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Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s X-Men – X-Men Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Wolverine later in the month, we’re taking a look at some classic X-Men and Wolverine comics every Monday, Wednesday and Friday here. I’m also writing a series of reviews of the classic X-Men television show at comicbuzz every weekday, so feel free to check those out.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are the architects of the shared Marvel Universe. The pair collaborated on titles like The Fantastic Four, The Avengers and Thor – helping reinvent American comic books during the sixties. The comics redefined what superheroes could be, honing in on the changing sensibilities of the era. However, not every series was a run-away success. Not every idea worked from the very first issue.

The X-Men are one of the most iconic bunch of superheroes in existence. They have had everything from blockbuster films to celebrated cartoon shows. However, they had a rocky start. The book limped along through its first years of publication, never quite connecting with its audience. Indeed, the book almost died a quiet death in the early seventies, before writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum revived the team for a relaunched Giant-Sized X-Men. After that, Wein handed the book over to Chris Claremont, who really defined the book and its characters during an extended run on the title.

Reading these early issues, from Lee and Kirby, it’s quite clear that the X-Men aren’t working. There’s a lot of stilted awkwardness to the stories, as Lee and Kirby try to find a compelling hook for the team. They come quite close – it’s surprising how close at times – but it’s easy to see why the premise took so long to catch on.

To me, my X-Men!

To me, my X-Men!

Indeed, an indicator of the minimal impact of these early comics can be seen in the fact that the franchise’s most iconic and recognisable character – Wolverine – does not appear at all. The version of Magneto presented by Lee and Kirby feels like a shallow imitation of the version that has wormed its way into popular consciousness thanks to the work of Chris Claremont, Bryan Singer, Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender.

Even when the blockbuster film series went back into the swinging sixties with X-Men: First Class, very little directly carried over – aside from the technicolour uniforms. Beast, Xavier and Magneto are the only characters who appear in both Lee and Kirby’s original comics and X-Men: First Class, an indicator of just how little impact these very early comics have had in shaping or defining the X-Men as a team.

A bit of a creep...

A bit of a creep…

Rather pointedly, the only X-Men film to feature all five of the students featured here is X-Men III. Even then it seems like the character of Angel was included out of a sense of completionism rather than any interest in his character, abilities or personality. There’s no denying that these comics laid out many of the tropes and conventions that we associate with the X-Men, but there’s something decidedly clumsy about the execution. There’s obvious potential in Lee and Kirby’s work, but the book doesn’t seem to be reaching that potential.

Reading the comics, several problems become quite obvious. The most obvious is that the creative team feel somewhat hindered by the premise. The idea of “mutants” is fascinating, even if Lee has joked on occasion that it was primarily intended to spare him the hassle of coming up with origins for every character. However, the notion of “mutants” somewhat restricts the scope of these early X-Men comics, where it seems like the time’s purview is explicitly limited to matters related to mutants.

X-actly what it says on the tin!

X-actly what it says on the tin!

Magneto dominates these early comics. He keeps showing up. He’s like a bad rash that won’t go away. He’s planning on detonating nuclear bombs, monologuing relentlessly and generally scheming to such a ridiculous degree that he needs a moustache. He returns time and time again, always going head-to-head with X-Men and always losing. There are a few cases where the X-Men don’t definitively defeat him, but Magneto is never allowed enough of a victory to seem like a threat when he’s trotted out so regularly.

Of course, this is the early version of Magneto, so he’s very much characterised as a two-dimensional comic book villain. There are faint traces and hints at future characterisation here, but nothing too concrete. Lee and Kirby allow Magneto to at least believe he’s fighting a race war for the survival of mutant kind. “Have I not told you,” Magneto warns Quicksilver, “they are merely homo sapiens — they would kill us if they could! We only fight in self-defence!” He recalls rescuing the Scarlet Witch from an angry mob.

Bringing down the house...

Bringing down the house…

At the same time, he’s far from sympathetic. He actively self-identifies his band of terrorists as “evil.” He is constantly plotting nuclear annihilation. He plots and schemes for the advancement of his own power, not even trying to hide it in the rhetoric of the struggle against oppression. The conflict between Charles and Magneto is simplistic. There’s none of the nuance later interpretations would add. Charles wants to use his powers to help. Magneto would use his to destroy.

“We must use our powers to bring about a golden age on Earth — side by side with ordinary humans!” Charles pleads. Instead, in imagery that probably heavily influenced Grant Morrison’s New X-Men take on the character, Magneto conquers an entire country and builds his own decidedly Nazi-esque secret police (branded with an “M” rather than a Swastika) and proceeds to enforce his view of racial superiority. It’s a moment which seems beautifully ironic given Claremont’s work on the character, and Morrison’s Planet X arc reads as an attempt to play these images off one another. (It doesn’t quite work, though.)

Teen team...

Teen team…

So the early comics fall into a pretty bland pattern. Magneto and the X-Men both discover a mutant, and clash over that mutant as they attempt to recruit that mutant to their respective causes. When Lee and Kirby want to include a guest appearance from Namor, a Golden Age character who had been popping up regularly in Silver Age Marvel, they decide to make him a mutant so he’ll fit in. Namor reacts well to the retcon, acknowledging that it sorta fits. “Why has the thought never occurred to me before??” he ponders.

The implication is that Magneto is a mutant problem and – as such – is the kind of thing that the X-Men should be dealing with. The hook is a nice one: the X-Men exist to protect humanity from mutant threats. Don’t think too much about the implications of that idea. As the wonderful Colin Smith has argued, it does a lot to undermine the “mutants as minority” metaphor, implying that somehow the onus is on the minority to prove their lack of malice to the majority – rather than daring to suggest that maybe the majority shouldn’t be so damn racist in the first place.

Xavier the moment...

Xavier the moment…

In his excellent articles on the run, Smith observes:

At their least effective and most confused, Lee and Kirby’s X-Men stories seem to suggest that it’s in large part the responsibility of the mutants to prove that they’re good Americans. Though the X-Men are entirely blameless when it comes to the matter of being exemplary citizens of the Nation, the only method which they’re shown having access to in order to fight for their civil rights is self-sacrifice in service of the public good. Even as Lee and Kirby’s work clearly deplores bigotry in all its forms, there’s no mention at all of any structural reasons for the anti-mutant prejudice beyond one example of the press being all-too-quick to listen to an “expert’s” fears about a supposed coming war between Homo Superior and Homo Sapien. Instead of suggesting that discrimination is a social fact which serves the interests of profoundly powerful groups, and in the absence of the expectation that the state has to be a – if not the – major player in policing bigoted behaviour, the X-Men are reduced to attempting to win Americans over one by one through good and dangerous deeds.

It’s a little counter-intuitive, and it undermines what should be the central hook of the comic – the notion of a bunch of teenage outsiders.

Sadly, it was Juggernaut to be...

Sadly, it was Juggernaut to be…

Of course, reading the original X-Men comics, the team don’t really seem like outsiders. They are all perfectly capable of “passing”, of disguising their ethnic identity in order to fit in. Beast can bind his feet. Angel can wear a corset hiding his wings. Scott wears a set of ruby sunglasses. Iceman can hide his ice form at will. Living in a posh private school in upstate New York, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that the X-Men of this era had little real appreciation of racism.

The group might encounter an angry mob in the streets, but only after they exposed themselves. They could always retreat to the safety of Xavier’s school, and throw on their posh suits before going out for a night on the town. In one of the more interesting little touches of the comic, the team are shown to frequent the beatnik establishments in New York’s Greenwich Village. It’s a rather nice nod to counter-culture, an acknowledgement of something outside the mainstream, and something that resonates with the X-Men.

A beast of a hero...

A beast of a hero…

However, the depiction of this counter-culture is decidedly white and middle-class, with little appreciation for the ethnic diversity which encouraged the development of this particular branch of youth culture. It’s something that Chris Claremont would really hone in on when he took over the book – the notion that a book about prejudice and subculture should probably not focus exclusively on the experience of upper-class white kids who can afford posh private schools.

Anyway, the mutant focus tends to fence Lee and Kirby in quite a bit – something the scripts acknowledge. When the team tackles the non-mutant threat of Lucifer in Enter, The Avengers!, they find themselves competing with the Avengers for jurisdiction. When the Avenegrs back off, Xavier seems to struggle with how exactly his team should deal with a non-mutant threat. “Because we X-Men are pledged never to cause injury to a human being — no matter what provocation! It is enough that you have been defeated for the first time in you evil career!”

Night of the Sentinels...

Night of the Sentinels…

So Charles Xavier lets the genocidal maniac go, because he’s not a mutant and Xavier has no idea how to deal with these things. It doesn’t even occur to Xavier to hand Lucifer over to the authorities. When Xavier requests the assistance of the Human Torch to deal with the Juggernaut, his students seem hesitant to accept the help of an outsider. In The Coming of Ka-zar, when new reports of Ka-zar flood in, the team is so anxious to meet him that they feel the need to justify their involvement.

Jean wonders aloud, “That wild man… like a latter-day Tarzan… in that frigid climate without protective clothes! Could he be…?” Hank finishes the thought for her, “He must be!! A mutant!” It turns out that he isn’t, and Xavier lets them go anyway. However, the very fact that the team have to justify getting involved by arguing he might be a mutant suggests how tight the focus of the book is. It makes it feel frustratingly formulaic.

In the future, mutants oppress you!

In the future, mutants oppress you!

Lee and Kirby seem to feel the same way. It isn’t too long before they try to banish Magneto from the book, perhaps realising that the mutant menace is becoming a bit repetitive and that the X-Men comic needs to broaden its focus a bit. Magneto is abducted by an alien named the Stranger, in a rather surreal twist. The Stranger vows, almost directly to the audience, “We shall never return!” Having your primary antagonist pulled into space seems a very clear attempt to send a message.

Indeed, Magneto has become such a regular feature of the comic that even Scott questions if the team can survive without him. “Will this mean — disbanding the X-Men, sir?” Scott asks. Although Magneto returns to Earth again before the end of Lee and Kirby’s run, it’s interesting that removing Magneto encourages the duo to experiment a bit. It allows the pair to introduce the Sentinels, and to explore the idea of human villains (rather than exclusively mutant villains) targeting the team.

I believe in angels...

I believe in angels…

Lee and Kirby are on to something here, and the Sentinels are the closest that their X-Men run seems to come to capturing the raw allegorical power that Claremont would channel into the comic. Trask’s rhetoric (“the fanatic,” as Lee describes him the closing text) is decidedly pointed. He speaks in language associated with the Communist witch hunts of the late fifties. Xavier even explicitly describes it as “a witch-hunt for mutants!”

“We’ve been so busy worrying about cold wars, hot wars, atom bombs and the lime, that we’ve overlooked the greatest menace of all!” Trask warns reporters. “Mutants walk among us! Hidden! Unknown! Waiting –!” There’s something quite potent in that imagery, and particularly in how the crowds respond to Xavier’s televised debate with Trask. There’s a decidedly anti-intellectual slant to the comments offered on Xavier, as one viewer ponders, “Aww, what does an egg-headed old stuffed-shirt like him know?” Another notes, “I never even heard of him!”

X-tra credit activities!

X-tra credit activities!

Lee steers clear of overtly politicising the debate by having characters dismiss Xavier as either a communist or a right-winger. And there’s a clear sense that Lee and Kirby don’t want to suggest anything too controversial. Trask is very clearly intended to be a lone fanatic who somehow managed to build a giant robot army without any state funding or support. Among Us Stalk… The Sentinels doesn’t even dare to suggest the public might welcome Trask’s witch hunt.

When the police investigate, it’s clear the institutions of law enforcement are on the side of the X-Men. “Trask was a fool!” one officer protests. “No man has a right to take the law into his own hands!” Xavier is given inside access into the military operation to help contain the Sentinels by high-powered insiders in Washington. Lee and Kirby go out of their way to stress that the X-Men couldn’t possibly be victims of state-sanctioned oppression. There’s a clear hesitance to push the issue or challenge the reader.

X-Men of action...

X-Men of action…

While it’s the first time that we get a sense of the power of prejudice, it is a very shallow exploration. Still, it serves as something of a blueprint for decades of X-Men stories, many of which were more willing to engage with the politics of prejudice than Lee and Kirby. Indeed, despite the lovably zany dialogue from the robotic Sentinels (“show them no quarter! attack! attack!”) and the convenient deus ex machina ending, the trilogy of Sentinel stories holds up as the best story in Lee and Kirby’s run and – given how radically Magneto would grow in the years ahead – probably the most influential.

It’s proof that there’s some fascinating material here, and that the X-Men could be something truly memorable and iconic. There are moments where the series seems to hit on pop culture preoccupations of the fifties. Xavier is a veteran of the Korean War. The X-Men hang out in Greenwich Village. There’s also a fascination with atomic power and nuclear energy. The Vanisher is stealing nuclear defence plans.

Watching out for the world...

Watching out for the world…

Magneto seems particularly fixated on the idea of nuclear apocalypse. His first appearance has the villain stealing nuclear weapons. After he occupies a country, he plans to destroy it using a nuclear bomb. “In ten minutes this will be a wasteland!” he vows, all fire and brimstone. Although it’s never explicitly suggested in the text, it’s interesting to imagine that Magneto’s fixation on raw nuclear power reflects his interest in mutants. After all, mutants are (heavily implied to be) the literal children of the atom.

Xavier’s father was killed in a nuclear blast, and Charles suggests that it might be the source of his powers, “powers which must have been caused by all the radiation my parents had been exposed to a the nuclear research centre before I was born!” The most intellectual of the X-Men has a similar theory. Beast explains, “My father was — an ordinary labourer — at an atomic project! I probably gained my power — due to radiation — which affected him before I was born! I’ll never — know for sure!”

Headline news...

Headline news…

Linking mutation to the splitting of the atom is a clever way of tying the social anxiety about nuclear weapons into the comic. It has since been brushed aside by later explorations of the history of mutant power, but anchoring the gifts of these young people with the harnessing of the atomic power provides a vehicle to explore America’s anxiety about the bomb. The harnessing of such unnatural forces was bubbling beneath the surface, and the idea that post-war America was built on the strength of “the bomb” was an unsettling one.

It gives Lee and Kirby’s X-Men a rather pointed a potent undercurrent. It also allows the comic to feel like a spiritual successor to all those atomic horror stories of the fifties, when atomic research would inevitably produce monsters fixated on consuming and destroying humanity. Here, the X-Men are not monsters, but they are shaped and defined and changed by the very existence of nuclear weapons. They can pretend to live normal lives, but things are different than they were before.

Down, but not out...

Down, but not out…

That said, X-Men never quite delivers on this premise, despite the set-up. Instead of trying to play to what makes the X-Men unique, it often feels like Lee is simply going through familiar motions. After all, The Amazing Spider-Man was a massive success because it imagined a teenage superhero. One suspects that Lee expected the X-Men to work just by virtue of featuring a team of mutant superheroes.

It doesn’t work as well. It’s tempting to suggest that Jack Kirby simply wasn’t as interested in teenage angst as Steve Ditko was, and that’s why the teenage cast of X-Men never feels as real as Peter Parker did. Lee draws his archetypes in the broadest possible terms. Cyclops is tight and repressed, and probably the best-defined team member. Even then, he feels rather shallow, as we’re repeatedly told that he’s “so grim — so unsmiling” because of his “dread power.”

They've experienced their chair of danger...

They’ve experienced their chair of danger…

He seems to resent his team mates. When Angel dares to have fun, Scott is quick to throw a wet blanket over it. “But one day he’ll realise this is no game we’re playing, but a grim, life-and-death struggle!” Iceman, the trickster of the bunch, observes, “Boy! Wotta grouch! That guy thinks it’s a sin to smile or have any fun!” It’s hardly the most nuanced of portrayals, but it is the best defined of the five students. It’s easy to see why Scott remains the most prominent member of the cast featured here.

Outside of Scott, the team is mostly two-dimensional cut-outs. Angel is the rich, handsome and dapper one. Beast is an intellectual. Iceman is the joking kid. Jean Grey is the girl. Just in case any readers forget that they are reading comics from the sixties, Jean is assigned her own training tasks, special suited to her talents. While Iceman, Beast and Angel jump through hoops and dodge fire, Jean is given “special assignments”, including opening a box and cutting cake. At one point, Scott urges, “Careful, now! Let’s see how quickly you can run the thread through the punch-board in a regular pattern!”

X-appeal...

X-appeal…

As the token girl, Jean spends most the series being pursued in one of Lee’s most half-hearted triangles. Angel wants her. She wants Scott. Scott has angst. It’s fleetingly brought up, but there’s no real suspense. Perhaps the biggest indicator of how Lee misreads the set-up is his decision to have Xavier develop a crush on Jean. (Which Robert Kirkman would use during his Ultimate X-Men run.) Xavier laments there can never be anything between them. Partially because he’s her teacher, but also because (in another wonderful reminder of the political correctness of the sixties) he is “confined to this wheelchair.”

Still, even outside of developing a romantic obsession with a girl he has taught from when she was a child, Lee and Kirby’s Xavier seems a little bit dodgy. It’s easy enough to extrapolate the morally ambiguous versions of the character written by Ed Brubaker or Mark Millar or Jane Goldman from the version introduced here. Part of it is the whole “making teenagers jump through death traps” thing, or the “recruiting kids as a personal paramilitary” schtick, but there are other weird moments that make Xavier seem, to quote Kitty Pride, like a jerk.

Quite an outfit...

Quite an outfit…

When one of the mutants located by Magneto and Xavier refuses to join the school, Xavier warns, “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!” That’s a little creepy. Makes you wonder what happened to all the other mutants who refused his invitation. At another point, it seems like Xavier has lost his mental powers. “Poor Professor X!” Beast observes, in a charmingly racist sort of way. “How lamentable that his once-brilliant super-brain is now merely that of a normal human’s!”

The consequences of this loss are obvious. “If the Professor never regains his power, we’ll be on our own next time!” Cyclops laments. “But — are we strong enough without him?” So the X-Men engage in a deadly mission into outer space to fight Magneto, without the assistance or supervision of their mentor. When they return home, Xavier has some great news. “I never lost it!” he exclaims. “I only pretended to, after our first battle with the evil mutants!”

That's Namoré!

That’s Namoré!

To be fair, Xavier did help them a little with his powers, but there’s something decidedly creepy about the whole rouse, and the willingness with which Xavier was willing to let his students put their lives at risk. “Well, you’ve all just taken your final exam… just as I planned it! And I’m proud to say that you’ve all passed with flying colours!!” That’s good to know. Why do these kids trust Xavier again? I can understand why Mark Millar played with the idea that Xavier was using his power to manipulate them.

Lee and Kirby’s X-Men struggles with the fact that it isn’t really a conventional superhero book. For example, the pair never seem entirely certain about what to do with secret identities. Are they an issue for the team? The group disguises themselves as human when they go into New York, and Xavier tries to pass as human. However, their social circle is pretty much restricted to themselves, so it makes the secret identities just a little moot.

Just in the (beat)nik of time!

Just in the (beat)nik of time!

As a result, whenever Lee falls back on the old “secret identity” schtick, it feels a little like an afterthought. It feels like an attempt to play a conventional superhero cliché even though there’s no need for it in this set-up. The comic is unclear about how much the various parents know or care about their children’s gifts. Jean’s parents seem oblivious to her talents, while Hank McCoy’s parents are heartwarmingly proud. However, these are only fleetingly raised, and so it feels awkward when Lee tries to leverage the secret identities of the X-Men for an emotional hook.

In … And None Shall Survive, Xavier remarks, “Their parents! The one weak link in our chain of security! If any deadly enemy of ours ever captured one of my X-Men’s parents, what a hold he would have over us!” Several times, the school’s secret is threatened with exposure by the villain of the issue. Xavier hides his mutation from those around him. However, this raises all sorts of questions about mutant integration and social “passing”, so treating it as a conventional superhero identity crisis seems a little shallow.

Talk about magnetism...!

Talk about magnetism…!

In a way, this is indicative of the problems facing the Lee and Kirby run. The X-Men set-up is radically different from that of other team books like The Avengers or The Fantastic Four. However, it seems like Lee and Kirby aren’t quite sure what to do with that. There’s a sense that the book – rather than playing to its strengths – frequently tries too hard to emulate more traditional comic books. These early issues seem to search desperately for their own identity.

You might enjoy our reviews of other early X-Men runs:

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3 Responses

  1. Really excellent, detailed analysis. I have read some, but not all, of the Lee & Kirby issues. I agree, while they are okay and show a certain amount of promise, the series never comes together anywhere near as successfully as the pair’s now-legendary collaboration on Fantastic Four. As you say, there are a number of seeds for good stories, but it took other writers such as Roy Thomas, Chris Claremont, and Louise Simonson to really make them bare fruit.

  2. While this rum is severely flawed, Stan Lee is so enthusiastic and Jack Kirby is so talented that these comics are still blindly entertaining. I think a lot of the flaws just come from how it doesn’t resemble Claremont’s run and what it tries to do it does poorly. That said, being entertaining is one of the two biggest compliments I can give any comic. Besides, this is from the Silver Age, there is FAR worse.

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