As fans have now had time to accept, it's evident Marvel Comics essentially killed off the X-Men books in their eagerness to run with Jonathan Hickman's latest relaunch. The X-Men were once the biggest franchise around, far more prominent than the Avengers in the 1990s, but their popularity and sales figures have long shown a decline. The last two years have seemed particularly harsh and confusing, with readers regularly criticizing a drop in quality, lack of originality, and impact on the larger Marvel Universe.
Even the books themselves acknowledged the problem, when Ed Brisson's Uncanny X-Men #3 contained a scene of the X-Men admitting their plots were getting old. Something felt badly wrong with the X-Men franchise, but while the writers seemed to be aware of the problem, they never did anything to change it. Attentive readers were picking up on the mixed messages, and now fans finally know why.
In a recent interview with AiPT!, Cullen Bunn - one of the best writers in the comic book business, with a particularly firm grasp on the X-Men - reflected on his recent time with Marvel's merry mutants. Sounding more regretful than bitter, Bunn wishes he had the opportunity to develop some of his more interesting ideas... but Marvel wouldn't allow it. It seems Marvel had already decided Jonathan Hickman was going to relaunch the entire line, and they didn't want anything shaken up ahead of that reboot. Here is Bunn's summary of the situation:
All of those projects were weird, especially Uncanny and Blue, because we had kind of been given marching orders that we couldn’t change anything with the X-Men. I mean, we were very limited with where we could go with the story because the plans for House of X–those were already in play when I first started writing Uncanny X-Men. We knew. It was like the worst-kept secret at Marvel. Like, “We got another plan.” Yeah, it’s Jonathan Hickman–everybody knows it! But that was in place when I took over Uncanny X-Men. To some degree, it was like placeholder stuff."
Jonathan Hickman has openly admitted to working on the X-Men relaunch for quite some time, usually indicating he's been putting ideas together for over a year. But Bunn's quote suggests it's been even longer, and that Marvel was planning the Hickman era as far back as two years ago. On the one hand, it's nice to know Marvel had a long-term plan for the X-Men. Unfortunately, fans will now have to wonder what the price of the Hickman era really was for the stories being told.
That two-year period saw Marvel recruit some top creative talents for the X-books, including the likes of Cullen Bunn and Arrow writer Marc Guggenheim. And yet according to Bunn, the creatives were basically just treading water. They were unable to make real and lasting changes, in case they unwittingly trod on Hickman's toes. While the stories will remain hypothetical, it's possible Marvel sacrificed two years' worth of good ideas--and ironically, Hickman executed his reboot using plot devices which have already allowed him to ignore any past plots, anyway. If the six-month X-Men comic time jump wasn't enough of a buffer, Hickman has given the X-Men the ability to resurrect anyone who previously died, or restore mutants to a previous version. Worse still, it now appears some of those stories were deliberately held back for the Hickman era: Bunn has openly discussed his idea of turning Betsy Braddock into a new Captain Britain, which will launch the upcoming Excalibur book.
Marvel's editors may have preferred not to restrain their creative talents in service of a coming reboot, but the loyal readers may not be forgiving. After all, comics aren't cheap--Marvel books typically sell at between $3.99 and $4.99 an issue--a price being paid, at the time, for "placeholder" stories as opposed to inspired storytelling. Little wonder, then, that sales dropped, while the books themselves contained dialogue that hinted at dissatisfaction. The X-Men relaunch as been a success so far, but was it really worth the cost?