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X-Men: Season One by Dennis Hopeless and Jamie McKelvie (Review)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

X-Men: Season One is a weird beast. The core of Marvel’s Season One initiative has been offering accessible standalone graphic novels that take their iconic characters back to their roots – as if to have something that you could point a new reader towards, say “this is how [character] got started.” The line hasn’t always lived up to that promise, with the quality of the collection of graphic novels being quite uneven in practice, but it’s a solid starting point.

However, the X-Men were always going to seem a bit strange when this approach was applied. After all, many of the most iconic X-Men character – from Wolverine to Storm to Rogue – didn’t appear for years after Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched X-Men. Beast didn’t have blue fur for quite some time. Magneto was fairly generic and one-dimensional. For a comic book series about an oppressed minority, the characters were all white, middle-class and straight; Jean Grey often felt like the token girl.

The Tomorrow People...

The Tomorrow People…

So revisiting the roots of the X-Men was going to be different from exploring the origins of The Avengers or Thor or Ant-Man, because a lot of what people take for granted about the X-Men didn’t exist in those early years. Trying to find a way to encapsulate what makes the X-Men so successful and appealing into the context of those early stories is a pretty ambitious task, making X-Men: Season One seem like an almost impossible challenge.

Luckily, Marvel recruited some top-notch talent for the book. Artist Jamie McKelvie is one of the best artists working in comics today. His linework is clear, his action sequences are stylish – but he’s also fantastic with characters. McKelvie can offer a lot in a small amount of space – body language, facial expressions. He’s paired with writer Dennis Hopeless, who has a bit of a knack dealing with potentially troublesome assignments turning Avengers Arena from ruthless Battle Royale (or The Hunger Games) knock-off into a pretty compelling read. The X-Men are in good hands.

The child protection agency is going to crucify Charles for this one...

The child protection agency is going to crucify Charles for this one…

X-Men: Season One is a very clever read. It’s an astonishingly well put-together book that manages to draw in a lot of what makes the X-Men so appealing to fans, while working in a context where those elements were not yet part of the comic book. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created most of the Marvel Universe. The duo rank as one of the most successful collaborations in mainstream comic books, with legendary runs on books like Thor or Fantastic Four. However, X-Men was not a success story.

There are a lot of reasons that the classic sixties X-Men comic didn’t work. The premise was decidedly uncomfortable, even in the context of the sixties – a creepy bald man trains a bunch of super-powered teenagers into acting as his private militia. The characters were fairly undefined and undistinguished – the original five characters were a collection of standard superhero character types that were being done better elsewhere.

Everybody walk the dinosaur...

Everybody walk the dinosaur…

Perhaps the biggest problem was the “mutants” themselves. The idea of “mutants” was not originally grounded in issues like civil rights, having been created so Stan Lee didn’t have to come up with a whole bunch of origins for various characters – he could just claim that they were born that way to spare him having to fashion a compelling back story. While the comic would soon hit on the idea of prejudice and oppression, the metaphor was somewhat stunted by the fact that the team was very white and very photogenic while combating opponents that were more obviously different.

Whatever the reason, the comic didn’t catch on. The book declined in popularity, to the point where it was only feasible to publish re-prints of earlier adventures. However, in the seventies, the company decided to try the concept again. Launched by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum (and – almost immediately – Chris Claremont), the book offered readers a more diverse cast and a more potent set of metaphors. A lot of what fans take for granted – from Magneto’s Jewish origins to Cyclops’ true dysfunction – were rooted in those comics. It’s that version of the team that inspired popular cartoons and blockbuster movies.

Who we are in the dark...

Who we are in the dark…

So, tasked with taking the X-Men back to their roots, it would be really tempting for Dennis Hopeless and Jamie McKelvie to retroactively incorporate some of the more interesting developments into this early adventure. Why not try and incorporate Wolverine into the origin of the team, as Neal Adams did with First X-Men? Why not try and foreshadow The Dark Phoenix Saga? How about devoting some page-space to that tragic origin of Magneto that everybody loves?

These would be rather easy (and rather cynical and rather pandering) approaches to something like X-Men: Season One. It’s to the credit of Hopeless and McKelvie that they avoid that sort of gimmickry. Instead, they focus on what was shown in those early Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comics. The closest the comic has to heavy-handed foreshadowing is the reveal that Scott Summers maintains a Danger Room program called “Dystopian Sequence Two.” Somebody’s trying to get an early start on what is to come.

I do love that the Blob's chair is comically oversized...

I do love that the Blob’s chair is comically oversized…

Instead, Hopeless and McKelvie try to imagine what was happening between the lines of those classic comics. They recognise the rather considerable flaws in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s version of the X-Men, but they don’t ignore those problems. Rather, the pair confront those issues and work through them, generating considerable drama from the unspoken and uncomfortable issues with the team as it existed in those early issues. It’s a rather ingenious approach to the assignment, and one that pays dividends.

So X-Men: Season One acknowledges that what Xavier is doing is morally questionable – at best. The opening sequence has Jean Grey questioning the wisdom of the Professor’s choices. “Oh, and Professor, just so you know — this is dumb. We are so not prepared for this. And if somebody gets hurt–“ When he cuts her off, she thinks to herself, “Can he really not see the difference between this — and fighting video games in the danger room?”

A cool customer...

A cool customer…

As the latest arrival to the team, Jean seems to have a bit more perspective on what is going on. After Warren tells her about Xavier used his mental powers to convince the Worthington family to send their son to his school, Jean is a little freaked out. “And you’re not a little skeeved that this guy brainwashed your parents to get us to come stay with him?” she asks. Xavier makes a big deal about how the school puts distance between the teens and their families, arguing it’s for everybody’s safety. It’s also the kind of thing that cults tend to do.

While the Professor condescendingly offers to talk Jean throw some of her problems, Jean remains skeptical. After one assignment, she reflects, “You wanna talk about my ‘ordeal’, Professor? About how a crazy bald man thought it would be a good idea to send five teenagers to investigate a sabretooth tiger attack in Antarctica?” Later, Beast becomes disillusioned when he discovers that Xavier spends social time with terrorists. “You send us out to die at that sociopath’s hand, then you two run off and have high tea together.”

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

Even allowing for Xavier’s refusal to “give up” on his old friend Eric, X-Men: Season One is incredibly critical of Charles Xavier as a character – but justifiably so. “He’s a manipulative and snobby fake,” Jean explains to Beast. “He loves hearing himself talk. And I’m pretty sure that he reads our minds way more than he says.” In essence, this is retroactively applying the skepticism of Charles Xavier that became standard after Deadly Genesis, but in a way that fits quite well with how the character is portrayed in those early issues.

(Hopeless doesn’t need to incorporate mind-wipes of the students or the death of any children under his care in order to reinforce the idea that Charles Xavier is a rather creepy old man. Instead, Hopeless just lays out everything that Charles Xavier does, and approaches it in a rather level-handed fashion. This isn’t character assassination or retroactive continuity at work. This is simply engaging with the version of Charles Xavier created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.)

It's the end of the world as we know it...

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

Hopeless also finds a way to anchor each of the five original X-Men characters. These are characters who can be quite tough to write. The original version of Bobby Drake really feels like a copy of Lee and Kirby’s Johnny Storm; the early versions of Hank McCoy and Warren Worthington would struggle to be two-dimensional. In keeping the sexism of the sixties, Jean Grey was a character cast in the role of “token female team mate.” While the rest of the team played in the Danger Room, Jean would use her power to cut cake.

Over the course of the one hundred pages in X-Men: Season One, Hopeless and McKelvie manage to do a nice job defining the characters in question. The choice to make Jean Grey the central character is inspired. Jean Grey has a tendency to be treated as an icon rather than a character – an idealised romantic figure for Scott Summers and Wolverine, with little focus on what Jean herself was actually like. Putting Jean at the centre of Season One – and treating her as the only sane woman – is a nice way to counter that.

"Nothing conspicuous here..."

“Nothing conspicuous here…”

(It’s also nice to have a female point-of-view character in an industry that often struggles with representation of gender. It is quite telling that Jean Grey is the only member of the original X-Men who is currently “dead” in mainstream comics. When Warren Worthington died during Uncanny X-Force, the character was almost immediately resurrected. In contrast, Jean Grey has spent almost as much time dead as alive.)

So Hopeless and McKelvie define the central characters of those early X-Men comics, and they do so in a way that makes them seem human and accessible. “These guys… they’re messed up,” Jean reflects, and she’s not wrong. Cyclops is anxious, eager to please, hesitant. Borrowing one of the better ideas from X-Men III, Angel is shown to strap his wings behind his back in order to hide who he is.

It all piles up...

It all piles up…

Hopeless concedes that these five characters live rather charmed lives. The Blob accuses them of being “pretty-pretty mutants”, drawing attention to how easy it is for those white middle-class teenagers to “pass” among normal people – in contrast to the more obviously mutant characters. One of the unfortunate aspects of the original Lee and Kirby X-Men was the fact that those mutants less able to conceal their mutation (like the Blob or Toad) were inevitably evil, while our more “human-like” mutants were heroes.

However, Hopeless manages to leverage this into a pretty effective emotional hook. Even if our heroes can “pass” as human, doesn’t that give their story a different sort of tragedy? Warren talks about how easy it was to hide among “the rich and narcissistic”, in a way that makes his mutation seem less like a metaphor for an obvious physical distinction (like race) and more about an intrinsic concealable distinction (homosexuality). It is possible for Angel to hide what he is, but why should he have to?

He's no Angel...

He’s no Angel…

In a way, X-Men: Season One manages to bring the idea of mutants as an oppressed minority a full circle. The original a characters weren’t really able to work as a metaphor for the civil rights movement because they were very white and very middle-class. However, those same characters work much better as a way of exploring issues like homophobia and passing. (After all, Iceman was the target of the wonderful “have you tried not being a mutant?” line from X-Men II.)

Hopeless gives us a wonderfully sympathetic insight into these characters. It’s hard not to feel a pang of pity for Angel. “After dinner, she snuck us into her parents’ summerhouse and wanted to go swimming,” he relates of one date. “I showed her my giant freakazoid bird bird wings, then we made out in the pool — wait — no, instead I ran away with a stomachache and left her standing there in her underwear.” This is a young man trying to pretend to be something that he isn’t.

Hear me roar...

Hear me roar…

(It helps that Hopeless does an excellent job capturing teenage dysfunction. The love triangle between Jean and Warren and Scott felt a little obligatory in the original comics – as if Stan Lee were going through the motions for a comic book with an ensemble cast. Here, at least, the interactions feel organic and natural. The teenage characters act like teenagers, with nobody but Jean demonstrating any real emotional intelligence. It’s surprisingly charming, and makes the comic feel quite modern.)

Jamie McKelvie’s artwork is absolutely stunning. McKelvie has a long history of illustrating teenage and young adult characters, and his artwork captures the mood of a teenage drama perfectly. It’s always clear what is going on, and the characters’ body language is always able to convey exactly what is necessary. In particular, McKelvie’s anatomy is impressive, drawing characters who look like they could be real people rather than simply caricatures or stylised representations.

Winging it...

Winging it…

(Also worthy of note is the way that McKelvie avoids pitfalls like the male gaze or other issues around the portrayal of female characters. The closest that Season One comes to objectifying its characters is in the presentation of Warren Worthington as a bit of female eye-candy. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this; indeed, it’s refreshing to read a comic where the sole example of a character being sexualised is one – very – quick shot of a male character.)

X-Men: Season One works very well, and it’s a credit to the work of Hopeless and McKelvie in crafting the story. It manages to find a new hook into a classic story, offering an accessible vision of the past for one of Marvel’s most iconic and best-loved franchises.

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