The reason I started this blog is because I am a huge X-Men nerd, and have been for 17 years now. This is my continuing (if greatly delayed) attempt to try and compress the franchise itself, as seen through my eyes, into a nutshell.
After I get done with this, whenever it is, I’ll move on to individual characters.
The 1970s were a momentous decade for the X-Men franchise. So I’m going to split this chapter of their history into three parts: the formation of the new team, the Phoenix saga, and the World Tour, which culminated with the Proteus fight in 1979.
By 1970, the X-Men as a series was viewed to have run its course. New issues stopped coming out, and the series, while continuing its numbered run, started reprinting old stories. The only X-Man to have a life beyond the team was the Beast, who got a radical makeover and became a star of his own stories, printed in the book Amazing Adventures.
Apart from him though, the rest of the team seemed doomed to relative obscurity.
Finally, when the book was on the verge of cancellation, writer Roy Thomas suggested to the Powers That Were that an international team of X-Men would be a way to revitalize the book. Writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum were called to collaborate on a new set of characters, the first of which was created by Wein and artist Herb Trimpe for an issue of The Incredible Hulk:
After the debut of this one-off character, Wein and Cockrum collaborated to bring in four other new X-Men: a Siberian farmer who could turn into steel, a Kenyan goddess with power over the weather, a Native American hothead with super-strength and toughness, and a German teleporter with a demonic appearance. Cockrum was especially proud of that last new addition, as he’d wanted to get him into a Legion of Super-Heroes spinoff team called The Outsiders beforehand.
Once a pair of sometimes allies-sometimes-enemies of the original X-Men were added to the ranks, all that was left was to choose a leader. The natural go-to-guy in this case was Cyclops, who’d grown from shy, closed-off teenage nerd to full-grown, capable leader over the course of the original team’s tenure.
Once the characters were in place, all that was left was to tell the story. That story was Giant-Sized X-Men #1, and when it was released in 1975, it was the first step in a whole new direction for the X-Men name.
Though they got off to a rough start, the new X-Men acquitted themselves singularly well alongside the old, fighting against “The Island Who Walks Like A Man!”. In particular, Storm and Lorna Dane (before she took on the name of Polaris), working in tandem to sever the gravimetric lines of force around the island, were already demonstrating the earliest signs of what would later become a recurring theme throughout the books…that of women who could contribute to the team as much as any male member.
However, as amazing as the combined forces of the original and new X-Men were, their alliance was not to last. Within the first couple of pages of X-Men #94, the new team’s debut in the mainstream books, every member of the original X-Men, including Lorna and Havok, had packed up and taken off, leaving Cyclops and Professor Xavier alone to deal with training the new recruits…not in the use of their powers, as with the original team, but in working together as a team. The friction in this transition was intense, and in some ways could be held responsible for the death of Thunderbird at the end of the New X-Men’s very first mission.
Writing duties were passed on as well…following the first story arc, Len Wein passed the writer’s torch on to Chris Claremont, at the time the writer of Marvel’s second-tier title Iron Fist. Claremont rose to the challenge enthusiastically, working with Cockrum to develop plots and twists that would take the characters in brand new directions while honing a new, soap-operatic approach to the psyches and motivations of the characters.
After only four issues, which included the sacrifice of Thunderbird, a fight with a demon, and the brainwashing of Havok and Lorna Dane (now finally getting the code name Polaris) by a hostile alien agent, the X-Men had been viewed as redeemed in the eyes of Marvel.
With the freedom they enjoyed as the creative team of a relatively obscure series, Claremont and Cockrum took the team to a place that was both familiar and brand-new…fighting Sentinels on a space station. Jean Grey guest-starred in this saga, more powerful and confident than she’d ever been before, and fans old and new were already hungry for more.
The icing on the cake, and one of the most historic events in the franchise, came with the book’s 100th issue, which featured an epic battle between the New X-Men and robotic facsimiles of the old. However, the real clincher was the book’s cliffhanger:
To a new reader unaware of future developments, this must have been nail-biting. Not even a year after the death of Thunderbird proved that the new writers weren’t shy about killing off their team, one of the original X-Men was being set up to make the ultimate sacrifice for her friends and the man she loved. These four panels set up a plot that would take years to culminate and leave an indelible mark on the book, for better or worse.
More on that next time…
MY VIEWS (part 1):
I’m not shy about expressing my love for Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum. These are some of the earliest issues it’s been my pleasure to read, and where, to me, the journey of the X-Men really begins.
I admit to a degree of disappointment at every old member of the team leaving when the new ones came along, but I can understand why it had to happen. No writer, especially a comics writer, wants to handle too many characters at once in a book that has to be released on any kind of schedule, and the new characters offered C&C the chance to form brand-new dynamics, rather than focus on old ones. Still, I wonder what the team would have been like had, say, Havok and Polaris stuck around, or Iceman. By contrast, Jean Grey was featured so often in the early issues she might as well not even have left…though Claremont wrote her much stronger and more self-confident than she had ever been before, which was an important clue that he had plans in store for her.
The All-New, All-Different team are some of my favorite X-Men in existence. Storm is my favorite X-Man, ever, and Nightcrawler remains a charmingly unique character to this day. Colossus is endearing in his gentility and intimidating in his strength, and back during this period, Wolverine was the gruff, sarcastic guy with a hidden heart of gold, much more so than he became later. Even Banshee took some levels in coolness; Thomas and Roth’s original depiction of the character as a walking stereotype of “Oireland” still held some influence, but he was also depicted as experienced, competent, and one of the team’s best players. I’d almost argue that he was Cyclops’ first second-in-command, before Storm had her turn in the spotlight.
I like that most of the team’s redundancies, like Sunfire and Thunderbird, were dealt with right away. Wolverine was hotheaded enough for everyone else there, and Sunfire served the X-Men better IMHO as a recurring guest star than an actual member. While there have been some interesting alternate-universe interpretations of John Proudstar, the original version isn’t all that riveting.
Next installment, I’m going to talk about the Phoenix saga, the Shi’Ar Empire, and how a Canadian artist named John Byrne helped turn the book from a cult classic into a phenomenon in the making.