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X-Men: Lee & Kirby (1963)

The first ever panel of the first ever issue of The Uncanny X-Men is a true classic. The point of view is outside a large mansion, looking in through some large panel windows. The scene inside is silent, as an intense bald man sits, lost in his thoughts. It's an enigmatic opening which quietly invites the reader into the mysterious world of the X-Men, but it's also the unassuming first step in a narrative which would go on to become one of the longest, most successful sci-fi epics ever published. Reading that single panel, you may not expect that within a few pages you would have been introduced to an unconventional new team of super-powered teenagers; that by the end of the first issue they would have earned their first victory against an antagonist who who would go on to become one of their greatest enemies; or that by the end of the fifth issue the team would have survived an epic baptism of fire, including a spectacular showdown in a low-orbiting satellite stronghold. You certainly wouldn't have suspected that almost 50 years later, the same characters would be at the heart of a blockbuster franchise, which had set new precedents in terms of quality and popularity across animation, toys and film.

I've never considered myself a collector of X-Men comics; more of a fair-weather reader, keeping a casual eye on the mutants' misadventures. Out of curiosity, in the mid '90s I picked up The Uncanny X-Men Masterworks collected edition TPB of the first five issues from 1963. In addition to the aforementioned Professor Charles Xavier (Professor X), the original cast in these issues was relatively small, just Scott Summers (Cyclops), Hank McCoy (Beast), Bobby Drake (Iceman) and Warren Worthington III (Angel). The boys were quickly joined in the premier issue by Jean Grey (Marvel Girl), whose parents enrolled her in the exclusive School For Gifted Youngsters in Westchester County, New York.

Looking back at these issues, I'm not entirely sure that the original creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could have guessed quite how iconic the world of the mutants would become. The success of the X-Men is now largely based upon their anti-hero status; as a collective of quirky and bizarre characters who are sworn to protect a world which hates and fears them. And yet in those first few issues, the superheroics were far more traditional, and seemed to owe quite a debt of gratitude to Lee and Kirby's previous Marvel collaboration, The Fantastic Four. Indeed the legend on the front cover of the first issue promises that the contents are "In the sensational Fantastic Four style", while the early characterisations of Iceman and Beast are practically carbon copies of Human Torch and The Thing respectively. Magneto's appearances during this first few issues used particularly broad strokes; he's portrayed here as little more than a dictatorial madman, who spends all his time spouting hyperbole and barking at his subordinates.

But even if the characterisation wasn't entirely polished, Lee's plotting of these initial chapters is a master-class in pacing, foreshadowing and the escallation of thrills. Each issue further explores the fundamental sci-fi concepts behind this uncanny world, including the relatively unconventional possibility of using telepathy and telekinesis as combative weapons.

Issue #1 had a few plot elements which rooted the characters in the post Manhattan-Project, Cold-War era. Professor X himself explained that his parents were scientists who worked on the first A-bomb project, although it is not clear whether this was intended to be an implication of the source of his (and the other mutants') powers, or whether it was just a metaphor for the age of terrifying scientific advances which the world had been recently flung into. In addition, the villainous Magneto was posing a danger to the United States by attempting to use the country's own missile arsenal against it; surely a timely threat considering the real-life hostilities between the U.S. and certain Communist states. Although the phrase is never explicitly coined, the X-Men are clearly 'Children of The Atom'. Disappointingly, issue #2 seemed like a bit of a filler. The villain was a fairly run-of-the-mill bank robber called The Vanisher, who had the ability to teleport out of crime scenes. The most important development in the story came late on, when we saw Professor Xavier for the first time use his telepathic powers to devastating effect; defeating a villain quite literally using brains, where brawn had previously failed.

In my experience in reading (and re-reading) these stories, Issue #3 has always been where the series really hit it's stride. Certainly, it's the issue where Beast's characterisation settled into that of the awkward intellectual, whose pacifist tendencies were at odds with his outlandish physical proportions. This issue also saw the introduction of classic villain The Blob, and Kirby's threatening character design deserves a lot of the credit for this memorable monstrosity. But I think it's Lee's atypical plotting and characterisation which stands out here; as the X-Men attempt to mingle and interact incognito with the public, we see the young heroes make pro-active decisions for the first time, and suffer the consequences when their actions are ill-judged. The Blob is not presented as a 2-dimensional supervillain or bank-robber; he's certainly an opportunist and a bully, but his conflict with the X-Men is as much about self-preservation than anything else. By the time the climax rolled round, with a whopping 11-page siege of the school by The Blob and his malevolent circus of hoodlums, the issue had become a classic.

Issues #4 and #5 provided pay-off for many of the previous plot-threads when the fledgeling X-Men faced-off once again with Magneto, now joined by his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. The first issue was further echoed, when Jean Grey's parents made a brief visit to the Westchester Country School to check up on their daughter. The Danger Room was used as a plot device throughout each of these early stories to explore the powers and abilities of each of the new team members, and as a method to inject some preliminary action sequences into each issue before the main storylines had kicked in. You might even have said the device was over-used and becoming repetitive, except that Lee turned the situation on it's head with neat twist in issue #5 during the Grey's visit, thrusting the heroes even further out of their comfort zone.

Magneto's asteroid hideout was first seen at the climax of this adventure, and would go on to become an integral feature of some the X-Men's adventures over the decades to follow. The fantastic set-piece finale to issue #5 saw Cyclops in mortal danger onboard a disintegrating section of Asteroid M, as the rest of his team pooled their resources to rescue him; with Iceman forming an ice-bridge over an expanse of Space, and Angel swooping through to retrieve the fallen hero. Never mind that neither of these acts would be possible in the dry vacuum of Space; it's a hugely cinematic sequence, and a cracking way to close out the inaugural adventures of this exciting new super team. Although this was by no means the end of the story for the X-Men, it's made clear that the characters had come-of-age, and the stakes had been irreversably raised.


X-Men: Claremont, Cockrum & Byrne (1975)

The X-Men relaunch of the Bronze Age is one of the most beloved runs in the characters' long history. Even more so than the original Lee and Kirby adventures, it was this second iteration that laid the foundations for the Mutants' blockbuster popularity. The themes, characters and settings introduced throughout the late '70s have echoed through the many reinventions of the characters in the decades since. In fact, it's hard to think of a recent X-Men story that hasn't featured either (a) The Sentinels, (b) The Hellfire Club, (c) the Phoenix force or (d) the alien Shi'ar Empire. It is refreshing therefore, to go back and re-read the initial stories, and to find that they can still connect with a contemporary audience.

This era of comics, beginning with the team's relaunch in Giant-Size X-Men #1, kicked off in 1975; 4 years before I was even born, and yet it's a run which I've had a great amount of affinity for. The first issues I saw were as part of the Very Best of Marvel Comics reprint trade paperback in 1992, where Todd McFarlane highlighted a particular 2-parter as being especially inspirational to him, and I must say, it piqued my interest too. Not long after that, I picked up a French language reprint of the same issues while on holiday, so keen was I to find out what happened next. During my student years in the late '90s, the budget Essential X-Men collections filled out the backstory that I'd been missing, and more recently I've been able to pick up the Uncanny X-Men Omnibus, to revisit the issues in glorious technicolour.

The architects of this classic run were writer Chris Claremont, aided by artists Dave Cockrum and then John Byrne; although the credit for the reinvention itself should probably be attributed to Editor Len Wein. It was Wein who first assembled the new cast, a disparate group of international oddballs, to succeed the previous team of more mainstream caucasian american heroes. He also wrote the spectacular Giant-Size X-Men #1, which was the springboard for the revamp. Surprisingly, that milestone issue had a fairly uncomplicated plot, with a straightforward three-act structure; (1) new team is assembled, (2) new team investigates disappearance of old team (3) new and old teams combine forces to defeat villain in slobberknocker show-down. By the end of the issue, the new team members were resident at Professor Xavier's Westchester mansion and the status quo was fairly firmly established. Without a doubt, this is an issue that was carried by artist David Cockrum's sexy and colourful character designs, and his spectacular storytelling.

The benefits of the excellent Omnibus edition includes seeing the original letters pages; where a vocal portion of the fans made it clear that they were not very impressed with the change of direction for the title. It's easy for Marvel to reprint this correspondence now; the subsequent decades of chart-topping success provide them the luxury of saying 'I told you so'. But at the time, the editorial staff must have had balls of steel to acknowledge this criticism publically. Certain neigh-sayers refused to accept that the new roster would have legs, and smuggly predicted an editorial u-turn within a few months. How little they knew.

As trite a cliche as it is; I've got to say that a real joy of these initial arcs was rooted in the developing relationships between the team-members. The roster of leader Cyclops, with Storm, Banshee, Nightcrawler, Colossus and Wolverine is taken for granted now, but the loyalty and friendship between these comrades-in-arms grew slowly over their first few years of adventures. Indeed, Claremont threw an early curve-ball in the characterisation, in the form of American Indian X-Man Johnny Proudstar, aka Thunderbird. Johnny was in the forefront of Len Wein's new line-up from Giant Size X-Men; as the rebellious firecracker of the group, his character was certainly the most distinguishable. Indeed, his short-fuse temper and disrespect of authority were characteristics which would go on to be associated with Wolverine. And then, in only the team's second adventure, writer Claremont killed the poor guy off. In X-Men #95, Johnny met a sticky end when he went against orders and attempted to ground an airbourne plane that subsequently exploded. The primary message was clear; in this new X-men, no-one was safe, especially if they were a fan favourite. The secondary message would be a recurring theme; if this group of newcomers didn't learn to act as a team, and quickly, they were doomed.

In fact, a sustained sense of peril and excitement was key to the success of these early stories. Even though these fledgling heroes were new to the scene, they had inherited the name and legacy of the original X-Men, and found themselves very quickly to be in the cross-hairs of their predecessor's worst enemies. Count Nefaria, The Sentinels, Juggernaut and Magneto were all trotted out in fairly quick succession throughout the first few years. These were antagonists that needed minimal explanation for their villainous ways, other than that they had an axe to grind with the students of Professor Xavier. The simplistic plotting did allow for a higher-than-average action quotient, and the pace of these issues didn't let up, forcing the heroes to run a lethal gauntlet. However, Claremont's ace in the hole was barely apparent at this stage, he was planning to spin the X-Men into a space-opera epic, the scale of which had never been seen before. Starting with The Sentinel Trilogy in 1975, Claremont began to inject cosmic element directly into the heart of the team. Partly this was to reinvigorate the character of Jean Grey, aka Marvel Girl, whose clean-cut persona had not successfully transitioned from the idealistic Silver Age to the street-wise Bronze Age. Mainly though, it was to lay the foundation for an increasingly complex (and yet always readable) superstructure of intertwined adventures.

Plot elements for future storylines began to be seeded months and even years in advance. Wolverine's backstory began to get filled in, as the demons from his past (ie. Alpha Flight; his previous super-team in the Canadian Secret Service) reappeared to threaten the safety of his new-found family. And drawing clear inspiration from cult TV show Star Trek, which had aired less than 10 years beforehand, Claremont raised the stakes with the introduction of the Integalactic Shi'ar Empire, and staged an epic space-battle for the ultimate macguffin, the M'kraan Crystal. Most importantly, this adventure heralded the rise of the Phoenix force in Jean Grey; it introduced an unpredictable and dangerous element into a character that had been otherwise fairly bland, and it was possibly a watermark moment for the title. From this point on, the adventures of the X-Men were tinged with a growing sense of unease that 'things were not going to end well'.

It's worth pointing out the similarities between these issues of X-Men, and another big sci-fi franchise from the time, Star Wars. Both stories were kick-started by a princess on the run from an evil Empire (Star Wars had Leia, X-Men had Lilandra), and both were very similar in epic scope and outlandish settings. But I've got to assume they were developed in isolation from each other, since the first part of Claremont's epic, Phoenix Unleashed, in X-Men #105 hit the news-stands in May 1977; the exact same month that Star Wars: A New Hope arrived on the cinema screens. What a month that must have been for the sci-fi fans of the time!

I don't want to sugar-coat these halcyon days of superheroes though; there was certainly still some rough amongst the diamonds. An early storyline, Night of the Demon, was particularly implausible, as the team came under attack from an ancient monster (Kierrok the Damned!) who just so happened to have been entrapped for eons in a crypt on the grounds of the Westchester mansion. In a later issue, the Leprechauns that lived in Black Tom Cassidy's Keep in County Mayo, Ireland would have been ridiculous enough already, without even taking account that they looked like escapees from the cover of a box of Rice Krispies. And Arcade's Murderworld, a theme park built entirely for the purpose of assassinating superheroes, which was a fun concept in theory, turned out to be just too ridiculous for words.

And yet, the title went from strength to strength throughout the late '70s. Original artist, Dave Cockrum, bowed out after 14 issues at #107, and the baton was passed to hot young Canadian creator John Byrne. As dynamic and exciting as Cockrum's work had been, Byrne's seemed to be even more eye-popping. Byrne maintained the cinematic storytelling of his predecessor, but had slightly tighter penmanship and panel layouts, which along with an increased level of detail, brought an added level of realism to Claremont's plots. His women were beautiful and sexy; and any excuse to show off Storm's curvacious body was jumped at. The new artist began co-plotting aswell, and the subsequent issues were personal favourites of mine, including Todd McFarlane's own choice, the phenomenal 2-parter of Magneto's horrific revenge (Magneto Triumphant and Showdown), which rocked the team to it's core and flung them half away across the globe. The team spent a year globetrotting, with adventures in locales as diverse as Harlem, Japan, Calgary and Edinburgh. The overall result was to ground the characters in a world that seemed tangible and real, where each character was interconnected and where events had actual importance. This period saw some rich character development; in particular for the team leader Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, who came to terms with the complex feelings he had for his lost-love Jean Grey. Details were also revealed about the enigmatic Wolverine, and through a romantic sub-plot the readership saw cracks of emotion shine through his gruff persona, and finally learned that his real name was Logan.

Over the period of a year, the mysterious Hellfire Club were carefully introduced. The slow reveal was worth it, as these particular villains turned out to be the archetypical antagonists for the X-Men. In a nutshell, the Hellfire Club represented the ruling classes. Analogous to the X-Men, the Hellfire Club were a secretive organisation that existed outside of the public spotlight, but the similarities ended there. The Hellfire Club members were wealthy caucasians, and their period costumes and trappings suggest that Claremont and Byrne intended them to be representative of the 18th century upper classes that made their fortunes through the Imperial trade of tobacco, sugar, opium and, in particular, human beings. Where the mutant heroes of the X-Men had spent their lives struggling against intolerance and inequality, they were now faced against the very embodiment of human oppression. The point was hammered home in one disturbing scene where Storm, a character of African American decent, was actually represented in a hallucinatory vision as an impoverished African slavegirl. It was a powerful tale with a gruesome denoument; Jean Grey's sanity snapped under the pressure of sustained mind control and she finally succumbed to her darkest 'id', the Dark Phoenix.

The Dark Phoenix Saga is probably the most infamous of all X-Men adventures. Once again, the heroes found themselves fighting for their lives, with the odds stacked impossibly against them. But in this case, at the heart of the conflict, the woman they battle to defend, had, under the persona of Dark Phoenix, carried out some truly indefensible acts. As the X-Men battled against the Shi'Ar Imperial Guard on the dark side of the Moon, the ethereal Watcher looked on with cold indifference, as he does with all cornerstone events of the Marvel Universe. Claremont and Byrne crafted the ultimate underdog survival adventure, and thanks to the brilliant characterisation, the audience was firmly invested in the doomed love story at the centre of it. Jean Grey's death is undoubtedly one of the most powerful moments in comics history, made all the more brilliant by it's absolute, crushing inevitability. I'm going to take this opportunity to stand in defence of the 3rd X-Men movie, which adapted many of the Dark Phoenix Saga story beats, albeit with a bit less space-hopping. Some key scenes from the comics were incorporated, in a tweaked form; including the unnerving clinch between Summers and Grey while the former's considerable optic powers were subdued by the growing telekinetic abilities of the latter; or the critical confrontation between the X-Men and the fully flipped-out Phoenix at the parental home of Jean Grey. From what I could tell, the action sequences of X-Men: Last Stand were the closest in the film trilogy to match the frenetic chaos of the comics. And my eyes do get a bit damp every time I see the tragic conclusion between Logan and Grey on Alcatraz. But I am a bit of a softie.

Claremont and Byrne rounded out their run with a small number of epilogue arcs that tied up a few of the existing storylines. Wolverine's conflict with Alpha Flight was resolved. A new rookie X-Man joined the ranks, the juvenile Kitty Pryde. And in Days of Future Past from December 1979, in a time-travelling plot that predated the Terminator movie by 4 years, the readership was presented for the first time with the possible apocalyptic future that would face mutantkind should the X-Men ever fail in their battle against oppression. Byrne's last issue, #143, was a one-off that cemented Kitty Pryde's status as a bonafide X-Man, and perhaps represented the arrival of a new generation of mutant heroes. These new X-Men had survived 50 issues, had emerged as seasoned veterans, with physical and psychological scars to show for it, and had managed to hit the '80s running.

Storytelling styles and reading tastes have changed considerably in the 35 years since these stories were first published. Even by the early '90s, in a foreword by Chris Claremont, the writer noted with hindsight that his early narrative style had been wordy and somewhat overcooked. I actually think that's a bit unfair; Claremont's narration was gloriously melodramatic, and provided several flashes of heroic poignancy between the action-packed set pieces. The volume of exposition also allowed the adventures to whip along at a breakneck pace, shaming the pedestrian plotting of contemporary super-hero comics. By comparison, modern comicbook storytelling tends to follow the conventions of movie story-boards, eschewing any non-theatrical devices (such as thought-balloons, lettered sound effects or third party narration) which are feared to be perceived as juvenile or cheesy. It's almost as if today's comics creators have become embarrassed of the Gold, Silver and Bronze age tropes that were in danger of sidelining the medium as 'for kids only'. And that's a real shame, because Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne's X-Men revamp still beats the socks off of most super-hero comics that have come along since.

 


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