Wednesday, May 25, 2016

An Uncanny Readthrough: #51-66

A single, page-wide comics panel that bleeds into the next one along its bottom edge. It depicts Magneto, a white-haired white man crowing in glee against a green background. The dialogue reads, 'It's almost TOO rich... too fraught with BLACK HUMOR! The high-flying Angel... on his way to do battle with his fellow X-Men and Ka-Zar... and hardly suspecting that the one he seeks to protect is... MAGNETO!'
Sneaky, Magneto. Very sneaky. From UNCANNY X-MEN #63.

Welcome to Part III of my UNCANNY X-MEN read-through. This segment covers #51-66, published between 1968 and 1970. Neal Adams draws the book from #56 to #64, while Don Heck, Werner Roth, Barry Smith, and Sal Buscema all climb on board for anywhere from a single issue to a two- or three-issue run. Arnold Drake writes until #55, when Roy Thomas once again takes the reins. Dennis O’Neil and Linda Fite also contribute a single script each, with Fite being the first woman to write or draw the X-Men.

I'm pleased to report this chunk of story is considerably more engaging than the last one I covered, and it’s all down to the art.

When I was a young person who bought every single back issue my thrift shop could offer me, I was continually amazed at the people who wrote in to the letters pages to say they were only into comics for the art. Yes, the art was a vitally important component of the work, but surely the overall story--the blend of art and script--was the very point.

Now I get it. While thirteen-year-old me would’ve been thrilled with these overall stories, thirty-two-year-old me found them rather silly (albeit in a fun way) but with some truly breathtaking artwork. I read them far more quickly than anything that came before because I got so caught up in Neal Adams’s dynamic layouts and dramatic sense of body language.

It hit me hard as a contemporary reader, used to contemporary artistic conceits but exposed to a massive number of early- and mid-60s grids in the recent past. I can well imagine how it felt to readers who’d been raised to see these cluttered grids as the only possible option.

A full page depicting a battle across four dramatically slanted, asymmetrical panels. Cyclops and Scarlet Witch rush towards two Sentinels; Scarlet Witch uses her hex powers to draw their attention; Cyclops escapes while the Sentinels adapt.

The Marvel Method in which the artist draws the story before the writer scripts the dialogue had been in use for a while by this stage of the game, but it seems pretty clear to me that the late 60s was the point where the X-Men writers committed to it. The point where they began trusting the artist as a full partner capable of driving the story forward. Descriptive captions are far less prevalent, though monologues outlining each character’s emotional state remain in play.

Speaking of the story’s progression, this chunk of issues sees UNCANNY X-MEN transform from a series of one-shots into something rather more soap operatic; an approach already in use over in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's mid-60s FANTASTIC FOUR. Minor villains still plague our heroes for an issue or two here and there, but the effects of each battle are more likely to carry through. Multiple storylines converge and diverge as various members of the team follow different leads or face personal challenges that force them to take solo adventures.

And just like a televised soap opera, this conceit serves to keep the reader attached to the book. Because hey, maybe this particular storyline wrapped up last issue, but another one’s still in progress and yet another has slipped in through the gaps. As if we don’t want to know how it all plays out.

With this increased emphasis on the interconnectedness of it all comes a stronger focus on the characters themselves. Shorter bonus stories illuminating each X-Man’s origins stretch across several issues, giving us a glimpse of their early lives and their initial realizations of themselves as mutants. Alas, in typical 1960s fashion each of the boys gets a long, dramatic origin story filled with daring rescues, mistaken identities, and comedic interludes, while Jean gets a slice of a single issue. It's notable in that she narrates it herself in her own distinct voice, but the segment leads with an explanation of how Jean's powers help with housework and ends with a reminder that she’s, like, super hot.

A single panel. Jean Grey, a redhaired white woman in a green minidress and mask, levitates a reclining chair off the ground. Her dialogue reads, 'Housework's a snap, too! Not only can I lift HEAVY stuff, like this CHAIR, but I can even whisk all the dirt and dust outside where it BELONGS!' Below the chair, a caption reads, 'But that's enough of the HINTS FROM HELOISE--my powers become really useful when I have to deal with some of the BAD GUYS running around on our fair planet!'

Two panels side by side. In the first, Jean walks away from a crowd that surrounds a policeman and a thief. Her dialogue reads, 'So that, pretty soon, things are back to normal!' In the second, we zoom in on Jean's face while two white men behind her oggle her. The dialogue reads, 'And, part of being normal is to TURN MEN'S HEADS without really TRYING!'

Good job with the stereotypes there, folks.

This troublesome slant extends to Jean's overall treatment. By this point in the series, we’ve established everyone’s core personality. Cyclops is mopey. Beast is loquacious. Iceman is snarky and jealous. Angel is arrogant. Jean is a girl.

Because hey, "girl" is a fully formed personality all on its own, right?


We do finally get some of the intrateam drama I hoped for during the last twenty-five issues, much of it stemming from the first new additions to the team. Lorna Dane, aka Polaris, shares Magneto’s magnetic powers and quickly becomes the target of Iceman’s unrequited love. Alex Summers, aka Havok, is Cyclops’s previously unmentioned brother and the object of Lorna’s requited love. This love triangle looks to resolve itself in a much messier and unhealthier fashion than the one between Cyclops, Jean, and Angel. The tension spills over into the rest of the team’s interactions.

Other major developments include Professor X’s completely unsurprising return (he faked his own death to focus his attentions on what turns out to be a rather minor alien invasion, as one does) and Magneto’s first appearance sans helmet (no one recognizes him, of course).

Two panels side by side. In the first, a white man wearing a skintight black costume gestures as wheel-chair user hovers in the shadows behind him. His dialogue reads, 'You're RIGHT, Angel! I'm NOT smart enough to formulate a master plan! Only ONE MAN could do that--
Told you he was faking. From UNCANNY X-MEN #65

We also meet Sunfire for the first time, Lorelai appears as a random swamp mutant rather than an Asgardian, Ka-Zar returns, and there are dinosaurs. Because everything’s better with dinosaurs.

Alas, X-MEN (as it’s still formally titled) becomes a reprint book from #67 on. Many important developments, like Beast’s transformation and recruitment to the Avengers, happen in other Marvel titles I don’t intend to spotlight here. That said, we may eventually talk about X-MEN: THE HIDDEN YEARS, a 1999 series that attempts to fill some of the gaps. Depends how much time we’ve got.

When we return in a week or two, it’ll be with an entirely new creative team and a new crop of X-Men to see us through the end of the 1970s.


  1. I took a silent face journey while reading all that stuff about Jean. Oh, previous decades! How truly terrible you were at lady business! I am just thinking of all the awesome, non-housework-related things I would do with telekinesis if I had telekinesis. Could the writers not think of any of those things?

    1. To be fair, she does spend the next page talking about stuff like building stairs with her mind. It's frustrating as all hell that they chose to bookend the crime fighting with the stereotypical girl stuff, though. In the panel above the housecleaning one, she bakes a pie with apples she picked telekinetically.

      (Let's be real: I'd pick so much fruit with my telekinesis, and grab so many things off of high shelves, and float stuff across the room so I didn't have to oust Murchie from my lap. Useful things like that.)

      Later on in the series, after Jean becomes Phoenix, there's this bit about how she went from the least powerful X-Man to the strongest of them all. I was like, "Dude, telekinesis and telepathy aren't exactly lightweight powers."