Thursday, September 23, 2010

79: The X-Men #1

The X-Men #1 
July 2, 1963 

  • Finally: The X-Men! It's been nearly two years since Stan & Jack gave the world the first issue of The Fantastic Four, and unwittingly began the process of bringing the Marvel Universe to life. And though the FF's early success quickly gave way to other new creations - the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, and the rest - this is the first time since that the pair have created a super-team of all-new heroes, as they did then. Not that they've been avoiding new team books; after all, just a few months back they gave us Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos (new characters, but not supers), and the same week this issue appeared on the stands would also see the debut of another brand-new team book from Lee & Kirby (though one collecting preexisting characters). But as far as an all-new super-team comprised of all-new characters? Definitely the first time Stan & Jack have done so since FF #1 ... and, unless I've missed something obvious, also their last.

    All these powers at his command, and what does he do?  Have them move his chair.
    Nice one, Prof.  Real nice.

  • When speaking of how he came up with the idea for mutants in the Marvel Universe, Stan Lee has famously cited the idea as an incredibly appealing, and proudly lazy, shortcut. After all, every time the Fantastic Four or Thor faced a new menace, Stan had to spend time thinking up how this new character had received his powers. With the idea of an evolutionary offshoot from mankind, however, we could explain it away with a single line: "They were born that way." Problem solved! Of course, as with all these early Marvel creations, the idea of mutants doesn't immediately jibe with how they would later be perceived; for instance, Jean says that she's dealt with her power all her life, but this clashes not only with the origin she will eventually tell us, but also with the later idea that mutancy almost always manifests itself at puberty. And there's as of yet the barest hint of the mutant/racism metaphor - the idea that mutants are distrusted because we fear what is unlike - although this would come to be the predominant theme of X-Men comics for years to come.

    I don't know about you, but I'd gladly read
    the adventures of Bobby the Snowman.

  • As with FF #1, it's interesting to see the various ways in which these early versions are "off-model" from the characters we know today; for instance, Iceman is the most obvious case, having a body seemingly composed of snow instead of ice. (Was this to differentiate him from Jack Frost, the villain who just debuted the month before?) But subtle differences can be seen in all the others too: For instance, Hank McCoy (The Beast) hasn't yet been conceived as the super-smart member of the group who peppers his speech with ten-dollar words; in fact, a survey of his dialogue in this issue suggests that Stan initially saw him as another typical "bruiser", in the vein of Ben Grimm or "Happy" Hogan. In many ways, these early X-Men are very different from what they would later evolve to, and long before the property became a blockbuster, it always struggled - in fact, by decade's end, being effectively cancelled due to low sales.

    Do you think Stan felt this way about X-Men #1 hitting the stands?

  • An interesting controversy from this period revolves around the similarity of The X-Men to DC Comics' The Doom Patrol. As one reviewer points out, "they debuted within months of each other, they’re both teams of super-freaks who just want to be loved and accepted, led by a man in a wheelchair, and they both fight Brotherhoods of Evil." Was this similarity just a coincidence, as Brian Cronin suggests in his book Was Superman a Spy? Or was it an intentional rip-off, as alleged by Doom Patrol creator Arnold Drake? (Then again, as the writer who came up with the version that didn't become a globally-renowned franchise, his perceptions might be understandably biased.)  My own suspicion is that Stan was far too busy creating all these new characters and titles to be too involved in idle gossip about what they were working on across the street ... and besides which, why intentionally copy a wholly untested property, one which might be just another failure? (As indicated, The Doom Patrol never really set the sales charts alight, and The X-Men wouldn't start to achieve any real success until the 1980s.) As bizarre as it seems, it may just be another example of the strange phenomena where an idea is "in the air" and strikes multiple creators at the same time - such as Marvel's Man-Thing and DC's Swamp Thing both debuting in the 1970s, or two competely different asteroid movies hitting theaters in the summer of 1998.

    Don't get used to this welcome reception, guys!
    It's certain not to last....