The X-Men has always been a sore spot with me. One of the richest pools of characters in comics regularly misused. Creators at the top of the industry doing their best work, or people so inept that they fail in every possible way to make something as inherently entertaining as a comic book even remotely readable. This is a book that vacillates wildly between the best in the industry to not worth wiping your ass with.
Such is the way of things with many books that have been around for as long as the X-Men. In 1963 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started the book up and wasted no time in taking interesting characters and writing them like they didn’t care a bit. To be fair this was true. This was just another comic to them, and they did not care all that much about it. It didn’t sell well from the start, and they were not doing their best work. Not even close. Kirby did not stick around long, leaving main art chores after the first dozen issues and working with other artist for the heavy lifting for a few more. As was often the case with a Kirby drawn book, once he was gone things tanked. Since this was already a marginal book, things were really pretty awful. Not to say there were not positives. Golden Age artists Don Heck, Werner Roth (AKA Jay Gavin) and Alex Toth graced the pages, sometimes aping Kirby’s style, but often doing their own. The book looked great at times. There was the all too short Roy Thomas, Neal Adams run. One of the best of both their long careers. Then with issues #67 the book started reprints. Not bothering to reprint the entire run, they started with issue #12. The reprints were sloppy, concerned with cramming a couple of issues from the early run under 1 cover, they were often done out of original sequence.
Then Giant Sized X-Men #1 arrived. Len Wein and Dave Cockrum put together a book that threw caution to the wind and made a book that was limping to its death into a book that was still limping to its death, only slightly slower. This issue (followed by #94) is remembered incorrectly by people today. It was not a thunderbolt. People remember this as the book that changed everything and made the X-Men hugely popular. Only the first part of that was true. When Chris Claremont took over the book with issue #94, co plotting the book with Wein for a few issues, sales were slow to improve. The book got only a small bump with the new team. When John Byrne came on as penciller with issue #108 the title had not improved much, and things were not looking great. At that time in his career, Byrne was not very popular and certainly not the legend he would become. He was replacing the fairly slow, but very popular Dave Cockrum in the hopes they could get a terminally late book back on schedule. This began what was at the time, a very underappreciated run on the book. The ABC books, as I used to hear them called, for inker Terry Austin, Byrne and Claremont, have become some of the most beloved in Marvel’s long history. Byrne and Austin stayed with the title until #143, along the way creating with Claremont, The Dark Phoenix Saga; the story that really did redefine modern comics. Dave Cockrum returned for a nice run and the book’s sales continued to climb, but they were still not stellar. In those days 100,000 copies was a borderline book, always waiting for a dip in sales that would cause it to be cancelled. X-Men did not become THE Marvel book until the 150’s or so.
The popularity was cemented by the arrival of Paul Smith with issue #165. At this point spin-offs and limited series with the characters were done to capitalize on the popularity of the X-Men. Other highlights such as Magneto’s conversion to a much deeper and more resonant character, and the Fall of the Mutants arc, were strong entries as well. A host of artist came and went, while Claremont stayed on the book until 1991, when editorial pressure, and a willful artist named Jim Lee wanted more story input. The lunatics artists were running the asylum at this point at Marvel, and it shows. A lot of the guys that left to found Image were big on the idea that you didn’t need a writer if the art was good. Well they were proven both right and wrong. The X-books went almost immediately into the crapper. Sales followed once the hot artists all defected to Image, where poorly written books like Spawn and WildC.A.T.S. sold just as well as the well-written ones, better much of the time. The X-books lost much of their previous sales numbers, and Marvel with its new “just put whatever pretty bit of foil-covered crap we can on the stands” policy in place, fell with it. Eventually they declared bankruptcy, leading many to foolishly fear that the company would fold. An artistic and editorial black hole opened up and Marvel managed to destroy almost every book they had.
The suck-itude lasted for nearly a decade. When the ship was finally righted, it took a long while for people to pay attention to even the best books Marvel was putting on the stands, even the well written X-Men. Grant Morrison was writing the New X-Men and with Frank Quietly, making this a premier book again. The books were more in line with the movies, at least visually, and contained wild and outlandish stories at times. This let this book soar again. There were even good crossovers. The House of M and original Age of Apocalypse, were actually not bad, and continue to draw readers and have new stories or direct call backs to them even now.
Then there is Astonishing X-Men. OMF-ing G this was a great book! Joss Whedon and John Cassaday brought out 24 issues over nearly 4 years, and gave us the best X-Men comic in over a decade. Bringing back major characters from the glory days, putting a sick amount of Whedon-esque humor and then kicking us in the gut with a climax that truly was astonishing! These were the X-Men I remembered, possibly even better than I remembered. I could not wait for each issue, and I was never let down by what I read.
Since then, things have been pretty uneven. Vampires on the low-end, with some powerful stories with classic characters on the high. The trip into the cosmic storylines was interesting, if not all that well executed. Some of the spin-off series are quite fun also. The returned New Mutants being the highlight there.
With AvX running now, I cannot honestly say that there is much to look forward to. There have been a couple of interesting twists, but Marvel still is a “House of Ideas”, they just can’t translate even the coolest ones into strong stories. The brightest light right now is Wolverine and the X-Men written by Jason Aaron. This is a very fun read. Lots of action and humor, with something strong underneath called good writing.
When well written, the X-books can be among the best of the Marvel titles, thanks to a rich stable of strong and much-loved characters. If you seek out the stories mentioned here, you will not be disappointed.