Friday, August 14, 2009

So, In Conclusion…


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…


15 comments:

synapse said...

Man, I loved your post series or what's its name, and I'll read this last one too, but my first thought was: there are only nine post, aren't there? One about 2000? Or 1990? Please?:)

IvánN Díaz said...

Hi!

I'm a Spanish X-Men fan who has read your blog for months. I totally agree with your conclusion. I really find 90's X-Men comics very interesting (although not every single issue...) because the huge amount of stories, characters and stuff that we could enjoy at that time (and yes, I was 12 when I started reading them lol).

arcus said...

I don't suppose I should hold out hope that you'll be marching onward to 21st century X-Books? I know that the Morrison run has been talked to death, but I don't really have any notion of what was going on in the rest of the line during that period. Your read-through has been tremendously enjoyable, and nobody has really talked about how Morrison, Austin and Claremont do or don't engage with 90s continuity. It strikes me that if there's anything interesting to be said in that area, you're the one to say it.

Matt said...

Well said! It's nice to see a well-balanced opinion of the decade (backed up by actually having read the stuff recently! I think there are a lot of people who condemn the 90's X-Men books for exactly the reasons you cited -- they just assume it was all like the early Image stuff.

But on the other hand, there are those like myself, who look upon it with rose-tinted glasses, and have trouble imagining there was anything bad about it! The real answer is someplace between those extremes, and I think you've summed it up quite nicely.

I hope that TMNT teaser is for real! I look forward to see what you have to say about the Turtles, though I wonder what you'll be reviewing -- I never read the Eastman & Laird comics, but I followed the cartoon religiously, and I read the Archie-published Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures title every month.

G. Kendall said...

I'll probably go back to the X-books one day, but my main interest is in looking at older comics.

wwk5d said...

I think there was lots of good stuff, lots of bad. if I had to point to the good, I would recommend, in random order:

*Alan Davis' Excaliber
*PAD's X-Factor
*Nicieza's X-Force
*the road trip issues of X-force
*Hama's Wolverine
*Lobdell's Generation X (not much plotwise, but good, fun character work)
*Uncanny and X-men from the period just before Fatal Attractions to the Age of Apocalypse (tho the first year of X-men has too! much! angst!)
*Ellis' Excaliber
*Davis' tenure on the X-men books (crappy resolution to the Twelve story notwithstanding)

That's quite a bit of good stuff there, and even in some of the crappier runs, you can search out some good issues here and there (the 'quiet' issue of Uncanny post-Onslaught, and a few issue later with Iceman's dad in the hospital).

And you said, there is lots of great art...just look at all the people who were artists at some point: Jim Lee, Alan Davis, Mark Texiera, the Kubert brothers, John Romita Jr, Greg Capello, Carlos Pacheo, Steve Epting, Ladron, Adam Pollina, joe Madureria, Chris Bachelo before he went crazy, Steve Skroce...much of run at least looked good, despite Liefeld and some bad fill-ins. And yeah, i know I prob made many mistakes on the spellings of the artists names...

But yeah, all in all, it wasn't as bad as people think. For a line that got so bloated, I think it's good that, in almost each year, there were at least a couple of good titles producing some good stuff. Yes, in the main X-men titles the cast was too big (so many neglected freindships, like Storm and Gambit). Overall, if I had to rate the X-line as a whole in the 90s, it was better than people think, and you can find some really, really good stuff if you're willing to look.

JdR said...

Congratulations on your excellent work. I've been reading from the start and have enjoyed it all. Few bloggers manage to finish such an ambitious project. Again, congratulations and thanks.

Teebore said...

Congrats! I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion: the 90s X-Men books had some good, some bad, and a lot of average.

I'm excited to see what you have in store for the Turtles, another childhood favorite of mine. I would love to see you return to the X-books at some point (either post-Alan Davis issues, or back in time to any point in their history), but your writing style and keen insight will keep me reading whatever you choose to write!

Shlomo said...

could we get a recap of your top issues?

G. Kendall said...

Shlomo,
I included links to some of the specific issues referenced during the Year in Review posts. I might do more later.

Thanks for the kind words, everyone. Some day, I would like to review the Cable, X-Factor, etc. issues from the late '90s I didn't get to cover.

A.E. Paulino and Azrael Encarnacion said...

This was such a good read, I really do agree with you, the 90s x-books weren't that bad but that also means they weren't that good. I was twelve in 1994 when I started reading the X-Titles, especially X-Force.

It might be a disaster but I wish an X-Men film could be made that was more like that 90s era. Not necessarily based on any X-Event from that time but still capturing that feel and the costumes (haha)

PS
As much as I enjoyed reading about the 90s X-World I am doubly excited to read that you will be focusing your attention on another of MY childhood obsessions as well.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, Extreme Justice wasn't an X-Men title.

Adam said...

I wanted to let you know that I just recently found your site and I'm kicking myself I didn't know about it sooner. I've started from the beginning and I've just gotten past the Phalanx Covenant. I'm grateful to you for refreshing my childhood memories and also exploring things I didn't see. I'm also excited to see your new direction and looking forward to talk TMNT Adventures, which was the book that got me into comics in the first place. Thank you again for your entertaining and enlightening work for these two years (even if I've only been reading for a month or so).

wwk5d said...

We know Extreme Justice wasn't an X-book, he was just using it as an example of how the early Image X-look ended up influencing other Marvel and DC titles, even after the X-titles themselves began to move away from all that.

Matthew J. Brady said...

I'm late commenting, but I wanted to say well done on this whole series. It's been very interesting and enjoyable, a good look at an era that I remember kind of nostalgically, if not especially fondly. You done good!

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