Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men

21 – Kurt Busiek at the Coffee-a-Go-Go

Famous Five
Art by David Wynne

In which special guest Kurt Busiek is the J. Robert Oppenheimer of X-Men, Rachel and Miles learn to love the Silver Age, Cyclops gets a job, Bernard the Poet falls from grace, we really wish X-Men: The Secret Years was a real book, everyone recites poetry, and we still don’t get around to Marvels.


  • METOXO, the Lava Man
  • The true, secret purpose of Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men
  • The Phoenix retcon
  • Archival pocket dimensions
  • Enid Blyton’s X-Men
  • Early-to-mid-20th Century American Jewish Socialism
  • Why the X-Men are terrible mutant P.R.
  • Band names of the Silver Age
  • An X-Men series that might have been.
  • Why Cyclops should be the Rachel Maddow of Marvel
  • Quicksilver’s childhood dreams
  • The Coffee-a-Go-Go
  • Bernard the Poet
  • Zelda Kurtzberg
  • The Barefoot Beats

Next week: The wedding of Scott Summers and Jean Grey!

You can find a visual companion to the episode – and links to recommended reading – on our blog.

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  1. I have to say, if I were part of podcast shipping wars, you two would be my OTP. It’s hard to beat childhood friends falling in love.

  2. I have a question. What song do you imagine for the various core couples of the X-Universe? We already know that Scott and Jean chose “One” from U-2 as their wedding song but what about the rest such as Rouge and Gambit, Havok and Polaris, Chris and Hebsabah, ect……

    1. Kurt is one of those comics folk who falls firmly into both the “splendid writers” and “splendid humans” categories!

  3. Hiya – I would LOVE to listen to your podcast but I’m having no luck with your download button.

    Is there an RSS link or a libsyn page I can use ? (other than i-tunes)

    cheers !

  4. That was a fantastic episode. I knew that Kurt Busiek was responsible for the Phoenix retcon, but I never heard the full story behind it.

    Also, the discussion about Cyclop’s ill-fated radio career makes me want to see a version of “This American Life” hosted by him. Hell, Cyclops is technically on the run now. Wouldn’t this be a great way to get out his side of the story?

  5. Thanks for another great episode, as always!

    I’m really excited for next week’s! X-Men #30 was the first comic I ever bought. The animated series was what hooked me. It debuted a week before my 6th birthday, so I was FIRMLY on the underside of the target age range of the show… but I watched every single episode, and loved it (well, not so much the end of season 5, but what can you do?). Anyway, when I saw X-men #30, I BEGGED my mom to buy it for me. What in the entire universe could POSSIBLY be more important than Scott and Jean finally tying the knot? I read that stupid comic so many times. It’s completely falling apart, but I unashamedly completely and totally love it. So psyched to hear you talk about it/make fun of it!

  6. Also, being totally honest, I’m kinda mad at you for not getting to Marvels. On the other hand, if that means Kurt Busiek will HAVE to be back on the show… well played, Rachel and Miles. Well played. Hoping that’ll be sooner rather than later.

  7. Oh shoot, I got really stupidly happy when Busiek started talking about the modern social media angle of mutant acceptance! Whenever I have my little daydreams about how I’d write or reboot aspects of the X-Men, the peaceful social aspect of it figures heavily. There would be a large business and non-profit side to the organization, headed up by Angel with his money and business sense and assisted by various other mutants, completely focused on charities, social media, education, medical care and public outreach. I seriously wanna see that sort of detail make its way into the comics.

  8. This was such a great episode for so many reasons.

    1. Kurt Busiek seems like such an awesome person to interview. He comes across as a great guy, and there’s really nothing I like better in a podcast than listening to someone drill down into extremely specific minutiae of an already very specific topic. You all are awesome at that, but Kurt brought it to the next level with his apparently photographic memory for silver age X-Men.

    2. I’m totally imaging radio broadcaster Cyclops as teenage Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume now.

    3. I love the way you all flip around the mutant metaphor in lots of unexpected way. For some reason, the way that Kurt phrased it in this episode made think about how the metaphor could be flipped around in another different way. A disproportionately powerful group that is statistically a global minority having to police itself to prevent the bad members of the group from ruining the world could be seen as a metaphor for cis, straight, white men needing to proactively work against all the bad actors in their midst. There are all sorts of problems with this metaphor- it breaks down under scrutiny and we really don’t need any more metaphors for white dudes’ heroics. On the other hand, it lets us refer to MRAs as The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, which I probably find too entertaining for my own good.

    1. While the problems you point out with that metaphor are definitely legit, I still really like it – great power / great responsibility, and all that. And hell – we’ve already established Mastermind as an MRA, so the parallel totally works!

    2. Yes! Scott was totally pirate radioing his thoughts. Of course now he has a podcast where he pushes the mutant agenda and takes Logan to task for being an “Uncle Tom” for trying to work with the Avengers.

  9. What a treat to have such a thoughtful conversation with Busiek! A lot here struck me as incredibly prescient given the ups and downs of the X-Men over the last decade and change, and so I wanted to get your thoughts about the question of Claremont’s legacy.

    As you’ve been going through the Claremont years, it stuck me again how much Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men is both an incredibly earnest valentine to, and utter deconstruction of, the high notes from Claremont’s X-Men. So, on the one hand we have gigantic space operas, the return of the Phoenix force, an expanded student body at the Institute, and a balls-to-the-wall riff on “Days of Future Past.”

    On the other, though, it seems like much of what Morrison did was pick up on exactly the sorts of innovations that Busiek wants to see in the books, and which seem to run counter to the BIG HUGE STAKES of the Claremont years, which often had nothing to do with mutants apart from the X-Men. So, Morrison gave us a sustained interest in the Institute as a functioning school, he had Jean give a public relations press conference on par with Busiek’s “XTV,” and we see Xavier act more as a public intellectual than paramilitary patriarch.

    Morrison’s run considered mutants as a subcuture very much fashioned after LGBT communities in the fallout of the AIDS crisis. We saw mutant punk bands (like queercore), Xavier’s interest in post-identity mutant politics (like queer theory), and a much more concerted effort to take seriously those mutants who can’t pass or assimilate, or who don’t want to (like radical queers). At the same time, books like NYX wanted to think about mutants without the superheroics, and Claremont’s own Excalibur book around the time dealt mostly with the fallout of an act of genocide. There seemed to be space in Marvel’s publishing for quieter, more intimate “thought piece” stories about mutants and the mutant metaphor.

    And then House of M happened and we couldn’t have nice things.

    In this way, Morrison’s run–and some other books around that time–seemed to suggest that maybe the melodrama, violence, and outerspace adventures of Claremont’s run–though fantastic in their own way– kept the X-Men from really thinking things through. To wit, the first panel of Morrison’s run shows Wolverine punching a sentinel in the face as Cyclops says, “Wolverine, you can probably stop doing that now.” The run concludes, meanwhile, with the realization that all acts of violence surrounding the X-Men and other mutants were basically goaded on by a sentient, malicious bacteria that Jean simply excises from the timeline using Super Phoenix powers. (WHAT?!)

    I know that much of the mutant metaphor isn’t more fully developed by Claremont (or others) until later, and yet it seems like that metaphor was, as Busiek pointed out, more-or-less fully proposed from the start. I also don’t want to downplay Claremont’s tremendous innovations on the book–his attention to characterization, his narrative “long game” as you call it, and the sheer pulpy joy of his books are why the X-Men are what they are.

    And yet, in light of Morrison’s response through New X-Men, what do you make of Claremont’s legacy for the mutant metaphor? Were the X-Men too busy fighting xenomorphs to fight the mutant PR war on earth? Was Xavier too distracted by his spacebirdgirlfriend to write all his really cool posthuman philosophy that we still only see glimpses of? What are the pros and cons of Claremont’s legacy in this light?

    On a related, less hypothetical note, do you see a space in the current comics market for the kinds of stories and books that Busiek imagined in your interview? Or, in the age of interminable BIG SUMMER CROSSOVERS and movie tie-ins, has the possibility for more introspective X-Books gone extinct?

    I know this is really long-winded (sorry!), and that you all are a long way off from wrapping up the Claremont run, but I wanted to get all this out in responses to your fantastic talk with Busiek. Thanks, as always, for the awesome work you guys do. I go for long runs with your podcast every Sunday, and always look forward to it.

  10. Best episode yet, guys.

    This is what I’d love to hear in future podcasts, too. Not that they each have to be an interview on the scale of Busiek, but delving behind the surface of the story line or issue(s) you’re covering. Why did that decision get made? Who came up with that idea? Or, what almost happened here would have changed the entire outlook of this character. Giving some historical context beyond the usual character banter of your personalities, this really begins to give you guys a platform that sets your podcast apart from the rest.


  11. Good episode. Finally the Silver Age is getting some respect around here. I would say the couple of issues of Ross Andru and Heck inking were very nice. Busiek is a good interview.

  12. I’m halfway through this episode and so conflicted. I enjoy so much of Busiek’s work, but I hate the Phoenix retcon SO BADLY because of the Cyclops and Madelyne Pryor fallout that comes from it. To learn that he was behind that piece of comics’ history, and the undoing of one of the most amazing books ever… AGGH.

    1. To be fair, though, he wasn’t the guy who decided to bring Jean back, much less write the story. He’s just the Robert Oppenheimer of the Phoenix Retcon, to quote the podcast.
      Which actually sounds awesome, and would look cool on the right business cards.

      1. I listened to that part. Still, it flowed from him. It’s his idea, he brought it to the Bullpen, co-plotter credit or no. Without Kurt, it doesn’t happen.

        1. That’s pretty true. But with how Marvel was in the late-1980s, and with how much money theoretically stood to be made from “the original X-Men” being in X-Factor, it was just a matter of time.

          I’m sure she’d have come back eventually once Shooter left, at the very worst. Maybe as a literal reborn phoenix, maybe as Madelyn Pryor awakening to a “past life” where she was Jean (which seemed to be hinted at in the issues before her and Scott’s marriage).

  13. Madelyne was a left over Claremont plot of Jean being de-powered, Scott and Jean getting married and Scott losing his edge as a superhero and retiring. Scott didn’t have to leave Madelyne, but the X-Men office would not let X-Factor use Madelyne, but put this break up on Cyclops, rather than question, “why did Cyclops marry Madelyde 2 seconds after meeting her?.. Why was the courtship so quick?.. How could we the audience accept her so instantly…” As Walt Simonson said, because Madelyne was Jean. Jean’s comeback wasn’t the problem, especially since Claremont rewrote the comeback FF issue. Madelyne was the problem.

    1. …actually, that makes me think about what could have been an awesome twist. Madelyn could have been the Phoenix entity reborn, while the Jean from Jamaica Bay would remain the original Jean. This way, we don’t get no creepy Mr. Sinister trying to make Scott have kids with a dead woman, and we get a potential story of redemption through rebirth.

      Not that what we got wasn’t amusingly bizarre anyhow.

    2. Without Jean’s return, Madelyne isn’t the problem. Madelyne’s creation (in the real world sense) is a result of a situation where Jean Grey is never coming back. The problem is Jean’s resurrection demands that Jean and Scott get back together, and that means that Jean’s resurrection demands Madelyne’s removal.

  14. Scott is a person who was known to take his time in a relationship. It was totally out of character for Scott to marry Madelyne. There is a moment when the Jean became the Phoenix, Scott was struggling with the Phoenix not really being Jean and how could he love a duplicate of Jean just cause she looked the same. Then the same writer has Scott fall madly in love with a Jean lookalike. It’s just bad writing. Married too quickly (after 6 issues) and both characters were sidelined after the marriage (2 years later). Madelyne made Scott look pretty shallow or maybe broken, marrying a dead ringer to his ex. Jean resurrection saved all of the original X-Men who were basically retired before she came. I’ll take her resurrection over Madelyne any day.

    1. I don’t particularly agree with your opinion on Scott and Madelyne, but as a Scott/Emma shipper I also don’t care very much.

      However, you also say that all the original X-Men “were basically retired” before Jean came back, that’s something I’m going to have to correct you on. Scott had been semi-retired it’s true, but Beast, Angel, and Iceman were active heroes. In fact, they were all members of the New Defenders until that series’ final issue, which was the same month as X-Factor #1.

      I realize nobody spends much time thinking about the New Defenders anymore (except for me), but it’s worth checking out if you want to see what Hank, Warren, and Bobby were up to right before Jean came back, or if you’re just looking for some mid-80s Marvel craziness.

      1. Also: I wish all the original X-men DID retired. Not because I don’t like them but because that was Claremont’s original plan so the Xmen could leave a normal life and the school will be just a place for new mutants to grow, learn to control their powers, fight evil mutant and space dudes and continue their life. That’s integrate Claremont idea of X-men with the one mentioned here by Kurt: The Xmen should be people. The original X-men would still be recurring characters, which is a great way both to preserve the characters that we like and build the world of mutants: let them have their life.

        Then this retcone came and X-factor and we got the 90’s were every single mutant is just hanging out there, characterless (because there are too many characters in the title for them to have personality) punching stuff.

  15. I remember them being in the Defenders, but the Defenders disbanded, despite no gap in publication. Then Jean returns and they decide on becoming X-Factor. Don’t remember the wording how Jean talked them into becoming X-factor but it wasn’t just a name change. Don’t want to get told off again without the specifics. But i will check the issue when I get home.

    1. Nope. Warren and an anonymous rep of his talk them into it, in X-Factor #1. (And by “talks into it,” I mean, “Contacts them and invites them and they jump at the opportunity.” The only one who really has to be talked into anything is Scott, who’s skeptical of the whole plan, and initially only plans to stick around long enough to tell Jean about Madelyne, which he then continually fails to do.) Bobby and Hank were civilians for less than an issue–they take off on page 6, and they’re teamed up again twenty pages later. It’s under a week in story-time.

      Also, X-Factor was Cameron Hodge’s proposal and plan–underwritten by Warren–not Jean’s.

  16. Candy says to Beast about, “he’s probably a bit down about everyone giving up the hero biz.” Angel says to Jean “I’ve given up the hero biz! I’m tired of the whole good guy-bad guy routine!”
    Later Angel agrees with Jean and they gather the civilian Hank and Ice-Man. So the original quit for a half. So I shouldn’t have retired.

  17. Seems to me Kurt should hate X-factor since they were indead the original five, but weren’t kids anymore, so they just felt out of their era and missused.

    I still remember how utterly disgusted I was by the first few issues. With Scott just abandoning his wife and baby boy, this durn goddamn Jean retcone, the fact that Jean just came out of her coma and was like: “yeah, let’s gather again and punch stuff!” instead of, I don’t know – collect herself and get on track of her life again, and all the other characters just dissmissing whatever they were doing at the time and becoming a team again. It felt so childish and at least for the first few issues none of the characters even had it’s own voice!

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