Thirty years ago, on August 20, 1991, Marvel Comics released the much-anticipated relaunch of their most popular franchise with X-Men #1. Written by longtime Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont and drawn by Jim Lee and Scott Williams, X-Men volume two’s first issue was a seismic jolt to the comic book industry.
The first issue of the second X-Men series sold more comics than any other single issue, before or since. And it helped turn Marvel’s mutant team from something only comic book-reading nerds knew about into a true multimedia phenomenon. It might be the most important single issue of mainstream comics of the modern era. Here are eight ways that X-Men #1 changed not only the mutant franchise, but superhero comic books as a whole.
The Single Biggest Selling Comic of All Time
Throughout the 1980s, popular comics sold in the hundreds of thousands. But it had been since the Golden Age of comics in the ’40s that they had sold in the millions. Then, in the early ’90s, the collector’s market exploded. Comics like “The Death of Superman” and Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man (and later Spawn) started selling millions of single issues. Marvel’s X-Force #1 sold five million copies, taking the crown for the best-selling comic of all time. A crown it held on to… for two whole months.
The X-Men #1 came along and sold a staggering eight million copies. They mainly achieved this through the then-novel idea of the first issue coming in five different covers, spread out across a month. (More on that later). Kids and collectors needed to get each one, so they could unify them all into a single, action-packed image by artist Jim Lee. To this day, no other comic has come close to selling what X-Men #1 sold in 1991. And it’s doubtful that anything will ever top it. No pun intended, but it was a sales juggernaut. And it sealed the X-Men’s place as comics’ most beloved series.
Making X-Men: The Animated Series Possible
Throughout the ‘80s, X-Men was comics’ biggest franchise. So much so, that in 1989, Marvel Productions produced an animated X-Men pilot, titled “Pryde of the X-Men.” Primarily based on the team circa 1975-1984, the pilot aired occasionally in syndication. But no one had an interest in taking it to series. At the time, being the comics industry’s biggest seller meant nothing to network execs. Only one woman believed in it: producer Margaret Loesch.
X-Men producer Eric Lewald said years later, “Margaret Loesch had wanted to do the show for 10 years. Nobody in Hollywood believed the X-Men could be popular. She’d pitch it and pitch it. They said, ‘No, this is too weird. This is too inside-comic-bookie.’” But once X-Men #1 sold eight million copies, it was clear Marvel’s mutants were a phenomenon they could not ignore. Numbers talk. And despite all the network execs thinking it would fail, they greenlit X-Men based partially on the massive numbers X-Men #1 sold.
Of course, the team used in X-Men: The Animated Series based its aesthetic and costume designs on those created by Jim Lee for X-Men #1 as well. His new look for the characters cemented what they looked like for an entire generation, thanks to their exposure on Saturday morning television. Some of the X-Men #1 members didn’t make the series regular cut, like Iceman, Archangel, Colossus, and Psylocke. But regardless, there is a straight line from X-Men #1 to the classic cartoon show.
Returning Magneto to Iconic Villain Status
Magneto was the team’s primary villain from the original X-Men #1, back in 1963. But over the years, writer Chris Claremont evolved the mutant master of magnetism into a sympathetic bad guy and then, an anti-hero. And then finally, into a fully fledged member of the X-Men. Claremont even made him headmaster of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters.
But Marvel wanted the X-Men’s number one adversary back in bad guy mode, and X-Men #1 delivered that in spades. Claremont and Lee gave us Magneto as neither a mustache-twirling villain, nor as a fully redeemed one, but as a complex antagonist. And that portrayal has carried in on in most media interpretations ever since. Most notably on the big screen, as played by Sir Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender.
Jim Lee: Superstar
Over the previous two years, a young artist named Jim Lee made a name for himself at Marvel on books like The Punisher and Uncanny X-Men. Very quickly, he proved to be the most popular X-Men artist in a decade. Because of his incredibly dynamic and detailed style, sales steadily rose on the mutant books. Soon, Marvel gave Lee the artistic reins on their big X-Men #1 relaunch.
The year prior, he had designed Gambit (and redesigned Psylocke) and they became instant fan favorites. With X-Men #1, in just this one issue, he’d given characters like Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, and Rogue new costumes. Ones that we still associate them with to this day. Although Lee only stayed on for a year following X-Men #1, the next decade had every artist on the book living in his shadow. And using his designs. He might run DC Comics now, but it was Marvel’s Mutants that made him a comics legend.
The Original Five Come Home
The original ’60s run of X-Men was only a modest success for Marvel. It ultimately floundered once creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby left the title. Canceled in 1970, the mutants returned in 1975 as “the All-New, All-Different X-Men.” The only original team members to stick around were Cyclops and Jean Grey. Beast became an Avenger, while Iceman and Angel went from team to team. The other three would guest star over the years. And they’d all even reunite as a separate team in 1985, called X-Factor. But X-Men #1 saw all five original students return to their original team after two decades away from the X-mansion. And they’ve never strayed for very long ever since.
The End of the Chris Claremont Era
With the ascension of Jim Lee sadly came the end of writer Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men. (At least for a decade or so). After writing Uncanny X-Men for 16 straight years, Chris Claremont defined who the Marvel mutants were. But by the early ‘90s, Marvel editorial saw that it was Jim Lee’s art driving the comic books’ sales. And despite Claremont’s massive importance to the title, Marvel went where the money went.
And Lee wanted something more “classic X-Men,” while Claremont wanted to push the storyline in wild new directions. Marvel chose Lee’s take, and Claremont quit. Ironically, Lee would also quit a year later to form Image Comics. So for much of the next decade, Marvel tried to mimic what Claremont and Lee brought to X-Men #1, only without either creator. Regardless, X-Men #1 holds a special place in history for marking the beginning of the end of a major era for the series.
Inspiring a Video Game Phenomenon
The mega-success of X-Men #1 made everyone take notice. Included among “everyone” was the video game company Konami. A year after X-Men #1 came out, the X-Men game hit arcades across America. And it was an instant smash. Interestingly though, the team used for the game wasn’t based on X-Men #1, but on the “Pryde of the X-Men” cartoon pilot. (It debuted around the same time as the X-Men: The Animated Series). But the Jim Lee X-Men definitely inspired games that followed its wake. Games like X-Men: Children of the Atom, Clone Wars, Mutant Apocalypse, and so many more.
The Variant Cover Comics Apocalypse
For all the good things that came with X-Men #1, there were definitely bad side effects. The five variant covers played a significant role in the issue selling eight million copies. And it began a craze in the comics industry. Marvel, DC, and every publisher in between decided that multiple covers of the same comic would result in big sales. And speculators gobbled up those issues, hoping to make some coins months or years later. That speculator boom crashed by 1994 and nearly took the entire comic book industry down with it. No one at Marvel in 1991 could have known this cover gimmick would lead to a huge trend, but it did. But it might have been better if X-Men #1 had never started this trend.