Back in 1991, a sexy pin-up tucked into X-Men #1 was the apex of comic book cool. Nowadays? It just stands for the systemic failings of the entire X-franchise. Plus: Colossus in a thong!
I love the X-Men. No, scratch that. I really, really love the X-Men. If it weren't for Wolverine chomping cigars and swilling Schlitz in the early 1990s, I would've never discovered The Authority or Cerebus or the works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Heck, if it weren't for Cable's Buick-sized latissimus dorsi and panoply of fanny packs, I wouldn't be into scifi in general.
Yes, the X-Men were my gateway drug to all things comic, and – in retrospect – what makes my love for Charles Xavier's merry mutants even more bizarre is that I became an X-fan during one of the most turgidly unreadable epochs in the franchise's history. I began reading soon after the Great Image Comics Flight of '92, when some unspoken editorial mandate required all X-foes to have names that sounded like Christian heavy metal bands (see: Stryfe, Reignfire, Threnody, Gideon and the Externals).
I was ten years old, so none of this nonsense fazed me. Until recently, I've dismissed the 90s as a goofy outlier in X-history, a lost decade between the sexed-up weirdness of the Chris Claremont 1980s and the pomo trappings of the Grant Morrison-Joss Whedon 2000s. Over the holidays, nostalgia compelled me to read 1991's X-Men #1 (a.k.a. the best-selling comic book ever) cover to cover, something I likely hadn't done since, like, 1991.
It wasn't as bad as I anticipated. Sure, Gambit talks like an imbecile clone of Johnny Hallyday and Nick Fury inexplicably resembles an S&M Outward Bound guide, but Jim Lee draws the most imposing Magneto I've ever seen. This is no small feat considering that Magneto dresses like an escapee from the Philadelphia Mummers Parade.
After finishing the comic (a solid B on my Nostalg-O-Meter, just behind NFL Superpro), I perused the bonus art crammed in the back of the book. One pin-up in particular caught my eye. Here it is, courtesy of Shirtless Superheroes:
Yes, here are the Blue and Gold teams, resplendently relaxing by the pool, Top Gun "Playing With the Boys" style. I initially laughed this off as just another example of early 90s cheesecake, but then a disturbing realization hit me – these 1991 X-Men could easily pass for the X-Men of 2010. This catalyzed an even more disturbing thought. Maybe the doofus 1990s X-Men weren't the outlier in the greater X-narrative. Maybe they were de rigueur.
I'd noticed some signs here and there: the lugubrious, multi-title crossovers (Messiah Complex, Utopia); serious writers (Mike Carey, Paul Cornell, Matt Fraction) suddenly taking not-so-serious characters seriously (respectively: Exodus, X-Man, Madelyne Pryor); Wolverine's yellow spandex, etc. But this! Ensconced in this almost 20-year-old doodle was all the chronic narrative asshattery that plagues the X-series to this day.
Item #1 – Psylocke Sunbathing
When I told my sister that I was writing an piece about the X-Men's beach blanket bingo, she waxed confused about one particular femme fatale. "I remember that picture. I never knew if Psylocke was wearing a bathing suit or her normal costume," she mused. "Yup, they were pretty much interchangeable."
Superhero fan service is nothing new, but what kills me about the X-franchise is this: here is the superteam in which the majority of the interesting, powerful characters are female, and more often than not they simply stand around looking skimpy and/or dying.
I'm not saying that women prefer reading comic books with women in them per se (indeed, this seems to be the thrust of 2010's "Marvel Women" event). What strikes me about the X-franchise is the endemic failure to give these established female characters marquee roles. Sure, the interplay between Emma Frost and Kitty Pryde was central to Joss Whedon's Astonishing run, but what about the rest? Why aren't we seeing Storm - arguably the most famous X-woman - yukking it up on an Avengers squad? Rogue's losing her powers every other week. I have no idea what Psylocke's up to, but chances are her ass is showing. Matt Fraction may be giving Pixie panel time in Uncanny, but her status as a new student introduces a host of new problems...
Item #2 - Jubilee's Peter Pan Syndrome
At one point, Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters had a stellar graduation rate. The first class became the original X-Factor. The New Mutants became X-Force. Then Generation X died or faded into obscurity. X-Force paradoxically became the New Mutants again. Most of the "new" New X-Men died gruesomely. Seeing a trend here? In the mid-90s, new enrollees at Xavier's became the equivalent of Star Trek's red shirts.
It's bad enough that most of the X-kids ended up in the narrative abattoir, but it's a less cruel fate than those students who survive - they're doomed to slum around Xavier's forever like college freshmen who hang out at their old high school. The Avengers don't want them. The Defenders don't want them. Heck, the New Warriors couldn't sustain a title mostly comprised of X-rejects. By dint of being ex-X-kids, they cannot transcend being ex-X-kids. Barring Kitty (the eternal outlier), they've become ossified as immortal teenagers. Jubilee in 1991 = Jubilee in 2010. She can never grow up.
Item #3 – The Thong of Colossus
Item #4 – Wolverine's Denim Shorts
In 1991, we knew Wolverine was a bad-ass because he wore Levi's cut-offs. Sure, he looks totally stupid to modern readers, but remember Axl Rose was unironically wearing spandex bike shorts in the 90s.
In 2010, Wolverine is still wearing denim cut-offs, albeit metaphorically. He's ostensibly Marvel's Grand Poobah of badassitude, but since then he's become the establishment. Others mutants have since filled his niche. Cyclops is icing people in X-Force. His son Daken is a morally ambiguous Dark Avenger. His clone X-23 is a deranged killing machine. And Wolverine? He's just that unhip old dude in selvage thigh-highs, still trying to remember his past.
In summation, perhaps I'm being alarmist. Perhaps Warren Ellis will explode the status quo in next month's issue of Astonishing X-Men when he gives Logan an Adamantium Prince Albert or something. Perhaps the sight of Colossus in a thong drove me permanently insane. All I know is that my beloved X-franchise can do better. To paraphrase James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, "Homo superior, I love you, but you're bringing me down."