By Austin Gorton
The X-Men failed.
It may be hard to imagine that today, in a world where an entire line of X-Men titles led Marvel Comics in sales throughout the 80s and the 90s, inspiring a handful of popular animated series, dozens upon dozens of action figures, and a successful film franchise, and continue to be published to general critical and commercial success to this day.
But in the 1960s, the X-Men were effectively also-rans. Born amidst the same big bang of creativity that led to the creation of the modern Marvel Universe, the X-Men were peers of Spider-Man, the Avengers, and Daredevil and, like so many of those peers, were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. But while Lee and Kirby would craft some of the most seminal tales of comic’s Silver Age in the pages of series like Fantastic Four and The Mighty Thor, neither creator seemed to bring their A-game to X-Men. The early X-Men stories they crafted were workmanlike affairs, with repetitious plots, limited characterization, and repeated use of stock tropes. By issue #12, Kirby was simply contributing layouts, leaving the pencil work to other artists. By issue #20, both he and Lee were off the book entirely.
At that point, X-Men became a proving ground of sorts for Stan Lee’s protege, Roy Thomas. But Thomas’ stories suggest a writer wishing he was working on another book, and after he left, the series slipped into a rut of rotating creative teams and directions. Eventually, Thomas returned, at that point bringing the groundbreaking artist Neal Adams with him. The result: the best X-Men stories of the 1960s. Readers noticed. Sales increased. But it was too late. Issue #66 would be the last issue of X-Men, a rare defeat for characters of their vintage.
But the sales of those late-run Thomas/Adams issues were presumably enough to convince Marvel to keep the title around, in a way. Nine months after issue #66 was published, X-Men #67 followed it onto the stands, beginning a run in which the book reprinted earlier issues of the series. During this time, the X-Men also made guest appearances in other title – one of them, Beast, graduated to a solo feature in Amazing Adventures. And so the X-Men muddled along, living an existence of one-off appearances and reprints. Until the publication of Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975.
Born of a desire to create a more international team of heroes, with Roy Thomas suggesting making those heroes X-Men, a new group of characters debuted in Giant-Size X-Men #1. These new X-Men help to rescue the old X-Men, and the issue ends with a question: what are we going to do with thirteen X-Men?
X-Men #94 answers that question. It also kicks wide the opening made by Giant-Size X-Men #1, beginning the X-Men’s transition from Silver Age leftovers to more sophisticated and nuanced modern heroes, in large part by entrusting them to the care of the creator who would guide their adventures for the next sixteen years: Chris Claremont. Claremont would take the job and run with it, contributing to every issue of X-Men through issue #279. Claremont’s long run, working alongside a veritable Who’s Who of some of comics greatest artists, would be defining.
It is remembered particularly for the way it centers the characters in the series’ narrative. There are all the usual comic book high adventure and sci-fi trappings, but Claremont also cares about the characters, and makes readers care about them too. The new X-Men – Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler amongst them – quickly became known to readers as Logan, Ororo, Piotr, and Kurt. Their personal lives and interpersonal struggles became as important as the villains they fought and the death traps they escaped. That forthcoming transition, from high concept, done-in-one Silver Age-style storytelling to more complex serialized narratives grounded in the characters and their relationship with each other, is represented in X-Men #94.
The issue is split roughly in half. The first part is where Claremont really shines, and starts to develop the approach he’ll take to the series going forward. After dealing with the question of what to do with thirteen X-Men (which is: most of the original ones decide to leave, as does the literally hot-headed Sunfire), the issue proceeds to help readers become more familiar with these new characters via a series of character interactions. Outside of training sequences inside the X-Men’s Danger Room, there is little comic book action on display. Instead, the drama comes from the characters.
Right from the start, Claremont sets the tone, opening the issue with the words “it begins…with an ending – and, perhaps, the breaking of a man’s heart” on the opening splash page. The image, rendered in detail by Dave Cockrum and Bob McLeod, features Professor Xavier’s face in the center of the page, the X-Men reflected in a mirror and arrayed on a stairway such that the eye of the reader follows them from the credits down to Xavier. All are posed so that their faces take up most of the page’s space. The plot being depicted is the departure of the original X-Men (save for Cyclops), but the focus of the narrative, the combination of the words and the art, is on how this makes Professor X feel.
This focus continues. In the subsequent five pages Colossus is shown to be uncertain; Sunfire departs in a huff; Banshee is cajoled into staying with the team; Iceman and Wolverine nearly come to blows; and Cyclops bids goodbye to Jean Grey, torn between his devotion to the X-Men and to the love of his life. Later, we see Thunderbird angrily chafing against his own limitations, desperate to prove himself, and Storm quietly supporting him despite his raw brashness. After that sequence, Nightcrawler quietly checks on Cyclops in the face of his argument with Thunderbird, making sure he is alright. Right from the start, Claremont establishes that these characters are people, not just automatons carrying out the edicts of the plot.
Because the plot is so straightforward at this point of the issue (“the new X-Men train”), Claremont has plenty of room to work. And being the scripter of the issue, he has more control over the dialogue. He uses that to his advantage, developing unique voices for each of his characters. Claremont, for all his contributions to the X-Men, will also, over time, be mocked for his tendency to give characters phonetic accents and repeated turns of phrases (such as Cannonball’s “ah’m nigh invulnerable when blastin’!” or Psylocke’s repeated declaration of how her psychic knife is the focused totality of her psychic powers). Yet those tics and tropes are an outgrowth of the way Claremont uses dialogue to develop character. Under the best circumstances, Claremont’s dialogue could be separated from the art, and it would still be clear which character was speaking what lines. While that kind of development requires multiple sequential issues to succeed, the beginnings of that skill can be seen in this issue, from Banshee’s easygoing drawl to Storm’s regal diction to Thunderbird’s use of dismissive nicknames for his teammates.
The second half of the issue functions more like the kind of stories found in X-Men before its earlier cancellation. It depicts the capture of the NORAD missile base in Cheyenne Mountain by Count Nefaria, a cape-and-monocle-wearing member of the “Maggia” (Marvel’s version of the Mafia). Powerless himself, he is leading a group of super-villains called the Ani-Men, each of whom resembles a different humanoid animal with on-the-nose codemans like “Dragonfly” and “Croaker”. They infiltrate the base when one of the soldiers inside receives a remote control in the mail with a note on the button that reads “push me” (the soldier then pushes the button). Nefaria’s goal is neither personal nor terribly complex: he hopes to use his control of the base and its missiles to extort money. X-Men #94 is also not the first time the X-Men have dealt with Nefaria; the original X-Men had faced him before, when he was leading a different group of super-villain stooges and held the US government hostage under a giant, impenetrable dome.
The new X-Men learn of Nefaria’s attack from one of the old team’s members, Beast, who is now serving as an Avenger. They spring into action, and the issue concludes, after Nefaria shoots the X-Men’s plane out from under them, with the team plummeting to the Earth.
It’s a standard comic book ending, one familiar to readers at the time. But because of the work done by Claremont in the first half of the issue, there’s more than the usual “how will the heroes get out of this jam?!?” in the response to the cliffhanger. Readers are still primed to come back for the next issue, as all good cliffhangers are designed to do, but now, it’s not just to find out what happens next in the story, but to find out what happens to the characters. Will Cyclops’ efforts to mold the new X-Men into a cohesive team pay off? Will Wolverine cause more problems than he solves for his new teammates? Will Thunderbird find a way to meet the impossible standards he’s set for himself? Readers will come back, but for the characters as much as for the plot.
In that way, X-Men #94 is a watershed issue. Beyond introducing the new X-Men as the X-Men, moving them into the old team’s publishing slot and affirming them as the mutants of record going forward, it marks the inflection point in the series between the Silver Age and the Modern Age. Plotted like a classic Silver Age adventure, with a dramatic villain motivated by base desires leading a team of colorful henchmen that requires the heroes to intervene to save the world. But by taking time to show the characters as individuals with thoughts, feelings, and agency while using dialogue to help support their development into distinctive people readers will come to care about, and not just as square-jawed doers of good who oppose the villains because that’s what the plot requires, the issue rises above its plot. In doing so, X-Men #94 marks the beginning of the X-Men as they’re known today in more ways than one.
X-Men #94: The Doomsmith Scenario!
Writer: Chris Claremont
Plotter-Editor: Len Wein
Artist: Dave Cockrum
Inker: Bob McLeod
Colorist: Rachel Rachelson
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Austin Gorton can be found reviewing the X-Men, one issue at a time, on his website The Real Gentlemen of Leisure and co-hosting the A Very Special Episode podcast. Follow him on Twitter here.
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Well written essay!
Good summary of X-Men before this issue. Good focus on how Claremont changed the game with this issue.
Thanks, also, for linking to my essay on Giant-Size X-Men #1! I appreciate it.
Oh, and I always loved those Ani-Men characters. Cockrum really knew how to design eye-catching characters.