CONSIDERING THERE WAS A TIME in the early 1990s when Marvel’s top mutant titles regularly outsold all books by all other publishers combined, it seems hard to believe that Stan Lee once had to sell the idea of a mutant-powered superhero team to his bosses. He was told that his team, which he tentatively titled The Mutants, would never fly. So Lee changed the name to The X-Men (the letter “X” being the symbol for something unknown or unexplainable) and hoped for the best.
You can guess what happened after that.
Comics have always featured characters born with certain unique abilities, but the concept of using genetic mutation as an explanation for these powers began with this book, yet another product of the fertile relationship between Lee and comic-book legend Jack Kirby.
As Professor Charles Xavier explains to young Jean Grey in the first issue, mutants are people born with exceptional abilities that they must learn to control if they are to live in peace with normal humans. A powerful telepath, Dr. Xavier — known as “Professor X” to his students — uses his own mutant abilities to find young mutants in need of training. If he seemed stern at times with his pupils, he had good reason — he knew that powerful, evil mutants were eager to recruit the youngsters to their side, and he was determined to show that humans and mutants could live together in peace.
It was a powerful message… and an entirely appropriate one, given the turbulent decade in which The X-Men first appeared. Unfortunately, the earlier issues tended to focus on rote superheroics, and the title remained a second-tier book for most of the 1960s. (In fact, it was reprinting earlier stories — a sure sign of impending cancellation — when a new creative team revived the series in 1975.)
Still, X-Men #1 belongs on any list of the century’s greatest comics for several reasons. First, it was the beginning of what would become one of the most detailed story arcs ever created in comic literature. Over the run of their series — and the numerous spinoffs the title has produced — the X-Men writers have created characters, locations, and stories rarely matched anywhere else in their detail and complexity.
Second, the concept of teenagers being treated as equals in the superhero business was still a new one, and this book had an entire team of them. In an added twist, the writers soon established the fact that young mutants discovered their powers at the onset of puberty, furthering the connection between the heroes and their readers, many of whom were going through big changes themselves.
Third, the concept of mutation was one that had resonance in the early 1960s — science-fiction stories from the 1950s and ’60s regularly discussed the horrible effects of nuclear radiation, and presenting mutants as both heroes and villains was a natural reaction to that fear. Today, people have similar fears about biotechnology and the ways in which science promises (or threatens) to reinvent our very concept of life, and heroes whose powers are biologically based are seen in a new light.
Finally, The X-Men #1 introduces Magneto, the “master of magnetism” and the world’s foremost defender of mutant rights. Although he’s gone through many changes over his career — at one time presiding over Xavier’s school himself as a reformed super-villain — he has always been one of Marveldom’s most fascinating creations: a super-villain who fights not for wealth but for his own version of justice, a man who uses any means necessary to ensure the freedom of mutants from human hatred. In a world where “the ends justify the means” is a common rallying cry, Magneto represents a character whose belief in his cause makes him seem less than evil.
For these reasons and more, X-Men #1 stands high as an important entry on the list. But most importantly of all, its themes of racial prejudice and minority persecution allowed comics to talk about modern issues in a way that the repressive Comics Code Authority would not allow. Through this series, Lee, Kirby, and those who followed were able to make important statements about race and prejudice, and their underlying messages would have an important impact on the comic book’s relevance in the years to come.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
Did you know…
Beating the X-Men to the newsstands by just a few months was the Doom Patrol (My Greatest Adventure #81, June 1963), another group of misfits led by a mysterious leader in a wheelchair. Legend has it the X-Men was Marvel’s response to DC’s “newest and strangest” superhero team, but realistically there wasn’t enough time between their debuts for that to be the case.
Earlier stories emphasized the school’s secretiveness and desire not to be exposed to the outside world as a training ground for mutants, a plot device that had a detrimental effect on the number of stories that could be developed.
When slipping sales called for drastic action, the writers killed off Professor Xavier… but later revealed he was very much alive and it was only a shape-shifting imposter who had died. The seeming impossibility to kill off anyone in the series became a constant plot point and, often, a running gag for parodists.
In the 1980s, the original members of the X-Men would band together again as X-Factor, pretending to be mutant hunters in order to find young mutants and give them the support they needed to control their powers. Again, it was a limiting concept, and it lasted only a few years before the heroes were exposed.