Throughout the history of this country, every minority group has taken it on the chin. It could be because of skin color or religion or sexual preference or country of origin. White, Black, Gay, Straight, Native born or not and so on, the X-Men found success by mirroring the prejudices we see in one way or another, every day of our lives, in a world divided by a genetic code.
Our story really begins back around 1940...
The entertainment industries were booming as the Great Depression was coming to an end, and artists like Jacob Kurtzburg were happily putting ink to animation cel as an in betweener on Popeye cartoons produced at the Fleischer Studios in New York. Animation was a brand new form and, late in the 30s the Fleisher shop up and moved to Florida, to open a major complex and begin work on their full length animated work, Gulliver's Travels. Disney already had Pinocchio in the pipeline. The competition was fierce.
But not everyone was able to move out of state. For artists, like Kurtzburg, there was an exploding new form called the "comic book" where work could be found, though opportunities for Jews were slight. Using the pseudonyms Fred Sande, Curt Davis, Jack Cortez, Lance Kirby, Michael Griffith, Floyd Kelly, and Martin A. Bursten, Kurtzberg developed a rough and tumble style where movement seemed to burst through the panel borders that defined the comic book page. Reluctantly settling on the name, Jack Kirby, and partnering with writer Joe Simon, the team created characters, like Captain America, that have lasted to this day.
Not all Jews had to change their names. The Timely Comics Company was run by Martin Goodman, whose cousin Joan was married to Stanley Lieber. Lieber wanted to save his "real" name for the cover of the great American novel he dreamed of writing, so "Stan Lee" wrote text pages for Goodman's comic books, to meet Post Office requirements for cheaper periodical mailing rates. Though they did not work together, it was in the pages of Captain America Comics #2 that the names Lee and Kirby first appeared in the same stapled four color comic book.
Twenty years later, give or take, with the civil rights movement kicking up and the Lee-Kirby team successfully creating new characters for Marvel Comics, Lee tapped into the old memories and came up with a new concept: a team of superheroes hated by the public they defended. "The Mutants," as originally titled, was the story of the next step of human evolution -- from homo sapiens to homo superior -- with the old guard refusing to give up the planet. Publisher Martin Goodman hated the title (he'd also squash Spider-Man, a story we'll save for that movie) and Lee countered with the title, X-Men.
But Marvel was beaten to the racks by DC's Doom Patrol, which also featured strange superheroes and a mysterious "Chief" in a wheelchair. Short of introducing Magneto and his Brotherhood, and robot Sentinel mutant hunters, the initial run of X-Men was pretty tepid. Marvel did what it could to spark interest in the book, killing off Professor X ("NOT a hoax! NOT an imaginary tale!), bringing in fan-fave artist Jim Steranko for spell, even hiring Doom Patrol creator Arnold Drake to come in and write the book. Nothing worked. Roy Thomas came back to write the book (he had succeeded Lee early on) and Neal Adams, fresh off spectacular runs on DC's Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow was tapped to pencil. The results were breathtaking.
The book, of course, was cancelled, and spent several years reprinting earlier stories.
Sometime in 1974, according to interviews in Comic Book Artist magazine, Marvel President Al Landau came up with the idea of forming a team of international superheroes, better to help sell product in international markets. The idea passed through several writers: Thomas, Mike Friedrich and finally Len Wein, though most of the character designs were done by a new artist named Dave Cockrum. Thus, Giant Size X-Men, featured characters from Russia (Colossus), Germany (Nightcrawler), Kenya (Storm), Canada (Wolverine) and a Native American (Thunderbird) joining an increasingly powerful Cyclops to rescue the old team.
Chris Claremont took over the scripting reins when these new X-Men went into regular series, beginning with issue 94. Right from the start, we could see things were going to be different. Thunderbird died in combat in #95. Jean Grey, one of the original X-Men, met a similar fate when she was was consumed by cosmic radiation in issue 100 (her last words: "SCOTT!!") -- but she got better in #101, rising like the Phoenix, which became her new namesake. With a quantum increase in powers, the X-Men shifted from world savers to Universe savers. Along the way, the powers of the new X-Men were defined -- it took over two years before we learned of Wolverine's healing factor -- star spanning alien races were introduced, as were an insidious team of politically motivated mutants (The Hellfire Club). The new team found themselves embroiled in stories that often took over a year to play out. Tragedy struck a second time when Phoenix' absolute powers corupted absolutely and Jean Grey once again met her death (her last words: "SCOTT!") in #137. Shortly thereafter, Claremont unveiled a future reality in which the assassination of mutant hating Senator Robert Kelly triggered a Mutant Registration Act and creation of a new generation of Sentinels to hunt and destroy mutants. The Sentinels turned all of North America into one large concentration camp, destroying all superpowered beings . . . It was a dark vision in which "everyone dies." The Days of Future Past story set the stage for comic book subtext that would run for years. It is also where a then ten-year old Tom DeSanto entered the X-Men Universe. The grown up DeSanto, with several years of working and producing projects for director Bryan Singer, wrote the original story of X-Men . . .
Tom DeSanto: In June '96 I had a meeting with Bryan and [Fox executive] Peter Rice and Bryan was "I'm not interested. I'm never going to do a comic book movie. Stop asking me about this." We had lunch. I started explaining it to him in terms of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the next wave in human evolution, and that is when I could see the passion start to bubble and his interest start to peak. He said "OK I'm going away to New York for a week, come up with a storyline". So here I am, the comic fanboy given the keys to the kingdom and I've got a week to distill 35 years of X-Men history into 2 hours. There were a lot of balls to juggle between the Weapon X and the Scott--Jean--Logan triangle and Xavier--Magneto. It was a lot to handle. Fortunately I think we did a good job of getting as much as we could get in there and keeping the integrity of the film. "
And, lest we let the history get away from us, one of the criticisms leveled at the original X-Men was that all the "good" mutants were clean cut kids and all the "bad" mutants were ugly misfits. The second run of the X-Men comic fixed this by making one of the new mutants look like a demon and, in the interim, an original X-Man code named Beast had experimented with his DNA and, indeed, transformed into a hairy creature.
Tom DeSanto: "Unfortunately, through the process of getting the movie made, Beast was one of those things that got sort of set aside and saved for a sequel. But that was the function of Beast. He was the most ferocious looking, the most animalistic looking of all the mutants, yet he's the pacifist. He's the poet. There was one line of dialog which I had written where Beast was introducing himself to Wolverine and says "much like the old adage that one can never judge a book by it's cover, I'm much less a fighter, much more a lover." That's the dichotomy of Beast and the great thing about that character. Hopefully if audience response warrants it people will have the good Dr. McCoy back in the X-Men."
Bryan Singer:"I just made a judgment about which mutants I would like to see in an introductory movie which would best exemplify the mutant phenomenon; the blessing and the curse of being one of these characters. There were a couple I wanted in the picture that, just for the pure sake of schedule and budget, was not [possible]. I really envisioned Beast in the movie and just couldn't make it work. It was already enough to try to tackle Mystique's makeup and Sabretooth and things like that. I had to leave some of my favorite mutants for other films."
Our talks with DeSanto and director Bryan Singer continue, combined with cast chats on the following pages, each about a principal character in X-Men.
The Cranky Critic website is © Chuck Schwartz. All Rights Reserved.