Friday, 5 April 2013

Essential Uncanny X-Men volume 1 aka Essential Classic X-Men volume 1

It's now time for Essential Uncanny X-Men volume 1. Or is that Essential Classic X-Men volume 1? This volume was first released in 1999 under the former title but in later years new editions, plus volumes 2 & 3 have instead used the latter title. Of course it contains material that wasn't printed under either the title "Uncanny X-Men" or "Classic X-Men". "What's going on?" some of you may ask. The rest of you can skip the next couple of paragraphs.

X-Men is a complicated series because not only did it have a gap in publication but also the title of the series shifted in later years and then a second series used the original title. Originally a comic was launched in 1963 entitled "X-Men" and this ran for 66 issues until 1970 when declining sales led it to be converted into an all-reprint title. Then in 1975, a new version of the X-Men was launched, dubbed "The All-New, All-Different X-Men" but that description wasn't used as an actual title at the time. They took over the reprint title with new stories from issue #94 onwards. Over time the adjective "Uncanny" was attached to the logo but I'm not exactly sure when the book was formally retitled "Uncanny X-Men". Then in 1991, a second title was launched, simply entitled "X-Men". Since then things have become even more confusing.

When the Essentials began in 1996, Marvel opted to start the Essential X-Men reprints with the All-New All-Different era, which probably made commercial sense when it was unclear if the volumes would be successful. Then in 1999, by which time Essential X-Men had clocked up three volumes, they launched a 1960s X-Men volume and opted to use the "Uncanny" adjective to distinguish the two series. Unfortunately "Uncanny" wasn't a term attached to the series back then so later on Marvel changed its mind (or its decision makers) and opted to instead use the term "Classic X-Men" for the 1960s volumes, with the new edition of the first one retitled accordingly. This in itself is not a perfect solution as "Classic X-Men" was actually the original title (it was later "X-Men Classics") of a comic in the 1980s & 1990s which reprinted old X-Men stories and in the early years created a few original strips to fill up the page count and expand upon events shown. However it focused exclusively on the All-New All-Different era. But I guess no other snappy titles were available. For listing this post I've opted for the original title because it's the first used and also that edition is in my collection.

Regardless of the title on the cover, this volume reprints issues #1-24 of the original 1963 series X-Men. Issues #1-19 are written by Stan Lee and #20-24 by Roy Thomas. #1-11 are drawn by Jack Kirby who then provides layouts for #12 through #17, with the finished pencils by Alex Toth on #12 and Werner Roth on #13 to #17, under the pseudonym "Jay Garvin". Roth then draws the remaining seven issues, using his own name from issue #23 onwards.

Exactly what the basic concept and core appeal of the X-Men is has been disputed at times, with one dispute spawning a spin-off series. From a modern perspective it seems that the series is primarily about mutants in a world that hates and fears them. But these first adventures don't show a great deal of that - there's one storyline driven by it that introduces the Sentinels, but otherwise it's largely confined to individual scenes. Magneto does occasionally talk about mutant superiority and ruling the Earth but is really just a generic villain seeking world domination. It's hard to see him at this stage as an analogy to Malcolm X or Professor Xavier as one of Martin Luther King. And there's no exploration of the basic contradiction as to why humans should be scared of the power of mutants yet hero worship other superheroes. Rather the concept of mutation is primarily used as a short cut to allow lots of new characters with a diverse set of powers without having to come up with lots of origins for them.

Rather more prominent at this stage is the other interpretation of the X-Men, that of being a private specialist school for young superpowered heroes. The five students are all teenagers, starting the series aged between 16 (Iceman) to 18 (the Beast). We don't see much in the way of actual teaching outside of learning how to use their powers but the dynamics are there and it provides a clear reason for everyone to be working together, a point that can be lacking with some other teams. Issue #7 sees all five students graduate but this must have been quickly realised as an over-hasty move and for the rest of the series they carry on with "post-graduate studies". It's only in issue #24, right at the end of this volume, that the dynamic is threatened when Marvel Girl's parents opt to transfer her to a more conventional college, though she comes back for a weekend visit.

It's fortunate that she seems to be staying around at the end because Marvel Girl (Jean Grey) is by far the best portrayal of a female member on any of the early Silver Age Marvel teams. She isn't a weak thing constantly being protected by her brother, or the least powerful frequently pushed into the background, or a silly girl who just floats about making flirtatious comments. There may be moments when one or other of the X-Men has a mildly sexist attitude to her, and her power may be on a slightly smaller scale to at least three of the others', but in general Marvel Girl is treated as an equal member of the five who holds her own in situations.

All the team contribute something different in both their powers and their personalities. We can feel for Cyclops (Scott Summers), an awkward loner scared to act on his feelings not least because of the terrible power of his eyes, yet appreciate his growing strengths to the point where Professor X makes him the deputy leader of the team. The Beast (Hank McCoy) surprisingly combines a well read intellect with the most brute force powers on the team. Iceman (Bobby Drake) carries the burden of being the youngest member but has perhaps the strongest power and is able to stand up alone against Magneto for long enough. If there's a weaker link I feel it's the Angel (Warren Worthington III) - the ability to fly isn't really that significant in and of itself, and there's not a great exploration of the problems of having huge wings sticking out of his back that have to be strapped down and covered for him to go about in the world. There also isn't too much exploration of the clashes that can often happen when people from very different backgrounds and limited understanding of other environments are thrown together. But overall this is a group of people who are reasonably happy working together for the same ends and who have a credible reason to be there.

Guiding them all is Professor Charles Xavier. He may have arrived three months after the similarly wheel-chaired Chief in DC's Doom Patrol, but there were limited options for a non-combat active mentor figure that could be shown in the comics at the time. Professor X gets the most background of any of the regulars, as we learn about his childhood and family, and about how he lost the use of his legs, with both stories serving to give the background to key foes. One thing that doesn't quite stand out is that Xavier appears rather younger here than he would later be portrayed. There are references to his parents having worked on atomic bomb tests and both he and his step-brother served in the Korean War when it was only about a decade old. In issue #3 there's a thought bubble in which Xavier privately admits to feelings for Jean, something which is never returned to. Some have found this very creepy, but if Xavier was originally intended to only be about thirty years old then there was less of an age gap intended than later interpretations of Xavier would imply.

On thing that does surprise me is just how easily Xavier resorts to his telepathic powers to resolve problems, wiping the memories of foes and witnesses. As well as a convenient solution to problematic plot points, it also raises severe issues of the ethics of tampering with other people's minds, even if it is supposedly for a noble purpose. Xavier is not the only one to charge through what could be a moral dilemma - the Beast's solution to how to deal with Unus the Untouchable is to invent a device that temporarily massively increases Unus's power to the point where it is so strong that he can't actually do anything, then threatens to repeat using the device to permanently increase the powers if Unus ever steps out of line again. Later generations of X-Men writers would find a lot to explore in such situations, but here there isn't even an acknowledgement of the dilemma surrounding these actions, no matter how strong the foes.

The villains used fall into a mixture of three categories - new mutant foes, new non-mutant foes and foes from other series. In the first category we have a few of the X-Men's best known foes such as Magneto and the Blob, plus Magneto's team, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants which include the likes of Mastermind, the Toad, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. The latter two are shown to have their misgivings about Magneto's methods, but feel honourbound to serve him for a time after he saved the Scarlet Witch's life, so their eventual decision to abandon him in issue #11, and subsequently to serve in the Avengers, comes as less of a surprise as it might seem. There are also some less well-known foes in the forms of the Vanisher and Unus the Untouchable, but after issue #8 mutation ceases to be the source of origins for new villains. Non-mutant foes include Lucifer, Dominus and the Ultra Robots, agents of yet another alien race that want to conquer the Earth, Maa-Gor and his Man-Apes, the Swamp Men, the mysterious Stranger, the Juggernaut, the Sentinels including their leader Master Mold, the Mimic and the Locust. Finally a handful of foes pop up from other series when Count Nefaria, a Maggia leader previously seen in Avengers, recruits a number of less remembered foes from various solo series including the Unicorn and the Scarecrow, both from Iron Man's strip in Tales of Suspense, the Eel and Plantman, both from the Human Torch's strip in Strange Tales, and the Porcupine from Ant-Man's strip in Tales to Astonish. It's an early example of various team-ups of sillier villains, though their appearance here is played straight rather than the more comical approach that has since become standard for such teamings.

Namor the Sub-Mariner also pops up in an ambiguous role when both the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants seek to recruit him. I think this is the first time "mutant" is used in relation to the character, beginning a long trend of on and off attempts that have tried to tie him into the success of the mutant books. There are some other guest appearances including the Avengers (consisting of Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man, the Wasp and Captain America) and the Human Torch, plus various cameos of the likes of Daredevil. But whilst the Sub-Mariner and Captain America who appear in these pages are the originals, there's another new version of a Golden Age character in the form of Ka-Zar. In place of the African based savage with his lion sidekick Zar, we now get a new version in the Savage Land, a lost prehistoric world hidden under the Antarctic, and this Ka-Zar is accompanied by the sabre-toothed tiger Zabu.

Reading these issues there's something sluggish about them. The artwork at the start is competent but not amongst Kirby's all-time best, and it's as though having done so much work creating the Marvel universe in many other titles, Lee was starting to burn out when it came to developing X-Men and it's not surprising to see that he stopped writing the title at an earlier stage than most other books from this era. There are some good ideas and some interesting plots but often they're not too well developed. The overuse of Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the first half of the volume doesn't help either. The move to multi-part stories offers a bit of development but it's still sluggish. The arrivals of Werner Roth and Roy Thomas show signs of improvement but it's only just beginning when this volume concludes. Ultimately the problem is that whilst the series is based on good ideas that are different from much of the rest of the Marvel line, the execution isn't the best and the series doesn't know what it wants to be.

It's a pity because X-Men really did offer some good prospects. Teenagers coming to terms with big changes sweeping over them, with finding out that they are more powerful than they realised and with facing a world of disapproval, fear and hatred are all themes that many can relate to and in later years have seen wonders performed with the series. And with the first issue coming out at the same time as the launch of Avengers it was a good contrast to a team of already established heroes to instead have a series of inexperienced heroes learning their way. And then there's the whole issue of persecuted minorities that was a live issue in the 1960s. It's temptingly easy to read more subtexts into fiction than may have been in the creators' minds, and I'm not sold on the idea of the X-Men as a deliberate analogy of the civil rights movement or of Magneto as an analogy of Malcolm X. Rather this is a relatively straightforward and frankly somewhat mediocre superhero series and very definitely neither early Silver Age Marvel nor the X-Men at their best.

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