To commemorate the culmination of their long-running and successful X-Men movies, 20th Century Fox declared May 13th as “X-Men Day”, a day to celebrate all things Mutant and the X-Men, Marvel’s iconic collection of superpowered beings who fight to protect a world that hates and fears them. To mark the occasion this year, I’ll be reviewing the original X-Men trilogy every Thursday from tomorrow to see how they hold up on a repeat viewing.
Story Title: X-Men
Published: 1 September 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
By 1963, Marvel Comics were riding a wave of success thanks to characters like the Fantastic Four, Tony Stark/Iron Man, and, of course, Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Faced with the prospect of having to come up with more costumed heroes and needing a way to quickly and easily explain their powers, Stan Lee came up with the idea of “Mutants”, ordinary people who developed extraordinary powers once they hit puberty. Alongside long-time collaborator Jack Kirby, Lee created the concept of “The Mutants”, teenagers who were born with extraordinary abilities, but was asked to retool the concept with a new title: The X-Men, with the titular superheroes being students at a special school to hone their abilities into a force for good.
Unlike superhero teams like the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, the X-Men were hated and feared by the general public for their powers and what they represented: the next step in human evolution. In this way, Mutants were used by Lee and Kirby to tackle variety of social issues, most notably racism. Although initial sales of The X-Men lagged compared to other Marvel titles and the comic was cancelled by issue sixty-six, a 1975 revival, in which an international team of Mutants joined the title, breathed new life into the concept and the X-Men have been an enduring and popular team in comics ever since, influencing an entire generation with a much-lauded animated series in the nineties and, of course, a series of massively successful live-action movies.
“X-Men” had quite a difficult prospect ahead of it that most other comic book origins didn’t at the time and that is that the story had to introduce an entirely new concept (Mutants) as well as seven new characters and the concept of the X-Men all in one issue. As a result, it’s quite a rushed and underwhelming issue in a lot of ways and none more so than in its first few pages.
The issue opens with Professor Charles Xavier/Professor X sitting and brooding in the study of his “exclusive private school”; he’s just sitting there, all casual, and then suddenly sends a mental command out to his students, the X-Men, to report for class immediately. His pupils obediently obey, with each one entering the frame almost right away and in a way that immediately shows off their powers and abilities: Warren Worthington III/The Angel flies in on Angel’s wings, Hank McCoy/The Beast (not quite his furry blue self yet and resembling more of a muscular hunchback or ape-like man) bounds in through the window, Bobby Drake/Iceman (here resembling a living snowman more than a man of ice) slides down an ice pole that is connected to nothing but appears to be attached to one of Angel’s wings, and “Slim” Summers/Cyclops…runs in from the background, indicating how useless he is.
In the very next panel, Cyclops and Angel, like the suck-ups they are, dutifully attend to Xavier’s comfort by adjusting his chair while Iceman and Beast get into a bit of banter that sees Beast more than a little perturbed by his team mate freezing up his arm. Iceman taunts Beast, and his fellow X-Men, showcasing an arrogant, free-spirited approach to his powers and abilities that immediately brings to mind Johnny Storm/Human Torch (Beast, with his large frame and quick temper, is equally reminiscent of Ben Grimm/The Thing).
Angel keeps the two from coming to blows and Xavier orders the teens to begin their training exercise under Cyclops’ tutelage. Each of the Mutants is ordered to perform a specific task within a short time frame to demonstrate their powers and the control they have over their abilities: Beast expertly grabs a taut wire with his toes, spins himself around at an unbelievable speed, and then ricochets off the walls of the training room (not quite the Danger Room yet) before showcasing his superhuman balance and coordination (though he does overshoot on the final test).
Angel (who exhibits a casual racism towards Homo sapiens) is up next, dodging jets of flame, crushing weights, and spinning blades with his expert agility and coordination but is momentarily stunned when a “sudden sound concussion” threatens to knock him out of the air. He recovers, learning a lesson in humility and also taking another step towards mastering hovering, all while Xavier mentally commands and praises his abilities.
Iceman, impatient and frustrated, decides to throw a tantrum, believing that Xavier is going easy on him since he’s a little younger than the others. Xavier stresses patience but Iceman, ever the hot-headed and immature youth, decides to goof off and dress himself up as a snowman. At the last second, Iceman realises that this was all part of Xavier’s test of his reflexes as Iceman is forced to whip up a shield of ice to deflect a massive weighted ball that Xavier commands the Beast to throw right at his frozen comrade’s head!
At this point, we’ve yet to see what Cyclops is capable of; up until now, he’s simply operated the controls of the training machine and supervised the drills of his team mates. Unimpressed with Iceman and Beast’s lackadaisical attitude to their training, he goads them into combat and showcases his own unique talent, almost blasting Beast through the wall with his optic blasts. Although Iceman encases himself in a thick ice cube, Cyclops easily breaks through it and, when all three of his fellow Mutants attempt to subdue him, Cyclops easily keeps them at bay with his red eye beams and physical ability, proving that he is, perhaps, the most powerful and capable of the X-Men.
Satisfied with the abilities of his pupils, Xavier immediately calls and end to their training and rough-housing to introduce them to a new pupil, “a most attractive young lady”, which immediately sends the teens (with the curious exception of Iceman…at least, the dialogue makes it seem like it’s Iceman but he’s leering over her later in the story so who really knows?) into an excited frenzy as they leer at her from the window of Xavier’s study. The girl is, of course, Jean Grey, who has arrived more out of sheer curiosity than anything else since Xavier, apparently, didn’t give her any details prior to her arrival. He reveals that his school is actually a sanctuary for Mutants, those who posses “an extra power”, and home to his accordingly-named “X-Men”.
Xavier introduces Jean to her new team mates, immediately inducting her into the school and onto the X-Men under the oft-forgotten and frankly lazy codename “Marvel Girl”. The boys, however, are unimpressed; seeing nothing unique about Jean, they regard her with scepticism and patronise her simply for being a gorgeous redhead. When “Slim” brings her a chair in which to sit, she shuts their condescending attitude right down by demonstrating her telekinetic powers, which are more than enough to move objects and fend off Hank’s creepy and inappropriate advances.
With Jean part of the team, Xavier begins to divulge his backstory and the purpose of the X-Men: Xavier (who speculates that he was “possibly the first [Mutant]” since his parents worked on the “A-Bomb project”), recognising that “normal people” feared and distrusted him for his mental abilities, decided to set up a school to train Mutants in using their powers for the betterment of humanity, to help improve human/Mutant relations, and to protect the world from “evil Mutants”. The story then introduces us to one of these “evil Mutants”, Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, who loudly monologues his own beliefs that humanity needs to be wiped out in favour of Mutants. Magneto demonstrates his incredible power of magnetism to destroy “the mightiest rocket of all”, turn a machine gun against a group of soldiers, and terrorise an army base by sending a tank amok before issuing an ultimatum to the Cape Citadel army base and calling for their immediate surrender.
When the humans defy Magneto’s order, he destroys another of their missiles and then walks right into Cape Citadel! Garbed in a magnificently regal red costume and elaborate helmet, Magneto emits magnetic waves that render the soldier’s weapons useless and repels them with pure magnetic energy. Despite the General’s bluster, Magneto is easily able to overpower him and the entirety of his guards and lay claim to the base to fulfil his first objective towards his lofty goals of Mutant domination. Back at Xavier’s school, Bobby, Hank, and Warren’s disturbing leering of Jean is interrupted by another of the Professor’s mental summons; having heard of Magneto’s takeover of Cape Citadel, he orders his X-Men to confront the Master of Magnetism and defeat him in the first true test of their abilities. Seems a little unfair to Jean since the X-Men have been training together for some time and she literally just joined the team so she has no idea of their tactics and no experience of working alongside them as a team so she’s at a severe disadvantage even compared to the untested X-Men.
Rather than dramatically flying to the base using the X-Jet on campus, the X-Men are driven to the airport in Xavier’s Rolls Royce and then spirited to their destination by a private jet controlled by Xavier’s “thought impulses”. Upon arrival, the X-Men find the army unable to penetrate Magneto’s magnetic force field and, driven to desperation, the General is willing to allow the X-Men fifteen minutes to attempt to breach Magneto’s defences. The soldiers are stunned by the X-Men’s abilities, which they thoughtlessly use to cut a path through their ranks and approach the shield, just in case you forgot what these new heroes are capable of. Thanks to Cyclops’ incredible optic blasts, the X-Men are able to easily breach Magneto’s barrier; the assault causes physical pain and a debilitating effect on Magneto so, in anger, he launches the base’s missile defences against the X-Men. Thanks to the team’s unique abilities and intense training, though, they’re easily able to avoid and dispatch the missiles, with even Marvel Girl pulling her weight with her telekinetic powers.
Though impressed with their abilities, Magneto nevertheless takes immense pleasure in proving is power and superiority over them even when the X-Men are able to counter each of his attacks: when Magneto crushes Angel beneath a pile of junk, Cyclops blasts it away; when he sends a burning trolley of rocket fuel their way, Iceman shields them with an “igloo shield”.
Magneto is then caught off-guard by the X-Men’s persistence and, after taking a blast from Cyclops, decides that an immediate and tactical retreat is in order; he levitates away using “magnetic repulsion” and uses another force field to keep the Mutants from following him. With Magneto scared away, the X-Men earn the respect and gratitude of the General as well as the praise and congratulations of their mentor,
Even taking into account the way Marvel operated back in the 1960s, “X-Men” is a very disappointing debut story for Marvel’s premier Mutant team. The art is stark, simple, and not very eye-catching or inspiring, with only Magneto really impressing in his design and abilities, and the dialogue is full of some of the worst clichés of comics at the time. The X-Men are constantly talking, generally always boldly exclaiming their names and abilities in a constant reminder of who they are and what they can do; this is indicative of comics of the time, as superheroes constantly felt the need to remind readers of these things (and their origins), but it’s especially annoying and off-putting here as it not only happens constantly but is the main thrust of the issue’s narrative.
For a comic about the debut of a bombastic and exciting group of superpowered teenagers, barely anything happens throughout the issue as copious panels must be used to showcase these new characters and their abilities and to explain to the reader what Mutants are. I can understand it but it does interfere with the action and pace of the story and, ironically, would be a consistent issue in subsequent stories and arcs in future X-Men comics and spin-offs; even to this day I find X-Men comics quite off-putting due to the sheer amount of characters, dialogue, and dense lore that is packed into every issue and I pity anyone that tries to break into X-Men on a whim!
I can forgive the out-dated slang and even Marvel cutting corners on characterisation by supplanting the personalities of the Fantastic Four into their new team but it’s very hard to forgive the treatment of Jean Grey; like Susan Storm/Invisible Girl and even Janet van Dyne/The Wasp before her, Jean is constantly patronised, met with condescending comments, and leered over by the X-Men a frankly disgusting amount. Again, times were different back then, but Jean’s narrative is so simple it’s almost insulting: the boys are sceptical of her because she’s a girl but even when she demonstrates her powers they still treat her as little more than eye-candy, meaning she must not only prove herself as a capable X-Man but also constantly strive to be seen as a capable individual regardless of her gender.
Still, at least she shows a bit of gumption and puts the horny teenagers in their place. Each of the X-Men gets a chance to showcase their personalities, which are as distinct as their powers, but some are more interesting and unique than others. Why should I care about Iceman being an arrogant, hot-tempered show-off when Johnny Storm already did it better? We learn next to nothing about Angel except that he’s a bit of a bigot towards humans and Beast is far from the eloquent, educated voice of reason we know him as today; instead, he’s just a Thing knock-off who is just as immature and foolhardy as Iceman. Cyclops, meanwhile, is the straight-laced teacher’s pet of the team; he gets a chance to show off how formidable his powers and abilities are, proving that he can best all of the X-Men even when they gang up on him, but he’s not an especially fun or interesting character since he’s all about adhering to Xavier’s rules and taking their training seriously.
Xavier is also something of an enigma; we learn a bit about his background and his motivations and his cause is certainly a just one but he comes across as a stern and strict teacher, issuing orders and expecting them to be followed immediately, without question, and to the letter. His school is also noticeably light on students, meaning that he’s literally been training his X-Men to be superheroes rather than educating an assortment of Mutants for a variety of reasons, and he seems like a very secretive, devious individual since he freely reads people’s thoughts, projects his thoughts into the minds of others, and recruits Jean without her even understanding what she’s signing up for.
Even Magneto, clearly the most visually interesting character, is little more than a rip-off of Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom; he loves to monologue, is egotistical and brazen, and relishes in demonstrating his superior powers at every opportunity. Yet, despite appearing to be an unbeatable foe who is able to render men helpless simply through the weight of his magnetic force fields, Magneto is defeated with ridiculous ease! Seriously, the X-Men don’t even fight him as a team like the front cover suggests; they simply shrug off his pathetic attempts to destroy them, Cyclops blasts him once, and that’s it! Job done, Magneto flees, and the day is saved! It’s a lacklustre end to a lacklustre comic, to be honest, and it feels like everyone involved was just phoning it in and more concerned with getting over their new concept rather than debuting the X-Men in a fun and interesting way. The X-Men have certainly had better stories and debuts in the years since but it’s hard to really recommend their debut issue beyond nostalgia or curiosity to see how far the concept has come since its dull beginnings.
What are your thoughts of The X-Men #1? What did you think to the X-Men and their introduction? Do you agree that the story suffers somewhat from poor art and characterisation or were you instantly hooked on Marvel’s new team? Which character was your favourite? What did you think to Magneto’s debut, the portrayal of his powers, and his ultimate defeat? Which era of the X-Men is your favourite and who is your favourite ever team/character? How are you celebrating X-Men Day today? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment below and be sure to come back tomorrow, and every Thursday for the rest of May, for more X-Men content.