In the beginning, there were five troubled teen-agers -- Cyclops, Angel, Beast, Iceman and Marvel Girl -- all normal until they turned 13. Suddenly they could do superhuman things -- fly, shoot energy from their eyes and much, much more.
Called the X-Men, "the strangest superheroes of all," they promptly went to war against Magneto, the master of magnetism and a real bad guy.
It was a rebellious style, only slightly masked by the jackets and ++ ties the X-Men then wore. An early issue has Iceman, whose frigid rays cool any situation, exclaiming: "Here's a quick-freezing icy sweatshirt for you, Stretch! This'll cramp your style real good!"
That was in 1963, thousands upon thousands of comic books ago. Today, the X-Men, whose powers come from genetic
mutations and whose troupe always included formidable X-Women, number about 200 and are spread in enclaves around the world.
They have become an ensemble cast popular with adolescents of all ages, a soap opera in which every story ends with the crying need for another.
And next month a new breed of X-Men, "Generation X," younger and rougher-edged, will begin appearing in their own comic book, further seasoning the gurgling stew of plot permutations.
Let it be firmly pronounced that the X-Men are the original mutants, decades ahead of a certain group of sewer turtles. They grapple with the pain of being misunderstood outsiders, and yet they use their superpowers to rise above this prejudice, trying to save ungrateful humanity before it is too late.
This, possibly, is the perfect teen-age fantasy.
They are the world's best-selling group of comic books and America's most popular animated Saturday morning cartoon show. In schoolyards, X-Men trading cards are neck and neck with Power Rangers. X-Men action figures were the top-selling plastic dolls last year. Their video games are arcade hits. Plans for an Orlando, Fla., theme park with X-Men-inspired rides were announced recently.
And yes, the X-Men are soon to be a major motion picture. Sequels are being discussed even as 20th Century Fox chooses a script.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is an example of the synergy for which entertainment companies are scrambling.
The billionaire Ronald O. Perelman, who now owns 80 percent of the Marvel Entertainment Group, has pushed it very aggressively. He bought Fleer, a major bubble-gum card company, and half a toy company, and retrieved many of Marvel's licensing agreements, under which 1,500 items, from shoelaces to $1,000 leather jackets, are produced.
"Perelman has made Marvel a much more aggressive company," said Lauren Rich Fine, first vice president of Merrill Lynch. "Their diversification is going to enable them to show tremendous revenue growth this year."
Mr. Perelman himself won't name his favorite X-Man. "But they're a tremendous asset to the Marvel stable of characters," he said. "Their potential appears limitless."
The 16 X-Man titles ("The Uncanny X-Men," "X-Force," "X-Factor," "Excalibur," "Wolverine," etc.) are the big nebulae in Marvel's universe: 50 million comic books a year, at $1.50 or more apiece.
In general, Marvel superheroes are different from DC Comics powerhouses like Superman and Batman. They have weaknesses. They find truth, justice and the American way a bit goody-two-shoes.
And it's mind-blowing how they dominate their newsstand rivals. In July, the X-family accounted for more than 14 percent of the comic market, more than the combined total of the next four families: Spider-Man, Batman, Superman and Dark Horse. Overall statistics are scarce, but the industry is believed to approach $1 billion in sales.
"The X-Men are the juggernaut," said Mitch Cutler, owner of St. Mark's Comics, which has stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn. "They are the big, immense, non-stop, cash-generating, unstoppable force."
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the phenomenon is its longevity. The stories that began 30 years ago are the basis of ones still churned out, each building and relating to the others in one of the most brilliant -- or cynical -- marketing ploys ever.
So if they're so omnipotent, why haven't you heard of them?
To some extent, it depends on who you were at 13. It's teen-age angst that separates the X-Men from the Robin the Boy Wonder fans. Lots of revenge-craving nerds can identify with alienation, and with joining a club of other societal rejects.
"As a teen-ager, I sometimes feel sort of helpless. Things are sort of spinning out of control, and I can't do anything about it," said Akil Kirlew, a 15-year-old at Hunter High School in Manhattan. "The X-Men never let that happen to them."
Akil was introduced to the mutants at the age of 4 or 5 when his parents read him the comics. He liked the vivid pictures. Now he likes the stories and the subtle way they treat complex issues.