Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. Except for these next few weeks. The tables have turned onto the other foot as Chase prepares for his impending nuptials, and it falls to him to question and Mark to answer. Chase doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Mark. In fact, he might just ask him about things he knows nothing about just to watch him squirm.
Why don’t we see how this first at-bat is going?
The X-Men didn’t really become the popular franchise we understand today until Giant-Size X-Men #1 where it introduced banner characters like Storm, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler. Why is it that the biggest disappointment in the wake of that issue is the under-utilization of another member from the team: Sunfire?
Logan’s in theaters and on-track to make a billion dollars based on how many stoked teens I saw in my screening and this is appearing on a website called “Comics Bulletin,” so I don’t have to bother explaining who the X-Men are here. If you clicked this link then you bought a ticket already, and this isn’t Dune so we’re not handing out a glossary before the show.
Chris Claremont gets the credit for revitalizing the X-Men, so I occasionally forget that he wasn’t the writer behind Giant-Size. Hold a gun to my head and ask me who created Wolverine or Storm and I might say “Claire Chrismont” in a panic before screaming “LEN WEIN!” at the top of my soon to be still lungs. Then I’d be shot to death because I forgot to credit Dave Cockrum, too. Art cred matters. Anyway, Len Wein was handed the task of bringing the X-Men back, and he had a new hook in mind for the team: diversity. The team would now feature characters from all around the globe. Of course, it was still 1975 so a lot of this diversity was of the Scottish or German accent variety, but you still had Storm, Thunderbird, and – our man of the hour – Sunfire being brought into the fold.
Storm has remained an important part of the X-Men’s fabric. She’ll be appearing in Marvel comics until that publisher finds a way to finally make the Inhumans happen for real this time. However, what started as a pretty diverse team gets a whole lot whiter following Giant-Size. Thunderbird? Well, he’s shown up sporadically over the years, but that’s been hampered by the fact the fact that he died in his third appearance with the team because a gruff loner needed to die and it wasn’t going to be Wolverine. And Sunfire? Well, he was written out less violently when he voluntarily left the team in the issue immediately following Giant-Size #1. He wasn’t even on the cover, so can you really blame the (entirely fictional) guy? No, you can’t. You have to blame the (mostly non-fictional) creators.
Sunfire didn’t disappear entirely after that. He showed up every now and then for a crossover, co-headlined a miniseries with Big Hero 6, became a Horseman of Apocalypse, and all that jazz. You couldn’t accuse him of being a major character, but he stuck around long enough to be a member of the Uncanny Avengers when their book launched after Avengers vs. X-Men. Reading Uncanny Avengers, you’d be forgiven for thinking absolutely nothing had happened with him in the years between. He’s still proud, independent, and unwavering. Even though he helps out with saving the day, that book still didn’t center him as a character with anything resembling an arc. The emotional weight falls on other, whiter mutants, and that’s sort of the problem.
Sunfire’s not a team player. He’s a protagonist waiting to happen. That’s not to say that he couldn’t have worked in the X-Men and eventually become a fully developed character. No, the reason that never could have happened is because Wolverine was on the team. The Giant-Size team was launched but then creative suddenly realized that three self-interested loners was two too many. The proud, non-white men were ditched and Wolverine was allowed to develop into a breakout character under future-writer Chris Claremont. And, fun fact, Chris Claremont would take Japanese culture and make it an important element of Wolverine’s character. When you take “X-Men” and add “Japan” that equals out to Wolverine instead of Sunfire, and that’s fucked the fuck up. I’m placing a lot of emphasis on the race of these characters because it’s impossible to ignore it when discussing which one was given an opportunity to take hold.
Marvel Comics wasn’t ready for Sunfire. With no room for him in the X-Men outside of guest-star appearances, he would have needed a back-up or ongoing series to establish himself. As much credit as Marvel Comics gets for being a progressive force in their early history, there’s no fucking way they were going to give a series to an anti-America anti-hero whose mother died from radiation poisoning brought about by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. That’s some pretty heavy subject matter that you might think would interest a franchise focused on an oppressed group that holds a Holocaust survivor among its core cast (the result of a retcon that occurred long after Sunfire’s debut). The Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are among the darkest acts ever committed. Marvel Comics and the X-Men would grapple with the former.
This isn’t a high school history class, so I’ll keep this very short: America has not truly confronted the evils it committed on the Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II. Sunfire’s origins, as established by co-creator Roy Thomas, are rooted in the outcome of these terrible acts and they demand addressing. Having a white American writer be the one to do it, though? Hard pass. I don’t want to see that. No one needs to. They could have the most nuanced and sympathetic take in the world, and it still wouldn’t be appropriate to have them tell a story about a Japanese character’s relationship to America after he’s been so affected by this nation’s crimes. Marvel Comics would have to hire a Japanese or Japanese-American writer to tackle that. And so Sunfire remains obscure. A character in want of a story, a story in need of a creator.
So why is the under-utilization of Sunfire a Giant-Size disappointment? Because he represents a squandered opportunity to bring in the right talent to tell a unique story. And that neeeever happens anymore…