The X-Men #4, March 1964

“I am wiring two bombs! One will be placed at this door, to booby-trap it and destroy them when they enter! As for the other, that one will be a nuclear bomb, capable of blowing up this entire nation!”

Central Conflict: X-Men vs. the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants

Breakout Character: Quicksilver

BOEM

Up to this point, each issue of The X-Men has been a “monster of the week” style-dust up with a solo villain—Magneto, the Vanisher, the Blob—but now, Magneto is back and he’s leading a coterie of evil mutants calling themselves the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (what else would they call themselves?, I suppose).

Because the X-Men never do anything besides train and banter with one another, the issue begins in, where else, the Danger Room. After a typically sadistic session (“That’s a red hot cauldron below you! Protect yourself!”), the narrative shifts elsewhere to a similar team of five mutants. But these, wait for it, are evil! How do we know they’re evil? Because where the X-Men are clean, young Americans, uniformed in gold and blue, these are warty, European-types with names like Toad and the Scarlet Witch. They banter and argue just like the X-Men until interrupted by their own leader, Magneto. Admonishments administered, it’s back to business for the BOEM. That business? Stealing a convoy freighter and traveling to the South American nation of San Marco.

Mastermind conjures an illusory army to march into town and cow the locals. But the real magic comes in the expository narration that explains “Within a short amount of time, Magneto seizes the reins of government and loses no time in forming a real army modeled after the imaginary one created by Mastermind.” So, now that the army is—somehow—flesh and blood (I mean really, how did this happen? Did he reoutfit the San Marco army? Did he recruit or dragoon local mercenaries?) the X-Men have villains to fight.

marco

The X-Men seize the castle and defeat but, again, fail to capture Magneto and his crew. This time Xavier is injured in an explosion and rendered powerless. The issue ends, for the first time, on a decidedly sad note. “If the professor never regains his power, we’ll be on our own next time! But—are we strong enough without him?

After reading this issue, it’s easy to believe that Jack Kirby drew the art first without much guidance from a writer. Let’s take this illusory/actual army instance as an example. Literally, the reader sees Mastermind (an illusionist) conjure this phantom army out of thin air. And then, a couple of panels later, when the X-Men need dudes to fight, the army is real, physical, and human. This must be a glitch in the creative back and forth between Kirby and Lee. If it is a mistake (and it almost certainly is) then Lee covers it effortlessly, as in, literally, without any effort. But whatever, phantom armies are cool and the art is great.

real army

The X-Men #3, November 1963

“Didn’t expect the flying Zamboobas to tackle you this way, did you?”

Central conflict: The X-Men vs. The Blob and a cast of circus performers

Elephant Abuse:

elephant

At this point (Issue 3), the X-Men’s central purpose seems to be to detect and locate other mutants and absorb them into their team or battle them. When Xavier senses another mutant nearby, he deploys his squad to find and then… I don’t know, capture? this new one.

A brief and minor comedy act ensues. Dispersing through NYC, each X-Man tries to locate the new mutant. Cyclops discovers him as the centerpiece of a traveling circus freakshow. Who is it? The Blob. Standing squat, mean-faced and bloated, and possessed of an intense and pliable layer of fat, the Blob is an immovable object, impervious to bullets and put-downs. Angel is able to talk the Blob into returning with the team to Westchester where the X-Men reveal themselves, explain the nature of their team, and offer the Blob a spot on the roster, which he rejects. Here’s where it gets weird… “This is unheard of! No one has ever refused us before! You cannot be permitted to leave now that you know our identities—it is out of the question!”

pow

Xavier now needs, apparently, to “drive this memory from his mind.” So, after having sought out, finding and bringing Blob to their mansion, Xavier needs his team to physically arrest him so that he can give him the Vanisher treatment (Why Xavier could perform this feat from a distance on Vanisher and not on Blob is unexplained). Blob escapes back to his circus where, now engorged with pride (“Heck, if the X-Men want me, I must be hot stuff!”) he assumes control of the circus and launches an attack on the X-Men. The next panels are a riot of circus freaks on mutant action. Beast fights a gorilla, Iceman swings a mop at a giraffe, etc. When the dust clears, Xavier saves the day again by wiping the Blob’s memory (this is precisely the same treatment the Vanisher received an issue ago). The episode ends with a promise that the Blob’s memory may return and with it his vengeance.

So. Not much has been added to the forward momentum of X-Men continuity except for two subtle items. First, the Beast’s character has quietly undergone a transformation. He’s now being written as a brawny bookworm. Compare dialogue from issue 1: “Brrr! I don’t mind ice cubes, but I like ‘em in a coke, not ticklin’ my arm!” to dialogue from issue 3: “Far be it from me to doubt your veracity big man, but I prefer to learn things for myself!”

And secondly, WTF, Xavier is in love with Jean Grey?!

Prune

In a private thought bubble, Xavier agonizes, “As though I could help worrying about the one I love! But I can never tell her! I have no right! Not while I’m the leader of the X-Men, and confined to this wheelchair!” This shocker is never explained and no mention of it is made again in this issue. While this idea is more than vaguely lecherous and offensive to the Xavier legacy now, to an audience in 1963, reading about a new character and a new team, this would be a masterstroke. This provides the X-Men some cutting internal tension and serves as a big leap toward deepening this book and this team.

 

The X-Men #2, October 1963

“Silence! No talking!! Not until I conclude this presentation!”

Central conflict: The X-Men vs. The Vanisher

Fictional Film listed on theater marquee in a background: “A Teen-Ager’s Tears.”

tears

Fresh from their initial victory, Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Iceman and Angel aren’t short on pride or teenage superheated enthusiasm for everything. Whether they’re bickering, rescuing construction workers from a falling brick wall, or chasing one another around the Danger Room, they do it with cocksure aplomb and a spray of exclamation marks (“Fun time’s over, chickadees! This isn’t Sadie Hawkins Day!!”) Like your little brother’s friends, clearly, this is a squad of kids that needs to get the shit kicked out of them. On deck to administer that humiliation is a peacock of a weirdo called The Vanisher (Was Stan Lee fighting a crushing deadline here? Did he not have an extra one minute to think of a better name than the Vanisher?). Looking like a clowning Hunter S. Thomson and wearing a never-explained snake emblem on his chest, the Vanisher announces his plans to seize “Continental Defense” plans and sell them to the Communists unless the American Government pays him not to.

vanisher

After another round of training in the Danger Room (“My arms are killin’ me! But I’ve got to stay with it! Can’t flunk this test! Can’t!”) the X-Men are off to DC via an XV-1 Convertiplane to face off against the Vanisher, where they are soundly routed by his ability to…wait for it… vanish!

vanisher

Xavier calls an audible for his embarrassed and defeated X-men, and stepping in himself, telepathically causes the Vanisher to forget that he can vanish… or something. It’s a little unclear and a little underwhelming, but what’s important is that Xavier has come out of the shadows and displayed his ability to contribute as an active, wheels-on-the-ground team member.

Does the Vanisher ever return to X-Men continuity or does he do like his name does? The internet will tell me, but now, before I learn for myself, I’ll guess no, he’s gone for good. He’s a thin villain who doesn’t deserve a repeat performance. Besides, a remote lobotomy from Professor X is probably a career ending injury for supervillains.

*Note. What do you know? Apparently, it’s not.

The X-Men #1, September 1963

“The heat is so intense that even I cannot get close to it! I must walk carefully around it!”

Central conflict: X-Men vs. Magneto

Biggest surprise: Xavier a dick.

Tardiness

“Attention X-Men! This is Professor Xavier calling! Repeat: This is Professor X calling! You are ordered to appear at once! Class is now in session! Tardiness will be punished!”

Punished? Why and how?

In the first issue of The X-Men we witness the training and initial combat execution of the first iteration of an X-Men team. We meet Professor Xavier, Cyclops, Angel, Iceman, and The Beast. A WASPier team of mutants there never was. In the opening, exposition-packed panels, the X-Men train in the Danger Room with retro-futuristic equipment like balancing rods, medicine balls and an enormous, whipping wheel called a “spanner.” The team banters and brawls among flame jets and gymnasts’ rings, and everything comes to a sputtering stop when Marvel Girl arrives—petite, proper, scarfed and manicured (she’s touching her hair or hat about 50% of the time). Xavier says, “Boys, this is Jean Grey! She will be known as Marvel Girl!” Presumptuous to bestow a name like Marvel Girl on someone who hasn’t really done anything yet, no?

Jean

Now that Marvel Girl’s on the roster, there’s no time for her own training. A terrorist named Magneto has attacked Cape Citadel and is using his magnetic powers to wreck everything because he’s evil. How do we know Magneto is evil? Because he says things like “Wrong, General! I have all the time in the world! And now, I, the miraculous Magneto, claim this entire installation… in the name of Homo Superior!!”

Citadel

The final panels are about what you might expect. The X-Men colorfully dismantle the machinations of Magneto with powers perfectly suited to each challenge (Cyclops’ power beam blasts through a magnetic wall, Angel’s fancy wingwork diverts the heat-seeking missiles, and Ice Man makes with, what else, ice tricks). We end with Magneto’s defeat and escape to fight another day, as we all know he will.

PowerBeam

The issue closes with the narrator urging us not to miss the further adventures of the strangest superheroes of all. And what’s strange about all this is the lack of strangeness so far. In the first issue, it’s a little easy to imagine the X-Men as carbon copies of existing superheroes (The Beast and Ice Man in appearance and banter are pretty much just the Thing and the Human Torch, right?) But the creative process is a process, and the first issue of a series this long is probably not an even remotely accurate indicator of where this road will go. And it is a long road. What began in September, 1963 is going plenty strong today. This depthless and homogenous team of X-Men are about to have stunningly enduring careers as journeymen superheroes.

The X-Men and I are trying to work some things out.

Like hardcore drug use and street gang membership, the practice of comic book reading is a culthood into which you are inducted, always, by someone close to you. My recruiting officer was Chad Easton, pitcher on my fourth grade little league team. We knew each other from baseball but had bonded over our love of drawing. Chad was the one to take me into Comics Galore, the shop a few blocks down from his house, one town over.

Once inside the store, he didn’t mess around. He took me straight to the top shelf of superhero teams and, as he carefully explained who and what the X-Men were, he guided me into the turbulent and vivid prism of comic book fanhood that has been claiming souls since the 1930s. Of every colorful character and crack squad of superheroes, I would argue that the purest, most artful and effective riot of heroes and rogues is this team of mutants sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them.

xmencover1

Even if you’ve never read an issue of the X-Men, you still probably know who they are. Maybe your acquaintance with them is through the current film series, or the trilogy that begat it, or (like me) the stunningly sophisticated 90s animated TV show, or before that, the deep and weirdly mature comic books of the 80s, or before that, the revivalist, racially diverse X-Men team of the 70s, or, before that, the original, WASPY teenaged team of the 60s.

animated

After that first visit to Comics Galore, the X-Men universe was a colorful miasma I waded in throughout adolescence and early teenagerdom. Like many, I wavered as a young man and eventually fell out of the habit of reading comic books regularly. But, as they say of decades-long cigarette smokers, you never really quit. Throughout my late teens and early to mid-twenties, I drifted into the occasional comic book store, just to “check in” on the Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse universes. I wanted to know what was happening with Superman, what crises (infinite and finite) were befalling the Justice Leaguers and the Avengers, but my truest fan-self was always concerned with the X-Men. They were my family, long-estranged, but never fully divorced from my heart.

days of future

I’ve always felt like an X-Man (and that’s not B.S. It’s actually, kind of the central point of the X-Men. What preteen hasn’t ever felt like an outcast, a misfit, a reject glowing with a secret fire?). I’ve thrilled to their crossover events and epic crises. I’ve deeply admired the stoicism of Professor X, the social grace of Gambit, and others. I’ve loved and lusted after Rogue and Psylock. I’ve claimed expertise of their annals, understanding of their themes, appreciation of their relationships. But a thought niggles: Do I really know them? Do I really get it? Or do I just get my experience of the X-Men (absorbed through a relatively small window of mid-nineties comics, TV shows and a few back issues from before my time)? How can I proclaim the X-Men if I haven’t studied their history? How much of them do I really know? And how much have I simply constructed from the memories and images that have washed over me during the past two decades. What I aim to do here is answer that question. To revisit and study the X-Men and to learn about them, about 20th and 21st Century America, and fandom in general, issue by issue.