“The Strangest Teens of All”
This is a personal story. It happened a decade before I was born.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of a landmark in superhero comics: in 1975, Marvel Comics released Giant-Size X-Men #1. It sported a startling cover from which a motley, multi-colored group of mutants charged somewhat menacingly at the reader. One of them had blue skin and looked like a demon. Another had metal claws protruding from his hands. By the mid-1980’s this odd, unheroic assembly of misfits was the most popular comic book in the world. By the early 1990’s, a kid in Sherman Oaks, California could buy a pair of Wolverine-emblazoned tennis shoes and make his friends jealous. By 2015, the X-Men were a movie franchise that had earned $3 billion in worldwide box office and counting.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the beginning. It started, as all great things do, with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. That writer/artist duo are the godfathers of the Marvel Comics Universe. Together (and with help from a bullpen of other creators, including the brilliant but mercurial Steve Ditko, and the forgettable but reliable Don Heck), Lee and Kirby revolutionized the fine art of superhero storytelling. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Mighty Thor: here, for the first time, were comic book heroes who faced troubles and nuisances just like any schmo off the street. Spider-Man had bills to pay and got bullied at school! The Avengers squabbled and bickered during their off-duty hours! Thor’s alter ego was disabled and sensitive about it! Mr. Fantastic got stressed out fighting villains, and sometimes forgot to shave! Such things, in the early 1960’s, were like a bolt from the blue to a comics audience previously presumed to be either younger than ten, or else extraordinarily dumb. These were comics that actual, honest-to-god teenagers could read — and did.
By 1963, then, with a pile of mounting successes to their credit, Lee and Kirby had several key lessons to reflect on. First, squabbling family dynamics on super-teams were pure gold (The Fantastic Four, the Avengers). Second, in this bold, new, Baby Boomer world, teenage heroes were big business (Spider-Man). And finally, but not insignificantly, coming up with superhero origins was tough, repetitive work (the many useful applications of gamma radiation in the Marvel Universe). Thus, the X-Men: five superpowered teenagers born, by random genetic chance, as “mutants,” the next leap forward in human evolution. By day, these teens attended an unassuming boarding school for gifted youngsters in suburban Westchester. In their costumed off-hours (as the energy-blasting Cyclops; winged Angel; big-footed, high-leaping Beast; telekinetic Marvel Girl; and the self-explanatory Iceman) they defended unevolved humanity against villains like Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.
Though billed on their first issue’s cover as the “strangest super-heroes of all!” these original X-Men were a decidedly whitebread bunch. Sure, Cyclops couldn’t control the force of his optic blasts, and Angel had big feathered wings sticking out of his back, but they were nothing a pair of sunglasses and girdle couldn’t solve. Truth be told, these good-looking caucasian youths were about the least strange alter-egos in the Marvel Comics stable, and their early writers rarely managed to mine their circumstances for drama or interest. Perhaps more compelling was their mentor, teacher, and wealthy benefactor, the mysterious Professor X. Bald, wheelchair-bound, and of deliberately indeterminate age and background, the Professor (Charles Francis Xavier) carried an odd, mildly menacing vibe entirely absent from his straightlaced students. But this alone couldn’t carry the series to the intended heights of Marvel’s more celebrated creations. The X-Men plodded along for 66 issues of middling super-villains and steadily diminishing stakes. Despite a brief, beautiful string of late issues drawn by the young Neal Adams, the series was mercifully relegated to reprints, and confined to second-tier of Marvel creations, seemingly never to return.
What a surprise, then, five years later, for readers to find on their supermarket spinner racks the cover of Giant Size X-Men #1, featuring a thoroughly unrecognizable bunch of ragtag mutants bursting through a picture of a slightly alarmed-looking original X-Men team. Looking inside the issue, those readers found a brisk, simple plot (courtesy of Marvel ‘70s stalwart Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum): with the old team taken captive on a mysterious island, Professor X must recruit a new squad of mutants to rescue their predecessors, and (as it will turn out) take their place as the All-New, All-Different X-Men. Looking back, the plot itself is no great shakes (suffice it to say that “Krakoa: The Island That Walks Like a Man” has never made any top-ten lists of favorite Marvel villains). But from the story’s first panels, it’s clear that the team’s new incarnation was worlds away from its 1960’s predecessor.
Where the old team was an entirely vanilla bunch, the new X-Men were a visibly multi-ethnic and multinational crew: Storm, a young woman with the ability to control weather, hails from rural Kenya, where she is worshipped as a goddess by local tribesman. Colossus, who can turn his skin to organic steel, is a rustic Russian farmboy from behind the Iron Curtain. In one dramatic case, the diversity extends beyond mere race and region: when we first meet the blue-skinned, red-eyed Nightcrawler, he is being chased through the streets of Winzeldorf, Germany by torch-waving villagers convinced that a demon walks among them.
Where this new group differed from the old in origin, so too in attitude. No sock-hopping squares this time around: both Banshee (Irish, sonic scream) and Sunfire (Japanese, fire-wielding) had been introduced as X-Men villains prior their re-invention here. Native American Thunderbird comes to the team with a rather expansive historical chip on his shoulder (first asked by Xavier to join the new team, he replies: “And you can stuff a cactus, Custer! The white man needs me? That’s tough!”). And then, there was Wolverine. Stocky, hairy, Canadian, with spiky metal claws jutting from his knuckles, this one character would in time become the poster-boy of Marvel marketing, destined to devour the franchise that had birthed him. But when we first meet him in Giant Size #1, he is a wild but intriguing enigma. Tough and street-smart, but violent verging on savage, he joins Professor X only because he’s grown bored with his previous gig working for the Canadian military. By way of quitting, he slashes the necktie off the suit of his supervisor, declaring, “So I’m resigning my commission — effective immediately! Unless, of course, you have any further objections? I didn’t think so.”
The resulting team dynamic was like a distilled and intensified version of the classic Lee and Kirby style. Older Marvel comics had also featured teammates who squabbled and bickered — it was something of the house speciality — but never before had there been quite such an air of genuine menace and visceral animosity when our heroes were together. When first briefed on the team’s rescue mission, Sunfire responds by flatly refusing to assist, declaring, “I do not even like my fellow mutants, Cyclops! I will certainly not risk my life to help them!” Reflecting on this later, Storm muses, “It seems I have had my first taste of mutant camaraderie — and I must say, Cyclops — I did not like it!” (To which Thunderbird laconically replies, “Maybe you didn’t notice, sister — but this group ain’t exactly a mutual admiration society!”) Here, for the first time, was a team of mutants who really felt like mutants — hostile, anti-social misfits ill at ease with the world they would have to protect. In time, they would learn to operate as a loyal and effective superhero team. But their learning curve would be more rocky and realistic than any four-color characters before them.
Looking backward, we can see this as the moment of creation for what would come to be called the Bronze Age of comics: the era when the exciting but hokey stories of the Silver Age hardened into something fit for the increasingly cynical and mature teen audiences of the ‘70s and ‘80s. And the key creative figure in this renaissance was Chris Claremont, who assumed ongoing writing duties on The Uncanny X-Men after providing uncredited dialogue work to the debut story in Giant-Size. For readers who grew up on X-Men stories of this era, Claremont is a mighty but fallible deity, brilliant and mockable in seemingly equal measure. This was unavoidable by virtue of the sheer length of his tenure: for a decade and a half, Claremont was the loud and singular voice of the X-Men franchise, stamping the characters with his creative mark in a manner unprecedented even in the days of Stan Lee.
In these early issues, what stands out most distinctively in Claremont’s writing is the stark, startling level to which he raised the stakes of comic book danger. In the first story arc of his run, the X-Men square off against Count Nefaria and his gang of animal-hybrid henchman as they attempt to capture NORAD headquarters and extort the world with nuclear threats. Nefaria himself is a typical, mid-level Marvel threat: a ranting, preening dandy complete with monocle and riding cape. His evil scheme, too, is standard comic book boilerplate, (it deliberately echoes the original X-Men’s first mission against a nuclear missile-seizing Magneto). But Claremont is setting his readers up to yank the rug out from under them. Both we and the X-Men expect an easy victory over an unremarkable villain — but by the time Nefaria is defeated, the X-Man Thunderbird is dead.
It’s really not possible, in this era of endlessly cyclical comic book resurrections, to adequately imagine what this meant for an impressionable reader in 1975. When Thunderbird died, heroically hanging onto Count Nefaria’s exploding jet, he was truly, definitively, dead — and would remain so until the round robin of 21st century revivals eventually landed on him just a few years ago. This was something astonishing: if our heroes could die — could vanish from the pages of this comic book in the space between panels — then their happy-go-lucky adventures suddenly took on a dark and menacing significance.
And not just for us, but for the characters, too. An issue after Thunderbird’s death, team leader Cyclops paces the grounds of the X-Men’s mansion headquarters, furiously castigating himself for his failure. Claremont’s wonderfully (and typically) breathless narration let’s us into his tortured thoughts:
“You and the X-Men had saved the world from a nuclear holocaust — but you’d lost a man to do it…and try as you might, you can’t balance those scales, in your mind or in your heart…can you, Cyclops? Can you? Can you?! … You knew the rules — and the risks — when you got into this game…all the X-Men did, Thunderbird included. And you’re the top man in this outfit, Cyclops — you wanted the job and you’re good at it — and now you’ve got to pay the price…because this job means taking bad as well as good. It means watching your friends live — and watching them die…”
The lesson for readers was clear: in this comic book, the risks were real, the results were mortal, and the consequences mattered.
They mattered particularly because Claremont excelled, more than anything, at long and multilayered character relationships. Between battles, his mutants engaged in every manner of love, rivalry, and soap-operatic entanglement. Scott Summers and Jean Grey (that would be Cyclops and Marvel Girl to casual readers) are dopey, starry-eyed lovers…but feral, mysterious Wolverine is in love with Jean, too, and prone to lonely, late-night mutterings against his team leader. Professor X finds himself drawn to his old flame, Dr. Moira Mactaggart…but so is his pupil Banshee, and anyway, Xavier might prefer the company of the beautiful intergalactic space empress Lilandra (these stories can get complicated). Lee’s X-Men might have called themselves a School for Gifted Youngsters, but Claremont’s team acted like it: this was high school drama painted in bold, screaming colors. Never had the obvious metaphor behind the concept of mutants — marvelous but confusing new abilities that developed in the teenage years, bringing both power and persecuted isolation — seemed so perfectly apt.
This went hand in hand with Claremont’s use of long and storied character histories that reached back years and decades. By the time Uncanny was relaunched in the late ‘70’s, the X-Men and Marvel had accumulated nearly twenty years worth of continuity: a rich mine for soap operatic character relationships, and Claremont was never shy about reaching into the back issue bin for raw material. Just to take Cyclops as an example during these early issues, we find not only a heavy focus on the aforementioned Jean Grey romance (a Stan Lee invention dating back to the very first issue), but appearances from his brother, the mutant Havoc (a relic from the late-’60s Roy Thomas era), and hints about the continued survival of his long-thought-dead father. In a sense, Claremont was performing a sleight of hand: fans who actually tracked down any of those early issues were apt to be severely disappointed by the dutiful plotting, lazy pencils, and one-dimensional character work within. Claremont’s retroactive, idealized notion of the X-Men’s past was, in other words, far more fascinating and nuanced than the actual past ever was. But no matter: in the days before digitized back issues and ubiquitous trade paperbacks, most young X-fans never got to read those early stories anyway. They (like me, a decade later) could only imagine the endless and fascinating adventures the team must have encountered before we started reading about them, and the early Claremont issues were all the more interesting because of it. Dropping into Claremont’s continuity was like reading a chapter of a long narrative history: we knew that it was only a tiny snippet of a grand saga that started long before the first panel, and would continue long after the final page.
Comics are, of course, a largely visual medium, and Claremont found his greatest ally and artistic soulmate in penciler John Byrne, who replaced Cockrum on the title a year into the relaunch. Cockrum was a fine artist, with a particular flare for designing memorable (and often scanty) skintight costumes. But Byrne’s pencils were something else again. His lines, especially as inked by the great Terry Austin, were richly detailed; his characters heroically-drawn, yet lithe and limber, with a range of emotional expression perfectly fitted to the high-pitched melodrama of Claremont’s dialogue. Byrne, at least as much as Claremont, would define the feel of comic books for the next decade, but here, co-plotting in tense but beautiful harmony, both creators found their best and most enduring expression.
This era of the X-Men reached its apotheosis in 1979’s “Dark Phoenix Saga,” which would come to be universally regarded as one of the high water marks for superhero storytelling. In one nine-issue arc, all of the new components that Claremont, Cockrum, and Byrne had contributed to the X-Men mythos — rich relationships, complex back-stories, high-stakes conflicts, and gorgeous artwork — came together in perfect synergy. The deep background of the story is as follows: The X-Men hurtle back to earth in a collapsing shuttle following a mission into outer space. Crashing into the open sea, Jean Grey is seemingly lost…only to burst forth, moments later, sporting a snazzy new costume and a whole host of new superpowers. Flying into the air and crackling with an aura of energy, she declares, “Hear me, X-Men! No longer am I the woman you knew! I am fire! And life incarnate! Now and forever — I am Phoenix!”
Jean, it soon emerges, has been symbiotically merged with a cosmic entity of unknown ability known as the Phoenix Force. As issues pass, it becomes clear that the new Jean is in every way a greater presence than the Marvel Girl of old: vastly more powerful, yes, and capable of defending herself against A-level villains like Magneto and the reality-warping Proteus, but also brasher, more violent, and more reckless in a way that begins to gnaw at Cyclops. Struggling to reconcile his love for Jean and his duties as leader of a paramilitary mutant strike force, he confesses:
“I’ve done a lot of thinking since your ‘death’ in Antarctica. I haven’t much liked some of the things I’ve learned about myself. All my life it seemed that — every time I turned around — I was losing people I loved: my folks, my brother Alex, the few friends I made at the orphanage. Each time the loss hurt. Losing you was the loss I couldn’t take…Jean, you’re everything to me. As necessary as the air I breathe. I used to say ‘I love you’ without ever truly knowing what I was talking about. I know now — a little, anyway. Jean — I love you.”
Meanwhile, the X-Men are pulled into a side-adventure which, in lesser hands, might have served as the hook for a full story arc in its own right. Jean’s already volatile personality falls prey to the manipulations of the Hellfire Club, a group of high-society mutants who dress in Regency clothes and get their jollies from villainous machinations. The X-Men infiltrate the Club and rescue Jean, but the trauma of the experience erodes what remains of the hero’s mental self-control. Surrendering herself to now-godlike powers, and declaring herself “Dark Phoenix,” she violently fights off the entreaties of her teammates, and soars off into the galactic distance.
(The Hellfire Club episode, be it noted, contains a landmark moment for an entirely different X-Man: the grizzled Wolverine, who had thus far served as an entertaining but largely secondary supporting player in the title. Left for dead after a first-round battle with the Club’s minions, his teammates captured and seemingly hopeless, Wolverine turns up in a last-page reveal for the ages. Rising up slowly from a dank sewer, his costume ragged and soaked, his face bedraggled and steely, his eyes and claws gleaming in the darkness, Wolverine turns toward the reader and declares, “Okay, suckers — you’ve taken yer best shot! Now it’s my turn!” He proceeds, in the following issue, to single-handedly (and literally) claw his way back to the Club’s Inner Circle and liberate his companions — and in those pages, a franchise mascot is born.)
What happens next is the stuff of comics lore. Seeking fuel for her cosmic powers, Phoenix absorbs the energy of an entire sun, obliterating a solar system in the process. Claremont’s original draft, it’s said, called specifically for an uninhabited solar system to serve as collateral damage, leading to a resolution in which the X-Men would defeat Phoenix by temporarily putting a “psychic block” on their teammate’s powers. But when Byrne decided, instead, to very clearly show a civilized planet wiped out by Jean Grey’s act of genocide, Marvel’s editorial powers that be decided more severe consequences were in order. Jean Grey had to die for her sins.
So: the Dark Phoenix Saga comes to its climax when Jean returns to Earth and, with telepathic help from Professor Xavier, manages to block out her Phoenix powers and restore her sanity…only to be confronted by Empress Lilandra of the intergalactic Shi’ar Empire, who demands that Jean be put on trial for her heinous crimes. (That’s the same Lilandra who had earlier gotten lovey-dovey with Professor X. I told you these things could get complicated.)
The “trial” consists of a no-holds-barred duel on the surface of the moon between the X-Men and the Shi’ar’s elite Imperial Guard (in a sly wink to the competition, the Guard’s members are all closely modeled on DC Comics’ Legion of Super-Heroes, an homage that puckishly acknowledges both the heavy conceptual debt the X-Men owed to Legion, as well as the vastly superior power levels of that original teenage super-team.) Predictably but harrowingly, the X-Men are reduced to bloody pulps, leaving a cornered Jean Grey with only two options: release the Phoenix Force and save herself at the expense of her humanity, or willingly surrender to her own violent execution.
A tearful Cyclops, knowing what her choice will be, begs her to reconsider: “It doesn’t have to be like this! You have an intellect, Jean, a will, a soul — use them! Fight the dark side of yourself! We’ll help you!” But it’s already too late for that:
“You want me to fight? I have. I am — with all my strength. But I can’t forget that I killed an entire world — five billion people — as casually, as unthinkingly, as you would crumple a piece of paper. I want no more deaths on my conscience…It’s better this way. Quick. Clean. Final. I love you, Scott. A part of me will always be with you.”
Years later, bowing to the twin pressures of corporate marketing and dwindling story ideas, Phoenix would be revealed to be only a copy of Jean Grey, the real (and still innocent) X-Man resting peacefully in suspended animation at the bottom of Jamaica Bay. But we need to remember that in 1980, Jean Grey was Phoenix, and she was dead, and that death was the culmination of something that had been building as far back as the demise of Thunderbird a half-decade earlier. What Claremont was saying was that to be an X-Man was to be scrappy, and violent, and a misfit, yes — but it was also to be nobly self-sacrificing and stoically brave. The All New, All Different X-Men were a truer reflection of the teenage experience than perhaps Claremont even knew: like every adolescent before them, they had to learn that beyond hyperbolic emotions and self-serving glory, there are causes higher and greater than ourselves alone. Claremont’s narration sums it up:
“As they make their last stand, they find themselves remembering the day they first met — so long ago, so far away. They remember all that’s happened since — good times and bad — and dream of what might have been. Once upon a time there was a woman named Jean Grey, a man named Scott Summers. They were young. They were in love. They were heroes.”
So they were. And for the starry-eyed kid reading a battered trade paperback on the floor of his bedroom in Sherman Oaks, so could he be, even if he’d never have the adamantium claws or optic blasts to show for it. And if, in the days to come, every lunch box and Trapper Keeper had a trademarked image of a mutant plastered on it…well, maybe we wouldn’t be all the worse for it after all.
Zach Rabiroff lives in Brooklyn and works for a consulting firm during his daytime hours.