Friday, 2 May 2014

Essential X-Men volume 1

This month sees the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past and so it's time for an extended look at the X-Men's most acclaimed era...

Essential X-Men volume 1 collects Giant-Size X-Men #1 and X-Men #94-119, featuring the early days of the X-Men's mid 1970s relaunch as the All-New, All-Different X-Men. (As we've already seen, issues #1-93 have since been covered by Essential Uncanny/Classic X-Men volumes 1, 2 & 3.) The initial Giant-Size issue is written by Len Wein and drawn by Dave Cockrum. Both carry forward onto the regular series but almost immediately Chris Claremont takes over the writing and continues for the rest of the volume (and over a decade more after that) with a few issues seeing Bill Mantlo give plot assistance. Midway through Cockrum is succeeded by John Byrne. There are a couple of fill-ins drawn by Bob Brown and Tony DeZuniga. The reprint of the Giant-Size issue includes three reprints of back-up features profiling Cyclops, Ice-Man and Marvel Girl written by Roy Thomas, Arnold Drake and Linda Fite respectively and all drawn by Werner Roth.

(It's a little known point but Giant-Size X-Men had a second issue as well, published some four months later. However by this stage the Giant-Size line had switched to all-reprint titles before being eventually phased out a couple of months afterwards. Giant-Size X-Men #2 reprinted X-Men #57-59.)

This was the very first Essential volume to be released back in 1996 and unsurprisingly it does several things differently from its successors. Most obviously it starts reprinting the X-Men from the 1975 relaunch rather than the original 1960s series; later Essential runs such as Doctor Strange, Man-Thing or Silver Surfer have started from the original series and collected subsequent revivals under the same banner. The cliffhanger ending from issue #119 was left out of the original printing but restored early on. And the reprinted material in Giant-Size X-Men #1 has been included whereas most subsequent Essentials have left out reprints unless they've been directly incorporated into the narrative. (On a much more minor note the first editions of the original 1996 volumes - this plus Essential Spider-Man volume 1 and Essential Wolverine volume 1 - have the name on the spine running upwards whereas all later volumes and editions use the more conventional downwards.)

Giant-Size X-Men #1 is one of the most reprinted of all Marvel issues and quite possibly the post-Silver Age record holder. (Mike's Amazing World of Comics lists ten complete reprints plus one truncated, and that's just in the North American market. Discounting one as a cover variant that's still an amazing haul and several reprints ahead of obvious rival contenders such as the first appearances of Thanos, the Punisher, Wolverine or Venom.) The story is to the point, if a bit low key, but does manage to successfully introduce all the new characters. Not much has changed since the ending of the earlier run bar the Beast going out into the world and Havok and Lorna Dane now being an integrated part of the original team and more clearly an item now. Otherwise things are pretty much where they were left. Wisely the story places the emphasis on the new characters and reintroduces the premise through them as Professor X takes an interesting journey around the world, recruiting both new and old characters to assemble a replacement team. With fourteen characters and just thirty-six pages there's not much space to detail them all, but it soon becomes clear that the team has some dysfunctionality. Oddly in light of where he'd go, Wolverine is rather subdued and it's Sunfire who fulfils the angry loner role. I do also find Banshee's dialogue to be overstereotyped and keep wondering when he's going to start getting drunk and rambling on about little people just to complete the role. All in all the issue succeeds in injecting new blood into the series but doesn't offer a great deal of excitement to suggest an ongoing series would be more dynamic than the last time around. That would come later.

The new X-Men are an interesting mixture of both existing and new creations, with a strong international mix. It takes some time for all their powers to be explicitly identified and highlighted and their backgrounds to be filled in, but the diversity is clear from the outset. We have Nightcrawler, a German circus performer with blue fur who can climb walls, teleport and even disappear in the shadows. A few of these elements are familiar from the portrayal of the Beast, but Nightcrawler comes with a very different personality, combining fun loving with great insight and loneliness. Storm is introduced as a Kenyan goddess who can control the weather but we subsequently learn of her upbringing from being the daughter of a transatlantic middle class marriage to being an orphaned street thief in Cairo to her long journey on foot to Kenya. Colossus is a Russian farm boy, loyal to his family, both his birth one and his new adopted one. Banshee had previously appeared as a villain in the series's original run but here the Irishman follows in the footsteps of the Mimic and becomes another to find redemption; despite being older than the rest of the team he still fits in. Wolverine is something of a cipher at first and only slowly is his background revealed; we know from the outset that he's a Canadian government agent from his battle with the Hulk but only gradually do we learn other things about him such as that his claws are part of his body and he has learnt to speak Japanese well, but there's no exploration of his family life and past the way there is with so many others. Sunfire doesn't last long though he pops up again at the end of the volume; his background had been sketched at the end of the original run where we saw a young Japanese man torn between his father and uncle representing the debate on the country's post war direction. Finally Thunderbird is a brash, self-confident Native American Apache who resents the direction his people have taken and seeks to prove himself as a tough fighter in the old tradition.

The X-Men's adventures continue from issue #94 onwards with new material rather than a brand new issue #1, a reminder of how the older practice of retaining numbering wherever possible was still prevalent. However the series rapidly puts itself in a forward direction, starting with the departure of all the original team bar Cyclops, leaving an almost all-new, all-different team. With Sunfire also leaving, having only ever agreed to perform a single mission and Thunderbird killed off at the end of issue #95, the team is reduced to a manageable six field members plus Professor X guiding and mentoring them; a size that allows for the individual characters to be developed and focused upon at a time when the series was bimonthly and had as little as seventeen pages an issue. The Beast, Havok and Lorna Dane (now using the codename Polaris) all make brief reappearances in subsequent stories (presumably the Angel and Ice-Man were too busy with the Champions of Los Angeles) and on two separate occasions the new X-Men face what appear to be the original team members, right down to the Beast's original look, but they are in fact constructs of one kind or another.

However it's Cyclops who is the one classic member to stay around though Marvel Girl drifts back into the team. Cyclops is very much his traditional self but gets some development as well, with his powers enhanced (most clearly symbolised by a new and larger visor) then later more of his past is revealed as we learn how he was orphaned and the revelation that Corsair of the Starjammers is his father, though Scott only guesses at this after their initial meeting is over. There are also steps forward in his relationship with Marvel Girl but then comes her great transformation that also changes how he relates to her such that when he believes her dead there is no great mourning. Marvel Girl's transformation into the Phoenix after she pilots a space shuttle back to Earth and acquires enhanced powers is one of the best remembered moments during the run and there are already signs of how the excess power is changing Jean Grey in multiple ways, making her the most powerful member of the team but also distancing her a little. Professor X also comes to believe his students have perished and this sends him into deep grief but at the same time he and the alien Shi'Ar princess Lilandra are developing their feelings. We also get more of Xavier's past as we learn of his youthful romance with Moira MacTaggart and then his travels around the world as he discovered not all mutants use their power for good. Whether new or old, every member of the team gets given some strong material that fleshes them out and makes the reader care about what happens to them.

The series has ambition, as shown with the Shi'Ar storyline that takes the team into outer space and introduces a large number of characters, but the emphasis is very much on characterisation. Combined with dynamic art that starts well with Dave Cockrum and hits amazing heights with John Byrne, the scripting by Chris Claremont brings to life each character, makes them distinct from one another but also makes the reader care about what happens to them. It's easy to see why the title soon became a cult favourite even if it wasn't engaging in the big crowd pleasers that could draw in a wider audience. Other than the Shi'Ar storyline most of the foes encountered by the X-Men are either return appearances or fairly mundane foes. Except for the Beast briefly returning to his roots there are no significant guest stars. And there's also less of the two big themes that have dominated X-Men in most other eras with only limited attention devoted to how society reacts to mutants whilst the school element is either downplayed or confined to off-panel events as Professor X and Cyclops work to mould the group into a coherent team who function together - a necessity driven home in their second encounter with Magneto when initially every charges in as an individual and gets beaten down in likewise manner.

These battles bring in a variety of foes amidst a period of creativity. The old foe list includes the likes of Magneto, the Sentinels (under a new controller), the Juggernaut, Sauron, Mesmero and Count Nefaria, all from the earlier X-Men issues. There's also the Ani-Men (from Daredevil), Firelord (from Thor), Warhawk (from Iron Fist), Garokk and Zaladane (both from Ka-Zar's strip in Astonishing Tales) and Moses Magnum (from Giant-Size Spider-Man). Amongst new creations are Black Tom Cassidy, Banshee's brother now working with the Juggernaut, the Entity, Professor X's dark side, and Kierrok the Damned and the N'Garai night demons. The Canadian agency Department H makes its first appearance as it dispatches Weapon Alpha (later the Vindicator then Guardian) to try to retrieve Wolverine. The Shi'Ar story introduces a variety of characters including foes such as the Emperor D'Ken, a new wearer of the Eric the Red costume and the Soul Drinker. And there's the Imperial Guard, a thinly disguised homage to the Legion of Super-Heroes (who had been drawn by Cockrum whilst at DC) and the interstellar pirates the Starjammers. These issues must have been a nightmare to drawn with so many new characters, and even more so as Byrne took over from Cockrum mid story.

The series may be highly dynamic but there are, however, some areas where the series feels dated, particularly some of the dialogue that exaggerates accents with Banshee suffering particularly badly though others got caught up as well, including a cameo by Jimmy Carter. The portrayal of Ireland also raised my eyebrows with everything from a post office sporting the crown symbol to passenger steam trains in the late 1970s and I kept expecting someone to start going on about the little people. Then a bunch of leprechauns showed up.

In spite of these odd moments the volume as a whole represents a triumphant return to form for the X-Men. Rather than merely bringing back the existing team for more of the same, a bold move was taken to transform the team for a new generation of readers and it works. Given strong characterisation and dynamic art and the result is a strong series that just grows and grows. This is a very strong volume and (leaving aside the issue of jumping over the Silver Age run) it's truly worthy of having been the very first Essential volume to have been released.

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