So Guardians of the Galaxy is in the can and on cinema screens across the nation. Across the world, even. Starring a grand total of zero members of “The Avengers” and with only a small connection to the rest of the movies already made, Marvel Studios have gone out of their way to prove that, despite many of their film licenses being held by other production houses, they don’t need them. They’ve got this covered. Their back catalogue of characters and titles is so vast, and untapped, that they’re good to go in any direction they want.

This leaves the folks holding those other properties –Sony has Spider-Man while the Fox holds the X-Men and Fantastic Four rights – with a problem. Superhero movies, as dictated by Marvel so far, are an interconnected affair. A “Cinematic Universe” to be created and explored. When Avengers became the second highest grossing film of all time, Sony and Fox – both corporations with only one goal in mind; to make money – could see their problem. How to create a “universe” like Marvel have, but with only one small portion of a license? The answer lies, of course, back with the comics themselves, in a fashion many of you will be intimately familiar with. Spin offs.

Now, obviously, spin offs have been done in pretty much every entertainment industry ever. I’m sure if Shakespeare hadn’t killed off all his characters in almost all his plays, we’d have had ongoing stories about them*. TV and films have done it time and time again, as well as novels, and one could even argue that a musician’s solo career is a “spin-off” from his original band. John Lennon? Phil Collins? But it would be hard to argue that ANY medium has had as much practice, or success, with spin-offs as superhero comics.

Who would have thought these three shows could come from the same place.

Who would have thought these three shows could come from the same place.

Comic books had spin-offs before they even got started. Action Comics #1 debuted a character by the name of Superman in April of 1938, but he was given a self-titled series as well in 1939. Whizz Comics published the original stories of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, but by 1941 there was Captain Marvel Adventures, on the stands. Some of the most common tropes associated with superheroes, like teaming up to face threats no single hero could fight alone, was originally just a way to have all the most popular characters be in one book, and appeal to a wider audience.

One Marvel franchise, though, is king of the spin-offs. Starting out as a team of five, but growing steadily over the decades to a roster of hundreds, the X-Men are as big as a single franchise can get, and Fox owns the rights to it all. But in order to make use of this treasure trove of ideas, stories and titles, the studio and the people making the decisions would do well to look at what makes the best X-titles work, and which ones did not. What makes some spin-offs greater than others? And how have the various X-Men books stood the test of time?

X-FORCE

This week, let’s have a look at, arguably, the most well-known of the various spin-offs, X-Force. The history of X-Force starts almost a decade before the term was used when, in 1983, Chris Claremont’s team of young X-Men characters got their own title “The New Mutants”. The youngest students at the Xavier School, eventually with Magneto as their teacher, the New Mutants would explore darker subject matter than the X-Men series they had come from, adding teen drama to the already layered subtexts of prejudice and  alienation that the main title dealt with. Having originally debuted in the 60’s, the original X-Men had not dealt so overtly with various social issues when the main characters had been teenagers, but focused more on inter-personal relationships and general superhero stories. The New Mutants was almost a reset, a reboot of the original concept, but using a conceit inherent in the formula of the book itself. This was a school, with new students coming in to be taught about their mutant gifts. This would not be the last time the “new class” idea was used to create a spin-off, or introduce new characters into the X-Men franchise.

Early X-Force line-up. So 90's...

Early X-Force line-up. So 90’s…

As the 80’s went on The New Mutants found a dedicated audience and remained popular right up until the early 90’s, when Marvel reorganized its Mutant books. The comic book market was booming and Marvel took it as the perfect chance to grab an even bigger piece of the pie. First, New Mutants was cancelled after issue 100, but not before a new, harder tone had been established in their titles. Magneto was no longer the team’s mentor, but Cable, a mysterious mercenary from the future. Less violent characters were killed off and angrier, “edgier” ones were brought in to take their place. In 1991, when Marvel relaunched the title, plotted and drawn by Rob Liefeld, and it became X-Force.

As hinted at in the title, X-Force was a book about action. Personified by Liefeld’s Cable – a man with a cybernetic arm, a huge gun and a thousand unused pouches – the team was all about explosions and crude humour. An antithesis to the X-Men in almost every way, X-Force was indicative of the 90’s in all the worst ways. The focus of the book was to be about a much harsher world view than the one espoused in the core X-Men titles. While Charles Xavier is a crippled old man who has a vision of a peaceful future and is trying to work towards it through understanding and peace, Cable is a crippled old man who had come from a bleak, horrible future, trying to avoid it through violence and war. Seemingly one note characters like Shatterstar and Feral proliferated the book, as well as long, ongoing guest appearances from Deadpool.

X-Force would survive through the 90’s before low sales would find it cancelled and relaunched as X-Statix, before that too was cancelled a couple of years later. It would remain off the shelves as an ongoing until 2008 when a new X-Force book was launched starring Wolverine and a team of black-ops mutants running secret missions the other X-Men would disapprove of. This took the violent, aggressive nature of the original X-Force book and spun it, making it something actually fitting for the characters to be doing in their universe.

Wolverine's black-ops X-Force team.

Wolverine’s black-ops X-Force team.

This new X-Force book proved popular enough to be relaunched as Uncanny X-Force in 2010, until in 2013 a second X-Force title – Cable and X-Force – was launched to run alongside it as part of Marvel’s line-wide relaunch Marvel NOW. The two books ran concurrently for a few months before the two crossed over, and amalgamated, leaving just one X-Force book on the stands as of 2014.

Much of the title’s initial success could be attributed to a few simple things. For starters the name itself is striking; something easily recognized and attributed to the X-franchises. Secondly the 90’s was a great time for the X-Men line of books. Easily the biggest selling franchise in Marvel’s stables at the time, with an animated series on Fox, pretty much anything X-Men would sell, and X-Force’s action and humour grabbed the attention of many young, male fans, even if nowadays anyone looking at those early issues can’t really fathom why.

X-Force’s biggest success, however, was staying true to the identity it had created. X-Force is a book about violent people doing violent things. From Liefeld’s initial run in 1991 to Wolverine’s black-ops team in the late 2000’s, and all the way back to Cable’s team today, the book only really became unpopular when it lost its way. X-Statix was popular enough as a concept, but it didn’t last, and eventually was the death knell for the book. X-Force was at its best when it was blowing stuff up, and will always be the title Marvel uses to scratch that particular itch amidst its X-books.

Next week, we’ll have a look at that other juggernaut of an X-title, my personal favorite. X-Factor.

*Technically, we even HAVE a Shakespeare spin-off in the absurdist play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” by Tom Stoppard.

About The Author

Living in Australia, my life is probably quite like yours, except hotter and with more dangerous animals. I've had a love of comics for the last 20 years, which is almost exactly two thirds of my life, and very little else has been with me that long. I fancy myself as a writer, but I fancy myself as many things that I'm not all that good at, so go figure. I have strong opinions but I love to discuss things, so please comment, cos I'd love to hear what you think of what I think.

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