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X-MEN Marks the Spot

The public scorns comic books as "funny books" and "kid stuff." This attitude pervades our pop culture. Even those who supposedly love comics parrot this belief.

As an example, here's a note about Black Scorpion, a new television series on the Sci-If channel. From the LA Times, 2/20/01:

[Co-creator Roger Corman] insisted the show have broad commercial appeal. Hence, the cool cars, chase scenes, special effects, constant action and tiny outfits.

"It's a little T&A, but only a little," said Bonnie Hammer, the network's general manager. "It's meant to be comic book in style. It's not meant to be a serious, profound experience."

Is that all comics are? I've debated the mighty Khan before (Review of PEACE PARTY #1, Indian Comics:  Art vs. Propaganda, Whither Comics After the X-Movie?) on what makes great comics. He and I disagree fundamentally about the answer.

I say what makes great comics is quality, broadly defined: heroes who act and age like real people, deeper subjects and themes (race, politics, religion), an awareness of the world's sociocultural complexity. The critically acclaimed comics of the last 50 years—Eisner's graphic novels, MAUS, WATCHMEN, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, SANDMAN, KINGDOM COME, ASTRO CITY, MARVELS, NEW TITANS, NEW MUTANTS, Miller's DAREDEVIL, the O'Neil/Adams GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW and BATMAN, Kirby's Fourth World series, etc.—all prove my point. Marvels's breakthrough comics—FANTASTIC FOUR, SPIDER-MAN, AVENGERS, etc.—also prove my point, since they were the quality comics of the Silver Age. Even the Golden-Age SUPERMAN and BATMAN prove my point, since they were better than the pulp fiction that spawned them.

Or as I put it to Khan:

Clearly you haven't caught on how simple my argument is, how easily I can prove it, and how impossible it is for you to disprove it. I'm not saying quality is necessary to sell, or quality sells better than anything else. I'm saying quality can and will sell along with everything else.

There are quality books in every era and they all prove my case. EC's horror comics were better than the 1950s competition. SUPERMAN was better than the pulp fiction of 1938. Heck, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were better than the contemporaneous detective fiction.

Consider one case: The Lee/Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR was quality compared to the '60s DC formula. It sold like hotcakes because it was way better than CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, SEA DEVILS, or similar fare. It sold because of its relatively sophisticated themes, plots, and characters. The first black superhero...the Surfer as Christ figure...the first Indian character..."This Man, This Monster"...the first superhero wedding and childbirth...to name just five examples.

Quality sells, again and again and again. I'm amazed you think you can even touch this argument.

I've used Chris Claremont's X-MEN as a prime example of my thesis because it's achieved popular as well as critical acclaim. It's proved, in other words, that quality sells. That comics don't have to be about mad scientists, busty babes, and spandex to succeed. I've said my goal is to make PEACE PARTY like the X-MEN of old: a mass-market bestseller that appeals to adults and kids both.

Naturally, Khan disagrees. He claims X-MEN's success is due to the cool powers and costumes and Wolverine's claw-popping—what he calls the surface elements. He says comics are a fanboy's medium and success requires appealing to their juvenile whims. He believes Erik Larsen is the greatest creator today because Larsen does exactly that.

Rather than continue to exchange opinions (my correct ones for his incorrect ones), I thought I'd seek some confirmation. I asked several correspondents the following:

In a sentence or two, what would you attribute the success of the All-New, All-Different X-Men series (1975-present) to?

The answers

I'd have to attribute its success to the overall quality of the storytelling and artwork. That, coupled with the fact that everyone can identify in their own way, whether they be black, white, short, fat, bald, etc., to the plight of the mutants who are persecuted simply for what they are.

Ron Fattoruso, comic book artist

At the time, the X-Men, being "all new" and "all different," represented a shift away from the rather ho-hum consortium of heroes still dominating comics (the all-white, all-WASPish Fantastic Four, the mostly-white Avengers, the barely-diverse Justice League, etc.). Only the Legion of Super-Heroes offered more diversity (but most of them were just white folks colored with a different primary color). I think the ethnic diversity, now a cliche among comic book teams, was a major factor in the initial appeal of the Uncanny X-Men's relaunch. Of course, good art (first Dave Cockrum, fresh from Legion of Super-Heroes, then wunderkinder John Byrne) and a character-driven, if convoluted, storytelling style and voice (pure Chris Claremont), helped keep readers, once they were attracted to the book.

I think overanalyzing it is a mistake—Leonard Nimoy, commenting on Star Trek: The Next Generation, said you "can't capture lightning in a bottle TWICE." The success of ST:TNG might disprove his hypothesis, but generally speaking, he's right. Sometimes all of the pieces just fall into place, as in the case of Star Trek, Star Wars, and the Uncanny X-Men. Later work by Roddenberry, Lucas, Claremont, and Cockrum, couldn't compare to the greatness they achieved on their seminal works (though Byrne has arguable matched or exceeded his work on X-Men with Fantastic Four and Superman).

Some of the elements which stand out, in my mind, as a fan of those early X-Men issues: characters die (Thunderbird, Jean Grey, Phoenix); religion is not only not ignored, but addressed (Nightcrawler's Catholicism, Wolverine's atheism, Kitty Pryde's Jewish heritage & faith); characters argued amongst themselves (though the FF pioneered this "technique" in comics); Wolverine (nuff said); and strong female characters (a Claremont trademark, including Moira McTaggart, Storm, Kitty Pryde, and Jean Grey/Phoenix/Dark Phoenix).

Oh, and cool costumes.

Steve Bates, comic book retailer

I believe the appeal of the 1975 X-Men team is to young people who as teens feel they too are isolated and fighting against enormous odds in their own personal quests to be understood.

Bill Foster, comic book historian

All clear, Khan? How many different ways do I have to say it? I win this debate. You lose.

More support for mature, quality comics
Here, Khan-Boy, read the following excerpt from the Dallas News:

Comics Crusade:  TV and Film Writers Return to Their First Love

Richard Neal, owner of Zeus Comics in Dallas, says this represents an established trend in the comic-book industry.

"Our audience is so well-read that they follow writers ... [and] art teams" rather than following characters, Mr. Neal says. "Our hottest-selling titles are by well-known writers," he says, and much of their work is aimed at adults.
"Everything they touch is gold," he says, referring to these big-name comic-book creators, "because everything they do is good work."

This may be new news to you, since you get your knowledge of comics from someone named "Cloffo." It's old news to me. I've been telling you for two years that the market for adult readers is substantial and that good writers and writing sells.

Finally, you can read it in black and white and alleviate your profound ignorance. And not a moment too soon. Writers like Kevin Smith are the hottest, "realest" talents in comics, not hacks like Erik Larsen.

And remember when I claimed the average age of comic book readers was 17-18? I was off by several years. As you may have read in The Disappearing Comic Book, "The average reader, a 12-year-old in the '50s and a 20-year-old in the early '90s, is now 25."


Next time you and Cloffo decide catering to fanboys is the only way to succeed, I suggest you buy a clue to reality. Neither of you knows jack about the comic book industry, judging by your complete ignorance of the above fact.

Good thing you quit comics so you could work on products at your level of maturity: spinoffs of Black Scorpion and the like. Keep dreaming your little school-boy fantasies while I write stories for the mature half of the market (readers 25 and up), two-thirds of the market (readers 18 and up), or three-fourths of the market (readers 15 and up).


P.S. If anyone wants to e-mail me their answer to the X-Men question above, I'll add it to this page.

More on the X-Men
Another "Native" actor discovered
The problem with Moonstar
Most popular (Native) X-Men
Chris Claremont's Indians
Warpath kills for X-Force
Silver Fox in Wolverine movie
Poll on Marvel's Native superheroes
Some talk about Moonstar
Danielle Moonstar:  Mutant no longer

Related links
Multiculturalism in the X-Men
Thunderbird in the comics
The future of comics

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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