Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Remembering the X-Men

The X-Men was the first Marvel comic I read - specifically, X-Men #3 in 1964. I was instantly hooked. The comic appealed to me on many levels. The biggest was the characterization. The team was made up of teenagers who acted like real people. The argued, they clowned around, they tried to impress the girl. There was nothing like it in comics at the time.

There was more. This was the first comic to show superheroes learning to use their powers. The X-Men had a sports-team metaphor. The individual members (Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Angel, and Ice Man) all had limited powers and had to work together. They also needed their coach, Professor X.

In this issue, Professor X detected a new mutant in the area and sent the X-Men out to recruit him. After a few false starts, they identified a side-show strongman with superhuman strength and impenetrable skin going by the name the Blob. They offered the Blob membership but he refused and shortly returned with an army of circus performers who planned on seizing Xavier's mansion and selling off any secrets they found. They quickly overpowered the X-Men but the X-Men regrouped with the help of Professor X and won the rematch.

The comic was done by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby near the top of their game. Stan was the first comic writer to give his characters real personality and all six X-Men (including the Professor) were well-defined from the beginning.

While Kirby is best-remembered as a "cosmic" artist, he was also one of the all-time masters of every-day life. Where the fantastic Four were travelling through time and space, the X-Men were grounded in reality. A couple of issues later they rented a sailing ship to go hunting for Magneto and Kirby rendered the ship in amazing detail. Again, no one else in comics at the time was doing anything like this.

It didn't last. The X-Men graduated (from high school? college?) fairly quickly. The book moved to a monthly schedule instead of bi-monthly and new creative teams took over. The school/sports team aspect was lost as were the contemporary touches such as Beast and Ice Man hanging around a coffee house listening to bad beatnik poetry.

In general the writing and art was uninspired. There were a couple of exceptions.

The first came when Jim Steranko did a short run on the strip in a plot involving Magneto, his "daughter" Polaris, and an island of mutants.

The second high point came when Roy Thomas and Neal Adams teamed up on the strip. Thomas had been writing it for a while but was weighed down by lackluster art. With Adams, they created some of the best comics of the 1960s. One plot-line in particular featured the return of the Sentinels, giant mutant-hunting robots. They captured nearly every known mutant before being defeated by Cyclops who used a logic paradox worthy of Captain Kirk.

Sadly, the comic was cancelled shortly afterwards. If came back as a reprint book for a few years before being revived in the mid-1970s as the New X-Men. Except for Cyclops, the team was replaced with a new team. The new members were older and more experienced and the original teens in school concept was lost for good. There have been attempts at reviving it over the years with spin-offs but these have never been as artistically successful.

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