at the time and didn’t make sense to people was that they were going to two different schools. “Why are they at the X mansion and going to regular high school?” The answer is really simple. If you don’t have them interacting with other kids and having the fear of being discovered, what’s the point of the show? Being a teenager means that you feel how powerful you are. You’re coming into your own and there are things about you that make you unique and powerful. But you also know that if your friends saw the real you and who you really are, they’d think you’re a freak and reject you. That’s what being a mutant is. It really is a wonderful metaphor for being a teenager. 

My whole vision for the show was “This is a show about a bunch of kids who are trying really hard not to be superheroes.” The world is conspiring and pushing them in this position where they have no choice. We wanted to make the high school and the town a microcosm for the world. It isn’t like they’re travelling internationally and getting in giant battles. It all happens in the school. Something I did that I’m very happy with was we took a lot of liberties with the X-Men canon and I did a lot of things that made it clear we were looking at a pocket universe. They went to Bayville High. I went to Oyster Bay High where half the kids were from Oyster Bay and half the kids were from Bayville. There was no such school as Bayville High so we figured no one would come after us if we used that name. I also did things like give Avalanche the name Lance Alvers. I made Toad’s name Todd Tolansky which was the name of someone I knew in high school. 

The way I envisioned the show is very much what the series wound up being in the last third of the first season and the whole second season. In the very beginning, they were kind of hamstrung by Kids’ WB because they were micromanaging things and were nervous about this and that. Finally when they got a level of trust, they were able to start telling the stories they wanted to do which were the kind of stories I wanted to tell. Please note that I wasn’t there for the actual telling of the stories. I can’t take credit for any of the stories they actually told. They did a lot of things I would have never thought of and I thought they were fantastic. I just didn’t happen to be at the party. I set up the party, but I wasn’t there to enjoy the party which was kind of heartbreaking. But your career takes you where it takes you.

Why were you not involved with the show past the development stage?

There’s a lot about that. One thing is I was already committed to a series called Action Man. Action Man, which we were in the second season of, was taking up so much time. It became really clear that I couldn’t do both shows at the same time and my then writing partner Marty [Isenburg] and I couldn’t walk away from the series we were already on. 

How did you create the character of Spyke? 

My feeling for any show is you need to have a unique set of characters. There could be several different shows with Kitty and Wolverine and Cyclops, but if you have this new character that’s unique to this series, it’s like “This is what gives the series its individual, unique voice.” I decided the character needed to be an African-American teenage guy. Why? Because our most loyal core audience for the original X-Men series was black teenage guys. I thought, “Why doesn’t anybody on the team look like them?” The X-Men had been around for forty years. There had never been a black teenage guy on the team and it seemed unfair. We decided to make him Storm’s nephew because it gave us an angle to see Storm in a way we’d never seen her before. The characters’ name was Evan Daniels which is a nod to a friend of mine named Dan Evans who was an executive at Fox Kids. 

I started thinking, “What powers is he going to have?” I was coming up with different kinds of powers off the top of my head. One of the ideas I had was, what if he turned himself into steel and could turn into a wrecking ball? One of the producers said “I told my nine year old that idea and he laughed his head off.” Cut to decades later, they have Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. and they have a character who does exactly that. So I’m thinking “Okay, maybe my idea was stupid, but maybe it’s also worth doing?” 

It was ahead of its time apparently!

Apparently, it was. But I think the folks back east at Marvel came up with the name Spyke and his powers. I take no credit for that. 

Is there anything you originally envisioned you wish made it to the show?

Conversely, I first thought that we had to start out with Rogue as a brand new character. So she shouldn’t have Ms. Marvel’s powers yet. I was going to start out with her just being able to absorb people’s memories and powers, but eventually she meets Ms. Marvel. In the X-Men: Evolution series, they kept her with only those powers the entire time and she was a great character that way. I had written “A Rogue’s Tale” [for X-Men: The Animated Series] and my initial thought was, “I don’t see why we’re going to tell that story again, but we need to give Rogue those powers.” But the fact that they didn’t give Rogue those powers made me very happy. 

Something they didn’t do in the 90s series that I would have done with X-Men: Evolution was change the team around as things went along. They added new characters and grouped people together in X-Men: Evolution. There was one episode where they put the original team together which was awesome. But what I would have done was have people leave and replace them with other people. I would have done it because one of the things that made the books so wonderful and vital was that people would come and go. 

Do you know why the show was cancelled?  

You’d have to ask the people in charge at Kids’ WB. I think that executives keep shows on the air as long as they’re popular and make your network look really good. If you have shows on for too long, the network starts to look like it’s a little long in the tooth. So many shows were changing back then because Nickelodeon was so strong and getting so much of an audience. If you look at the kind of shows they replaced X-Men with, you get a sense that it was time for the network to move on to a different kind of show. I don’t think it was a lack of faith in the series. I think it was more of a business aesthetic kind of decision. 

What projects are you currently working on?

I wrote a feature animated film that’s in production in China. The tentative title is Eagles and Chickens. I’ve also written a bunch of stuff for Netflix recently. I wrote for Tarzan and Jane and I got to do something amazing for that series. I got to do the first ever team up between Tarzan and King Kong. That was a lot of fun. The latest thing I have produced that’s out there is a series for Netflix called Super Monsters. It’s a pre-school series. It is super adorable and really terrific. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I want to make it very clear that I’m proud of my contributions to X-Men: Evolution. I was blessed to have the opportunity to develop it. I’m eternally proud of it. I take no credit for the series itself like the stories they told, the decisions they made, the directions they went in. I’m not taking any credit for that, but I am very proud of the series. I’m very proud that I developed it and that my ideas were followed. They did the show that I had wanted to do, but they also did things that I never would have thought of and it ended up being a terrific show. It’s been twenty years and people still remember it fondly. It’s a tribute to everyone’s hard work and I’m really grateful to everyone who worked on the show.

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