There’s one fear that I believe every pop culture enthusiast shares, and I’m not talking about the prospect of a new Kirstie Alley sitcom. (Thus begins my one-sided feud with Veronica of “Veronica’s Closet”!) I’m talking about “holding up.” As in, “Oh man, I haven’t seen the ‘Super Mario Bros. Super Show’ since I was a kid? Does it hold up?” The answer in that case, by the way, is a “no” the size of Captain Lou Albano’s vivacious mustache. But it’s that fear that keeps us from revisiting the pop culture artifacts of our youth, for fear of sullying the good memories.
As a person who discovered comics in the early ’90s, this fear surrounds pretty much every comic book that I read and loved as a kid. I was young and did not realize that the thick clouds of dust being kicked up in the X-Mansion were there so the artists didn’t have to draw feet. I thought holograms were super-sick and crossovers were bodacious. I didn’t know better. Looking back on most everything I cherished as a comic-obsessive-in-training is a deed done with much trepidation; I don’t want my quasi-advanced adult brain to crush my favorite stories with things like “logic.”
For an upcoming episode of the podcast I co-host, Matt & Brett Love Comics, I picked “Generation X” #1-4 to be the subject of our book club-style scrutiny. For those of you not in the know, “Generation X” was maybe the pinnacle of pre-market-bust Marvel X-Nineties-ness. It was written by Scott Lobdell, who at that point was settling into a lengthy stint as the writer of “Uncanny X-Men” and had had his fingers in numerous other titles, including “Excalibur,” “X-Factor” and “Alpha Flight.” It was illustrated by the offbeat Chris Bachalo, himself coming off a brief run on “Ghost Rider 2099” and the acclaimed Vertigo miniseries “Death: The High Cost of Living”; his teens all dressed like extras from “Reality Bites.” The first issue had a chromium cover, which sounds like hyperbole but is shockingly accurate. There was a character named “Mondo.” Heck, the book was called “Generation X,” which was practically shorthand for, “It’s a ’90s thing, mom. You wouldn’t get it.” This book was near and dear to my heart as a 10 year old, and I didn’t want it yanked away.
I re-read the issues and, I’m happy to report, “Generation X” is still maintains its proximity to my entire heart area. The ’90s get a bad rap, and Scott Lobdell’s output tends to as well. To further date myself, I remember his work being quite controversial on Marvel’s AOL message boards. But the thing that people don’t champion enough about Lobdell’s writing is his pitch-perfect characterization. And then there’s the art by Chris Bachalo, who has somehow maintained “top-of-his-game” status for the past twenty years. Bachalo’s style was just as quirky then as it is now, but it was a bit more straight-forward…which somehow made it stand-out even more. Bachalo had this edgy layer right beneath the superhero surface; he was Vertigo dressed up as Marvel, and therefore looked incredibly original. When two creators produce a book that caters to all of their strengths, it holds up.
All the chromi-giant-sized issues and mid-’90s ‘tude can’t detract from the incredibly individual voices every kid on the Gen X squad had. All but three of these characters were new to comics readers, so knowing that Lobdell was responsible for giving them all unique perspectives makes me love his writing even more. In the first few pages of “Generation X” #1, Lobdell forces perpetual slacker Jubilee to interact with hard-working perfectionist Husk and the perfect, elitist M. Jubilee’s disgust at Husk’s skin-shedding metamorphosis power, M’s aloof commentary, Husk re-creating her image for her new surroundings by correcting her southern accent — this was a style of character work previously unseen by my tiny, tiny eyes. Twenty years later, it feels much more indie than mainstream.
The first four issues are light on plot, another critique Lobdell often received, but they don’t feel that way. Much like “Marvel’s the Avengers,” the plot is sacrificed for dense character development. Husk and Skin, a sarcastic Latino mutant with six feet of extra skin, play a game of Scrabble that reveals both of their insecurities. Jubilee goes through as much of an existential crisis as possible for her character after Gateway, a mysterious, elderly mutant teleporter, dumps a new character (Penance) on their doorstep, which happened to be how Jubilee was introduced to the X-Men years earlier. Her “what does it all mean, man” conversation with Gateway on the rooftop, with Synch there to back her up, went over my head as a kid. It wasn’t until this read-through that adult me figured out that Jubilee was questioning her entire life’s purpose.
And then there’s Chamber, who doesn’t do all that much in the first four issues outside of looking cool, but that serves my next point; Bachalo’s art and design sense manage to conjure up 1994 and “timeless” simultaneously. Only Chris Bachalo could take a character whose jaw, neck and chest have been replaced by a constantly raging fire-like energy and make it work. Bachalo created one of the most iconic-looking mutants ever, one who is just a starring role in a cartoon or film away from being up there with Cyclops and Wolverine in terms of recognizability. Bachalo’s page designs, which utilized circles and, in one issue, a gang of elves, shattered what I thought was possible. This book is gorgeous. That holds up.
During my trek through 1994, as I visited with my old friends again, it dawned on me just how much I don’t understand those who cry about current comics retroactively ruining their immaculate collections of perfectly-told, exquisite comic book art. Just a few weeks ago, writer Dan Slott was retweeting fans whining about how the events of “Amazing Spider-Man” #698 have ruined every issue of “Amazing” that they’ve ever read. First, Marvel should really do something about those defective copies of “Amazing” #698 that contain acidic properties, thus literally ruining every issue they’re stored next to (that is the only reasonable explanation for those tweets). Secondly, those chumps need to suck it up, because what Slott did to Peter Parker in that comic is nothing compared to the soul-stomping mistreatment the Gen X kids have received from 1995 to present.
M being a gestalt of twins. Synch’s off-screen death. Skin being crucified and given a funeral issue where they get his name wrong. Chamber being a descendant of Apocalypse. Jubilee and Chamber losing their powers. Jubilee becoming a vampire. Everything about Penance. Husk dating Archangel. Husk dating Toad. Husk only getting big storylines involving who she’s dating.
Sure, every comic book character gets crap heaped on them, but the Gen X kids seem to have gotten an unfair amount, disproportionate to the number of times they actually appear in comics. It seems that since Lobdell and Bachalo left the title, they’ve only appeared in comics that further damage the characters and move them away from what so clearly worked in those first few issues.
But here’s the lesson I learned: none of that meant jack to me when I went back and read those first four issues. The characters were still fantastic. The art was still top-notch. Yes, it made me wish that there were more stories featuring them talking like that and looking like that, but…oh well. Just like the original “The Office,” which got-in-and-out with a scant twelve episodes and two specials, the good issues of “Generation X” left me wanting more.
I had no idea that embarking on a journey down memory lane would lead me to this revelation, but it’s one I’m glad I had. All too often, we comic book fans bemoan big changes to our favorite characters, as if those changes can negate our love. Every now and then, it’s worthwhile to read the stories that made you fall in love with the medium. This will invariably remind you that great stories are great stories, regardless of every “this changes everything forever!” that’s thrown their way. It’s also nice to know that things from your childhood can reward you in different ways as an adult. Don’t let the fear of something not “holding up” keep you at bay. Re-read your old favorites. Maybe you’ll learn something.
P.S. Chamber’s action figure was the coolest thing ever, right?
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show Left Handed Radio: The Sequel Machine. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).