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Roy Thomas & Werner Roth’s X-Men – X-Men Omnibus, Vol. 1-2 (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.

The X-Men were not, to put it frankly, a comic book franchise that hit the ground running. Despite the considerable talent involved in their first nineteen issues, the comic struggled to find its own niche, unsure of just how far it dared to venture from the standard superhero template, and how confined it was by the whole “mutant superhero” bit. Writer Roy Thomas was tapped to take over the book when Stan Lee left.

Thomas is one of the underrated Silver Age writers. His work on The Avengers, spanning more than a half-a-decade, is arguably more influential and definitive than Lee’s original run on the title. He is responsible for The Kree-Skrull War, which remains one of the stronger early Avengers stories. He would work on X-Men twice before the book was finally cancelled. His second run, with Neal Adams pencilling, is arguably a lot stronger than his work here, which feels a little muddled and unfocused.

To be fair to Thomas, it’s quite clear that he recognised that the X-Men needed a shake-up and to find their own voice distinct from the initial run written by Lee and Kirby. Unfortunately, Thomas doesn’t seem entirely sure of what that voice is.

Lighten up, Charles!

Lighten up, Charles!

Although Lee had had Beast leave the X-Men for about ten pages (enough time to discover Unus the Untouchable), Thomas begins to toy in earnest with the idea of a shaking things up. Cyclops leaves the team here, although he’s back quickly enough. A few issues later, Jean goes to college. Mimic joins the team for a couple of issues. He introduces new uniforms. He avoids using Magneto as the book’s primary antagonist. (Rather pointedly, the character returns the very next issue after Thomas leaves.)

The run concludes with the biggest shift to date: The Death of Professor X. Although he (obviously) came back, Thomas claims in the introduction that Xavier was intended to stay dead. It’s clear that Thomas could see that the X-Men were not working, and that changes were sorely and desperately needed. One of the more charming aspects of his first run on X-Men is a willingness to shake things up and to try new things. There’s a willingness to experiment here which is quite charming, even if Thomas never quite figures out the formula for an entirely charming X-Men story.

The hills are alive, with the sound of Banshee!

The hills are alive, with the sound of Banshee!

His first story, I, Lucifer, can be read as something of a statement of intent by the author. Reading it following on from Lee and Kirby, it feels a lot tighter than their work on the title. The character Lucifer – the menace responsible for crippling Charles Xavier – returns. We get an origin story for Xavier. We open on two mutants framing the X-Men for a bank robbery, at least contextualising the anti-mutant prejudice that Thomas keeps bubbling away in the background (but never pushes quite to the fore) during his run.

It’s quite clear that Thomas doesn’t want to be anchored to the status quo. One of the most surprising things about these early X-Men comics – given how the franchise would expand in the decades ahead – is just how static the team roster is. The original six X-Men introduced in the very first issue are still team members forty issues later. Compared to the  foot traffic the roster would see during Claremont’s run, that makes the X-Men seem relatively dull. Even The Avengers were changing and shifting their roster fairly frequently.

Xavier's Red Skull...

Xavier’s Red Skull…

Thomas toys with the idea of changing things up. Scott Summers writes a retirement letter and wanders off into the sunset. Jean Grey gets pulled out the school by her parents. The team makes a couple of allies here and there, even if neither Mimic nor Bansheer become permanent members of the team. There’s an apocryphal quote from Stan Lee about comics offering “the illusion of change.” Thomas’ X-Men offered a particularly transparent illusion, but at least it makes an effort.

Thomas does hit upon the rather wonderful idea of giving his characters their own uniforms, which is a nice way of giving each their own identity. (It also makes them look a bit more like a conventional superhero team – which Thomas seems to be trying to do – and less like a bunch of child soldiers.) Xavier makes a good case for the change, arguing, “It’s time they looked like individuals — not products of an assembly line.” Given how generic the original cast could seem, it’s a nice decision.

Explosive action...

Explosive action…

Indeed, Thomas seems to recognise quite a few of the problems with the very early X-Men comics. He moves to fix a few of them, albeit in ways that don’t always work, and he acknowledges others. As if recognising that six upper-class white private school students are probably the worst people to talk about prejudice, Thomas has two supporting characters comment on the incongruity of it all when the team complain about how things are stacked against them. “Miss King,” a bank manager asks, “are those the youngsters who wanted a welfare loan?” She replies, “They certainly are! And look… they’re driving off in a Rolls Royce!”

Thomas also tries to figure out the team’s niche, something that Lee and Kirby had a bit of difficulty with. Are they a team that deals exclusively with mutant problems? In the early issues, it seemed like Magneto was pretty much the only mutant problem. Even Stan Lee, as editor, seems to concede that the early stories over-used Magneto and his Evil Mutants as go-to villains. When Xavier appeals to Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch for help, we’re told they are “as seen in X-Men #4… and about a zillion issues thereafter!”

The Changeling face of evil...

The Changeling face of evil…

So Thomas tries to vary things up a bit. For one thing, he steers clear of the whole “mutant agenda” angle of supervillainy. The group tangles with the Blob and Unus the Untouchable (and, later, the Vanisher). However, these feel more like conventional supervillains who happen to be mutants. The Blob and Unus rob a bank. All three are caught up in a plan to conquer the world for “Factor Three.”

The only villain who even appears to have a mutant agenda is “the Mutant Master”, the mysterious head of Factor Three. He accuses the X-Men of being race-traitors, of “acting as the friends of the homo sapiens.” It turns out he’s not really a mutant. He’s an octopus alien from “Sirius.” The Sentinels don’t reappear here. There’s no hint of a conspiracy against mutants. Although we are occasionally reminded of the prejudice against our heroes, it’s only fleeting and never organised.

It's like looking forward into the Claremont era...

It’s like looking forward into the Claremont era…

Thomas tries to fill that gap by pitting the X-Men against fairly traditional supervillains, as if making a conscious effort to downplay their mutanthood. To be fair to Thomas, he does try to find some thematic overlap between the group and the foes they face. It’s not too difficult to see Thomas’ take on Lucifer as a direct ancestor of the mad social darwinism of villains like Apocalypse. Lucifer believes that the strong shall conquer the world and grind the weak to heel.

“It is ever the strong who are meant to rule!” he vows. “And we are the strong!” In his very first storyline, Thomas takes the opportunity to use the presence of Lucifer to broaden the scope of the X-Men. Xavier concedes that the belief in peaceful relationships between mutants and mankind was not the only reason he established the team. “And it is yet another reason why I founded the X-Men! For I knew that one day mankind would have to meet the renewed threat of Lucifer!”

X marks the spot...

X marks the spot…

It establishes the X-Men as a team with more than just a single agenda. It defines them as a group with an agenda to protect the weak from the strong who would prey on them. You might even trace a clear line from Thomas’ reconceptualisation of the team through to Joss Whedon and Kieron Gillen’s “Mutant Avengers” angle. Indeed, the whole “hyper-evolved villain seeks to impose his will on world” schtick comes up repeatedly. Even the somewhat generic Locust adopts that angle. “It is not the weak who must inherit the Earth, but the strong… and we are the strong!”

When Thomas pits the team against Count Nefaria, he tries to find areas of overlap. Apparently Nefaria believes that can recruit the X-Men to his cause because they too are social pariahs… you know, like supervillains. “The world despises you,” Nefaria explains, before lamenting how the world picks on him because he dares to want to commit large-scale criminal enterprises. It’s a fairly dodgy comparison for Thomas to make, comparing the prejudice experienced by convicted (and unrepentant) criminals with the prejudice experienced by people born different.

The end of the world as we know it...

The end of the world as we know it…

Things get gradually more abstract from there, as Thomas seems to think of exotic combinations and try to figure out some resonance as an after-thought. At one point, Jean Grey is kidnapped by Warlock, a villainous version of Merlin. What could the X-Men have in common with a wizard? Thomas has Warlock helpfully explain his cool flying horses, rejecitng out of hand the idea that they’re “magic.” He explains, “Rather, they are the products of science! Like yourselves, they are mutants — but mutants of my creation!”

To be fair, it’s not a bad hook. After all, superheroes are simply magical fantasy that is frequently wrapped in the veil of pseudo-science. However, Thomas never really develops the argument or comparison beyond that point. It’s simply enough to see the X-Men engaged in a pitched battle at the centre of the Earth. After that point, Thomas really doesn’t try too hard to explain his mash-ups.

You have learned much, grasshopper...

You have learned much, grasshopper…

This is a little unsatisfying. There’s something disappointing about pitting a team of superheroes against a collection of supervillain also-rans. Nefaria’s supervillain team-up is packed with characters who were never that memorable on their own terms, so it feels like they’ve just been added to fill space. To be entirely honest, Thomas has some half-decent material here. I love the idea of turning X-Men into a wacky pseudo-science book where the team hunts down Frankenstein, engages in wars at the centre of the Earth and Professor X experiments on his brother in a strangely gothic secret chamber in his Westchester mansion.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work – perhaps because Thomas doesn’t work hard enough to differentiate it from the Fantastic Four. His pseudo-science stories here have a decidedly gothic angle to them, but Werner Roth’s style isn’t dark enough. (Although, to be fair, it’s hard to imagine anybody who could do “gothic horror X-Men” as well as Gene Colan. Man, I would love to see that.) The frequent use of Fantastic Four foes like Mole Man or the Puppet Master doesn’t help matters. There’s also the fact that Thomas never commits entirely to this take on the X-Men.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

He also tries to pitch it as a conventional Marvel superhero book, as if consciously trying to integrate it into the Marvel universe. Jean Grey attends college with Johnny Storm. The group wind up fighting the Colbolt Man, with a familiar suit of armour. “It looks like a silver-blue version of Iron Man’s armour!” one character remarks, and Thomas jokes in the introduction that he was worried the colourist might colour it in red and gold.

Even Spider-Man pops up twice. The first time, the group explicitly tries to recruit him, perhaps the most candid confession from Thomas that this isn’t really a book about a mutant super team any longer. In a line which seems hilarious in the wake of Brian Bendis’ New Avengers and Jonathan Hickman’s Future Foundation, Spider-Man confesses, “It’d be great to team up with a group my own age… but fate seems to have meant me to be a loner.”

Ready to pounce...

Ready to pounce…

The second time, the group rather conspicuously bump into Spider-Man in upstate New York. This is Spider-Man. A character who swings between buildings. He’s a teenager who struggles to find the time to work to support his Aunt May. Thomas can’t even seem to account for Parker’s presence in upstate New York, as Peter questions what the heck is going on. “Y’know, it’s funny how I just hopped on my cycle and ended up here in Westchester County!”

Thomas’ X-Men seems to trying absolutely every possible permutation and possibility, and none of the approaches to the characters seem to work. His extended arc is a sort of espionage thriller, involving the secret cabal known as “Factor Three.” As he concedes in his introduction, it’s an affectionate pastiche of various Bond villains. Most obviously, it owes a massive debt to the version of SPECTRE introduced in the early Bond films.

For what Nefaria-ous purpose has he assembled them?

For what Nefaria-ous purpose has he assembled them?

The henchman is “Number Two.” The head honcho, “the Mutant-Master”, spends most of the arc cloaked in shadow. He explicitly hopes to position Factor Three as “the third factor between East and West”, quite similar to Blofeld’s plan in You Only Live Twice. Like a lot of Thomas’ ideas, it’s not explicitly bad. He just can’t quite commit entirely to it, so there’s this weird tonal mismatch between all these experimental approaches that Thomas is taking to the book, where it feels like it can be one thing one issue and something completely different the next.

You can see Thomas struggling with the character of Charles Xavier – which becomes something of a touchstone of the X-Men franchise. Xavier is a great figurehead, but he’s often difficult to involve in plots and stories. Thomas tries a number of different approaches to Xavier, as if trying to find the shoe that will fit. None of them really do, and it’s quite jarring how quickly Thomas will appropriate a new approach to the character and discard it.

On the fly...

On the fly…

First, he tries to deal with the fact that Xavier is in a wheelchair, which causes problems when you want to involve him in action sequences. So we get some unfortunate angst-filled monologues about how terrible it is to be in a wheelchair, writing which probably seemed a bit less offensive in the sixties than it does now. “They can walk in the sunshine — feel the wind striking their faces — while I am confined to this wheelchair — a hopeless cripple!” he laments.

Naturally, this isn’t an attempt at character development for Xavier. Instead, it’s to foreshadow the character’s decision to develop “lightweight flexible metal braces” to help him walk, making for  a dramatic reveal or two. However, this doesn’t seem to work for Thomas, so he quickly puts Charles back in the wheelchair with some dialogue about the batteries on the braces. Charles never really mentions his comfort (or lack thereof) with the wheelchair again.

A cold reception...

A cold reception…

Thomas sort of branches off that “inventor” portrayal of Xavier by pitching him as a sort of a crazy mad scientist. Much is made of the secret locked room in the mansion. It turns out that he is keeping his half-brother captive and experimenting on him. Don’t worry, though! I’m sure it is perfectly ethically sound! Much like Cyclops’ willingness to use Cerebro as a brainwashing device on two thieves who happen to break into the mansion. “You’ll forget you were ever here — or what you learned — and will do eactly what I tell you…” Similarly, Xavier’s decision to capture Frankenstein’s monster seems suitably mad-scientist-y for him.

However, it’s quite clear that Thomas’ attempts to make Xavier work aren’t quite working out the way he might have hoped. So, appropriately enough, this run ends with The X-Men Featuring: The Death of Professor X. Apparently, sales had dropped so low on the title that Marvel suspected that branding the book with the name of individual mutants might help. I shudder when I think of a world where a comic labelled “Iceman” sells more than X-Men.

X-Men Assemble!

X-Men Assemble!

To be fair to Thomas, he run is boldly experimental. The writer is clearly more willing to change things up than his direct predecessor was. There’s a clear sense that Thomas can admit the book isn’t working as well as it is supposed to, and that’s he’s willing to try to fix it. Unfortunately, none of Thomas’ ideas really work, but there is an endearing sense of experimentation to these issues. The X-Men wouldn’t achieve their potential until Claremont took over, but it is nice to see Marvel making genuine efforts to fix their broken superhero team.

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

5 Responses

  1. Great article on old school Xmen comics dont know if you follow me as well but please do. IS there a way to check to see who follows you from other blogs?

  2. Another good analysis. I’d certainly enjoy reading your thoughts on Roy Thomas’ second run, when he was paired with Neal Adams. That was a much stronger batch of stories, and probably had more of an influence on Claremont’s amazingly successful era.

    • I’ll definitely be delving into that next year, around the release of Days of Future Past. I try to theme my reviews around the movie or film releases of the summer, sort of digging deeper into continuity or mythology. (If all goes well, I may have some Thor stuff in October/November!)

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