Nathan Kiehn is a blogger at Keenlinks, a contributor at Geeks Under Grace, and the author of "The Gray Guard" ebook trilogy on Amazon.
Saved From X-tinction
In September of 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby—co-creators of Marvel’s famed Fantastic Four—loosed a new superteam on the unsuspecting world: The X-Men! Mutant teenagers born with special abilities, the five youngsters—team leader Cyclops (Scott Summers), Iceman (Bobby Drake), Angel (Warren Worthington III), Marvel Girl (Jean Grey), and the Beast (Hank McCoy)—trained under the tutelage of Professor Charles Xavier, himself a mutant; for several years, the team crossed swords with fiendish foes such as Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the Juggernaut, the Blob, and the Sentinels, protecting a world that otherwise hated them. After Lee and Kirby departed after the 19th issue, writer Roy Thomas took over and, with a host of artists, narrated the team’s adventures until March 1970.
Due to flagging sales, X-Men halted all publication of new material, switching over to a reprint format until 1975. In May of that year, writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum introduced a brand new team of mutant heroes. This diverse group of superhumans would go on to become one of Marvel’s flagship groups, producing best-selling stories and launching the X-Men from ho-hum has-beens to superstars.
And it all started with this issue.
"Second Genesis" Credits
In With the New . . .
From the ashes of the old arose the new.
When the X-Men first debuted, they’d been little more than five white teenagers (four young men, one young woman) drawn together under the auspices of Professor X, a man with a vision of doomsday for mutant-kind if humanity’s beliefs weren’t turned around. Under his guidance, the teens trained and fought villainous evildoers, growing as a team and as individuals.
Lee and Thomas, by turns, could provide some sloppy dialogue, and the artistic talents of Jack Kirby and others paled in comparison to Neal Adams’ later illustrations. Xavier’s original band of merry mutants weren’t even provided with origin stories--they merely existed, thrust into a world they were told despised them for their differences. The intention, spelled somewhat clearly, was for the X-Men to become a parable for racial injustice, a minority looked down upon and persecuted yet righteous in their own way.
As some reviewers have criticized, these initial mutant members could easily retire to Xavier’s mansion if public opinion became too heated. Angel could fold his wings behind him; Iceman could defrost; Cyclops hid his devastating eye-beams under ruby quartz glasses. The parallels between these young teens and the minorities they supposedly represented seemed minute, perhaps half-baked.
Wein and Cockrum turn that concept around in this issue—a giant-sized spectacular that proudly sweeps aside the old team and installs a new group of heroes. In place of the five American teens, Wein and Cockrum offer an African woman commonly seen as a goddess; a Native American man living on a mid-Western reservation; a German-born circus performer whose blue, fuzzy skin convince an angry mob he’s a demon; a Russian farmer whose body can transform into nigh-invincible metal; and a Canadian secret agent whose past remained shrouded in mystery, as hidden as the adamantium claws within his hands.
Diversity is quickly injected into the book, and though not each of the new characters is hunted and hated for their abilities and appearances, Wein and Cockrum offer the potential. Tensions still exist at the heart of their story.
Instead of herding our heroes together from the start, Wein specifically has Professor X visit each character, including Banshee and Sunfire (created by Roy Thomas in earlier issues); the mental-mastery mutant is in full-on recruitment mode, offering characters a place on a new team of heroes. He has something to offer them, not just some prophetic vision of a grim future.
To Storm (Ororo), he offers a real world outside her homeland; to Wolverine (Logan), he offers a future free from government oversight; and to Nightcrawler (Kurt Wagner), he offers a home away from the screaming, raging mobs hunting his head. These opening sequences are penned masterfully by Wein, who seeks to explore his characters as people before joining them together as heroes.
Nightcrawler has needs, Storm has needs . . . each character is given personality traits and desires to guide their initial steps under Xavier. Unlike the old team, which was introduced as a unit on the very first page of Lee and Kirby’s inaugural issue, this new group is given room to breathe, space to become familiar to the audience.
. . . With a Place for the Old
The entire issue bears a true “passing the torch” feel to it, especially in later sequences when the new team embarks on their first mission: rescue the original X-Men. The particulars of Wein’s plot—involving a sentient island called Krakoa—are certainly engaging, heightened by Cockrum’s pencils, but feel secondary to Wein’s deeper intentions.
Living forestry and deadly fauna are fun and all for a superhero comic, but the island is merely the backdrop for our new team to pull themselves together and work alongside one another. Storm and Colossus rescue one another, foreshadowing their later friendship, and Wolverine and Banshee do quick work on some overgrown wildlife. The old team is handily rescued by the new, and though members such as Polaris (Lorna Dane) and Havok (Alex Summers, Scott’s brother) pull their weight, the emphasis is placed on the newbies. Without them, the old team would still be caught in a tangle of mutant underbrush.
Plenty of familiar material remains for old fans to cling to, particularly those who may have excitedly purchased their first new X-Men comic in close to five years. Cyclops remains the stolid team leader, perhaps tempered by time, as Wein depicts him far differently than the teenager he was in earlier issues.
Havok and Polaris are welcome returning faces, and Wein reminds readers of the relationship between the two mutants. Iceman gets the chance to perform some fancy craftsmanship, saving his teammates late in the issue. Sunfire and Banshee, too, are wonderful nods to Thomas’ work; Wein’s characterization of the two is remarkably different from Thomas’ take—Banshee was originally a villain, Sunfire a misguided young man—but their progression feels natural.
Cockrum’s designs for the characters, particularly Banshee, nicely indicate the passing of time. “Growth” exists for new characters as well as old, as if Wein studied the original comics and wondered how the old team would have changed in the years since their last issue.
But the newcomers are the primary reason to pick this issue up. Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, and Nightcrawler in particular go on to play massive roles over the course of the series for the next several years under Chris Claremont’s watchful gaze. “What are we gonna do with thirteen X-Men?” a character questions at issue’s end, setting up the next issue’s response: not much! Such a question is an open invitation to writers like Wein and Claremont, to pare down the team.
Spoiler, but the old X-Men (or most of them) don't stick around for very long. A new, diverse cast has been created and boldly inserted into this powerful opening issue. The series may still say “X-Men” but the roster isn't the same—these characters, in 1975, were new, exciting, fresh . . . and they'd go on to become one of Marvel's most powerhouse sellers, not only on the page but on the large and little screens as well.
Make Mine Mutant
© 2021 Nathan Kiehn