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Committed: The Relatable X-Men

Growing up with the X-Men made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I guess I was lucky because whatever kind of freak I was, I wasn’t any kind of outcast and there were always friends around, but I never felt like part of anything or understood by anyone. I had an unconventional upbringing and that engendered hiding a lot of things from people, nothing really big but I didn’t feel particularly connected to the culture I was growing up in. And the other kids could tell that I wasn’t “normal”; I was small, thin, dark, I dressed all wrong, I ate the wrong food, and I liked all the wrong TV and music. I didn’t choose to be different, I just was.

As a tiny kid I was obsessed with cartoon books of any kind, I always preferred visual story telling whether it was Peanuts, MAD magazine, or the indecipherable cartoons in the New Yorker (undecipherable for an 8 year old, I can handle them fine now… mostly). Still, the first time I read the Uncanny X-Men I knew it was something completely different. I didn’t have to struggle to understand the adult relationships and strange rituals because they were young, a small group of misfit kids, and the first young, outsider group I’d ever encountered in fiction. I was immediately fascinated.

My first glimpse of the X-Men was a random, early origin story in a pocket-sized, black and white reprint. American comic books were harder to find in the UK before there were specialty comic book stores, so I’d regularly comb the newsagents shelves for the bright, glossy paper of an American comic book in-between the soft, faded newsprint of the UK ones. This one was nothing fancy, despite the shiny, colorful cover it was black and white inside, but those misfit kids were there and on first glance I could tell that they were different.

Rejected by their families and society, finding a home together, making mistakes and saving the people who hated them so much… I loved it. They weren’t like the adult superheroes I’d been reading about, I was too young to understand what was implied by Tony Stark’s drinking or Spider-Man’s girlfriends, these things genuinely puzzled me and I read them as if they were written in a foreign language. It is strange now to remember a time when those things were a foreign concept, and although I enjoyed the action and adventure of those comic books, there was too much that was going over my head. But the X-Men were different, they didn’t have money, or homes, or relationships (at that point). Most importantly, as kids themselves they didn’t have many choices or much control over their lives, they were just dealing with reality as it presented itself to them, trying to survive and take care of each other. If there was ever a group of misfits more suited to helping a little kid deal with the confusing process of reaching puberty then I never found it. (Things might have been different if I’d had access to punk rock or even Lord of the Flies.)

27-1Like a lot of people, as I grew older those differences changed and not “fitting in” began to feel like a good thing, what began as a weakness became an asset. My individuality gave me a creative drive which has never let me down and enabled me to build stronger friendships with a more diverse group than I might have if I’d been part of a crowd growing up. The X-Men gave me a little glimpse of the future freedom waiting beyond the confusing isolation of childhood.

Over the years, as the X-Men’s comic books developed and progressed their story grew ever more sophisticated. It was a good fit to my growing understanding of the world. The analogies to race, religion, and gender politics became more overt and were played upon in myriad ways by a slew of interesting writers. These comparisons are laudable, they speak to the versatility and the importance of the X-Men as a symbol for a lot of people, but I’m glad that I was able to begin reading about them before I understood those struggles. As someone who’s never been very good at defining what I am (in any of those categories now I think about it) I feel lucky to have discovered the X-Men in a simpler, less defined incarnation, where I could simply identity with them without understanding what the implications where. The X-Men were simply my first misfit friends and when I think about it, I think I’m still choosing the comic books I love most based on whether I’ve found another misfit friend.

21 Comments

Charles J. Baserap

April 10, 2013 at 10:27 am

Good read, Sonia. The X-Men have long been my favorites for the same reasons. Not sure if you’ve ever come across these while searching the ‘net, but I wrote a few pieces that echo these sentiments and feel it’s important people realize that comics are more than just bright colors and silly costumes, but can serve as healing tools to a large extent.

Anyway, all the best.

http://www.nerdtopiacast.com/2013/01/03/american-history-x-men-issue-1-first-genesis-socio-political-origins-parallels-marvels-mutants/

http://www.nerdtopiacast.com/2012/09/10/bipolar-express-how-comics-rails/

Agreed, i’ve always loved the X-Men the most because they can be a metaphor for pretty much any ostracized group ever. Part of the reason I don’t like Marvel’s current direction with trying to make them more like the Avengers is because there’s nothing deeper there beyond “superheroes beat up bad guys;” It works for the Avengers, but the X-Men loses something when you try to shoe-horn them into that genre. Because the X-Men are so versatile as a metaphor, I think that’s what makes them so versatile as a franchise; it made it possible for them to do “out there” books like Generation X, the many and mostly good runs on/interpretations of X-Force, Peter David’s X-Factor, Morrison’s New X-Men, X-Statix, etc.

Linkara, the most famous internet comic reviewer is someone who think is highly overrated because he’s one of those people who doesn’t get the X-Men and is another person who’s made serious arguments for their homogenization/assimilation with the typical superhero genre. The X-Men have always had this special quality of being relatable to just about anyone, and being able to do such diverse books both with their casts but also genre-wise too. When you have a book about misfits, it makes sense for the spin-offs to go off into their own genres that would be considered misfits among typical superheroes. And i’d say it was this experimentation with X-Men spin-offs that made other, more out-there non-X-books at Marvel possible and sustainable; they paved the way for stuff like the current Young Avengers, Secret Avengers, etc. stuff.

I appreciate how the book could appeal to those who felt like outsiders but there are those of us who just thought that it was a fun and cool comic book. Maybe it was the latter end of the Claremont run where Kitty became a character to relate to moving on to the later issues by other creators but most of the time, the X-Men was just a great adventure with great art.

@ Shawn Kane

I’d also agree with that; honestly I’d say it’s both of those things – adventure, art, writing, and social commentary. The X-Men books have been the best at combining all of those elements. You had Claremont doing metaphors for civil rights leaders with Xavier and Magneto (and losing Xavier and Magneto becoming second fiddle to a pale imitation of himself is a huge problem with the current X-books despite more than decent stuff from the likes of Aaron, Wood, PAD, etc.), Claremont commentating on Apartheid with his Genosha arcs (drawn by the highly underrated despite being an Image “superstar” Marc Silvestri and master journeyman Rick Leonardi), Lobdell working in queer rhetoric with his Uncanny run (which Brett white just wrote an awesome article on for this site, I think he made a great case for Lobdell’s run being much better than people give it credit for), his Generation X run (with the incomparable Chris Bachalo), Moore’s X-force run (with the underrated Adam Pollina and early work from future superstar Jimmy Cheung), and Morrison’s New X-men (who had a lot of phenomenal artists) all doing a lot of solid stuff with the concept of “misunderstood and rebellious youth.”

The X-Men’s potential for this kind of deeper subtext in addition to a well told and great looking story is what convinced Bryan Singer to do the X-Men movies; I think we can all agree the ones he’s worked on are at the worst decent, and also give a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be someone who’s LGBT. That’s what I like about the X-men so much – they can do anything, they can do it all, and they can do it all at once while doing it better than everyone else.

I could go on, but the simple fact is you can pretty much dig past the great plotting, dialogue and art from most X-men runs and find a deeper truth about the world we live in or how it should be. Runs that don’t do it (which is what I see so far in Bendis’ run and in all of Whedon’s run) can be modestly enjoyable, but I think end up being nothing but style and no substance. New readers to the franchise seem to prefer these types of X-books, with no actual substance because they eat up the style, and this is highly distressing to me as an X-men fan because now the books seem to be catering more to them. They can be fun, but I think we can shoot for more.

The X-Men are very appealing to teenagers and minorities, they always will be, but there was a period (roughly: late-1970s to the mid-1980s), when they also were in the leading edge of superhero comics in terms of writing and art.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case for a long time. The stories started to suffer in the last couple years of Claremont’s first run, and what came later was rarely much good, IMO. I felt that Lobdell’s run was low on action, even talkier than Claremont’s, and relied too much on crossovers and the use of long evil conspiracies as plotlines.

Later writers either tried to replicate Claremont’s classics (and failed) or tried go their own ways (and failed), except for Grant Morrison. A few of the ancillary books have been good, most haven’t. The X-Men’s creative stalemate and over-exposition happened more or less at the same time the Internets took hold, so it’s not surprising that there is a lot of “people who don’t get the X-Men”.

@ Rene

Guess we’re gonna have to agree to disagree on the idea that they haven’t been as good since Claremont’s first run, especially when you look at a good chunk of the spin-offs from the 90s. Sometimes I wonder if the people on the internet think Rob Liefeld was the sole writer/artist on X-Force between its creation and when Yost and Kyle rebooted the concept….

Other noteworthy runs:
Nicieza’s X-Force
1st half of Claremont’s X-treme X-Men (don’t let the title fool you)
Robinson’s/Casey’s Cable
Faerber/Wood Generation X
Most of Niceaza’s X-men vol. 2
Niceiza’s Gambit
Carey’s X-Men vol.2/Legacy
Claremont’s New Mutants
JFM’s X-Factor
Louise Simonson’s X-Factor
And despite Claremont’s 1st Uncanny run supposedly going off the rails, I’d say it really only starts to suck during Muir Island Saga

And I could literally go on for like another page of all the runs on X-Books that are seen as both well written and drawn by most of fandom (or at least fandom that knows these runs even exist).

Also, Lobdell’s “low on action” slow issues are some of the best Uncanny issues of all time, I’d say, and those crossovers tended to be really good (Phalanx Covenant, X-Cutioner’s Song, Fatal Attractions, AoA), or in the case of Onslaught the build-up was amazing and the actual X-book chapters are better than most current fans are willing to give them credit for. Plus a lot of those issues were with some of the best pencillers of all time – JrJr (back in his prime; a lot of those Uncanny issue are some of the best I’ve ever seen from him) and my fav of all time (and a lot of other people’s too), Joe Madureira. Zero Tolerance is kind of lame though, although that might have something to do with the fact that Marvel Editorial kept trying to dictate plots to him.

Claremont always had a nice balance between “mood scenes” and action scenes. Almost every issue of his classic run had plenty of both kinds of scenes. Now Lobdell, he had entire issues devoted to mood scenes, and later on he had several MONTHS going on with very little action, just to concentrate all the action on the (bloated) crossovers. I didn’t really enjoy that.

Also, Claremont sent the X-Men all over the world frequently. Lobdell sort of started the stay-in-the-mansion-vibe that felt so incestuous.

And boy, was he even talkier than Claremont, in a time most other comics were moving away from that. When I first read Lobdell’s X-Men, his dialogue seemed really strange to me. The characters talked less like people (or even like narrators, like Claremont and a lot of other writers do), and more like philosophers in a debate. Many years later, I read Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and then I re-read a few of Lobdell’s X-Men, and it clicked. Lobdell said in interviews that he was a huge fan of Russian literature and that X-Men was a bit like that (in his opinion).

I find that simply bizarre. What may work for exisentialist tales set in 19th century Russia may be just a little bit overblow for a superhero comic book, surely? By the way, fantasy writer Steven Erikson is guilty of the same crime. He must have gone to the same writing school as Lobdell.

As for the other runs you mentioned, I did love Claremont’s New Mutants (in those years he seemed renewed whenever he started a new comic, like New Mutants and Excalibur), and Louise Simonson’s X-Factor was also good. The other runs you mention, not so good. Nicieza, when not paired with the horrible Liefeld, seemed to go for the same plot again and again: big psychic villains that made the heroes face their greatest fears but the villain only really needed a hug.

Not everything post-Claremont was horrible, most was simply mediocre, IMO. It was like the really cool superhero stuff had passed the X-Men by.

And this is why I love the X-Men. When I first discovered them as a 5-year-old I instantly fell in love. At the time I had no idea why. Maybe it was because they were just so weird and wacky and unique, unlike any other comics or superheroes I’d seen.

But as I got older I began to realize that the the outcast angle is what made them so intriguing. Before discovering them I was reading books like Superman, Batman, Captain America, etc., that featured perfect superheroes who everyone loved. On the surface they had cool powers, but underneath that I couldn’t relate to them. I realize now that Superman and Captain America are the high school star quarterbacks of the comic world. They’re strong, have everything going for them, and everyone loved them. That wasn’t me at all. I was a shy, quiet kid who only had a small group of friends, and I was pretty much invisible. My hobbies included drawing and reading, and I’d have rather used my brain than thrown a ball around. While comic s are a form of escapism we do want to find a bit of ourselves in them. I think that’s why the X-Men have caught on so well – Comic nerds are usually on the fringes of the social ladder. Why read the adventures of the ultra-perfect Superman when the X-Men are basically superhero versions of them?

@ Rene

Mediocre? Wood, Faerber, JFM, and Casey are mediocre? Preposterous!

And while I don’t think I’ll win an argument involving Lobdell’s UXM (I still love it, but I definitely wouldn’t put it in, say, an all-star line-up of X-book runs to show why the X-Men are the best overall franchise in the Big 2), his Generation X run is definitely good enough to mention in the same breath as Morrison and Claremont (1st run).

What you said about the X-Men of BEFORE House of M/Messiah Complex is definitely true. To me, the X-Men’s saga came to a proper end before Xorn went nuts and killed Jean Grey.

@ Acer
Wait, so where do you draw your own personal line for where the saga ended?

I like a lot of X-Men comics, but I never fell in love with the team in the way many people seem to – and I often think it might be because I never felt especially like an outsider as a child/teen (although I think outsiders are generally always cooler, I suspect this made for a happier childhood for me!).

But for some reason I was (and still am) really into the X-Universe books that focussed on new teens joining the school – obviously the New Mutants, which I actually think was pretty great all the way through and including much of X-Force (I’ll second the love for Nicieza/Capullo and Moore/Pollina), but also Generation-X, and New X-Men: Academy X or whatever you want to call the series by Weir/DeFillipeis.

From a pop-psych perspective, I guess this reflects my own experience as a little brother always trying to live up to the shadow of my generally more-successful-in-every-way big brother, which was as open a theme in these books as ‘outsider status’ was and is in the main X-Men titles.

By JFM you mean John Francis Moore? The guy from X-Men 2099? If you crack open the dictionary and look up “mediocre” you will find a picture of him. Whatever happened to him, I wonder?

Faerber and Casey are good writers, but I find Cable almost impossible to salvage. I know they say there are no bad characters, only characters badly used, but Cable is such a poorly thought out amalgamation of 1990s trends that I find him hard to stomach (and I love movies like THE TERMINATOR).

I do think Lobdell’s Generation X was good. Perhaps the only time I enjoyed his writings. His style of writing fits well with a team of oddball teenage students, it helped that most of them were his own characters. With the X-Men, I think he was mediocre, at best.

Charles J. Baserap

April 11, 2013 at 7:32 am

If anyone is interested at all, every Thursday I write a column called American History X(-Men) and I just published one today about the Morrison/Casey/Austen era of the franchise.

I have every X-Men book since 1975′s Giant Size #1, every issue of X-Force and X-Factor, every X-Anything book over the past decade plus, etc. So I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs over the years with the books, and it’s always interesting to see how other people feel about runs I either loved or hated.

I’ve also been writing a column called Danger Rooms on another site for a few years now all about the X-Men. It really does amaze me how many different people have seen the characters as an influence on their own lives, despite coming from so many different backgrounds, regardless of race, gender, creed, etc. I think that speaks a lot to the characters and themes of the book, not to mention the abilities of the creators to convey those.

http://www.nerdtopiacast.com/tag/american-history-x-men/

http://www.forcesofgeek.com/search/label/Danger%20Rooms

And boy, was he even talkier than Claremont, in a time most other comics were moving away from that. When I first read Lobdell’s X-Men, his dialogue seemed really strange to me. The characters talked less like people (or even like narrators, like Claremont and a lot of other writers do), and more like philosophers in a debate. Many years later, I read Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and then I re-read a few of Lobdell’s X-Men, and it clicked. Lobdell said in interviews that he was a huge fan of Russian literature and that X-Men was a bit like that (in his opinion).

I find that simply bizarre. What may work for exisentialist tales set in 19th century Russia may be just a little bit overblow for a superhero comic book, surely? By the way, fantasy writer Steven Erikson is guilty of the same crime. He must have gone to the same writing school as Lobdell.

I slightly disagree here. I think modernized anachronisms can work when done well. For example I read a Stan Lee biography where Lee was described as growing up consumed by Shakespeare and old plays like that. And now when I read his old stuff I see it. The monologuing to the audience, the bombast, the puns, it’s like a hip Shakespeare for kids. Yet it often falls flat when others try it.

Another great example of anachronisms working is Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet set in modern Manhattan.

So the Russian 19th century thing, I wouldn’t say it’s automatically ridiculous. I’m sure in the right hands it could work, even if Lobdell couldn’t pull it off.

Nicieza, when not paired with the horrible Liefeld, seemed to go for the same plot again and again: big psychic villains that made the heroes face their greatest fears but the villain only really needed a hug.

Hm, that was a favorite of Marv Wolfman in Teen Titans also.

Oops, last comment was me.

You may be right, T.

But note that you’re talking of two different things. Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet was taking a plot of Shakespeare and setting it into the present. Stan Lee was taking writing mannerisms of Shakespeare and adapting it into completely different stories. Lobdell’s X-Men was more like Stan Lee in that.

But Shakespeare’s bombast somehow fit the high drama and adventure of Stan Lee’s Marvel stories. As much as I like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, his writing style doesn’t fit superheroes, even in better hands than Lobdell’s. Maybe in a Vertigo series it could work, but somehow I doubt it. Dostoyevsky’s style isn’t very visual.

@ Rene

So what about Faerber’s Gen X run? You mentioned he’s a good writer, do you think he had a good run on the book? Also, what about Brian Wood?

And when it comes to JFM, I REALLY liked his X-Force; you could say maybe his X-Factor run bordered on mediocre (although I’d say that’s stretching it, but maybe Mackie’s run that followed just made his run look that much better in comparison to me), but his X-Force was a fun late-teenage to early-20s mutant romp that sort of filled the niche between Generation X and the actual X-Men books. He kind of peters out near the end, but the Pollina years are pretty strong. maybe it looks mediocre when compared to the standards runs like New X-Men and Claremont’s 1st run have set, but it’s head and shoulders above most of the most of the runs in Big 2 comics between the 80s and now.

* in comparison for me

I think the X-Men were relatable, back when they had a semi-fixed cast of a reasonable size. But relatability is impossible when you have a team of dozens spread across multiple books, no matter how strong the themes of identity parallel readers’ own lives. That, more than anything else, is what destroyed the je ne se quois so many of us found in those old Claremont comics. You can’t get attached to someone when they’re just another face in a crowd.

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