Review by Frank Plowright
Those curious about the origins of the extensive franchise the X-Men has become are directed to this value for money black and white collection. It’s not the first X-Men material (which is found in Essential Uncanny X-Men), but without the issues reprinted here the X-Men might have remained a cancelled obscurity.
Just flicking through, the quality of the art is evident. Co-creator Dave Cockrum was a top-notch designer whose characters automatically distinguished themselves from their more mundane 1970s contemporaries in terms of both appearance and costume. At the time these were modern heroes designed by someone whose credentials as fan were evident from all the letters he’d written to Marvel as a teenager. John Byrne was also a decent designer, and brought a graphic sensibility to the team, maximising their potential. His characters leapt from the page, and he’s equally at home depicting a sleazy Cairo bar or a tropical jungle beneath Antartica, a volcanic eruption in Japan or a twenty character superhero battle.
It was Len Wein who delivered the first adventure of the new X-Men, gathered to save the previous team, but Chris Claremont who drove them first to cult fan success, then to mainstream comics acclaim. That latter stage remained a year away from the final material printed here, but after a stop-start initiation Claremont grasped his characters and catapulted them around the galaxy.
Just as Cockrum was a thoroughly modern artist in 1975, Claremont was a second generation Marvel writer who brought newer attitudes to his stories. His background as putative actor imbued an inherent sense of drama, and he was vocal about his crusade to rectify the gender imbalance among super-powered characters at Marvel. This isn’t immediately apparent in the issues collected here, but he ramped up Jean Grey’s powers considerably, with tragic consequences in volume two, and emphasised that Storm was more powerful than most of her male team-mates. When John Byrne began to contribute more to the plots the synthesis was better than either writer individually, each sparking the other to provide greater levels of excitement.
Those familiar with the characters as they are now will notice differences in these earlier iterations. Wolverine mooning over Jean Grey, Magneto as villain for hire, Professor X unable to detect several X-Men weren’t as dead as presumed, the X-Men having to spend a couple of months working their way back to the USA… None of these plots would pass muster today, but put aside the anachronistic elements and the occasional piece of florid over-writing, and this remains page turning material.
Confusingly, the Essentials volumes have this iteration of the X-Men as adjectiveless, while the material can also be found in colour as Marvel Masterworks: Uncanny X-Men volumes 1-3.