Are there too many X-Men? Do the writers need to just stop with creating new characters? My friend Justin Alba thinks so. Me, I’m not too sure!
Justin’s argument basically boils down to this:
- The newer characters just don’t have the depth of character or fan following to make them attractive to readers
- The level of character created just doesn’t live up to the standards of the greats of yesteryear (particularly the Claremont era)
Is Justin right in these claims?
The themes of the X-Men
If there’s any franchise that should be ever-changing, it’s the X-Men. The central principle of X-Men is evolution – meaning the comics should always celebrate change. Just look at their history. It was a relaunch – with the release of Giant-Size X-Men #1 – that meant they hit the big time, and one of their most famous members debuted as a Hulk villain. When Marvel ranked the 50 greatest X-Men of all time, the results were fascinating – sure, the decisions were pretty arbitrary, but the characters came out of the timeline like this:
- 12 characters from the 1960s
- 9 characters from the 1970s
- 14 characters from the 1980s
- 9 characters from the 1990s
- 6 characters from the 2000s
The results of our own Best of the X last year were somewhat similar in terms of spread.
Now, you do see strong evidence of the Claremont Era here – the guy made characters perhaps better than any comic writer ever! But realistically, you also see a lot more strong characters than just Claremont-written. And frankly even some of Claremont’s best are, surprisingly enough, so popular today because of what went after him. At the height of his popularity, what were Gambit’s key plotlines? The Thieves’ Guild? Belladonna? Romance with Rogue? Sure, some of these were ideas Claremont toyed with, but they were all developed after his creative differences with Marvel led to his leaving the X-Men. I’m currently working on a Gambit series for Comic Book Herald, and I was amazed to realise that!
My point is this: the X-Men have always stood for evolution, and they’ve always been successful at it. In every decade, a new group of mutants has arisen who’ve captured the hearts and minds of fans across the world. The 1960s had the original X-Men; the 1970s hit big-time with Giant-Size X-Men; the 1980s introduced us to the New Mutants, with Cannonball and Cable making Marvel’s list, and also made a hero out of Rogue; the 1990s had still fan-loved Generation X… And I’ll come to the 2000’s below, because six names from one-and-a-half decades is just pretty shocking, frankly.
The problem is, the comics industry doesn’t know when to let go. Take the example of Cyclops; Claremont had him married off with a kid, and intended to ‘retire’ him so he only popped up every now and again in big events. But, because he’s a popular character, Marvel drew Scott back in, no matter what damage they did to his character.
And this is where it gets awkward. In order to create compelling new characters, you have to focus on them; and in order to do so, you have to move your old-school fan-favourites out of the limelight. When composing a team, you have to pick at least one member who’s original, or else little-used, and work them into your plotlines in an organic way. Kind of like Joss Whedon did with Armor back in Astonishing X-Men. And let me ask you another question: who are the big leaders of the X-Men? Right now, the contenders are Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, and Kitty Pryde (maybe Havok, if you count Uncanny Avengers). Of these leaders, the ‘newest’ character debuted in 1980. So what happened to all the potential leaders of the last thirty years?
The simple fact is this: there’s a reason Wolverine, Storm and Nightcrawler are more developed than Anole, Pixie, and Mercury. It’s because we consistently spend more time with them. It’s because the writers consistently put more effort into them.
Sometimes the lack of effort shows – I’m sorry, but Jason Aaron thinks of characters called ‘Eye-Boy’ and ‘Shark-Girl’? Sure, that’s probably a manifestation of his sense of humour, but you only create one-dimensional concepts like that if you intend to flesh them out and make them multi-dimensional. Of course, good writing can add something to even the worst concept – Pixie started out as a walking cliché (a friendly little Pixie, complete with wings and pixie dust), and wound up linked to Limbo, wielding a Soul Dagger, and at times kicking some serious @$$. But that kind of development has been the exception, and not the norm.
Will Marvel take the chance?
In spite of this, a lot of the newer X-Men are absolutely blazing with potential. Here at Mahmusecomics we did a series of articles focused on ‘A New Breed of X-Men’, young mutants whose potential is so remarkable. People like:
- Husk, of Generation X (who appears in Marvel’s top 50 X-Men), brimming with the potential to discuss issues of identity
- Hellion, the arrogant telekinetic who could really do with fleshing out
- Indra, who may or may not have spiritual ties and who struggles with his family’s faith
- O5 Jean Grey, who stands in the spotlight of ANXM
- Transonic, of the forgotten Generation Hope, rich in potential as an outsider looking into the world of mutants
- X-23, who, to be fair, Justin recognises as standing tall and proud among the latest generation of X-Men
- Elixir, a walking exploration of yin and yang (and apparently due to return soon)
- Blindfold, the brilliant but unstable precog who so won us over in X-Men: Legacy
- Tempus, the latest manifestation of Brian Bendis’ fascination with time-travel and star of this year’s Uncanny X-Men Annual
- Magik, tied to Limbo and dangerously unstable
- Hope Summers, who was such a big deal and now is criminally under-developed
- Benjamin Deeds, perhaps the ultimate mutant spy
The only reason these characters aren’t standing alongside the greats is because, with the exceptions of X-23 and O5 Jean Grey, the writers just haven’t written them to do so. Part of the issue was Schism, which resulted in the entire neXt generation of X-Men being put back in the bottle, away from the limelight, because of Wolverine’s philosophy that kids shouldn’t be on the front lines. In hindsight, the choice of divide between Cyclops and Wolverine may have been a bit of a mistake.
There are promising signs. Brian Wood, who sadly is leaving the X-Men comic, has tried to make some of these kids more than just wallpaper. Jason Latour has attempted to actually use and develop characters in Wolverine & the X-Men, although his writing hasn’t really drawn me in. And Brian Bendis is so focused on some of his original characters that he’s focusing an entire annual on Eva. The forthcoming Death of Wolverine arc may mean we cast our gaze away from the Canucklehead for a while, especially as Axel Alonso is repeatedly insisting that Marvel have “no exit strategy” for this.
So, in conclusion, no more mutants? Well, it’s a good job friends don’t mind having different opinions!
My answer is: yes and no. Yes, Marvel should stop creating more mutant wallpaper; but no, that doesn’t mean we should just go back to the Claremont stars. Marvel should start recognising that they have a wealth of potential, that one of these characters could be the next Wolverine, and the only thing holding them back – is Marvel.