X-Men: The Hidden Years and What We Thought We Knew
by Travis Hedge Coke
X-Men: The Hidden Years only ran twenty-some issues, barely advertised, canceled in a wave of re-branding, and some of John Byrne’s best X-related work and a strongly experimental title for him to play around on. The expectations of most potential readers were low, to the point, I imagine a number of likely readers never were, because they assumed they knew precisely what they would get. Byrne, to his credit, worked to do the unexpected, both respectfully and brazenly. I am pretty publicly not a fan of his recent fan comic with the X-Men, but Hidden Years was a serious, and professional effort, showcasing a few things Byrne seems to realize more strongly than your average comics fan, even the dyed in the wool, deep in the woods superfans.
For at least the last thirty years the best thing you can do with the X-Men is the revisionist game, What We Know Now. The soapiest of soap tactics has taken over the soapiest serial superhero niche. And, for over thirty years, John Byrne has been a quantifiable king of a reveal or explanation that stops us from seeing earlier stories, earlier events, with the understanding we had then. Once, you’ve been Byrned, you see Superman keeping planes and buildings together with forcefields. Once you have been Byrned, you know for all the talk, Dr Doom lost his face to impatience and the hubris of shoving a blazing hot metal mask onto his skin.
One of the first things John Byrne does with Hidden Years, is weaponize nostalgia. He utilized memory, assumption, and false memory, the recollection of memory.
Almost fifty years ago, X-Men stopped running new stories and went into reprints for several years. Hidden Years is set during the time between that non-cancelation and the return of new X-Men-focused serial stories, a time during which the characters made guest appearances, may have featured in team books, but were not actively detailed as we expect them to be, in X-specific comics stories.
Byrne, opens his Hidden Years, along with Tom Palmer and Greg Wright (providing suitably retro-feeling but vibrant and elegant embellishment) with a replay of specific scenes from the final serialized X-Men issue, of that original run, hewing close in visual and image. The preview that ran before the first issue, was so charged with Neal Adams, as was the first issue, that it generates a hazy clarity to our memories of those earlier comics, of that era for these characters. John Byrne knows, even his own presence on the book brings in a cloud of sure feelings and memories, for many readers, as a famous part of another, more recent, chunk of the X-Men’s past. He trades on those visual and nostalgic institutions to be neither Neal Adams Light, or the earlier John Byrne.
Neither retelling old stories anew, or carving new territory out of whole cloth, Byrne works into his tales the kind of older fantasy stories from outside comics that late 1960s X-Men talent like Adams and Roy Thomas were fond of, even touching on Adams’ embrace of hollow Earth narratives. Byrne turns soliloquy, such as one delivered originally by Magneto, into a conversation between Magneto and a previously-unacknowledged, psychically present Charles Xavier. He allows the Phoenix to be present in stories, to affect stories, but only internally, within Jean Grey and her scope of awareness, unbeknownst to others. Hidden Years quickly becomes not only a story of unknown stories, but of hidden stories. Of stories that are for specific people to tell or not tell, to experience themselves, for themselves.
The X-Men, here, in the early Hidden Years, are nostalgic, themselves. They are angrier and more argumentative than we may remember, but truly, they were this pugnacious and frustrated in those early 1960s-early 1970 issues. They, in Hidden Years, do not remember it that way, pining for simpler, easier times. Their professor, their one and only teacher, cannot keep in his mind that they are no longer his students, but he also insists people completely removed from his school call him not Mister, not Charles, not Doctor, but, “Professor.” Professor Xavier clinging to his “Professor,” title is no different than Bobby Drake’s unwillingness to acknowledge that women who may have given him the eye in the past are not required to date or want to date him in perpetuity.
The stories Byrne tells, change how specific individuals are experiencing things we felt we already had a grasp on, and by seeing their experience, we are forced to reevaluate, or simply to see those other stories now differently. This is not simply placing the gun on the mantle, so in future stories it can be taken down and cleaned, or taken down and fired. This is not an attempt to more properly set up comics that were originally published in 1979 or 1993, but to invigorate rereads, or new first reads of those and other comics.
Hidden Years, narratively, visually, and even in terms of wording, phrasing, the dialogue techniques used, is an experiment in engaging with other comics, those chronologically taking place before and after the issues of this comic, and those being published simultaneous to it. Hidden Years did not exist in any vacuum, but coexisted with a return to that world by Byrne’s sometime collaborator, Chris Claremont, for one of Claremont’s most unreadable ventures into X. The clear, direct visuals and layouts of Hidden Years not merely evoke an earlier era, but stand in conversation and comparison to contemporary X-Men comics and their attempts to also communicate clearly and directly, whether they succeed at that or not.
On a simple character level, showing a raving, happy to make slaves, pop-eyed Magneto while other comics being released around the same time waffle on his villainy or the necessity of his actions, iterates and reiterates, wagers and then doubles down on an appraisal.
As the series progresses, panels are more deliberately shaped, angled to draw the eye along lines of motion. Some of the pitfalls of extremely collaborative comics are shed by Byrne’s definitive hand. Rather than written then drawn, or drawn then dialogued, this series reads as if conceived and then executed. Body language and body type become as seriously (and deftly) handled as plot and plot hooks. Beast neither looks nor sits like either Iceman or Angel, or like a facile cartoon of Beast. Byrne draws the X-Men with careful characterization, never as generalizations.
Unfortunately, the series down demonstrate some of the lazier visual language of the era it homages, and Joh Byrne’s overall oeuvre. Clothing layers without ever breaking a line or rumpling funny. When a superhero transforms, fine dress shirts simply fray away from either ice or a fluttering wing. John Byrne helped birth the demand for more detail and specificity in superhero art (and his tribute is here to Neal Adams, who really birthed it), but this is not an homage to the later states, but the nascent form of that movement. Byrne is a cartoonist, more than a delineator, and the cartooning here is for effect, whether you prefer it or a more real world accurate form of drawing.
Byrne breaks out the big guns on perspective, layouts, character work, when he chooses to, and when the art treats an element unrealistically, it is almost surely intentional to ease the read or impact, including where the smaller wheels on a wheelchair are, issue to issue. There is a panel of a hyper-detailed full moon broken by the white cutout silhouette of Angel.
Byrne writes and draws Ka-Zar, a white man raised in the jungle (full of dinosaurs and ape-people), not so much as he appeared in the 1960s, or in the years of this comics’ publication, but with a distinctly retro elegance, evoking much more strongly the 1940s and 50s.
Using “mother and child reunion” to advertise a coming issue’s reconnection of superhero Angel with his mother is both one the nose and a little inappropriate, but in a cheeky fashion perfect to honor the 1970-75 era these stories are mimicking.
Namechecking Star Wars once every few issues both makes the comic seem set more recently than it would have been, had these issues come out immediately following those they chronologically follow, and more of the past than if they referenced something that had only just been released. The prequel Star Wars and successive sequels keep it an evergreen reference, even if home viewing did not, but it is a carefully chosen touchstone, not to the original run of X-Men before it went to reprints, but the Star Wars-infused Uncanny X-Men with which John Byrne is strongly associated, along with Claremont and Dave Cockrum.
Even the horror references that come are pre-dated, but references that are unlikely to fall out of usefulness, like Krueger. The comic was not chosen to fit a specific temporal market, but was pitched by Byrne a few times over several years, and likely tailored, once he was hired to actually make the comics, to the market of the moment as well as where he, himself, was artistically and aesthetically at.
Byrne brings in characters like Storm and Dr Moira MacTaggert, not to have a simple laugh, a gag cameo, but, in the cast of MacTaggert, to address specifically how intensely Charles Xavier keeps secrets. When first introduced as a character, MacTaggert was bizarrely written off by Xavier as a housecleaner he hired. Not a prize-winning, globally respected research scientist. Why he would do that was never touched on, clearly, by the writer of those issues (Claremont), and here it is given both a heroic spin (it is for protection) and one more intimate and potentially sinister (he is obsessively secretive).
Similar to his Alpha Flight and his Angel mini, this feels like cutting loose Byrne, willfully experimental and anxious John Byrne. His more recent fan comic, much as I like that he sat down and made a full-on fan comic of the X-Men, is much less deliberately executed, with Wolverine threatening to spank a thirteen year old he barely knows with claws he has somehow forgotten are made of/covered with unbreakable metal. The new, unpublished, unofficial comic, reads like the nostalgia exercise, misremembering and all, that Hidden Years wisely avoids. Fair game, as it is a fan comic he did for himself, while Hidden Years is a professional serial comic made for an outside audience.
There is an incredibly subtle sequence, in issue #12, wherein Blob is gloating from a bath tub attended by scantily-clad women, having witnessed his ally, Mastermind, cheating someone with the illusion of riches. Mastermind points out how the easiest to fool are those who think they are too smart, at which point we never again see any evidence of bath or bathing attendants.
While superhero comics were learning the ropes of decompression, Hidden Years was utilizing other techniques to similarly reward the inevitable collections, the collectors, the rereads. The comics use visual and text in tangent with context to generate multiple reads. The initial read, the read for subtlety, the read in context of other issues of other comics. Beast, in Hidden Years, is very Neal Adams, while Magneto is retroactively informed by and building on Chris Claremont’s and Byrne’s earlier own, which are elaborations on both Adams’ and those that less humanized takes. While Byrne may homage or fall in line with an artist or writer for a particular character, he deliberately does not present the Fantastic Four as identical in design as his famous run on the characters’ main title, but gives us a 2000ish version. When Kraven the Hunter appears in Hidden Years, it is undeniably the familiar character, but the visual presentation is new via Byrne, not in costume design or hairstyle, but the presentation itself. The framing.
Byrne is not re-presenting material in Hidden Years. It is not meant as a reprint book, or a retelling, a nostalgia mirror. Hidden Years is a new, turn of the century comic book. Using bright yellow for the skin of not-Fu-Manchu, The (Yellow) Claw is a conscious, deliberate choice, as is almost exaggerating Ka-Zar’s jungle lord lordliness/white god-ness. Using the Claw to broach eugenics and racial supremacy ideas (and trounce them) is a conscious choice. Drawing characters not merely as either power fantasies or sexualized attainable fantasies, but as attractive, fit teens, or the humanizing t-shirt and not bad build Charles Xavier, direct our attention to how many other comics published contemporary to Hidden Years do only show us either hypermasculine power fantasies or girls you too could get if they were real and would go for a guy just like you!
Part of what is best about Hidden Years is that it can make what was happening on the other X-Men titles, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, look awkward and lacking both in effort and execution by comparison.
Hidden Years was canceled while it was at its most inter-referential, touching on both multiple subplots internal to the comic and many elements and narratives from other comics, most of which had been originally published three decades earlier. The most recent comics being explicitly referenced, was a miniseries that also fit into earlier continuity, handled by Byrne and Roger Stern. With the hard reevaluation of the X-aesthetic coming across the line of comics, it makes sense they canceled this title, but its Magneto is very strongly the Magneto of that reevaluation. The Allred/Milligan reinvent of X-Force? Visually, Allred is is a modernization of Byrne as much as anything. That Byrne emotiveness, that Byrne design-forward, cartoon where best verve. Hidden Years’ Charles Xavier and Iceman, both, are much more in line with what Grant Morrison and Joe Casey would bring to fore with their runs, as was the everything old is new dusting off the tools and washing the cars embrasure. The third X-Men title of that reevaluation, written by Claremont, like Hidden Years, takes the X-Men immediately for a crash landing in the Savage Land.
A tribute to an earlier era, Hidden Years ended as a great way to intro a new era. John Byrne explores the Marvel Universe better, in these issues, than anywhere else in his career. His desire, his drive to make comics and to play with what can make comics great is evident even on the pages that may not thrill us as individual readers. Hidden Years was never a comic for everyone, but it is a comic that reaches out for a sizable audience. Byrne wants us to read, to enjoy these issues. I hope he had a blast making them.
X-Men: The Hidden Years and What We Thought We Knew
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