The reason I started this blog is because I am a huge X-Men nerd, and have been for 17 years now. So over the next few days I’m going to try and compress the franchise itself, as seen through my eyes, into a nutshell. After that, I’ll move on to individual characters.
The X-Men started in 1963 as a way for Stan Lee to get out of writing origin stories. He’d done Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four by now, and was starting to wonder how many gamma bombs, freak space accidents or radioactive spider bites he could use before people called him on it. So he came up with the answer: “They were born this way!”
Cue the term “Mutants.” Because mutations actually existed in nature, it was logical for Stan to come up with the idea that humans could mutate, their bodies changing in weird and wonderful ways to give them superpowers.
With the origin set, he created the first six mutants: Professor X, Cyclops, the Beast, Iceman, Angel, and Marvel Girl. However, the company at the time didn’t like the term “The Mutants” as a title to a comic book. Their rationale was, “Who’s gonna know what a mutant is?” So Stan, in his infinite wisdom, changed the title to name it after Professor X, and called them “X-Men” (in the 60s he could get away with saying “For X-Tra Power!”, though most of us think that’s funny as hell nowadays).
The characters came next, with obvious Fantastic Four influences. Iceman was a Human Torch with the dial set to ‘cold,’ so he was the smart-alecky youngest member. The Angel was the rich, handsome one, and at the time was the only character who could fly, so he fulfilled a unique niche in the group as it existed then. The Beast started off as a Thing without rocks, speaking with the same “tough kid from Yancy Street” twist to his speech, but that changed quickly into being well-spoken and verbose, hardly ever using one syllable where five or ten would do, and thus became 1/2 of two “Reed Richards” archetypes…the intellectual. Cyclops was the social half of the archetype; at the same time as he was the leader, he was also the awkward, nerdy one who would be off by himself while the rest of the team went and had fun. And finally came Marvel Girl, the pretty redhead who could move things with her mind, and already came off as a lot stronger-willed than the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl. (I’m going to go into the individual characters themselves in future blogs)
The original X-Men were pretty standard superhero fare…fighting Evil Mutants as a counter-revolutionary force while working their best to coexist with normal humanity…from their private, upstate-New-York mansion-cum-academy. Yeeeah…Though to be fair, in the early days the team had plenty of nights on the town and periods where they were out-and-about. It read like a combination of superhero story and college book.
There were some additions and subtractions over the years under various writers. Mimic went down in history as the first case of “Marty Stu” in X-Men history (to my mind anyway), Havok and Lorna Dane (the future Polaris) signed up, Beast took off, and the pre-Mystique shapeshifter Changeling went from bad to good and died impersonating Professor X, becoming the first mutant to ever give his life for Xavier’s dream, even if he wasn’t an official X-Man.
The book was entertaining for its time, and some creative teams, like Neal Adams and Roy Thomas, really stood out, but it never achieved quite the level of popularity as Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four at the time. A subsequent team book, The Avengers, was much better-received thanks to the use of many pre-existing characters, such as Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. However, there was a cult following for the book even then, which kept the book just above water, even if only in reprinted stories, long enough for the 1970s to hit…
…More on that next time.
Probably the era I have the least experience with. I’ve read maybe a dozen stories from the time. And while it’s awesome to see the building blocks of what would later become supremely important character traits, especially in Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Professor X, I have to say this era largely struck me as “by-the-book.” Though it did have some compelling stuff, like the first Sentinels story, the various backstories of the X-Men themselves, and the whole “is-Lorna-isn’t-Lorna Magneto’s daughter?” thing, a goodly portion of it seemed to be strictly formula. That said, it was a solid formula that worked, and there was even a bit of envelope-pushing here and there.
Even despite my relative inexperience with the era, I celebrate the fact that it happened, and that the groundwork was laid for what would become a worldwide phenomenon. This was the age that inspired some of the finest comic creators in the world, and if not for this shaky start, the book would never have found the footing it had that would cause such an explosion in later years.
Next time, I’ll tackle the 1970s, and the creative teams that turned the book into something to be noticed.
Thanks for reading!