Friday, April 11, 2014

Once More, The X-Men!

It was mid-1970 when the first X-Men series published its final issue, with the title subsequently taking a nine-month break and then "returning" with a shift to publishing reprints of its earlier stories. "The Strangest Teens Of All!" would staunchly remain on the sales rack, the book published on a bi-monthly basis for another 4½ years until the "new" X-Men team would step in and give the book a well-deserved shot in the arm with brand new stories and more compelling characters.

After the series ended, it might have been an eerie feeling for any readers who still picked up a copy of X-Men from time to time to notice one reprint after another replacing any new original stories on the rack. For at least those who read the final issue, though, the letters page of that issue softened the blow with a special notice:

This is the final issue of THE X-MEN.

At least for the time being. Though Roy and Neal have devoted long hours to recent issues (as have our two fill-in artists)--and though a mountain of mail has assured us that many Marvelites truly enjoy the job they've been doing--the plain truth is that the magazine's sales don't warrant our continuing the title. We feel that the artists and writers involved can better devote their time to other projects, other characters.

And so the X-Men go on the shelf.

We doubt if they'll stay there, though. Our misunderstood mutants, like most of our other heroes, have often seemed to possess a life all their own--and we've got an educated hunch that they'll be zooming into the pages of various Marvel mags in the not-too-distant future. Shed no tears for them, friends; they'll be around.

As for what will replace them--and the couple of other magazines we've discontinued in recent months--well, you know that we've always preferred to spring surprises on you. And we can guarantee that you'll be moved and shaken by some of the things we've got up our collective sleeves.

Mighty Marvel is on the move again--and if you don't believe us, pilgrim, just wait till the dust clears! Excelsior!

You can usually take notices like this with a grain of salt; after all, the Bullpen Bulletins pages had us thinking that Jack Kirby was still a happy Marvel camper and talking up his upcoming projects, even when he had one foot out the door. (Curiously, there was no ITEM! in the Bulletins about the end of the X-Men book--one of Marvel's flagship titles ending its run after 66 issues, and a book which Stan Lee himself began. By contrast, Lee would take the time to explain the cancellation of the Silver Surfer book, after a run of only 18 issues.) Still, it's easy enough to understand the point about poor sales--though the decision to redistribute a title that isn't selling is surely a head-scratcher. And what sort of deal could Marvel offer vendors to place orders for it?

But let's cut to almost thirty years later. It seems like there's no stopping the X-Men juggernaut, with two X-Men regular titles and I don't know how many spinoffs flooding the racks. In the interim, the original X-Men had been relaunched in a new series, though they lasted in the title only a few issues longer than in their original book before they were replaced with a new team (for a second time). Yet, in December of 1999, artist/writer John Byrne would give it one more try, and begin a new series where the original X-Men pick up right where they left off.

Anyone want to read about the original X-Men?

(Is this thing on?)

Given all the time that's gone by, and the fact that this title will delve into the adventures of the team that occurred during the period between the first series' final issue up to when the new X-Men come on board, Byrne understandably has to spend some time bringing readers up to speed on just who these people are at this point in time in terms of their characters, as well as where the team is in its history. That works out to about twelve pages--probably too much material for a new reader to sift through, and perhaps not the way to build the momentum for a new series. (Why re-hash material that led to the first book's end?) Fortunately, we'd left the team facing the incredible Hulk, which makes for a nice initial two-page spread.

Once the issue is ready to take off under its own power, it does so in stages. First comes the resignation of Iceman--perhaps with good reasons, but having one of the team's members leaving just when the book is being re-launched makes for lousy timing.

Next is Xavier's oddly impatient and at times acerbic behavior toward the team:

"Demerits" are (were?) something of a blight on your school record, raising the eyebrow of anyone wanting to assess your character or chances for higher education; also, depending on the school's policy, amassing x number of demerits could result in punishment ranging from cancellation of credits to expulsion. As you can see, Xavier is somewhat unique in the large number he dispenses at a time, nevermind how many each of his students ends up with for an entire year. But while the team is en route to the Savage Land, the Angel raises the point that being sanctioned with "demerits" is pretty meaningless to them now.

Then again, it's no wonder Xavier feels he can still be the stern headmaster with this group of people, when they continue to enable that behavior. Not only do they still race to his side when receiving a mental "summons," but just look how they still instinctively report in with a "roll call" response:

At this point in the story, it seems unlikely that a former reader of X-Men is going to think this team is offering anything new. It may be a nostalgic nod on Byrne's part, but it does the effort to re-sell the X-Men to a new audience no favors.

We're also taken back to an old dispute between Havok, Lorna Dane, and Iceman--a love triangle that's really only in Bobby's mind, snce Lorna, while having feelings for Alex, doesn't share Bobby's feelings for her. We're treated to five full pages of this quarrel playing out, pages which this issue cannot spare in terms of motivating its readers to becoming interested in this team.

The rest of the story involves the four remaining X-Men returning to the Savage Land for their mission--that is, as much as we get to see of the actual mission. Seven pages are spent just on their ship's descent and crash-landing, where Jean's efforts to shield the men in the ship result in her being rendered unconscious. And the tribe of natives which finds them has some even worse news.

Finally, word has already spread of the X-Men's arrival--but this story's smoking gun might have arrived too late in the issue to stir much interest in what happens next:

A very strange, almost plodding opening issue, though a writer or editor would probably be aiming for more exciting adjectives to describe the first issue of a series.

* * * *

As an afterword, you might find interesting John Byrne's initial thoughts on this new title--though, like the story itself, we have to make our way through a lot of nonessentials in order to reach that point.

It was a thunderclap. No, it was a nuclear blast! It swept across the comic book industry like a tidal wave, a hurricane, an earthquake. In other words, people sat up and took notice. What was it? X-MEN #56. (Not the current series of that title--the original, still more than fifty issues away from having "Uncanny" become an official part of its name.)

It was written by Roy Thomas, and illustrated by a pair of relative newcomers, Neal Adams and Tom Palmer. And it was, in one fell swoop, a revolution--and not a revolution in the making. A revolution done, complete, presented as a fait accompli in a single issue. Comics would never be the same again. Because of that issue, that work, and the effect it had on the generations of comicbook writers and artists that followed.

So--a confession. I am not Neal Adams.

That might seem an odd thing to need to say, after nearly twenty-five years in the business, and with a reputation at least as firmly established as was Neal's, lo these many years ago, when he was "Mister X-Men." But I do feel the need to say it, if for no other reason than that Neal, in what turned out to be a relatively short tenure on the original X-MEN book, brought such a distinctive hand to the job, created such a definitive vision of those characters in those issues, that anything I do here will, perforce, be compared to what he did thirty years ago.

The comparison will be both fair and unfair. After all, I am presuming to fill some awfully big shoes here. Neal and Roy (with contributions by Denny O'Neil, Don Heck and Sal Buscema) took the X-Men to new heights of glory, and for me to come along now, more than a quarter of a century later, and essentially say "...and this is what happened next..." smacks of hubris. But, on the other hand, there is another period of X-Men history which is cited with as much awe and fervor as are the Thomas/Adams years, and those are the three years or so that Chris Claremont and I worked on the book. So, really, who better to try to "fill the gap" left by Neal and Roy when the book went to reprint status due to "low" sales?

Which brings me to my next "confession." I'm not John Byrne.

Not the John Byrne who drew the adventures of the X-Men in the late 1970s, anyway. That was a different John Byrne. Oh, sure, he lived in the same body I live in--though it was newer, and still under warrantee!--and he had the same love for these characters. But he was younger, and in that youth was the shaping of different attitudes, different ideas, approaches, goals. When he sat down to draw a page, he was struggling with different demons than the ones I face today at the drawingboard. He was still trying to figure out How To Do It. Me, I know how to do it. Now I'm trying to figure out How To Do It Better.

I say all this for a simple reason: those of you who come to this book expecting a seamless continuation of the work created by Neal and Roy will almost certainly be disappointed to some degree. Those of you who come here expecting something closely akin to the work created by myself the last time I was the artist on the X-Men will also not find what you are looking for. Not quite.

Times change. People change. The demands of the media change. If I were to try to recreate what Neal and Roy did, I would most likely fail. And if I succeeded, there is little doubt the work would seem hopelessly dated. Likewise, if I somehow attempted to press the "rewind" button on my career, and take myself back to the artist I was twenty years ago, I would also fail. And if I did not, you might see all the weaknesses that the "John Byrne Legend" has glossed over in the years since I produced that work.

HIDDEN YEARS is intended to represent the "lost" adventures of the X-Men during that period of their original series (#s 67 thru 93) that the book was a reprint title. It is being done, however, in full awareness of the fact that this is not 1970--not for us, and with the application of "Marvel Time," not for the characters either--and the X-Men and the company have come a long way since then. So has the audience. So, sit back, relax, and I think I can pretty much guarantee a fun ride. Just a different ride from the last couple of times.

Oh--and I'm not Tom Palmer, either. But, as it turns out, I don't have to be!

As you might have gathered, it's not a particularly good sign when the writer and artist of the new book you're reading spends the bulk of his introductory text not only pointing out that his style of art is very different from (and, in its way, on par with) that of Neal Adams, the previous artist most remember being associated with the original X-Men--but also that his own style is much different from what you might remember from his work on his initial run on the Claremont series. As for Byrne's wish to distinguish the new book from the work of Thomas and Adams, I might have suggested choosing an inker other than Tom Palmer, the same finisher who accompanied Adams' pencils; nor should "a different ride" have veered toward such obvious comparisons to Byrne's prior run on the series as these:

But Byrne does make two important points that any person who revives the original X-Men should consider: the fact that "the X-Men and the company have come a long way since [1970]... [and] [s]o has the audience." Yet given what we've seen in this first issue, it would seem that the most anyone intent on regrouping the original team can hope for is a continuation of what came before.

X-Men: The Hidden Years #1

Script and Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Tom Palmer
Letterer: (uncredited)


Murray said...

A sadly pointless experiment. A flashback series like this could only be rootin-tootin, done in one action and pretty much nothing else. It's futile to try and build dramatic suspense with "Is s/he dead??" "Will they survive this deathtrap?" "Will s/he ever love me?"

Uhhh...spoiler alert. We've all read the years of comics since this time. We know who lives, dies, lives again, dies again, etc.

And then, well, one character used a cell phone. Discussion of stories and their merits were buried under an avalanche of Byrne trying to defend-explain "Marvel Time" and the people who agreed/disagreed/were utterly baffled.

Comicsfan said...

Murray, that's really a good point concerning the futility of trying to build suspense by placing these characters in danger; but when I'm investing in a new series that takes the approach of chronicling the past, I find it fairly easy to set aside the fact that whatever diabolical fate the villain du jour has in store for the characters is virtually meaningless in terms of the threat it represents, and simply enjoy the way it's presented--especially when the adventure is new. It's not quite enough to offset the other points I've mentioned here about whether this series is feasible in the first place--and ultimately, it wasn't enough to sustain a second look at the original X-Men.

Samuel said...

The original X-Men had two bright spots. Kirby's first 11 issues and Neal Adams 10 issues, plus Ross Andru/Don Heck issues. Nothing said, the original X-Men weren't lame. Claremont retired the originals while he was writing, Angel was dumped and Cyclops had a slow painful exit. The Hidden Years show that the original X-Men were a competent team as opposed to X-Factor which had to boost the original powers. The original with their original personality were finally intact and Byrne figured out how to showcase Angel without making him lamer or having to turn him into Wolverine.

Ben Herman said...

I liked X-Men: The Hidden Years, but I will be the first to acknowledge that the pacing of John Byrne's plotting was glacial. He really needed to have his stories move at a much brisker pace. I think that half of the series' run took place in the Savage Land.

I think that the strongest two issues were #s 14 & 15, which ended with the death of Angel's mother. It was a tragic, moving story. And it definitely benefitted from not being padded out.

The strongest aspect of the series was the artwork by Byrne & Tom Palmer, which was really good.