An adult look at X-Men #1

Being that you are currently reading a blog about comic books, there’s a very good chance that you own or at one time have owned a copy of 1991’s legendary X-Men #1.  If not, there’s a very good chance that you know someone who owns or at one time has owned a copy of X-Men #1.

Like I even need to show you this.

Heralded as the most-sold comic ever (selling approximately 17 kajillion copies thanks to its five separate covers and a public who thought it would be worth millions one day) X-Men #1 is one of those issues that everyone just seems to know.  And chances are if you want to go find a copy of it, you can find at least three of its covers in your local comic shop’s quarter bin, since those 17 kajillion copies aren’t worth the millions you dreamed up.

A few months back, Marvel celebrated the book’s 20th anniversary by re-releasing the book with fancy new computerized coloring, since god knows we can’t be expected to go on a nostalgia trip with an early 90’s color scheme.  In one of my rarer moments of common sense, I decided against dropping my hard-earned money on yet another copy of the issue (I’m pretty sure I have like 20 of them throughout my long boxes) since there was nothing new added to the issues.  Sure, all the old stuff was there – even the Jim Lee pin-ups of the villains, the pool party, the original team and the things to come with updated colors, but I was tracing those pictures back when I still thought the Oregon Trail was a rather difficult game to beat.

But beyond the nostalgia trip of looking at all the pretty costumes we remember so well from the X-Men Animated Series, how good of a story was X-Men #1?  Truly classic stories manage to live beyond their time periods – Dark Phoenix Saga is still a remarkable story today, 30 years after its initial release – and this is one of those issues that people seem to remember as a classic.  So now that the wide-eyed 9 year old who bought the issue new is now a somewhat jaded nearly-30 year old, let’s go take a look at X-Men #1 with the added perspective of an actual knowledge of comic books and see if its any good.

(Note: I know 21 year anniversary isn’t as impressive as 20, so let’s just pretend its still 2011 so I don’t have to feel bad that I procrastinated past the point of relevancy on this one.)

The answer is no, it’s really not that good.  Oh, sorry, did you want me to build up to that point?  The launch of X-Men was heralded as moving Marvel’s mutants from a comic book to a franchise.  It was at this time that X-Men cartoons, toys, Pizza Hut tie-ins, etc. began popping up everywhere.  It was the flagship of the comic boom period that made it cool to be a comic fanboy (spoiler alert: not really).  Like much of Marvel’s books, X-Men’s momentum was carried upon the art of rather new sensation Jim Lee (maybe you’ve heard of him).  But the cost was the man who built the ship that the momentum was carrying, 16 year writer Chris Claremont.  As the story goes, Marvel gave Lee more and more control over the plots of the story, and eventually it got to the point where Claremont threw up his arms and yelled “I’m out!”  So X-Men #1 (and the following #2 and 3) were Claremont’s swansong on the franchise that he had been building since 1975.

The original Chris Claremont run tends to be looked at with very rose-tinted glasses.  Sure, you get the Dark Phoenix Saga and the Days of Future Past mentions, but keep in mind that those all took place in the early 80’s.  Claremont was on the book for another decade.  Claremont’s run can be split up into three parts – pre-Byrne, Byrne, and post-Byrne.  Byrne is where all the good stuff happened – the stuff that fanboys (myself included) clamor as some of the best comics ever written.  Post-Byrne is where the majority of Claremont’s run lays.  Now, there are some gems in there – God Loves, Man Kills is a wonderful example – but overall, the run can basically be summed up in four overall themes:

  • Everybody Loves Storm
  • The Death of Wolverine
  • The Tragedy of Magneto
  • The Rise of the Shadow King

No matter who was on the team, no matter what they were currently working on, everything in the post-Byrne Claremont run of Uncanny X-Men fell into one of those four topics (with a bit of filler here and there, to be fair).

When the X-Men became a monumental franchise, a lot more people started becoming involved in what was going on with the money-making mutants, and thus by Claremont’s departure, the main themes of the book had dissolved into the rather awful jumble of the mid-90’s that the franchise never fully recovered from.  The Storm theme faded away as she herself faded into more of a secondary character to the more gritty characters.  Despite leading up to it practically forever, there was no chance that Marvel would let its top star (sorry, Casey) bite the big one.  The Shadow King story had been wrapped up ridiculously quickly to shoehorn X-Factor back into the X-Men proper, leaving  just Magneto’s story left to be told.

You might think that throwing Magneto in as the villain in a big X-Men #1 would be a no-brainer, and to that you’d be wrong.  Despite what you may have heard, Magneto was not the arch-enemy of the X-Men at this point.  He hadn’t been in quite some time.  Claremont had gone out of his way to redeem the X-Men’s rival to the point where he was actually the headmaster of the school in place of Professor X.  Marvel had hinted a reversal a couple of times, but they had never really done so.  But for this new beginning, it was only fitting to wheel out Mags to be the villain.  But it really didn’t turn out to well.

To truly appreciate Claremont’s story, you have to have a fairly decent knowledge of early X-Men lore.  Like original 1970’s Phoenix Saga lore.  Back in the early 70’s, a random issue of Defenders had put Marvel’s odd couple team against Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  The issue ended with a mutant of Magneto’s creation, Mutant Alpha, regressing the villains to infancy and bidding everyone adieu, never to be seen again.  This seems like a rather ridiculous occurrence (it was Defenders, after all) but for whatever reason, the X-Men creators decided to keep Magneto in his infant state when the title was relaunched, allowing him to be re-aged and therefore be more powerful for the new team.

All in all, this was a really minor plot point that was easily forgotten over the next 10+ years.  But in this story, the matter is not only brought back up, but used to explain Magneto’s entire character development arch for the entirety of Claremont’s run.  You see, while Magneto was stuck as a baby, he was left in the care of Moira MacTaggert on Muir Island.  With apparently nothing else to do, she decided to muck with his DNA and change his personality so he would no longer be the rampaging villain that had fought the X-Men so violently through the Silver Age.  Thus, Magneto’s eventual decision to try Xavier’s peaceful path to unity between mutants and humans was not a natural flow of seeing the world around him change, but was a mind-whammy caused by SCIENCE!

But that’s not all that’s got Magneto going.  A group of mutants steal a SHIELD space craft and head to Asteroid M to seek sanctuary within Magneto’s lair.  SHIELD, not exactly cool with the idea, sends a shuttle of its own after them, and all of them end up inside Magneto’s den.  One of the SHIELD agents shoots one of the mutants, leading Magneto to decide to fight humanity again, making the runaway mutants his Acolytes.  Including the dead girl, who wasn’t actually dead.  And some of the SHIELD agents who might or might not have been mutants, or mind controlled, or spies.  It was never explained.

To drudge up another old plot point, Magneto goes and unearths a Russian submarine he sunk some 130 issues earlier and nabs its nukes to use as self defense in the event that humans try to attack him.  And then the Acolytes go attack Genosha for no real reason, since the X-Men had already ended the mutant-enslaving regime back in X-Tinction Agenda.  But that’s okay, since Rogue got hit by a nuke over the Bermudan crash site of the Russian sub and awoke in Genosha, which you might recall is off the coast of Madagascar.  In Africa.  On the other side of the world.  So the X-Men go there.

Cue the fight scene, and the X-Men lose.  How about that?  Magneto kidnaps them, along with Professor X and Moira MacTaggert and takes them up to Asteroid M and forces Moira to do whatever he had done to him as a baby to the X-Men to turn them to his cause.  Because while you might have thought that the genetic changes had changed Magneto’s basic mindset on the subconscious level leading him away from the psychotic direction of his past, it’s actually more of a mind-control device that makes your enemies your friends.

So what does Magneto do with his newly recruited X-Men?  Nothing, really.  They just hang out around Asteroid M’s swimming pool until the other half of the team comes and rescues them.  I’m not making that up – they literally hang out around a swimming pool.  Cue the gratuitous X-Men vs. X-Men fight that Claremont so loves and suddenly everyone realizes that they aren’t actually on Magneto’s side.  As it turns out, Moira’s mind-whammy DNA altering process was flawed in that when mutant powers are accessed, the changes suddenly revert to normal.  Which doesn’t explain why Magneto remained a good guy for so long through the 80’s while he was mastering of magnetism all over the place.

So the good guys make up, and then the asteroid blows up, killing Magneto and the Acolytes.  The end.  No, seriously, that’s the end.  There is no big final fight.  No epic encounter between Xavier and Magneto explaining how neither of their visions can possibly come to pass while the other exists.  No throw back to how many lives were changed only to end up right back where they started oh, so long ago.  Instead, SHIELD decides to shoot down Asteroid M and Magneto & Co. basically sit up there and say “Oh, okay.  I guess that’s that.”

I suppose I should mention that this whole story goes between #1 – 3.  The first, LEGENDARY issue ends right after the X-Men confront the Acolytes in Genosha.

This is a story that I would say hasn’t aged very well, but realistically it wasn’t very good to begin with.  The new villains were ill-defined and spent the entire finale literally doing nothing.  The familiar characters spent most of the time reminiscing on things that had gone on before.  The whole of the matter didn’t seem like a very good beginning, which is what it was intended to be, but not really a very good ending either.  It was kind of blah, which was fitting since it brought in a decade of blah X-Men comics.

So look at X-Men #1 for its pretty cover and try to remember how awesome it was in 1991.  Look at all those pretty Jim Lee designed costumes…though in fairness, only Rogue and Jean Grey really got new costumes (and Jean’s was a pastel-colored generic X-Men uniform without the boots).  Cyclops cut the skull cap off his costume and decided to sling a belt over his shoulder.  Beast put a belt on over his underoos.  Colossus rounded off his pointy shoulder thingys.  Everyone else pretty much stuck with the looks they already had.

So yeah…yay for nostalgia!

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3 comments

  1. The idea that Claremont sucked after Byrne left, or that he only did his good work in conjunction with Byrne, is incredibly simplistic and – incorrect. He had classic collaborations with several artists. Indeed, the common denominator in many cases seems to be Claremont bringing out career-best work in someone else, rather than him riding anyone else’s coattails. Paul Smith’s run on Uncanny is regarded as on par with Byrne’s (albeit too short to contain as many classic story arcs), as are the later Mutant Massacre issues, and several of the Jim Lee issues of Uncanny. As is the Wolverine mini-series. As are the Bill Sienkiewicz issues of New Mutants. As are the Excalibur collaboration with Paul Davis. Noticing a theme here? It’s Chris Claremont. Byrne is good, no one’s denying that, but he wasn’t the straw that stirred the drink. Chris Claremont was a great storyteller – the best plotter in the history of comic books. And he remained at that level for most of his run. And I’ll tell you, even when it started falling apart, it could be (convincingly) argued that it only did so under the weight of X-Men’s becoming a “franchise” that included several books Claremont himself wasn’t writing, and required annual crossovers.

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