Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Truth About the X-Men

*Add in Shadowcat and Nightcrawler and this is the perfect X-Men team*

One of the great things about childhood is that kids are usually honest about what they like and why they like it. Entertainment is serious business to them.

When I was a boy, the X-Men were the most popular superhero team. No question about it. The Avengers were nothing compared to them. Iron Man and Thor were B-listers as far as kids were concerned, and the Justice League still had the Superfriends stigma attached to them. Superhero teams were not all that big. It was only the X-Men who stood at the top and no one else came close.

They were synonymous with superheroes.

Why do I bring this up? Because of the current cultural zeitgeist centered around political revisionism. The reason the X-Men actually were popular is being overlooked in order to score points. The truth is actually much different from the narrative.

The X-Men were created by Stan Lee to represent minorities and their struggle against the majority. They were detested by the masses, and were looked down on as inferior (as little sense as that made considering they had superpowers), and Charles Xavier and Magneto were little more than analogues to the approaches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X via race relations. So it was always political from conception.

And the key point: kids didn't care.

If you asked anyone in the 1990s why they liked the X-Men you would have few answers beyond the obvious. They had awesome powers. They were cool. They were distinct individuals with their own talents that backed each other up and meshed well in a group. They always take on the bad guys and put aside their own personal grudges to do so. The stories are explosive and fun.

Whatever politics the X-Men were created with were secondary to what kids enjoyed out of them. Kids loved the Savage Land. They loved the Phoenix Saga. They loved the cartoon. They loved that Wolverine was an unstoppable berserker with a heart of gold, Cyclops was the stoic leader who struggled to maintain composure, Beast was the brains with brawn, Rogue was as hot and vulnerable as she was tough, and that Gambit was mysterious and cool but had trust issues. X-Men succeeded because it was fun and that the characters, as different as they were, always came together to do good at the end of the day.

I mostly grew up with the animated show as the comics were devolving into Onslaught by the time I tried reading them regularly, and it was a big influence on how I view superpowers and superheroes as a whole. Not only myself, but those I grew up with were always big into the X-Men despite how Marvel threw them under the bus repeatedly and tried to amp up the boring political side.

They also, like everything else in the bronze age, became obsessed with moral ambiguity. Ruining some heroes by giving them dark pasts at odds with what we knew, or making them take heel turns to undo character development years in the making. It's no wonder readers fell away from X-Men as the 90s came to a close.

For a while it was as if the animated shows were the only place you could get the X-Men at their purest. But even they began to falter.

X-Men Evolution was an attempt to appeal to younger audiences, turning all the characters (except Wolverine and Storm) into teenagers. The series had a rocky start. It eventually improved and became its own thing, but the plots never quite reached the level of the comics or the old show due to the shackles they put on themselves to make it "relevant" to kids. It also wrote out or dumbed down some fan favorite characters in the process never properly using certain classic X-Men.

And then there was Wolverine and the X-Men, an attempt at hooking the movie audience due to Hugh Jackman's incredible performance of the crazed canuck. This was the most egregious example of how Marvel had let the air out of the X-Men. Cyclops was utterly ruined, Jean Grey died off screen, Rogue was missing her Ms. Marvel powers and was basically made useless, Gambit was relegated to a cameo as was Nightcrawler, and the story just starts mid-universe like we should know what's going on. The plot was all over the place and confused. It was also canceled after one season: a far cry from the 90s series peak.

It reflected the confused state of the franchise very well. How many of those classic characters have been improved on since being removed from the team since the title's heyday? How many are still relevant in the comics? When was the last time Marvel made a memorable X-Men character? When was the last story they made that didn't have something to do with the X-Men being "minorities" (in a world with the Hulk and an uncountable number of non-mutant threats, people are more concerned about the mutants? That's never made sense) instead of some extraordinary or supernatural threat which has consequences for everyone in the world instead of one specific group? That unification of good against evil is what made the X-Men work in the first place.

The X-Men were popular because everything else was pointless in the face of evil. Minor grievances, bigotry (humans having legitimate reasons to fear mutants makes for better drama than one sided real world straw man comparisons), and personal issues fall to the side and Good puts in all their chips to stop the encroaching, and always objective, Evil. That was always what made the X-Men work.

Why are the X-Men no longer as popular as they once were? I'm starting to see why. Even taking aside Marvel hobbling their own income because of the movie rights, they have been doing this to the X-Men since the '90s. They've gone out of their way to remove what people liked most about them. They've gone out of their way to muddy them up and drag them down.

You see, while X-Men might have its base in a political idea, no one really cared all that much about said political idea in the context of an adventure story. Underdogs are one thing, but kids like the X-Men because they were fighting against an evil reflection of what they could be while trying to convince the world their side was right. How? By simply being Good and stopping Evil. That's the fantastic dynamic that allowed the X-Men to become so popular and why Claremont, Wein, Mantlo, Jim Lee, et al. were able to take it much farther than Stan Lee did with his simple idea. In case you forgot, the original run of the X-Men was a poor seller and nearly canceled. It was the relaunch that made them superstars.

People want grand adventures, good versus evil, fun characters, and to be entertained above all. Politics on their own are none of those things and why the original run of the X-Men never went anywhere. And why the most popular arcs of the franchise are not political at all. Especially not the ones kids loved.

Kids loved the X-Men for this:

And not for any revisionist reason you want to make up. The reason the X-Men have fallen is because Marvel has forgotten those simple lessons of fun adventure stories.

Unless you're an ideologue I do not see how that statement is controversial. Especially considering that it is a true statement. Politics do not make for quality entertainment; entertainment makes for quality storytelling. It's that simple. Politics are only minor icing on the over-sized wedding cake called entertainment. Is it any wonder Marvel is currently being left with so much unsold product in their cake shops? It's no mystery.

The X-Men are dead now because modern Marvel forgot what the audience wanted a long time ago. Don't be like modern Marvel.

What you enjoyed as a kid is not what the ideologues tell you it is. That's why they fail over and over while the audience is left unsatisfied.

The customer is always right, and that's why Marvel is failing.


  1. I was a fan of the 90s X-Men cartoon. I remember the Nightcrawler episodes being openly pro-Christian, which I doubt they'd do these days.

    Marvel Comics ought to be bigger than ever considering how popular the movies are, but they've taken an approach that guarantees they'll only have niche appeal. It doesn't help that comics just aren't as available as they used to be - I remember when you could buy comics at grocery stores and gas stations, but that's been a while now.

    "X-Men Evolution was an attempt to appeal to younger audiences, turning all the characters (except Wolverine and Storm) into teenagers."

    This is a bit tangential, but it seems like around the late 90s the animation industry decided that kids won't watch adult protagonists. It happened in both North America and Japan right around the same time.

    1. Getting away from newsprint and newsstands was the single worst mistake the comic companies made. They got away from the average fan and went straight for the niche market.

      Yes, I remember when the push away from adult protagonists came. It was a lot like identity politics are now in that all of a sudden kids couldn't relate to protagonists unless they looked and acted exactly like them.

      A lot of these problems appear to relate to the compartmentalizing of every aspect of our lives. This really took effect in the late 90s and has only gotten worse since causing fractures and barriers between people across and even in the same culture.

      Just look at the Disney Afternoon and those protagonists compared to what they do now. Males, females, kids, adults, of all sots of shapes and sizes were characters engaging in the adventures. Now they are all either bratty Millennials all taking part in flat sitcom escapades. It's night and day.

      When I talk about appealing to normal people, I mean just that. I don't mean appealing to a mythical demographic that doesn't exist and bending and catering to them: I mean appealing to the average person looking for a fun story and trying to catch their interest. Somewhere along the line we lost that.

  2. Exactly.

    The political based worked because they used it to it to illuminate and leverage broad values rather than to attempt to prop up narrow personal hobbyhorses.

    1. "X has always been political" is always code for "Politics is all that has ever mattered about X."

  3. Marvel could just read X-Men 14-59 (1960s) and immediately understand why they are failing miserably. It would only take an afternoon, if they were honest.

  4. For a good analysis of Claremont and Byrne's run on the X-Men and why it worked, check out this episode of A Comic Book Education: http://www.acomicbookeducation.com/blog/creator-corner-chris-claremont-and-john-byrne

    While I did watch the show growing up, have you ever gone back and tried to re-watch it? Let's just say the fun is pretty much the only part that holds up.

    1. Thanks for the link!

      And yes, the 90s show doesn't hold up well, especially animation-wise, but it is really the only one of the three shows (four if you count the Pryde of the X-Men pilot) to capture the essence of the X-Men.

  5. "The X-Men were created by Stan Lee to represent minorities and their struggle against the majority. They were detested by the masses, and were looked down on as inferior (as little sense as that made considering they had superpowers), and Charles Xavier and Magneto were little more than analogues to the approaches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X via race relations. So it was always political from conception."

    This is actually a myth, or at least a big exaggeration encouraged by Stan Lee's self-aggrandizing nature. If you go back and read the original Lee/Kirby X-Men comics, it's pretty obvious that Magneto is just Hitler with superpowers. He dreams of his own militarized nation of goose-stepping mutant soldiers loyal only to him. Xavier simply was a good guy opposing him and other evil mutants because standing up to bullies and tyrants was the right thing to do. X-Men as a general concept was also *very* heavily inspired by classic sci-fi works like Van Vogt's Slan, Kuttner's Mutant/Baldy stories, and most especially Wilmar Shiras's Children of the Atom.

    As you say, the main reason people liked X-Men was pretty much the same reason people like superheroes in general - they're good-looking, heroic people who have awesome powers that use to live lives of adventure. X-Men especially had a good hook in that it was about "misfits" and anyone who felt a little awkward or misunderstood could relate to it (although really all superheroes are like this). Modern Marvel has made the choice to narrow the X-Men's focus to something extremely specific, which makes a small part of the population happy but makes everyone else feel excluded because "it's not about you anymore".

    1. I wouldn't be surprised if Stan spiced it up. He does it a lot.

      But yes, you nailed why everyone I grew up with were such big fans of the X-Men. They were the cool team you wanted to be a member of. It was not like being Superman, Spiderman, or Batman. It was like being a part of something bigger than yourself to solve problems far bigger than you.

      At least that's what I've always liked best about them.

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