X-Men 2099: When the Father Skins the Prodigal Son

X-Men 2099: When the Father Skins the Prodigal Son

This is the lineup of 1993's X-Men 2099. What do you notice about this picture? Maybe nothing. Let me show you another. There are the obvious things, the zeitgeist; banded arms and legs, big belts, triangular high-cut leotard panties and thigh-highs. Then it gets closer, rarer: a high ponytail. A cowl neck. Long pointy fingers.

This is the lineup of 1993’s X-Men 2099. What do you notice about this picture? Maybe nothing. Let me show you another.

Jim Lee, Brandon Choi, Scott Heisler WildCATS, Image, 1993

There are the obvious things, the zeitgeist; banded arms and legs, big belts, triangular high-cut leotard panties and thigh-highs. Then it gets closer, rarer: a high ponytail. A cowl neck. Long pointy fingers. Purple on brown skin. Frank Miller’s clustered earrings becoming Jim Lee’s golden egg-drop earrings becoming 2099’s non-specific egg-cluster accessories. A huge guy. A silver guy. A wavy short-haired brunette in blue and red, and an executioner’s hood. Deep eye-socket markings on an otherwise obscured face under wild and angry hair. A masked face. And I ask myself: is this an X-Men book ripping off Jim Lee’s WildCATS? In 1993? Is this Marvel scalping one of the few early Image titles that wasn’t an X-Men jag for an X-Men jag? Yeah. I reckon that it is.

Jim Lee's X-Men #1 cover, marvel comics, 1991

Jim Lee, WildCATS’ co-creator and visual force, designed the most popular and, let’s be fair, overall best X-Men uniform lineup for the X-Men #1 brand re-launch of 1991. Jim Lee created those designs for Marvel; Marvel owns those designs that Jim Lee worked up and implemented, just as it owns the design history of each involved character. These were the costume designs used for the 1990s cartoon, which retains such popularity today that a new figure line is currently in pre-release. X-Men #1 broke all sales records, selling eight million copies, and guaranteed Jim Lee his place in history. What it didn’t do was guarantee him proportional recompense. Even after headlining the most successful comic book of all time for the biggest name in American comics, Lee was persuaded to leave Marvel for an unguaranteed future with artist-cooperative startup Image Comics less than one year later.

Like Lee, several of the Image founders were wild successes at Marvel who simply weren’t seeing a return rewarding enough to keep them on a contract with a company they felt didn’t appreciate or value them as the sales assets they undeniably were. Silvestri had been planning to leave comics altogether. McFarlane was adamant that workers should receive material recognition for outstanding work. (“My father got a watch,” he says, referring to normalised forms of career service recognition.) And Larsen recalls how creators weren’t even comped t-shirts on which their art appeared. With this small community of like-minded, successful but stymied freelancers, Lee left Marvel to work on comics, characters, and concepts he would own himself, for which he would receive royalties, and which he could entirely direct.

Like several of his peers in exodus, those creator-owned books did not spring from the ground brand new. They read on the whole like Marvel-DC mish-mashes, sticking with much of the visual continuity that they had worked and indeed innovated in whilst working for hire, but also with the basic story beats and set-ups that writers and scripters had plotted or co-plotted with them back then. Valentino was a fairly experienced all-rounder, and McFarlane and Larsen had both completed cartoonist runs under Marvel editorial on Spider-Man. But Silvestri, Portacio, Lee, and Liefeld were collaborative workers coming from pencil-work whose previous primary input, even during their credited co-plotter days, had been visual. It showed; the vast majority of Image’s founder’s early books are templates established by the structures they’d fled, made without benefit of experienced editorial or capable narrative drivers. Comics need great art, sure, but stories need great momentum, and these just didn’t have it.

At the time, it didn’t matter. The art was exciting enough to thrill, and the Image exodus was a good enough story in itself to silence any “but what is happening here?” reader quibbles. Image had a strong marketing campaign and a solid, rebellious brand. It was time and familiarity that the first wave of Image freedom-knockoffs couldn’t beat, because eventually an empty centre collapses. The ’90s bubble burst, and sure, that was partly because of bankruptcies and ponzi schemes (you can’t create a future antique just by shipping it with a certificate), but it can’t have not been because so many of the books just weren’t good enough to keep buying. The readership left, and the books that remain make sympathy with that exodus as easy as sympathy for the other. In the cases of many of these old, enthusiastically created ideas based in the memetic superhero scene, that empty centre eventually got filled. In others it’s still there waiting. But what that missing rung on the golden Image ladder provided was space for the big boys to scent a weakness, slide back in, and mark that territory they felt they owned. If Image couldn’t deliver on story, Marvel could. It still knew how, or at least still had people who could remember the old lessons, and what one artist can innovate on, another can cop the look of. As they dragged their ploughs out of the old farm, the Image boys’ 1992 prepped the ground for Marvel 2099.

Impact, of Silvestri’s Cyberforce, also appears as Metalhead of X-Men 2099, above

I happened to be reading the first few issues of Marvel’s X-Men 2099 as I was editing Nola Pfau’s WildCATS feature. Without that coincidence, I wouldn’t have noticed this magnificently mercenary bird-flip. Is it vengeance? Desperation? Spite? Image was, already, if not cornering the market, then at least making disruptive waves; Marvel’s X-Books were still going strong, but the post-Claremont line-captaincy panic was starting to show. X-Cutioner’s Song (late ’92 to early ’93), while great, was the first event that really felt and looked like the disruptive and endless events we see and suffer from now. Fatal Attractions (also good, but notably messier) followed only five months later, at about the time of X-Men 2099’s debut. Both WildCATS and X-Men 2099 feature in Comichron’s top two hundred single-issue sales data for 1994,WildCATS hitting ten times between 51 and 117, and X-Men 2099 nine between 101 and 279. There were twenty-two issues of prime X-Men books in that sales list above WildCATS #7, the highest-selling WildCATS book of the year. X-Men 2099 wasn’t out to, or at least didn’t, pip (Lee’s studio at) Image to its own post. It was out to hoover up what it could get from a newly defined pool of readers. It was designed to be the cake that could be had whilst also eaten. Marvel just wanted as much of the market as it could get, and other people’s successes were serving as focus group results.

You want groups of edgy strangers who wear purple with gold bits and have sharp fingers? Fine, buy them from us. Here’s some X-Men 2099. You’re buying Pitt, so, you want a big hairy Hulk with no nose? Fine: Hulk 2099. And we’ll even employ trained writers to produce’em. All this is to say that X-Men 2099 is actually kind of decent. It’s not X-Men good; it doesn’t come close to the highest of heights established in the main title books, but it’s better than the Image average. It’s good enough to keep reading once you start, even now. It’s galling, because business is ugly.

Much of Image’s early output was cribbed from Marvel’s work-for-hire canon, which means that much of it was cribbed from a creative history that didn’t belong to the guys using it. But Marvel contracted all of that work out of the hands of the people who actually did it, and Marvel gets to keep it and re-crib from the ones that got away. Marvel is the validated party, in both the X-Men 2099 and the early Image copycat cases, because Marvel’s property and status is what’s being relied upon to ground the books contextually in both cases. Marvel has the canon. It works when X-Men 2099 refers to Xavier’s Dream. It doesn’t work when Cyberforce’s blue politician is almost shot as he preaches integration, or when brand new Jim Lee superheroes try to fake X-Men-level world-building and story texture. Marvel owns Xavier, so Marvel can use Xavier in Marvel-branded stories; it’s legitimate. Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee do not own the motifs established in various previous X-Men comics, so when they use them it doesn’t work smoothly; it’s not legitimate. X-Men 2099, WildCATS, and Cyberforce are all doing the same thing: capitalising on the same multi-creator fictional history, which each book’s creative team has to some degree actually contributed to. But they don’t share the same position in its context, and because they also don’t share the same creative values—visual innovation was coming out of Image in ‘92 and ‘93, but those innovations are old to the reader of today—when these books stand before the face of X to be ultimately judged, the home team comes out shining.

With the addition of work-for-hire creative input, various Image studios built their Marvel and DC rips into solid product. As Nola tracked, WildCATS was eventually sold to DC, fully legitimised by a new brand-inclusion. Silvestri’s Cyberforce relaunches again this month with a Silvestri cover, but interior work done entirely by other working creatives. It’s all just a big churning maw.

Having asked for read-throughs of this piece from WWAC staffer Rosie Knight and her husband, Nick Marino (Image-era experts both), Nick pointed out that Ron Lim’s involvement with X-Men 2099 is interesting in itself. Lim was not a member of the Image founding team, despite his artistic presence on Silver Surfer contributing to the title appearing five times in the top three hundred of 1992’s single issue sales. Lim’s work on X-Men 2099 is similar enough to Lee’s to make the title work as a Lee cash-in. They were artistic peers, both working in the same aesthetic era, both helping to build it, both beginning their lives in comics in 1986. Lim even began his own career on a Marvel rip with (originally) Eternity Comics’ Ex-Mutants. Like Lee, Lim channeled his Image days into a statesman of comics position at DC and hopped straight from Ex-Mutants to a legitimate Marvel title. Counting his publication within Ex-Mutants, Lim beats out Lee’s career by a year, but with Lee’s ascension to game-changer as a part of the Image revolution, history ripples.

Despite their similar approaches to storytelling, to anatomy and visual heroism, to aesthetic trends within comics publishing, despite their similar career timelines, the main practical difference between them is Lim has never stepped away from work for hire. The result of that—with an allowance for luck, fate, and whatever else—is a huge disparity in fame, power, and projectable economic agency. Sure, the books they worked on in ‘93 aged differently; Lim’s still reads alright, has the legitimacy of the House (if not the truth of it’s “of Ideas” epithet), and Lee’s is a confusing bunch of noise that needed to be rebooted and sold and rebooted. But their decisions and status aged differently too, and with the benefit of hindsight Lee’s choice to go with the rogues was patently a stronger gambit than Lim’s decision to stay home.

Claire Napier

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