The Enduring Appeal of the Original X-Men

The Marvel Comics Group is the biggest comics publisher of them all. Supporting this giant are ‘families’ of related comic books with origins stemming from the early 60’s, the Silver Age of comics. If you open any edition of Previews magazine and browse through the Marvel section (this section comes as a separate ‘free’ accompaniment to Previews), you will see several related books that focus on Spider-Man or the Avengers or the X-Men.

I would surmise that if you visited Marvel during the early or mid-60’s and told them that the X-Men would become an important cornerstone of their business they probably would not believe you. After all, the X-Men, so prominent these days in print, video games and movies, was the laggard publication of the Silver Age. Sales were so dismal that the original X-Men run was even cancelled after issue no. 66! From issue 67 to 93 Marvel published reprints of the older issues.

1974 saw the publication of the landmark Giant-Size X-Men no. 1 which introduced the new team – the X-Men team that we know today, including superstar X-Man, Wolverine.

What about the old team? The original X-Men? Iceman, Beast, Angel, Jean Grey continue to be active in the Marvel universe. Cyclops became part of the new team and leads the X-Men to this day (circa 2012).

The old stories though, have largely faded to obscurity; in comics fora on the internet, when fans speak of the early X-Men issues they usually refer to issues 94 onwards. At this point, its worthwhile to note that the original X-Men experienced a revival of sorts during the early issues of X-Factor and legendary writer/artist John Byrne came up with a series called X-Men: The Hidden Years that tells the tale of the original X-Men from issue 66, the last issue of the original run, to issue 94, the first issue of the new team.

Recently, I’ve had occasion to read these early X-Men issues. The original issues are relatively pricey specially issue 1 but black and white reprints can be had from the trade paperback Essential X-Men volume 1; fully colored collections are also available as Marvel Masterworks.

The first thing I noticed was how simple the tales were compared to today’s elaborate, multiple issue storylines. It was refreshing, really, to be able to pick up one comic and sense that the creative team behind it considered it important to tell the reader a the story without making it necessary for the reader to have read the issue before or the issue after. The longest story arc was issues 14 to 17 involving the Sentinels but even then each issue on the arc contained a brief in-story summation of what happened before.

All of the original X-Men have matured since those early issues when they were still teenagers, and some of them, like the Beast and Angel have undergone dramatic physical changes. But in these pages I saw the X-Men as they were originally conceived. It is a credit to Lee and Kirby, Thomas and Gavin and the other creatives with them that I was able to easily adjust my perception from my current viewpoint to adopting Silver Age tropes. I was able to approach these comics keeping in mind how a reader in the 60’s would conceivably approach them. The Silver Age marked the return of the superhero from a long haitus spanning the 50’s; the last time superhero comics where in such visibility was in the 40’s. The readers of 1963 and 1964 would have picked up an X-Men comic and viewed it with wonder. Imagine that: a man with wings, another one made of ice, the Beast scaling the side of a building on gigantic bare feet, the fashionable Marvel Girl with her telekinetics (referred to as telepathy during the early issues), and best of all Cyclops with his wonderful optic blasts.

It’s a curious thing that some elements of the X-Men that I found boring become pretty wonderful when viewed in the context of these early issues. I’ve always believed that the Angel was useless, for example. His wings were too vulnerable; he’s nothing more but a flying target. Not so in these early issues, his speed and agility in flight is celebrated here; the Angel is useful to his teammates in rescue situations and the way he is rendered by the both Kirby and Gavin shows very clearly how he enjoys flying. It might be that in the new X-Men issues too much emphasis was given to pure fighting prowess – a trait which the Angel, not including his Archangel form, was not particularly good in. Another noteworthy mention is the Beast. Hank McCoy in human form is wonderful to see compared to his later animal forms; he’s intelligent, funny and the bounding Beast is an effective panel visual.

I also note that this is the weakest iteration of the X-Men – and that’s not a put down. Cyclops faints if he uses his optic blasts too much. Jean Grey can only lift small objects. This is not a powerful team; which only adds up to the suspense of each issue since both the X-Men and the reader is aware of the team’s limitations.

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