Life In A Four Color World column on X-MEN, 2003

Give the People What They Want

I’ve been doing this column at ComiX-Fan, formerly X-Fan, for a while now. And yet, in all that time, I don’t think I’ve ever once mentioned the X-Men. And that’s the subject that most people around these parts are most interested in. Despite Eric’s efforts to expand the readership of the site to a wider audience, which he’s doing slowly, the folks who most steadily come to this page are those whose love of the X-Men burns deep in their hearts.

All right, then. A column on me and the X-Men.

My first encounter with the X-Men came in Son Of Origins Of Marvel Comics, the second Fireside Marvel trade paperback of the mid-1970s. After becoming interested in the Fantastic Four, I went to my local library in search of a copy of Origins Of Marvel Comics, having discovered that it reprinted FF #1 among other things. Well, that day Origins was nowhere to be found on the shelves, but Son Of Origins was still in stock. It took a brief cameo by the FF in the first Avengers story, hastily viewed while flipping through the book, to make me decide to check it out.

So I met the X-Men the same way the rest of the world did, in that first story by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The Stan and Jack material was the stuff that most entertained me in Son Of Origins, and so propelled me towards current issues of the same magazines—X-Men and Avengers both. The first actual issue of X-Men I picked up was #108, noteworthy as being John Byrne’s first as artist, and the conclusion to that first New X-Men in Space arc. And let me tell you, it was confusing as hell. Cyclops was the only main character I could recognize from X-Men #1 (though Professor X showed up on the last page), and there was an army of other guys on the stage as well—the Starjammers, the Imperial Guard, the Shi’ar Empire folks, Firelord—and none of them was introduced particularly well. That all said, it was a really good-looking comic book, and it got across the notion that big stakes were involved, even if I couldn’t quite be sure just what those stakes were. And so I became an X-Men reader.

The landscape of comics was very different in 1978, especially where the X-Men were concerned. It must be hard for most readers of today to comprehend, but at the time not only was there just the one single X-Men title, but it was bimonthly, and had only recently been relaunched with newfangled characters such as Nightcrawler, Wolverine, and Storm, after spending years as a reprint title. Over the last twenty years or so, reading X-Men has come to be de riguer among comic book readers—the one title that everybody reads and everybody talks about. But back then, it wasn’t so, not yet. The event that really changed that was the Death of Phoenix.

The whole year or so leading up to X-Men #137 was a hell of an exciting run. The characters were rich and vibrant, the artwork was slick and attractive and involving—I know John feels that he’s worlds better as a penciler today, but I find that I can look back at the work he did in this era and still get a tremendous charge out of it, even in stories I hadn’t read at the time. But I think the key element that made X-Men a killer comic book was the fact that these characters were all largely new, and were living their lives out afresh on the pages, each and every month. By this point, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four and everything else was still well-crafted, but they’d kind of calcified into their final forms—you knew exactly what you were going to get out of a Spider-Man comic book by that point, knew where the boundaries were. But that wasn’t the case with the X-Men. Anything was possible with the X-Men, and that gave the series a super-charged atmosphere that other books simply lacked. You never knew what was going to happen, and everything was possible. And that flavor culminated in X-Men #137, in which Jean Grey gave up her life rather than further threaten the cosmos. There was plenty of behind-the-scenes drama leading up to this development—rewrites demanded by Jim Shooter, the wholesale junking of the original script—but the end product undeniably worked. It’s one of the most genuinely moving comic books of its era, and it set the tone for the second stage of X-Men’s growth to dominance.

Right around that time, the prices for back issues of X-Men began to skyrocket, a phenomenon that had been building for awhile, but really began to take off once #137 hit. X-Men #94 was the only comic book of its era to be valued at $25.00 as a back issue, an incredible price at that time. (For some reason, Giant-Size X-Men #1 was less highly prized, commanding only $20.00.) X-Men became not only a hot series because of its content, but a hot commodity as a collectable, with various readers and dealers actively speculating on the then-current releases. It was the beginning of the speculation bubble that would eventually grow to massive proportions by the early ‘90s, and whose pop signaled the near-demise of the entire industry.

Shortly thereafter, though, while others began to tout X-Men as the greatest comic book ever, my interest began to wane. Byrne left to do Fantastic Four, but Dave Cockrum was an appropriate replacement—I’d gone back and scarfed up a number of the earlier X-Men issues that Dave had done pre-#108, and liked them an awful lot. And I was quite taken with the work of Paul Smith, who followed Dave on the book. But what I was finding was that the series was changing gears, changing emphasis, and I wasn’t really in tune with where it was going.

Up through #137, the heart of the book had been the relationship between Cyclops and Phoenix, Scott and Jean. Cyclops was my favorite character in the series at this point, the serious introvert who was nevertheless a natural leader. But after Jean sacrificed herself, the book needed to find a new hook, a new centerpiece. And after some quick trial-and-error, this turned out to be Kitty Pryde, Sprite. I had liked the character in her initial appearances, but once she came to virtually monopolize the title, I found her incredibly annoying. Simultaneously, influenced by television dramas such as “Hill Street Blues,” Chris was adding in a strong element of ambiguity into the stories he was telling. Characters were neither black hats nor white hats exclusively—which could have been exciting, except that he also cribbed the serial style of such shows without their habit of wrapping storylines up. As a result, interesting situations tended to be back-burnered for months, sometimes resurfacing with the characters in wholly different status quos. I sometimes refer to this as the period in which the X-Men stopped being super heroes, and became something else.

Shortly thereafter, buoyed by the thoroughly-excellent limited series he’d done with Frank Miller, Chris started pushing Wolverine to the center of the series. I had liked Wolverine an awful lot in the early All-New X-Men days, as the spoiler character, the Hawkeye, the guy who causes friction. But once you made him the center, the whole paradigm turned on its head for me. I couldn’t, for example, accept the notion that Wolverine was somehow a better representative of the philosophies of the X-Men than Cyclops, who was now, by default, cast into the role of jerk, of stiff. The Cyclops-Wolverine rivalry worked for me when Logan was the ornery outsider, but failed when he became the X-Men’s moral compass.

I fell away from the series at this point, though I still kept up with it from time to time (everybody did—as I mentioned earlier, X-Men by this point had become the benchmark comic book, the one against which all others are judged. It’s a position that the title has held to this day.) And it continued to grow bigger, to expand into multiple titles, creating a complex cosmology that was compelling to some, confusing to others. There were moments since then when the book got me interested again for a brief time, but they were few and far between. I just didn’t care for the flavor of the series enough. X-Men by this point had become just as calcified as Spidey or the FF had been in 1978, a well-crafted series in which the boundaries are well-known and immutable, a series that had to work extra hard to convince you that something significant was about to happen, rather than just having it occur.

Which is why, I expect, I really liked Grant Morrison’s recent run. Grant threw out the standard X-Men style—a gutsy move, since it was undeniably commercial—and substituted his own wild ideas in its place. I think Grant’s run followed the established pattern he’d set down in earlier series such as Doom Patrol and JLA—it opened with a number of electric, mind-blowing stories, settled in with a soft, flabby and somewhat self-indulgent middle section, only to pull a stellar climax together in the final issues. It’s the most fun I’ve had with the X-Men in a long while.

And that’s why you really don’t want me editing many X-Men comics—the things you like about the book and the characters aren’t the things that work for me. (I’ll tell you this much: were she not already dead, I’d delight in dropping a concrete block on Illyana Rasputin’s head, so annoying did I find her Magik persona.)

2014 Note: Illyana is alive again these days. Joy.

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