I think I’ll eventually get around to writing about every Stan Lee issue #1 in the Marvel canon, not just because they’re all of distinct importance in the history of comics, but because I find them fascinating. Nearly everything happening at Marvel now is linked directly back to the ideas of this one man and his stable of collaborators. Lee had a knack for making superheroes seem a little more like real people, but even when he was injecting more complexity into his medium he was working with very broad strokes. Those early Stan Lee creations don’t possess a lot of depth by today’s standards, but we could argue that without Lee’s breaking ground, the depth we have now would never have existed at all. With that in mind, this week we turn our attention to a group of Lee’s creations that remain among the most complex and fluid in all of comics: The X-Men.
The X-Men #1 came along near the end of the period of creation in which Lee produced many of the major Marvel heroes and teams we know today. Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and Thor had all been around for at least a little while (some for a long while). The Avengers, which was basically just a team-up book using existing characters, popped up the same month that the X-Men did. He tried something different with these characters. There was no origin story, no radioactive accident or incitement to start fighting crime. The X-Men – Professor X, Cyclops, Iceman, Beast, Angel and Marvel Girl – were born this way. This little fact is still ringing through the Marvel Universe. These are freaks who never chose to be freaks, who never suffered an accident that gives them a socially acceptable excuse. If they’re scary, it’s just because they came packaged as scary. Lee hit on something there, even if he didn’t fully realize it yet.
That first issue isn’t exactly packed with social commentary, but the energy of the mutant stigma was already there, and as I read it felt like Lee did that on purpose. This was, after all, the early 1960s. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of talk about inherent differences between people and whether they really mattered all that much. In his comic book world, Lee made superpowers the great difference. This extended metaphor has been kept alive in X-Men mythology for nearly 50 years now, so it needs no further exploration here.
What I find interesting about these early Stan Lee issues, these introductions of characters that would come to dominate America’s biggest comics publisher, is how Lee (and, in this case, legendary artist and co-plottter Jack “King” Kirby) managed to create such enuring characters with only a few broad storytelling strokes. Take this issue and its very simple plot: Professor X runs a special school for mutants, he’s training them to be superheroes. Not all mutants have mankind’s best interests at heart. One of them is Magneto. Magneto starts wreaking havoc. The X-Men stop Magneto. Apart from a few other bells and whistles, that’s it.
How do we go from that to an entire family of X-Men titles, hundreds of mutant characters in the same shared universe and a long legacy of killer storytelling by people like Chris Claremont and Joss Whedon? It’s not necessarily an easy answer, and this phenomena isn’t exclusive to the X-Men. All we can really say is that Lee had a knack for finding a very plural appeal to the stories he was telling. When you read X-Men #1, it’s not the story you remember. It’s the way all these little background elements – the mansion in upstate New York, the training sequences, the idea that mutation makes people a kind of automatic outsider and the idea that not all mutants will be so patient for mankind’s acceptance – come together to create something sturdy for future stories to stand on. As a reader who grew up watching the X-Men animated series looking back on where it all started, the most astounding thing is that it was nearly all there, in a neat little package, to begin with.