For today’s landmark 250th ‘Optikon post, I want to celebrate the second generation of Marvel’s merry mutants, who made their debut forty mind-snappin’ years ago in May.
I had been a fan of the original Gifted Youngsters through the b/w weekly Fantastic comic of the very late 60s before they were replaced in my affections by US editions of the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four. Even as a small child, I fantasised about new schoolmates for Cyclops et al.
The US title was a reprint book through the early-to-mid 70s and one I would pick up,whenever possible, to revisit those pre-school sagas of the Mimic and the Banshee.
Marvel however re-purposed the team as one with an international flavour, ostensibly to reach out to foreign markets.
I first read about the idea in Foom 4, in the closing months of 1973 and busily assembled a team from the create-a-hero submissions therein. (The winner, as you may know, was Humus Sapien. Ah, whither Koga, the Man-Squid?)
I discovered the real line-up in Foom 8, at the end of 1974 but my first issue of the bi-monthly X-Men revival was actually the fourth, number 97 in early 1976. As a fan of the early-70s Legion of Super-Heroes, my favourites- Storm and Nightcrawler- were swiftly established in this Cockrum phantasmagoria.
I was particularly fascinated by the recently-deceased Thunderbird. I wouldn’t even see the character until the b/w reprint of GSXM1 in early ’79 and not in full colour until the autumn of 1980!
However, the caprices of the Scottish distributions of US Marvels were such that there was an X-hiatus of almost a year and a half before I became the devoted follower of the more ostensibly super-heroic Claremont/Byrne incarnation.
GSXM1 retold in the second Cockrum era
Thanks to the compelling and shocking Dark Phoenix storyline, X-Men remained a favourite into the early 80s and Cockrum’s return with a (somewhat underwhelming) extended space opera during my early years at university. Then, the energetic and airy art of Paul Smith regenerated the title as the first spin-off, the more Earth-bound (at first!), New Mutants debuted.
Why was it such a success and why did it have an impact on me where its contemporary, Daredevil, didn’t? I was certainly drawn to the sprawling cast, with their monologues of self-doubt and corny wisecracks. I liked the capable female characters, who frequently drove the narrative. I also enjoyed the epic scale and the sci-fi flourishes that began in my very first issue and recalled some of my favourite authors of the time: Ursula le Guin and Anne McCaffrey
The first stint by John Romita Jr. and the descent into mid-80s crossover hell (and the militaristic elements of Marc Silvestri’s work in the Australian Era at the end of the decade) were less to my taste, however. The macho, Reagan/Shooter tenor of the House of Ideas reminded me of icons like Rambo and Springsteen, with which I felt out of step. My preferences were for New Mutants, which had taken a stylish and surrealistic turn under Bill Sienkiewicz; and the Claremont/Davis whimsy of Excalibur. This despite a mid-80s trip to Edinburgh for a signed copy by Claremont of Classic X-Men 1.
Nonetheless, I felt the impact of the marketing blitz of the early 90s as Jim Lee became a comics superstar with the record-breaking X-Men 1. But I lost interest again until the Goth-inspired macabre humour of Generation X in 1994.
Although I dipped into the multiple titles of the Manga-flavoured Age of Apocalypse (twenty years ago, now!), I was more enthused by the sixties revival of Byrne’s Hidden Years series -especially when Storm was introduced.
Then in 2000, the first X-Men movie brought the Claremont X-Men to vivid life with startlingly appropriate casting of the principals. Scots creators at Marvel Comics responded with the audience-friendly, real-world-flavoured Ultimate X-Men by Mark Millar. Meanwhile, Grant Morrison’s New X-Men satirised New age religion and pop culture while establishing his own take on Magneto, the Sentinels and the Phoenix.
Claremont made subsequent returns to his X-babies in the Noughties. In 2001, he initiated a team of X-treme X-men , with a female bias and a mix of ethnicities. Three years later, Alan Davis brought a flavour of Captain Britain and Excalibur back to the X-Men. Then in 2008, Claremont depicted a possible future for the children of the X-Men and, in 2009, delivered an alternate continuity title, which developed Nineties plot threads.
It may seem disloyal to say so, but I felt the mutants were better served by other creators in the past decade. In 2004 Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men was a love-letter to the Claremont/Byrne years, filtered through the screenwriter’s modern, flippant sensibility.
2006’s Jeff Parker’s X-Men First Class revisited the Lee/Kirby era with a charming and youthful contemporary energy. From 2011 Jason Aaron blended , pell-mell, elements from across the Marvel U and black humour in the highly entertaining Wolverine and the X-Men.
In the next post, we’ll revisit the Eighties again and the merry mutant misadventures of the Asgardian Wars.
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