Sunday, January 4, 2015

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #29: Giant-Size X-Men #1!

by Professor Chris Blake

Part I: “Hey – where’s my reprints, man?”

There’s a time-tested notion in product marketing (with its origins in late 1960s US political policy) called “benign neglect,” which basically recognizes that there are certain consumer items which – regardless of the time and money you might commit to promoting them – simply never rise to the level where they grab the attention of the buying public.  So you leave them on the bottom shelf in the store, and you find that your sales figures are about the same in Year M as they were in Year G or Year A.  

For five years, from 1970-1975, Marvel took a similar approach to one of the founding titles of the Silver Era – the Uncanny X-Men, the Strangest Teens of All.  The final original X-Men story appeared in issue #66 (March 1970), as a dreaded yellow box on the letters page declared that sales were not sufficient for the title to continue.  And so, without ceremony, the team quietly drifted into limbo, with its members second-billing in Captain America and Marvel Team-Up (among others).  There was little indication during this period that there were any plans to revive the team’s regular title; if anything, appearances like those of the transformed Beast in Amazing Adventures (#11-#17, March 1972–March 1973) suggested that the former mates might be moving on.  

So, why not simply cancel X-Men, if sales had gone feeble?  Well, just because it might not pay to enlist Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, and Tom Palmer to create new stories, it didn’t mean you couldn’t re-run old adventures for little more than the printing cost.  That’s exactly how Marvel handled it – following a nine-month absence from the spinner rack, X-Men reappeared as a double-sized bi-monthly, but showcased nothing other than retread stories from December 1970 to April 1975 (issues #67-#93), with even the reprints reduced from two to one per issue starting with #73.  No one on the editorial staff seemed to have the heart to give up on the team completely, so benign neglect allowed the tottering title to trundle along. 

During this interim, fans wrote in to request new material featuring the mothballed mutants, and at times, responses in the lettercols suggested that there might be something in the works.  Then, beginning in 1974, Stan Lee dropped hints in his monthly Soapbox that the X-ers might be about to enter a new chapter.  It’s a slow and steady buildup, not overhyped at all.  In fact, when Giant-Size X-Men #1 hit the stands as a May 1975 publication, no attention was drawn to it – its arrival is in the mix of other items for the month, following news of the publication of Stan’s Origins of Marvel Comics and the new line of Marvel Value Stamps.  Stan states only that the G-S X-M issue is a “fan dream of a lifetime come true” for penciller Dave Cockrum – Stan uses the space to tip his hat to a welcome newcomer, rather than pour out a big splash about a new team.  The X-Men title itself also offered so hint of what was about to come.  Instead, in X-Men #93 (April 1975), at the bottom of the last page of its reprint (of X-M #45), the snazzy yellow burst tells us that “You’ll find the Cataclysmic Conclusion of this Two-Part Thriller in Giant-Size X-Men #1” (you read it right – the blurb doesn’t even include an exclamation point!).  Any fans who might have grown tired of the steady diet of reprints might not have bothered to look for the double-priced giant-sizer, scheduled to appear on newsstands the very next month.

Part II: “How’d all these muties get here, anyway?”

It’s a bold move – never before had an existing team been almost entirely supplanted by a new one, composed mostly of unknown characters.  The team name “X-Men” had to have still carried some caché after all this time – otherwise, you’d think that the new team would’ve had a new name with its own #1 premiere.  (Given the plethora of #1 issues appearing in the late- to post-Bronze Era, the new team undoubtedly would’ve been handled this way if it had arrived 8-10 years later than it did.  But that’s a separate matter.)  There had to have been a clear understanding that the Charles Xavier character had lasting value, as did the mildly mysterious notion of a somewhat secret team of outsiders (with code names!) and their secluded HQ.  

The seeds of the All-New, All-Different team go back to around 1972, when Roy Thomas was looking to form an international group he referred to as “Mutant Blackhawks;” part of Roy’s angle was to develop a team he could offer to foreign markets.  Once Dave Cockrum came from DC to Marvel in 1974 (DC art director Carmine Infantino had refused to return a single, original piece of art that Cockrum had requested), he brought with him a few potential team members. Cockrum has been quoted as saying that inventing characters was “one of the things I loved to do . . .  I had a huge stable of my own characters – I had this huge sketchbook filled with characters I had come up with” (interview by Cooke, TwoMorrows), particularly Nightcrawler and Storm.  Nightcrawler originally had been envisioned as a demon who had failed in a mission, but who chose to remain on Earth rather than face punishment in hell.  Storm had been thought of a having cat-like powers, but Cockrum changed his approach once Tigra and other feline characters began to appear.  

Cockrum took the opportunity to develop his ideas, and others, with Len Wein for the new X-Men.  Cockrum anticipated that “it was a potentially hot series and I looked forward to the opportunity to do lots of neat stuff. I worked closely with Len to start but it didn't stay that way too long” (Cooke), due in part to Wein transitioning over to his new role as editor-in-chief.  Wein already had created Wolverine, and he is credited for having proposed the back story to go with Cockrum’s sketch for Colossus.  Cockrum’s original illustration for Thunderbird featured him wearing a helmet, but the art department deemed that it made him look like an Air Force pilot, so Cockrum adjusted the design.  The space required to properly introduce the new team contributed to the decision to position the story as a giant-size, rather than try to work within the limits of a routine 18-page story.

Cockrum’s art is properly credited for setting the tone right away for this team’s new membership and direction.  Douglas Martin, in his obituary for Cockrum in The New York Times (following Cockrum’s death in 2006 at age 63 due to complications of diabetes), observed that “Mr. Cockrum saw the characters as dark and appealingly dramatic; they became weathered adults instead of smooth-faced children. Comics Reporter noted the handsomeness of both men and women, as well as an overall ‘sumptuous, late-’70s cinema style’” evident from the start in the pages of G-S X-M #1.

Part III: “So, what’s the big deal?”

The arrival of GS X-M #1 doesn’t explain how the X-Men overtook all other Marvel titles in popularity.  For starters, a bi-monthly title (as the tales of the new team continued, starting with X-Men #94) is going to have a difficult time establishing itself with new readers; two months is an awfully long time to wait, when there are so many other avenues to explore on the newsstand each week.  The next concern involved the creative team, as Chris Claremont took over scripting duties as of X-M #94; neither Claremont (a former “gofer” at Marvel during his late-1960s college days) nor Cockrum had ever handled a regular assignment for Marvel.  

This is a moment when good decisions combine with good fortune to produce a fortuitous outcome.  Consider for a moment: later in 1975, another new team will arrive, featuring work by Tony Isabella and Don Heck (soon followed by George Tuska and Vince Colletta); that’s right, it’s The Champions.  At best, these creative people turned out material that was rudimentary, business-as-usual sort of stuff.  Can you imagine if these industry pros had gotten wind of the new X-Men project, and successfully campaigned to handle the title?  

As it turned out, the bimonthly status of X-Men might’ve allowed the largely-untried hands of relative newcomers Claremont & Cockrum the space and time they needed to develop story ideas, and most importantly, the personalities of the characters themselves.  Claremont describes Wein’s view of Nightcrawler (as evidenced by his demeanor in G-S X-M #1) as “a bitter, tormented and anguished soul” (interview by Irving, NYC Graphic).  Chris & Dave felt that this approach had “been done,” and decided instead, “Why not take the most outrageous-looking character on the team, and make him the most rational, human, decent and most empathetic soul?” (Irving).  In addition, they could give Nightcrawler the self-confidence to say “‘I’m cool. You guys have no idea: I can walk up walls, hang upside down, I can fight standing on one leg with my two hands, a foot, and a tail holding a sword. And I’m invisible in the dark’” (Irving).

Claremont & Cockrum also felt that they could play up the mystery surrounding Wolverine.  Claremont: “Len came up with the concept, put it in place and turned it loose and then, for better or worse, left the book. Dave and I sat down and figured out how to make this character click as we evolved him down the line” (Irving).  For one, Wein was satisfied to leave Wolverine’s claws as part of his costume.  “As Dave and I were doing the character, we thought that made him like Iron Man, and the problem with Iron Man is that anyone can wear the suit, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Tony or Rhodey. What makes him special? What makes him unique?” (Irving).  Chris & Dave felt that Wolverine’s pain, experienced every time he brandishes the claws, should be one of those defining characteristics.  

Over time, the title was able to build momentum, as more and more readers took a chance on the new team, and found themselves pleasantly surprised by its unique qualities.  It’s the nature of how so-called “grass-roots” interest in a product or idea is supposed to develop; it’s something marketeers attempt constantly to influence.  In this instance, benign neglect paid off, as Claremont & Cockrum were given an opportunity to cultivate this title, and in time, it began to connect with its audience.  As Claremont describes it, “you take all these little bits and slide them in, and build your edifice one layer at a time. You have a general sense of where you want to go and how you want to get there, but the details of how the pieces fit to evolve this three-dimensional character is very much a matter of organic growth rather than construction” (Irving).

Another crucial development: once Cockrum stepped down in favor of John Byrne, the hallmarks of the title already had been established – both the unusually consistent quality of the storytelling, and the compelling, credible interaction of the personalities involved.  Not only was Byrne equal to the task, but his fortuitous pairing with Terry Austin – a star on the rise, thanks to his work with Marshall Rogers on Detective Comics – allowed the title to step up to even greater popularity when it resumed monthly circulation as of #112 (August 1978).

The Grand Comics Database tells us that there are 893 series (including international editions – so there you go, Roy!), and nearly 16,000 stories that have been published involving the X-Men.  If it hadn’t been for Giant-Size X-Men #1, that total most likely would have stayed around 66, guest appearances – and reprints – aside.  

Credit where-it’s-due department: special thanks to the following online publications, for unknowingly contributing to this piece:

Cooke, Jon B. “Dave ‘Blackhawk’ Cockrum: The Marvel days of the co-creator of the new X-Men.” Interview from Comic Book Artist #6; text posted on TwoMorrows website (posting dated not indicated).

Irving, Christopher. “Chris Claremont on evolving the X-Men.” NYC Graphic, posted 6/13/2011.

Martin, Douglas. “Dave Cockrum, 63, Comic Book Artist, Dies.” The New York Times, posted 11/29/2006.

Wikipedia – I consulted the pages for the X-Men, and for Dave Cockrum; there wasn’t much information about Roy Thomas or Len Wein that addressed specifically the making of G-S X-M #1.

Further reading for X-philes: Starting in 1999, John Byrne put out a series called X-Men: The Hidden Years, in an effort to bridge the gap from X-M #66 to G-S X-M #1.  It’s a solid effort; Byrne hits all the usual buttons, as Sauron, a Sentinel, and yes, Magneto all appear.  Byrne knows his X-lore, and tries whenever he can to connect his storyline with the existing Marvel mythos, which had continued to play out.  So – the series is well worth considering for Marvel fans of the late Silver/early Bronze eras.  

I will mention two reservations: 1) Byrne has a tendency to do something that I least like with team books, as he separates the team members over a multiple-issue story; I much prefer to see a team having to work as a team; 2) Byrne’s art is typical of his later period, which means that you get broad layouts, which can be very effective, but there is very little of the detail which also contributed to Byrne’s appeal and success.  Tom Palmer is a fitting choice as the inker for nearly all of the issues (as his style takes you back to the X-issues he had done decades before), but in some cases, the art is more Palmer than Byrne.  

The series covers 22 issues, which you can find on ebay for $1-2 apiece.  When I saw 22 as its total number, I figured that Byrne had planned this as a limited run, and that 22 was its intended end-point.  I’ve since learned that Marvel cancelled the title, despite respectable sales, due in part to some other re-boot they were doing.  If you’d like to know more about the series before you start laying out cash for it, I suggest you consult an overview by Chris Fluit on his site Fluit Notes (posted 1/15/2009).


  1. Chris, that was a very interesting post! I remember buying GSXM 1 when it came out and being pretty excited at the time. I re-read it several years ago online and was struck by how well it held up. Thanks for the background details!

  2. Hmm, I think I'm a bit on the opposite side Jack. Not with Chris' post of course, it's excellent. GSXM1 didn't really knock my socks off when I first read it. The living island thing seemed right out of the pages of an old horror comic. And the characters didn't really connect at first. But, like most everyone else, I didn't miss an issue when X-Men really started to pick up steam. Nice stuff Chris!

  3. I read GSXM1 years after the fact. I began reading the book at the end of the Byrne run and spend too much on back issues. This was before collections or regular reprints like the later Classic X-Men. I never consciously put GSXM1 in this era of Marvel, published alongside Killraven or the Tusca/Brown/Heck dominated team-books. After reading the issue it was kind of hard to understand why it was the foundation of a veritable comics imperium.

    This post put some things into perspective. It is interesting to think what would have happened if this would have become Isabella/Heck instead of Claremont/Byrne. As much as I dislike later Byrne his work here was so far ahead of a lot of his collegues. It was a great book.

  4. Thanks to you all for your supportive response to my GS XM#1 piece. I think it's a fun issue - I can only imagine how surprised Marvel readers must've been to see these new (plus a few slightly-used) characters on the scene. There were better stories to come, sure, but it all starts here. I'm with you, Andy -- one at a time, I snapped up issues I had missed from '75-'78, with a few of them -- this one in particular -- still all-too-far out of reach.

    Jack, special thanks for your care-filled work -- haven't you been designing the posts each week? If so, then thanks again.

  5. Thanks, Chris, but full credit for design and layout goes to Peter. I just make sure the background is red and the type is white!

  6. Chris,

    Great Stuff. I had GSXM #1 and the first 10 or so new issues that followed; sold them off in the mid-'80's when I hadn't bought I comic for years and had no idea of their value...