To me, my X-Men!

13 Jul

By Ayo

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X-Men, No. 1
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Pub. Marvel Comics, Sept. 1963
Purchase digital copy

Billed as “The Strangest Super-Heroes of All!,” the X-Men appeared in late 1963 as another off-beat invention of the insurgent Marvel Comics, once again blowing holes in the very notion of what a comics magazine is about. Rooted in postwar American existential fear and in the midst of the Atomic Age, the X-Men (also billed as being in the style of the runaway hit Fantastic Four) sought to be an even more daring conceptual piece. Ultimately, series creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would abandon the X-Men, focusing their energies around their first baby, the Fantastic Four–but until that time comes, the X-Men are part of the Lee-Kirby freight train of exploratory fiction ideas.

Most people are familiar with the X-Men as an allegory for the civil rights struggles in the U.S. but the reality of the text is that this comic concept is purely about the post-nuclear world. Professor Xavier’s parents were nuclear scientists. It is strongly suggested that mutants developed from radiation from the age of the Second World War. The theme of the X-Men is fittingly pacifism. Or, pacifism through violence. The objective stated is that these irradiated teenagers are being trained to use their abilities to protect people. When they do that, they are instantly thanked. Stan Lee was already exploring the persecuted superhero with The Amazing Spider-Man from the year previous (created with cartoonist Steve Ditko). With X-Men #1, Lee’s attention seems to have drifted back toward the superhero as beloved helper-figure.

As the characters in this comic book are all white, and Xavier only alludes to having been feared as a youth, the discrimination allegory is not in play: the Stan Lee X-Men is what you may recognize as Grant Morrison’s New X Men. Sidebar: I watched a video of Lee and Morrison on a panel and Morrison correctly zeroed in on Lee’s initial concept of a comic about cultural progress, generational advancement and futurism. Lee, naturally shrugged his shoulders. Anyway:

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Behold, the worst panel that I have ever seen in a Jack Kirby comic! This brings back memories. I first read this comic book as a preteen and sure enough, this panel is pure triumph of miscommunication. Lee and Kirby worked in a method in which Stan Lee had an idea which consisted of about a typed page of synopsis. Jack Kirby would draw the entire comic book issue based on that synopsis, but to his own artistic instincts. Kirby had the freedom of a film director, making the story his own. After this, Stan Lee would add the dialogue based on what Kirby had drawn. This is a clear point in which somebody’s eye was off the ball.

xoxoxoxoxoxo

In this comic, we meet Professor X, Magneto, the X-Men and Marvel Girl. There is no Apocalypse, Wolverine is still over a decade from being created, Rob Liefeld hasn’t been born, and Magneto isn’t a rounded, fleshed out villain yet. The plot is simple: Professor X wants his specially trained good mutant students to beat up evil mutants and here comes one now!

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One thing that I dislike about Marvel comic books and DC Fourth World comic books is the modern cartoonists’ inability to capture the raw physicality of Jack Kirby’s characters. Take Henry McCoy, the Beast for example. There is a beautiful sequence in X-Men #9 which blew my mind. Beast was created because Jack Kirby himself was a physical man. He understood bodies in motion and bodies in collision. He was a soldier and before that, a street fighter. From the lessons that he applied to his art, I would surmise that he was a pretty damn good one. Nobody making comic books today would even think in these terms:

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Beast’s superhuman strength is taken for granted by comic writers and artists these days. According to my trading cards (shut up!) he should be able to lift tons. But super strength isn’t even mentioned here, it doesn’t seem as though Kirby (or Lee) had considered him to be super strong yet. He would have to be in order to hold a moving missile in place, but his strength was certainly an afterthought. Beast was mostly an extremely agile person who had dexterity with his feet as well as his hands. Yet, I would guess that he was Kirby’s favorite character in this book.

The fact that the Beast looks like Kirby is likely no accident. Kirby seems to have modeled his brute characters after himself. Even Ben Grimm the Thing and Bruce Banner the Hulk seem to have some Kirby resemblance.

Another character in X-Men who works well only under Kirby’s hand is Warren Worthington III, the Angel. This guy has wings and he can fly. Modern writers don’t know what to do with him. So they tore his wings off and gave him cybernetic RAZOR SHARP KNIFE WINGS THAT SHOOT KNIVES. Jack Kirby just created a dude who could fly and he made that visually and conceptually interesting enough.

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Cyclops and Marvel Girl, while not specifically creatures of Kirby’s strongest suits, since their abilities are less about physical exertion, are thematically closest to the core of what this post-atomic-bomb comic book is about. The power to blow things up by looking at them. The power to unravel the natural order of things with a thought. Marvel Girl moves objects by thinking about it, Cyclops overwhelms bodies or solid metal walls just by looking at them. He can even cancel out an invisible force field.

The theme of fear is a part of X-Men at its core. While the acrobatic Beast or the loop-de-looping Angel might delight a crowd of onlookers, it’s pretty obvious how a girl who can move things with an unseen force or a boy who can shatter steel with his eyes would inspire less admiration and more abject terror.

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xoxoxoxoxoxo

While Magneto is the most recognizable enemy of the X-Men, in this first episode, he appears as only a stock villain. “The Miraculous Magneto!” His defining qualities are his boastful pride and his lovely penmanship.

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While the X-Men concept has grown significantly more naturalistic, I feel a lot of affection for this original iteration of the idea. It is thematically stronger than what we have. Teenaged weapons of mass destruction who are taught by a pacifist teacher. The year was 1963, the perfect time to suspect that someone born in the forties just might be a little bit different. That the then-mysterious forces of atomic power may have had some unforeseen effect that our science had yet to discover.

It probably gave a kid back then something to think about for a while.

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