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The Original X-Men Debut in the 1960s: A Marvel Comics Review
The X-Men have been some of the most popular comic-book characters for about 30 years, and have spawned a blockbuster movie franchise as well. But when I started reading comic books in the early 1970s the team was an also-ran, about as close to dead as any series could be.
For those who don't know X-Men history, this book may show you why that happened. Marvel Essential Classic X-Men 1 contains the first 24 issues of the original X-Men comic book, which debuted appeared in September 1963.
Writer Stan Lee had launched the Marvel age of comics two years earlier with the Fantastic Four, then followed that superhero group with the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Dr. Strange, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Iron Man, and Ant-Man.
Marvel's comics were successful at the time because Lee was injecting a realism into comic books that hadn't been there before, giving the characters real personalities and human failings and forcing them to deal with realistic problems.
And the ideas in the X-Men are up to his usual standard. In this case, he came up with the idea of a school for mutants, for teenagers who through some quirk of fate were destined to be different from the average person. The students would learn to control their powers from a professor who was a mutant himself and would discover that the world was fearful of people who were "different."
So there you have it, a great set-up. And remember, this was in 1963 when civil rights for minorities were beginning to become a major issue in America that would still dominate our public lives today.
But reading the stories in this volume it becomes clear that Lee had spread himself too thin. Despite the original X-Men having a nice variety of powers, and some villains like Magneto that would become mainstays for decades, the execution of the stories just aren't up to the same quality as what Lee was producing in the Fantastic Four or the Amazing Spider-Man, for instance.
The stories aren't as compelling, and many of the villains are second rate (like the Locust or the Vanisher.) There's enough fun adventures and quirky moments for this volume to be entertaining, but the series feels in many ways like it wasn't given the same attention by Lee as his other books. In fact he gave up writing the X-Men after issue 19, turning over the reins to Roy Thomas.
Sadly, it's the same with the art. The great Jack Kirby started on the book, but then passed the art duties to Werner Roth, who at best was pedestrian and workmanlike.
The series would limp along throughout the 1960s, with the last original story appearing in No. 66 in 1970. By the time I started reading comics, the series was simply reprinting the old tales so I didn't buy each issue. It wouldn't be until 1975 when a new version of X-Men would debut and start the series on the path of success.
This collection is a great way to see and understand the foundation and origin of the X-Men, and there's enough good in the stories to make it a fun read. Just approach it knowing that better things lay ahead.
If you want to know more about the creation of the X-Men you should check out this book. First appearing in the mid-1970s, Stan Lee explains how he came up with the ideas for the X-Men, Iron Man, Avengers and Daredevil, as well as lesser characters Silver Surfer, the Watcher and Nick Fury, Agent of S. H. I. E. L. D.
Each section of the book also contains the debut stories of each, as well as later ones to show the evolution of the characters.
Writer Stan Lee discusses the creation of X-Men in this recent appearance, especially how he decided to focus on mutants.
For more in-depth reviews of the next two Essential X-Men books please see:
1) The X-Men Shine Under Artist Jim Steranko:
2) The End of the X-Men's Original Run: