Ask Chris #186: The Strange Rise Of The X-Men
Q: Why do you think the X-Men didn’t find their audience until two decades after they were created? — @godofthunder851
A: I’ve got a minor quibble with your timing in this question — it was more like 12 or 15 years, really — but you’ve got an interesting point there. I think most comics readers are well aware of that piece of trivia about how the X-Men were about to get the axe before Giant Size X-Men #1 breathed new life into the franchise and set them on the path of becoming what was probably the single most popular and influential franchise of the ’80s and ’90s, and that’s not really how things usually work. In comics, you tend to either come out of the gate to massive, enduring popularity (like Batman or Spider-Man), come out strong and then fade away for whatever reason (like, sadly, Shazam!), or just sort of flounder in the midcard. It’s rare that something sticks around on the edge of being canceled for a solid decade before it finds its footing, and nobody bounced back harder than Marvel’s Merry Mutants.
But really, what you’re asking here is two separate questions: Why didn’t the X-Men take off in 1963, and why did they in 1975? So let’s look at the history and see if we can’t figure it out.
In a lot of ways, X-Men was clearly the odd man out in that original Marvel lineup. I’ve been through this a lot before, but it’s impossible to understate how much of a revolution those books were. Fantastic Four and Spider-Man were basically instant hits, and while Iron Man and Thor weren’t really A+ players, they were a solid foundation for the universe that led to Avengers and the return of Captain America, which was a huge deal. Hulk might’ve been canceled after six issues, but that’s such a great concept that it never really left, he just kicked around the midcard in Tales of Suspense with the Sub-Mariner for a while until the audience was there — and even that happened pretty quickly, all things considered.
X-Men, meanwhile, was just sort of there.
In retrospect, that seems weird, not just because of their later success, but because it’s such an easy concept, both for readers and creators. The emergence of a race of mutants provides the writers with an easy way to skip over complicated origin stories and get right to the action, which seems like the perfect medium for people like Jack Kirby, who had a million ideas a minute that could be dropped right onto the page with that simple explanation. Making them teenagers who are ostracized by the outside world and dropping it into that school setting gives the teenage readers something that they can relate to while at the same time giving them that escapist fantasy that comics have been built on for as long as they’ve existed. It even seems like it was perfectly timed, coming out right when the teenager was truly emerging as a social construct and an economic powerhouse.
On paper, that’s one of the best ideas those guys ever had, and that’s saying something. But in practice, it just falls flat right out of the gate. That’s not to say that there aren’t great ideas there. If you read that first issue, you can see the foundation of almost everything that would come later right there, from Magneto to the X-Men getting involved in a military situation, the cold war nuclear paranoia that was so prevalent in that age to the point where mutants themselves are said to be the result of atomic fallout, human WMDs left in the wake of World War II. It’s just that the execution doesn’t live up to it.
I’ve said before that X-Men just doesn’t feel like Lee and Kirby have their hearts in it, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think the problem is that it was really their first attempt at building on what they’d already done. It’s a refinement rather than an innovation, pieced together from bits and pieces that worked in their other hits. The problem is that those other hits were themselves still being refined as an ongoing process, and they were way more interesting, which made X-Men redundant.
It had the hook of ostracized and isolated teens, but that was done way better in Spider-Man, the book that laid the foundation of the modern superhero. The team bickered while showing off their super-powers and had Angel and Cyclops competing for Marvel Girl’s affections, but that was nowhere near as good as the strained family relationship in Fantastic Four. They were outsiders in a world that didn’t understand if they were heroes or villains, but, you know, that’s the Hulk’s entire deal. X-Men was the first comic that tried to mash all that up — it’s the first real product of the Marvel Age — but it didn’t do anything better.
Before we move on, it’s worth noting that there’s another Marvel title that’s the same way, that also took a long time to ramp up and find its footing: Daredevil, which was really just Spider-Man Has A Grown-Up Job Now. It’s not a “bad” comic by any means, but when it’s in a crowd alongside “This Man, This Monster” or “The Final Chapter” or even that story where Hawkeye decides he’s going to wear a purple miniskirt from now on, it doesn’t measure up. It’s just Good Enough To Not Get Canceled, which is probably why they didn’t mind handing it off to an artist who had never written a monthly title before, which is how Frank Miller ended up doing the other most influential superhero comic of the ’80s.
Also, can we talk about that cover for a second? It’s dynamic as hell, but what is happening there. You’ve got a dude with wings trying to throw a metal pipe at a guy dressed up like the Devil, a snowman straight up throwing snowballs, and a girl doing the twist, all taking place in a blank white void while they stand on a fuchsia triangle. I love Kirby, but that is weird, and aside from Cyclops blasting laser beams out of his face, it’s not a particularly enticing image. Also, “what is Beast swinging from” is up there with “who the hell brought the ropes to tie up Mr. Fantastic” on the list of Questions Jack Kirby Covers Raise That They Never Answer.
There’s one other major factor about those early X-Men issues that makes them feel so bland, and that’s that the single most important aspect of that comic, the thing that in retrospect came to define it and keep it as a viable, thriving storytelling tool, is also completely absent from those early issues: The civil rights metaphor. It’s there in bits and pieces — the Sentinels, the prime example of the government repressing and hunting mutants, show up pretty early on in 1965 — but it’s certainly not the focus. Despite Marvel’s (pretty well-earned) reputation for being counterculture that was rooted in real-world struggles, they were still mainstream superhero comics, and those were a few years away from tackling bigotry with anything that had more layers than Superman and Batman showing up in a PSA to tell you racism was bad.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that PSA, but it ain’t exactly God Loves, Man Kills, you know?
To be fair, I’m basing all of this on the earliest Lee/Kirby issues. I’ve never read the stuff that came after. Then again, neither did anyone else; that was sort of the problem. By the early ’70s, X-Men existed only as a bimonthly reprint title, presumably because “X-Men” is such a great title that Marvel didn’t want to take the chance of letting the copyright lapse. Then, in the part of the story that everyone knows by heart, Len Wein, Dave Cockrum relaunched it with Giant Size X-Men #1 and handed it off to Claremont and eventually John Byrne, and it became the most popular thing that has ever been held together with two staples and a cover.
I don’t think it’s exaggerating at all to say this is the most successful reboot of all time. The only thing I can think of that even arguably tops it is Flash in 1954, which kicked off the Silver Age and paved the way for so much of what still sits at the core of the DC Universe, but when you look at what came from that single issue of X-Men, it’s a tough call. Launching Wolverine alone changed comics as we know them, influencing the direction of countless characters and a sprawling media empire and that’s a small piece of the influence. The New Teen Titans, Crisis, the way team books changed forever, everything we think of as “The ’90s,” all of that has its roots one way or another in that comic. I don’t even think we’d have the Batman that we have today if we hadn’t gone through Wolverine to get there.
So why was it this book? It’s tough to say — no comic, even one that’s this influential, exists in a vacuum, and it’s hard to piece together a the complex web of influences, even if you’re pretty sure you’re starting from solid ground. But the most obvious reason is that it’s really good.
The “All-New X-Men” era is one of those rare lightning-in-a-bottle moments in comics when everyone involved just clicked right into place. Cockrum was an incredible designer who took some Legion of Super-Heroes ideas he’d been working on and dropped them right into a team that was in dire need of a new roster with international flair, Claremont’s operatic storytelling was perfect for juggling a complicated web of relationships and longing, and Byrne? Forget it, man. That dude was putting out G.O.A.T. stuff for a solid decade.
That’s before you throw Orzechowski into the mix, too. It’s A-game all around.
One interesting thing about how X-Men was relaunched is that, as a run, Claremont, Cockrum and Byrne’s stories feel very modern, but in a lot of ways, Wein and Cockrum’s Giant Size reads like a throwback. It’s very old school, to the point where you’ve got a nod back to the pre-Fantstic Four days with KRAKOA, THE ISLAND THAT WALKS LIKE A MAN! Even the story that it leads into features the X-Men duking it out with Count Nefaria, a villain from the early days of the Avengers with a name that sounds like someone the Shadow and Doc Savage would’ve fought. In retrospect, it makes a strange bridge between these two distinct eras of Marvel comics.
The first and most important thing it does in that respect is that it rebuilds the team almost from the ground up. Cyclops, much to my dismay, sticks around to connect the team to its past, but everyone else is either gone or radically changed. Iceman and Angel head off to California to join the Champions (which, for those of you who haven’t read it, is to Defenders what Defenders is to the rest of the Marvel Universe), Beast went to the Avengers, and Marvel Girl became the Phoenix — a pretty huge change for a character whose powers were defined in 1963 as “can lift and read a book.”
The rest of the team was, of course, filled out with an international roster, and that’s one of the most brilliant things that the relaunch did. Since they were situated out in Westchester rather than being in New York City proper, the X-Men had always been slightly apart from the Marvel Universe. It’s only about 30 miles, sure, but Spider-Man wasn’t exactly going to be swinging by on his way to the Bugle like he could in the background of Daredevil. By throwing in characters from Africa, Europe and even Canada, Wein and Cockrum gave the team a global scale that set them apart from neighborhood heroes. It was something they’d already had, but now there was a personal investment in it.
It also brought that civil rights metaphor right to the forefront, on a very basic visual level. These were people who looked different from each other — the gigantic wide-eyed Russian, the African goddess, the weird blue elf with the accent — but they all had something in common. They were united as members of a race despite their differences in appearance, and that also meant that they had a common enemy in the forces that were out to oppress and destroy them because of their differences from “normal people.” Compare that to the five white kids in suits from the original lineup. One of them has large feet. That’s about as much visual variety as you get, and it doesn’t exactly underscore what you’re dealing with.
Right away, you’re dealing with something that has a much stronger hook, with creators who are far more invested and devoted to what they’re doing. But more than that, everything that works against X-Men in 1963 ends up working for it in 1975.
In the early days, Spider-Man had been the book about an outcast, but by the ’70s, that wasn’t really the case anymore. Peter Parker had stopped being Steve Ditko’s spindly, picked-on nerd once John Romita Sr. showed up to shove him through puberty and turn him into the strapping young man who was dating a pair of gorgeous go-go dancers with a lot of bad luck around bridges. He still had his problems at bargain rates, but they were covering different ground than what you saw with the X-Men. Peter Parker was a guy with a lousy job who had to worry about paying the bills and providing for the woman who raised him and who was perpetually two seconds away from keeling over, but he didn’t have to worry about fighting for equality or being rounded up and sent to a labor camp. The X-Men, on the other hand, were hitting that exact note, filling a metaphorical role in the way that nobody else was — and once Kitty Pryde showed up to allow a shift in focus from the grown-up, graduated X-Men (and the just-out-of-college Spider-Man), they had that teenage POV market cornered too.
The Fantastic Four had the market cornered on bickering teammates in ’63, but ten years later, the book (which, sadly, suffered the worst for Kirby’s departure from Marvel in 1971 and wouldn’t really recover until John Byrne took the reigns in the ’80s) didn’t have anything like the love triangle that was going on between Cyclops, Phoenix and Wolverine, let alone the interpersonal web of relationships between the rest of the ever-expanding cast. It’s almost not fair, in a way — X-Men starts with twice as many characters as Fantastic Four had, with a cast that’s meeting each other and developing their relationships right there on the page, rather than starting fully formed.
Hulk was a hero in a monster’s body, but Claremont, Cockrum and Byrne made Magneto a villain you could actually root for. In fact, it’s hard not to see his point, even when he’s driven to extremes, because you’ve seen the X-Men being assaulted by the Government and have to deal with exactly the sort of problems that are keeping Magneto up at night. The flipside is that they get lumped in with him, so that it’s not their actions that are getting them labeled as monsters, but the actions of a member of their race. It all comes back to that central metaphor, supporting it, leading to interesting and complicated storytelling. Which is exactly what the book did.
All of that gave this second iteration of the X-Men something that the first version didn’t have: direction. It had a clear mission, its parameters were defined and could be expanded and contracted as the story needed, whether it was to accommodate a cosmic adventure out into space to deal with the Phoenix, or whether it was something as small as Kitty Pryde having to choose between schools. People knew what the X-Men were about, and because of that, what they were about could change and evolve over time, returning to that base as needed. The first version was just more superheroes, but the second told you why you should care, and that made all the difference.