June 1, 2011

In Appreciation of... THE X-MEN

Just before I head off to see Matthew Vaughn's 60's set X-Men: First Class for myself, I thought I would take the time to write a (long overdue) new entry in my In Appreciation of... posts/columns. As you can see from the title, this is an Appreciation of Marvel's Merry Mutants: the X-Men.

The X-Men began life in that great comic-book idea boom of the 60’s; the Silver Age. There was a reason Marvel was called the House of Ideas, and the two biggest idea men at the company were Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby. The idea behind the X-Men was one of their less inspired origin stories though: Stan Lee could not think of a new and exciting way for this group to gain their powers, so he decided to just make them born with them. But out of that simple idea came shadings of discrimination and struggle all within the context of the social upheaval in the 60’s. It's no accident that comparisons are often made between Professor Xavier/Martin Luther King and Magneto/Malcolm X. The original team was made up of five teenage mutants: the stoic and reserved Cyclops, the brilliant and ebulliant Beast, the class clown Iceman, the high flying playboy Angel and the gifted and lovely Marvel Girl. Their ranks have changed dramatically in the decades since, with new mutants joining, leaving, dying, turning evil, being reborn, returning from the future etc.

The X-Men are, in all likelihood, my favourite bunch of comic-book characters. Some people go for the dark grittiness of Batman, while others prefer the everyman quality of Spider-Man (when I started reading comics, Spider-Man was in a weird, dark place. This was the time of the Clone Saga). The X-Men are a pop culture link to my past; the pubescent me with gross hair down to my shoulders, my parents going through a difficult time, me trying to fit in and impress (re: talk) to girls and then trying to pretend like I didn’t care. Where I grew up there were two comic-book shops and one trading card store. It was a small teenage haven on the main street: comic-book shop, movie theatre, video-game arcade. They’re all gone now; the centre of town shifted. I spent a lot of time after school, just hanging out at the comic-book shop talking to the comic book guy (actually a pretty cool guy; about as far away from CBG on The Simpsons as you could get). I don’t know what it was about comics, and the X-Men in particular, that drew me in but I was hooked. I was an addict and the X-Men were my crack.

I think I was first introduced to the X-Men by my friend Rajeev and his issues of the "Fatal Attractions" storyline - where the X-Men went to shut down Magneto for good and Wolverine ended up having the adamantium (the special comic-book metal that coats his bones) yanked out of him. Or it could've been via the totally wicked 90's cartoon:

Memories become blurred but that cartoon show was awesome, with its multiple episode story arcs that managed to draw on decades of X-stories. Not even Batman: The Animated Series managed to do that. From there I picked up the comics, got hooked and somehow found myself jumping almost directly into one of the biggest X-crossovers Marvel have had: The Age of Apocalypse. Professor Xavier’s son, the schizophrenic telekinetic mutant known as Legion, travelled back in time to kill the X-Men’s long-time adversary Magneto. Instead, he accidently killed his daddy and founder of the X-Men. Being a comic-book, this didn’t lead to some sort of looping time paradox that destroyed the entire universe (well…) but instead created a dystopian universe where the X-Men’s ancient enemy Apocalypse ruled. It was great, crazy, heady stuff and I lapped it up. It was the X-Men, but more hardcore: a lone band of rebels (who still managed to find spandex for their costumes somehow) up against a despotic ruler whose doctrine was simply “survival of the fittest”. It was grim, but as a 13-14 year old it was also so fucking cool (that paragraph was a lot of fun to write. Time travelling psychotic sons creating dystopian timelines! Woo! Comic-books!).

This was also the mid to late 90’s where, in the comic-book world, the artist and gimmicky cover was king. I started reading after Jim Lee et al had taken off to form Image, but just as Joe Madureira was starting his run. Madureira was instrumental in bringing the anime/manga look into the mainstream of American pop-culture. His stuff was freakin’ cool and crazy and over the top and full of motion. It’s a shame his post-X career has gone nowhere.

But going back and re-reading these comics now I cannot help but see the poor, obvious and expositional writing. But at the time, I was well into them. In fact, I got into the Children of the Atom in a big way in various formats:

• Uncanny X-Men and X-Men comic books
• X-Men cartoon show
• Children of the Atom video-game
• X-Men (and Marvel) collecting cards
• X-Men toys

I shudder to think at the amount of money I spent on “collectable” trading cards and various action figures. I read the comics all the way through the Onslaught storyline (Professor Xavier goes evil, turns on X-Men, sends Marvel heroes to alternate universe) and beyond. I followed the X-Men through time, dimensions, struggle, outer space, betrayal and more. Then, well, my interest started falling off. I stopped buying all the extraneous crap (ok, I was still buying some of the action figures). I stopped buying and reading the comics. I gave ‘em up; they just got too… well, silly (and given what had gone before... silly was very silly). 

Then there was Bryan Singer’s X-Men. Holy shit. An X-Men movie (and a good two years before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man brought the comic-book movie into the mainstream). And this was a time before I had discovered movie websites (hell, before a lot of them even existed), so each teased image, each clip was devoured by me and my friends. We talked (argued) amongst ourselves about the costume changes, whether Magneto was going to look silly in his helmet… Yeah, a regular group of geeks. This was no cheapie piece of crap flick either: this had Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the two mutant leaders, Professor X and Magneto respectively. It's not a great game-changing movie by any shakes, but it's still some damned good mutant fun and of course led into one of the best superhero movies yet: X-Men 2. Singer built on the world and characters and though one of my favourite X-Men (Cyclops) got short shrift I would still hold it up as an exemplar of a superhero team movie. I remember seeing it at a midnight screening with a large group of friends when I was at University. It was exactly the type of movie you wanted to watch with a collection of fellow geeks, with the shared level of excitement being palpable. The less said about X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine the better.

So I was still enjoying catching up with the X-Men, but I certainly wasn't doing it on any sort of regular basis; I'd stopped buying the monthly issues of X-Men and Uncanny X-Men. I'd kicked the habit and moved on. Oh, sure, I bought a comic-book every now and then and even had a flick through the latest X-Men comic at the local shop (Cyclops merged with Apocalypse?! Xavier dead?! Xavier alive?! Xavier walking?!) but I was free and clear. The only comic I was regularly buying was the brilliant Ex Machina.

Then Firefly ruined it all. 

Firefly introduced me to the particular genius of Joss Whedon and if not for that ill-fated one season space western, I might never have picked up a flatmate's trade paperback of Astonishing X-Men. It was... *sigh*... it was really fuckin' good.

I was like a junkie getting his first sniff of crack in years. I ended up buying all four of the trade paperback's collecting Whedon (and artist John Cassady)'s run on Astonishing X-Men. It was a great run, with Whedon's finely tuned ear for dialogue, comedy and character beats featuring strongly and Cassady's artwork being some of the best I've seen, bar none. But it wasn't just Astonishing X-Men; I bought up a fistful of the Ultimate X-Men trades and started buying the single issues monthly (Ultimate X-Men was part of Marvel's Ultimate imprint - relaunching Marvel characters free of the continuity baggage and contemporising them and their origins). The X-Men were, if anything, even more "hardcore" now than when I first started reading them. And then the Ultimate universe imploded in on itself. The quality of the writing and storylines quickly dropped off. Marvel seemed more interested in "Ultimising" new characters than telling new and interesting stories. I dropped the title.

The X-Men were my gateway to the larger Marvel Universe and from there, to the larger insane silliness of comic-book lore. Within the context of the Marvel Universe, the X-Men are the perpetual underdog; they don’t have the fame of the Fantastic Four, nor the adoration accorded to the Avengers. They protect a world that hates and fears them; that's their modus operandi. And one of the things I think I love most is that there is still so much more that could be explored in the X-Men stories, there's still so many stories to tell and themes to explore. Grant Morrison had an interesting run a few years back and the main continuity books right now are actually pretty damned good (being written by Matt Fraction now I think). I pick them up every now and then at the comic-book store and flick through them, just to see what's happening with this collection of the uncanniest of heroes. But they're going for $10 a pop here in NZ, so I can't really afford to buy them. But maybe, just maybe, I'll buy a trade or two.

So, to writers and artists like (deep breath) Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Len Wein, Dave Cockrum, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Jim Lee, Joe Madureira, John Romita Jr., Ed Brubaker, Chris Bachalo, Adam & Andy Kubert, Warren Ellis, Carlos Pacheco, Joss Whedon, John Cassady... cheers.

Shine on you crazy diamonds. Shine on.

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