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.
• Uncanny X-Men and X-Men comic books
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.
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.