Thursday, September 8, 2011

X-Men #1: 20 Years Later

In 1971 the X-Men were in trouble. Marvel had stopped producing new X-Men comics and from here until 1975 would only reprint earlier stories. The title still had a loyal following, but it was not nearly as popular as the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. In 1975, this would change with one issue that would spark a nearly a two decade long sequence of events that would culminate in an (Uncanny) X-Men spin-off becoming the highest selling comic book of all time. This happened exactly 20 years ago this October and to mark the occasion, I would like to look at the history of X-Men #1, how it came about, and how this comic book represents the pinnacle of the early 90s comic collectors boom, an important event in the history of comic book collecting.
(From X-Men #6, July 1964 reprinted in The Original X-Men, November 1980)
The X-Men were created in 1963 when Stan Lee wanted another superhero team for the Marvel line-up. Until then, the Fantastic Four (created by Lee and Jack Kirby to compete with DC’s Justice League of America) was selling well and Lee wanted to keep the magic going. The challenge soon became how to create a team of superheroes instantaneously. Marvel contemporaries such as Spider-Man, Hulk or the Fantastic Four had been given their powers by acts of science gone wrong, but this was getting trickier. Lee’s answer was beautiful in its simplicity: make these new heroes born with powers activated at puberty. Thus began the long story of mutants and their struggle with the blessings and curses of genetically gifted superpowers.
(From X-Men #6, July 1964 reprinted in The Original X-Men, November 1980)
But by the mid 70s things were not working. The original X-Men looked tired and while they appeared in new comics throughout the Marvel universe, their book consisted of reprints. Seeing an opportunity Roy Thomas, the new editor-in-chief, decided to reboot the title and tapped Len Wein and Dave Cockrum to create a special Giant-Size X-Men #1 to get the ball rolling. In the story, the original X-Men were in trouble and Professor Xavier needed a new team of mutants to help them. What resulted was the good professor travelling the world searching for mutants to join a new, multinational force that would eventually save the day. In one fell swoop, X-Fans were given new characters with distinctly international personalities. The book was a success and not only injected new blood into the X-Men franchise; it turned a story about American teens into a multinational force the whole world could enjoy.
But was it enough?

(Wolverine joins the X-Men in Giant-Size X-Men #1, reprinted in Marvel Milestone Edition: Giant Size X-Men, 1991. His first appearance was actually Hulk #180, October 1974.)
It was. X-Men #98 picked up after the Giant-Size and led to a resurgence of the title. From here X-Men and the mutants took Marvel by storm and soon became one of the company’s top books. Gifted creators such as Chris Claremont and John Byrne would lead the charge and in the late 70s and 80s gave us memorable characters like Alpha Flight, Mr. Sinister and the Phoenix. By the time the speculators boom of the late 80s and early 90s rolled around, the X-Men were a dominant force in Marvel’s arsenal.

(From Uncanny X-Men #221, September 1987)
Which brings us to October 1991. Having spun off X-Men with titles such as The New Mutants and X-Factor in the 1980s, Marvel decided to launch a second X-Men title simply called X-Men. The original had become Uncanny X-Men in the 1980s and retained its number continuity, so this adjective-free book would be an altogether new line starting at number one. It also appeared, not by coincidence, at a time when comic books were achieving a popularity in the English-speaking world unheard of since the Golden Age. In a strange ‘cross-over’ the children of the Baby-Boomers were starting to earn money in part-time jobs or weekly allowances at the same time their near middle-aged parents were looking back at their youth and wishing their mothers hadn’t thrown out their copies of Fantastic Four #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15. Efforts by competitors DC with events such as the Death of Superman and its subsequent media hype also contributed to a speculator boom that had heretofore never been seen.
(One cover of X-Men #1, October 1991)
(From X-Men #1, October 1991)
But that a boom inevitably busts in a truism. From Tulipmania in the 1630s, to the South Sea Bubble in the 1700s, to the recent Subprime Mortgage Crisis in the United States and beyond, there has always been people who make speculative purchases with the hope of getting rich. Of course, by the time most of them make the purchase, it is already too late and the bubble is about to burst under the weight of unwanted tulip bulbs, unless stocks or bad mortgages.
(From X-Men #1, October 1991)
And this is exactly what happened to comic book collecting in the mid 1990s. It was nowhere near as serious as the global recession causing Subprime Mortgage Crisis, but many of the same impulses that led to 8.1 million copies of X-Men #1 being sold, also led to the house-crazed hysteria of subprime mortgages and the subsequent economic downturn we live with today. Now a complete economic analysis of the boom this is beyond the scope of this piece, but a concise explanation of this behaviour can be given using the words of Scotsman Charles Mackay in his old but still lauded book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds Men. He writes: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." And while it wasn’t madness that drove middle-aged men who hadn’t collected comic books since the 1960s to buy five copies of X-Men #1, Superman #75 or Spider-Man #1, it was none-the-less a bubble of the sort we have long seen in modern economics.
Which prompts me to ask: how many copies of X-Men #1 do you have? I’m sure anyone reading this blog has at least a couple. Personally, I have four. At that time, I was both an X-Men fan, but also a speculator who believed the hype around him. Okay, maybe I didn't believe it would one day finance my house, but I did believe it would be worth something someday. Silly me; today it can be bought for 1 US dollar.
But twenty years ago it sold in uncanny quantities and because of this deserves a hearty congratulations on its twentieth birthday. Thanks for all the memories, X-Men #1! Will not soon see the likes of you again!


  1. Mark, that's a good 'brief history' of X-men #1! No comic book yet has topped that number - even though many, many comics have topped it's script!

    This summer, we found a ton of pristine X-men books hitting our totally top-secret 50-cent rack. All four of the interlocking covers, the rest of the run up to #25, and a bunch of hologram stuff. Somebody must have got sick of waiting until they could pay the mortgage with them!

    Anyway, we bought them up, since they were just 50 cents, and we'd never been so into 1990s X-men that we ever bought them before. We now have 5 copies - because in addition to the interlocking covers, we scored the reprint with the full wrap-around four-panel image as one cover.

    Drop by and check it out. You might even want to use the image yourself for archival purposes.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Matthew! X-Men #1 was something BIG back in 1991, wasn't it?

    On a somewhat related note, in a 50 cent bin just up my street, I found a bunch of PC Captain Victory comics! Such energetic art is not seen anymore!

  3. Sweet find! You may know the USA is plagued by some pretty drastic economic recession these days. The upside of all that is that comic values have dropped and people are dumping collections cheap. Which, if you like to buy comics, is a good opportunity. Even good old Miracle Man #15 is down from $500+ to near $100 on eBay. And the 50-cent racks are overflowing with goodies...