Monday, June 29, 2009

X Marks the Spot

So, I've been thinking a bit about the X-Men lately. This is perhaps my favorite new blog, and is I think of some interest even to folks who have little actual interest in the X-Men themselves. Recapping every mainline X-Men title from the 90s, and many of the spin-offs and associated books, highlights two things primarily: 1) the books were by and large incredibly repetitive and 2) they were also overwhelmingly bad.

Now, let's think about that for a minute. The X-Men were the #1 franchise in comics for two decades, only falling off in recent years due to the unexpected resurgence of the Avengers line. The X-Men as individual characters and as a general concept is popular enough that it was able to survive not just the loss of its founding father, Chris Claremont, in 1991; not just the loss in 1992 of some of the most popular artists in mainstream comics history - creators whose popularity had enabled them to reorient the entire line to suit their whims in the early 90s, a reorientation that included getting rid of Claremont in a Soviet-style putsch; but the books were able to thrive as the #1 franchise even though the books themselves floundered through a seemingly endless succession of meaningless, ill-received events and useless spin-offs. Sure, people have fond memories of the Age of Apocalypse - and it was pretty good, as these things go. But, you know, that's one storyline, and when weighed against, say, Onslaught, The Phalanx Covenant, Operation: Zero Tolerance, The Twelve . . . well, you see, it starts to add up after a while.

It seems as if every 12-18 months back in the mid-to-late 90s you'd have a big new relaunch with new creators who'd do a gushing Q&A in Wizard bragging about how they were going to "shake things up" and get fans excited again. Mark Waid, Joe Kelly & Steven T. Seagle, Alan Davis . . . all of them started big but soon fell down the rabbit hole of forgotten or truncated storylines, lost plot threads, obvious editorial interference, and increasing irrelevance. And yet one thing remained constant: it always sold. Always. Even when the rest of the comics industry was struggling to survive, the X-Men always sold - even when competition was fierce in the height of the early 90s crossover & Image armageddon, the X-Men always sold. People bought the comics no matter what.

Although the X-Axis website is no more, Paul O'Brien continues to read just about every new X-Men book as it is released and review it for his current website. O'Brien is one of the best writers on mainstream comics currently active, and that is primarily due to the fact that he manages to be both a canny industry observer and an unrepentant fanboy - a neat trick considering that the two goals are not usually complementary. In recent months O'Brien has focused increasingly on the fact that the books are violently floundering. The flagship books are still popular, but the franchise isn't #1, it hasn't been #1 for long enough that the tumble can't be perceived as a temporary fluke, and despite the fact that Marvel still thinks the franchise is capable of supporting many more books than seem healthy in the current retail climate, no one is interested in secondary and tertiary X-books anymore. When sales were up and it didn't matter what they put in the books so long as they shipped, they could keep the illusion of momentum going strictly on the strength of sheer popularity. With that automatic popularity having dwindled, it's hard to hide the lack of momentum and the chronic wheel-spinning that characterizes even the most well-received modern X-books.

So, I'd like to talk some about why this is, because as one of the most popular franchises in the history of comics I think there is some significance to be found in their current dire straits. So I'll throw this one out there: based on the above preliminary thoughts, what is your perception of the current state of the X-Men? That's a pretty wide question, so let's see where that takes us.

No comments :