An X-Men Retrospective: Part 2

“We are all but bit players in a tragedy far larger than any of us...”

This is where I started reading X-Men so I have something of a nostalgic soft spot for this era, but I'll be the first to admit that it is far, far, far from the best.

MUTANT GENESIS (1991-1995)
Uncanny X-Men #281-321
X-Men #1-40

The 1990s were something of a creative dark age. Not just for X-Men, but for the comic industry in general. There were so many bad superhero comics published during this decade, but they were often massive sellers so publishers kept churning out more of the same. Then the bubble burst and nearly took the entire comic book industry with it. Marvel managed to survive despite bankruptcy, but other publishers weren't so lucky. I won't go into all the gory detail about everything that went wrong back then, because it would take up the entire post and probably require ten more, so I'll just focus on the how badly things got for Marvel's merry mutants. 

By this point the X-Men had expanded to include five different ongoing titles: Uncanny X-Men, Excalibur, X-Factor, Wolverine and The New Mutants. Many of these titles underwent soft reboots in 1991 that saw line-ups shift, titles change, and new creative teams take over. Marvel also decided to add a sixth title, written and illustrated by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee, which would unofficially replace Uncanny X-Men as the new flagship title of the franchise. Simply called X-Men, it was an instant sales success with the first issue going on to become the biggest selling comic of all time, although it should be noted that it was released with multiple covers that formed a tetraptych image so many were buying it fives times to get the complete image (the 90s was rife with sales gimmicks like these). But while the series was enjoying these massive sales, tensions were brewing behind the scenes that resulted in a major exodus of talent from Marvel.
Claremont and Lee had very different ideas of where they to wanted to take the X-Men. Lee wanted things to go back to the way they used to be, with everyone living in the X-Mansion, taking orders from Professor X, and battling Magneto. Claremont wanted to continue the redemption arc for Magneto that he'd started and to kill off Wolverine, only to bring him back a year later as an assassin for the Hand. Bob Harras, the X-Men's editor at the time, sided with Lee and Claremont reluctantly went along with it. The last few months of his run became one long reset that put everything back to the way it was when he first took over. By this point he had been reduced to just providing dialogue for Lee's plots (which had to be done in a rush because Lee was often late finishing his art). And this wasn't just happening to Claremont. Louise Simonson, his former editor and friend, had been all but forced off New Mutants by Harras in favour of Rob Liefeld. The old guard was being pushed out so the new kids could take over. After working on three issues of X-Men with Lee, Claremont finally decided enough was enough and left Marvel, bringing his 16 year stint on X-Men to a rather unceremonious end.

With Claremont gone, Lee became the main driving force on both X-Men titles, plotting and drawing X-Men and co-plotting Uncanny X-Men with Whilce Portacio and scripting help from John Byrne, who became as frustrated with their tardiness as Claremont. This new creative team didn't last very long. A year after X-Men's launch, Lee along with all the other big name artist at Marvel left the company due to a dispute over pay. At the time, Marvel was enjoying massive sales and the artwork by the likes of Lee, Liefeld, and Todd McFarlane was credited with that success. These guys quickly became superstars in the comic world and their flashy art styles, for better or worse (mostly worse), would come to dominate the industry for the next decade. They used their new clout to get more creative control over the titles they worked on, at the expense of writers like Claremont and Simonson, but what they really wanted was a bigger share of the profits they were generating. When they didn't get them they all walked and went to form their own company, Image Comics.
Before they both left, Claremont and Lee broke the X-Men down into two distinct teams. With over a dozen X-Men at this point they didn't want any of the books to feel too cluttered with characters. The Blue Team (Cyclops, Wolverine, Rogue, Gambit, Psylocke, Beast, and Jubilee) would star in X-Men and the Gold Team (Storm, Iceman, Jean Grey, Archangel, and Colossus) would star in Uncanny X-Men. This would remain the status quo for much of the early 90s, but would be abandoned completely following 'Age of Apocalypse'. Because it had all the cool characters, the Blue Team (with the addition of Storm and Jean replacing Psylocke) is the one that was used for Fox's animated series and is no doubt seen by many fans as the definitive X-Men line-up.

With so much chaos going on behind the scenes, it's no surprise that the storytelling really suffered during this time. X-Men #1-11 is worth reading for completion's sake just to see how the Claremont and Lee run ends. Unless you really want to see how Bishop joins the team, Uncanny X-Men is just not worth bothering with at all. It's all a lot of bad set up for new villains and storylines that ultimately ended up going nowhere. The female characters also became increasingly objectified during this time as writers and artists played out their horny fantasies. Pyslocke, in particular, is often reduced to being the team's resident swimwear model. Returning everyone to the school also doesn't really work since all these characters have long since grown up and no longer feel like students. Jubilee was the only one who still qualified as a student, but Harras didn't want to use her at all and she was reducing to being almost a background character until they later moved her over to Generation X.
Following the mass exodus of Lee and co, Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell (who got the job simply because he happened to walk past Harras' office) became the series' main writers with Nicieza writing X-Men and Lobdell writing Uncanny X-Men. To be perfectly blunt, neither of them were that good. When I was a kid I kinda enjoyed Nicieza's run on X-Men with Andy Kubert as artist, but as an adult I found it a slog to get through and all the body swapping stuff with Psylocke deeply confusing.

With so many different titles the series was now increasingly driven by editorial edict. Harras had a clear, rather regressive, idea of what he wanted X-Men to be and Nicieza and Lobdell were really just there to realise his vision rather than their own. Not that I think their own vision would've been any better. Part of Harras' vision was keeping the crossover fires burning. If Nicieza and Lobdell weren't busy writing crossovers, they were busy setting up the next crossover. It got the point where they had three crossovers virtually back to back. Which wouldn't have been a problem if the crossovers hadn't all been so bad. Yes, even 'Age of Apocalypse'. I know that many regard it as the high point of 90s X-Men comics, but I reread the whole thing recently and I honestly do not think it holds up that well. It has some good ideas, a lot of great world-building, and some of the individual titles are okay, but as whole it is a chore to get through.
POST-APOCALYPSE (1995-2001)
Uncanny X-Men #322-393
X-Men #41-113

X-Men fans disagree about a lot of things, but almost all of them agree that the late 90s was the absolute bloody worst time to be an X-Men fan. Just as Marvel was going actually bankrupt, the X-Men became utterly creatively bankrupt. Not long after 'Age of Apocalypse' was wrapped up, Nicieza was suddenly fired after a disagreement with Harras and Lobdell became the sole writer on both of the main X-Books. Since he was always the weakest of the two this was not good. Not good at all. Those three years were some of X-Men's worst, producing utter dreck like 'Onslaught' and 'Operation Zero Tolerance' as well as punchline characters like Maggot and Marrow.

When Lobdell finally left in 1997, Joe Kelly and Steven T. Seagle took over writing X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, but both soon quit due to editorial interference. They weren't happy with their plots being changed after they'd already planned them all out or that they had to suddenly make room for half the Excalibur cast after Marvel cancelled that title. Alan Davis was initially brought in pencil X-Men, but was then asked to plot both tiles until new full time writers could be found. He ended up staying on for nearly two-years. According to him, this was purely a professional assignment where he just put the editor's ideas into plots.

After Davis left, Marvel planned a major relaunch of the X-Men comics in 2000 to coincide with the release of the first movie. Chris Claremont was even lured back to serve as writer on X-Men and Uncanny X-Men. The relaunch was not a success and Claremont was made to step down after less than a year. He was offered the chance to still write one of the titles in co-ordination with the new writer Marvel was bringing in, but Claremont really preferred being left alone to do his own thing and decided to write a new series, X-Treme X-Men, instead. Scott Lobdell was briefly brought back to wrap up all the dangling plot threads from his tenure, like the Legacy Virus, so the series' new writers could start with a clean slate.
To Be Continued...

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

1 comment:

Samantha M. Quinn said...

The first issue I picked up was X-Men #14 (X-Cutioner's Song) and I continued through the Age of Apocalypse. I was so drawn to the characters that I was reading all four major titles Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Factor (my favorite title) and X-Force. I lost interest with Age of Apocalyse because keeping up with all the new titles was hard (the internet wasn't really a thing then). I was also trying to read various DC titles too and it simply became to much for a teenager's budget and I ended up stopping after a couple of years.

I haven't tried to reread any of these, and I'm kind of afraid they will all be awful. I remember this one panel after Magneto tore the adamantium from Wolverine's body that stayed with me (the reveal of his bone claws). I knew there was a lot of strife with these titles behind the scenes and of course the formation of Image was a big deal back then (I pretty much only read a few issues of Youngblood, The Maxx and of course Spawn).

Fascinating read Mark.