It wasn’t Chris Claremont that made me an X-Men fan. The Dark Phoenix Saga ended and John Byrne left the series well before I was born. Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor married in a comic cover dated for the month I was born. By the time I was old enough to read, Maddie was long gone. By the time I hit the series, Claremont was past his prime and on his way out. I didn’t read but maybe two parts of the Muir Island Saga, and that was just enough to learn the word “pyrrhic” and the phrase “Bang, you dead.”
No, it was never about Claremont. It was about Jim Lee, whether he was assisted by Scott Williams or Art Thibert. It was about this:
It’s Jubilee flexing with Colossus, Iceman and Opal cracking jokes, Gambit getting his card pulled, Cyclops with a smile, and Archangel with the razor wings.
X-Men #1 wasn’t my first comic. That was Amazing Spider-Man #316, which I got from my uncle. X-Men #1 was probably one of the first ones I bought with my own money, or money begged off my mom, though. I’ve managed to hang onto it all these years, too. It’s well worn, which makes sense considering the fact I probably know it by heart, but not tattered, which is basically a miracle. Spider-Man was my entry drug, but Jim Lee’s X-Men hooked me. Last week on the internet, I said this:
Lee’s issues of X-Men are great comics. They’re pure spectacle, a series of really quick bursts of action and characterization. Some of Wolverine’s best moments ever are here, Gambit gets in a “gotta be da shoes” moment or two, and Bishop hits Rogue in the face with a boysenberry pie. Maybe you had to be there, but as an eight or nine-year old kid, these comics were the absolute apotheosis of comics as an art form or entertainment medium. “Jim Lee’s X-Men: David Brothers Likes It More Than He Likes Watchmen.”
The last line was a throwaway at first, something half meant to rile up the usual suspects and half sincere. The more I thought about it, though, the more sincere it became. I really do prize those comics more than Watchmen. In Watchmen, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins showed the world that cape comics were more than just entertainment for kids and shut-ins. They took the form and elevated it, charting new ground and changing the face of cape comics forever.
Jim Lee’s X-Men showed me that comics could be incredible, and crawled all the way up into my lizard brain to do it. I’m not even sure if I have the vocab to explain how or why. When someone says the word “superhero,” I think of Jim Lee’s art. He defined superheroes for me, and probably redefined them for the genre, too.
I know now, as an adult, that the visual language of cape comics comes from Jack Kirby. I can spot the influences in Lee’s art, too, the Art Adams business and John Byrne jawlines and Neal Adams physiques. I can break him down into his component parts if I put my mind to it, but Lee’s art is bigger than the sum of his parts. His characters look like superheroes should look: toothy grins, babyface or stubbled chins, physiques like Greek gods, and they positively bleed sexiness–granted, a very specific type of sexiness, aimed at pubescent boys, but it’s so easy to see his appeal.
I devoured those comics as a kid. I had a nearly uninterrupted run of Lee’s X-Men–that was probably a first, too–and I read most of them until the staples came out. Everything about comic books clicked for me and I had to have more.
His style defined the X-Men for years, to the point where the next big seismic shift in their visual style was when Joe Madureira mixed Lee’s costuming with a big sack full of manga tropes. The X-Men in X-Men: Children of the Atom up through to Marvel vs Capcom 2 are Lee’s X-Men, whether in design or in spirit.
Lee, even to this day, is probably the purest example of pop comics art. He doesn’t go in for Frank Quitely-style storytelling, David Aja-style body language, or Alan Davis-style realism. That’s not his thing. Instead, he has a keen eye for the cool. He knows what works on the page, and he gets that sometimes spectacle is more important than substance. Sometimes, substance is secondary to entertainment.
Grifter’s mask, Rogue’s bomber jacket and extra-long hair, Colossus being like eight feet tall, and Zealot are all things that shouldn’t quite work. If you think too hard at them, they fall apart. But when you’re swept up in the comic and watching these characters move across the page, none of that matters. It’s a cool visual, and it’s the type of cool that sticks with you. There are some scenes from X-Men that I first read twenty years ago and still hold in higher esteem than a lot of recent stuff. This “gotta be da shoes” reference right here:
I love this. It was topical back then, and probably passed through a corny phase a few years after that, but now, twenty years removed from its source? It’s fantastic. It’s just a guy having fun showing characters having fun. It’s not gripping reading, but it is compelling. There’s so much character and excitement packed into this dumb old basketball game.
I definitely imprinted on this stuff as a kid. I’ve never even seen a boysenberry pie in real life, so every time I hear the phrase, I think of this scene. I get and enjoy dozens of artists, Kirby included, and have a pretty good handle on the evolution of how cape comics are drawn. Paolo Rivera or David Aja may draw cape comics that are technically better, and Frazer Irving or Travis Charest may draw ones that are prettier, but nobody ever gets me hype off superheroes like Lee does. It flips some switch in my head and I just gotta check it out.
I’ve seen Lee draw the WildC.A.T.s, Batman, Superman, and the X-Men. Flash, too, I think–maybe a cover or three during Geoff Johns’s first run on the series. I sorta wish he’d done something substantial on Spider-Man. Spidey’s still the perfect superhero, and probably the one major gap in Lee’s body of work.