By Claire Napier
Looking at X-Men #1 (1991) from 2020 doesn’t really make much difference. It is a fairly perfect comic, a fairly perfect example of superhero comics and of comics made by a team of people working together on a creative product they do not own. It was gorgeous and exciting then — it’s gorgeous and exciting now. It’s motivational I still want to know what’s next, even though I know what’s next, what comes after that, and that, and that. X-Men #1 (1991) makes me want to both read and make more comics, and to get dressed and go about in the world, being tremendous. After 29 years, after being and staying a record-breaker, X-Men #1 energises. It’s just so fit.
Tom Orzechowski is as good a place to start as any. There’s a lot of dialogue in this comic, which you don’t notice as a reader – entirely to his credit. Looking at a page without reading, sure: you can see it’s packed in. On page five, Lee hasn’t really left enough room in panel one for the dialogue to fit without interfering with either the reading line of the page as a whole or the details of this first panel. The speech bubbles would fit the panel best towards the bottom, but if they’re down there then they’ll be missed by someone who expects to start at the top — and that throws everything off-kilter. So they’re at the top, with a wonky cornered first balloon tail telling us the guy saying all this is so far down the panel that we have to skip into the gutter to get there quick enough.
I’m saying this because I flipped past this page and saw it — when I read this comic, I don’t see it. I just know a guy down there is talking, and I’m too interested in what he’s saying about this looming picture of Magneto to worry who or exactly where. The comic tells me in the next panel. Despite what he was working with, Orzechowski made this seamless. He has a good handle on when to add impact, too. A spiky bubble is different to a double-ringed bubble; a spiky bubble with a coloured, outlined word in it is different to a spiky one with regular lettering inside it. And these are different to a round bubble with a lightning tail, which is different to a round bubble with an unkinked tail. All of these choices “sound” different, and that difference adds its texture to the whole.
Jim Lee and Scott Williams combine their lines with a gleeful perfection. These pages are vibrant in composition but they’re so well measured in their nature as delineation that the most life on the page comes from their sheer chewiness. All the joy of a bag of penny sweets is here; perfectly rounded, perfectly solid spacesuit and armour technology more delicious than even Shirow’s perky vehicles — there’s the confident geometry of DragonBall meted out under an eye that knows what’s fit for purpose: something a little more po-faced, something with the seriousness that an American audience expects from its superheroes.
It’s round, no hard edges, so it looks jolly and accessible, but it’s high-detail, thick enough to batter someone with and essentially anatomically accurate, so it appeals to the vein of reader who expects a little Moore and Miller in their monthly fun. Joe Rosas’ colouring compliments these aspects of the linework beautifully, letting hatched shading stand on its own feel in areas of lesser focus, and amping up the impact of shadows though further addition of light and complimentary colours in places where the drama needs something extra. When shadows are applied by Rosas beyond those outlined by Williams and presumably Lee, they’re done softly and usually in warmer tones. More shadow (for adults), but less chill (to keep the kids).
He chose a bright, clean palette, vivid reds, and pinks, clear yellow and green, innately rich purple, and cool teal that nicely leans towards cement when it’s necessary. It’s a palette that’s fun and thematically moralistic, but retains maturity through the literal fact of what it’s colouring (frowning adults doing violence in rubble), unexcitable application and the dustier shades for scenes in rougher surroundings. It’s admirable for how little each colour has to fight with those that surround it. It’s pleasant to look at because of the confidence of choice.
Stylistic choices are saved for their necessary moments: when Rogue is hit by a missile, her whole body is coloured red. When she is not being hit by a missile, her skin is coloured a caucasian tone and her outfit is coloured green, brown and yellow. The colours are flat, not gradients, and non-digitally applied in their original form. They don’t fight the lines for attention, and brag no flair. They’re simply applied with judgement and balance. Shine is added to costumes through solid areas of brighter or darker colour. Every narrative object is easily told from that beside or behind it, whilst looking compelling in its own right. Every element in the image is coloured, but nothing stands out when it shouldn’t.
From the colour of the light it looks like summer, and the skies are clear. When they’re at home the air must be a pleasure to breathe. Gummy sweets in a bag: brightly coloured, responsively solid shapes. They all look good. They all seem lit from within. Adults and children alike will be tempted.
Everyone in this comic looks like they have a good time working out. Their bodies are adherent to the normative ideals of their genders, and everyone is incredibly handsome, but that’s just a baseline observation. These people look aerobically inclined, which is to say that their posture, positioning and attire is casually confident, springy and athletic. They look energetic, and like people who would have a good time playing basketball like they do in issue #3, hanging about around a pool like in the poster included in the back of this issue, or playing baseball — which the X-Men were famous for having used to do, by the later 90s and the 21st Century.
It was a complaint that fans would repeat: why don’t the X-Men play baseball any more? Well, did they look like they would enjoy baseball? Does Quietly’s Cyclops seem like the kind of guy who has fun saying “Hey, batter batter”? Do Bachalo’s X-men look as if they like to play sports, or like they enjoy brooding around corners from each other? What about Larocca’s, or Cassaday’s? These artists have different styles and those styles lend different physicality to the characters. These creators’ are all teams visually fit for other expressive downtime purposes. But Lee’s and Williams’? Those were X-Men who wore spandex and lycra because that’s what people wore when they loved the gym in 1991. This was the beginning of an era, and it established a team full of controlled flexibility and pep. Their gymnastics made such subliminal sense.
Rogue and Gambit, here — their first real interaction. This is a couple that will light a thousand fires and which remains firmly in play today, and looking at their first scenes it’s plain enough why there’d be the investment to keep creators and readers coming back for more. Their knees are bent, they’re both in motion but full control of their positioning. It looks like we caught them during the process of interaction. They point towards each other, the directions of their knees intersect, there’s a sexualised exchange and their faces are both both sassy and smiling. They’re not speaking to each other — Rogue is actually speaking to other people in the scene—but they’re communicating beyond the verbal. They’re negotiating an intimacy, here: he’s got her on the ass somehow and she’s both objecting (in principle?) and not objecting (he’s hot, and she’s safe). They dominate this page, despite appearing once, outweighing all the “in case you missed it… here’s the gist of these existing relationships and world building elements.” That’s great cartooning.
In real life, don’t hit a girl on the ass. In X-Men #1 (1991), do hit Rogue on the ass if you’re Gambit.
The greatest asset X-men #1 had was the existing history of the X-Men, and specifically that the majority of it was written by one man with a strong sense of personalities and the ability to get those onto pages via dialogue. There has to be respect given to the editorial oversight of Nocenti, Shooter, Simonson, etc; there has to be recognition given to the artists who collaborated to normal and greater extents. Chris Claremont did not make the X-Men on his own. Some of his ideas were bad. He never drew a page. But—
To have command of a vivid gallery of made-up people; to have command and full working knowledge of a vivid gallery of events, interactions and happenings… this was priceless. Image debut books tried to mimic the same set-up, an essentially cold open that relies not on the reader knowing what’s going on, but on a structure which has had things going on within it—on the author having full comprehension of the state of this world and therefore the resources to lean on—and all failed because they were empty. They didn’t have extant depth to rely upon and collapsed with the merest brush of an inquiring brain. You just can’t fake backstory. You have to either make it up, or have already made it up. X-Men #1 had so much backstory and so much facility with that backstory involved on every level of its narrative that you could lean an elephant on it. Or have Colossus try to demolish it. It’s rock steady.
There’s absolutely no need to read anything prior to this comic to understand or even submerge oneself in this comic. Absolutely none. It renders years prior not obsolete, but indelibly past and therefore both cleared away for the uninterested reader-from-here and more valuable for the treasure seeker: when you finally read Rogue in the Savage Land, or Storm in Genosha, Xavier in space or even Layton and Simonsson’s X-Factor, or anything that happened to these people earlier than this did, you’ll be enriched as a reader of those moments but additionally as someone who has read X-Men #1. You’ll gain new and deeper perspective on “what he would think of this” or “why she would argue that.” The emotional stakes, clearly and engagingly high here, just get higher the further back you go. And they’re high enough, and well enough established here, to serve as a peak that sustained itself for a good three years, even after the loss of the scripting guide-rail #1-#3 had in Claremont.
With X-Men #1 those involved found the perfect spot in the Venn diagram of target markets that the X-Men had, and they landed precisely within it. That spot hasn’t changed a lot since, though there’s a greater number of circles involved. For juvenile, for mature, for excitable, for dramatic, for new readers, for old and for investigative.
And god. Everybody’s hair looks so fucking good.
Written by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee
Drawn by Jim Lee
Inked by Scott Williams
Coloured by Jim Rosas
Lettered by Tom Orzechowski
Claire Napier is a writer and editor, and has been published by The Guardian, ComicsAlliance, and of course at WomenWriteAboutComics, for which she served as Editor in Chief for several years. You can find her on Twitter here, you can find her website here, and you can buy her comic Dash Dearborne here!
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