Like All in the Family and The Jeffersons. Like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Like Cheers and Frasier. The X-Men have a long and storied history of birthing spin-off titles. Many of these spin-off titles became successes in their own right, lasting over 100 issues for their initial runs, or being re-launched as multiple volumes. And, on occasion, the spin-off titles are even better than the mother team. Here are my thoughts as to the best runs from the X-Men family of titles.
John Byrne’s Alpha Flight(#1-28, 1983-85): Though Bill Mantlo’s tenure lasted longer, and featured up-and-coming artists like Whilce Portacio and Jim Lee, the original run of Alpha Flight is still the best. John Byrne crafted a great mix of characters. The costumes had a consistent look,
while still being individual. And the range of powers worked well.
Plus, he did a great job of mixing up the kind of threats that the team faced: menaces that were uniquely Canadian like Tundra, and classic Marvel villains like Diablo. And, oh yeah, there’s also that classic 12th issue, featuring one of the most surprising and best character deaths.
Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz on New Mutants (#18-31, 1984-85): I was somewhat hesitant to name this run because it’s almost always named as the best run of New Mutants and I think that tends to underrate some of the other runs. For example, Jackson Guice did a great job on stories with the Hellfire Club, the Sentinels and Limbo. And Bret Blevins had a great, fun look for the team on the stories he did with Louise Simonson. But in the end, I had to go with the run that is the best. Claremont and Sienkiewicz had the best line-up. Magik and Magma are already part of them at the beginning of this run. Cypher and Warlock are added during it. Plus, there are the classic villains specific to the New Mutants: the Demon Bear, Magus (Warlock’s father) and Legion. And, oh yeah, there’s a wonderful list of guest stars like Nightcrawler, Colossus and Cloak and Dagger.
Louise and Walt Simonson’s X-Factor (#10-39, 1986-89): Louise started writing X-Factor before her husband joined her as artist and stayed on long after he left (issues 6-64), and she teamed up with some other great artists on occasion (like Paul Smith and Whilce Portacio) but the best of X-Factor clearly came when the two Simonsons were working together. The Morlock Mutant Massacre. Apocalypse. The fall of Angel, and the Angel of death. Getting rid of the mutant-hunters angle. The return of Madelyne Pryor as the Goblin Queen. The addition of young wards, like Boom-Boom, Skids, Artie Maddicks and Leech. Henry McCoy’s reversion to his beast form. It seems like classic moments were happening every couple of issues. The fall of Angel, especially, is one of comics’ great tragedies.
Larry Hama and Marc Silvestri on Wolverine(#31-57, 1990-92): There weren’t a lot of long-standing runs on Wolverine. Creative teams tended to come in for a single arc and then depart again. But there is at least one long run that stands out as a classic: the combination of Larry Hama and Marc Silvestri. Together, they weaved a wonderful web of inter-connecting plots. The Hunter in Darkness, Deathstrike, Sabretooth, Albert and Elsie Dee: they all wandered in and out of the title in various combinations so that the run felt like one, long story. And Silvestri’s art was remarkable. He could draw the gritty Sabretooth and the cute Elsie Dee with equal ease. Hama would put together another good run with Adam Kubert, but his best work came in conjunction with Silvestri.
Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld on X-Force (New Mutants #98-100, X-Force #1-12, 1991-92): I’ve talked about why I like Rob Liefeld on other occasions so I won’t go into that this time. I’ll just note some of the reasons why I like this run. One: the wonderful litany of villains like the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Mask’s Morlocks, Stryfe’s Mutant Liberation Front and Gideon’s X-Ternals. The X-Force seemed to run from one threat straight into the arms of another- when they weren’t fighting two enemies at the same time. Two: the wonderful collection of new and supporting characters like Deadpool, Kane and G.W. Bridge. Fabian Nicieza would put together a second great run with artist Greg Capullo, with an even better line-up as Rictor and Moonstar became cast regulars. But the stage was set in this excellent opening run.
Peter David’s X-Factor(#70-91, 1991-93): I included two runs from X-Factor because, by the time Peter David took over as writer, it was a completely different title. The main team had rejoined the X-Men. The wards had been shipped off to the New Mutants. And Peter David introduced an entirely new line-up in issue 71. This is the line-up and the team that most fans think of as X-Factor: Havok, Polaris, Wolfsbane, Strong Guy and Multiple Man. This is the team that squabbled with government representative Val Cooper, sat down for psychiatric evaluations with Doc Samson and had a running rivalry with Random. Though Larry Stroman is the artist most connected with David’s tenure on the title, I prefer the work of Joe Quesada, who teamed up with David at the end of his run.
Alan Davis’ Excalibur(#42-58, 61-67, 1991-93): This is not the only great run on Excalibur. The Chris Claremont/Alan Davis issues during the first two years were classics: Warwolves, Inferno, Technet and the Cross-Time Caper. And
some great artists passed through the title during its later years, like Joe Madureira, Bryan Hitch, Salvador Larroca and Carlos Pacheco. But Excalibur’s peak came when Alan Davis was providing both the stories and the art. It was a wonderful blend of comedy, conflict and creativity. For comedy, there’s the cover of Captain Britain
with a clown nose and Nightcrawler’s recruitment of Technet after he broke his leg. For conflict, there were life-and-death struggles against dark wizards and Jamie Braddock. For sure, Alan Davis’ Excalibur is a great run on a great title.
John Francis Moore’s X-Men 2099 (#1-35, 1993-96): It isn’t well remembered now but X-Men 2099 was a great title while it lasted. In fact, it was so good that this spin-off title was able to spin off another title of its own: X-Nation 2099. Ron Lim was the artist for the bulk of the run- his last issue was #31- and Jan Duursema finished things off at the end. One of the great things about 2099 is that Mooregradually abandoned the team concept and focused more on an ensemble of mutants. Heroes left like Bloodhawk, rebelled like Skullfire or turned evil like Xi’an. Villains were broken heroes like Zhang or the Driver. And one villain, La Lunatica, even joined the team. It truly felt like anything could happen to the team, as they struggled for the very survival of mutants.
Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo on Generation X(#1-31, 1994-97): The first run is still the best. It doesn’t happen every time, as evidenced by the number of times I credited a second or third creative team instead of the team that started a title. But it’s certainly the case with Generation X. Nobody else was able to capture the camaraderie, the comedy and the conflict of the original creative team. They established the romantic undercurrent for Banshee and the White Queen. They introduced the new bad guys like Emplate and Gene Nation. They brought in the big villains like Black Tom and Bastion. And Chris Bachalo’s art was simply outstanding, whether he was drawing Stan Lee as a carnival barker, or playing around with an apple-themed issue in the Big Apple.
John Francis Moore and Adam Pollina on X-Force (#63-81, 1997-98): I had the hardest time picking a single best run for X-Force. There were a handful of runs that I wanted to mention because I like each of them for different reasons. And while I had a ready-made reason for naming two X-Factor runs, I had no such excuse for X-Force. And yet, the title did go through some striking permutations. The pre-Age of Apocalypse issues have a very different feel and tone from those that came after. The peak of that latter era came under Moore and Pollina. Jeph Loeb and Adam Pollina got things started. John Francis Moore and Jim Cheung kept things going. But the best issues came in the middle as Moore and Pollina sent the X-Force kids off on their own, in search of experiences, life and adventure.
Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Statix (X-Force #116-129, X-Statix #1-26, 2001-04): Counting 14 issues of the new team in X-Force, Milligan and Allred’s X-Statix lasted 40 issues. That’s a pretty good run for a creative team that offered something so completely different. X-Statix was the title where anything could happen. The entire team could be killed off at any point (and was, early on). Rejected members could come back to haunt the team as villains or as nuisances (see Spike and Lacuna). And the characters, though strangely likable, were not in the least bit heroes. They were self-centered and shallow. Yet for some reason, I wanted them to succeed- even if it was only against their worse natures. The Anarchist, the Orphan, Venus Dee Milo, U-Go Girl- they’ve yet to wander into the larger X-world, yet they remain some of the most unique and interesting characters in that corner of comics.
John Layman and Georges Jeanty on Gambit (4th series, #1-12, 2004-05): Gambit has starred in 45 issues of his own titles, counting two limited and two ongoing series. I like the early mini-series but four issues don’t exactly count as a run. Fortunately, his final series was an underrated gem. John Layman cast Gambit as an anti-hero, standing up to the villains of New Orleans and the Bayou but not exactly trusted by the authorities or the other heroes. He played around with some good guest stars, like Wolverine and Brother Voodoo. And the whole thing was drawn beautifully by Georges Jeanty who would go on to greater fame as the regular artist on Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Season Eight.
Nunzio deFilippis and Christina Weir’s New X-Men: Academy X(#1-19 and Yearbook Special, 2004-05): The Millennial generation of mutants was first introduced in a New Mutants series that moved at a glacial pace. But when DeFilippis and Weir were given a second chance, they created something magical. Their Academy X series was evocative of early Harry Potter novels, as squads of young mutants squared off against each other in a special school. They did a great job of establishing friendships, rivalries, mentors and supporting characters, though they didn’t do a lot with villains. Christopher Yost and Craig Kyle would contribute another great run. Though their first year on the title was much too bloody, they settled down in their second year and told some great stories featuring Mercury, Dust and Limbo.
Tony Bedard’s Exiles(#46-89, 2004-07): This is easily my favorite run of Exiles. That’s not to take anything away from earlier writers Judd Winick and Chuck Austen, both of whom surprised me with their excellent work on this title. But Tony Bedard nailed the concept perfectly. He switched back and forth between big stories and small. He kept the line-up in a constant state of change, while introducing unlikely teammates like Longshot, Princess Power and Spider-Man 2099. He completely upended the status quo by revealing the truth behind the Timebroker. And he did all of that with a wonderful flair for humor. Early on, artists Mizuki Sakakibura and Jim Calafiore alternated arcs. At the end, Paul Pelletier was made the regular artist. But Tony Bedard’s run was excellent with all three artists.
Peter David’s second X-Factor(Vol. 3 #1-46 and counting, 2006-09): A number of the X-Men spin-offs have been successful enough on their own to have received multiple volumes. Excalibur has had four volumes, including one called New Excalibur. X-Factor, X-Force and Exiles are all on their third. The latter volumes usually have trouble matching the earlier success, and few last more than a year or two. But there is one very notable exception. Peter David’s X-Factor- the third volume of that title and his second turn at the helm- has defied all prognostications. It’s happily cruising along in its fourth year and closing in on a 50th issue. And it seems to be getting better and better. This past year has had incredible revelations regarding relationships between Madrox and Siryn, Madrox and Layla Miller and Rictor and Shatterstar. David has played with mental possession and time travel, yet found a way to breathe new life into these old concepts. X-Factor is simultaneously familiar and refreshing. It’s a truly wonderful comic book.
And that’s all for now. I left out a couple of long-running series in Cable and Deadpool because I simply don’t own enough issues of either to have a well-formed opinion. I left out a lot of shorter series as well. I decided to pick only series that had at least three year’s worth of issues, with X-Men 2099, X-Statix and Gambit meeting the
minimum threshold. And while I could have chosen a run from Wolverine’s second series, I chose not to. Once again, the series has had a lot of arcs but not a lot of longer runs. Anyway, that should
give you a pretty good sampling of the best X-Men spin-off series.