Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Year in Review – 1991

1991 was a crazy time for comics. Sales were soaring, back issues were heavily in demand, Hollywood was calling again, and a comics artist even starred in a Spike Lee-directed Levi’s 501 commercial. The X-Men franchise was Marvel’s cash cow, largely due to Uncanny X-Men, which had been produced by Chris Claremont and a series of popular artists for over fifteen years. By this point, a new breed of stylized, energetic artists had emerged, presenting a style of art that captivated the younger generation of readers. The new style was so commercially successful that when a popular artist didn’t care for the writer he was paired with, the writer was actually removed from the book (or else the artist was given his own book to plot and draw). Claremont’s seniority on Uncanny X-Men was essentially meaningless by this point. If Jim Lee didn’t feel like faithfully sticking to the plot, he wouldn’t. According to legend, when Claremont voiced his concerns, he was told that his plot input wasn’t needed anymore and that he should stick to writing the dialogue. Claremont left Marvel, paving the way for artists to take the lead for most of the X-franchise.

The titles at this time include…

Uncanny X-Men – The new direction of UXM begins with Whilce Portacio plotting and penciling the title, and John Byrne providing the script. The plots are mostly nonsensical, and the first two issues of Portacio’s run manage to kill off over a dozen established characters. New characters such as Bishop, Trevor Fitzroy, and the Upstarts are introduced, but the stories are so chaotic there’s no room to develop any of them.

X-Men volume two – After Chris Claremont plots the inaugural story arc, Jim Lee takes over sole plotting duties and John Byrne scripts. Lee’s first arc introduces the villain Omega Red and offers a few hints about Wolverine’s past (back when this was still a novel idea). The plots don’t hold up to a lot of scrutiny, but most of the issues manage to skate on the slick art and high levels of energy.

X-Force – Following his popular run on New Mutants, Rob Liefeld remolds the team into X-Force. Fabian Nicieza scripts the series, occasionally managing to give the characters a bit of personality, but mostly spending his time dialoguing repetitive fight scenes. The team’s leader Cable has a mysterious past, as each issue of the series manages to remind us. At this point, Cable’s still in “ends justify the means” mode, perhaps best illustrated when he shoots a wounded Black Tom Cassidy after he’s already surrendered. New characters like Kane, G. W. Bridge, and Deadpool are spotlighted in subplot scenes, dropping hints about a new Weapon X project and mystery figures like Mr. Tolliver. The team is supposed to be the “proactive” mutant group, an idea that’s only explored in the first issue. The second issue has the team sparring, the third and fourth issue has them reacting to Black Tom’s assault on the World Trade Center, and the following issues are spent on an unprovoked battle with the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

X-Factor – Widely regarded as the strongest title at this point, X-Factor is one of the few writer-driven titles in the line. Peter David takes the cast-offs from the other X-titles and forms a somewhat dysfunctional and highly entertaining team. Larry Stroman gives the title a unique look that’s aged much better than the work of most of his contemporaries during the era. The opening issues spend a lot of time developing Madrox, an under-used character that had been standing around in the background for too long. Mr. Sinister is revealed as the behind-the-scenes villain for the first arc, although David seems to be working with the idea that Sinister is a mutant from the future, which doesn’t match with the origin the character’s later given.

Wolverine – I never reviewed these issues on this site, but I’ve read them in the Essential Wolverine collections. Larry Hama continues his run of entertaining action stories while Marc Silvestri begins to add a Jim Lee influence to his art. After a few months dealing with some of Hama’s quirkier creations like Elsie Dee and Albert, the storyline begins to delve into Wolverine’s shadowy past. Sabretooth returns, claiming that he’s Wolverine’s father (an allegation later debunked by a blood test). Wolverine begins to investigate his own conflicting memories, leading him to return to the Weapon X facility for the first time. It’s hard to appreciate that any of this ever felt new, but the stories still hold up because Hama understands Wolverine’s character so well.

Excalibur – At the end of the year, Alan Davis returns to the title, now as writer and artist. Excalibur devolved into mostly filler after Chris Claremont left the book, and it only now begins to find a direction again. Davis resolves some old subplots and sets the stage for the 50th anniversary issue. The character interactions are fun and of course the art is stunning. This title is the only X-book not overseen by Bob Harras as editor, and it remains mostly divorced from the rest of the line until 1993.

The Events: The original members of the X-Men rejoin the team, as it is divided into two squads. The New Mutants rename themselves X-Force and become exponentially more x-treme. X-Factor becomes a government-sponsored mutant team with an all-new cast. Wolverine learns that many of his memories are fake and that he was once a CIA operative with Sabretooth and Maverick.

The “What Were They Thinking?” Award: It would be easy to pick on Rob Liefeld’s X-Force, as it’s come to symbolize everything we’re supposed to hate about the ‘90s. The content of the book really is indefensible, but considering the sales boost Liefeld’s creative direction brought to New Mutants, I can understand why Marvel was willing to give him his own series. But replacing Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men with Whilce Portacio is truly mind-boggling. Regardless of how fashionable it might’ve become to bash him, Chris Claremont was still considered one of the best writers in comics in 1991. Replacing him with someone with, as far as I know, no writing experience is just unbelievable. The resulting stories were virtually unreadable, as established characters are casually killed off left and right and poorly executed plot points have to be covered in hasty dialogue exchanges (“How could Jean switch minds with someone else?” “Well, necessity is the mother of invention!”).

What’s the Appeal? : Every title has a new starting point, making it easier for new readers to come aboard. I was already following UXM, but didn’t buy any of the spinoffs on a regular basis. With new number one issues and new directions all around, it made sense to give the other books a try. The X-Men are still the X-Men, in the sense that the cast is still broadly in-character. Some events fans never thought they’d see, like the original X-Men rejoining the team and concrete revelations about Wolverine’s past, are actually happening. Every title has some sort of mystery storyline; it could be vague hints about a new character’s past or just a shadowy villain plotting in the background. Most of the artwork is appropriate for the number one franchise in comics. None of these artists could be considered too bland, or too experimental (with the possible exception of Larry Stroman). Liefeld’s art has become an industry joke over the years, and Portacio’s frenzied look hasn’t aged that well, but the rest of the artists hold up. Some people might lump Lee and Silvestri in with the stereotypical ‘90s artists, but at least they know how to do the ‘90s look well.

Were the Critics Right? : Out of the entire line, I only count two duds. Jim Lee’s X-Men is mindlessly entertaining, X-Factor is legitimately funny and has an unlikely cast that Peter David actually makes work, Wolverine is consistently well executed by Hama and Silvestri, and Alan Davis’ work on Excalibur is possibly the highlight of the entire series’ run. This leaves Uncanny X-Men and X-Force, two books that fulfill pretty much all of the negative stereotypes of ‘90s mainstream comics. Minimal plot, nonsensical story twists, a plethora of characters with vague motivations and backstories, and needlessly exaggerated art that isn’t easy on the eyes.

So do two titles out of six drag an entire line down? I wouldn’t say so, but Uncanny X-Men is the flagship title of the line. Watching the series that gave birth to the entire franchise go down in flames had to be painful for the diehard fans to watch, and I’m sure it left people with a bad taste for the entire line. Liefeld’s work on X-Force grew more exaggerated with each passing month, making each consecutive issue even more of a relic of the time. If you want to pull out a comic to represent what happened to comics in the ‘90s, you’re not going to reach for one of Alan Davis’ Excalibur issues; you’re going to show Cable parading his giant guns on the cover of X-Force. Essentially, the bad stuff probably is as bad as you think, but it doesn’t represent even half of the line at this moment.


wwk5d said...

Good analysis. At this point, yeah, Excaliber is the best oevrall title. If I had to rank, it would be as follows:

1. Excaliber
2. X-factor
3. Wolverine
4. X-men
5. Uncanny X-men
6. X-Force

Ironically, at the time, I'd have ranked Excaliber and X-Factor at the bttm...and X-force would have possibly made the top 3. What did I know? lol

Jeff said...

Great summary! Looking forward to the rest!

Peter said...

I've loved your reviews of the single issues and these summaries of the respective years are equally fascinating!

I recently reread Alan Davis's Excalibur and it was truly awesome. It says a lot that as soon as he left and Excalibur was folded into the X-line, the quality dropped like a stone (until Warren Ellis arrived to give it some much-needed direction, but even then Excalibur never managed to be as charming and damn exciting again as it was during Davis's stories)

It's also a bit interesting that history is repeating itself with PAD's X-Factor being one of the better series right now, with an X-Force much in the style of Liefeld, a bit of a lame-duck flagship in Fraction's Uncanny, an entertaining second X-Men book thanks to Mike Carey...

Those earliest X-Factors are some of my favorite PAD stories, the mayonaise jar in particular continues to crack me up. And Larry Stroman's art is stunning in how unique it is. Basically we should look at it as a good sign that Marvel was willing to publish these series with its varying qualities alongside each other without trying to homogenize everything.

Teebore said...

Great analysis and looking forward to the rest. It'll be interesting to see where the pivot point is, exactly, when the bad started to outweigh the good.

Peter said...

My guess is probably after AoA. Although all the books had pretty good artists then though, I believe. But storywise, I believe things got quite aimless leading up to Onslaught.

But then, PAD and Davis leave their books at around the same time, don't they, so maybe around that period then, right before AoA? Probably it'll turn out that most of the time there's two crap books and three okay ones and two excellent ones or something :)

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