How could any young teenager resist the X-Men?
An infatuation with all things X is something many comic fans go through at some point or another, but the stories, art and themes are almost perfectly designed for that horribly awkward period between childhood and adult life. After all, with most mutant powers kicking in at puberty, any teenager who finds hair growing in odd places and other parts getting bigger is bound to identify with characters whose bodies suddenly start doing some very odd things.
On top of that, the whole idea that the X-Men fight for a world that fears and hates them shows that nobody really understands what mutants are really like, and what 13-year-old doesn't feel that particular pain?
It rarely lasts far past the teenage years. Even if the reader can stomach the convoluted storylines and increasingly shoddy periods that the main X-books periodically go through, the whole idea can get a bit much. Cyclops and his little mutie buddies have been fighting against prejudice for more than 40 years now, and don't seem to have accomplished a whole lot. The entire franchise is running with the accelerator hard to the floor, but the gearstick is stuck in neutral, and nobody is going anywhere.
Besides, the sheer misery of these motley mutants can get to you in the end. Okay, it's a hard life being born into a world that hates you because you're so cool, but enough already. It's like being stuck at a party with somebody who won't stop talking about how much they hate their job. It's fun to listen to somebody else's misery for a while, but after a while you just want to tell them to shut the fuck up and go get a drink.
Still, the X-Men managed to claw their way to the top of the sales charts and hang around there ever since the days of Claremont and Byrne, so they must be doing something right. But the X-books in the new millennium are a pretty sorry story. Endless reboots of the core team over the last decade and literally thousands of almost unreadable comics have seen them slide off that top spot.
Now, even with some talented creators still doing their very best, they have become entirely inessential. There are the odd bright spots, where people actually put some thought into what the whole evolution theme meant. Or Whedon's crack at the concept, which started out with a fair amount of fan excitement, until it almost choked on nostalgia and, like a lot of Marvel's titles these days, fell over its own self-importance. Recent days have seen the usual mega-crossovers that promise a lot and fail to deliver, with Messiah Complex nowhere near as interesting as it thought it was, while Brubaker and Fraction and Carey's efforts feel constrained, sometimes by the writer's own interests.
There is no one simple answer for why nobody really cares about the X-Men any more. But part of it has to be that the X-Men just aren't that sexy any more.
Most of the time, sexiness in comics is, quite frankly, fucking disturbing. Anybody can walk into almost any comic shop in the world and see that for themselves. But at their best, the X-Men were different.
For starters, there was such a staggeringly huge variety of beautiful people, and it would be hard to find any teenage reader who didn't form a crush on one or more of them. For the boys, there were Nubian goddesses, bimbo pop stars, supersmart geek girls, untouchable southern belles, English telepaths and redheads who go bad and dress in black leather. Even the few girls who read the comic had something for everything, from the solid dependability and chiselled abs of Colossus to a charming devil who managed to make blue fur, a tail and no fingers look good. Not to mention ol' Canuklehead himself, who somehow managed to make being a hairy shortarse with a short temper look fantastic.
All that, and Chris Claremont giving each and every character their own pain to deal with. Men and women who looked fabulous, but still needed care and love and a shoulder to cry on. Sure, society at large might hate and fear them, but that's because they didn't see the X-Men rocking the short shorts in those baseball games they used to play, when they weren't beating the crap out of each other in “training sessions”.
All these characters are still there, still pretty much the same. But something is gone. It vanished sometime after Claremont left, and never returned, even when Chris did. Instead of these beautiful fragile creatures who could still stand up to Gods and supervillains without blinking, they've been oversexualised and, in the process, lost what was most lovable about them. All the sex appeal of a faceless supermodel or flawless barbie doll. Too many hands in the creative process, from different writers to co-plotting artists to editorial control has reduced them to characters who look good posing for action. Some of the time.
And sexiness isn't just all in the tits and arse, it's in appearing new and interesting, colourful and entertaining, promising a whole new life with each shy smile. The X-Men haven't been the cool new thing for a long time now, and barring a good long slice of downtime, is unlikely to come back.
Furthermore, the dark undercurrents that have flowed beneath the X-narrative ever since Thunderbird caught a plane have rushed to the surface, covering everything in mopey moroseness. Even the colour schemes of the comics themselves have moved into darker territory, and while the tight black leather look is one of the sexiest damn things you will ever see in the real life, it never really translates to the comic page, leaving pages and pages of murky depression.
Bringing this sexy back might not make any difference to the overall spiralling direction of the franchise, but it couldn't hurt. After all, there will always be a new generation of teenagers, convinced they are trapped in a world of darkness that hates and fears them, and desperate, even if they don't know it, to find somebody to make it all a little better, even if they're not exactly real.