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The Original X-Men in the 1960s: Marvel Essential Classic X-Men Volume 2

Updated on October 13, 2014

X-Men in the Late 1960s: The art of Jim Steranko and Barry Windsor-Smith

Marvel Essential Classic X-Men Volume 2 includes issues No. 25-53, along with Avengers No. 53 in which the X-Men guest star.

The highlights of this collection are two issues drawn by the great Jim Steranko and the first extended U.S. work by Barry Windsor-Smith, who would become famous a few years later for Conan the Barbarian.

It's a good collection for anyone who is interested in the early X-Men. The ISBN of this volume is 0785121161.

X-Men 26
X-Men 26

The X-Men in the Late 1960s

A Second-Tier Series at Marvel Comics

The stories in this collection are from October 1966 to February 1969, a time when the X-Men comic was definitely a second-tier series for Marvel Comics.

Writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, the two who kicked off the Marvel Age of comics in the early 1960s, were in the middle of an extended run of excellence on the Fantastic Four (see here ), while Lee and artist John Romita were transitioning Spider-Man from a nerdy high school student to a handsome college graduate (see here. )

In contrast, the X-Men was farmed out to Roy Thomas, a new hire at Marvel who wrote issues No. 25-43. After a few tales by another newcomer, Gary Friedrich, the book passed to longtime DC Comics writer Arnold Drake. All three struggled to come up with memorable villains and plots, while the art was mainly handled by Werner Roth, another lesser performer.

Some of the villains the X-Men battled during this period: El Tigre, Maha Yogi, Tyrannus and Mekano. The comic killed off Professor X in issue No. 42 to try to jolt readers, then spent a few issues spotlighting individual team members, but that didn't help much. Starting in issue No. 39 the comic carried a back-up feature that explored the early times of each X-Man and how he joined the team. The collection contains these stories and if you are a fan of the X-Men it's cool to know their backgrounds.

X-Men 50 Jim Steranko Polaris
X-Men 50 Jim Steranko Polaris

Jim Steranko's Art Shines in This Collection

Polaris Debuts in a Three-Issue Tale

The top attraction of this collection is Jim Steranko's artwork on issues No. 50 and 51 (he also drew the cover of issue No. 49). Steranko is considered one of the great comic artists of the 1960s, as well as one of the best in a younger generation that began to take over the comic world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And these two issues are an early taste why he has such a great reputation.

After dozens of issues of artists who were merely competent, Steranko's X-Men almost jump off the pages in these issues. He brings a dynamic sense that was missing, and composes pages in ways few artists had ever done before. The art of these two issues alone is worth the price of the book.

The three-issue tale, by the way, that starts in issue No. 49 is one of the better stories in the collection. It introduces a woman who would later become the superhero Polaris and raises the question of whether she is the daughter of X-Men arch-enemy Magneto. To complicate matters, the X-Man Iceman falls for her hard and that clouds his judgement and causes some tension in the team.

The one drawback to this Marvel Essential volume being black and white is that Polaris's green hair is left to the imagination of the reader. But in the comic books it really is quite striking!

X-Men 53 Barry Windsor-Smith
X-Men 53 Barry Windsor-Smith

The Notorious X-Men No. 53

Barry Windsor-Smith's First Comic Book Work

The last issue of this collection -- X-Men No. 53 -- is infamous because for many, many years it was widely considered to be the worst-drawn comic of the Marvel Age. I haven't read many comic books published since the mid-1980s, so I don't know if anything has surpassed its awfulness.

But trust me, X-Men No. 53 is truly a poor piece of work.

What is amazing about the issue, and what makes it so notorious, is the legendary tale behind its creation and the fact that the artist would go on to become one of the most respected and acclaimed artists of the early 1970s!

So what happened? Supposedly the tale originally scheduled for that issue was late, so rather than miss a publication date Marvel gave a rush job to British newcomer Barry Smith. The 20-year-old artist, without a studio, was forced to draw the pages on park benches in New York's Central Park! (I vaguely remember hearing somewhere that the entire issue had to be done in a weekend but can't find corroboration for that.)

The result was some really bad compositions, with awkward perspectives and angles. See here and here for samples of the artwork and more criticism of the book.

Smith, who later changed his professional name to Barry Windsor-Smith, returned to England and in a few years become acclaimed for drawing the early issues of Conan the Barbarian. On Conan, he would win several Academy of Comic Book Arts Awards.

X-Men 44 Red Raven
X-Men 44 Red Raven

The X-Men vs. the Avengers!

Magneto and the Return of the Red Raven Too!

The second-best story in this volume is a four-issue tale that runs from issues No. 43-45 and concludes in the Avengers No. 53 (thankfully included in this Marvel Essential book).

The tale begins with the X-Men reeling from the apparent death of Professor X in issue No. 42. The team is attacked and captured by Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, which now includes ex-Avengers Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

In issue No. 44, Angel escapes and flies off to seek the Avengers help. Along the way he lands on a mysterious island in the sky and discovers a winged people who have been put into suspended animation by a World War II-era hero called Red Raven. Red Raven explains that the people raised him, but were plotting to attack the rest of humanity so he put them to sleep. Freeing Angel, Red Raven puts himself into the same suspended animation and sinks the island to keep humanity safe. This issue is an odd little side adventure, but I thought it was pretty cool way to re-introduce a character that hadn't been seen in comics for more than a quarter century.

In issue No. 45, the action returns to the other X-Men, as Cyclops has also gotten free and tangles with Quicksilver. At the conclusion of the issue, Cyclops has defeated the mutant. But in the meantime Angel has returned with the Avengers and all that group sees is Cyclops beating on one of their team members, not realizing that Quicksilver was playing for the other side.

The final part of the tale, in Avengers No. 53, includes a standoff between the X-Men and the Avengers, then the defeat of Magneto. It's a well-told tale, and artist John Buscema's work on the Avengers issue is in sharp contrast to the lesser-quality art of the X-Men issues.

The Classic X-Men Vs. the New X-Men - Which Group of Superheroes is Cooler?

Old Vs. New X-Men X-Men 100
Old Vs. New X-Men X-Men 100

The X-Men comic book had fallen on hard times by the early 1970s, when new stories were discontinued and the series just reprinted the earlier tales. Then in 1975 the new X-Men were launched with the addition of new heroes Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Thunderbird. Also added were two other characters that had already been introduced: Banshee and Wolverine. The comic book was revived and became one of the top sellers of Marvel Comics.

The comic shown here is X-Men No. 100, which pits the two teams against each other. Sort of.

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We hope you have enjoyed this review of the late 1960s X-Men comics as much as we enjoyed writing it. Now it's your turn to tell us what you think of the Marvel Essential book, the X-Men, this review or anything else relevant.

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What Do You Think of the Classic X-Men?

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    • zentao profile image

      zentao 3 years ago

      I have to say, I am a bit more of a fan of the new X-men, since I started reading X-men in the early 80's about the time when this group came together. The older group has a lot going for it too, though. Great group of superhero's and great lens you have here.