The X-Men series -- The Marvel superheroes are the biggest-selling comic in history

Before there were Ninja Turtles there were other popular teenage mutants. Launched in 1963, canceled after seven years, then resurrected in the mid-’70s and expanded into a whole gallery of titles, the X-Men, five adolescent misfits with extraordinary powers, have become the biggest success story in comic-book history. And they’ve done it in truest teen fashion — with most adults knowing hardly anything about it. Now Marvel Comics is introducing another major X project, X-Men #1, reuniting the original five heroes — and in the process it will set yet another sales record. As they say in X-Men and other comic circles, WHAPP!!

X-Men #1, with a print run of 7.5 million copies (at least 7 million of which are presold, since comics specialty shops order on a nonreturnable basis), is being launched with all the hoopla and craftiness of a P.T. Barnum circus and almost as many acts. First there’ll be four variant ”first editions,” each with exactly the same 48-page story but a different cover — just buy ’em all, folks, put those covers together, and what do you get? A complete poster-size X-Men image. Then, in late September, a ”deluxe” edition of the issue is scheduled to arrive with a special gatefold cover, no ads, and better interior paper. The deluxe version will retail for $3.50, and the other versions for $1.50 each. Once the grandiose 1 is out of the way, subsequent monthly editions will sell for $1, the normal current price and a far cry from the measly 12 cents it cost to buy the original X-Men comics.

Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men were among the first generation of so-called ”superheroes with problems,” always quirky, often neurotic, that transformed a near-bankrupt outfit named Timely Publications into the staggeringly prosperous Marvel Comics.

The series premise was simple, even charming. Five troubled teenagers (Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Angel, and Marvel Girl) are brought together at ”an exclusive private school in New York’s Westchester County.” Cyclops can fire devastating bolts of energy from his eyes, Angel can fly, and Iceman can turn his body into a block of solid — guess what? Marvel Girl is telekinetic, able to move objects around mentally, while Beast, the intellectual of the group, is a hirsute superacrobat. The school’s headmaster, Charles Xavier (Professor X) — ”the world’s most powerful telepath” — wants to teach his mutant pupils to control their exceptional talents while he gives their fragile egos some much-needed confidence. Of course, this being a four-color comic book, it’s no time at all before the kids find themselves pitting their egos as well as their muscles against a collection of brightly costumed ”evil mutants” (guys like Magneto and the Blob) who want to rid the world of piddling Homo sapiens.

Curiously, though, unlike Lee and Kirby’s other creations — the Fantastic Four, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk, which racked up big sales — Uncanny X-Men sold poorly through the ’60s. In 1970, after issue 66, the title was canceled. Several months later it reappeared, but the stories were all reprints. Meanwhile, the mutants made guest appearances in other, more popular Marvel comics, like canceled-sitcom stars doing talk shows.

Then, in one of those unpredictable twists so common in the precincts of pop culture, the homeless heroes gradually rekindled sufficient interest for Marvel to try again.

In 1975 the X-Men returned, but within a few issues only two members of the original starring cast remained (Cyclops and Professor X). Additions to the team were decidedly international in makeup. From the Soviet Union came muscleman Colossus; from Germany, the teleporting Nightcrawler; from Africa, Storm, a young black woman able to control the weather; and from Canada, Wolverine, who, with his metallic claws, homicidal tendencies, gruff disposition, and perpetually smoldering stogie, became the most popular figure of all. Lee and Kirby had moved on, and Uncanny X-Men was being produced by artist Dave Cockrum (who stayed until 1977, when John Byrne took over) and writer Chris Claremont. Under the stewardship of these three, the book soared in popularity and by 1976 was outselling every other comic published — about a half-million copies per month.

The series’ extraordinary success has probably been due mostly to Claremont’s shrewd use of metaphor. Peel away the fight scenes and what you’ll find in all X-men outings is a parable of teenage alienation. According to Marvel editor Bob Harras, who oversees all of the X-comics, ”These mutants are like you and me till about the age of 13, when they manifest their powers. Humanity hates them. It’s not too hard for kids to see themselves in the same predicament.”

”The point is made in the books that power is as much a burden as a gift,” says Jim Lee, artist and co-plotter and no relation to Stan. ”It’s really more tragic, I think, than other ‘Top 40’ comics. Captain America, for instance. The guy is comfortable with himself, but these kids aren’t. It’s like they’re handicapped, but heroes at the same time. And something else. You can also look at the series as being about racism. Everybody hates the X-men because they’re different.”

Jim Lee, 27, was raised in St. Louis after his parents moved from Korea to the United States when he was 5. He grew up reading Claremont’s X-Men, but drifted away from comics when he started Princeton. ”I was going for a degree in psychology-premed. In senior year, I took a life-drawing course, just as a gut course, to free up some time. That’s when I first seriously considered a career in art.” After graduating in 1986, Lee put together a portfolio of panel work, and showed his samples at a New York City comic-book convention that summer. ”Marvel gave me a tryout story, they liked what I did, and I started working in January of ’87. I graduated in June, started drawing comics in January. Not bad.”

After apprenticing on a number of middling Marvel titles, Lee took on Uncanny X-Men, where he established himself as a ”fan favorite” — an artist whose name on an issue guarantees good sales. When Marvel decided to launch the new X-Men, Lee was made artist and co-plotter. He works in a two-bedroom apartment in San Diego — side by side with Scott Williams, who inks in Lee’s pencil drawings.

”What we do, we sit around playing with story ideas,” says Lee, ”possible plot twists. I talk on the phone to the writer about three times a week. We do about $300 worth of telephone talking a month. Then I type up the rough outline and fax it to the editor. He makes suggestions, gives approval, then I do the pencil work, putting notes in every panel about what’s going on. Then we send it to the scripter, who essentially puts the dialogue in. Then it’s lettered, then it’s inked. It’s an inordinate amount of time-six, seven days a week — but I’m well rewarded.”

After 16 years as principal X-Men writer, Chris Claremont is leaving to do novels; beginning with issue 4 of the new series, former series artist John Byrne takes over the scripting — and his first assignment is to lay out all the basic concepts for the new readers Marvel is confident of attracting.

”One of Chris’ strengths was the complexity of his stories,” says Lee. ”But it was also his weakness. It’s real confusing to just jump right in if you haven’t been reading the books all along. The X-Men is like — well, it’s like this great big superhero soap opera that’s been going on for almost 30 years.”

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