An X-Men Skeptic Ambivalently Awaits Their Return to Glory

With the arrival of a new Editor-in-Chief at Marvel earlier this year, some things were bound to change. Some were surprising and perhaps baffling. Others, though, should have been easy to predict. A push to return the X-Men to the forefront of the Marvel Universe certainly should have been the easiest of the easy to predict.

Just to pause for a moment to inject my own pet commentary here: the idea that the X-Men went away is largely a fiction. The number of X-titles released during a given month during the period that Marvel was supposedly disrespecting mutants never dipped below double digits. People have argued merchandising shrunk but I cannot think of a single time I couldn’t find a statue, poster, or action of a mutant at any given moment. I suspect that lots of X-Men fans were so used to an avalanche of product that anything remotely resembling what other teams or heroes have for titles and/or merchandise felt like a malicious attack.

That said, one thing I can agree to is that X-Men’s place atop the Marvel food chain was diminished. With the Avengers becoming a marquee team for the first since probably the mid-80s, Spider-Man enjoying his longest period of critical and sales success of the modern era, and the re-emergence of Marvel’s more down to earth heroes as recognizable icons and headline grabbers, Marvel’s Merry Band of Mutants have had real competition for the spotlight in a sustained way for over 15 years now.

So I get why X-fans are psyched about this promised return to greatness. I’m, sadly, not one of them though.

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A Disclaimer

Before we go further, I just want to assure you this is not a contrarian take in which I’m going to spend thousands of words telling you how bad mutants are. I’m not here to yuck anyone’s proverbial yum. This is just a personal tale of why I, despite coming up during the X-Men’s most prominent era, have never connected with them like so many of my peers.

I know some of you view me as a sort of fun ruiner for my reviews of movies like BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY or my take on VENOM, but those were just my honest opinions. I don’t set out to derail anyone’s good time and I’m definitely not doing that here. New Mutants’ honor.

Me and the X-Men, Down by The Schoolyard

As I’ve noted elsewhere, my favorite comic book hero was Daredevil and I decided that fairly early on. While there was a lot to like, in my opinion, about several issues of DAREDEVIL in the 1990s, he was by no means a prominent icon of the Marvel Universe. I honestly cannot recall talking about a random issue of DAREDEVIL unless I brought it up until sometime around when Kevin Smith took over the title. The one exception would probably be “Fall From Grace,” the storyline that put DD in that short-lived armor costume. Otherwise though, I was very much alone on that island.

Everyone, or darn near, could talk to you about X-Men. Even non-comic book fans had the cartoon that they could reference to engage with the characters. Daredevil didn’t show up in animated form until after I stopped watching the less popular, and let’s be honest, inferior Spider-Man cartoon of roughly the same time period.

I watched the cartoon but always had sort of a distant experience with it. Like…I got that it was exciting and I got why people liked it but, for me, it didn’t raise the heart rate. For a kid who LOVED television and hated to miss even a minute of a show he liked, X-MEN made me feel oddly take it or leave it. I would race home for BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, but I cannot remember ever even bothering to make sure I caught X-MEN.

And then there were the comics.


First Encounters

My actual first exposure to Marvel’s mutants came via PC game. It was so long ago, it was one of those games that you had to type in, say, the 26th word on page 111 of the guide every time you wanted to play the game. It was to stop people from pirating, you see. This game was so old, in fact, that game makers still hadn’t thought to print the guide on unreproducible red paper yet.

My parents were friends with a couple who had a son who was probably like 10 years older than me. Or he might have been five years older. When you are still single digits, five feels like a massive distance. He would not hang out with me, but he was always happy to set me up on his computer or his Nintendo before he ducked out to be a cool teen. This is how I meant the X-Men game. And I liked it!

When I saw him next, I told him I really liked it. So he did the natural thing and handed me a stack of Claremont/Cockrum UNCANNY X-MEN he had. I was excited. Then…confused. I suspect, in retrospect, I was probably just a touch too young to really get it. Don’t forget, despite loving super heroes, I didn’t really actively read comics until my teens. Parsing an X-book when all I read was two AMAZING SPIDER-MAN issues and an issue of something called THE CRUSADERS was like jumping to a Comics 401 class when you’d only audited the Comics 101.

Also, I thought the X in X-Men meant “ex” as in “dead” so it took me awhile to figure out why they weren’t all zombies or whatever.

So…These Are Complicated, Right?

That first taste lingered with me for awhile so even when I did finally become a full comic book fan, I generally stayed away from the X-titles. I was aware of things like the Blue and Yellow era but, again, as not really much of a comic reader in ’91, I only knew them from a distance.

Finally, though I decided to bite the bullet. It was 1995 and the AGE OF APOCALYPSE story swept across the mutant comic landscape. As a non-X-Men fan though, the changes did not actually mean anything to me. Like I got intellectually Xavier died too soon and it created this post-apocalyptic (no pun intended, honest!) and that messed up everyone else but emotionally? Nada. So I jumped ship in a hurry.

I came back when the universe returned to “normalcy” and quickly found that complication was a feature of the X-MEN, not a bug. For the first time, I was not excited to find out everything I didn’t know about a comic, I was put off. Everything felt, metaphorically, too bright, too loud, and too damn intertwined. Even during non-crossovers, it seemed if I didn’t buy everything with an X on it, I would be out to sea within weeks. I walked away from the mutants in a hurry after that.

Then the collapse came.


An Industry Implodes

For the comics industry, the 90s were the salad days. Printing a comic was as good as printing money and significantly less illegal. If you ever talk to a comic book fan who seems all bent out of shape about chromium covers, crossovers, or variants, chances are they lived through the 90s.

See, it couldn’t last, but no one seemed to acknowledge that. And so, when the bottom fell out, it REALLY fell out. People who had bought several copies of one issue convinced that, say, SUPERMAN #75 would pay for their child’s college in several years woke up to find it was only worth slightly more than cover price. Disillusioned, the speculators fled the industry in droves, damaging sales even further.

As the situation grew dire, Marvel doubled down on the X-Men making the team and its offshoots more prominent than ever. For a guy who did not care about the mutants of Marvel, the choice was brutal. Between the X-Men and the last gasps of 90s kewl guys like Punisher and Ghost Rider, there seemed to be less and less from the House of Ideas that I was connecting to in anyway.

What was once an aversion become resentment. “How dare,” I subconsciously thought, this insular confusing set of books get to dominate the landscape! How dare the heroes that I wanted to read had to take a back seat to these chuckleheads just because they’re popular!”

That Popularity Thing

Ok, this cannot be underestimated. There is something that happens to a certain brand of teenager in middle school that they hopefully quickly grow out of but often do not. It is a kneejerk distaste and distrust for anything popular. I sort of had it for music. I did not have it for movies. I had it for so-called teen television shows -- think BEVERLY HILLS 90210 -- but not much else on TV.

But oh my goodness did I ever have it for popular comic book properties, especially those from Marvel. X-Men? No thank you. Punisher? Hated him. Ghost Rider? SO BORING! And so on. If you think I’m contrarian now, you should have known me back then. It was like I decided to make my 13th and 14th years on Earth the years I would express all the anger I hadn’t since being born and direct mostly towards comic books and generally unpleasant cynicism.

So yeah, embarrassing as it is to admit, a lot of the reason I didn’t read X-MEN and X-Men related titles back then was because I was the equivalent of the punk guy who sneers at the really great band who’s had the “misfortune” of being embraced by mainstream pop radio.


To Summarize

So to bundle it all together, I experienced X-Men and the rest of the mutants at the height of their popularity as initially being just a bit too old for them. Then, the next time I tried them I found them confusing, insular, and overwhelming. Simultaneously, they seemed to be all anyone who wanted to talk about comics wanted to talk about. When things on the business side of things started to go bad, I perceived them as robbing the oxygen from others characters that I liked more. Last, but not least, they were popular during a time that I viewed popular comics with a mix of skepticism and revulsion.

Thus, as they say, the fix was in. Me and the X-Men, we were through before we even started.

A Change is Gonna Come

In the midst of it all, however, they made a movie. Good luck being a comic book fan in 2000 and not getting excited about it. Even long time X-MEN haters like myself got a little charge from the idea that finally Marvel might have the same sort of success DC had had with BATMAN and SUPERMAN.

With that success came a desire to re-evaluate the characters. I realized that, much like Superman, I loved the ideas at the base of the characters but rarely the execution of those ideas. In other words, I was fully onboard with a team of heroes who are forced via idealism and circumstances to defend those that would as soon see them locked up or dead. When that led to long unresolved plotlines about traitors, third brothers, or Wolverine, however, I just went cold.

Then Grant Morrison starting writing them.

See, Grant Morrison was and probably still is my favorite writer in comics. Marvel, essentially, called my bluff. “Don’t like the X-MEN, huh? Well how about…now?!”

So I read it. And wouldn’t you know, I liked it. My big time X-Men friends often expressed to me that it didn’t really feel like an X-MEN book and I was sympathetic. But hey, for this non-X-fan? That was perfect.

Then his run ended and it felt like we were back to the same old insular shenanigans and away I drifted.


These Days

Now I’m more or less resigned myself to liking the overall theme of the X-Men, loving certain characters, and largely not being a collector of the title. I can, for instance, tell you why most people are wrong and Cyclops rules. Or why Professor X has gotten a raw deal and Marvel should really stop trying to make him a manipulative asshole bordering on outright villain. I love Rachel Summers, Nightcrawler, or Colossus while almost never reading them. I think that’s ok. And if I duck into the book every now and then only to duck out again, that’s ok too.

The X-Men and I have reached a sort of détente. We are usually not for one another, but if we find ourselves at the same party now and then, it isn’t all that awkward to catch up for a little while.

So why am I not jazzed about their return?

Ever the Skeptic?

Part of my hesitance and concern is undeniably a bit of the old “the child is the father of the man.” Like it or not, I still have that teenager inside my who disliked and resented the X-MEN for being insular, having like 30 related titles, “stealing” the shelf space from heroes I preferred, and being the most popular property Marvel had ever created. I can argue with that part of me. I can overcome.

However, it still lingers there and upon first blush, that teen can still get his back up quicker than I can logic him quiet. Therefore, like it or not, I still feel those feelings, however briefly. So, yeah, I heard the news and audibly grown. I am but a human.


Kneejerk But Perhaps Not Wrong

That confession aside, I still have what I think are more legitimate concerns. My feeling about the X-Men taking up all the oxygen in the room in the 90s is a bit kneejerk but there is also some truth to it. The fact of the matter is comic companies, the Big 2, especially, have a tendency to put all their eggs in the same basket. When the JLA got popular under Grant Morrison, suddenly we got JLA YEAR ONE, JSA, multiple one-shots and Elseworlds and so on. Comic companies cannot help but do their best to kill the golden goose. It is their equivalent of human nature.

With Marvel turning back to X-Men with an eye towards possibly make it the flagship of the company once more I do feel fear that it will not be long before they return to the excesses of the 90s X-verse. Given that there are already double-digit X-titles on the shelves, it is not like the mutants don’t have a decent bit of real estate already. Now imagine that doubling -- or more -- in size. Imagine the physical and mental space the X-Men will start to fill. Imagine the talent it will start to absorb.

That worries me. Even if the books are the best they have ever been, that worries me.

If It Ain’t Broke

The other objection is that I honestly think scaling back the X-Men was a truly smart creative and financial decision for Marvel. With the X-Men remaining important but not A #1, resources were spread around more evenly. With resources spready around more evenly, more characters got a chance to shine. With more characters getting a chance to shine, Marvel strengthened its foundation.

Moreover, the rest of the Marvel U began to catch up with the X-Men when it came to diversity. Long the place creators introduced characters of color, strong women, or explored sexuality and gender identities a bit more, the mutants become sort of the only act in town. As its importance receded some, we started to see more minority characters introduced across the larger Marvel Universe.

Freed from the baggage of the X-universe, these new characters also got to be seen as inherently solo characters not team characters. Consider, no matter how popular Storm has been, she has never commanded a title that rang anywhere as long as either of Kamala Khan’s MS. MARVEL books have lasted. Part of that, I honestly think, is that Storm will forever be an X-Man first, a solo hero second.

I also do not think it is even a matter of Storm being a woman or Black. Cyclops, for one, has similarly failed to connect as a solo hero long-term. There is something about being an X-Man, with the always needed exception of Wolverine, that trains people to think of you as a team character.

Besides literal diversity, diversification of the brand means that if any one plank of Marvel experiences a critical and/or financial failure, they are so much less vulnerable than the days when they leaned entirely on books with mutants.


A Cautious Optimism

In the end, of course I am excited for my numerous friends who are excited for the X-Men to be top dogs again. Daredevil the character and DAREDEVIL the book is never going to be the center of an empire and I’m past the point where I feel the need to blame another set of characters for that. Plus, one to two books a month for my favorite character is a lot easier on the wallet. More to the point, I’m mature enough now to find joy in my friends’ excitement even if I don’t share it.

I do think this could go well. A rising tide lifts all boats and if the X-Men catch fire again, their success could feed other properties. That is, if Marvel is smart about it. If they use the mutants’ success over here to let them be riskier over there, they can discover new talent and continue to develop new characters like Kamala Khan and Amadeus Cho to diversify the line literally and financially.

However, if they use success only to fuel more X-books, that will create an ouroboros that will do no one in or outside of Marvel any favors. They should build this success to last, not to quickly cash in on.

Regardless of which way it goes, I’ll check it out. I expect I will feel as disconnected from the X-Men as I usually do, but that’s ok. Not everything needs to be for me. No matter what that screaming popularity hating teen inside me says.