It may seem hard to believe now, with the X-Men one of the biggest franchises in both comics and movies, but at one time the X-Men were the worst-selling title in the Marvel Comics line. The X-Men were even canceled in 1970. Well, not entirely. The title shifted to publishing bi-monthly reprints as a low-cost way of keeping the comic in circulation. Then, in 1975, Marvel introduced an all-new, all-different line-up of X-Men, featuring Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm and Wolverine. The rest is, as they say, history.
Thanks to Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and eventually John Byrne, the all-new X-Men became one of Marvel’s most popular titles. That led to the X-Men becoming Marvel’s best-selling title. They then proliferated into an entire line of their own, with a dozen spin-off books (and sometimes more). They even expanded into cartoons and movies. The X-Men became so big that now it’s hard to imagine that they were ever the misfits of the Marvel Universe. Yet, that’s exactly what they were.
For many fans, the five year gap in the history of the X-Men was a source of curiosity. Though the title may have been in limbo, the characters didn’t entirely disappear. They showed up as guest-stars in other titles, like Fantastic Four and Captain America. Their main villain, Magneto, took on the Fantastic Four and then the Avengers. One of the members, the Beast, even had a starring role for a while in the anthology title, Amazing Adventures.
Plus, when they came back in Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975, there were indications that the team had stayed active. In the story that re-introduced them, they had been captured by an island menace. Professor Xavier gathered the new team in order to rescue the old team. After the rescue, it was the new team that stuck together as the old team went their separate ways. Yet, that story and their guest appearances in other titles indicated that the old team had stayed active during the five-year gap. Many fans wanted to know: what had the old team been doing during that time?
In 1999, John Byrne started to answer that question with the launch of X-Men: The Hidden Years. The title would be set in the five-year gap. It would pick up right after issue 66. And it would lead up to Giant-Size #1 and issue 94. There was even talk that it would run 60 issues, based on the number of months the title had been on hold. The Hidden Years was part of a nostalgic phase in John Byrne’s career. For fans of a certain age or of a historical bent like me, The Hidden Years was a most-welcome addition to the X-Men line.
The title got off to a very strong start. John Byrne adjusted his art style so that it looked like Neal Adams. He especially imitated Adams’ angular panels and unusual page design. The result is that these early issues had a very similar feel to the final issues published in 1969 and ’70- the Roy Thomas/Neal Adams run that had inspired younger writers and artists like Len Wein, Chris Claremont and John Byrne to bring back the X-Men in the mid-‘70s. It’s not often that an older artist like Byrne can change his style, and even rarer for an older artist to do so successfully, but the change really worked for the Hidden Years and was a big reason for its early success.
Byrne also did a good
job of creating the setting. He quickly retold some of the last
X-Men stories of the Silver Age- their battles against the Hulk and
the Z’Nox- so that readers would have a rough idea of their
situation. And he had the X-Men react to the news that Professor X
was alive, something that had only been revealed in the
second-to-last issue. Iceman especially took it hard and left the
team in anger over the Professor’s falsehoods.
The story wasn’t quite as impressive. Byrne sent the X-Men back to the Savage Land for their first arc, the location of one of their big final epics under Thomas and Adams. It felt a little like Byrne was repeating the story instead of just imitating the style. He even included a Ka-Zar appearance (though it’s hard not to if your story is set in the Savage Land) and Magneto. However, Byrne did add some elements of his own to make it interesting. He added a race that was previously unknown to the X-Men. This new race resembled bat-people and they watched over a strange city that somehow healed the dying. The X-Men quickly learned that this apparent utopia had its sinister side. Those who were healed were quickly turned into slave labor by the bat-priests who watched over the city. And the bat-priests had their own bigotry. A child who had been born looking more like a bird than a bat had been the subject of a lifetime of abuse before the X-Men’s Angel determined to rescue her. With those elements, the story was pretty good, even if it wasn’t as great as the art.
The Savage Land story transitioned into a Storm story. Well, not quite. The X-Men crash-landed in Africa after escaping from the Savage Land in some hot-air balloons. There, they met Ororo, the storm goddess, several years before Professor Xavier would recruit her into the X-Men. I really liked this development. We know that Professor X had been tracking these other mutants before he recruited them onto the team. We had even met Banshee and Sunfire in the original ‘60s run. So I thought it was neat to see another one of the new X-Men in her pre X-Men situation. It was fun seeing how the X-Men reacted to her, especially Beast. I even noticed a bit of a romantic interest, well before Halle Berry and Kelsey Grammer hugged (and flirted?) in the third movie.
For me, these first seven issues were the highlight of the Hidden Years: great art, a solid story and surprise guest-stars. This is exactly what I wanted from the series. Even though it was supposed to be “filling in the gaps,” The Hidden Years was telling stories just as exciting as the ones that came immediately before and afte.
Issues 8-12: Fantastic Four, Sentinels and Sauron
Unfortunately, The Hidden Years couldn’t keep it up. For me, the series started to fall apart in the second half of its half year. It wasn’t a quick fall off of a cliff. There were still things to like about the series. But there were a number of things that went wrong for me.
First of all, the series became too self-referential. The Hidden Years was always going to have a bit of that. It was set in the past, after all, and filling in the blanks in continuity. But at a certain point, it seemed like Byrne was more interested in pointing to those old stories than in telling new stories set within that time period. He included an unnecessary recap of Thomas and Adams’ Sentinels story before introducing his own. He also included a foreshadowing of the Phoenix story. It was annoying when Chris Claremont kept referring back to it in the early ‘80s, and it’s annoying when Byrne does the same thing here. Even worse, it undercuts the story by giving the X-Men hints about what’s going to happen to Jean in the future. That makes them look dumb that they weren’t able to figure out what was happening, despite these additional clues.
Another problem is that the story becomes too scattered. At one point, the X-Men are involved in five different stories in five different settings. The X-Men had gone through periods of separation before: Arnold Drake had told a series of solo or duo stories after the team had been disbanded by the government. But those stories weren’t as good as the ones when the team was together. That’s the case here as well. It also becomes an issue in terms of chronology. Professor X and the Beast are involved in an incident with an emerging mutant that takes about an hour while Iceman, Havok and Lorna are involved in a story that takes place over several days. And it’s an issue in terms of pacing. With so many stories going on, John Byrne sometimes includes short scenes to remind us of what other X-Men are doing. But these short scenes often repeat information from the previous issue and fail to move the other sub-plot forward. It was repetitive and boring when it was coming out monthly. When read all at once, it’s much more noticeable and aggravating.
Finally, the art started to look less and less like Neal Adams. Intentionally or not, John Byrne slowly transitioned back to his own style. It’s understandable. Most artists are going to revert back eventually. Plus, John Byrne’s art style was still appropriate. He was one of the major artists on the title in the late ‘70s after all. And with Tom Palmer on inks, the title still looked like the John Buscema or Sal Buscema Avengers of the same time period. So it was still fitting; it just wasn’t quite as cool.
That’s not to say that this period of The Hidden Years was all bad. There are two really good things going on in these issues. One, The Hidden Years wasn’t just supposed to fill in the gaps. Fans already knew some of what had happened to the X-Men due to their guest-appearances in other titles. The Hidden Years was supposed to incorporate these appearances into a consistent narrative, and explain away some of the inconsistencies in team line-up and individual costumes that occurred. Byrne starts to do that here, and do it well. He has a bit of fun with Jean Grey putting her school costume back on and even more fun in having Angel’s girlfriend Candy Southern wear Jean’s Marvel Girl costume. He includes a guest-appearance of the Fantastic Four, complete with then-member Crystal instead of the Invisible Girl. You really get a sense that these stories are taking place in that era. Also, Byrne doesn’t forget that he’s supposed to be writing an action comic, not just a history lesson. The double-sized twelfth issue includes a great fight scene between Sauron and Magneto with three members of the X-Men standing on the sidelines.
Issues 13-17: Dazzler (no, not that one), the Lost Generation and Kraven
First up is an Angel-centric story in which Warren discovers that his uncle plans to marry his mom. This is bad news for Angel as he knows that his uncle killed his dad though he had kept this information from his mom in order to spare her any additional anguish (and yes, Byrne makes note of the similarities to Hamlet, thanks to the scholarly Beast). To make things even more complicated, Warren’s uncle Burt knows that he’s Angel of the X-Men. They had once unmasked each other when Burt was the villainous Dazzler (years before a disco diva would take on the same name). This is a good story for the X-Men. They have a personal stake in the outcome, which makes it more intense and important. Also, the team is back together for this one. Well, mostly. There’s a nice bit in which Angel leaves Havok and Lorna behind only to have the two of them run off on an adventure of their own. But they are all together for a couple of scenes at least. And, Byrne does a good job of weaving the older stories into the new one. In the early ‘70s, Angel had starred in a short series of back-up stories in Ka-Zar in which he fought the Dazzler. I hadn’t even read those stories myself until recently (they’re reprinted in Marvel Masterworks Vol. 6) but I liked the way that Byrne made use of them.
The second story is a quick one-shot with guest-stars Yeti and Pixie of the First Line. These are two characters that John Byrne and Roger Stern had created for The Lost Generation, which just so happened to be a similar project as The Hidden Years. It was a mini-series filling in the gaps between the end of the Golden Age (roughly the end of World War II) and the beginning of the Silver Age (in our time, 1961; in “Marvel Time,” about ten years ago). Fans of the one series were likely to also be fans of the other. I enjoyed seeing a couple of the Lost Generation characters show up. And I appreciated that John Byrne was making use of not only the original continuity from 1970 to ’75, but also the retroactive continuity that’s been created since then by flashbacks and other series set in the past.
The third story is another simple one-shot. It features a challenge by Kraven the Hunter. Kraven is normally a Spider-Man foe but he wants a turn at hunting the Beast. So we get a Beast-centered story with a Spidey villain. It’s not the best story, but I like the idea behind it. The X-Men did fight some of the Silver Age villains from other titles: Captain America and the Avengers’ Super-Adaptoid, and Mole-Man from the Fantastic Four. But there are plenty of other villains that they didn’t fight at the time or haven’t fought since. Plus, John Byrne comes up for a good reason why they would encounter Kraven.
Just as the bad period of the Hidden Years wasn’t entirely bad, this good period isn’t entirely good. My biggest complaint has to do with Professor X. While the Beast returned to the rest of the team in issue 13, the Professor stayed in Dunfee, Illinois in order to continue to monitor the situation with the young mutant they had discovered there. Byrne had not been presenting the Professor as a paragon of virtue in this series. Iceman was mad at him for his duplicity. The Beast questioned the Professor’s quick use of his telepathy to make people forget certain things. Cyclops even warned Jean to not make the same mistakes the Professor had made when she did the same thing. But, as much as Byrne may have wanted us to see the Professor as a flawed character, I think that some of that depiction was unintentional, especially here. Despite having made the child forget everything and the mother forget many things, Xavier ends up staying with them for several days. He lives right there in the house. The mother ends up flirting with him as a possible love interest. But I just find it creepy. He completely manipulates her and then she allows a man she’s never met to sleep over for several days. Xavier looks even worse when Byrne is trying to make him look good than when he’s trying to make him look bad.
Issues 18-22: The Promise, Mole Man and more Magneto
By this time, John Byrne and the readers know that the title is nearing the end. The cancellation is mentioned by a fan in issue 19’s letter column. In many ways, it’s an unsatisfying ending, though I’ll get to that later. First, let’s deal with the stories themselves.
Unfortunately, in these issues, John Byrne makes some of the mistakes that he made in issues 8-12. He divides up the team again and tries to tell several stories at once. While this kind of long-form story-telling can work well on other titles, it never seems like the best fit for the Hidden Years. There are three main stories going on at this time (not including the continuing not quite romantic liaison between Professor X and Ashley’s mom). The first involves a new group called “The Promise.” Their leader is the mutant Messenger. He’s so disturbed by the rampant bigotry against mutants that he develops cryogenic freezing. He and his followers enter suspended animation and emerge every ten years to see if the world is any better. Messenger is not a compelling villain or a convincing charismatic leader of a cult so the story kind of bored me. Plus we know that his plan can’t succeed- Lorna, Havok and Angel are all pulled into his snare against his wishes- so there’s no real tension. As much as I like the idea of new villains showing up in this in-between period, Messenger and the Promise are sadly uninteresting.
The second story is somewhat more interesting. The majority of the X-Men fall deep below the Earth’s crust and have a long-running battle with the Mole Man. I’m not a big fan of the Mole Man- he’s a lame villain, if you ask me- but the story moves along briskly and includes a lot of fun moments including battles against super-sized underground monsters. That latter bit of business allows John Byrne to draw yet another tribute to Jack Kirby’s cover for Fantastic Four #1. That’s the kind of fun that I like to see in a title.
The third story is the biggest, and should have been the best. In Fantastic Four 102-104, way back in 1970, Stan Lee and John Romita told a story in which Magneto teamed up with Sub-Mariner in order to invade New York. Magneto, though not an X-Man, is as much a member of the cast as anybody on the team and its fun to see his team-up with Sub-Mariner, their subsequent invasion of New York and their inevitable battle against the Fantastic Four. The story could have been even better but it felt like it was shoved off to the side since the X-Men weren’t directly involved. I did like the way in which Havok was worked into the story, though, as he had his own little fight against some of the Atlantean forces. Even so, this was part of the appeal of The Hidden Years. We got to see the story behind the original story. We find out why Magneto teamed up with the Sub-Mariner and why the X-Men weren’t able to be involved. And there’s a nice symmetry to the idea that the X-Men were busy fighting a Fantastic Four villain in Mole Man while the Fantastic Four were fighting one of theirs in Magneto.
And that brings us to the end. As I started to say earlier, it was a disappointing end. Even though the Hidden Years had its flaws, I was disappointed that the series wasn’t allowed to continue. As such, The Hidden Years was unable to fill in all of the gaps or explain all of the connections. We didn’t get to see Magneto’s battle against the Avengers, the Beast turn furry and blue or the other X-Men become involved in Captain America’s battle against the Secret Empire. Another part of what made the cancellation so disappointing is that it wasn’t due to low sales. The Hidden Years certainly wasn’t the best-selling title. But it also wasn’t the worst. It was cancelled because the X-Men line was restructured and the new Marvel management didn’t want to publish or support a title that only had nostalgic value. Though I certainly wouldn’t want an entire line to be focused on the past, it should be okay to have one title here or there that caters to fans who are older, nostalgic or simply interested in history. As long as there were enough of them to sustain the sales on a title like the Hidden Years, that title should have been allowed to continue. Oh well, that’s an old argument.
And that’s the Hidden Years- sometimes good, sometimes bad, usually a little bit of both. All together, it was an interesting experiment and a nice walk down memory lane.