X-Men

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X-Men #104 © 1977 Marvel Comics. (Cover art by Dave Cockrum.)

X-Men

(pop culture)

To the world at large, the X-Men have been an overnight success on the back of well-received movies, when in fact their rise has been a nearly fifty-year crawl, punctuated by false starts and protracted editorial caution in initially expanding the franchise.

Since their 1963 introduction, the X-Men have served as a metaphor for cultural intolerance. This, though, is predicated on the shaky foundation that the humans populating Marvel Comics’ psuedo-Earth are bigoted toward those with inherent superhuman abilities—otherwise known as mutants—while reserving their acclaim for superheroes whose powers were accidentally acquired or technologically conferred. The concept of a mutant as a simultaneously persecuted and amazingly unique creature hit home to readers in the turbulent 1960s, and was a concept that any non-Anglo reader could personally relate to. Created by the prolific Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the first issue of X-Men introduced half a dozen characters who are still appearing regularly forty years later, and a villain, Magneto, who has been a mainstay of Marvel Comics since his inception.

The guiding light of the X-Men is the distinctively bald and wheelchair-confined Professor Charles Xavier, also known as Professor X. A disability was of minor consequence to the world’s most powerful telepath, who engineered a dream of guiding other mutants to use their abilities for the betterment of humankind. His means for doing so was founding Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in Westchester County, New York, away from the prying eyes of the public.

His first pupil was Scott Summers, cursed through emitting concussive force blasts from his eyes, beams that are mysteriously contained by the ruby quartz visor he permanently wears. As Cyclops he was field leader of the original X-Men, and plays a major role to this day.

Xavier’s first mutant student was Jean Grey; she was, however, the last of the five original X-Men to join the team. Given the code name Marvel Girl, she had telekinetic powers, enabling her to levitate objects and herself. Later, Xavier allowed her to utilize her telepathic abilities as well. From the beginning, the beautiful redheaded Jean and Scott were in love with each other, but were too shy to admit it to one another for years.

Hank McCoy’s brutish, almost simian form and athletic ability resulted in his being called the Beast, a code name that belied a prodigious intellect, both artistic and scientific. Bobby Drake, alias Iceman, was the mirror image of long-standing Marvel hero the Human Torch. Initially a mobile snowman, he has been refined into a sleeker ice-covered hero, and among other abilities is able to generate sheets of ice from his hands (ice sheets on which he travels). Bizarrely, having no connection with Spider-Man in the comics, Ice man was one of the “Amazing Friends” from Spider-Man’s 1980s cartoon show Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. The original team of X-Men was rounded out by Warren Worthington III. This rich playboy carried a secret in the form of giant wings, which remained strapped to his back in his civilian guise.

In the early issues of X-Men, Lee and Kirby created a number of memorable adversaries for the young mutant team. They drew a sharp distinction between Xavier, who believed that mutants and humans should coexist in peace, and Magneto, who contended that mutants could only guarantee their freedom through conquering the rest of the human race. Wielding control over the force of magnetism, Magneto posed a threat to the entire world. He organized the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, including superpowered siblings Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who not only became superheroes but also turned out to be Magneto’s children. Another menace was Xavier’s half-brother Cain Marko, whom a mystical ruby transformed into the Juggernaut, a literally unstoppable powerhouse of superstrength. Dr. Bolivar Trask unleashed the Sentinels, his mutant-hunting robots, in the storyline in which Lee and Kirby most strongly established racial prejudice as the dominant theme of the X-Men series.

After Lee and Kirby left the series, Marvel’s promising new writer Roy Thomas and artist Werner Roth took the reins of the series. The original incarnation of the X-Men had started strongly, but never really fired enough comic readers’ enthusiasm to remain commercially successful. Perhaps the theme of outsiders was inherently off-putting in an early 1960s America, where cold war politics were still high on the agenda, and anyone not allowed at the front of the bus was better off not boarding in the first place. Toward the end of the 1960s, though, the comic sported some fine graphic realism from artist Neal Adams, and introduced two intriguing new heroes, who, however, never quite lived up to the excitement of their introduction. Alex Summers is brother to Scott, and as Havok channels solar energy into devastating blasts, while his partner, Lorna Dane (who eventually adopted the name Polaris), is able to control magnetic forces, although the reason for her striking green hair remains a mystery. Surprising as it may now seem, X-Men was canceled in 1970.

In the early 1970s, X-Men was soon revived as a comic by reprinting old stories, while the team members made sporadic guest appearances elsewhere; the Beast even maintaining his own short solo run in the pages of Amazing Adventures. The lack of activity didn’t deter hardcore fans demanding the team’s return. Roy Thomas, who had succeeded Stan Lee as Marvel’s editor in chief, wanted to revive the X-Men as an international team of mutant heroes. The result was Giant X-Men #1 (1975), written by Len Wein and drawn by the late Dave Cockrum. In this issue, with the X-Men captured, Professor X traveled the globe to recruit a new team of mutants to rescue them.

Raised in Egypt, but of deeper African ancestry, Ororo Monroe can fly and control the weather as Storm. Colossus was found on a remote Ukranian farming collective, and the athletic, teleporting Nightcrawler was rescued from a German mob chasing him due to his demonic appearance. The Native American Thunderbird, alias John Proudstar, had superhuman strength, speed, reflexes, and agility, none of which prevented him from being an early casualty, and the pint-sized Canadian Wolverine had previously been seen using his claws to fight the Hulk. The team was rounded out with two characters who had fought the X-Men in the 1960s. Sean Cassidy, the Banshee, had employed his psionic screams under duress, but the fiercely nationalistic Sunfire resented American imperialism and the atomic bomb that resulted in both his mutation and his mother’s death. He flies and fires beams of intense heat, but while no longer an enemy, Sunfire departed after retrieving the original X-Men (although decades later he headed Marvel’s Japanese superhero team in Sunfire and Big Hero 6).

Most of the new characters had largely been designed by artist Dave Cockrum, some having languished in his sketchbooks for years. Giant-Size X-Men #1 was followed by a revival of the ongoing X-Men comic book, but Len Wein, who plotted the return of the X-Men (after some brainstorming by editor Roy Thomas), turned over the writing of subsequent stories to his editorial assistant, Chris Claremont. An aspiring actor, Claremont never made the stage, but in the manner of many of his characters, discovered an undreamed of talent. He delivered solid soap opera interaction, intriguing plots, and compelling new characters. Credit is due Claremont for transforming the X-Men from also-rans to headliners. In the process, he can be further credited for finally propelling female superheroes beyond Decoration Girl and Sidekick Lass. Claremont’s refrain “Is there any reason this character can’t be a woman?” would pass into editorial legend and he was, additionally, very quick to latch onto the success of Star Wars and introduce elements of space opera to X-Men. Although uncredited, artist Cockrum and especially his successor John Byrne each contributed ideas, and it was during Byrne’s thirty-five issues that the X-Men’s inexorable rise to their current stature as marketing monoliths really began.

Except for Cyclops, Xavier’s original students departed the team in the new series, although Jean Grey soon returned in the new costumed persona that Claremont and Cockrum gave her: Phoenix, wielding vastly greater psionic powers over matter and energy. One of Claremont and Byrne’s two greatest storylines in Uncanny X-Men (as the series was now called) was the “Dark Phoenix Saga” in issues 129 through 138 (1980), in which Jean was driven insane and became the Dark Phoenix, a menace to the entire universe. Ultimately, Jean reverted to her true personality long enough to commit suicide rather than pose any further danger. Years later Jean turned up alive and she and Scott would finally be married in X-Men (second series) #30 (March 1994).

Of the new characters it was Wolverine who quickly became the favorite, known only by his code name or “Logan.” Cynics might claim that comics fans share an affinity with a man cast as a surly, repressed loner, and Wolverine lived out their fantasies by dealing with any trouble that came his way in particularly savage fashion. Much discussion ensued as to whether or not he’d murdered a guard off-panel in one Claremont/Byrne issue, but he certainly revealed little remorse regarding killing. An aura of mystery surrounded him. It took decades for Marvel to reveal his background, all the while establishing facets, then later revealing the snippets false. His mutant abilities are three-fold: a set of bony claws embedded in each hand, heightened senses, and a body capable of rapidly healing the most severe injuries. This ability has also restrained the natural aging process (Wolverine having been born in the nineteenth century). Wolverine had unwillingly been subjected to covert, CIA-sponsored “Weapon X” experiments. His skeleton and claws were bonded with an indestructible metal known as adamantium, and he was implanted with false memories, which, over time, have been established as such.

In issue 129 (January 1980) Byrne and Claremont introduced the thirteen-year-old Kitty Pryde, able to pass through solid surfaces and walk on air; she helped to restore the idea of youngsters being trained in the best use of their abilities. She played a pivotal role in the Claremont/Byrne team’s other greatest storyline, “Days of Future Past” (issues #141-#142, 1981), set in a future where mutants were either murdered or interned in concentration camps. To prevent this scenario, the adult Pryde exchanged minds with her teenage counterpart, guiding the X-Men to manipulate pivotal events to ensure her future never occurred.

While sales, even under Byrne, initially failed to match fan fervor, they did increase to the point that Marvel introduced a second X-Men title, in all but name, with New Mutants reaffirming Professor X’s program of educating young mutants. This was followed by X-Factor, in which Jean Grey returned and the original X-Men operated a mutant rescue operation under the pretense of dealing with the mutant “problem.” The principal X-Men team also continued to expand, adding Rogue, unable to touch anyone without absorbing their abilities and memories. Through her encounter with a heroine named Ms. Marvel, Rogue gained invulnerability, super strength, and flight, powers which lasted for years. The distinctively southern Rogue long had a deep affection for her fellow southerner, the Louisiana-born Remy LeBeau. As Gambit he charges inanimate objects with energy and throws them to detonate on impact. His has a checkered past, having a long career as a thief

Over the years many other heroes joined the X-Men for brief periods. Created in the 1970s to tie in with the disco phenomenon, the Dazzler can transmute sound into light, including holographic images, and started her career on roller skates. She even starred in her own comic series. She eventually married temporary X-Man Longshot, an other-dimensional human able to manipulate luck in his favor. Forge is a genius-level inventor with vague shamanic abilities. Two less successful characters are Maggot, who housed two mutant slugs within his stomach from whom he could absorb energy, and Marrow, who threw razor-sharp bones she removed from her body. Another longtime member is Psylocke (sister of Captain Britain) who has powerful psychic abilities; Joseph, was once believed to be an amnesiac Magneto, but was actually a clone with magnetic manipulation abilities

Claremont has set the record for writing the X-Men, having continuously worked on the series from 1975 to 1991. Noted Uncanny X-Men artists during Claremont’s long run include Paul Smith, John Romita, Jr., Marc Silvestri, and Jim Lee. In 1991, Marvel launched a companion series to Uncanny, simply titled X-Men, written by Claremont and drawn by Lee. The first issue was Marvel’s best-selling comic ever, although many were sold to investors (possibly still stunned that the issues they stockpiled are commonplace). However, Claremont finally left both X-Men titles after issue #3 of the new series. Although Lee departed for greener pastures soon after, in collaboration with Whilce Portacio he made one lasting contribution to the comic by introducing Bishop, a mutant from the future able to absorb any energy directed at him and return it as force blasts. He grew up idolizing the X-Men, and arrived in the present by accident, aware one of his heroes would betray the team, but not knowing who. It was eventually revealed to be the unlikeliest suspect of all: Professor X.

Having long appealed to the X-Men’s arch-foe Magneto to reconsider his ways, Professor X used his powers to close down Magneto’s mind, at which point the fury so much a part of Magneto’s character was transferred to Xavier. Awakening Xavier’s own successfully repressed hostilities a new consciousness, known as Onslaught, formed within Xavier’s mind, taking control with devastating consequences. Only the united force of all Marvel’s non-mutant heroes shut down Onslaught. Unfortunately Xavier was later once again possessed, this time by the malign intelligence of his heretofore unknown sister, Cassandra Nova. While posing as an authority on mutant affairs, Xavier had always guarded the truth of the X-Men, but under Nova’s control he revealed the truth to the world at large. Being forced to go public, though, has proved a blessing in disguise. It’s enabled Xavier to use his vast personal wealth to set up global branches of X-Corporation throughout the world. Providing a staff position to almost every benign mutant who’s had an involvement with the X-Men or affiliated groups; their goal is to offer shelter and aid to mutants in peril.

This storyline was conceived by Grant Morrison, who as the writer of the newer X-Men comic (retitled New X-Men,) since 2002, has stuffed a wealth of intelligent and radical ideas into the X-Men’s world. Morrison’s interpretations of familiar cast members offer new insights, and, on occasion, his plots have been matched by top-quality artists. Among the best of them is Frank Quitely, whose fine-lined delicacy and well judged poses combine for an extraordinarily expressive style. During his stint as lead X-Men writer, Morrison vastly expanded the size of Xavier’s student body at his school, now known as the Xavier Institute. In Morrison’s stories, more clearly than ever before, mutants represented a minority group striving for civil rights. With the “outing” of Xavier as a mutant, the X-Men were no longer hiding behind secret identities, but were openly campaigning for mutant rights.

As the X-Men franchise has continued to expand, more titles have been added, and the most successful has been Ultimate X-Men, depicting an alternate version of the saga of the X-Men, that Marvel kicked off in the new millennium. Under writer Mark Millar, and pencil artists Andy and Adam Kubert, the comic began with the founding of the team, mixing in the cast from various eras of X-Men, and has since adroitly reworked themes of mutant isolation.

X-titles continue to proliferate like mutant genes, with a publication history that has as many twists as the ongoing super-soap opera’s plots; in spring of 2004 the “X-Men: ReLoad” event brought a raft of new or retooled series in the franchise, including a return (though not the first) of Claremont to writing Uncanny X-Men, and a new Astonishing X-Men series, by artist John Cassaday and writer Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Claremont co-created a series about a new X-Men spinoff team, X-Treme X-Men (2001–2004), featuring favorites like Storm and Rogue, This was followed, in 2009, by X-Men Forever, in which Claremont presented an alternate history of the X-Men, as it would have gone had he not left the series in 1991.

Two other series, X-Men: The Hidden Years (1999–2001), written and drawn by John Byrne, and X-Men: First Class, originated in 2006 by writer Jeff Parker and artist Roger Cruz, present untold stories of the original team of X-Men. The Xavier Institute mansion in New York State’s Westchester County has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt over the years. But in Uncanny X-Men #500 (September 2008), the X-Men, led by Cyclops, established a new headquarters in San Francisco. There they founded Utopia, an island that serves as a haven where mutants and nonmutant humans can live together in peace, as Charles Xavier has long hoped.

Among new characters added to the X-Men in recent years is Pixie, who has insect-like wings, can induce hallucinations, and can perform magic. (She is not to be confused with the eternal named Pixie, who was introduced in 2000 in Roger Stern and John Byrne’s Marvel: The Lost Generation, the saga of Marvel universe heroes between the 1940s and the debut of the Fantastic Four.) Another is Hope Summers, the “Mutant Messiah,” the first mutant to be born after the Scarlet Witch eliminated the superpowers of most of Earth’s mutants, and who was raised in the future by a former member of the X-Men, the mutant warrior Cable.

Considering that the first X-Men series was canceled for low sales, it is extraordinary that X-Men has spawned so many successful series, miniseries, and companion series in the comics medium, as well as animated television shows and blockbuster live-action motion pictures, including X-Men (2000); X2: X-Men United (2003); X-Men: The Last Stand (2006); and X-Men First Class (2011). The ongoing sagas of the X-Men have become an entire fictional universe within the Marvel universe. — FP & PS