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Roy Thomas & Neal Adams’ X-Men – X-Men Omnibus, Vol. 2 (Review/Retrospective)

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.

Roy Thomas and Neal Adams (with the odd fill-in here and there) brought the first era of the X-Men to a close. At the end of their run, editor Martin Goodman would cancel the title due to low sales, only to bring it back as a reprint magazine a few months later. The title would continue as a reprint magazine until the publisher decided to resurrect it with Len Wein and Dave Cockrum’s Giant-Sized X-Men and Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum’s subsequent revival of the original magazine.

The last stretch of issues on this initial run is fascinating. While it lacks the raw energy and sense of direction of Claremont’s early work on the title, it’s easy to argue that Thomas and Adams helped to pave the way for their successors. Thomas and Adams’ X-Men lacks focus and vision, but it does have its own quirky style. The duo would introduce and tease all sorts of ideas that would remain with the X-Men after the cancellation and into the revival.

Suit up...

Suit up…

It may be too much to credit Thomas and Adams with saving or redeeming the franchise – although, apparently sales were increasing during their run- but their influence on the creators that followed is obvious. There are a number of clever ideas and premises that were effectively introduced by the duo, which would become almost expected from an X-Men comic book. Even if it seemed like Thomas and Adams were really just making it up on the fly, their work fits quite comfortably with what would follow.

It may not have been enough to save the mutants at that moment in time, but one could argue that it did provide Claremont with a solid base to build from.

They certainly do...

They certainly do…

What is most striking about this run of issues is the artwork by Neal Adams. Adams would become one of the defining comic book artists of his generation, enjoying defining runs on Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow with Denny O’Neil and on books like Deadman by himself. Adams’ artwork was radically different from any of the other artists who had worked on X-Men since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched the title.

While artists like Werner Roth and Don Heck seemed to try to emulate the style of Jack Kirby, Neal Adams did something quite different. All of a sudden, the layouts on the page became a lot more dynamic, the faces became a lot more realistic. Characters seemed to burst out of panels, with details bleeding from one panel into the next. Adams’ work is outstanding, even today, and these X-Men issues could among the best looking ever published.

He's got the power!

He’s got the power!

There are some absolutely wonderful compositions in these issues. Particularly noteworthy is Adams’ artwork on Mission: Murder, a comic book issue that inter-spaces media commentary on the issue of mutants with the story’s action sequences. It’s a rather brilliant narrative technique, delivering opinion and exposition over fight scenes, and Adams integrates the two rather perfectly. There’s a wonderful flow to Adams’ work.

The artwork also provided a bridge to the future of the franchise. After all, Neal Adams was a major influence on artist John Byrne, who would collaborate with Chris Claremont on iconic stories like The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past. So these comics all fit rather comfortably with the issues that would follow. Neal Adams’ wonderful line work, framing and composition all feel like a pre-cursor to John Byrne’s work. In way, Neal Adams’ work feels more in tune with what would follow than what came before.

Bird of prey!

Bird of prey!

(Indeed, there are several overt and obvious references by John Byrne’s X-Men to Neal Adams’ X-Men, most notably Byrne’s iconic cover to X-Men 135, the climax of The Dark Phoenix Saga, which seems to owe a conscious debt to Adams’ wonderful cover to X-Men 56. Ironically, Adams had wanted to play a bit more with the logo, but his proposals were vetoed by editorial – afraid that the logo would be rendered illegible.)

In terms of storytelling, Roy Thomas found himself struggling with the same problems he had during the earlier run, and with the same problems of so many early X-Men stories. It was very hard to carve out a niche specifically for the X-Men, to find something that the team was explicitly “about.” Over the course of the run, Thomas and Adams take our heroes on globe-trotting adventures, pit them against the Sentinels, square off against Magneto, confront Japanese war guilt save the planet and fight the Hulk.

He always had a Magnetic personality...

He always had a Magnetic personality…

There’s no single unifying thread – no sense of momentum building from recurring plot elements. To be fair to Thomas and Adams, they do carefully foreshadow several big twists ahead of time. Mission: Murder reveals that the version of Magneto that the team faced earlier was actually a Doom Magneto-bot, setting up the character’s reappearance in Strangers… in a Savage Land! The noted absence of Changeling from In the Shadow of Sauron sets up the big reveal about the death of Professor Xavier.

But the problem is that none of this really seems to have as much weight as it should. While Magneto’s reappearance carries a bit more weight from the earlier set-up, he is still just hatching a generically evil plan. Similarly, Professor Xavier’s death was rather meaningless and hollow, but his resurrection is equally meaningless. It turns out that he faked his death to deal with a wacky alien threat that carries no real weigh in the context of the X-Men.

Mindscape...

Mindscape…

That’s probably the biggest issue with Thomas and Adams’ X-Men. It feels like the comic is wandering rather than building. While the pair have obviously planned their plots in advance, there’s no real sense that they’ve structured climaxes and epics; there’s no moment where various threads tie together to reveal something awe-inspiring and breath-taking. It all just feels like business as usual as the book moves from one story or thread into another.

This isn’t a huge complaint. Thomas and Adams’ X-Men is undoubtedly the strongest run on the X-Men up to this point. While the run lacks structure or focus, it is packed with great ideas, wonderful artwork and an endearing sense of adventure. Thomas and Adam introduce all manner of concepts to the X-Men mythos, even if these ideas just seem like rough drafts of the tropes and conventions that would come to define the X-Men.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

Most notably, Roy Thomas is one of the most underrated Silver Age comic book writers. Thomas grasps the heightened melodrama of comic books, and he knows how to tell a story. So his work on X-Men feels like it lays the groundwork for Claremont’s approach. There’s the same heightened emotions and melodrama that would define Claremont’s work on Uncanny X-Men, with mountains of angst from the teenage characters.

“And yet… was ever another mutant so terribly, desperately alone?” Alex Summers laments in a cave, on discovering his mutant powers. When Lorna Dane is kidnapped by Sentinels, Bobby Drake doesn’t have time for reasoned discussion, “I want to know what happened to Lorna… and I want to know now!” Claremont would really push the idea of superheroes-as-soap-opera, but Thomas seems to understand how this approach might work on the X-Men.

No need to get bent out of shape...

No need to get bent out of shape…

Thomas even manages to write in a style that evokes Claremont’s purple prose, with narration and internal monologues written in a decidedly hammy style. When the X-Men fail to locate Alex, we’re told that “the citadel of hope crumples before the hammers of despair.” When Alex Summers asks the villainous hypno-therapist Lykos to send him the bill, Lykos’ internal monologue practically cackles. “Yes, my dear unsuspecting mutants… I’ll send you my bill! But it shall be a bill such as no man has ever paid before!” It appears their insurance may not cover it.

Thomas’ writing seems to draw from the same literary pool as that of Claremont. Both are writers who seem have been heavily influenced by fantasy and science-fiction in defining and shaping the X-Men. The influence of science-fiction on Claremont’s work is obvious – with the writer drawing quite heavily from writers line Heinlein and Ellison. The title of Strangers… in a Savage Land! alludes to Stranger in a Strange Land, while the villain Sauron takes his name from The Lord of the Rings.

Terror in the skies!

Terror in the skies!

If Thomas and Adams’ work on X-Men can be said to have an over-arching theme, there’s a sense that they are dragging the book through all manner of science-fantasy work – trying to engage rather directly with the spirit of sixties science-fiction and horror. The Sentinels are defeated by logic rather than force, in much the same way that Captain Kirk dealt with the androids in I, Mudd. The team find themselves fighting resurrected Egyptian Pharaohs, killer robots, vampire pterodactyls and mysterious planets.

Thomas repeatedly anchors the idea of mutation in “radiation”, very much cementing the X-Men in the rich tradition of Atomic Age science-fiction. In Do or Die, Baby!, the Sentinels deduce that the “mutant-inducing radiation” responsible for the creation of this new species can be found at “the very heart of the raging sun itself!” In contrast, The Coming of Sunfire! makes the implicit connection a lot more explicit. “Shiro’s mother was caught in the Hiroshima blast, you said?” Jean asks about the new mutant superhero. Angel replies, “Yes… that must be why he’s a mutant!”

All (Sun)fired up!

All (Sun)fired up!

Thomas hits on a couple of ideas that would be developed by the franchise in the years ahead. As well as cementing the link between the mutants and atomic radiation, his first story arc – one started by writer Arnold Drake – adds an element of mysticism to the mutants. Featuring a visit to Egypt and pitting the X-Men against a “latter-day Pharaoh” who is also a mutant, Thomas forges an interesting connection. Although the Living Pharaoh was a modern archaeologist driven insane with power, it’s hard not to look at this story as the genesis of later stories based around Apocalypse’s origins in Ancient Egypt.

There’s a sense of magic and mystery around mutation – as if to suggest that it is more than just random science at work. “Can you not feel them, infidel — the celestial chains which bind our two fates as one?” the Living Pharaoh goads Alex Summer. The comic makes a connection between mutants and the ruling class of Ancient Egypt as the Living Pharaoh boasts to the Summers brothers, “I have brought you here… inside a tomb which was old when the rest of the world was savage jungle… that you and the one called Alex may die deaths that befit a mutant born!”

Flyboy...

Flyboy…

(That connection is arguably reinforced by the suggestion that the radiation that causes mutation is generated by the sun. As Thomas and Adams’ first arc points out, the Egyptian religion was built around the worship of Ra, the sun god. In a way, then, Roy Thomas seems to make a subtle – and clever – connection between ancient religious beliefs and hokey modern science-fiction. Although he doesn’t capitalise on it as much as he might, this overlap is something that later X-Men writers would play with.)

That said, there is a somewhat uncomfortable exoticism to the way that these issues treat Egypt. It seems like little of the country exists outside of pyramids and tombs. While this would arguably be forgiveable on its own terms, the issue is compounded by the casual racism demonstrated by Cyclops. When a bunch of local law enforcement officials attempt to apprehend Alex, Scott dismissively refers to them as “camel-jockeys.” It is hard to believe that the line got past editorial, even in the sixties.

A healthy glow...

A healthy glow…

In their three-part Sentinel story, Roy Thomas and Neal Adams seem to come up with a trope that would become quite popular with later X-Men writers. Larry Trask – son of Bolivar Trask, inventor of the Sentinels – is revealed as a self-hating mutant. It’s a bit of an old cliché about boomerang prejudice, but it works particularly well in the context of the X-Men. As the Sentinels bear down on him, they explain the bitter irony of his hatred and fear. “You did not know that the mutant presence we detected — and which we are programmed to destroy — was yourself!!”

Thomas and Adams also make an explicit comparison between Xavier and Magneto. To be fair, the two characters had been juxtaposed since the early days of the comic – what is Magneto’s “Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” but his own answer to the X-Men. However, Thomas and Adams make it explicit. In Strangers… in a Savage Land!, it is revealed that Magneto has been hiding undercover, much like Professor Xavier would be revealed to be doing in later issues.

Sealing his tomb...

Sealing his tomb…

However, Magneto is attempting to recruit young mutants to his cause. On discovering Magneto (in disguise), Angel asks, “Then you’ve been searching out mutants among the tribes here… like a stone-age Professor X?” Of course, it’s all revealed as a ruse – Magneto is creating mutants so as to harness an army – but the script actively invites comparisons between Xavier and Magneto in a way that seems to fit quite comfortably with later developments about both characters.

It’s also worth noting that Thomas makes an effort when it comes to the female characters in the cast. Too many of the Silver Age teams featured one-dimensional women characters who existed purely to make up the numbers – indeed, Jean Grey spent the early days of X-Men using her powers to cut cake while her male team mates practised in the Danger Room. While Thomas doesn’t subvert and upset these dynamics as much as Claremont would, he still plays with them.

This place is a bit of a dive...

This place is a bit of a dive…

At one point, Jean and Lorna seem just a little frustrated at being left out of a training session. “In the meantime, what say we put the squeeze on the so-called stronger sex?” Jean inquires. Later on, Jean seems quite frustrated at the casual sexism of her male colleagues. “Just like a male to think that only he can meet a crisis!” she thinks. “How about giving a poor helpless little girl a chance?”

Throughout the comic, Lorna Dane resists Bobby Drake’s more possessive attempts to claim ownership of her. “Bobby’s fun, Jean — but I’m nobody’s ‘girl’!” she insists. Later, she corrects Bobby, “I’m nobody’s property, Bobby… except my own!” Bobby spends a significant portion of the run being jealous of the bond forming between Lorna and Alex. However, the comic seems to side against Bobby here – even suggesting that his possessive paranoia is what is leading Lorna to enjoy Alex’s more sympathetic company.

Grant Morrison, eat your heart out!

Grant Morrison, eat your heart out!

(Indeed, Thomas rather skilfully juxtaposes these relationship difficulties with the problems facing the villain Karl Lykos. Lykos is a man in love with Tanya, but who realises that Tanya’s father will never give the union his blessing unless he can prove himself worthy of Tanya’s hand. Naturally, nobody pays any attention to what Tanya wants – she’s happy to marry Karl on the spot, without worrying about what her father might say – and instead Karl insists on proving himself to her father. Naturally, the possessive attitudes of the two men in her life means that none of this ends well.)

However, the work of Thomas and Adams isn’t just interesting in how it seems to point to the future. Their work on X-Men is interesting on its own terms. There’s an enjoyably pulpy atmosphere to their work on the book. In particular, the reveal that Magneto discovered a bunch of ancient caverns under the Earth after one fight feels like something out of a classic science-fiction short story or novella.

Surf's up!

Surf’s up!

(“I learned that the world below is honeycombed with alloy-rick caves — caverns beyond the power of homo sapiens to conceive!” Magneto boasts, in a scene that seems in hindsight like Neal Adams trying to tie his expanding Earth theories into the narrative. After all, similar caves would show up in Adams’ Batman Odyssey, with the artist explicitly tying them to the idea that the planet is expanding.)

The character of Sauron as introduced in In the Shadow of… Sauron is an absolutely fascinating creation. The idea of vampire pterodactyl is brilliant enough on its own, but Thomas and Adams come up with a rather great gimmick for his alter ego, Karl Lykos. Lykos is a vampire hypno-therapist who actually earns his living getting people to pay him to consume their energy. It’s a beautiful scheme, because it’s so self-perpetuating.

Collapsing under the pressure...

Collapsing under the pressure…

When one his patients complains about feeling tired after the session, Lykos suggests, “Still, perhaps if I increased your treatments… to, say, twice a week…” The patient responds, “What say I come back on Thursday?” Lykos cheekily suggests, “Till then, eat plenty of iron!” One gets a sense that Thomas and Adams were somewhat sceptical of the contemporary new age medicine scene. The idea of a predatory hypno-therapist feels like some scathing social commentary, if perhaps a little reactionary.

More interesting is the way that Thomas revisits the idea of fathers over the course of his run – culminating in the resurrection of Charles Xavier, whose absence is repeatedly stressed through the narrative’s emphasis on father figures. Bolivar Trask is succeeded by his son, Larry. Lykos witnesses the death of his father at a young age, and becomes the surrogate son of Andrssen, a man trying to look after his own daughter. Even Magneto – as “the creator” – plays father in the Savage Land.

The soon-not-to-be Living Pharaoh...

The soon-not-to-be Living Pharaoh…

What’s interesting is that so many of the fathers are deeply flawed and yet entirely sympathetic. With the obvious exception of Magneto, they clearly want what is best for their children; they are blind to what their children actually need. These are the most dysfunctional of family units, which is a great way to generate conflict and drama. Many of these relationships feel almost tragic, lending these X-Men stories a much larger stage than they might otherwise have.

Bolivar Trask tries to protect Larry from his mutant heritage, but in doing so turns Larry into a self-hating bigot. Karl Lykos’ father was emotional absent, but reveals that this was just to make his son stronger, “All my plans– all my dreams have been for him — only for him!” Andrssen worries about his daughter so much that he ignores her own wishes. Sunfire’s father is blind to the hatred being stoked by the child’s uncle.

It's alive!

It’s alive!

This feels like a nice way for Thomas to tie back into the idea of the Children of the Atom, reinforcing the sense that these X-Men are really just children who have been left to find their own way in the world. While Arnold Drake introduced Alex Summers, it’s worth noting that we get very little history on the Summers family here. Most of the rest of the heroic cast seem to have been abandoned by their parents and mentors. Xavier is dead. Lorna Dane is not even sure who her father is. (Though it may be Magneto.)

It’s a nice recurring theme, and it feels like Roy Thomas and Neal Adams might have been able to build to something particularly dramatic from it. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Neal Adams departed the book an issue before it was cancelled, due to creative disagreements. (In the introduction, Roy Thomas speculates that this may have been due to Denny O’Neil stepping in to script an issue plotted by Adams.) The comic was cancelled one issue after Neal Adams left.

Having a blast...

Having a blast…

However, that’s not the story here. The story isn’t about how Roy Thomas and Neal Adams worked on X-Men leading into its first cancellation. The story is about how the duo helped to lay some important groundwork for what was yet to come.

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