Essential X-Men Volume 1 Review

Nearly four decades ago, Marvel began publication of a comic book called The X-Men. The book starred a group of super-powered heroes called mutants who were born with super-powers and who lived in world where they were feared, loathed, and persecuted by normal humans. As the 1960s progressed, the sales for the book were constantly in a state of flux, which ultimately caused Marvel to pull the plug on the title after 66 issues. The book would have been a forgotten footnote in the history of Marvel if the company’s sales department had not noticed (after the book was cancelled and its creative team scattered out working on other projects) that X-Men had been undergoing a massive increase in sales in it’s last year of existence and that by the time that the axe fell, the X-Men was one of Marvel’s top selling titles. Marvel brought the book back a year later, but rather than tell new stories Marvel opted to reprint earlier issues with no plans to tell any new stories featuring the team. As the book slowly continued on reprinting older stories from the book’s run through the early 1970s, Marvel decided that it was time to revive the book and to give the X-Men franchise a complete and total make-over in the bid to revive the long suffering book. And by the time they were done, Marvel would have one of the top selling titles of all times and would have a book that would rival Spiderman as being the comic that people immediately associate with Marvel Comics.

The Essential X-Men Volume 1 reprints Giant Sized X-Men #1 and The Uncanny X-Men #94-119. Inside the book we are introduced to the second generation of X-Men: the adamantium clawed Wolverine, the furry, almost elf-like teleporter Nightcrawler, the weather controlling mutant Goddess Storm, the metal skinned strongman Colossus, and the sonic screamer Banshee. Recruited along with the hot-tempered Japanese mutant Sunfire and the obnoxious Thunderbird, the new X-Men are sent on a mission to rescue the original X-Men after they go MIA during a recruiting mission that goes horribly wrong. The rescue mission (which is featured in Giant Sized X-Men #1) goes off without a hitch and serves as a catalyst for the original X-Men (minus Cyclops) to decide to leave the X-Men and ushers in a new era for the X-Men.

The bulk of the stories collected in this trade paperback are written by long-time X-Men scribe Chris Claremont, who would write the title for over 15 years and be given the distinction of being the man who defined the X-Men for several generations of readers. His way of revitalizing the X-Men involved abandoning the social commentary aspect of his predecessors had instilled into the title and instead wrote the X-Men as a straight-forward non-stop action adventure with character exploration and development stories occurring between adventures. Claremont’s stories are often large scale adventures against a variety of foes and threats that ranges from established X-Men villains Magneto, the Sentinels, and Juggernaut to new threats such as the star spanning Shi’ar and the demonic N’Garai. Claremont builds up his storylines in grand fashion: the Shi’ar Empire Saga is given a slow but sure build-up over the course of eleven issues before coming to an end in climatic fashion and gives birth to another storyline (the legendary “Dark Phoenix Saga”, which is presented in Essential X-Men Volume 2)

With a collection of all new characters at his disposal (save for Wolverine and Banshee, who had been created by other writers and had floated in limbo for several years before becoming resurfacing in Giant Sized X-Men #1), Claremont creates a roster of characters with unique personalities which touched a chord with the books audience. People related to the emotionally reserved Storm or Colossus, the strong man of the X-Men with the soul of an artist, and the laughing on the outside while angst-riddled on the inside Nightcrawler. But Claremont’s strongest work would be the development of Wolverine. Originally a one-dimensional government agent, Claremont developed the Canadian hero as a striking contradiction of the human soul: the smart mouthed fighter who was not afraid to use deadly violence against his enemies and openly contradict team leader Cyclops but hiding a deep unrequited love for Marvel Girl, who would undergo a major changes as she would be transformed from the meek Marvel Girl into the fiery, all-powerful Phoenix. Jean Grey’s transformation becomes a running theme in the stories collected inside this trade paperback as we see the groundwork being laid for Jean Grey’s eventual seduction into the darkness and her transformation into the psychotic and genocidal Dark Phoenix.

Further adding to the distinction of the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men was the team’s multicultural nature. With the exception of Cyclops and Marvel Girl, the new X-Men hailed from across the globe with Ireland, Africa, Germany, the Soviet Union, and Canada all contributing members to the team. This was totally unheard of at it’s time, as nearly all comic books in the 1970s featured only featured foreign characters mainly as glorified token characters. This struck a chord with many readers and led to the X-Men reaching to a larger fanbase than it did before.

The artwork for this collection is a striking contrast in style and is presented in black and white (which is the trade-off for this collection and the rest of the Essential TPB line, in that reprinting the issues in black and white allows Marvel to sell the book at a low price and to include an unheard of 25 issues into this volume). The Essential X-Men Volume 1 features the artwork of Dave Cockrum (who designed the bulk of the All-New, All-Different X-Men for Marvel) and John Byrne, whose work on the X-Men would catapult him to the level of superstar in the comic book industry. Dave Cockrum’s artwork is your standard super-hero art, that is neither horrific to look at but doesn’t outright grab you when you look at it even when reprinted in black and white. John Byrne’s art does outright grab you with its intense detail and in a black and white format has a Japanese manga-esque flavor to it.

With the recent push by Marvel to make the X-Men accessible to new readers, The Essential X-Men Volume 1 is a perfect started point for new readers who seek to explore the X-Men’s rich if not sometimes convoluted history. Though it bears zero resemblance to the present day X-Men, it serves as an excellent entry for new readers to learn about the book’s rich history as well as for long-time readers who may not have read these key stories before.