Jim Krueger, sitting at an artist alley table at the 2023 New Orleans Fan Expo, watched as fans of comic books and anime walked past his display of art prints and paperbacks ready for autographs.
Occasionally, an eager fan would strike up conversation about the writer’s work for both Marvel and DC Comics, to which he offered insight from decades in the industry. But Krueger’s small table on the far side of the convention center doesn’t do his influence justice.
One of the main works he brings to conventions is “Earth X,” a 1999 comic book series that explored the dystopian last days of the Marvel Universe, cowritten by Krueger and comic book artist Alex Ross, with art by the late John Paul Leon. In the decades since, the series has silently influenced elements of the multi-billion-dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“’Eternals,’ it influenced. ‘Moon Knight’ it influenced a lot, especially the design of the character and kind of the backstory that begins to play in,” explained Krueger, who worked on two sequels and a prequel to “Earth X.”
Fans of Krueger’s work have been pleasantly surprised by the integration of his work as of late.
“It’s certainly interesting that Marvel pulled from ‘Earth X’ here, Krueger’s work hasn’t been adapted a great deal by either company,” explained Owen Farrington, a media historian who runs the YouTube channel Owen Likes Comics. “So it’s good that this aspect of ‘Earth X’ was brought over into the MCU.”
But influence goes both ways.
“Earth X” and the rest of Krueger’s work are a result of tampering and combining influences, specifically the influence of Marvel Comics’ architect Jack Kirby, who helped to create many of the characters adapted to the big screen today like the Hulk, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.
Krueger, influenced for decades by the creations of Kirby, wanted to pay tribute to even the creator’s most obscure creations. A similarly minded Ross met Krueger in the mid-1990s, fresh off of the success of Ross’ 1994 series “Marvels,” a celebration of Marvel’s early years depicted in Ross’ trademark painted style.
“We talked about how important Machine Man was as the last true superhero that Kirby created for the Marvel Universe,” Krueger recalled the pair’s first meeting at a Milwaukee comic convention.
Machine Man, a creation for Kirby’s adaptation of “2001: A Space Odyssey” would become the point-of-view character for Krueger and Ross’ own high concept science fiction story with Kirby baked into the heart of it.
Ross even advised Krueger to return to the characters’ original iterations as depicted by Stan Lee and Kirby for inspiration on “Earth X.” Krueger explained that a similar technique was employed on 2005’s “Justice,” a celebration of silver-age DC Comics in a similar vein to “Marvels.”
“In ‘Earth X,’ it was always how do we go back to the beginning, remind people of what the character was like in the beginning, and then, no matter how much we mutate them, the idea was to always remember, remind people why they love this character in the first place,” Krueger said.
It was this collaboration and shared love of Kirby that was the germ of “Earth X” and other works. Krueger explained that Ross came to him with character designs for what would become the future of the Marvel Universe but was left lacking a unifying vision.
“He had things that he had designed the characters to look like. Like the obese Spider-Man, the female Thor and the Gorilla Hulk with little boy Bruce Banner,” Krueger said. “And he didn’t really have a story. He’s like, ‘I don’t know how this stuff fits together. It doesn’t look like it fits together.’ And then I came up with the idea of, really, two storylines that crisscross.”
He explained that this collaborative process with Ross was eventually where the X in the title of his career-defining work eventually took shape. The title was initially conceived as a way to capitalize on the popularity of the X-Men in the 1990s, with the story originating as a world where everyone became a mutant, the superpowered beings at the heart of the X-Men comics.
But the story grew beyond the initial idea. Krueger wanted to “play up the symbolism of the X.”
“The idea was that we have two story lines going concurrent to each other,” Krueger said.
Still, Krueger’s legacy has been largely overshadowed by other works like Ross’ own “Marvels” and “Kingdom Come”—a similarly dark tale to “Earth X” showcasing the twilight of DC Comics’ heroes—take up more real estate on lists of the greatest comic book storylines.
But fans and comic book scholars still look to Krueger’s work on “Earth X” as a pertinent analysis of the contemporary comic book industry.
“’Earth X’ coming out at the turn of the millennium too means it’s not far removed from Marvel’s literal bankruptcy, and some real creative bankruptcy that spans about 1996 to 1998,” explained Dave Buesing, a comic book historian and founder of comicbookherald.com. “Contextually, it was a good time to be questioning if these stories had hit a breaking point.”
“Justice” and “Earth X” have even been viewed as companion pieces to one another, reflecting Krueger’s complicated nostalgia for the past and his gaze into the future.
“If ‘Justice’ is Krueger looking back at the heroes of his childhood…‘Earth X’ is a reflection of the modern state of the comics industry (the late-1990s),” Farrington explained. “One book shows this ugly truth (of gritty realism) for all to see while the other celebrates the heroes at their greatest and most heroic.”