My how times have changed. In 1963, when the first issue of The Uncanny X-men comic book debuted as part of Marvel Comic’s ushering in the “Silver Age of Comics,” it was a very secondary title. Marvel was in transition, going from publishing an odd assortment of weird tales, war and horror comics to strictly super hero fare, and unlike their giant competitor, DC Comics, they opted to concentrate on heroes born of mutation. Their flagship at the time, The Fantastic Four, featured a cast mutated by cosmic rays; the Hulk was a scientist mutated by gamma rays; Spider-man was bitten by a radioactive spider and so forth. Unlike all the others, the X-men were “true mutants,” in the parlance of the time—they were born with their genetic mutations.
All of these characters were “freaks,” some obviously so due to their physical appearances, and others due to their hidden abilities. The notion of being special, of seeing the world through a different mindset, appealed greatly to a new generation of comic book fans, many of whom were doing much the same thanks to the sudden popularity of marijuana. In fact, pot smokers of that era referred to themselves as “freaks.”
Bigotry, racism, intolerance were the themes most often explored by the X-men story lines. And artists like Jack Kirby, who first drew the title for years, were taking comics away from the nine identical panels per page model into a new look that resembled stills from a film, hence the new age of comics.
The X-men of that era were teenagers, led by their adult mentor, and they opposed an assortment of enemies clandestinely, as no one within the “establishment” sympathized with or even understood them. Their early foes included Magneto, (and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants) who went on to become their arch enemy; the giant robots designed to hunt down all mutants, the Sentinels; Unis the Untouchable, and the Blob, a fat man impervious to pain or physical damage, both fellow mutants but without the idealism upon which their group was based. Back in the sixties, Magneto was something of an opportunist and every bit the coward, often fleeing the scene at battle’s end leaving his minions to their own fate. The Hellfire Club, introduced over a decade and a half later in 1980, was a complex organization, with many levels, with political overtones that included a large and diverse cast of characters.
Fast forward to 2011, switch media to film, take into account the temper of the times, the revisionist nature of both art forms as well as our culture in general, and suddenly poor Magneto has become the number one most popular comic villain of all time, a tortured product of the Nazi death camps, to be pitied more than reviled. The Hellfire Club is reduced to a second string Brotherhood of Mutants led by the former death camp doctor responsible for warping poor Magneto and consisting of four mutants. The Uncanny X-men are now the flagship of the Marvel Comic Empire, and Marvel has long since supplanted DC as the major cash cow in the comic book industry. And the X-men films already number five, with lots more under consideration.
As a comic book adaptation, X-men: First Class is a fun romp. Gone are all groovy connections to the drug culture of the ‘60’s; heavy are the hands that stress the bigotry; and a soap opera sensibility prevails. The acting is excellent for a film of this caliber, the characters mostly interesting, and the special effects are special enough to hold one’s attention if one is given to this form of expression. Compared to the third film of the original trilogy, which was ridiculous by any standard, this one is a masterpiece.
My how the times have changed. Just this morning Marvel Comics has announced that issue # 544 of The Uncanny X-men, to be released in October of this year, is to be the last issue. Perhaps the film version of the franchise is far more viable that its vastly different parent comic book, perhaps it can do nicely without the competition, or perhaps fewer people actually read.