My Monthly Curse by Phill Hall #8 – Brokeback Mutant

Posted by May 3, 2011 Comment

Phill Hall used to be the News editor for Comics International before launching the PDF comics magazine Borderline before abandoning comics altogether. Now, however, he is going to look back on it all for Bleeding Cool.

1991 started well. As the owner of a shop I was happy with sales and making enough money to keep the wolves up the street, let alone away from my door. Times were good. An idiot could have made money from comics at that point – and I did. Despite the previous year’s Spider success story, the one real bonus for comic shops at that time was the X-Men franchise of books. It was a franchise because on its own it would be the biggest single comics publisher in the United States. The X-Men were huge even before the films came out. The X-Men were the real success story of comics between the mid 1970s and 1991.

You have to understand something about The X-Men. It is the perfect rags to riches story. It is, contentiously, one of the single most important US comicbook series to have existed and thanks to its continued success helped the industry see a premature end to the good times.

[I used to know a lot about the X-Men. I worked on a year-long feature for Marvel UK exclusively on the X-Men. I was interviewed in Time Out about my love of the X-Men. I produced a fanzine about the X-Men; I knew the editor, the writers, some artists and most of this will be covered as we trundle through the 1990s at a pace; I’m not totally convinced I make any deal about working for Marvel UK, probably for the best… If I don’t I’ll catch up at the end.]

Created in 1962 by that man Stan Lee again and an artist called Jack Kirby, who we’ll touch on later, the X-Men was quite unique from the word go. For starters it was a sort of superhero parallel to the race situation in the US during the late Fifties and early Sixties, except instead of these heroes being black, they had been born with genetic ‘improvements’. Therefore because they were homo superior they were immediately outcasts. The biggest difference between mutants and superheroes was that superheroes gained their powers through experiments or accidents; mutants were born with their power latent until puberty – therefore they were different, they were freaks!

The X-Men started in an almost covert way. We were introduced to a world, the same world as housed Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk, but one that was already aware of the threat to humanity from mutants. How the average guy in a Marvel street could tell that Spider-Man was obviously the result of a freak lab accident involving a radioactive spider and not a mutant, but Cyclops, who shoots bolts of energy from his eyeballs was obviously born that way, is anyone’s guess? Perhaps all mutants smell really bad? But Marvel (whether it was Lee, Kirby or both of them) created this prejudicial concept – not new, but new for comics – and one that is still phenomenal today.

Marvel’s dip into the world of DC and superheroes followed years of producing horror, SF, western and romance comics – the only way they could produce comics was to guarantee they wouldn’t produce stories that looked anything like market leader DC. Fed up with playing second fiddle to their larger opponents, Stan Lee, his publisher Martin Goodman (both already veterans of comics, who had both worked on superhero titles such as Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Red Raven and The Human Torch during the war years) and some others (Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Marie Severin, Bill Everett to name just a few) created Marvel Comics – from the dregs of Atlas. In their first year they launched Spider-Man; the Fantastic Four – Mr Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the (new) Human Torch and the monstrous Thing – a team of world saving misfits (but obviously not mutants); The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man and a host of now familiar faces such as Doctor Doom, (the return of Marvel’s 1940s hero) the Sub-Mariner, Aunt May Parker, Rick Jones and Dr Octopus. In the second year Marvel needed to sustain its early impetus and Lee and his team set about creating new characters, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandoes (essentially a WW2 piece that Lee and Marvel were renowned for producing, but with that new hip superhero style applied) and then his later incarnation as Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (who appeared in the title Strange Tales).

Among this second wave of Marvel characters was The X-Men. Stan Lee claims that he always had faith in the product, but it was clear that from the start the X-Men wasn’t a comicbook that high hopes were held out for; Lee cut his ties with the book after a dozen issues or so.

Back in those days comics sales tended to be measured in the half millions. Comics were a staple diet of most kids and adolescents of the Forties through to the Sixties. The choice was startling and the same stigma wasn’t attached as it is today. Half a million copies an issue was about the break even point when The Uncanny X-Men began and it achieved this figure and higher. But within 18 months of creating the title both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had moved onto other projects and UXM (as we shall refer to it) was taken over by people who many will argue were great creators in their day but really weren’t the right people to steer this ship.

Yet despite a host of (arguably) substandard artists and writers, UXM continued to be a groundbreaking comic for its era. It was the first major comicbook to feature the death of one of its leading characters – Professor Xavier (but don’t worry, he got better); it was the first Marvel comic that told the origins of the lead characters as vignettes – a back-up story rather than as a flashback. It was also groundbreaking in other ways. Artists with big reputations were attracted to the book mainly because by the time it had been going 5 years it had become a kind of playground for experimentation. Stan Lee’s protégé, Roy Thomas, reached heights of storytelling he could never, ever, achieve again on other books he wrote, but probably only because no one else really wanted to write it, so Thomas treated it as the comic to experiment with, because the general feeling in Marvel’s offices was it wasn’t going to live very long.

This first came to light with #49. It featured a cover illustrated by the artist who had turned Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD from a Cold War version of the gung-ho Sgt Fury into a Prisoner-esque psychedelic montage of the best the Sixties could offer. The man’s name was Jim Steranko and while he’s hardly the best known person in comics and probably unknown outside of your local comic shop, he was 60s cool. Steranko, who worked on only a handful of comics in his long, at times barren, career, is revered by anyone over the age of 50 as one of the key people to have helped implement changes in comics and their overall presentation. Steranko drew the cover to #49 and then wrote and drew #50. It was like reading the Famous Five on acid.

Many people inside Marvel’s offices knew that UXM was bordering on the point of cancellation. Marvel had had failures before, some that had even returned as successes (The Incredible Hulk was cancelled after 6 issues in 1963, but went on to become one of Marvel’s best selling characters; but both Silver Surfer and Nick Fury; Agent of SHIELD failed; the latter becoming a serial failure), but the general feeling inside the Marvel offices were that the X-Men just didn’t work. The comics fans didn’t ‘dig them’ the way they did the other characters. The comic and the team had makeovers almost every six months but still lost readers hand over fist. Yet remarkably UXM was about to enter a period that many fans consider one of the best and the tone would be set for the future, unknowingly at the time.

Despite a ten-issue run that saw some of the best comics the still relatively fledgling Marvel ever produced, UXM’s fate had already been sealed (plus it had been reduced to the ignominy of a bi-monthly distribution, which in the late 60s was another kiss of death). The book was being cancelled and because of newsstand commitments its final issue was set over a year in advance. Issue #66 would be the last issue and yet #55 had not even been printed. Given 18 months to try and tie any loose ends up, Roy Thomas decided he would do something different with Marvel’s tragic mutants.

Over at DC, a young artist called Neal Adams was shaking up editorial staff and readers with his realistic depictions of Batman and Green Lantern, so Thomas approached Adams and offered him a chance to work on UXM. Seeing the potential but controversially unaware that the book was being canned, Adams jumped ship from DC and came over to Marvel and with Roy Thomas, Tom Palmer, an up and coming inker, they set about reinventing the X-Men for the last time.

Out went the corny costumes, dodgy dialogue and silly villains and in came a real sense of paranoia; the kind that Lee and Kirby had attempted to convey when the comic started. Suddenly, the X-Men were dark and the stories reflected this new direction. The fact that sales on the books rose could not stop cancellation, but suddenly the sale or return figures for the comic were growing growing in one direction and getting much smaller in the returns direction; the mail sacks at Marvel’s offices were getting heavier; the kids had started to dig the X-Men, but it was too little, too late.

Adams, who was plotting as well as drawing the series, quit before the final issue – he had even persuaded Marvel to take Dennis O’Neil, a DC editor on and intended to work with O’Neil on future X-Men comics, but then he learned that his comic had no future. He was also hot property and moved onto other projects and it was left to Thomas to wrap up the story lines as best he could. It probably was intentional to have The Hulk as the guest in the final issue; perhaps Thomas saw history repeating itself. It really seemed like Marvel was shutting the book on mutants forever, because #66 really had a schmaltzy they-lived-happily-ever-after ending. 1969 saw the end of UXM.

Marvel was into recycling long before it became fashionable and the publisher tried to keep a lot of its back catalogue of stories in print as often as they could. Reprints cost nothing and at the time they didn’t have to pay royalties or reprint fees. They had 66 X-Men stories to recycle and by 1971 UXM was back with new covers and the same crappy interiors that had the book cancelled in the first place. But the point was, all it was costing was a new cover and reprinting, even if they only sold a really small percentage some money would be made, and remarkably, these reprint issues of UXM still outsold 80% of all new comics on sale today!

Then in 1975 Marvel’s then President, Al Landau (no relation to Nick as far as I know), was looking into ways to sell Marvel products in foreign countries and the idea was mooted that they could re-invent the X-Men but this time have the bulk of them mutants from other countries. Then editor in chief Len Wein (the man responsible for writing that issue of Swamp Thing that started me on this trip originally) recreated the X-Men and then handed the writing reins to a young Marvel wannabe called Chris Claremont – Wein didn’t think there was any future in the team and was sceptical of its potential. Wein was also the man who created probably comics’ most popular character at the moment, Wolverine. The clawed X-Man made his debut in The Incredible Hulk.

Marvel started the ‘All-New, All-Different’ mutant book with the number following the final reprint issue, but it was premièred in a comic called Giant Sized X-Men #1. A new team was introduced. The original team consisted of Cyclops, the Beast, Iceman, Angel and Jean Grey – Marvel Girl, (there was also some ‘junior members’ in Havok – Cyclops’ brother and Polaris, his girlfriend). However, the new team would only feature originals Cyclops and Jean Grey; they were joined by the Canadian Wolverine; Colossus from the USSR; Nightcrawler from Germany, Storm from Detroit via Africa, Banshee from Ireland and Thunderbird, a native American Indian. The new team was assembled to rescue most of the old team from a living mutant island and stayed on when the old team decided they couldn’t work with this new team of roughnecks – hey prejudice amongst those prejudiced against – how very post-modern!

Giant-Sized X-Men #1 wasn’t a classic comicbook story, but it set the scene nicely for #94 (the new team’s issue #1) of the then bi-monthly new comic.

What followed was significant because new writer Chris Claremont tore up the rulebook for superhero teams – actually that isn’t true, he didn’t even look at other superhero teams, he set about building a soap opera family thrown together by their powers. He also killed Thunderbird off in the second issue, thus setting the standard that no one was safe. Claremont set about changing the way we viewed our superheroes. We learnt more about his X-Men in two years than we did about any of the other characters in the comics universes. Claremont invented the soap opera comicbook. But he also perfected the art of nothing actually happening yet the story always moving forwards at a pace you wouldn’t have believed possible. No other comicbook offered the reader the actual feeling that time was actually moving in these stories, there was unparalleled character development and all of this was achieved with infrequent issue scheduling and an ensemble cast. This was groundbreaking comic book writing.

By the time the new UXM went monthly it had one of the hottest artists in comics drawing it – John Byrne – and was one of Marvel’s top sellers. Marvel could have made the comic a monthly within a year but actually waited closer to three years. The company line was that Claremont and Byrne (and Dave Cockrum before Byrne) needed the time to produce such stunning issues – it was the usual Stan Lee created hyperbole thrown in to cover up the fact that despite the success of the book being phenomenal, the publisher was chicken shit about committing the book to a monthly, the X-Men had burned Marvel before. Comic fans were notoriously contrary, Marvel might get burned again.

By the time Byrne left the book, he and Claremont had killed off one of the main players (people who have seen X-Men 2 will know that Jean Grey sacrificed her life to save her team members), the book was breaking records and winning awards. Byrne left to work on the Fantastic Four before leaving Marvel to recreate Superman for DC, while Claremont remained at the helm of the X-Men for another ten plus years, steering it with a variety of what Marvel would class as A List artists.

Because of its success, the X-Men became the comic by which every other titles’ sales were judged. In even the leanest of years, each of the X-Men franchise books sold in excess of 100,000 copies per month. The X-Men and the ever-enlarging supporting cast were a family and the soap opera being woven by Claremont was as intriguing as any soap to appear on TV. Just being with them was as important as watching them kick arse and this was proven by entire issues being taken up with dialogue and discussion – in an era where action ruled, the X-Men could have an issue long conversation and get the fanboys even more excited. That feeling everything is moving forward working again.

Ironically, it took Marvel many years to finally do a spin-off title – New Mutants. It took a couple more before they produced a second spin-off title – X-Factor (featuring the original X-Men line-up), but by the time the revamped Spider-Man #1 was released it seemed Marvel had plans for more X-Men spin-offs than there are TV talent shows. After years of refraining from cashing in on the comics’ successes Marvel was about to flood the market with so much product you needed a scorecard to keep up with it.

“Ever dreamed of owning a Porsche? Well it isn’t a dream any more!” That’s not the exact wording of the advertisement Marvel put out in the trade press in the autumn of 1990, but it’s pretty damned close. What they were teasing every retailer with was the possibility that 1991 was going to be the best year ever for them and Marvel. They got half of it right.

By 1990 the X-Men franchise was churning out future artistic stars at a rate of knots. After John Byrne had left a number of new artists came along and most of them became big stars. Working on UXM was your ticket to riches and there were few exceptions to this rule. Paul Smith, John Romita Junior, Arthur Adams, Alan Davis, Marc Silvestri, Jim Lee, all names many of you will not know from Adam, but people who would later become as famous in the world of the comics fan as Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks are in the film world. The latter two on that short list and a number of other comics artists, including Todd McFarlane, would be so inflated by the public’s response to their craftsmanship they would form their own comics publishing company. But that wasn’t to happen for a year or so yet.

While Marvel was busy making kings, the long-standing writer was making waves of his own. Marvel wanted to expand the line, bring out another X-Men book. Claremont didn’t see the need. They reached an impasse and Marvel committed an act of gross one-upmanship. On one hand Marvel was hyping the likes of Lee, Silvestri and McFarlane as the saviours of modern comics, yet casually disregarding the man who had single-handedly turned UXM from being the dud in the box to being the brightest of roman candles. Claremont didn’t want to write another X-Men title and didn’t want anyone else writing one that might interfere with his grand plan – a pompous attitude perhaps, but his track record spoke for itself. The man should have been in a position to bargain. He wasn’t and he left. Unfortunately he left the title on the eve of the new book’s launch and Marvel was facing a backlash from fans and retailers about Claremont’s sudden disappearance from the book. To give you a clearer idea, it’s a bit like Tom Cruise being advertised as the star of the film only to find that Dolph Lundgren had replaced Cruise and no one bothered to tell anyone else.

Marvel had such expectations of its new X-Men launch that it saw Claremont as pivotal to them. They needed him, or at least his name attached…

Next time: More Claremont and The X-Men; plus how all of what you’ve been reading started to effect the industry. It’s a long one and probably hard going for the non-comics fan amongst you…

(Last Updated May 3, 2011 11:57 am )

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