The Essential Uncanny X-Men: Vol. 1, featuring Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (Marvel Comics)

You have to know what you want when you’re ordering an X-Men omnibus collection. This “Essential” volume collects the first twenty-four issues of The X-Men, which didn’t become Uncanny until issue #95, after a five-year hiatus between 1970 and ’75, when no new X-Men stories were published. The “Essential” volume that contains issue #95 is called The Essential X-Men: Vol. 1. Since the comic book was called The Uncanny X-Men by then, this can be confusing.

Even if you were trying to get this early Lee/Kirby stuff and got the other volume, you still made out all right. The early years of Chris Claremont’s 17-year run as the book’s writer are entertaining, sure enough. When most people think about the X-Men, that’s the team they’re thinking about. Especially after John Byrne arrived.

These books are about the original X-Men, a group of teenage mutants who wore boring duochromatic school uniforms while fighting evil mutants. During the early goings, that was usually Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

Come on, no one truly evil would name their group the “Evil Mutants.” Magneto, who didn’t get his great Holocaust-survivor backstory until many years later, was trying to be ironic, probably, to fit in with the teenage mutants he was always trying to kill. Truly evil people rarely think they’re evil.

You’re probably familiar with Professor Charles Xavier’s original students. There’s the team’s secondary leader—after Professor X—-Scott Summers, also known as Cyclops. He sticks around in the revamped mid-’70s X-Men. In the original books, he’s referred to by the nickname “Slim” at least once. It’s how Professor X introduced him in the first issue. Scott is in love with Jean Grey, whose superhero name is Marvel Girl; she is a powerful telekinetic who doesn’t become the Phoenix until about thirteen years later in 1976. It seems that Professor X himself is somewhat infatuated with Jean as well, but that never progresses beyond a couple of thought balloons. Of course, Jean is around in the new X-Men as well, and she goes from being the weakest member to the strongest. Meanwhile, Jean falls in love with Scott, but doesn’t feel like he reciprocates her affections. Scott’s main rival for Jean’s attentions in the comic book is Warren Worthington III, known as The Angel, because of his wings and all the flying and stuff. He became Archangel at some point after my time. Bobby Drake—Iceman—is the youngest member of the group and looks like a walking snowman in most of the early stories. The final member of the team, Hank McCoy, is known as the Beast because of his ape-like body and appendages, and his supernormal athleticism. Hank doesn’t become the erudite blue-furred superhero we know he becomes until the early ’70s, I think during that time the X-Men were on hiatus. I knew Hank as an Avenger years before I read his earlier exploits with the X-Men.

This collection is in black-and-white. I believe all the Essential collections are. That doesn’t really bother me. In fact, I often prefer to look at the original inked artwork without color. The first eleven issues are pencilled by none other than Jack “King” Kirby. If you’re into comics, you already have an opinion about Kirby. Personally, I’ve always loved his artwork, and I seem to be in the majority on this. On The X-Men, his figures and faces are probably less idiosyncratic than they will become, even on Fantastic Four.

Paul Reinman inks issues #1 through #5. Reinman was a frequent collaborator with Kirby, also inking The Incredible Hulk #1 and The Avengers #2, #3 and #5. Reinman had been around during the Golden Age of comics as well, long before the existence of Marvel Comics. Reinman would later leave Marvel and, along with Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, created The Mighty Crusaders for Archie Comics’ short-lived superhero line. On The X-Men, Reinman’s ink lines seem heavy and dark to me. Still recognizably Kirby’s work under there, but I still think the artwork improves after Chic Stone takes over the inking duties. I mean, I prefer Joe Sinnott and Mike Royer’s ink work on later Kirby stuff, but Stone elevates the artwork in this book.

Jack Kirby does complete pencils through #11, then layouts until #17. Alex Toth is a guest-penciller on #12, with Vince Colletta on inks. Then Werner Roth takes over on pencils until the end of this collection. Werner Roth was credited as Jay Gavin in most of these issues. Those were the names of his two sons. He used the pseudonym when he was moonlighting at Marvel while still working for DC Comics. Roth tries out both Joe Sinnott and Vince Colletta before settling down for the long haul with Dick Ayers. On the final five issues in this collection, Roy Thomas takes over from Stan Lee as the writer.

All of this information about writers and artists may be too deep in the weeds for you. You want to know about story. I consider all of the issues in this collection to be episodic. There is serialized content, in that the characters acknowledge things that happened in previous issues. But, there’s no real throughline.

However, almost every trope you associate with the X-Men of any era had its first occurrence in the first twenty-four issues of the series. The Danger Room appears in almost every issue. Magneto appears not just the first time, but too many times in the early issues, both with and without his Brotherhood. Prince Namor the Submariner guest-stars in one issue. The Avengers guest-star in another. Wanda and Pietro appear for the first time, as villains. We get the Blob. Unus the Untouchable. We learn Professor X’s superhero origin story, meet his stepbrother Cain, also known as the Juggernaut. He find out how Charles Xavier heroically lost the use of his legs. We meet Ka-Zar, Lord of the Jungle. The Stranger takes Magneto with him when he leaves our planet (but, he comes back somehow). The Human Torch guest-stars. Although we’ve heard the story a hundred times, we get to see firsthand what happened when Dr. Bolivar Trask unleashes his robotic Sentinels. Iceman eventually becomes the Iceman we know and love, a walking ice cube instead of a walking snowman. We get a string of less-than-impressive villains, such as the Mimic, the onion-headed Lucifer, Count Nefaria, Plantman, the Scarecrow, the Porcupine, the Eel, the Unicorn, and—last, and possibly least—the Locust.

People looking for a graphic novel may be disappointed. This is a soap opera with superheroes as characters. There are story arcs of several issues, but no real central storyline. Our mutant students graduate, but don’t get their more impressive and unique uniforms until later. The themes that recur time and again with mutant superheroes had their start here. Mutants have come to represent any marginalized group you can imagine—nerds, the LGBTQ + community, racial or religious minorities, and many more. All of that can be found in the stories told in these pages.

But, honestly, we’re usually just left waiting for Magneto’s next appearance.

You won’t find Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler or any of those new cats in this book. This is the Old Testament version of The X-Men. But, still great fun.

Firewater’s Children-of-the-Atom Report Card: B+

Hey, this is what a teenage superhero team looked like in 1963.

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