X-Men – Love the Concept, Hate the Comics
The new X-Men film is on its way and I want to talk about X-Men but also my big love and hate for the franchise, the concept of mutants vs. the comics about them. This is very much a 3am stream of consciousness piece on my own personal experiences on the franchise.
I don’t exactly have this massive huge history with the X-Men like I do with Spider-Man, Batman, or Superman, all of which I can’t remember how I got into them because they are cultural icons. With X-Men I know exactly where and when I first found out about them. BBC1 children’s entertainment show Live and Kicking that did fun kids stuff and showed cartoons, in this case the 90s X-Men cartoon. It was season 1 episode 8, the Unstoppable Juggernaut, and it got me hooked.
I watched as much of the cartoon as I could and they showed most of it, except for maybe the final season or they got to the point where they just showed random episodes till they didn’t care and stopped airing it. Children’s TV in the UK is a bit weird like that. I have the first 3 seasons on DVD and when rewatching them a few years ago I saw how really bad they were. But regardless they still brought me into this world of mutants, people hated and feared because of their genetics.
Then came the comics. There was no local comic’s shop with American imports around where I lived so I had two options, the UK reprints or the local library’s trade paperbacks. The UK reprints were pretty good since X-Men is one of the few that constantly got printed, along with Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman (Wolverine and Deadpool got their own reprint series later one). They are two or three comic stories printed together, usually one or two “new” stories and one old one, at about the same price as one issue of an American comic. So whenever myself or my brother went into a newsagent with our parents we’d get one comic we saw if there was a new one. So we got random comics of Spider-Man and X-Men for a while.
But the local library was where we got a lot of our comics from. For some reason this little town had a library with an unusual amount of comic trades. Not a lot mind you and it was the 90s before trades became a big deal, but they kept getting in new trades every now and then. Lots of DC and Batman, that’s how I read the Knightfall, No Mans Land, and Bruce Wayne: Murderer, arcs, waiting ages for them to get the next volume of each in. But they’d have some Marvel stuff and I’d read some 90s Spider-Man and X-Men stories, even some classics. That’s why I don’t believe in the “comics have too much continuity to get into” nonsense. When I got into comics I jumped all over the eras and arcs, had multiple cartoon continuities too, and it didn’t stop me.
There was a lot of 90s X-Men stuff, some stuff with Cable and Bishop, some classics like Days of Future Past, New Mutants, later on Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, or just random collections for Claremont and other important creators and stories. Such as the first appearance of Cyclops’ brother Havok, where Cyclops convinced the Sentinels that mutants were just humans and to wipe out all mutants they had to get rid of the source of mutation, which he convinced them was the sun. So the Sentinels just flew into the sun destroying themselves. Then there was the totally not for kids but I read it anyway Weapon X book, showing Wolverine’s bloody time at the Weapon X facility and how he got his claws. (Before the retcon of Bone-Claws)
From all of that comes the downside, when just reading the X-Men reprint comic in the 90s was rather head scratching. X-Men got a little too big for itself and in turn spawned giant line of comics all with an X on them. Because it was the 90s those books had to crossover into each other every now and then, a trend that is still going to this day. So this one book would reprint all these comics for these crossovers, of very poor writing quality, and I just stopped caring. The franchise had gotten too big and a little impenetrable for me. I can pick up a DC book, a company know for its crazy continuity and impenetrableness, and be just fine. X-Men however is a problem.
Which is why I love the cartoons and movies, to an extent. The cartoons were self contained and had used a lot of X-Men history, especially the 90s cartoon. This is where I got more enamoured with the idea of the X-Men rather than the actual stories of them. They had some great characters but trying to follow them in the comics was a little impossible at the time. It’s still a little unwieldy now. So even though the 3 cartoon series and the, soon to be, 7 movies had wildly different ideas on what to do with them the core part of it stayed the same. That core what I like about the franchise more than the actual franchise itself.
That’s why I’m one of those weird fans that liked the X-Men Evolution cartoon, because it wasn’t the comics and was trying to be something different. It wasn’t the 90s show that tried very hard to be the 90s comics. It brought it back to the core of mutation being essentially puberty, so the X-Men were in high school and Xavier’s school was an actual school for once. Characters grew and developed, they learned more about their powers, they had relationships that weren’t just “one true love for years before the series started” and it felt like they were characters first not just superheroes. It wasn’t perfect, dear lord it really wasn’t perfect, but its heart was in the right place. It may have stumbled but it tried being something that wasn’t just the overly complicated comics from the 90s.
Evolution had a lot of really well done characters that you’d want to follow week-in week-out even if the episode plots could be terrible it was what drove the show. It stripped down the franchise and built it back up again without most of the excess baggage, which endeared it to me. I’m not sure X-Men works in the superhero genre as the ‘oppressed minority fighting for civil rights’ story is at odds with the ‘punch it into the sun’ way of solving things. It certainly doesn’t work in a world with other superheroes who aren’t viewed the same way for no real reason. In Evolution the fight against discrimination wasn’t something solved easily, they couldn’t just stop a government registration act by saving a senator’s life or anything like that. That in part was due to getting them to interact with regular people in high school, they weren’t stuck in a private school where they weren’t faced with discrimination every episode. The show just had a lot of good ideas and even though it had its share of problems it was a great idea to break away from the usual mould, even if it annoyed some of the comic fans.
The fans are another matter that cause another problem entirely. With most fans having grown up in the 90s, and with the cartoon especially, there’s a nostalgia there that isn’t quite earned. The love of characters and stories that were really terrible but are still getting requested for films and TV adaptations by fans. Characters like Gambit, Mr Sinister, and Apocalypse, who were made to have “big mysterious” backgrounds which never amounted to anything. Gambit was made as a knock-off Wolverine to be the “mysterious loner” of the group, with some added creeper tones after anyone with breasts. Then of course he’s the guy who betrays the X-Men then gets let back on the team just to betray them again, only to be let back on again. Apocalypse was a big bad that was anything but big or bad. He just didn’t actually do anything to earn giant reputation around him, even his most memorable storyline “Age of Apocalypse” wasn’t started by something he did, he just lucked into it due to time altering shenanigans. That’s nothing really interesting about these characters that wasn’t invented in the fans heads rather than put down on paper.
X-Men is just one of those series that I really want to like but I can’t get into the source material. Mystique is one of my favourite Marvel characters; her solo series written by Brian K Vaughn was the first imported ongoing American comic I bought till it ended, and it was really good. She is an incredibly complicated character that is very morally grey in her actions and motivations. But I tried following her in other X-Books after her solo series ended and it was like reading about a crazy bi-polar blue bear. Writers dumping random plot motivations onto her, sometimes it’s to protect her children even if it means she had to do ever mean and nasty thing in the book, sometimes it’s her following the never-ending instructions of her dead precognitive lover, other times she’s bored and wants to cause dick with people, then sometimes it’s just because she really loves Iceman.
There was just no real point following any character I liked in X-Men comics because they seem to embody the worst stereotypes of comic book storytelling. Character consistency, plot consistency, or just plain comprehension goes out the window at times. All that being said I did like Brian Wood’s recent X-Men comic staring all the X-Women which I read and enjoyed till the latest crossover happened then I dropped the book because I didn’t care about the “Battle for the Atom” event. He even got me to like Jubilee, who I hated and annoyed me a lot in the 90s cartoon. Shame it had to go the way of many a good comic, taken into a dark ally crossover and mugged of its storytelling.
That’s not to say that I want every comic to be self-contained or for things happening in a story not to matter in the grand scheme of things. But when you have to read most of the X-Comic line in order to understand one single comic it’s a little silly. For example, the Mystique solo series had Xavier walking around and Magneto being dead at the beginning with no explanation, but that was alright as it was the status quo before the book started. Then towards the end of its run Xavier is back in his wheelchair and living in the destroyed ruins of Genosha with no real “here’s what you missed in these other books” explanation for what happened to anyone not reading that X-Men book. If something changes when the series is going on it might be wise to mention what happened. This happens in other books too, if you read Iron Man in trades you get nothing about what happened in Siege which was a big climax to events that drastically altered the Iron Man status quo. However with X-Men’s “make as many books as possible while still making money” comics and the “crossovers make even more money” business strategy it’s worse since it’ll happen more often.
I’m sure there are still great X-Books out there now, I just don’t want to have to buy other comics I’m not interested in in order to understand what’s going on in the comic I do want to read. I don’t hate all the modern stuff; I loved Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Grant Morrison’s New X-Men (if they can be called “modern”). But as a whole, as an ongoing series, the X-books are just too big to follow for me. The same thing seems to be happening with the Avengers books. Marvel has found another big franchise they can exploit so they slap the Avengers label on whatever book they can, even combining X-Men and Avengers for one comic too. Soon they might as well rename Marvel Comics to The Avenging X-Men line.
One more thing, go and read Comics Alliance’s X-Men Episode Guide as they review every episode of the 90s X-Men cartoon week by week. They’re good, funny, and point out how ridiculously 90s the show was. Not just the era but how much they took from the 90s comics and shoved it in there expecting kids to know who characters were and why they were important. Like Cable, Shadow King, Darkstar, or Maverik. It took a full season before they bothered explaining Cable and they pretty much just retconed his season 1 appearances and never explained why he showed up there.