Sunday, May 23, 2010

Chronic Sacrilege: X-Men Origins!

For reasons even I don't understand, I got a burr in my bum to read some old X-Men material. I'm not very well versed in the classics, frankly. I'm a weird bastard in that I'm an English major who has never really read any Shakespeare, and I'm a comic wonk who's never really read any Stan Lee/Jack Kirby material.

So I decided to begin my nostalgic X-Men reading with issue # 1, by the aforementioned Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I read the Marvel Essentials black and white stuff, to be specific.

Hoo boy. Where to begin? The quick capsule review is that it's terrible. Genuinely, demonstrably horrible.

The issue begins with Professor X and his young students at the mansion. Charles runs his students through some "danger room" type drills, and they all behave like jerkwads to one another. Suddenly Jean Grey shows up, and everybody loses their goddamn mind except for Iceman, who is apparently in the closet. Even Xavier expresses his attraction toward the barely pubescent Ms. Grey, which is sort of creepy.

After some more asinine behavior, Prof. X informs the team that they must deal with a threat, which in this case is Magneto whumping ass all over this military base. So the X-Men send Magneto scurrying away, including Jean whose combat training at this point consists of being groped for four minutes at the X-Mansion. And that's that.

The script is fairly infantile. Professor X informs us that he named his students the X-Men because of their "extra power". Are you shitting me with this? And while Chuck's philosophy evolved, in the beginning there is nothing directly in the mission statement about building bridges between mutants and humans. Their job is to find "evil" mutants and pound the crap out of them.

The characters are all stock stereotypes. These are hormonally challenged teenagers at their worst. They are giant assholes raging with testosterone, and God forbid a girl enter the room - the evolutionary clock REALLY starts ticking backward.

Beast just goes straight for Jean's stars and garters and sexually assaults her first thing. This kind of thing was called "Wednesday" in the 1960s. Today it's called "8-12 years plus probation."

It was a different era then, and I guess it's fair now to make some concessions. Through the eyes of 2010, this stuff wouldn't make it past an editors desk. But it wasn't 2010, and the audience was different and the standards were different. I suppose we have to give him credit for simply trying to create "realistic" teen behavior instead of robotic stiffs. I'm sure that was a novel concept when X-Men # 1 was released.

I think it's also worth mentioning that Stan Lee was scripting about 34 books a month, and I don't care how good you are, quality is going to suffer when the quantity gets that prodigious. So it isn't entirely Stan's fault that the original X-Men stories haven't aged very well. They were produced by a different era for a different era, and he was working under significant deadline duress. But wow is it bad.

And then there's Jack Kirby. Some of you out there are thinking to yourself:

"He's not seriously going to go after The King, is he?"

Yes, I'm going to go after The King. Listen, don't take my word for it...crack open the issues and look for yourself. Look at this tank, friends, and tell me that a portfolio containing that illustration would even get a second look at Marvel today. There would be derisive laughter, and that's a scientific fact.

Look at the military figures surrounding it. Those aren't even pencils, really, those are breakdowns! And someone just said "Fuck it, we got a deadline, let's ship her out!" The pencilling work in X-Men # 1 is often rudimentary and appears to be unfinished:
That's just terrible. And I'll be more than happy to make some concessions for Kirby as well. There are panels where he's able to achieve effects with faces in a very small amount of space, it's almost magical. I'm told that Kirby's figures exhibited dynamic action that was unprecedented for the time, and I'll take people's word on that. There are certainly spots where the action has some Kirby crackle to it.

What I'm saying is, you hear the names Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and the hushed tones with which the names are uttered suggest that if you dared to turn the pages of their work, you would barely survive the awesometude of their excellenticity. Instead, you get done reading it with the lens of 2010 and wonder how they found work.

Next up: Pot shots at Chris Claremont!

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