Hello discerning X-Fans. In my new series I’ll be exploring some of the best and strangest licensed X-Men books that don’t fall under the direct market comic book mantle. Join me on this *spooky referential comic book voice* Journey Into Mystery.
Uncannily Licensed X-Men #2: Who Needs An X-Men Guidebook?
The world of modern big two comics is often hard to follow, with fifty thousand crossovers, twenty relaunches a year, and a roster of characters so large it’s almost impossible to remember who your favourites are. Do you ever wish for a simpler time, when there were fewer characters and you could learn about all of them from a simple 40 page black and white paperback book aimed at children? Of course you do! That’s why the Official X-Men Guidebook is for perfect for you.
As much as I might joke around about modern comics, the crossover and event comics industry was rising to prominence even in the 80s, and it was often hard to keep track of your favourite heroes. Marvel decided to remedy this in 1992 with an utterly fantastic paperback book which not only gave you info on your most beloved mutants but was also a handy guidebook to the entire X-Men universe, with everything from illustrations to a useful glossary of popular X-Men terminology.
There’s something infinitely charming about seeing your favorite characters boiled down to their most basic archetypes and packaged for a children’s book audience. This splendid 80 page tie-in book was created to capitalize on the popularity of the 90’s comic boom and of course the classic X-Men animated series. As you can tell from the official copy Marvel were overwhelmingly confident of the popularity of their mutant mavericks even if they had yet to decide that superheroes was actually one word. “Everyone’s talking about the X-Men – they’re the hottest super heroes around! Now everything you wanted to know about the X-Men – their incredible powers, their best team-ups, their greatest battles, and much, much more – is here inside The Marvel X-Men Guide Book.”
Written by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and published by Parachute press, this is a gem in the dusty world of weird licensed books. Zimmerman’s hyperbolic copy is a pleasure to read and re-read — from the first page he is doing the absolute most: “They have muscles. They have fabulous powers. They fight terrible, evil enemies in battles that span the universe. That’s why X-Men Comics are super-popular.” What the fuck Dwight, while technically all of that is true I’m just in awe of how correct Zimmerman’s priorities are. Muscles are def the number one most important part of any 90’s superhero book, but it’s rare anyone is this honest about it.
Zimmerman delves into a lot of forgotten X-Men canon, like the idea that all mutants get their powers because their parents were exposed to radiation. Though that concept has mutated and changed, it obviously touched Dwight. He crafted his own user friendly version of X-Lore that is disarmingly charming and clearly subjective. But despite the inconsistencies, this book is really fucking useful. I adore its kitsch attempt at boiling down decades of history into 80 pages; as I was rereading it I was blown away by how great a job Zimmerman did at distilling X-History and making it accessible to those who might not have read a lot of comics, as well as creating a useful reminder for those who have.
The book is broken into separate segments focusing on each team, and different time periods throughout X-history. This is especially exciting when you consider when the book was written — The Marvel X-Men Guidebook was published at the peak of the X-Office’s popularity, when X-Books were popping up all over the place. Some of the book’s highlights are undoubtedly the descriptions of some of the later X-additions like X-Force and Excalibur. These segments get ultra wacky but we’ll get back to them later, for now let’s luxuriate in some of the core team’s ridiculous round-ups.
Jean and Scott get a special segment dedicated to their relationship, which somehow fits the language of a middle grade textbook perfectly. “You see Scott was the strong and silent type that took his role as the leader of the X-Men ultraseriously. He was worried he couldn’t be a good leader if he told Jean he liked her. He was also afraid she might reject him” — tell me that’s not the realest Scott Summers shit on this or any other planet? “Wolverine is an expert in hand-to-hand combat — and he has had many fights!” How many? I’m not sure, but by god does that powerfully simplistic phrasing give me more goosebumps than any post 2010 X-Comic.
Jean Grey gets the full Jim Steranko treatment, as Zimmerman paints her as a Kavalier and Clay-esque escape artist. “Her enemies have discovered that it’s near impossible to keep her a prisoner. With her mental power Jean can untie any rope and unlock any lock!” Michael Chabon, eat your heart out. Bobby Drake gets the ultra reductionist treatment with this description, “Iceman’s the ideal person to have at a party–you’ll never run out of ice. Not even on the hottest day.” I feel like this adds a macabre element to X-canon…can you chop pieces of Bobby off and eat them like a popsicle? Do the X-Men use Bobby like a walking freezer? Do those bits grow back? Do they turn into flesh once they’re detached from him? Give Zimmerman a one-shot to answer these pressing questions he posed 26 yrs ago.
These reductive descriptions are utterly joyful, but where the book really excels is in it’s outrageous recountings of the cosmic capers of classic Chris Claremont. His trying to simplify and explain important X-moments like when Professor X abandons the X-Men to fuck a sexy alien sounds so wonderfully absurd in Zimmerman’s children’s book retelling. Just as wacky are the write-ups for new X-Men like Shatterstar, who Zimmerman describes as, “The ultimate warrior from another dimension in the future.” There’s also some blatant Liefeld-ism’s in his description as apparently Shatterstar knows “every martial arts skill that exists.” Sure Rob.
The Marvel X-Men Guidebook also has a bunch of fun extras, including a rad quiz that asks such in-depth questions like,
Before he Joined X-Force Shatter Star lived:
A) at home
B) in the past
C) in the future
D) above a Chinese restaurant
No cheating kids! As with any comics merch from the 90s, it also includes a good bit of speculation propaganda, with a useful list of the most X-pensive X-Men comics. In 1992 the most pricy book was allegedly Uncanny X-Men #1, which supposedly sold for $1,900. To give some context: in 2012 a near mint copy sold for $492,937.50.
There is also the questionable inclusion of a small blue print of Xavier’s War Room/Danger Room. It was a slightly morbid but very honest choice to highlight those particular spaces, out of the entirety of the 3 mile by 1 mile wide X-Compound. You can also learn about all of the X-Men’s most evil villains — no not Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld who pushed out Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson (one of the most prolific female comics creators of the period) only to quit a year later. Instead, it features the baddies from the comics pages. As this was written after the release of X-Men #1, it paints Magneto as a one note villain, to help retcon the complex and nuanced character that Claremont and co. had created. Zimmerman once again decides to re-write some X-Men history, declaring that no-one knows Magneto’s real name, though that was established years before. Who cares though? When Zimmerman is doing such a lovely job recalling Magneto’s very brief (according to this timeline) brush with goodness: “Magneto changed his ways. The reason was true love.” Aw, how bloody sweet.
Sadly we are coming to the end of what I can write about this wondrous book without just writing out the entire thing, which tbh would be a worthwhile pursuit. If you’re an X-Men fan and long for a compressed, cute, and creative take on the decades of X-History put down X-Men Grand Design and pick up The Marvel X-Men Guidebook. Thank the mutant gods for Dwight Jon Zimmerman and his unique take on Marvel’s most beloved heroes.