Thursday, April 24, 2014

Marvels: X-Men #1

"X-Men" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Paul Reinman
(September 1963)

September of 1963 has been a momentous month for Marvel, and it rounds out with the debut of, according to the cover, the Strangest Super-Heroes of All. What really hooked me into Marvel Comics when I was a kid was a specific period of time in the X-Men comics. This is not that time. Actually, because I loved that period of time in X-Men so intensely, I kind of want nothing to do with it now. It has become the most convoluted thing in the world, and I'm going to try really hard not to let that completely overshadow my reading (sometimes re-reading) of these early issues.

That said, I found this one a little dull.

It's a first issue. You either get a comic where the concept and characters are there right away, or you get one like this, where those things don't feel formed yet, but you can sense the creators are trying.

Above you see the original X-Men: Cyclops (addressed as "Slim" Summers through this issue), the Angel (Warren Worthington III), Iceman (Bobby Drake) and the Beast (Hank McCoy), led by their teacher, Professor X (Charles Xavier). So far, they don't really have personalities, and I guess that's part of what drags the issue for me. They're more like generic teenagers. I don't identify with them the way I do with Peter Parker, or find them recognizable the way I do Johnny Storm, or just sympathize with them the way I do Rick Jones. They're in broad strokes so far, and introducing so many characters at once means that we do get moments where they showcase their various powers, but not their various personalities. It's basically just that Slim and Warren are more or less competing for alpha male status, Bobby's the younger kid, and Hank is sort of the all-American athlete (his status as the intelligent bookworm isn't there yet).

Into this comes new student Jean Grey, who has telekinetic powers. She's a pretty redhead, so much of the dynamic immediately becomes that all the guys want to date her. She takes the code name Marvel Girl, and mostly it's just training exercises.

The concept here is that these six people are all mutants: human beings born with an extra gene that gives them some kind of special, extrahuman ability. Professor Xavier has set up a private school, Xavier's Home for Gifted Youngsters, to teach these youths to use their powers for good. He seems to want to ease humanity into the idea of co-existing with mutants.

I'm going to be honest and say that this never made a whole lot of sense to me. Think of where we are now in the world of Marvel. 20 years ago, they had Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch running around, among others. Those guys were the heroes of World War II. Then they disappeared. Now they've got the Fantastic Four--who are celebrated and honored--as well as Ant-Man, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Wasp. The only protagonist in the Marvel Universe who is feared at all at this point is the Hulk. But ordinary citizens have also seen this sudden increase in costumed villains, evil sorcerers, gods of mischief, alien invasions, and that time Atlantis nearly conquered mankind.

So, all of this weirdness is going on, and we're going to discriminate against mutants simply because they were born the way they are instead of getting their powers in an accident, making a transistor-powered suit, or literally being a god?

Is the whole thing just that it's supposed to make no sense because it's hate-based? Because I just don't see, at this point, Professor X's idea that, in a world of superpowered characters running all over the place benefiting and saving humankind, these kids are going to be any more feared than, say, what Thor might prove or disprove about Christianity.

He also wants to protect humankind from the evil mutants, who apparently are out there in droves. To make that point, we're introduced to another of Marvel's most iconic villains: Magneto!

Magneto doesn't spring up here quite as fully formed as Doctor Octopus or Doctor Doom did, but that's okay. First, neither did Loki. And second, Magneto is one of the strongest concepts presented in this issue. He thinks it's time to conquer the world in the name of mutantkind (he's the first one to say the words "homo superior"). Like Marvel villains before him, he begins interfering with American rocket tests. He has the ability to control magnetic forces, and so is able to calmly walk onto a military base and quickly take control of it.

Professor X sends in the X-Men to stop Magneto, and they chase him off. It's not really spectacular; mostly the scene is another excuse to showcase the X-Men's individual powers and teamwork. Mostly this issue is just about setting the stage for stories to come, and it does that just fine. It's not a must-read yet, but it has a lot of potential. I just hope Stan Lee and Jack Kirby can find it. I'm still not over losing The Incredible Hulk...

Stray observations:

:: Professor X is intense. No, wait: INTENSE. He's a little remote and not very likable. He says he lost his legs in a childhood accident, but was born with his psychic abilities. He specifically says that it's because both of his parents worked on "the first A-bomb project," and names himself as possibly the first mutant. Also this month, Stan Lee considered Namor possibly the first mutant, so I guess it's a toss-up. Actually, this might create a timeline issue here... the Manhattan Project started in 1942 and disbanded in 1947. Even if we're charitable and say that Xavier's mother was pregnant at the time she started working on it, that still puts Charles Xavier--at the possible oldest--at 21 years old. That seems... wrong. Although it does make it less creepy that Xavier has the same sexual/romantic interest in Jean that everyone else does. (He's not a demonstrative prick about it, unlike the others.)

Anyway, if Xavier were very young, that would definitely make Namor (at 42 years old, as per the math available from Fantastic Four Annual #1) the first mutant in the Marvel Universe, although his mutation came about through interspecies romance rather than exposure to radiation.

:: Also, I do think it's an interesting idea to tackle concerns about radiation in this way, by creating mutants. It's very much the Marvel Universe of this time.

:: Their powers, briefly: Cyclops has concussive rays that are always coming out of his eyes; he has to wear a visor or special glasses over them to hold them back. He must always have a headache. That would explain a lot, actually. The Angel has wings and... that's it. Iceman is basically the Human Torch but with ice. The Beast is like an ape, with large hands and feet and superhuman agility, etc. Marvel Girl is telekinetic.

During training, the Angel is dodging giant clamps and Iceman is deflecting bowling balls. Marvel Girl floats a book. It's like that. She also calls it "teleportation" because Stan Lee is overworked.

:: I'm not entirely thrilled with the depiction of Marvel Girl especially. Before we even see her, Professor X introduces her as "a most attractive young lady." They do have a scene where she twirls Hank around to show us she can take care of herself, but most of the interest in her revolves around her looks. The guys come on so strong, even peeking around the corner to watch her change into her uniform, which is treated more as just bad manners than anything else. It's tiresome. It's bad enough no one really has a personality--they have a group dynamic, but not personalities.

:: I think the "snowman" version of Iceman is kind of fun. Bobby even lampshades it.

:: Magneto's "Surrender, Dorothy" moment:

I just love the signature in cursive. That's just... too good.

:: A couple of neat demonstrations of Magneto's control of magnetic forces: he causes one guard's trigger to lock in place, and another one's gun to weigh too much to be lifted. It's neat variations like that that make his power more interesting than just pulling metal around.

:: Hated and feared...

...well, not yet, anyway. But eventually.

:: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are obviously a bit overworked on this one. In addition to the comics they worked on that I went through this month, Stan Lee also wrote five other comics I didn't even mention (Kid Colt, Outlaw #112, Millie the Model #116, Modeling with Millie #25, Two-Gun Kid #65, and possibly Patsy Walker #109). Paul Reinman does a fine job inking Kirby's pencils, but with the grand exception of the book's best sequence (in my opinion)--Magneto's conquest of the military base--the artwork feels like it was rushed. I think part of the problem, for me, is that the book doesn't feel completely finished. There was a lot of stuff going on at this time, in particular getting out Avengers #1 and that epic Fantastic Four Annual and the longer story in Strange Tales Annual. Jack Kirby clearly had a lot of demands on his time.

Now, add that to some of the story problems and some of the concepts and characters that just aren't as fleshed out as they could be... well, like I said, the potential is there. But right now it's just not grabbing me.

But there's a lot more to come.

Next time: Doctor Doom tries to get the better of Spider-Man!

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