The recent rumors of the on-again/off-again sale of Fox intellectual properties to Disney have fans giddy with the possibility of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men finally coming home to the MCU. The less than stellar Inhumans experiment was doomed in part by the fact that most fans saw it as an obvious attempt to tell mutant stories without using that word, or those characters, since Fox had the rights to all such things.
As an FF fan (as well as of all the characters that are lumped into that rights deal), I’m invested in the prospect of them joining the MCU. The previous Fantastic Four films have gone from bad to atrocious, and that downward trend shows no signs of abating. The FF mark the start of Silver Age for Marvel Comics; they launched the whole thing, well before anyone imagined it’d become the behemoth of an empire it has. They belong in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Perhaps because there have been high water marks in the X-Men family of films (Logan), as well as some that were passable (and unfortunately an awful one or two), I don’t feel as great of a sense of anticipation or relief around them joining the MCU. Denied these assets, Marvel has done a fine job of building a compelling, cohesive universe of stories and individual film franchises that is the envy of all other studios—often copied, not yet successfully.
The irony is that for many years, despite their humble beginnings, X-Men comics carried the publisher and the brand. Younger fans of the X-Men who don’t know the history of the title might be very surprised at the facts. The original Silver Age comic, which debuted in 1963, was part of the explosion of creativity coming from the Lee-Kirby collaboration of the era. X-Men was an attempt to capture the cultural zeitgeist and craft relevant stories about the fight for civil-rights, without openly invoking race, during a volatile time in the United States. The country struggled with issues of inequality in a post-Jim Crow reality, and the analogous plight of mutants resonated with many readers.
However, though thematically interesting, the book was by no means a hit. Lee and Kirby had a great concept, but the stories lacked the enthusiasm and creative spark of their other work. Bringing in fan-favorite, and at the time revolutionary, penciler Neal Adams in 1969 to team up with writer Roy Thomas was not enough to save the title, which was cancelled in 1970. Marvel continued publishing X-men, albeit as reprints: It was as if there was nothing left to say about these characters or their plight (let alone the metaphor they embodied), and the company was throwing in the towel.
In 1975, Marvel took a chance and relaunched the X-men with the publication of Giant Size X-Men #1, by Len Wein and the criminally underrated Dave Cockrum (more on him later). The plan was to continue in the Giant Size format on a quarterly schedule, but wiser heads prevailed. After replacing Wein with Chris Claremont, the “New” X-Men began their run (initially bimonthly) with issue #94 of the original “Uncanny” title. The book tracked a steady climb up the sales charts, particularly after artist John Byrne came on board to replace Cockrum. Byrne, a Canadian, felt a natural affinity for the character that shared his nationality, Wolverine, so he and Claremont pushed the character to the forefront, much to the fans’ delight.
By the mid-80s, The Uncanny X-Men was a consistent industry bestseller. It also became the springboard for many artists to achieve superstar status, despite the diversity of styles they brought to the book: Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita JR, Alan Davis, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, Joe Madureira, Salvador Larroca, Greg Land, Carlos Pacheco, Chris Bachalo… a “who’s who” of artistic talent from each decade, from the 80s to the aughts, graced the book. None of these artists came onto the book with a large fan following already in place, but they each left with one. The book, the characters, launched their stars. Every one of them, except the consummate pro who’d started it all off. Dave Cockrum was a bit of a forgotten man.
Cockrum had co-created Colossus, Nightcrawler and Storm—the latter two were actually characters he’d brought over from his time on DC‘s Legion of Super-heroes. His wildly inventive character designs and colorful costumes were always a stark contrast to the intensity with which he portrayed facial expressions and fight scenes. The pages were dark. Though the pencils were slick and polished, there was an emotional rawness to his storytelling that drew readers in as much as Claremont’s famously wordy, emotionally charged, operatic writing. As a kid, I was drawn to Cockrum’s art, particularly the gestures he captured; when a guy threw a punch in an X-Men comic, he put his whole body into it, from his toes to his knuckles. Cockrum seemed to draw from his gut as much as his head. His drawings were a visceral experience; you felt them as much as you saw them.
Most people associate John Byrne with those early X-Men issues. While I have nostalgic fondness for the stories, as well as Byrne’s work—he’s especially talented at creating techy backgrounds and gadgets, à la Kirby—there’s a greater diversity and variety in Cockrum’s run. Byrne used a limited number of faces and expressions, as well as poses, in his repertoire at the time. And while Byrne could render a great fight scene, there’s a vibrant dynamism to all Cockrum’s figures, even those in repose, that made them electric and alive.
Towards the end of his life, Cockrum was in poor health, and like many comic creators, was faced with financial strains and challenges despite having created a tremendous legacy of art. Through the efforts of fellow industry pros, Cockrum was able to get assistance from a fundraising auction held on his behalf. Afterwards, Marvel provided some support as well, though it came under terms of a nondisclosure agreement: There had been bad blood between the artist and the publisher.
Most X-Men fans don’t remember him or his work—and I’ve had my share of debates regarding the merits of his run versus Byrne’s et al—but regardless of what some may think, he was there at the start, and he was instrumental in what came later. So when we soon hear about Disney/Marvel buying back the X-Men etc., while the fans celebrate the news and the analysts gush over the enormous price-tag, spare a thought for one of the forgotten craftsman who made so much of it possible. Pick up a collected volume of his run, and let it take you away. Share it with a friend, so the legacy continues. It’s the sincerest way to show gratitude for what he left behind.