By Don Alsafi. This week saw the release of Generation X #1, part of Marvel’s latest attempt to revitalize its X-Men line. The original Gen X was a fondly-remembered team book from the 1990s, and this newest incarnation stars fan-favorite Jubilee as mentor to a new batch of students at the Xavier Institute. With any luck, this should be the perfect vehicle for attracting lapsed readers — Marvel’s much-desired demographic.
This is of course not the first spinoff to feature teenage students, as Marvel first deployed the concept with The New Mutants in 1982. But it was a radically different landscape then: In 1986, Uncanny X-Men sold approximately 400,000 copies a month and New Mutants sold about 200,000. Conversely, in February 2017 Uncanny X-Men sold just under 35,000*. So when reading this newest debut it’s worth considering what Marvel did right over three decades ago, and what lessons from that time could possibly be applied today.
Generation X #1
Written by Christina Strain.
Art by Amilcar Pinna.
Colors by Felipe Sobreiro.
Letters by VC’s Clayton Cowles.
Young kids, old problems. Perhaps fittingly for a comic starring teenaged characters, the creative team of Generation X are relatively fresh voices too. Christina Strain was a colorist for ten years before completing a graduate degree in writing, while Marvel has had Amilcar Pinna on tap for the past couple years. And underneath that gorgeous cover by Terry and Rachel Dodson, Pinna’s art is impressive in ways large and small: Jubilee’s Chinese ethnicity has never looked more accurately portrayed, for instance, and the Xavier Institute really does look like a school!
But that fully-populated high school setting might be where the problems first begin. As orientation kicks off, we’re treated to a scene of several unnamed mutant characters congregating in the hallways, and that’s fine. We don’t need to know them individually – we just need to see that they exist. Unfortunately, those who are established as the book’s core cast don’t fare much better.
We see Jubilee embrace her new faculty role; then there’s our first glimpse of the other main characters as a classroom scuffle gets out of hand (with property damage galore). But spending five pages out of twenty on a fight scene, when the characters in question haven’t yet been introduced, maybe wasn’t the wisest choice.
At the end of the day (or issue), who are these new kids, really? What in particular makes them who they are, and why should we as new readers care?
Unique perspectives. Look, here’s the thing: People want to read the X-Men! They know the movies, the ’90s cartoon – and maybe they used to read the comics, many years ago. They love the idea of the X-Men, and their underlying themes of identity and prejudice resonate to this day. But the biggest problem today is that to new or lapsed readers, the X-titles feel impenetrable; if you haven’t already been reading their books for years, you have no idea what’s going on. There’s simply too much to keep track of!
In the 1980s, writer Chris Claremont famously resisted this expansion for as long as he could, as he wisely feared that numerous spinoffs might dilute what made the X-Men so special. So when the time came, he and his editors ensured that each new book had its own distinct identity: The comic about the young generation. The one about the founding X-Men, now returned. The solo title for Wolverine … set on an island nation where no one knows him!
Generation X may be one of ten new or rebooted X-books (which seems, on a hunch, six or seven too many), but it firmly has a unique, intuitively understood, and easily describable raison d’être – and that’s an unequivocal win.
Who’s the new kid? But the other thing that made Uncanny X-Men such a sales-smashing success in the 1980s, and resounded so much with is readers, was that its characters felt rich, vibrant, and undeniably real. The younger cast perhaps more so; teenaged fans reading The New Mutants related to those characters because they were, first and foremost, kids like them. In this regard, unfortunately, Generation X #1 is not nearly as adroit.
By issue’s end, all of the characters have been introduced by name, and yet they’re still mostly ciphers. From what’s presented on the page, we know that Nature Girl is a girl with antlers. We can see that Eye-Boy is a boy with a bunch of eyes. (And Bling is … purple, I guess?) At least some of the mutant abilities displayed are equally vague. For instance, when Hindsight touches someone, he seems to get shocking visions of something germane to that character’s past. But while it’s evident that the scenes he taps into are emotionally powerful to him, they’re not similarly powerful for the reader – because they’re delivered as a wordless, multi-image montage, and thus we’ve no context for what they mean. The portrayal is good for effect, maybe, but distressingly bad for clarity.
One for the fans. Make no mistake: This is a very attractive comic. Amilcar Pinna’s art style has a unique, slightly indie look that might not be out of place in an acclaimed anthology (like Image’s Island). His people have an arresting expressiveness that makes you want to get to know them – and in the brief moments when we see the characters connect with each other, Christina Strain’s real understanding of genuine human interactions shines through. Regrettably, such moments are few and far between.
In the final analysis, while this debut does a number of things right, it also comes across as an X-Men comic firmly aimed at people who are already reading X-Men comics. (This is a problem endemic to much of Marvel’s current output, but one that tends to be immeasurably stronger when it comes to the X-books.)
These are the questions we’d like to see Marvel asking themselves with every new comic they put out: Is this primarily for the dwindling hardcore fans who are still reading? Or is this deliberately, explicitly, a book that any comics fan could pick up, understand, and be intrigued by enough to come back for more? Will Marvel continue their frustrating trend of preaching only to the (increasingly few) converted, or will they remember to pitch their stories at the wide, wide world – which is increasingly in love with comics and geek culture – and perhaps someday see their sales numbers rise once again?
Halfway through the issue, in the immediate aftermath of the property-damaging tussle, new student Nathaniel Carver turns right around, luggage in hand, and walks back out of the school. “I’ve seen enough,” he calls out over his shoulder. “I’m out.”
The question that worries me is whether new readers might feel the same.
5.5 out of 10
* As always when discussing sales figures, numerous approximations and variables enter the equation. But even accounting for allowable margins of error, ‘Uncanny X-Men’ appears to now sell only 10% of what it did thirty years ago.