Marvel Comics’ new miniseries Major X #1 hit shelves this week, and with it an explosion (er, x-plosion) of ’90s superhero nostalgia in a very literal way. Major X isn’t just the story of a new hero hopping through space-time into the X-Men comics of 1991, it’s also written and drawn by a ’90s Marvel icon of equal parts fame and infamy: Rob Liefeld.
This six-issue miniseries is giving Liefeld a chance to speak back to his own history, when he first broke into superhero superstardom with titles like X-Force and New Mutants. Major X, the character, is a refugee from an alternate plane of existence known as X-Istence, a former mutant safe haven that has recently come under attack.
To save his home, he and an alternate reality version of Beast named ‘M’Koy’ (instead of, you know, McKoy) take a dimension sliding motorcycle (a “mothercycle”) back to the future (no, really) to try and prevent X-Istence from being destroyed. And of course, along the way, they run into some of Liefeld’s very own greatest hit creations and co-creations like Cable, Deadpool, Shatterstar, and Domino.
But Major X is more than just a chance for Liefeld to do a little wink-nod to his own career -- it’s a retrospective look into one of the most bizarre eras in comics history. And to appreciate it, you first need to take a step back and understand Liefeld’s legacy for what it is.
[Ed. note: Major Major X #1 spoilers below.]
Send pouches, guns, and clones
One glance at the pages of Major X #1 will tell you some of the more critical things you need to know about when it’s from: sword fighting, belt pouches, motorcycle stunts, gruff soldier-types with giant sci-fi guns — the sort of things that fans have long since learned to associate with ’90s comics.
That association is anything but accidental. Liefeld was one of the core architects of American comics’ memetic ’90s aesthetic, along with other big names like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane. This particular era of comics came hot on the heels of the “grim and gritty” revolution kickstarted by work like The Dark Knight Returns, when comics were finally beginning to break away from their read-it-and-leave-it pulp fiction status and into mainstream collectors markets. This was the era of local comic book stores and variant covers, of “shocking” character reveals and new #1s — anything to get teens and young adults buying more and more and more.
Add this to the “comics aren’t for kids anymore” sentiments sparked by the 1980s’ decidedly anti-biff! Bang! Pow! takes on classic heroes, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a strange sort of revolution.
Pressure to keep up with the comics zeitgeist allowed self-taught newcomers like Liefeld to tap into a new market of fans, ones who were looking for the most over-the-top action and shiny, weapons grade “new-ness” that they could find.
And thus, the era of the x-treme was born. It’s one of those things that you know the moment you see it — characters covered in utility pouches, cybernetic enhancements, rippling muscles and painted on spandex, concepts like “techno-organic viruses” and green-blooded samurai aliens. This is where Liefeld’s work really took off.
Of course, the visuals were only one half of the equation. Another critical component of x-treme comics was the melodramatic flair of it all. Liefeld excelled in that arena too, weaving buckwild soap opera storylines into his already over-the-top character designs, full of time traveling clones, long-lost sibling identity reveals, Space Age tech gone awry — you name it. Liefeld gave ’90s readers the whole, ridiculous package.
Love it or hate it
Naturally, Liefeld’s whole ouvre was something of a take-it-or-leave-it situation for comics fans new and old alike. For some who began buying comics in the ’90s, there’s an unsurprising fondness; for others, there’s a marked disdain.
After all, while they may have a campiness all their own, there is a big difference between the quaint charm and wholesome glee found in the comics of the ’60s and ’70s, and the teeth-clenching brutality of a character named Cable trying to avenge his murdered family.
Modern readers can find similar stumbling blocks. It takes more than a little effort to untangle a story that hinges on self-referential melodrama about corrupted timelines and alternate reality doppelgangers hopscotching around the multiverse — and that’s after you get past the unique (or, depending on who you ask, grotesque) art.
There are those who appreciate it even now, those who remember it fondly, and those who would rather pretend the ’90s never happened at all. But for better or worse, Liefeld’s work helped shape a critical moment in modern superhero history — the exact critical moment that Major X is in conversation with.
So, who is Major X?
Knowing what you now know about the Liefeld legacy, it won’t come as a surprise to learn that Major X #1 reveals that Major X is Cable’s own son, Alexander Nathan Summers. He’s … well, a future-based, sort of alternate-reality (but maybe not) addition to the family tree, coming to talk to his father before his father even knows he’s his father — and honestly, it’s exactly the sort of surprise reveal that made Liefeld’s work work to begin with.
The Summers family tree is already an incomprehensible mess; one of the more concrete staples of Liefeld’s bibliography, thanks to his numerous additions and revisions. So why not twist the branches a bit more? Alexander has come on his space-time skipping motorcycle to talk to his dad, who, by the way, in the current comics was recently killed by a time traveling younger version of himself called Kid Cable. If that sentence doesn’t appeal to you, Major X probably won’t either.
But if it does, you’re in for one hell of a ride.