Friday, April 22, 2011

Where Did the X-Men Go Wrong?

Karen: Thanks to regular reader and poster Edo Bosnar for today's topic. Recently we've discussed the Claremont/Byrne/Austin X-Men run through posts and comments, and it's been given high praise of course. But as time went on and the book and its own X-universe grew, it became a lost cause for some of us.

Karen: I think that the
biggest problem for me is the book seemed to cave under the weight of itself in later years, as so many characters and their individual backstories were incorporated into the X-Men mythology. Maybe part of the issue was that Claremont stayed on the book so long, too. It just seems like every character's history became hopelessly complicated. That started with Claremont, with Cyclops suddenly finding out his father was still alive and the member of an intergalactic band of rebels, and Nightcrawler discovering that his girlfriend was his step-sister (ugh), Colossus finding that his little sister had been kidnapped by a demon and returned to Earth a teenager...and so on and so on. Nobody in the X-Men universe has a straight-forward background.

Karen: As Edo mentioned in his comm
ents, the "Days of Future Past" story also set up a possible future for the X-Men, and this idea came to dominate the title for some time, with characters like Bishop,Cable, and Rachel Summers showing up. I recall at the time getting pretty tired of all that stuff. I'm fairly clueless about things that happened after 1992 or so. All I know is that I've tried to get back into X-Men several times over the years and I couldn't figure out what the heck was going on. I've managed to return to other titles without too many problems. But X-Men remains completely impenetrable to me.


Edo Bosnar said...

Wow, I actually inspired a post! Anyway, I'll start the comments off by saying that I totally agree with you about Claremont staying on the title way too long. Basically, I think some of his initial storytelling strengths (i.e., sub-plots, intriguing back stories, etc.) eventually became liabilities, which, as you noted, basically made the whole X-universe impenetrable to outsiders (and even former insiders like me).

J.A. Morris said...

I agree with everything Karen posted about the characters’ convoluted backstories. I’ll add that Sabretooth has never done much for me. I couldn’t get too excited when an Iron Fist adversary suddenly became one of the most important X-villains.

I don’t want to sound like an old fogey, but I really think the book “went wrong” when Byrne and Austin quit. I can’t think of a single story from the past 30 year that’s as good or better than 108-143.

Being a little more charitable, I’d say the series REALLY went wrong when Paul Smith left. This opened the door for a series of mediocre artists whose depiction of the X-men sometimes made it physically painful to read the stories. The issue drawn by Smith(Brood,Silver Samurai,etc)weren’t great, but they looked cool . I can’t say that about the issues that followed his run.
The only story I’ve read since I quit collecting was Jos Whedon’s ‘Astonishing X-men’ run. My wife’s a Whedon-holic, so I just read her copies. Not a terrible story, but not great either. Spoiler alert: Colossus isn’t dead!

Dougie said...

I don't think Claremont was entirely at fault here, convoluted and self-referential though his stories were. we have to consider editorial/ marketing decisions and, frankly, weaker writers and concepts.
I was able to follow and enjoy X-men and New Mutants right up until 1985 or so. Granted, there were storylines that seemed to go on too long (the Brood!)and I wasn't very keen on Romita Jr. or his dubious costume designs.
For me, the problem really began with the Phoenix retcon, the uninspired X-Factor/Ghostbusters scenario and the Mutant Massacre. The situation was exacerbated by the annual crossovers during the mid-to-late 80s. The introduction of the likes of Longshot and Pyslocke- plus Claremont's eagerness to import their respective supporting casts-over-egged the pudding for me. Finally, while Geoff Klock's blog rates Silvestri highly,I really disliked his pencils.

dbutler16 said...

A couple of things stick out to me. One, which we've recently discussed, is the success of "Days of Future Past" which worked well as an isolated stand-alone tale, but when all of these alternate future timeline characters started popping up, and sticking around, in the mainstream X-Men's universe, I think that hurt the title. Another thing is the Morlocks. Well, not really. But, while I like the Morlocks, and certainly several of the individual characters, such as Caliban, I think that this idea that there were actually tons of mutants running around opened the floodgates to Marvel's saturation of mutants. OK, the Morlocks themselves aren't really to blame. They may not have had anything to do with the really problem here-too darn many mutants running around-but they were probably the first trickles of that impending flood. Also, Marvel simply milked the X-success too much. Too many mutants, too many titles (which also means some less talented creators are going to take over some of those titles). Edo mentioned strengths becoming liabilities, and I'd say angst is another such. The X-Men has always had its share of angst, but, like many other things in the X-Universe, it's become just too much.

Horace said...

J.A. Morris wrote:

"I don’t want to sound like an old fogey, but I really think the book “went wrong” when Byrne and Austin quit. I can’t think of a single story from the past 30 year that’s as good or better than 108-143."


jefsview said...

I have to agree to a certain point about Byrne/Austin's departure, since Byrne was a heavy co-plotter during his run. Claremont needed that second pair of eyes, as it were, and he didn't get it from the xpanding X-editors, who only wanted to franchise, franchise, franchise.

Madeline Pryor. Way to soon after Jean Grey's sacrifice on the moon. And why?

Then bringing a neutered Jean Grey back, so they could franchise X-Force. Thank you Kurt Busiek.

The Brood storyline did begin to ramble, but at least we received a powered up Carol Danvers, and the payoff, brillently rendered by Paul Smith, of Prof X attacking the New Mutants.

Then the sins began to pile up. Paul Smith left, JRjr came on, and then: Nimrod! Freedom Force! Selene! Good Guy Magneto with bad costume.

I peeked back in during Silvestri's Run, but it was very convoluted and all the x-titles were interconnected.

The X-verse was a mess, and then came Apocalpse and Cable and that was it. What a mess.

I did like Cockrum's second run, and loved the transition to Smith, but Jrjr just killed it for me, and Claremont was nuts by then.

Doug said...

I think it was apparent that the X-Men had gone south when I bought up many of the issues that I'd missed while out of comics in the early '80's... and never bothered to read them. I did get current around 1985 or so and followed the team through the first half-dozen issues of the Jim Lee series. But by then I'd long since become infuriated by the expansive list of characters, convoluted backstories (as has been mentioned several times), and the general explosion of crossovers, interwoven storylines, etc. that typified the 1990's.

On a side-note, it was a very similar set of circumstances that made the Spider-Man titles impenetrable as well.


ChrisPV said...

When Pheonix came back. I remember being so, so angry at them throwing Madeline Pryor under the bus like that, and you can tell it was an editorial thing. They wanted a book with the original five together, so the substitute Jean had to go. I liked Madeline, and bringing back Jean accomplished exactly zip.

Of course, I also get really grumpy about Shooter making Byrne and Claremont change their original Dark Phoenix plans, because that would've been epic. A real chance to delve into a character that hadn't had a lot of attention paid her beyond being Scott's girlfriend.

Now the X-Books do have some good stuff in them these days, but it's still a morass. My wife tried to get into comics a few years back, starting with the X-Men on the heels of the movies. Whenever she asked a question I would always sigh and deliver the same preface.

"It's complicated."

Edo Bosnar said...

Hmmm, I guess I should actually provide my answer to the question asked in the post's title; actually I find it's kind of tough to answer. I think everyone else here makes some really points.
Like I noted (with a few others) in another comment thread, a lot of "seeds of destruction" were planted while the series was still going really strong (Jean Grey's death - necessitating her unnecessary resurrection, Days of Future Past) and less strong but still readable (that Belasco/Limbo/Magik crap). And while I agree that nothing tops the original Claremont/Cockrum and then Claremont/Byrne/Austin run, I remained a committed reader until the end of Paul Smith's run as artist, and I think Smith's last issue was the last issue of X-men that I really enjoyed - despite the kind of creepy aspect of Cyclops marrying a Jean look-alike. So I think the last straw for me was when Storm was depowered. I stopped reading it regularly not long afterward.
By the way, dbutler makes an excellent point about the Morlocks. It was just way over the top having this whole community of hundreds of mutants living in abandoned tunnels below NY. I think it would have been cooler if the Morlocks were mainly just normal homeless people led by a few mutants.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I think the beginning of the end was the New Mutants, the first spin-off series and the start of “X-titles” totally flooding the market. When it was just one title, the creators were able to maintain a high standard. By the end of the decade the concept was being spread so thin across so many titles, I just couldn’t keep up.

The last nail in the coffin for me was X-Factor and the retconning of Jean Grey. The Dark Phoenix storyline was powerful because it seemed so final. Marvel teased for years about bringing her back but seemed to resist it. Then X-Factor came along and blithely said, nah, just kiddin’ about Jean Grey’s death. It was no more permanent than any other death in comics. It robbed the series of a lot of its integrity for me. I thought to myself: “If they don’t take this seriously, why should I?” After X-Factor #2, I never bought another X-men title.

In retrospect, I guess it was inevitable that the buzz of the early 80s X-Men wouldn’t last. The series was just too successful for Marvel not to try to exploit it more and more. Eventually they just went to the well too often. I am certain they figured they were just giving the fans what they wanted.

dbutler16 said...

"I think the beginning of the end was the New Mutants, the first spin-off series and the start of “X-titles” totally flooding the market. When it was just one title, the creators were able to maintain a high standard. By the end of the decade the concept was being spread so thin across so many titles, I just couldn’t keep up."

Inkstained wretch, I think I agree. This is prettty much what I was getting with part of my post. also, like you say, they were bound to try to capitalize, and went to the well once (or twice, or...) too often.

William said...

Great topic. I agree with almost everything everyone here has said on this subject.

Such as...

Claremont went way overboard with all the convoluted and wonky back stories and continuity.

Byrne was more than just the artist when he was on the book. He contributed a lot to the plotting, and the series suffered greatly when he left.

Bringing back Jean Grey was a mistake that weakened the franchise as a whole. (It would be like bringing back the "real" Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man).

However, I really think the major problem with the X-Men is the same problem with all long running comic books. They seem to get crushed under the weight of their own popularity.

We could basically ask the same question...

"Where did... Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Batman, Superman, etc. ... go wrong?"

I really can't think of one long running comic that is still as good as it was in it's prime. I think the problem is, that over the course of many years you get too many cooks in the kitchen and unfortunately not everyone is a master chef. All the bad ideas get folded into the history of the character(s) the same as the good stuff. Eventually you are left with a convoluted soup of ideas that requires an encyclopedia to understand.

Karen said...

Very interesting to read all the comments here. I never understood the reason for introducing Madeline Pryor. Claremont began incessantly teasing us about Jean, and of course, years down the road, Jean came back, and then they would have her die and come just became ridiculous. For some time the book seemed focused on that one event and everything had to relate to it. When she returned in X-Factor, it cheapened the whole Dark Phoenix saga, because the young woman who had struggled so valiantly and finally sacrificed herself was never Jean.

I also did not care for all the former enemies joining the team. That seemed to happen way too many times.

I do think that Byrne contributed a lot to the stories. That's the nice thing sometimes about a collaborative effort - it can keep everyone's worst impulses in check.

I recently read the whole Vulcan storyline, and it wasn't too hard for me to piece it all together, although I did shake my head at the idea of another Summers boy.

But I can't stand seeing Scott with that harlot now. That probably keeps me away from X-Men more than anything.


david_b said...


First off, I've never been an Xmen fan.. I do like Cyclops as a hero, and their guest in Cap&Falc, and I've read some of the vintage 60s reprinted stories. That being said, as an outside observer I totally agree your comment on their accumulated weight finally toppling them in the 80s.

With Wolvie, they obviously became 'the book' in the 80s, outpacing even the surging interest of Perez's Titans. I would agree that Claremont had built such a rich embellishment of the original characters (and new ones).

Post-Claremont? Seems like layers were added, but to what intent..? They seemed to lose direction.

I was shocked (like most) when Angel lost his wings and killed himself later, but the art by that time was way too sketchy and story way too convoluted for an 'uninformed' reader to actually pickup the book and enjoy it, much less care about it.

The inevitable result of too much depth.

ChrisPV said...

I think New Mutants was actually a good example of a spin-off done right. The characters were different and you rarely if ever needed to pick up the book to know what was going on in X-Men. Granted, I never cared much for them, but I didn't have to read them to understand the plot. That's where the books went wrong in the late 80's early 90's. Words cannot express how grumpy I am at owning any comic containing (ugh) Boom Boom just so I know what's up with Cyclops and Wolvie.

Terence Stewart said...

As many others have mentioned, it was the departure of Byrne - and his extensive co-plotting - that began the X-Men's steady decline (though not in sales, it appears).
I also hated the Jean Grey/Phoenix retcon. Thank you Mr Busiek. I wonder how different things might have been if the original concept for X-Factor, with Dazzler on the team instead of Jean, had gone ahead?

dbutler16 said...

Regarding Karen's comment about Madeline Pryor, my understanding is that Claremont intended for her and Cyclops to get married, retire from superheroing, and live happily ever after in Alaska as a normal couple. Obviously, that didn't happen, and it was naive of Claremont to think that Marvel would let a major character such as Cyclops simply retire from superheroing and never appear again.

Edo Bosnar said...

On the topic of Cyclops (and his retirement), in an ideal world, he would have stayed in Florida with Lee Forester, helping her run her fishing business, only occasional returning to action when absolutely necessary.

Fred W. Hill said...

For me, what went wrong with the X-Men was essentially what went wrong with a lot of Marvel titles in the mid-80s -- too many excessively convoluted stories that led nowhere and too many characters written out of character. Moreover, as it became clear that Marvel was going to ever greater levels to exploit the popularity of both the X-Men and Spider-Man, I just lost interest in trying to keep up with them.
Since then, I've really only collected comics (or paperback collections thereof) written by favorite authors, or occasionally those that catch my attention and have gotten favorable reviews, and which are pretty much self-contained (or minimal diversions into other titles).
Overall, I think Marvel really spread itself out far too much and as the company developed a reputation as a bully in the industry, I grew disgusted. It ceased to be a fun diversion.

Ram said...

Too manny mutants in the x-men, too manny mutants in the general population, too manny books. I think the problem with superhero comics is that they go on for ever, and that makes it impossible to keep up quality wise. In my opinion, I think stories have to come to an end and just make something new, fresh and different.

paul said...

To the extent that anything went wrong (and it did), I would say it wasn't what you cite - Magik was actually awesome, Corsair was OK, even the kind of creepy Amanda Sefton-Nightcrawler storyline wasn't bad - it was when Marvel started messing up Claremont's stuff. Now, they did this one time where it worked marvelously, and that was the first time - the Dark Phoenix ending. Every time after that, it was terrible. X-Factor and Jean's return should never have happened. What Marvel made of Maddy Pryor, and Inferno, should never have happened. What Louise Simonson (and later Rob Liefeld) did to New Mutants, should never have happened.

I for one would take Claremont's later X-stuff (say, post-200) over most anything that's come since. But still I admit it's not as good, for the most part, as the earlier stuff. But in saying that I think it's only fair to consider the context in which he was writing those stories. They had pulled his universe out from under him, and when he wrote, he now had to adjust to all this inferior work and these constraints imposed by the the company and other writers. What you saw in 94-180 (or whatever the glory years are - but I don't see how anyone can say the Paul Smith run wasn't right up there with the Byrne run) was a writer with near-total freedom. And even when there were constraints during that period, other X-books to deal with, they were Claremont's own - the Wolverine mini, Magik, New Mutants, etc. But once Jean Grey came back, the party was over. That remains the worst decision in Marvel history, to me. She ought to have been the X-universe's Gwen Stacy. Just stay dead.

paul said...

Also, concerning some earlier comments - I agree that the problems with the medium (and with the X-books in particular are)

-a proliferation of books and characters

-endless, open-ended storytelling where for financial reasons major characters can't be left for dead

-characters written out of character because they pass through so many hands

For me, the solution to this varies with various comic titles. For the X-books, I've considered that universe to begin at the beginning, and to "end" more or less at X-Men (vol 2) #3 - Claremont's last issue. Really though it could end at several various earlier points. And it ends at different points for different books. What Simonson came in and did to New Mutants still annoys me. She folded in a bunch of other characters, sent Magma to the bad guys, wrote out Magik and Cypher and Warlock and Moonstar (after Claremont at the end had written out Karma - which is why the New Mutants as we knew them pretty much were missing from the X-universe during the height of its popularity in the 90s). And Simonson wrote them all differently.

So I dunno. I acknowledge Stan Lee, Adams, Roth, Claremont, Byrne, Cockrum, even some Alan Davis and Annie Nocenti. I even like some of the early X-Factor (whatever my feelings about its existing in the first place). Larry Hama on Wolverine also had a nice thing going for a while. Everything else I just leave alone. Easier to pretend it never happened. And I more or less have my story that way.

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