Thursday, February 4, 2016

My Year With Marvel: Uncanny X-Men #1-25

A single panel featuring a bald white man seated in an armchair, a blanket over his legs. The caption reads, 'Finally, his meditation comes to an end! Then, while he remains completely motionless, a sharp, commanding thought rings out, echoing through the great halls of the building!' Thought bubbles emerging from Professor X read, 'Attention, X-Men! This is Professor Xavier calling! Repeat: this is Professor X calling! You are ordered to appear at once! Class is now in session! Tardiness will be punished!'

I always tell interested parties it’s safe to jump into the X-Men at any point they please. The Marvel Universe’s peculiar chronology, Professor X’s predilection for mindwipes, and the entire cast’s refusal to shut up about every major thing that’s ever happened to them ensures the series is accessible to any new reader with a fair understanding of comics.

Still, I’ve always thought it might be fun to go back to the very beginning of UNCANNY X-MEN and read the whole thing through in order. So that’s what I’m doing.

Even though My Year With Marvel technically ends this week, I’ll continue to update y’all on my progress every twenty-five issues until I’ve either read everything on offer or my Marvel Unlimited subscription ends1.

Okay, then. Let’s talk about UNCANNY X-MEN (still officially titled X-MEN at this point) #1-25.

Before we get down to the concrete observations, though, I want to tell y’all a bit about where I’m coming from with this massive readthrough.

Teenage Me was a big X-Men fan. I bought every issue of X-MEN, UNCANNY X-MEN, and GAMBIT until Marvel bumped their cover prices up past what my budget could sustain. I also watched the first movie a bunch of times right after it came out, and caught every subsequent movie as soon as ever I could.

More recently, I set out to explore the width and breadth of the early-2000s and 2010s X-Men via Marvel Unlimited. I fell in particular love with ALL-NEW X-MEN, a series in which the original five X-Men are plucked out of the timeline soon after their training begins. They get stuck in the present and have all sorts of adventures.

So I know the X-Men, and I know these X-Men. But at the same time, I really, really don’t.

These first twenty-five issues ran from September 1963 to October 1966. That puts them early in the overall Marvel timeline, and also concurrent to big developments with other major superheroes like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the first Avengers lineup. You can see Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, followed by Roy Thomas and Werner Roth from #20 on, feeling their way around this new property to decide what distinguishes it from Marvel’s other superhero teams.

The fact that everyone on the team (barring Professor X) is a teenager is the most obvious draw, and one the creative teams play up. While the Marvel of the 1960s does have other prominent teenage superheroes in the form of Spider-Man and the Human Torch, both of whom occasionally appear in this title, the X-Men are the only ones who fight crime alongside their peers. They aren’t just teenage superheroes; they’re an all-teenage superhero team that spends a lot of time both fighting as a unit and training their powers in an unconventional academic setting.

Even in its infancy, the school is so different from everything else in early Marvel’s playbook that it’s easy to see why it gained such a prominent place in the X-Men’s internal mythology. The setting makes it impossible to ignore the characters’ youth and their constant quest to hone their skills; elements that remain a core part of the wider X-Men series to this day, even as many contemporary titles turn their focus on mutants who’ve aged out of the system and become teachers or administrators.

Other familiar elements take longer to crop up. Professor X doesn’t mindwipe anyone until #3, after which point he does it on a fairly regular basis. Nobody turns blue and/or hairy within these first three years. Jean, still known as Marvel Girl, only has access to her telekinesis. And, perhaps most notably, the world loves the X-Men at first glance.

A panel of a white man in American military dress shaking Angel's hand while Jean Grey and Cyclops look on. The man says, 'You call yourselves the X-Men. I will not ask you to reveal your true identities, but I promise you that before this day is over, the name X-Men will be the most honoured in my command!' Angel replies, 'Thank you, sir! And should America's security every again be threatened, the X-Men will be back!'

For me, that was the biggest surprise of all. I’ve always seen the whole "sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them" thing as the crux of the X-Men. Few people thank them for what they do, but they do it anyways.

Turns out, everyone thanks them in the beginning. It takes a while for mutant paranoia to become a legitimate thing in the Marvel Universe, with even the creation of the Sentinels in #14 being less of a turning point than one might expect. There are some mutant-haters in these first twenty-five issues, yeah, but there are also quite a few folks who’re either outright grateful to the X-Men or still deciding where they stand.

These early issues also sport far less diversity than the X-Men have become known for today. Everyone on the team is white, American, Gentile, and either dating or keen to be dating people of other genders. They’re all either middle or upper class, too, given what we know of their backstories.

Which isn’t as as much as you’d expect. In a medium obsessed with individual origins and an era determined to feed readers as many of them as possible, often within the same issue, it’s odd that UNCANNY X-MEN takes so long to establish its characters’ antecedents. We get a little insight into the team’s formation, and we eventually learn something of Beast’s backstory in #15, but as of #25 we know very little about where anyone else comes from or how they first manifested their abilities. Jean has parents who want her to go to a conventional college. Angel has rich parents who don’t seem bothered about his school situation. Iceman and Cyclops might as well have come out of cloning vats for all we hear about their parents or their home life before Professor X took them in hand.

On a similar note, the series is still figuring out how mutations work and what causes them. From what we see on the page, it seems scientific forces act on soon-to-be mutants in utero. There’s no mention of genetics. Professor X believes himself to be the first mutant, and every unmasked mutant the team encounters is visibly in their thirties or younger. (Magneto keeps his helmet on, depriving readers of his magnificent white mane.) Mutation is a recent phenomenon, bolstering the idea of the school as an essential training ground for the first generation of superpeople who’ve possessed their powers from a young age.

These powers wobble all over the place in terms of what they can actually do, as is most clearly evidenced by Magneto. The Master of Magnetism is the X-Men’s greatest foe from the first issue onwards, and I suppose Lee and Kirby and their successors decided that meant he should be spectacularly powerful on every level. Magneto does all the expected things with his magnetic powers, but he also brainwashes people with his magnetic personality (for serious) and attempts to magnetically melt Iceman, to cite the two examples that made me laugh the hardest.

A single panel zoomed in close to Magneto's red-helmeted head. One of his eyes has become a glowing green gem. The word bubble reads, 'It is I who give the orders! And my first command is--gaze into my eyes! Now--you cannot turn away! You are held by magnetic attraction!'

Pretty sure that ain’t how magnets work. Part of me hopes they’ll back away from these wild powers soon, while part of me hopes Magneto gets stranger and stranger and stranger until he’s, like, magnetizing the very air in ways eerily similar to Storm’s power set.

The series also plays around with interpersonal relationships, gauging how the various mutants feel about one another. Iceman and Beast quickly develop the sort of bantersome friendship Marvel revels in to this day. Their extracurricular activities often take them to a coffee shop in Greenwich Village, where they give readers a glimpse at 60s youth culture. Jean, Cyclops, and Angel2 become a lopsided love triangle, with Cyclops afraid to speak of his love because he’s ashamed of his eyes (something one hopes the series backs away from quickly, because disability shaming ain’t cool). By the end of #25, tensions look set to boil over, with enormous repercussions for the team’s dynamic.

I’m sure we’ll talk about that in a couple of weeks when I cover #s 26-50.

  1. This happens in September, and unless the Canadian dollar experiences a major hike I won’t be able to justify the expense of keeping it. My first year was around $72 CAD, which is doable for me; this year was $95, which was pushing it; next year will be well over $100, which makes it a major luxury. Fucking exchange rate.

  2. There’s also a lone, horribly misguided panel in which Professor X thinks about how much he loves Jean, and how it’s impossible for anything to happen between them. I’ll always be grateful the creative teams backed the hell away from that one.

    Unless it’s set to come up again soon, in which case I’m so disappointed in the world.


  1. I signed up for a Marvel Unlimited subscription at the end of last year and I feel like it was an excellent decision. I'm currently reading the entire 'Civil War' arc, and then I'm going to read some bad guy comics, like Loki and The Winter Soldier. 'Uncanny X-Men' looks pretty good though - I might check it out.

    1. It's definitely worth exploring, and you really can jump in just about anywhere!

  2. For a while, my brother-in-law was trying to read all the Marvel comics from the beginning. This was an insane goal. There are hilarious things like the Magneto panel you've excerpted, but like -- the comics aren't GOOD, and there's only so much time a person can dedicate to reading things on purpose that aren't GOOD.

  3. TRUTH. I'm also reading a lot of other vintage comics with a reading group, and so many of them are interesting mainly because they're a case study in the origins of comics' big preoccupations. There's so much about these familiar characters that's fallen by the wayside over the years, plus a lot of (often strange) stuff that's managed to endure. I get a kick out of thinking about the space between the two.