For the X-Men, going against the grain isn’t a good thing- it’s great.
Comic books are a funny business. For every one character that is successful, there are dozens that just don’t work. With that said, when something catches on, it’s a pretty sure bet that whatever is working, you don’t change it. You run that sucker into the ground for all it’s worth. It’s why Superman has generally not changed his appearance since his debut in 1938 or Captain America will most likely always have a shield, or how the Batman sigil will never stray too far from a bat silhouette. It’s normal for aspects of comic characters to alter over the time, but what typically occurs is an eventual return of the former status quo.
Another staple is being able to relate to the characters. To do that, creators have to stay within a certain mold or else risk alienating their customers. So, if all this is true, how have the X-Men been able to get away with so much over the years? What makes them so special?
Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and the Hulk. Every character I just listed is easily identifiable at a glance, even to the most non-comic book educated. There’s a reason for that. It worked. Outside of a couple of radical attempts during the late 80s into the decade of ‘EXTREME’, the 1990s, none of the above’s costumes or overall look have strayed too far away from their original design. Its less about “staying true” and has to do more with product recognition.
The X-Men, however, seem to thrive on change. Like just about everyone else in the 1990s, they all saw changes to costumes and overall look. That is where the similarities end. While Wolverine and Gambit were able to hold onto the signature outfits, the rest of the X-Men went through several visual tweaks. The biggest change for the X-Men came right after the success of the first X-Men movie. For a couple of years, most of the vibrant colors that could be found seemingly pasted to their bodies was replaced with black leather, boots, and jackets. Very similar to what was seen on the big screen.
It didn’t take long for that look to go the way of Superman’s mullet. By the mid-2000s the X-Men would ditch the biker-look and comfortably return to more traditional superhero hues and styles. Many were so drastically different, that newcomers would have found it difficult to spot some of their favorites from the movies. So, what’s up? Why does editorial and marketing allow the X-Men to often stray away from their more appealing looks?
Most of the best superheroes out there have a timelessness to them. Despite what’s going on around them, they hold to their original aspects. On the other hand, the X-Men tend to evolve. Almost as much as they can be seen in their colorful costumes, they are illustrated in street clothes. Without having to say, unlike in X-Men: The Animated Series that basically had civilian-Logan in the same brown jacket and yellow-shirt, the X-Men adapt to the current era.
Outside of a severe lack of parental oversight (most of them are orphans), the X-Men are fairly dissimilar in terms of their origin stories. Unlike being an alien, taking a super soldier serum, or being exposed to an exotic form of radiation, the X-Men were born the way they are. For the most part. With exceptions such as Nightcrawler and Madrox, all they had to do was reach puberty. That in of itself is a point of relation almost completely exclusive to the X-Men. Everyone goes through the process of puberty which can have us dramatically morph out of our child-like bodies into something approaching maturity.
Besides the physical stuff, another and probably a bigger point are the individual backgrounds of each member. When Chris Claremont began his nearly 20-year reign over the X-Men starting in 1975, the series took a sharp turn away from the more every-teenager route. All of a sudden, nearly half the X-Men roster hailed from a completely different country. Storm, though originally from New York City, before she joined the X-Men, spent the majority of her life in Africa.
Banshee and Nightcrawler were from Europe with both Colossus and Sunfire coming from two considerably different parts of Asia. From that point going forward, the X-Men were the most diverse group of superheroes. Fans from all across the world and walks of life were able to see themselves in one or more members. This was done organically, without being forced or transformed at the drop of a hat. With all the initiatives in play today, I’m not quite certain if it all was/is even necessary.
Characterizations & Personalities
The storyline of the X-Men has always been compared to that of a soap opera. More than any other comic book out there, anyway. With the ebb and flow of a living, breathing plot it’d be hard to justify a personality remaining the same. Similar to real-life people, the X-Men experiences tend to shape the people they will inevitably become. Superman and Captain America are who they are. They stand for what they believe in, no matter what. Every so often, it’s tested, but they always revert to what makes them identifiable. Batman will always be short on words, quietly brutal, and determined. Anything less would be blasphemous.
Now let’s look at the X-Men. In my opinion, the only characters that have consistently maintained their original personalities throughout all the horrors and heartbreak the X-Men are exposed to are Storm, Nightcrawler and Iceman, despite his sudden shift in sexual orientation. Angel hasn’t been the carefree Playboy since the 80s. He’s been downright bloodthirsty more often than not. Now take Cyclops for example… Scott Summers started out as straight an arrow as someone could be. After the “death” of Jean Grey following the Dark Phoenix Saga, he courted and eventually married another woman Madelyn Pryor (a clone of Jean created by Mister Sinister). Even with a son, the straight arrow left his family at the first sign that Jean may have been alive. He’d later still go on to have a telepathic affair with Emma Frost and become a full-fledged international outlaw.
Adversely, we can compare Cyke’s two-decade-long downward spiral to Wolverine’s own evolution. Logan went from single-minded, samurai-loner, wildcard to the headmaster and founder of the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning. Matter of fact, the school was founded in direct opposition to Cyclops’ more militaristic approach to education. An angle that Wolverine, of all people, didn’t agree with. So much so, that they came to bloody-blows over it. The conflict would split the entire X-Cult down the center furthermore demonstrating the drastic divergence we saw the entire franchise take while other comparables stayed the course.
What makes the X-Men special is their ability to mirror life as WE know it. Of course, we don’t have cyborgs, aliens, and giant robots to contend with; but prejudice, disease, love, culture, and fashion resonate with everyone. While certain aspects, such as Beast’s blue fur, or Storm’s white hair may always be front and center of their design, the X-Men are allowed to change with the times. They aren’t defined by a specific trait or set of characteristics. The X-Men and their universe is ever-evolving, and thankfully not bound to the same set of rules as everyone else. At times they can become as unfamiliar as anything else but, luckily, familiarity isn’t what makes Marvel’s Merry Band of Mutants special.