X is for X-Men


X-Men is a very popular comic book published by Marvel Comics. Actually, the idea of X-Men now means a series of comic book titles with an interlocking directory of characters. It’s so popular that it has help create three movies* with name stars such as Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier) and Halle Berry (Storm) [pictured above] and Ian McKellen (Magneto) [pictured below]. These are shots from the premiere of the first film.

If you look at The Marvel Encyclopedia, updated and expanded foe 2009, which I just happened to take out of the library last week, you’ll find no fewer than 110 references to X-Men in the index; that does not count the seven pages, in the 400-page book, describing the X-Men directly.

But it’s not its successful nature per se that interests me. Rather, it’s…well, let me explain.

The X-Men were introduced to the world in 1963, the same year as the supergroup known as the Avengers. The premise of the creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was that the characters had certain extraordinary (X-tra ordinary) powers at birth, though they weren’t always manifested immediately. They were mutants, outcasts from society. Yet the group, founded by Charles XAVIER, a/k/a Professor X, was sworn to protect those who feared and hated them, trying to bring peaceful coexistence between “ordinary” humans and mutants.

However, the book, by the same creative team that had created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and many, many others, was a bit of a bust. Definitely second-tier in the pantheon of comic book characters. Perhaps the theme of minorities persecuted by a majority was a little bit too “on the nose” for comic book fans of the time.

In fact, for about five years the book was essentially canceled, though reprints were released as X-Men 67-93.

Then a new group was developed in 1975 that was more international in scope, and they didn’t all have those boring yellow and blue jump suits. Others can talk about the particulars of the great success of the revised entity. I want to tell you that, as a comic book fan, I was shocked by both how well the re-envisioning worked and how well it caught on with the public.

Think of the movie Rocky. Better still, think of singer Susan Boyle, from which nothing was expected, yet the judges were gobsmacked by her voice. If that weren’t enough, her debut album sold 700,000 units in the first week in the United States alone and another 500,000 the following week. Such was the success of the X-Men.

So much so that when I worked at a comic book store called FantaCo in the 1980s, and we decided to to a magazine about a comic book group, naturally we picked X-Men. I really wanted to edited it, not just because of my affection for the then-current incarnation, but because I loved the rags-to-riches nature of the title. I write about this at length here, with a little bit of follow-up here.

But as Nik from SpatulaForum writes: “Unfortunately, the ‘X-Men brand’ has been so utterly diluted in the years since by endless spin-offs, impossibly complicated continuity and everything from movies to action figures to beach towels that it’s hard to forget how simple and revolutionary they once seemed.” It’s interesting that the teen artists of Kids of Survival chose to use the X-Men, a run of 1968 episodes of the comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, totally unaltered beyond being placed as the canvas, as their choice, rather than the more up-to-date versions, in their artistic expression.


Here is a picture of my good friend Fred Hembeck’s rendition of the X-Men. You can find more of his work here.

*Yes, I know there’s also a Wolverine film. Len Wein, who helped created Wolverine in Hulk #181, talks about the character here and here.

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