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Comics: Essential X-Men 11

Essential X-Men, volume 11essential x-men vol 11

Chris Claremont et al. (script)

Jim Lee et al. (art)

Marvel Comics, 2013

Once upon a time – summer of 1963, to be exact – there was a bald man with a dream. His name was Professor Charles Xavier, and he ran a school in upstate New York for a very special kind of student: mutants, young people born with a genetic ‘x-factor’ that gave them superpowers. Professor Xavier informally dubbed these students ‘X-Men,’ and in that first issue back in 1963, he lays out his background and mission with all the terse melodrama writer Stan Lee could muster:

I was born of parents who had worked on the first A-bomb project! Like yourselves, I am a mutant – possibly the first such mutant! I have the power to read minds and project my thoughts into the brains of others! But when I was young, normal people feared me, distrusted me! I realized the human race is not yet ready to accept those with extra powers! So I decided to build a haven … a school for X-Men! Here we stay, unsuspected by normal humans, as we learn to use our powers for the benefit of mankind … to help those who would distrust us if they knew of our existence!

xmen1The essential DNA of the masochistic schizophrenia that has afflicted all the subsequent incarnations of Marvel Comics’ hyper-successful ongoing “X” franchise (“Uncanny X-Men,” “X-Factor,” “New Mutants,” “X-Force,” x-cetera) is firmly encoded in that one inaugural speech from Professor X. The “help” he envisions his secret trainees providing for unsuspecting humanity mainly took the form of protecting people from evil mutants, from super-powered beings who want the race of mutants – homo Superior – to rule the world. These “evil” mutants don’t share Xavier’s weird dream of mutants serving and protecting humans who hate and despise them – and really, who would? In any race-conflict like the one Lee so presciently set out in that first 1963 issue, the best outcome is usually semi-peaceful co-existence – not martyr-complex servitude. Professor X was lucky to find even five mutant teenagers who’d join him in such a dippy world-view (and even back in the innocent ’60s, more thancyclops and jean gray one reader wondered if the good professor wasn’t using his mental powers to ‘convince’ his own students that they shouldn’t be trying to rule the world).

Find them he did: five young students led by Scott Summers, code-named “Cyclops” and able to fire energy-beams from his mutant eyes, and Jean Grey, code-named “Marvel Girl,” who at first displayed only telekinesis but who quickly developed some of the same mind-reading abilities as Professor Xavier. Other team-members came and went over the decades, but the heart and soul of the team tended to remain Cyclops and Marvel Girl.

Flash forward thirty years, and we come to the latest in Marvel’s ongoing line of cheap, black-and-white reprint volumes, “Essential X-Men” volume 11, reprinting two dozen issues from three or four “X”-franchise titles from 1991 (the profusion of “X-Men” spinoff titles in the ’90s will certainly slow the progress of these reprint volumes – at some 300 pages apiece, there will now be whole volumes that won’t even cover a third of a year) – and replicating, as it were, the exact same schizophrenic dichotomy die-hard readers first encountered way back in issue #1: what should the role of the various X-teams of superheroes be, in a world full of anti-mutant bigotry (and a world still full of mutants who want not to serve those bigots but to wipe them out)?

This “Essential” volume features a good deal of scripting by Fabian Nicienza, but it features much more by fan-favorite “X-Men” writer Chris Claremont, who wrote the first five issues reprinted here and the last three, setting the tone coming in and going out. The issues in the middle, mostly written in Claremontese by Nicienza, generally have such wretched artwork (Jerry DeCaire? Kirk Jarvinen? Terry Shoemaker? Steven Butler? Do even their own art teachers remember them?) that only the rabid “X” continuity fan will rejoice to see them reprinted here (there are brief, scattered exceptions – a lazy guest-shot by fan-favorite John Byrne, for instance, and some fun covers by the great Mike Mignola). Claremont’s issues are drawn with hyper-detailed virtuosity by Jim Lee – and that’s a lucky thing, since Claremont himself is in full Claremont mode throughout … meaning over-writing. Enormous over-writing, worse here than at any other point in his long, verbose career. On page after page, characters open their yaps, start talking, and simply keep talking. Here’s Ka-Zar the jungle man, lecturing hard-bitten military man Nick Fury on the hidden Savage Land’s ecosystem:

But these are centennial trees, the size they’d achieve after a hundred years or more. There are saurians roaming the Savage Land who should be hatchlings. Yet they’re fully grown with offspring of their own. Yes, the High Evolutionary restored the land to health, but the process he used contained some element of fantastically accelerated growth. Problem is, when you put that kind of extreme environmental pressure on a dynamic organism, you should expect an equally dynamic evolutionary response.

stormThat took four large word-balloons to get out. Lee excelled himself drawing those centennial trees, but readers sure don’t get to see much of them, plastered over the way they are. And Nick Fury clearly thinks turnabout is fair play; when he has to explain to the X-Men that the world’s nuclear powers are arming against their arch-foe Magneto, he explains everything:

I’m breakin’ a whole host o’ rules by makin’ this call, Forge, but I don’t much care. The decision’s been made and ratified by the Security Council to execute Stage 3 of the Magneto Protocols. In compliance, American strategic forces have gone to defcon-1. So’ve the Russians. In effect, a state of war now exists between the great powers and Magneto. And they mean to do whatever’s necessary to bring him down. The Russians have launched an assault vehicle, representing the pinnacle of their military technology. It’s an energy cannon, firing beams of ultra high-intensity nuclear plasma. It’s never been field tested. It’s so powerful they didn’t dare inside the atmosphere. It’s the kind of weapon a body’d used to punch through planets. Which is pretty much just what they intend to do to Magneto’s orbiting rock and everyone aboard. Unless, maybe, you were to get there first an’ take ‘em off. But if you’re gonna move, it’s gotta be now and it’s gotta be fast.

Might be easier to get moving if he’d ever shut up, but nobody tells him that – because in a Claremont issue, they’d take just as long to shut him up as he took to talk. The run reprinted in this volume has some genuinely grand X-Men moments (one story in particular, an intergalactic romp featuring an evil duplicate of Professor X, stands up extremely well to re-reading), but stalking every page is the threat of Claremont’s wolverinelogorrhea – with the prize going to Professor X himself, who uncorks a speech that swallows an entire page of Jim Lee’s beautiful art:

You did wrong, Moira. We are not gods, though our powers make some think differently. We have no right to tamper with another’s inner being. But you also are not to blame. As Magneto himself said, the forces that shaped him did their work long before the X-Men were born. Now perhaps the time has come to do some shaping of our own. To act on the stage of history. Like Magneto, we have choices in our lives. We have taken our stand for what we believe in. We were both haunted men, him by a nightmare, me be a dream. Time will tell which of us was right. His choice was ever fueled by rage, tainted by the despair that scars his soul. As ours, I pray, will be sustained by hope. We have it within ourselves, X-Men … as do all people, whether mutants or no … to leave our world better than we found it. To strive for the heights of our potential, to seek out the best in ourselves and in others, where Magneto would have automatically assumed the worst. Yes, this is an ideal, perhaps an unattainable one, but success in this is not what is important. What matters is the attempt, and our powers, our role as heroes – perhaps even the simple fact that we live – gives us the obligation to try.

He’s still talking when the issue’s credits roll.

The run reprinted here first hit comic shops during a renaissance in X-titles, and it set the tone for the next twenty years of writers’ attitudes toward framing the good-mutants/bad-mutants dichotomy Stan Lee started all those decades ago. The concept of Magneto, for instance, as a semi-heroic fighter for his race’s survival (kind of a Malcolm X in spandex) largely takes root here, as does the often ambivalent attitude even them most altruistic X-Men have toward their human charges. It’s interesting to re-visit these issues and see so many key elements taking shape for the modern era (the first trio of X-Men movies – and the next trio – would have been unthinkable without this run).

It’d be nice to get a word in edgewise, though.