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Comics: X-Men – The Hidden Years, Volume 2

X-Men: The Hidden Years, Volume 2

by John Byrne

Marvel Comics, 2012

The spandex-clad figures sadly walking off into the sunset on the cover of Marvel Comics’ latest graphic novel aren’t dying or even fading away – they’re the original line-up of Marvel’s X-Men, once the company’s most popular super-team (until the Avengers stomped into the world’s movie theaters this summer and took back the top spot). The irony of the line-up on the cover of X-Men: The Hidden Years, Volume 2 – a line-up featuring Cyclops (who can fire energy-beams from his eyes), Angel (who can fly using his great big wings), Iceman (who can cover himself in ice and fire ice-pellets), Marvel Girl (who can read other people’s minds and move objects with her own) and Beast (who’s built like a super-powered gorilla), plus wheelchair-bound Professor X, who runs Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters as a cover for training his teenage charges in the use of their super-powers – the irony of this line-up is that it didn’t prove popular, not at first. When Stan Lee introduced his mutant super-team way back in 1963, it faced stiff competition from Marvel’s other two super-team books, The Fantastic Four and The Avengers (them again!), and The Uncanny X-Men limped along in sales until issue #66, at which point the title was turned over to reprints and given up for dead. It carried on that way until issue #94, when Marvel decided to bring on a new creative team – writer Chris Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum – who developed an all-new team (except for team leader Cyclops, who rejoined the proceedings) and stumbled into a brand-new popularity.

That popularity only increased when Cockrum was replaced with fan-favorite artist John Byrne. Claremont and Byrne went on to create one of the seminal comic book runs of all time, and the all-new X-Men were firmly installed in the Marvel canon.

Eventually, both Claremont and Byrne wandered away from the title, and X-Men went through some rocky (i.e. crappy) periods over the ensuing decades, and it wasn’t just during those periods that long-time fans sometimes wished the title could recapture the magic of the Claremont/Byrne issues. And some very long-time fans still forlornly wished the original incarnation of the team had been popular enough to continue in its own book without needing a revamp (comics fans, almost by definition, can be a little strange). So the idea of John Byrne returning to write and draw a limited series chronicling the ‘lost’ adventures between issue #66 and issue #94 seemed like a godsend. X-Men: The Hidden Years premiered in 2000 and ran to 2001, and this second volume (printed on slick paper and sporting the flagrantly criminal price-tag of $35) collects the final ten issues.

Those long-time fans of the original X-Men didn’t exactly make this title a runaway sales success, but it’s nevertheless a hoot to see the original team (plus latecomers Havok – who can only barely control the energy-blasts that periodically rip from his body – and Polaris – who has green hair and some control over magnetism) back in action, fighting a host of bad guys that includes the Spider-Man villain Kraven the Hunter and the Fantastic Four bad guy named the Mole Man. And since Stan Lee’s original concept was that the team be social outcasts – sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them, as a later iteration put it – Byrne adds some heavy dollops of exposition on the evils of bigotry. At one point the naive Havok, having nearly been killed by a crowd of New Yorkers whose lives he’d just saved, complains:

Any one of those normal, decent, upright American citizens would cheerfully killed me … for no more reason that my genes gut lined up differently than theirs!

to which Professor X replies:

A lesson learned … And not all are mutants. Sometimes no more than a slight difference of faith is enough. Such is the yoke humanity must, it seems, ever bear.

(If you’re thinking ‘writer/artist’ is about 50% too generous here, well, you’re not alone)

Offsetting the polemics are Byrne’s signature pencilling skills, here abundantly if occasionally lopsidedly (it would kill him to draw some backgrounds? Apparently, it would kill him) displayed. And where would the X-Men be without their signature villain, Magneto, the master of magnetism (similar to Polaris’ power – so much so that she originally thought she was M’s daughter)? He appears at the close of Byrne’s run, in a two-issue story that ingeniously interweaves with two long-ago issues of The Fantastic Four. As a bonus, those original FF issues – with artwork by Jack Kirby and John Romita, Sr. – are included at the back of this volume (not much of an added bonus, mind you, since for $35 Stan Lee should come to your house and play-act all the speaking parts in your living room, but still), which gives the whole thing an extra veneer of continuity guaranteed to please die-hard Marvel fanatics.

That fading-into-the-sunset cover is a slightly deceptive, of course: the original team never really stopped having adventures (indeed, it was to save them from one such adventure that the new team was formed) – fans just stopped buying their book. X-Men: The Hidden Years provides those only slightly repentant fans with a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.