The X-Men is the most popular team of superheroes in comic books in the 1990s. Featuring an often changing lineup of young mutant superheroes and unusually complex story lines, the X-Men have found a consistently large and loyal audience of comic-book readers. Since 1980 only Spider-Man and Batman have rivaled them in popularity and sales. The X-Men's market clout has helped publisher Marvel Comics remain the undisputed industry leader, and the series' formula has been widely imitated throughout the superhero genre. Few other comic-book series of recent decades have been as influential.
Marvel first published The X-Men in 1963. The concept devised by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was an extension of the Marvel formula already realized in such characters as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. The X-Men were teenaged costumed superheroes who used their powers in the service of humanity, even though the society at large misunderstood and feared them. Unlike their superhero peers, however, the X-Men had never even been human. As mutants, they were born with their special powers—usually as a consequence of parents exposed to radioactivity. This distinction left the X-Men especially alienated from human society and made them special victims of misplaced human anxieties. Lee and later writers would often use this premise to conceive stories critical of bigotry and racial persecution.
The first X-Men lineup consisted of Cyclops, with the power to project devastating "optic blasts"; the Beast, with the agility and strength of his namesake; the Angel, who could fly with the aid of natural wings; Iceman, with power over cold and ice; and Marvel Girl, with the mental ability to move objects. Their leader was the enigmatic Professor Xavier, who, though confined to a wheelchair, possessed an impressive variety of telepathic powers. Xavier recruited the teenage mutants to enroll in his private School for Gifted Youngsters, which was a front for the X-Men's training facility. The X-Men defended humanity against an array of evil mutants, the most formidable of whom was Magneto—"the master of magnetism." The heroes also had to fight in their own defense against the Sentinels—a series of mutant-hunting robots engineered by bigoted humans determined to resolve the "mutant question."
A modest-selling title, The X-Men did not achieve the spectacular commercial success enjoyed by most other Marvel comic books in the 1960s. By the early 1970s the series consisted of only reprinted stories and seemed doomed for cancellation. But in 1975 Marvel revamped the series, keeping only Cyclops and Professor Xavier in the group and introducing a new lineup of international mutants. Created by writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum, the new XMen included Nightcrawler, a German with superhuman agility, the power of teleportation, and a horrifying demonic appearance; Colossus, a Russian—one of the first to be a hero in comic books—with extraordinary physical strength; Storm, an African princess with the ability to summon and control weather and the elements; and Wolverine, a hot-tempered Canadian armed with indestructible steel claws and the ferocious fighting tendencies of his namesake.
Between 1977 and 1981 writer Chris Claremont and writer/artist John Byrne transformed The X-Men from a second-tier title to the top-selling comic book on the market. As the lineup of the X-Men continued to evolve, the story lines became increasingly intricate and absorbing. There was something about the series for most fans to enjoy. The interplay among the distinctive characters was exceptionally well-developed and believable by comic-book standards. Wolverine's ethos of righteous morality backed up by violence made him one of the most popular superheroes of the Reagan/Rambo era. Strong and complex female characters like Storm, Phoenix, and Rogue helped to make the X-Men one of the few superhero titles to win a significant following among teenage girls.
The X-Men's fantastic commercial success predictably spawned a host of comic-book crossovers, spin-offs, and rip-offs. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they multiplied. There were titles devoted to adult mutants (Excalibur, X-Factor), adolescent mutants (The New Mutants, Generation-X), and even pre-pubescent mutants (Power Pack). The concept of the 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles originated in part as a satire of the X-Men's overexposure (before graduating itself to overexposure). The first issue of a new X-Men title launched in 1991 set an industry record by selling more than eight million copies. An array of licensed products highlighted by the Fox network's successful X-Men animated series broadened the X-Men's market even further. The consequences of this "X-treme" mutant proliferation became a matter of some controversy among comic-book fans. While many fans welcomed the varieties of X-Men spinoffs and crossovers, others criticized them for being poorly conceived and confusing, and some fan critics charged Marvel with exploiting brand loyalty at the expense of good storytelling. To a large extent, the overexposure of the X-Men epitomized the problem of a saturated and shrinking market that plagued the comic-book industry as a whole in the mid-1990s.
Still, the X-Men remain at or near the top of the best-selling comic-book titles. Among the more fully realized comic-book expressions of modern adolescent fantasies, Marvel's team of misunderstood mutants fully deserve their status as the preferred superheroes of Generation X.
Daniels, Les. Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comic Book Heroes. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1991.
Lee, Stan. Son of Origins of Marvel Comics. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1975.
The Uncanny X-Men. New York, Marvel Comics, 1984.