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X-Men

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X-Men #104 © 1977 Marvel Comics. COVER ART BY DAVE COCKRUM.


To the world at large the X-Men have been an overnight success on the back of two well-received movies, when in fact their rise has been a forty-year crawl, punctuated by false starts and protracted editorial caution in initially expanding the franchise.


Since their 1963 introduction the X-Men have served as a metaphor for cultural intolerance. This, though, is predicated on the shaky foundation that the humans populating Marvel Comics' psuedo-Earth are bigoted toward those with inherent superhuman abilities—otherwise known as mutants—while reserving their acclaim for superheroes whose powers were accidentally acquired or technologically conferred. The concept of a mutant as a simultaneously persecuted and amazingly unique creature hit home to readers in the turbulent 1960s, and was a concept that any non-Anglo reader could personally relate to. Created by the prolific Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the first issue of X-Men introduced half a dozen characters still appearing regularly forty years later, and a villain, Magneto, who has been a mainstay of Marvel Comics since his inception.


The guiding light of the X-Men is the distinctively bald and (until 2003) wheelchair-confined Professor Charles Xavier, also known as Professor X. A disability was of minor consequence to the world's most powerful telepath, who engineered a dream of guiding other mutants to use their abilities for the betterment of humankind. His means for doing so was founding Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters in Westchester County, New York, away from the prying eyes of the public. His first pupil was Scott Summers, cursed through emitting concussive force blasts from his eyes, beams that are mysteriously contained by the ruby quartz visor he permanently wears. As Cyclops he was field leader of the original X-Men, and plays a major role to this day. In the 2000s he is married to Jean Grey, the first mutant actually treated by Professor X. Now second only to Xavier in terms of extra-mental ability, over the years she's had a rough ride. It was retroactively decided that as Marvel Girl in the original X-Men the Professor had limited her prodigious abilities to telekinesis, considering her not mature enough to cope with the full range of her blossoming powers. She also spent several years cocooned beneath Jamaica Bay, initially replaced by a powerful extraterrestrial entity called the Phoenix Force, over which she maintained an element of psychic control while it masqueraded as her. She eventually convinced it to commit suicide to save the universe. The late 1970s stories featuring Phoenix, as the entity was originally known, are still considered landmark X-Men issues.


Hank McCoy's brutish, almost simian form and athletic ability resulted in his being called the Beast, a code name that belied a prodigious intellect, both artistic and scientific. During a period when the X-Men had disbanded he took a job as research scientist, experimenting on himself with a compound that induced further genetic mutation. He transmuted into a form more in keeping with his name and now resembles an upright blue furry dog. Bobby Drake, alias Iceman, was the mirror image of long-standing Marvel hero the Human Torch. Initially a mobile snowman, he has been refined into a sleeker ice-covered hero, and among other abilities is able to generate sheets of ice from his hands on which he travels. Bizarrely, having no connection with Spider-Man in the comics, Iceman was one of the Amazing Friends from Spider-Man's 1980s cartoon show Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. The original team of X-Men was rounded out by Warren Worthington III. This rich playboy carried a secret in the form of giant wings, which remained strapped to his back in civilian guise. His major trauma was the amputation of his wings, and their subsequent replacement by razor-sharp metal ones courtesy of the villain Apocalypse. It took some while before the original wings re-established themselves.


The original incarnation of the X-Men started strongly, but disintegrated among mediocre plots and never really fired comic readers' enthusiasm. Perhaps the theme of outsiders was inherently off-putting in an early 1960s America where cold war politics were still high on the agenda, and anyone not allowed at the front of the bus was better off not boarding in the first place. Toward the end of the 1960s, though, the comic sported some fine graphic realism from artist Neal Adams, and introduced two intriguing new heroes who never quite lived up to the excitement of their introduction. Alex Summers is brother to Scott, and as Havok channels solar energy into devastating blasts, while his partner, Lorna Dane (who eventually adopted the name Polaris), is able to control magnetic forces, although the reason for her striking green hair remains a mystery.


In the early 1970s X-Men survived by reprinting old stories, while the team members made sporadic guest appearances elsewhere, the Beast even maintaining his own short solo run in the pages of Amazing Adventures. The lack of activity didn't deter hardcore fans demanding the team's return, and in a period of expansion for Marvel in 1975 Giant-Size X-Men #1 appeared with little promotional fanfare. With the X-Men captured, Professor X traveled the globe to recruit a new team of mutants to rescue them. Raised in Egypt, but of deeper African ancestry, Ororo Monroe can fly and control the weather as Storm. Colossus was found on a remote Ukranian farming collective, and the athletic, teleporting Nightcrawler was rescued from a German mob chasing him due to his demonic appearance. The Native American Thunderbird, alias John Proudstar, had superhuman strength, speed, reflexes, and agility, none of which prevented him from being an early casualty, and the pint-sized Wolverine had previously been seen using his metal claws to fight the Hulk with no indication of any mutant abilities. The team was rounded out with two characters who had fought the X-Men in the 1960s. Sean Cassidy, the Banshee, had employed his psionic screams under duress, but the fiercely nationalistic Sunfire resented American imperialism and the atomic bomb that resulted in both his mutation and his mother's death. He flies and fires beams of intense heat, but while no longer an enemy, Sunfire departed after retrieving the original X-Men, and by many is considered very much the third-string hero.


The new characters had largely been designed by artist Dave Cockrum, some having languished in his sketchbooks for years, and while it was Len Wein who plotted the return of the X-Men (after some brainstorming by editor Roy Thomas), he turned over the writing of subsequent stories to his editorial assistant Chris Claremont. An aspiring actor, Claremont never made the stage, but in the manner of many of his characters, discovered an undreamed of talent. He delivered solid soap opera interaction, intriguing plots, and compelling new characters. As time passed his plots would become slimmer, and overwriting the norm, but credit is due Claremont for transforming the X-Men from also-rans to headliners. In the process he can be further credited for finally propelling female superheroes beyond Decoration Girl and Sidekick Lass. Claremont's refrain Is there any reason this character can't be a woman? would pass into editorial legend and he was additionally very quick to latch onto the success of Star Wars and introduce elements of space opera to X-Men. Although uncredited, artist Cockrum and especially his successor John Byrne each contributed ideas, and it was during Byrne's thirty-five issues that the X-Men's inexorable rise to their current stature as marketing monoliths really began.


As soon as the X-Men were restored to their regularly numbered series editors made a decision to slim down the cast, with all old X-Men other than Cyclops and Jean Grey considered surplus (although the Beast proved popular in The Avengers). Of the new characters it was Wolverine who quickly became the favorite, known only by his code name or Logan. Cynics might claim that comics fans share an affinity with a man cast as a surly, repressed loner, and Wolverine lived out their fantasies by dealing with any trouble that came his way in particularly savage fashion. Much discussion ensued as to whether or not he'd murdered a guard off-panel in one Claremont/Byrne issue, but he subsequently revealed little remorse regarding killing. An aura of mystery surrounded him. It took decades for Marvel to reveal his background, all the while establishing facets, then later revealing the snippets false. His mutant abilities are three-fold: a set of bony claws embedded in each hand, heightened senses, and a body capable of rapidly healing the most severe injuries. This ability has also restrained the natural aging process, Wolverine having been born in the nineteenth century, with recorded experiences dating back to at least the Spanish Civil War. When Wolverine's early life was finally related in the Origin series it was a critical and artistic success, and all the more astonishing for being more gothic horror than superhero story. One final element was formative in the Wolverine who is popular today: his unwilling participation in covert, CIA-sponsored Weapon X experiments. His skeleton and claws were bonded with an indestructible metal known as adamantium, and he was implanted with false memories, which, over time, have been established as such. His real past, however, remains elusive to him.


Editors introduced the thirteen-year-old Kitty Pryde, able to pass through solid surfaces and walk on air, to restore the idea of youngsters being trained in the best use of their abilities. She played a pivotal role in the Claremont/Byrne team's penultimate story, set in a future where mutants were either murdered or interned in concentration camps. To prevent this scenario the adult Pryde exchanged minds with her teenage counterpart, guiding the X-Men to manipulate pivotal events to ensure her future never occurred. While critics and fans agree it was a great story in isolation, the unfortunate aspect of Days of Future Past was that elements would be plundered, expanded upon, and twisted until X-Men continuity was impenetrable to anyone not a regular reader.


While sales, even under Byrne, initially failed to match fan fervor, they did increase to the point that Marvel introduced a second X-Men title in all but name, with New Mutants reaffirming Professor X's program of educating young mutants. This was followed by X-Factor, launched by retrieving Jean Grey from beneath the sea, in which the original X-Men operated a mutant rescue operation under the pretense of dealing with the mutant problem. The principal X-Men team also continued to expand, adding Rogue, unable to touch anyone without absorbing their abilities and memories. Her first such encounter was with a heroine named Ms. Marvel, the legacy of which was permanent invulnerability, super strength, and flight. Still not allocated a civilian name, the distinctively southern Rogue has a deep affection for her fellow southerner, the Louisiana-born Remy LeBeau. As Gambit he charges inanimate objects with energy and throws them to detonate on impact. His has a checkered past, having apprenticed as a thief, and he temporarily left the team when it was revealed he'd led a slaughter of tunnel-dwelling mutants known as Morlocks. Writers subsequently revealed he had been under the subtle control of the villainous Mr. Sinister.


Over the years many other heroes joined the X-Men for brief periods. Created in the 1970s to tie in with the disco phenomenon, the Dazzler can transmute sound into light, including holographic images, and started her career on roller skates. She eventually married temporary X-Man Longshot, an other-dimensional human able to manipulate luck in his favor. Forge is a genius-level inventor with vague shamanic abilities, Stacy X a former mutant prostitute able to exude pheromones that control others, and Cecilia Reyes a doctor able to generate force fields. Two less successful characters are Maggot, who housed two mutant slugs within his stomach from whom he could absorb energy, and Marrow, who threw razor-sharp bones she removed from her body. Among the now deceased X-Men are Psylocke, sister of Captain Britain with powerful psychic abilities; Joseph, once believed an amnesiac Magneto, but actually a clone with magnetic manipulation abilities; and Changeling, a shapeshifter who assumed the identity of Professor X for a considerable period. For a relatively obscure character, he was a surprise recurring feature of the animated X-Men TV series, albeit in very different form.


Claremont's first, long run on the X-Men gave way to other creators such as dynamic artist Jim Lee, under whom a second X-Men title (nominally distinguished from the original by the deletion of the word Uncanny from the new one's cover legend) was issued in 1991 to instant success under assorted covers. Collectively it was Marvel's best-selling comic ever, although many were sold to investors possibly still stunned that the issues they stockpiled are commonplace. Although Lee departed for greener pastures soon after, in collaboration with Whilce Portacio he make one lasting contribution to the comic by introducing Bishop, a mutant from the future able to absorb any energy directed at him and return it as force blasts. He grew up idolizing the X-Men, and arrived in the present by accident, aware one of his heroes would betray the team, but not knowing who. It was eventually revealed to be the unlikeliest suspect of all: Professor X.


Having long appealed to the X-Men's arch-foe Magneto to reconsider his ways, Professor X used his powers to close down Magneto's mind, at which point the fury so much a part of Magneto's character was transferred to Xavier. Awakening Xavier's own successfully repressed hostilities a new consciousness formed within Xavier's mind, taking control with devastating consequences. Only the united force of all Marvel's non-mutant heroes shut down Onslaught. Unfortunately Xavier was once again occupied, by the malign intelligence of one Cassandra Nova. While posing as an authority on mutant affairs, Xavier had always guarded the truth of the X-Men, but under Nova's control he revealed the truth to the world at large. Being forced to go public, though, has proved a blessing in disguise. It's enabled Xavier to use his vast personal wealth to set up global branches of X-Corporation throughout the world. Providing a staff position to almost every benign mutant who's had an involvement with the X-Men or affiliated groups, their brief is to offer shelter and aid to mutants in peril.


This storyline was conceived by Grant Morrison, who as the writer of the newer X-Men comic since 2002 has stuffed a wealth of intelligent and radical ideas into the X-Men's world. Morrison's innovative contribution is exemplified by the character he introduced to the team, Xorn. He is a Chinese pacifist who doesn't participate in action missions, and whose skull contains a microscopic star that may somehow be connected with his extraordinary healing abilities, demonstrated when he healed Xavier's legs. Morrison's interpretations of familiar cast members offer new insights, and on occasion his plots have been matched by top-quality artists. Among the best of them is Frank Quitely, whose fine-lined delicacy and well judged poses combine for an extraordinarily expressive style.


As the X-Men franchise has continued to expand, more titles have been added, and the most successful has been Ultimate X-Men, a reboot to all intents and purposes, that Marvel kicked off in the new millennium. Under writer Mark Millar and pencil artists Andy and Adam Kubert this comic twists familiar elements into new scenarios, offering a new audience the opportunity to read an X-Men comic unhindered by the baggage of decades of continuity. These X-Men, while sharing the names and identities of the familiar characters, were introduced as if new. The comic began with the founding of the team, mixing the cast from various eras of X-Men, and has since adroitly reworked themes of mutant isolation.


X-titles continue to proliferate like mutant genes, with a publication history that has as many twists as the ongoing super-soap opera's plots; in spring of 2004 the X-Men: ReLoad event brought a raft of new or retooled series in the franchise, including a return (though not the first) of Claremont to writing Uncanny X-Men, and a new Astonishing X-Men series by artist John Cassady and writer Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. —FP

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