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Friday, Dec. 8, 2000

Q&A: Spider-Man Unlimited's Will Meugniot

By Rob Allstetter/Comics Continuum

Will Meugniot's been around a while in animation and has seen a lot. But when Fox Kids pulled Spider-Man Unlimited after just three episodes last year, even he was surprised.

"I've never had a show disappear so unceremoniously before that," said Meugniot, who produced Spider-Man Unlimited at Saban Entertainment. "The sad thing for poor old Spider-Man was that last year they put it opposite Pokemon when Pokemon was at the peak of its powers. That said, actually Spider-Man Unlimited performed as well against Pokemon as anything else they've had in the time slot. So I was always kind of disappointed the show hadn't been given the chance or had its full run."

Well, Spider-Man Unlimited is now being given its chance. Fox Kids returned the series earlier this month with plans to air all 13 episodes.

The Continuum this week caught up with Meugniot, a comics artist and animation veteran who now works at Stan Lee Media, to discuss Spider-Man Unlimited, his attempt to bring Captain America to the small screen and his work on X-Men.

The Continuum: Do you know why Spider-Man Unlimited was yanked and why Fox Kids decided to bring it back now?

Meugniot: It's funny because initially, the first week they pulled it, they just said they were pulling it do it as a stunt, to try out Digimon in that spot. And then they decided they weren't going to air them until the Spider-Man movie came out, and the Spider-Man movie kept getting pushed back and pushed back â¤| I think they finally decided just to air it.

But it was shocking, it really was. The show wasn't doing that badly in the ratings. It was a case where it wasn't setting the world on fire, but I think it would have been a good, solid series for them. Sometimes these things just happened. Certainly, I was shocked. I've never had a show pulled in mid-run before. But, it happens. That's part of being in the TV business, where you just have to accept that, no matter how hard you try on a project, sometimes things just won't go the way you want it. Sometimes it's not in the right time slot, sometimes it's not on the right venue and sometimes there are business things that happen that can take a good show down.

The Continuum: So you don't really know exactly why Fox Kids chose now to bring back the show?

Meugniot: Unless you're there in the meetings, you don't know why. I'm glad that they've decided to. I'm glad that the show's going to get a shot at finding an audience finally. But the decisions when people put shows on and take them off are really complex. And generally if you're not there when they make the decision, you'll never really know why.

The Continuum: Now that the series is back, do you think Fox Kids might want to do more?

Meugniot: There's always a possibility, if the show performs well. Actually, Larry (Brody, the story editor) had written six more scripts and we started doing a little bit of pre-production on them. As long as the contracts are in place that would allow Saban to do more episodes, I suspect there's a possibility for more new episodes if the show's successful.

The Continuum: Do you think you might come back if there are more episodes?

Meugniot: You never know. It's a funny thing. As a producer, you're kind of like a migrant worker. You tend to go where the jobs are. And certainly, I've had a long relationship with Marvel and a long relationship with Saban, and we all like each other. Like anything else in this business, it's a question of timing. If it arose and we had the opportunity, certainly I wouldn't say no to it.

The Continuum: Let's talk about the show itself. Spider-Man Unlimited has an anime look to it, doesn't it?

Meugniot: That was intentional. We were trying actually, to do something a little bit different from X-Men and the previous Spider-Man show. The show was going to be animated by Koko, the studio that did a lot of the Batmans. So we thought we would try to do something a little bit ambitious on this one. I did the primary character design on it, and tried to steer it a little towards the anime feel. Also, we were playing around with the art direction on the color a lot, where, like the Capcom video games, and try to go with the real color intensity of the video games.

The Continuum: Spider-Man's costume looks a little like that of Spider-Man 2099. Was that on purpose?

Meugniot: I had a lot of input from Avi Arad and from Carlos Lopez at Toy Biz (Lopez is now at Marvel Studios). I did some preliminary drawings and Carlos did a tweak on it and I did a tweak on Carlos' stuff and ultimately it wound up being about half me and half Carlos.

The show kind of had one of those tormented histories, where the decision to do a Spider-Man show came kind of late in the season. Originally, we started developing a standard Spider-Man where Michael Reaves and I are started working on a Spider-Man: Year One, which was going to be a very faithful adaptation of the first year of Spider-Man in the comics. Then, evidently things happened on the business front and we had to do something other than classic Spider-Man. So the first stop as we were developing the show was, 'Well, why don't we try 2099?' So we pursued 2099 for a while, and then they realized they didn't want to do that.

And then Avi Arad and the writers at Marvel came up with the basic idea of doing the Counter-Earth thing. And then we did another development of the Counter-Earth thing that had a different story line and that concerned Marvel because it had another Peter Parker in it. And they were concerned after the Ben Reilly stories; they didn't want to do anything to alienate the readers by having another Peter Parker.

So we wound up with this, which is like the fourth development of the show. So we've been through classic Spider-Man, 2099, the other Counter-Earth version where it was more like a parallel dimension rather than separate worlds and then finally where we went to the classic Counter-Earth of the comics, where it was a planet on the other side of the sun.

The Continuum: There are characters with familiar names that are pretty different on Counter-Earth, right?

Meugniot: The idea was, when we introduced the characters on Counter-Earth, they were to be different versions than the Earth characters. The one that amuses me the most, and I think in some ways was the most successful, we actually did a throwaway in Episode 8. We did the Counter-Earth version of Electro. From what I've read -- the show's been airing overseas and a couple of sites have done reviews of the episodes - that Electro seems to have struck the fancy of everybody who has seen him. He's a humanoid electric eel with a serious personality problem.

Machine Man's in it. He's a semi-regular after Episode 5, where he shows up in about four episodes altogether in the remaining eight episodes. He's kind of a nice character. The episode that introduces him has a fight in a train station that really is, if I say so myself, is pretty remarkable. It's this really protracted set piece where all of the Revolutionaries and the Machine Men and the Knights of Wundagore and our Machine Man - who is a good Machine Man -- have a showdown in the train station, and there's some really nice animation in it. It just goes on and it's about a three-minute sequence.

At one point, we had Deathlok in it, and then Marvel had sold the movie rights to Deathlok and were concerned that they didn't want an animation version that conflicted with what was being developed for live-action, so they requested we take him out.

Towards the end of the season, after Larry took over, really we were trying to consolidate more. What we did were the Vulture recurrences two or three times, the Goblin has a major story arc and he's in about five or six episodes. And Machine Man is probably in about four episodes. That's when we thought the cast was pretty dense and started shying away from added any more guest-stars.

The Continuum: Can you tell us more about the Vulture?

Meugniot: Remember we're on Counter-Earth. What makes him interesting is that he's a human rights activist. On Counter-Earth, the Beastials have taken over and the Beastials are the dominant members of society, and they've been working to repress humans. And the Vulture is a human who had sold out humanity by trying to be more like the Beastials and then he saw some of the horrible things Beastials were doing to humans in research labs and things, and so he's sort of like a one-man PETA. When Spider-Man first meets him, they sort of run afoul of each other because neither one knows who the other is, until they both realize that their both good guys, operating with different motives. There's a little standard Marvel hero-meets-hero action going on with them.

The Continuum: You were actually still working on the series when Fox Kids pulled the plug?

Meugniot: The way these shows go, you spend your spring and summer doing pre-production and then starting in August or September you start getting film back and then you're in post-production just about to the day when the last episode airs. Normally, I would have been doing post-production through January or so, which is actually what happened.

After they had taken the show off the air - at the point, for a while, we were still thinking there might have been a second season of the show because they had gone ahead and commissioned scripts anyway - some place in there, I had gotten an offer to come over Stan Lee to come over and be an executive over here. It was a real hard decision for me, whether to stay there and hope the show will be picked up right away or to come here and have a chance to work with Stan again.

Ultimately, I decided to come here, and I think that's where some of the rumors of the show that didn't get finished started was because I wasn't there to finish posting the last few episodes. People thought they weren't done. All that happened was that our able network executives, David McDermott and Dan Evans, stepped to the plate and finished post-production on the series.

The Continuum: Without giving too much away, the season ends on a cliff-hanger that doesn't bode well for Counter-Earth, kind of like what Larry did with Silver Surfer and the universe ending.

Meugniot: Larry is just Mr. Death and Destruction, isn't he? But, actually, in the scripts for the new season, the show got into revitalization where we used the opportunities of the final revolution and settling of it to clean up the story line and get it moving, where Spider-Man would have more opportunities to do things and get out on the world of Counter-Earth and explore a little bit more.

If the show does ever end up being picked up for more episodes and the series continues, I think you'll be seeing a lot more Counter-Earth and probably Peter won't be staying in New York quite so much.

Our plan had been, and Larry's scripts were working to it in the second season, that by the end of Episode 26, Spider-Man would be returning home.

Meugniot: You've seen all the episodes. Do you have a favorite?

I think really, I like the first episode the most because we got to do classic Spider-Man in it. And then of the later ones, there's Episode 4, that hasn't aired in the States yet and is the origin of Git Hoskins, kind of mummy-looking guy. That one's a favorite of mine. And then, at the end of the series, the two-part finale of the show that Larry wrote is really quite good.


The Continuum: At one time, you were producing a Captain America series which was scheduled to follow the second season of Silver Surfer on Fox Kids on Saturday mornings. What happened to those shows?

Meugniot: Captain America and Silver Surfer both got caught up with some difficulties in the relationships between Fox and Marvel. Marvel was switching management fairly often as a result of the bankruptcy. With Captain America, Marvel was changing management teams when we were starting it, and that was one of the factors. I don't think there are any bad guys in that relationship. It's just that the needs of the companies didn't mesh at that moment. So, who knows? Maybe some day there will be a Captain America cartoon. In that case, something just went wrong with the dynamics of the two companies.

The Continuum: How far on the Captain America series did you get?

Meugniot: We had done a little 60-second pilot film, that actually I thought turned out pretty nicely. And we had Episodes 1 and 2 pretty fully storyboarded. The storyboards were very nice, where we had a crew that was largely comic-book guys and the boards were sharp. I think we were working on scripts up through around No. 6 in various stages.

I was thinking about that one on my way into work this morning. That was really a shock. One day I came into work and I got a call to come into my boss' offices and she said, "Well, the bad news is Captain America has been canceled. The good news is that SpyDogs is going into production today. Do you want to do SpyDogs?"

SpyDogs wound up being a lot of fun and I enjoyed it, but I still have regrets we didn't actually get to do Captain America because he really is my favorite out of all the Marvel characters.

The Continuum: You also produced the first season of X-Men, as well as later episodes in the show's run. We've heard about a mysterious two-part "lost episode" that featured Rachel Summers. Any truth to that?

Meugniot: Not that I'm aware. I'm sorry to disappoint people, but all of the X-Men were aired. I think the closest thing to a missing episode is one of the episodes that Larry (Houston) produced, and he gave me a tape of. It was pretty funny. It was the first Lady Deathstrike episode, and the studio that did the animation didn't realize she had a cloth panel in the middle of her costume and drew her almost topless through the whole thing. A few of us have copies of the work print, which is one of the more revealing cartoons ever. Of course, they fixed it all before it went on air. But that's the closest thing to a lost episode.

The Continuum: Are you surprised that the original X-Men show is still enjoying such success on Fox Kids?

Meugniot: No, not at all. Despite the fact, that when you think about it, the show's seven or eight years old now and production techniques have changed, but what really matters to the audience are the characters and story. More than anything. More than production values and things. With X-Men, the writing on the show was so unique and so consistent, I think it will be probably still be playing 20 years from now in some venue.

The Continuum: Are there any Marvel characters you would still like a shot at?

Meugniot: At some point, I still would like a shot at classic Spider-Man. If they were ever to do classic Avengers, the Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America team, I'd love doing that. I'm so old school. I used to buy the books when they were 12 cents. So those are the characters that really have a strong resonance with me, like Fantastic Four, Avengers, Iron Man, those characters.

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