Thursday, February 11, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #10: October 1991

...And in With the New 

X-Men #1
Co-Plotter/Scripter: Chris Claremont
Co-Plotter/Penciller: Jim Lee
Inker: Scott Williams
Colorist: Joe Rosas


Chris Claremont began writing Uncanny X-Men in 1975 with issue 94. Over the next sixteen (!) years he transformed it into the most popular and best-selling superhero comic at either major company. Over those years, the title had three spin-offs - New Mutants, Excalibur, and X-Factor - but remained mostly self-contained. Despite having a large cast and enough plots for several books, there was only one place to read about the X-Men.
That changed in late summer 1991 with the debut of a second title, simply called X-Men. Like the adjective-free Spider-Man before it, the title was a smashing success. And it never would have happened without artist Jim Lee.
Jim Lee was born in South Korea, but his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri when he was young. He attended Princeton University, and studied psychology with a goal of becoming a medical doctor. But he felt the pull of art, and decided to take one year to develop a portfolio and try to land professional work at a comics company. It worked, and he landed at Marvel, first doing art on Alpha Flight, then on Punisher War Journal.
Lee’s skills progressed quickly, and he settled into a style that was detailed, dense, and dynamic. His work was as exciting as Liefeld’s, but with a better sense of anatomy and layout, and a much firmer grounding in reality. After positive response to a fill-in and a three-issue arc on Uncanny X-Men he became regular artist with issue 268 (September 1990).

Over the next 10 issues, Lee’s popularity exploded. Claremont had worked with many great artists in his tenure: Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr., Mark Silvestri, but none had caused the splash that Lee did. Sales on Uncanny X-Men were already great, but they got even better, and Marvel took notice. Similar to what had happened with Todd McFarlane on Spider-Man #1 and Rob Liefeld on X-Force #1, the company decided to showcase their superstar artist with a new series. Also similar to McFarlane and Liefeld, Jim Lee was increasingly interested in taking over the plotting side of things, though his case was different. Neither McFarlane nor Liefeld were working with writers whose names were synonymous with the title.
The plan was for Claremont to work with Lee as co-plotter, and the pair devised a plan with artist Whilce Portacio to bring the original five X-Men (who had been operating as X-Factor) back to the team, combine them with the newer characters, and split the team into two squads. Uncanny X-Men focused on the “gold team” while the new book would feature the “blue team.” 

X-Men #1 was a genuine phenomenon. Released with four different covers (which connected to make one large image) and a fifth one that collected all four in a fold-out, the issue broke all existing records by selling 8 million copies. It even warranted an article in Entertainment Weekly at a time when it was exceedingly rare for anything comics-related to get mainstream attention.
The issue introduced eye-catching new costumes for most of the characters, and served as the first of a three-part story that reexamined the fundamental tension at the core of the X-Men mythos: Professor Xavier’s “protect those who fear us” versus Magneto’s “embrace and assert our dominance.” 

This was both a good way to usher in new fans and a way for Claremont to bid farewell. Yes, unthinkably, Claremont would only write three issues of the new title before departing the X-Men franchise altogether.
At the time Marvel made it sound like Claremont had simply said all he had to say, and was moving on to focus on his career as a novelist. But in an interview with Comics Scene just a year earlier Claremont sounded like he was from done, and in fact said, “As far as I’m concerned they should cancel the book when I decide to leave – if ever.” Later, in a 2000 New York Magazine article Claremont would place the blame for his departure on editor Bob Harras, saying he was tired of being railroaded and overruled by the editor on story decisions. 

I also have a hard time believing Lee – or more accurately Harras’s capitulation to Lee – had nothing to do with it. With McFarlane and Liefeld, Marvel had set a precedent of granting great power and great responsibility to their artists; we’ve already heard about how Harras’s embrace of Liefeld drove Louise Simonson from New Mutants. One could question the wisdom of this, especially with how it would turn out, but it’s not an inherently bad idea. Afterall, Marvel had traditionally undervalued their artists, which makes so little sense for something that’s so clearly a visual medium (in comic books, good art elevates a bad story while bad art sinks a good story). So a change of policy was a welcome one.
But letting it happen at the cost of one of your only superstar writers, one who’d devoted his professional life to these characters? That seems like overcompensating. Claremont was cast aside by two men who grew up reading his work on Uncanny X-Men. Some may argue that it was time for Claremont to go, and that the franchise had become mired in its own complexity. Lee basically said as much in the Entertainment Weekly article (in which he was quoted but Claremont wasn’t) that came out at the time of X-Men #1's release. Of Claremont’s writing he said, “It’s real confusing to jump right in if you haven’t been reading the books all along.” Claremont had a tendency to focus so deeply on matters of character that he often lost control of his plots. But his love of those characters is what made them living, breathing people who became so beloved by fans.
Marvel brought on John Byrne to script Lee’s plots on X-Men, in what was marketed as a permanent solution. But Byrne only lasted two issues (in addition to five on Uncanny). According to Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Byrne left because of "impossible turaround times" on scripting artwork from Lee and Portacio that would arrive at the 11th hour. It also happened to coincide with the beginning of his self-created Next Men book at Dark Horse. Scott Lobdell came on next, and would stay for the rest of Lee’s tenure.

Which wasn’t very long. Like McFarlane and Liefeld before him, Lee didn’t make it a year with the title created specifically for him, despite promises that he’d be with the series for “a long time.” Nor did he do anything especially groundbreaking. He introduced a new foe from Wolverine’s past, Omega Red. He brought back Longshot briefly, and he did a crossover with Ghost Rider that started unraveling the mystery of Gambit's past. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't all that different from what Claremont had been doing. After X-Men #11, Lee departed both the title and Marvel itself, joining with Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Eric Larson, Mark Silvestri, and Jim Valentino to form Image Comics.
So in the end, Marvel alienated some of its best writers for a very short-term gain. It was sort of like the sports franchise that builds itself around a superstar player, only to have that player leave in free agency.
Claremont left Marvel too, landing at DC and creating the team book Sovereign Seven. He’d return to Marvel in 1996 as both an editor and a writer. He’d return to the X-Men in fits and starts, but his days as the primary architect were never to be repeated.
As I cast back to my feelings about X-Men #1, I definitely can recall the excitement I felt. But I don’t think it was really because of Jim Lee. I say this because over the years I’ve realized – and I know for some this will  be akin to blasphemy – that I don’t really care all that much for Lee’s work, especially his sequential art (as opposed to his pin-ups and covers). I admire his talent, but his work always felt claustrophobic to me. I believe my excitement in 1991 was much more about the revolution of the X books as a whole: The original X-Men returning to the team, a whole new X-Factor line-up, Alan Davis returning to Excalibur, the initial thrill of X-Force.

Despite my personal feelings about Lee’s art (and about his career path after leaving for Image), I can’t deny that his X-Men will forever be the iconic versions. The costumes he designed became the basis for the designs on Fox Kids’s 1992 hit X-Men: The Animated Series, and Skybox’s 1992 X-Men trading cards, for which Lee did every card, set a standard for depicting the X-Universe that hasn’t really been equaled since.

Works Cited
De Haven, Tom. “The X-Men Series.” Entertainment Weekly. Sept 6, 1991.
Forge. Alec. "The X-Men Files," Alec Foege, New York Magazine, July 17, 2000.
Kanalz, Hank. “Mutant Artist.” Comics Scene, vol. 2, number 21 (October 1991).
O’Neill, Patrick Daniel. “Mutant Experiences.” Comics Scene, vol. 2, number 21 (February 1990).

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