Jan Duursema and Professor X and the X-Men
by Travis Hedge Coke
Some of Fred Schiller and Fabian Nicieza’s best work in the mid-Nineties (and Nicieza did a lot of top shelf work in those years), almost entirely drawn by Star Wars comics superstar Jan Duursema, Professor X and the X-Men was, for a few issues, a bright and easy spot in an increasingly complicated, a little too incestuous world of X-comics, where you generally could not read just one title, but had to jump book to book to get a story.
When Marvel attempted a line of 99-cent comics, roughly half the price of their other monthly books, some (Fantastic Four Unplugged) told contemporary character focused stories, some (Untold Tales of Spider-Man) played with the gaps between older stories, others (Avengers Unplugged) experimented in astonishingly doing the bare minimum for narrative cohesion, and Jan Duursema’s Professor X and the X-Men retold 1960s comics with updated wardrobe and enough stylistic and storytelling changes to hopefully keep things novel.
The first of eighteen issues, Trial by Fire, written by Fred Schiller, drawn by Duursema, dedicates half of its page count to Jean Grey’s arrival to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and the X-Men team from her perspective. This shift from the original’s emphasis on the horndog male students is both a subtler and easier introduction to the team and world of X-Men, than the likely-rushed original debut comic.
Duursema’s art is a wonderful balance between then-popular Romantic exaggeration, aka the Image style, and the 2D planes and 3D projection of 1960s Jack Kirby. That said, the teenage X-Men are drawn with bodies that make them seem twice their age and Jean’s waist is about the width of her thin arm. If this is the original X-Men by way of then contemporary television program, 90210, it certainly is.
The third issue, Freak Show, is written by Fabian Nicieza, and turns soon to be supervillain, Blob’s, professional wrestling life into a study of bored self-loathing.
The comic plays just as kids-first as the original. There is a sense of play, a sense of frivolity, that does not belie the seriousness of their emotions are the superhero fights. This both allows a new audience to enjoy what were for even the time sillier stories, while unobtrusively repeating elements verbatim and allowing those elements themselves to highlight concerns that may not have been so apparent in the early 1960s.
Given that the original X-Men was made into a reprint title after only a few years, and there had been nearly twenty years of more popular X-stories, this could have been a way to really explode those early tales and the building blocks of this universe, and the early issues fulfill that promise.
Charles Xavier, the title Professor X – who has the best eyebrows of his existence under Duursema’s pen – pushes his young students into battle, but also pushes them in their training to point of minor injury, which he – as their professor and Headmaster – belittles.
That these are retellings and not replacement stories, allows Duursema and the writers to extend sequences cinematically, to concentrate on character profiles or the poetry, to pull focus from the original narrative to highlight an individual character or moment, and to play with readers already familiar with the originals or with where these characters will go in later years. This seems to be Duursema-centric, as pinch-hitter penciler, Steve Ellis, draws the straightest adaptation of the early issues, with the tradition of expansion and re-emphasis, resumed with Duursema.
The comic takes full advantage of knowing , teen terrorists, the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, will soon become superheroes with the Avengers, gives Nicieza and Duursema an opening to play with their awkward super villain situation. In the original comics, Beast took issues to be characterized as highly intelligent, leading here, two other characters mocking him for stupidity or lack of education, while narratively, we the audience, see little evidence of what they assume.
Professor X and the X-Men is also able to introduce characters who would be created years after these stories were originally told, reframing their introductions and giving more considered reasons for why those introductions came when they did. Why not recruit future X-Men, like Nightcrawler or Colossus, bad situations they were in, or a powerhouse, like Storm? In the case of the first two, the reasoning is that they were simply too young, with Storm, there is the consideration of cultural transition and where her life was at and that moment. This latter scenario is revisited at length, about five years after this comic ends, and X-Men: The Hidden Years, by John Byrne.
Duursema the title after the sixth issue, Fallen Angel, except for a few covers, and the title does not continue or regain the strength which she brought to it. The final twelve issues of the comic are inoffensive, sometimes entertaining, grow increasingly superfluous.
Even within that sixth issue, we see the redirected emphasis on Angel coping with his family, his school life, his professor in a coma, as well as supervillains and super-powered terrorists, squelched for an uncomplicated, generally predictable retelling of a thirty year old comic that was cancelled first time.