Comic Book Questions Answered - When Did the X-Men Pass the Fantastic Four as Marvel's Flagship Team?

Comic Book Questions Answered - where I answer whatever questions you folks might have about comic books (feel free to e-mail questions to me at bcronin@comicbookresources.com). Here is a link to an archive of all the past questions that have been answered so far.

Here is a bit of a different one. Jaime Weinman wrote an article for Maclean's Magazine about how the Fantastic Four are no longer the hot property they once were and he asked me for the article when they officially stopped being Marvel's flagship team book. I answered him and he cites my answer in the article. However, that was just a three word answer, and I figured it'd be fun to give a more elaborate answer here. Or, of course, if you just want the short answer, read his article. You might as well read it anyways. It is an interesting article.

So...when did the Fantastic Four stop being Marvel's flagship team book?

For years, the Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man were neck and neck as Marvel's highest-selling title. Eventually the Avengers joined them at the end of the 1970s as a sort of a three-headed beast. They all sold very well, but it wasn't a case of one title dominating the other two. Amazing Spider-Man was, in general, the best-selling title, but for whatever reason, by the end of the 1970s, Spidey had come down a bit in sales.

There is an interesting, if logical, sales effect that we often saw in comic books back in the day, which is that the effect of a popular run was often felt later than expected. That obviously makes sense, since if you like Frank Miller's Daredevil, then obviously the sales later in his run are going to be better than the sales earlier in his run, because he kept drawing more and more readers to the book based on his work. Thus, let's say #170 was a great issue. It will have lower sales than issue #175, even if it was a better issue, because more people were reading #175 BECAUSE #170 was a good issue. Where this ends up being odd is when the effect of the popular run ends up being felt on the book AFTER the run ended. For example, Swamp Thing sold better AFTER Bernie Wrightson left the book. Incredible Hulk sold better AFTER Todd McFarlane left the book. This is because they each had relatively brief runs, so by the time fans decided to pick up the book because of their work, they had already left. However, in each case, Len Wein and Peter David were doing strong enough work that they KEPT those new readers. A lot of times, all you need to do is get a reader to give you a shot, and you can hook them.

That's what happened with X-Men. Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin put together a hell of a run on X-Men, taking it from a bi-monthly book to a monthly series (much like how Frank Miller and Klaus Janson did the same thing to Daredevil). They hit their peak with the double-sized X-Men #137 in 1980, the conclusion to their epic Dark Phoenix Saga.

It was with that one issue that the book finally got into the same sales realm as Fantastic Four, Avengers and Amazing Spider-Man. However, John Byrne famously left the book just six issues later. But the fans that had been brought in by his and Claremont's work REMAINED on the book, even when Byrne left.

So sales continued to rise with Dave Cockrum joining the book as the regular artist.

So here's the interesting thing - Byrne left to write/draw Fantastic Four, and he actually then raised THAT book's sales! But the problem was that the X-Men's sales juggernaut had already begun, so even though Byrne was selling more copies on Fantastic Four, sales kept going up on Uncanny X-Men so X-Men still stayed ahead of FF. Byrne's early FFs might actually have outsold the X-Men (I am not sure - in the comments section, apparently Byrne says that they did, which sounds very believable) but if they did, it was short-lived, as X-Men was the definite #1 book by the end of 1982.

So during that 1981/1982 period, that is where the X-Men solidified their new position as Marvel's flagship team book, and that is the short answer Weinman used for his Maclean's article ("1981 or 1982"). Interestingly enough, in late 1982, Paul Smith joined X-Men as the new penciler and then that was the perfect storm. Smith became a hot creator in his own right, and the combination with Smith's star status and the already rising sales gave X-Men their biggest sales bump and they (and their new spin-off, New Mutants) were even more securely in place as the #1 selling books at Marvel.

If anyone else has a question, feel free to write in at bcronin@comicbookresources.com!

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