The X-Men are credited with many of comics’ great achievements as an art form and dominant part of pop culture. The X-books were among the first Marvel books to bring the publisher back to relevance. The franchise (for better or worse) introduced almost every major comics trend in the ‘90s, from pouches to crossovers to foil covers. The ‘90s cartoon was considered one of the best of its time, and would have been the best were it not for Batman: The Animated Series. X-Men even kicked off the superhero movie craze 15 years ago.
The franchise birthed Wolverine (well, Hulk did but he didn’t matter until Professor X found him), Cyclops, Storm, Gambit, Magneto, Mystique and countless others, many of whom rank as some of the most popular in all of American fiction. For all intents and purposes, the X-Men and its related properties should be one of the biggest lines in all of comics. It should drive major storylines. It should be a publisher’s dream.
Except it’s not. Conspiracy theories abound as to why the X-Men have been all but banished to Madripoor, but those aren’t proven. The facts are that X-Men are being phased out of merchandise in the real world and are now sterile in the fictional world thanks to the Terrigen Mist.
For most franchises, especially one at Marvel, these would be devastating. The lack of publicity would hurt interest and sales. The lack of new characters could lead to stale storylines and retreads of past dynamics.
But unlike the rest of Marvel’s stable, the X-Men have a secret weapon that DC trades on time and time again: nostalgia. Mutantkind has such an extensive history and canon that it can be mined for new gimmicks and approaches to capture fans’ attention and liven up contemporary stories.
Consider X-Men ‘92, a miniseries that was published as part of the latest Secret Wars. Writers Chris Sims and Chad Bowers trotted out everything fans loved (and hated) about X-Men into one action-packed event. Cable, Omega Red, malls, and Gambit being terribly lovable (or lovably terrible) were among the highlights. Support for the book was so huge that it’ll become an ongoing series in 2016 with Star-Lord & Kitty Pryde artist Alti Firmansyah joining Sims and Bowers.
The miniseries and future ongoing trade solely on nostalgia. The creative team here basically took all of the most popular and infamous elements from ‘90s X-Men to create the ideal series for targeting fans who stopped caring about the characters after the cartoon went off the air.
In actual continuity, X-Men’s history has been brought in an almost absurd amount. Thanks to the franchise’s predilection for time travel and alternative universes, old characters constantly pop up in new ways. That said, none of them have had as much of an impact as the original X-Men, who were brought to modern times by Beast to convince Cyclops that he’s lost his way.
Although younger versions of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Beast, and Angel seemed like a minor trick to correct a weak story, they’ve reinvigorated the entire cast and given writers a new way to examine everyone. Most notably, Cyclops (both young and old) got a shot in the arm. Readers got to see what it had been like if young Scott joined his father Corsair in space instead of ascending to X leadership, while also watching older Scott struggle along the path he started when he became a Phoenix host.
It’s the best of both worlds. Where Archangel struggles with his identity and actions, the young Angel embodies the hope and thrill the character possessed on the original team. Creative teams can contrast today’s X-Men’s moral confusion and increasingly vile actions with the hope and innocence that were present when characters were created.
As a whole, X-Men are in an odd place. The franchise is almost on the periphery of its publisher’s plans and its best storytelling tools are predicated on history being used as a mirror and gimmick. However, that history’s rich narratives can be reshaped to match today’s evolving characters, which should be more than enough to keep fans happy.