Comfort Food Comics Potluck is a regular column where I ask some of my favorite people to write about their special Comfort Food Comics.
Earth X is the ultimate handbook/love letter to the Marvel universe, and it came out at the perfect moment of my comics fandom to make an everlasting impression. First released in 1999 when I was 13 going on 14, this series was a collaboration between Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, John Paul Leon, Bill Reinhold, Matt Hollingsworth (later passing the torch to James Sinclair and Melissa Edwards), and Todd Klein. Earth X was the first “serious” comic I remember reading, years before an English teacher talked me into reading Watchmen. Even now on reread all the beats hit the same, a few lines sticking out as having been etched into my brain for over twenty years.
Coincidentally, twenty years is how long Uatu the Watcher (sporting a Zordon-style face projection) has been blind, and the comic begins with his recruitment of Aaron Stack AKA the Machine Man AKA X-51 to fill in the gap of what has happened during that period. His role will be to report on the current events of Earth’s heroes while Uatu fills him in on their origins and the context with which to understand their current predicaments. Seems like a fine model to follow for a semi-personal essay about my own experience with this book. Let’s look back —
My parents introduced me to Marvel Comics through the trading cards, mini-dossiers that distilled decades of continuity to a few key lines of information. I was compelled to get as many as I could, learning how to draw by copying the costumes from my favorites. Over time my interest narrowed in on the X-centric cast of characters. Luckily, the X-Men were only gaining in popularity with their own line of cards, action figures, and, yes, animated series (I don’t know how many times I rewatched Pryde of the X-Men). I was finally lured to buying comics when I saw Joe Madureira’s X-Men on the cover of Wizard Magazine.
Because of Wizard, I had become a fan of Alex Ross’s dynamic photorealistic paintings. One issue he contributed a feature imagining the Marvel heroes “all growed up,” a parody of his Kingdom Come. Though it was mostly a joke at the time, it evolved into a full mini-series, where he would take the idea more seriously. This series would be called Earth X, and the premise was that everyone on the planet had become a mutant. As more details emerged, I was getting very hyped. Some of his costume designs were immediately iconic, like Black Bolt and the May Parker Venom. Each issue would have a gorgeous, interconnected cover painted by Ross featuring his new costumes for the iconic Marvel comics. I was entering high school by this point and primed to have my little head twisted by some deep literature.
Jim Krueger infused Earth X with Philosophy 101, quoting Nietzche and holding forth about relativism. I certainly hadn’t read anything like this in X-Men comics. It sounded hella smart, and as an introverted tryhard I ate it up. It didn’t hurt that the scale felt massive – they promised to reveal the meaning of life, Marvel-style. The narrative device is pretty clever – X-51 begins as the reader’s point-of-view character until his role changes, and other characters enter with questions we also would like answers to. It’s a natural way to retread the different origins, in a way that streamlines the various contributions and retcons over time.
X-51 becomes increasingly disturbed by the things Uatu teaches him about the Earth and its heroes, who are dealing with their own mounting crisis down on the planet. Over the course of 14 issues, the many seemingly unconnected threads lead into each other to culminate in the Marvel heroes great last stand to save the world and their future as a species. The creative team executes everything like clockwork. The scenes skip from the moon to New York to Los Angeles to Latveria and back again at just the right moments. The scale dances from the intimate to the galactic with ease. I love the naturalistic dialogue here, Krueger writes everyone so believably and distinctly. Earth X has all the gravitas of a 90s summer blockbuster – I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Independence Day as I did my reread.
I remember picking up each issue from that place at the mall – the one I always dreamed about working for, but that had closed by the time I was of-age. The same place I bought a black XL t-shirt emblazoned with the red “X” brush-stroke logo. These comics really felt special, with a thick cover stock and glossy paper inside, the appendix in the back that allowed the world-building to spread out. The covers did not disappoint either, each gorgeous composition came with the thrill of waiting to see which characters would be featured on the next one, and how they would bleed into each other.
Though Ross got me through the door, John Paul Leon is the true breakout here. Leon’s pencils, inked by Reinhold, are chunky and dark, perfectly providing the atmosphere for this fallen world. The art is simultaneously comic-booky and photo-real, in a grimy high contrast sort of way. I was used to Joe Mad and Chris Bachalo – John Paul Leon opened my eyes to a whole new way of comics. Looking through my copies again last week, I noticed some pages are engraved like I had been drawing on top of them. I must have been trying to copy the way Leon drew a face or a pose. Looking at it now still makes me sigh with love.
The bit I remember the most is the climactic moment when the Celestials return to Earth. They are introduced as Earth’s great benefactors, but are later revealed to be the harbingers of the planet’s impending doom. Leon draws a glorious double page spread where they all stride across the landscape, completely dwarfing New York City below. Running along the bottom the two pages are tiny square panels showing the awed faces of each character (about 20 or 30 in all). The way Leon has tweaked the Celestials designs is award-worthy, drawing them as angular, vantablack statues adorned in glowing neon geometry. I didn’t know anything about the Celestial before reading Earth X, but afterwards I would never forget them.
Despite having an X in the title, our merry mutants are confined to supporting roles in Earth X. A few characters get cute cameos throughout (hi Feral), with Storm, Colossus, Sunfire, and Brian Braddock all heads-of-state. Wolverine gets maybe the meanest treatment here, shown as a delusional Al Bundy type who never leaves the couch. To add insult to injury, he’s been married to Madelyne Pryor all these years, thinking she was Jean (justice for Maddie, tbh). Scott Summers gets the most play, training a group of circus performers to be the new X-Men, except their moment never really comes. I have to admit, though – the scene where Corsair, Polaris, and Havok offer Scott one last chance to get off-world, damn that’s a fine bit of business.
You may be confused at this point. Wasn’t the whole point that every one on Earth had become a mutant? Well, it turns out to have been a bait-and-switch. They’re not mutants at all… they’re Inhumans. Imagine IvX two decades too early. AND YET – I still love it. The creative team managed to pull it off so flawlessly that the Inhuman reveal wasn’t even a let-down. They successfully reignited my interest in all the Marvel characters, even ones I hadn’t seen anywhere else. Earth X builds on the foundations of my trading card days by showing lesser-known characters like Clea and Mar Vell in pivotal roles, favorites like Thor and the Hulk in a fresh light, and central figures like Reed Richards and Steve Rogers plumbing their depths and coming back with the will to keep trying. Like the recent History of the Marvel Universe, Earth X is a spectacular primer for Marvel lore, couched in a completely engaging narrative vehicle that makes you feel why it matters.
I was eager to start reading the sequel Universe X, excited for the promise of more characters getting a spotlight. I couldn’t quite keep up with it, though – I was about to take a break from comics for a while and without Leon drawing it lost some of the magic. By the time Paradise X was coming out, I was too far behind to catch up, no matter how fascinatingly bizarre Alex Ross’ superhero angels looked. Now that I’ve gotten myself hyped up for Earth X again though, I think it’s time for me to finish the trilogy. Seeing Marvels X begin to show up on Marvel Unlimited now is just further incentive.
I’m really glad that Marvel put this out when I was an impressionable youth, and that they stand by it today. I don’t always see Earth X being discussed which is a shame, this is a small move to correct that. I don’t love nostalgia, but with comfort food of this caliber, there’s no denying the warm, familiar feeling it can bring. This series is such a beloved piece of my collection its well worth a read – it’s easily accessible in trade and on Marvel Unlimited. Though I am now a grown, I know there’s still a piece of that angsty teen inside who appreciates the catharsis of telling the gods to go to hell.
PS. If you’re looking for more John Paul Leon, I highly recommend checking out The Winter Men written by Brett Lewis