I’m David: Chris Sims Is Wrong About Jim Lee’s X-Men
When I was a kid, there were two comics franchises that meant everything. The first was Spider-Man. He was my entryway into comic books, courtesy of Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie, and he made an indelible impression. The second franchise was the X-Men, especially the comics drawn by Jim Lee. While Spider-Man comics often had soap operatic elements, X-Men was soap opera through and through. It felt adult in a way that appealed to a kid who wasn’t even ten years old yet, the stories were filled with world-shaking import, the drama was incredibly sexy, and the art ranged from good to utterly amazing.
I’m David, and I want to talk to you about why Chris Sims is wrong about Jim Lee’s X-Men.
What’s hard to understate about the Jim Lee-era X-Men is just how enjoyable it all is. From the Chris Claremont-written first issues on through to the end of the Mojoworld saga, the X-Men were having adventures that felt much, much bigger than they actually were. Lee kept mostly to the X-Men’s Blue team — the cool team, for the record, and you know I’m right — but still managed to hit outer space, another dimension, Cold War Germany, regular Germany, Russia, and New Orleans. The X-Men were international, and under Lee’s pen, they looked incredible.
X-Men is a comic where everyone in the cast is about as hot as your average supernova, and the entire run has this very slick, just short of realistic look. Lee’s style at the time defined how I think of the superheroic figure, both male and female, even to this day. There is something about his heroes that I find very clean and iconic. They look right in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s partly nostalgia, sure, but it’s also the fact that Lee made sure that his cast was pretty first, and realistic second.
You can see it in the cover to issue seven — Battle Damaged Wolverine and Omega Red don’t look like they’ve been beaten up. They look like Clint Eastwood with somebody else’s blood on his face. Lee didn’t create this type of portrayal, but he’s by far my favorite example of it. Deep inside my jaded heart, I want superheroes who are perfect and light and fun, even when they’re going through serious situations. Lee’s art nails that feeling in a way that really appeals to me.
Omega Red is another great example of the classic approach to action Lee pursued in X-Men. Omega Red is Wolverine’s bizarro, in a way. He has a death factor that lets him kill people at range, and he has tentacles that let him strangle you. He’s brought back to life by the Hand, who are working in concert with Andrea and Andreas von Strucker. As a kid, all of this was new to me. I didn’t figure out who the Hand were until years later, and the Struckers weren’t interesting until Andreas became Swordsman a few years back. But they were presented in such a way that they were a Big Deal, which made Omega Red a big deal, which made the whole story a Big Deal.
But one thing that this run was good at was switching from darkness to light, and vice versa. Immediately following the bloodletting that heralds the return of Omega Red, we’re treated to a two-on-two basketball game between Wolverine & Rogue and Gambit & Jubilee. It’s dumb, but fun, if you’re willing to accept it. It’s dated, thanks to the “gotta be da shoes” reference, but you know what? It’s also unbelievably charming. Gambit getting in Rogue’s face with a smile, Wolverine being a dick about basketball, and Jubilee playing hype man for Gambit — there’s a lot here to enjoy, and I’m glad I’m old enough for “gotta be da shoes” to be sweet, instead of just corny. (It’s definitely corny, though.)
It tells you everything you need to know about these people. Jubilee’s a teenager and cooler than a polar bear’s toe nails. Gambit’s a rogue, and Rogue is totally into it, but too smart to fall for him. Rogue herself is a straight-shooter, but not to the point that she’s a stick in the mud. Wolverine might not be as flashy as the others, but that’s just because he is apparently better than everyone at everything, including being too modest to admit how good he actually is.
The basketball game should put a smile on your face, especially how it ends. It’s the kind of bombastic superheroic action that I honestly feel like we don’t see enough. On the other hand, there’s this image of the Strucker twins, Andrea and Andreas, who kinda sorta bring me down:
It’s a ridiculous image, pretty much from top to bottom. The chain garters, the clear desk, that chair, Andrea’s cloak, Andreas’s shoulders, and his awful cigarette case affectation… it’s too much. It’s the part where Lee’s style trips over itself, because suddenly he’s trying a little too hard to make his people pretty, and they just trip from pretty over into sighhhhhhh. The Strucker twins suck anyway, especially when you compare them to basically anything else in X-Men comics, so this was kind of a no-win situation. Swing anna miss.
This panel of Cyclops talking to Psylocke and ignoring Colossus is a good example of something that I love about X-Men comics. The X-Men are always doing something. They’re never just sitting around, waiting for someone to show up. They’re always playing chess, or moping in the dark, or swimming, or painting. I mean, the first cliffhanger in this tale is Omega Red bumrushing the X-Men while Wolverine, Beast, and Jubilee are trying to crash Gambit and Rogue’s date. (Gambit, at one point, says “There are some things I prefer not to do in a group!” Bravo, Jim Lee.)
You learn a lot about the X-Men by what they get interrupted doing and how they spend their down time. I’m really into that, because it makes the characters feel more real. They do the same things that we do when they aren’t off being from the future or immortal or whatever the heck they do. It’s like eating in movies. You don’t necessarily notice it as being significant, but it definitely affects how you see the characters.
For a while, it seemed like everyone who captured Wolverine had a set of these X-shaped restraints ready to go. I think Wolverine always broke out of them in the same way, too: by just doing it. But these restraints, and this excerpt in general, are an interesting example of something that I really dig about this era of Lee’s work. When Lee was on, his pages gave you a lot to look at. He was never a Geof Darrow-style detail artist, but his pages always had a lot going on. They’re dense, with their big splashy panels to set the stage and extreme close-ups.
Sometimes there’s so much going on that things stop making sense. If you look closely at this image, you might find yourself wondering where everyone in the room is standing. Andrea is twenty feet away, there’s a canal between Matsuo and the doctor, and the entire room comes to a point, like a church’s steeple. Matsuo’s cigarette is out of control, too. Andrea’s cleavage window is another good example:
The stories had a lot going on, too. This arc is theoretically about Omega Red, but includes the Upstarts, the Hand, the von Struckers, a lot of Weapon X nonsense, a flashback to the Cold War and yet another dead woman in Wolverine’s past, pages of Longshot and Dazzler gallivanting around Mojoworld, a summary of a story going on in Uncanny X-Men, a Super Soldier Program, a bunch of Moira MacTaggert and Sean Cassidy stuff, too many references to Wolverine’s past, a flashback taking place simultaneously with the present, and what I’m pretty sure is a panel of Cyclops murdering a man by severing his upper torso with close quarters eye beams.
Oh, and Maverick is in it, I guess.
Can’t win ‘em all, you know?
The Omega Red arc, and really Lee’s entire run on X-Men, still manages to be a satisfying experience in and of itself, in part because all of this stuff made the comic feel full. It suggests that the world outside of the pages of this comic is vast and full of dangers and intrigue. It can be clumsy — I’m thinking of the “here’s where all the X-Men are for this arc, continuity-wise” pow-wow scene specifically — but these comics are meaty. Things go down, Jack.
Below is another image that’s emblematic of the Lee era. These comics sold a jillion copies because they were cool. It’s cliché now, but back then? X-Men comics gave you a cool moment every few pages. Sometimes it was basketball games and tripwire slung across roads. At other points, it was looking grim and gritty while saying jokes that don’t quite measure up. Everyone, including Wolverine, is witty, some more than others. Jubilee and Beast are non-stop quip machines. Gambit and Psylocke have a dry sense of humor, in addition to their weird seduction tactics. Cyclops doesn’t make jokes, but will if everyone else is, and they won’t be very good.
It’s so easy to get swept up into these comics. The world that Lee & friends created is so vibrant, so full of things that they want you to know about, that you can’t help but buy into it. It’s this weird little world with a lot of charm. It’s telling that Lee’s style has gone on to become almost the default superhero style. Jim Lee’s take on Batman in Hush was a big moment for comics, and you can spot artists that were greatly influenced by his work by closing your eyes and throwing a dart at a wall full of cape comics.
There’s a reason for that. It’s because Lee was the real deal, despite his faults. He made comics that feel great and are fun to read. The angst never felt like a chore, and the action never felt perfunctory. These comics are in a constant state of exploding with excitement, from soup to nuts. I wouldn’t trade them for the world.
Your move, Sims.
No question this week, since I ran long. But if you want to pick my brain, leave a comment below or hit me on Twitter @hermanos.