As a child, I didn’t have a whole lot of exposure to comic books. I was the oldest in my family, so I didn’t have the benefit of an older sibling who could introduce me to them. And, as far as I know, my parents weren’t all that into comics either. I had some nominal exposure to certain properties. I was familiar with the big names like Superman and Batman. Movies had been made about *them*. They were kind of hard to ignore. But, other than those big two, I had no real comic book knowledge or experience. I honestly can’t remember if I even knew they were comic book characters.
At that time, I was more of a fan of cartoons. I loved shows like Thundercats and the Real Ghostbusters. Like many kids my age, I spent a lot of my free time on Saturday mornings plopped right in front of the TV to catch all my favorite shows before I’d be kicked out of the house to go play outside. Many of those shows still have a special place in my heart.
Fast forward to Halloween 1992. I was 9 years old and enjoying my regular Saturday morning ritual of eating as many bowls of sugary cereal as my mother would allow while watching close to 4 hours of brightly colored, often action packed cartoons. On this particular morning, I was surprised to see a new show. It was called X-Men and, honestly, it blew me away.
It’s no exaggeration for me to say that this show single-handedly started my obsession with comic books. 75 episodes spread over 5 seasons just wasn’t enough for me. I had to know more. By 1995 I had convinced my mom to let me spend some money to purchase some comic book subscriptions. X-Men and Uncanny X-Men would be delivered to our mailbox once a month. The anticipation absolutely killed me, but it was always worth the wait once I was able to leaf through those glossy pages.
But who are the X-Men? Answering that question in detail would likely take several hours. Perhaps days. Definitely days. Diving into the quagmire that is the history of the X-Men could easily provide enough content for its own podcast. In fact, there are a few out there. I checked. But don’t worry. I’m not here to give you every little detail about the X-Men. I’m here to give you broad strokes.
The X-Men, like many of Marvel’s golden age comics, was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. They first appeared in The X-Men #1 in 1963. If you’re completely unfamiliar with them (and honestly, I don’t know how you could be with close to a dozen animated shows since the 60s that either starred or featured the X-Men, coupled with nearly the same number of big budget Hollywood blockbuster films, and a handful of live action TV shows, as well as several video games, but, hey, maybe you just woke up from a coma), the X-Men are a team of superheroes. Specifically, they’re mutants.
The team was formed by Professor Charles Xavier (affectionately referred to as Professor X), who is a mutant himself with immense telepathic abilities. Xavier recruits other young people who possess similar special abilities. These abilities are tied to the X-gene — a mutation in otherwise normal human DNA. In the team’s original incarnation, these abilities ranged from Cyclops’ powerful optic beams, to Jean Gray’s telepathy and telekinesis, to Iceman’s ability to manipulate ice and cold, to Beast’s increased strength, stamina, and intelligence (and huge hands and feet), to Angel’s giant freaking wings that sprout from his back.
Over the years, the team’s membership has changed. Obviously, anyone familiar with the animated show from the 90s knows names like Wolverine, Storm, Gambit, Rogue, Banshee, Nightcrawler, Colossus, everyone’s favorite sparkler shooting mall rat Jubilee, and many others. There have also been several other teams that have branched off from the main X-Men team, like the New Mutants, X-Force, X-Factor, Excalibur, Generation X, and literally over a dozen others. There have been over 100 members of the X-Men. This includes some former villains who have joined their ranks, as well as a few non-mutants who have snuck in.
I meant it when I said you could devote an entire podcast to just explain what the heck is going on with this series. Because there’s a lot.
Speaking of villains though, you can’t talk about Charles Xavier and the X-Men without mentioning their greatest adversary — Magneto, the master of magnetism. I know, it’s kind of on the nose. I’ll give Stan Lee and Jack Kirby a pass for creating such a compelling character. Magneto and Professor X are old friends who had a bit of a falling out. You see, they both want to ensure the survival of the mutant race. Where they differ is how to reach that goal. While Xavier walks the path of peace and understanding, seeking to forge an alliance of sorts with the humans, Magneto takes a decidedly harder stance. He wants to conquer the humans race through force. He views mutanity as the superior race, and worthy to rule over the lesser humans.
Much has been made of the relationship between Xavier and Magneto over the years. Many of the X-Men’s early battles were against Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants who sought to enslave humanity. But Magneto isn’t always the bad guy. Sometimes he’s even a member of X-Men. There are a few timelines where Magneto is actually the leader of the X-Men, instead of Xavier.
Now, I mentioned timelines just then. There are a lot of those in X-Men comics. Alternate timelines and alternate realities aren’t a new thing in comics. Different books can take place in different timelines and/or realities. I remember one time I was reading an issue of one X-Men comic. It was the climax of the Legacy Virus storyline. Long story short — the legacy virus was a fatal virus that only affected mutants. In this storyline, Colossus is faced with an impossible decision. A cure for the virus has been developed, but it required the death of the first person injected with it for it to activate and save all the others who were infected. Naturally, Colossus sacrificed himself to make this happen.
It was a heavy, emotional issue. Colossus’ sister had died from the virus. There was a real weight to what he was doing. I remember tearing up a little bit as I watched him die over the course of a few panels. I finished that issue, put it down, and picked up the newest issue of the other X-Men comic that had come that month. As I started reading, who did I see? Colossus, of course. He was alive and well in this book. Completely different storylines. It kind of lessened the impact of his sacrifice, to say the least.
But that’s the problem with comics sometimes. There can be so many versions of your favorite heroes. Sometimes, they exist concurrently. It can get confusing. Frustrating even. But you learn to deal with it.
Now, I can’t talk about X-Men without addressing some of the controversy surrounding the themes it addresses. Well, maybe controversy isn’t the right word. At least it’s not anymore. However, it could definitely be argued that it was at the time. X-Men was first published in the early 1960s. The themes it addressed of injustice and racism thrust upon a minority group paralleled the real world events of the Civil Rights Era. Professor X and Magneto were even compared to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X, respectively.
There were several instances, both in the animated show and in the comics, of groups like the Friends of Humanity, Humanity’s Last Stand, the Church of Humanity, and Stryker’s Purifiers rallying other humans to commit violence against mutants. These groups evoked images of the Ku Klux Klan, both explicitly and implicitly, and their actions were often akin to mob violence and lynchings.
I always kind of had a problem with the way mutants were treated in the Marvel Universe. Mutants were feared, by and large, because they had a genetic mutation that gifted them abilities far beyond that of mortal men. Well, most of the time. There are plenty of examples of mutants who have abilities that basically just make their lives harder with no discernible benefit. Beak, for example. Look him up. He drew the short straw in the mutant lottery.
But, the thing is, mutants are not unique in the Marvel Universe. There are plenty of other people who are effectively mutants who are not feared by the average Marvel citizen. In fact, they’re actually celebrated. The Fantastic Four are one such group. The Avengers are another. There are several other examples out there, but the question remains — what makes mutants so particularly hateable? Why does humanity focus on them when there are so many other metahumans out there who pose just as much of a threat to humanity’s safety, if not more, as the X-Men do? Maybe we’ll never know.
In the end, the X-Men, through all their various incarnations, are still sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them. They’re the scrappy underdogs who rise to every occasion (well, mostly). That’s the ultimate reason for their staying power. 5 decades later, and they’re still going strong.
If you want to check out some essential X-Men comics, you can pick up the Dark Phoenix Saga from 1980, Days of Future Past from 1981, Dancin’ in the Dark from 1983, The Trial of Magneto from 1985, Welcome to Genosha from 1988, Legacies from 1993, and The New X-Men from 2001-2003.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into the world of comics. I’ll try to bring you interesting topics and compelling characters as they arise. If you have suggestions on topics or characters you’d like to see featured in a future episode, feel free to contact me on twitter. You can find me at @eyeheartcomics. Until next time, this has been Comic Remastered.