Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Recommended reading: X-Men

Although I've prepared recommended reading lists for many Marvel comic titles which have been made into films, I didn't expect to write one up on the occasion of X-Men: First Class's release. In fact, I wasn't certain I would even watch First Class, on account of how little I thought of X-Men 3: the Last Stand.

And yet, here we are; First Class is actually a rather excellent movie and afterward, as the comic-savvy member of the group who watched the film, I was quickly asked to explain some of the background on the characters and plots used in the picture. This brought forward a few happy memories of the X-Men as a comic book franchise, so I decided to go ahead with a recommended reading list after all. Because the X-Men's publications cover such a vast array of titles, I'm going to divide the franchise up by decades, discuss a few specifics and generalities about the franchise at the time, then submit my recommendations. Shall we begin?

THE 1960s

As one of the founding titles in the Marvel Universe, X-Men was one of two (along with Daredevil) which I feel struggled for a long time to discover its voice. Perhaps it's because X-Men was launched as an attempt to recreate the successful Fantastic Four formula (just as Daredevil was aping Spider-Man), yet it ignored many of the elements which Stan Lee & Jack Kirby had already perfected in Fantastic Four; while the FF had no alternate identities, the X-Men maintained double lives, effectively doubling the cast by devoting time to the X-Men in and out of costumes. I don't believe the original X-Men never really gelled in their civilian guises, which were spent mainly at beatnik coffee shops. They did gradually all find romantic matches (while Cyclops was finally paired with Jean Grey), but I never felt the team was as down-to-Earth as the FF. They didn't have the FF's occasional money troubles (Xavier was loaded), nosey neighbours (they lived in the country) or even the occasional bouts of colds and flu's (a staple of Spider-Man comics). The team also graduated from Xavier's school in the first year, making their continued presence at the school a little odd.

I feel the X-Men didn't become remarkable until near the end of the 60s when Roy Thomas & Neal Adams had their all-too-brief run; even then, it's primarily for Adams' art as his design for Havok is a classic and his interpretation of the Sentinels became the standard.

Recommended: X-Men#56-65 (Neal Adams' run)

THE 1970s

After flirting with cancellation, the X-Men returned in a big way with an almost entirely retooled lineup in 1975, with Cyclops now leading Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus and a certain Canucklehead who would snikt his way into our hearts, Wolverine. With Chris Claremont seizing control over the X-Men franchise for the next 16 years, the X-Men developed a consistent creative voice and Claremont's inter team banter and relationships became the new standard for successful super hero team books. Claremont also dropped the X-Men's secret identities from the book, as the team would simply travel incognito in civilian clothes rather than maintain double lives. I feel this eventually led the X-Men franchise into a incestuous world populated only by mutants, their pals and their enemies rather than interacting with the world at large, but at the time it was a much better fit than the old secret identities.

Recommended: Giant-Size X-Men#1 (the new team forms), X-Men#112-113 (terrific X-Men-Magneto fight), X-Men#117 (Xavier's origin), X-Men#120-121 (X-Men vs. Alpha Flight), X-Men#125-128 (X-Men vs. Proteus)

THE 1980s

The 1980s opened with the infamous "Dark Phoenix Saga" which led Jean Grey down a path of corruption, until she finally took her own life to save the universe; it wasn't where Claremont originally meant to bring his story, but it brought the X-Men franchise to even greater highs. It was almost immediately followed by "Days of Future Past," the first of many X-Men stories to delve into time travel as a future version of the young X-Man-in-training Kitty Pryde tries to change the past. These two stories hung a pall over the X-Men's world, but Claremont still kept matters even-handed with yarns like "Kitty's Fairy Tale" and his "X-Babies" romps.

The X-Men (their title now called "Uncanny X-Men") became so successful that their franchise expanded with Xavier training a new class of teenagers in New Mutants, Wolverine taking his first solo adventure in a mini-series (later receiving the first of many ongoing solo books), the original five X-Men reunited in X-Factor, with even Jean Grey back in the fold (long story short: she wasn't really dead) and the X-Men-in-England premise of Excalibur. The additional books distilled Claremont's own voice in the franchise, but I felt his former editor Louise Simonson complimented his ideas in her X-Factor book. In fact, I don't think X-Factor gets enough credit from X-Men fans - her subplot about Cyclops going insane over Jean's seeming resurrection is still great. Kudos are also due to her "Fall of the Mutants" stories in which Apocalypse transformed Angel into his Horseman of Death while Cyclops and Jean resolved the tension of their relationship. Simonson (joined at times by her husband Walter on art), along with talents like Art Adams, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Romita Jr. and Alan Davis brought new energy to the X-Men's world.

Recommended: X-Men#129-137 ("Dark Phoenix Saga"), X-Men#141-142 ("Days of Future Past"), Uncanny X-Men#153 ("Kitty's Fairy Tale"), Uncanny X-Men#161 (Xavier & Magneto's history revealed), Uncanny X-Men#162-167 (X-Men vs. Brood epic), Wolverine#1-4 (Wolverines goes to Japan), Uncanny X-Men#168 (Kitty brings home Lockheed the dragon), Uncanny X-Men#181 (X-Men in Japan), Uncanny X-Men#182 (Rogue loses control of her personalities), New Mutants#18-31 (Bill Sienkiewicz run), Uncanny X-Men#190-191 (barbarian world), Uncanny X-Men#198 (Storm in Africa), New Mutants Special Edition#1/Uncanny X-Men Annual#9 (both teams go to Asgard), Uncanny X-Men#200 (Magneto's trial), New Mutants Annual#2 (Cypher saves the team), Uncanny X-Men Annual#10 (the horrifying X-Babies), X-Factor#15 ("death" of Angel), X-Factor#18 (Cyclops goes mad), X-Factor#24-26 ("Fall of the Mutants"), Excalibur Special Edition (Excalibur forms), Excalibur#1-7 (Alan Davis' first run), Uncanny X-Men#254-255 (Moira MacTaggert's X-Men crash and burn)

THE 1990s

Claremont departed the X-Men in 1991 and the franchise finally fell on hard times; although it remained on top with fandom, the book appeared to be less about creative expression and more about milking a cash cow. Peter David had an all-too-brief run on X-Factor, envisioning the team as government agents, while Alan Davis wrote & drew a terrific series of Excalibur stories and even Scot Lobdell could turn out a nicely restrained "sit around and talk" issue. But overall, the franchise was obese; too many characters, too many interrupted plots, too many titles (including a second X-Men team book dubbed "X-Men"). The New Mutants graduated into the darker X-Force series (and spinning their leader Cable into his own book), but a new cast of students eventually arrived with Generation X, while the minor Wolverine character Maverick gained and lost his own series in just 12 issues, becoming the first X-Men spin-off to suffer low sales.

Recommended: Uncanny X-Men#268 (Wolverine & Captain America's past revealed), Excalibur#42-67 (Alan Davis returns to write/draw), Cable: Blood & Metal#1-2 (surprisingly good background of Cable), Uncanny X-Men#297 (Xavier briefly regains his mobility), X-Factor#87 (team is psychoanalyzed), Uncanny X-Men#308 (team celebrates Thanksgiving, Cyclops & Jean get engaged), Uncanny X-Men#309 (Xavier struggles to be happy for Cyclops & Jean), X-Men#30 (Cyclops & Jean marry), X-Men/ClanDestine#1-2 (okay, recommended because I love ClanDestine more than any other factor), X-Men#-1 (Magneto & Xavier's last conversation as friends)

THE 2000s

A lot of the fat was pulled from the franchise in the 2000s, although it steadily grew back. Claremont returned to the X-Men just in time for 2000's feature film, but he was swiftly shunted aside to the spin-off X-Treme X-Men, while Grant Morrison rebuilt the franchise in his image, ballooning the number of mutants into the millions, developing a host of just plain odd characters and flinging Cyclops into the arms of former villain Emma Frost. I felt Morrison was at his best with "Riot at Xavier's," where a gang of Xavier's own students turn violent. When Morrison departed the ranks of mutants were quickly culled, paving the way for books like Peter David's new X-Factor, casting the team as private investigators rather than government agents. A third team book was added to the ranks with Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, while Xavier - repeatedly undermined by stories which cast him as morally gray or even sinister - was rehabilitated in X-Men: Legacy. Various attempts were made to revive the old young mutants in training formula after Generation X was cancelled, leading to New Mutants, New X-Men, Young X-Men and back to New Mutants again.

Recommended: New X-Men#134-138 ("Riot at Xavier's"), X-Factor#16 (Madrox discovers one of his dupes has his own family), World War Hulk: X-Men#1-3 (Hulk smashes the X-Men), X-Men: Legacy#208-210 (Xavier redeemed), X-Factor#39 (birth of Madrox & Siryn's baby), X-Factor#40 (Madrox turns suicidal)

2010 to present

The X-Men took out a fourth series in 2010 ("X-Men") and Uncanny X-Men is set to be cancelled and relaunched in the near future. Recently, stories have begun to rebuild the mutant population, forming the entire premise behind Kieron Gillen's great Generation Hope series. Beyond that, Wolverine stars in two ongoings of his own, while the other team books include X-Factor, New Mutants and Uncanny X-Force.

Recommended: Generation Hope#1-6 (Hope's team of new mutants begin recruiting)

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