I remember the day I played sick from high school to read entire collections of Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men, thus kicking off an expensive habit of collecting the trades as they came out. And I collected every stupid iteration of the team from X-Babies, to Exiles, and those gory X-Force books, because the depth and width of their universe is fucking incredible. These days I don’t read many comics, but I always find myself asking MMDG or another Idle Timer about what’s going on with my team. I love those X-books, and I guess I kind of love Jack Kirby for starting it.
Truth be told, Jack Kirby didn’t have to do with much of the X-Men I know. Wolverine, or Hugh Jackman, as some people may know him, was the brain-baby of Len Wein, Roy Thomas, and John Romita Sr, before being fleshed out into the tormented berserker by Chris Claremont. A lot of the stories and characters from the X-Men cartoon are from the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne era, too.
So why give thanks to Jack Kirby?
One of the reasons I stopped reading comics is because the situations were just getting too out of hand. I know that makes me sound ridiculous talking about a comic world where Norse god Thor is kickin’ it with a guy who climbs on walls in red and blue pajamas, and a small section of the population are born with god-like powers that allow them to read minds and control the weather. That’s all on one side of the line. Here’s where I draw my line: I can’t endure the annual one-upmanship of comic books events. Each year, everything has to get bigger, involve more characters, have bigger explosions, and it puts the event over the characters. They get lost underneath all the rubble, and sometimes when then reemerge, you don’t even recognize them.
So, if I sweep away all the rubble, and break X-Men down to what it was at first, what it is at its core, there’s Jack Kirby. In the first issue you have everything you need: Marvel Girl, Cyclops, Iceman, Beast, Angel, Professor X, and maybe most importantly, Magneto. Stan Lee has admitted that the conceit for their powers is stupid-weak (they’re born that way, okay!), that they are literally born different plays into the feeling of alienation and angst befitting a group of teenagers. Their outsider mentality is what makes their dramas so compelling. Jack Kirby took this group of precious teens and did what any loving parent does: put them in school. The Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters is not some nambly-pambly Montessori, Waldorf, fluffy art school. Kirby’s own fascination with military makes its way into the fibers of the story, as each X-Man has to attend classes and practice drills that hone their abilities and instill discipline. They have to train because there’s this bad-ass Holocaust survivor who has a red cape and a helmet and can basically kill you with magnets (Seriously, one time he killed a dude with the iron in his own blood. Fucking incredible). All of this under the supervision of Professor X, a wheelchair-bound genius with god-like telepathic powers. Bring all those ingredients together: Five super-powered hormonal teenagers, one terrorist who masters magnetism, a friendly psychic, bald-guy chaperone, and a school where they can hang and train. There’s a lot that’s been written using just these simple elements, trade out a villain or location, but there’s one little twist that makes the story more interesting than the average funny book.
The X-Men have to save a world that hates them. They train to be super heroes but are treated like lepers. This again plays into the outsider mentality, they’re bound to save a world that will never accept them. Tell that to a teenager who can’t get a date, and also has tentacle appendages, and see how he copes. It reinforces the Otherness of the X-Men, which gives them their human allure. It’s important to point out the X-Men were launched in 1963, the last big book of the Lee/Kirby partnership, and it came during a time of cultural upheaval. Obviously the Civil Rights, the Women’s liberation movement and the rise of youth culture come to mind, and it’s very interesting that in a time of subversion, there comes a book about a small group of teens who have to fight for the benefit of everyone, while gaining nothing but the chance to do it again in next week’s issue. I think a lot of the time it’s easy to daydream about being a super hero because you can turn it off, climb out of a suit or whatever. Being an X-Man is complicated, you’re stuck with powers all the time, and sometimes these things are disfiguring, or lethal, and these characters don’t get to have happy lives. When the books explore the complicated relationships between the characters and their dynamics develop and progress, that’s when it gets great for me. As long as it’s interspersed with giant robot fights and intergalactic wars.
If you can’t tell, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about X-Men. I love it, and I love how much joy it’s brought me. When I look at Kirby’s first X-Men, it feels like looking at gallery art. Those early days with Kirby’s thick chiseled lines and square-proportioned characters have a simple elegance. They carry all the same sentiments of black and white photos I find in grandparents’ houses. Kirby’s concept has grown to have its own history, the characters and their actions now affect a whole universe, and on a multitude of platforms and media. What he started has allowed me to have this nerdy obsession that makes me so happy.
So Happy Birthday, Mr. Kirby. Thanks for a whole universe.