Were X-Men comics in the ‘90s as bad as people think? Overall, I wouldn’t say so. There are certainly a few terrible moments, but look at the sheer volume of material we’re dealing with. Is any franchise this big going to have a perfect record? The consensus amongst many fans seems to be that the ‘90s X-books were some of the worst mainstream comics ever published. If you’re talking the first dozen issues or so of X-Force, that’s understandable, but it’s not a fair representation of the entire line. (I should also point out that the harsh feelings over the decade seem to have mellowed out in recent years. Perhaps it’s simply nostalgia, but I wonder if it’s also a reaction against the more serious, “realistic,” “please option us for a movie deal” approach to superheroes we’ve seen in the new millennium).
I’m under the impression that many fans lump together the early Image material with the entirety of the X-line in the ‘90s. In reality, the Image creators were only charting the course for less than two years, which hardly represents an entire decade. In fact, the stereotypical Image look disappeared a lot faster in the X-books than it did in the rest of mainstream Marvel and DC. Since that look mostly originated within the X-line, it makes sense that the fad would’ve died out sooner there. Silly looking characters like X-Treme already seemed antiquated in 1993, and within a few months, Joe Madureira was already merging manga with superheroes for a new style in Uncanny X-Men. By 1994, Chris Bachalo was bringing his unique look to the X-titles.
Now, describing something as better than an early Image title is pretty much the definition of damning it with faint praise. These books have problems. Just looking at the two main books with X-Men in the title, we have a cast that’s too large and unfocused, teammates rarely interacting with one another for years at a time, storylines that drag on for years without proper resolutions, mysteries that drag on for years without proper revelations, lack of direction for months at a time, abrupt changes in direction, the occasional bizarre characterization shift, and routine crossovers that often seem pointless. Uncanny X-Men developed such a fierce following in the 1980s in large part due to its commitment to the characters. Some might find the term “soap opera” demeaning, but I think it’s the best way to describe a never-ending narrative of fictional characters’ lives. There’s an element of that in other Marvel titles, but having the same writer on the book for well over a decade, and the fact that so many storylines were specifically designed to emphasize characterization, put Uncanny X-Men in a different realm than Avengers. In the ‘90s, writer Chris Claremont is gone but editor Bob Harras remains. Harras seems to understand the soap opera appeal, which is probably one of the reasons why so many of these titles have “quiet” issues that mainly consist of conversation scenes. Even if the books are going to devote three months to a crossover event with foil covers and inbound trading cards, the next issue is going to have the characters talking about their feelings. The problem is, there are too many characters to keep track of, so only a few cast members receive the spotlight while long-established characters like Storm and Colossus stand around in the background for years. If you remember the “classic” X-Men, this type of characterization probably isn’t good enough. If you’re twelve, it’s fine.
Looking back, I have to say that the majority of the comics I’ve reviewed would be perfectly enjoyable for a twelve-year-old audience. I don’t mean that in a condescending way; that was probably the age group Marvel was going after, and young readers were the fans who kept superhero comics alive for decades. The X-books never became too “adult” in the ‘90s and, despite the repeated “too confusing” claim, welcomed numerous fans of the Saturday morning cartoon into comics. If the line hadn’t bloated out of control, and if the storylines were able to come to natural conclusions instead of dragging on forever, maybe more of those fans would’ve stuck around after the industry crash.
Were there too many titles? Yes. Did storylines drag on for too long? Usually. Was the art filled with unnecessary rendering and atrocious anatomy? At times, but it’s a style that mostly disappears by the end of 1993. The majority of the artists on the titles aren’t bad at all, and their work holds up a lot better than the average superhero art of the time. Were the characters cardboard? Characterization is actually still a priority for most of the line. The creators often drop the ball during the larger “events” of the era, and have trouble juggling the larger casts, but there is a sense that the characters matter. As the decade wears on, more and more editors take over the titles while Bob Harras becomes “Group Editor,” and later Editor in Chief of Marvel’s entire line. Something seems to be lost in the transition here, as some characterizations become erratic, storylines seem increasingly aimless, and issue-to-issue continuity is occasionally just disregarded. X-editors do seem to require some unique ability, and I think the latter generation couldn’t manage the store as well as Harras (who certainly had his own flaws).
So, yes, a lot of this stuff is bad. However, dismissing it as “early Image” bad isn’t fair. A better example would be the “Onslaught” crossover. The setup has potential, the issues that build up to the event are pretty exciting, and then we realize that all of the early clues don’t add up, the main villain doesn’t even seem to have a plan, and the conclusion makes little sense. It’s more a case of squandered potential than outright incompetence. If you’re willing to overlook some of the flaws, there’s still some solid material to be found during most of the decade. A better description of the decade would be there’s some good, some bad, and a lot of mediocre.
But it’s more fun to run Rob Liefeld scans, isn’t it?
Now, please join me in a few days as I explore another one of my childhood obsessions…