X-Men: The Hidden Years begins immediately after the 66th and final issue of the original X-Men comic book series. Professor X had just returned from the dead, and after hearing what the team had been up to during his absence he gives them all a Picard grade facepalm and says… “If you didn’t actually SEE Magneto’s dead body… THEN HE PROBABLY ISN’T DEAD.”
So Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, and the Beast use the Sentinel hovercraft they stole from Larry Trask in issue #59 to fly back to the Savage Land and confirm the fate of their arch nemesis. Iceman got into a scuffle with Havok over Lorna Dane and quit the team, so he wasn’t along for the ride. After IMMEDIATELY crashing their irreplaceable and experimental one-of-a-kind spacecraft into the Savage Land, the X-Men are knocked out and taken captive by natives. When they wake up the natives tell them that Jean died in the crash. We also learn that Magneto really is dead and is actually super pissed off that the X-Men murdered him.
After Cyclops does some hardcore angsting over the death of his would-be girlfriend, Angel finds out that when the natives said Jean had passed on to the Land of the Dead they meant it literally and “Land of the Dead” is actually what they call an area of the Savage Land just a few miles away. So Cyclops, Angel, and the Beast go looking for her. Cyclops gets shot in the heart with an arrow but doesn’t die because of a weird regenerative radiation that exists in the Savage Land that gives everyone a healing factor. Meanwhile Magneto captures Jean’s incapacitated body and takes her prisoner so she can’t meddle with his plans. Around this time Professor X sends Havok and Lorna to the Savage Land to help out. For once in the history of the X-Men, two members of the team manage to land a plane without crashing.
Havok and Lorna get to the Savage Land in issue 3. Just put that in your back pocket for now.
While looking for Jean, Angel flies into a storm and gets knocked out, getting separated from Cyclops and the Beast. Jean wakes up and starts wandering around Magneto’s lair, and she discovers that Magneto is not actually dead but is using an astral projection of himself to manipulate the superstitious natives of the Savage Land. Cyclops and the Beast eventually find Magneto’s lair and beat the piss out of him and save Jean, but while attempting to escape Magneto’s erupting volcanic lair Cyclops strains his optic blasts by trying to tunnel an escape path and he goes into a coma.
Um… yeah. That would be “brain-dead” and you need to get him hooked up to a ventilator as soon as possible.
Jean and the Beast lug Cyclops and Magneto out of the volcano and they run into Angel and his new Savage Land bird-girl girlfriend. They all escape in a weird blimp, pretty much leaving thousands of Magneto’s underlings to die horrible molten deaths in the volcanic lava.
The X-Men don’t make it very far because their blimp flies into a storm and breaks apart and everyone gets separated. Magneto lands back in the Savage Land where he spends several days making himself a spiffy new costume. Beast lands at the edge of Africa where he’s found by Ororo Munroe, a young mutant princess who later becomes Storm of the X-Men. Cyclops and Jean also land in Africa but are found by an evil mutant named Deluge. Angel and his Savage Land bird-girl girlfriend land in the ocean and are picked up by some pirates who sell them to the carnival.
Deluge eventually captures the Beast and Storm along with Cyclops and Jean and he tries to murder them all in a convoluted drowning scenario when he could have just stabbed them. But the 3½ of them (Cyclops is still in a coma) murder him instead and go home. Meanwhile Iceman gets alerted to the situation and tries to run to the Savage Land from the southern tip of South America. His body washes up on the coast of the Savage Land and is found by Dr. Karl Lykos, otherwise known as the villain Sauron in his human form, who takes Iceman home and nurses him back to health but for some reason never gives him a robe or anything to put on over his underwear. They hang out for 2 weeks like this in Sauron’s weird bondage hut.
When Cyclops, Jean, and the Beast get home, instead of thinking to look for any of their missing friends (Angel, Havok, Lorna, or Iceman), or maybe even taking 5 minutes to get a nap in or go to the bathroom, they immediately blast off into space with the Fantastic Four to tie up another loose end from the original X-Men series. Reed Richards and Professor X are having a giant anxiety attack over the X’Nox alien race that attacked Earth in X-Men #65 and they conclude that the only solution is to track them to their home planet and commit genocide before they can attack Earth again. Jean’s green costume is dirty so she wears her original yellow and black outfit from when she first join the team, and her and Cyclops treat the whole genocidal rampage like a big superhero double date with Johnny Storm and Crystal from the Inhumans. Gotta admit, this would be a pretty great date.
After obliterating every last member of one of the only known sentient alien races in the entire universe, our heroes return home. Professor X uses Cerebro to figure out where Angel is and he sends Cyclops, Jean, and Angel’s human girlfriend Candy Southern (who is dressed in Jean’s dirty green costume for some reason I can’t remember) to go rescue him. Everyone seems to forget about Havok and Lorna who have been aimlessly wandering around the Savage Land with Ka-Zar for 7 straight issues. I think even Havok and Lorna forgot what they are doing there at this point. Professor X takes the Beast and goes to investigate another mutant situation in Illinois where a little girl who has manipulative powers over inanimate objects has taken control of the last Sentinel in existence. It’s kind of like the Iron Giant. When Professor X and the Beast show up the Sentinel flips out and tries to kill them but the little girl rips it into a million pieces.
Issue 11. I’m pretty sure this is exactly how the Iron Giant ends too.
Unfortunately this is where the story starts splitting into several unrelated paths. Magneto, Iceman, Sauron, Lorna, and Havok all meet up in the Savage land and get into a big fight; Cyclops, Jean and Angel’s human girlfriend Candy Southern find the carnie cargo ship where Angel and Angel’s Savage Land bird-girl girlfriend were being held captive; and Professor X continues to deal with the Sentinel situation in Illinois. Magneto gets the crap kicked out of him and is left for dead in a pile of Savage Land volcanic rubble; Cyclops and Jean don’t find Angel on the carnie cargo ship because the carnie leader sold them to The Blob, Unus, and Mastermind; and Xavier does a mutant power lobotomy on the little girl in Illinois because she started to get all creepy with her powers like Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. After the fight with Magneto in the Savage Land, Havok and Lorna finally get to go home (after 10 issues, nearly half the series!!), and Magneto’s last surviving henchmen gets really eloquently introspective about the whole ordeal.
Meanwhile the carnie leader uses his ability to nullify mutant powers to capture Cyclops, Jean, and Angel’s human girlfriend Candy Southern and he sells them to the Blob, Unus, and Mastermind along with Angel and Angel’s Savage Land bird-girl girlfriend. Instead of just killing them, the evil mutants stage a huge circus illusion to try to get the X-Men to hurt themselves, which is completely asinine and doesn’t work because the X-Men aren’t complete morons.
With the help of the carnie leader who got really pissed after realizing Mastermind had been paying him with illusion bucks, the X-Men defeat the evil mutants and rescue Angel’s Savage Land bird-girl girlfriend and everything turns out ok and everyone goes home happy!!!
Issue 14. Well almost everyone.
You’d think that by this point the X-Men would really be jonesing for a nap or a bathroom break, but unfortunately there isn’t time. Candy was trying to find Angel to tell him that his evil Uncle Burt had returned from the dead and was wooing his mother into marriage in an attempt to steal the Worthington fortune. Angel is still a little sore over that time Uncle Burt murdered his father, so he and the X-Men fly to Long Island to deal with the situation. They manage to expose Uncle Burt’s plan, but not before Uncle Burt poisons and murders Angel’s mother. Not gonna lie, this story was a total downer.
Meanwhile Havok and Lorna get bored because they never get invited on any missions and they jet off to the Himalayas to investigate a random Cerebro blip. After returning from Long Island the rest of the X-Men follow them, everyone gets attacked by the Yeti, the Inhumans show up to defeat the Yeti, and everybody goes home. When the X-Men get back to Westchester Kraven ambushes them and poisons Angel’s Savage Land bird-girl girlfriend in order to force the Beast to fight him in the Hunger Games. The Beast wins the Hunger games and Kraven goes away.
From here the final story arcs of the series begin. Honestly, there is so much shit going on here I don’t even think I can describe it all. Lorna gets kidnapped by a cult and put into suspended animation, Professor X begins an inappropriate relationship with the mother of a potential student, while attempting to save Lorna the other X-Men wind up underground where they encounter the Mole Man, the Sub-Mariner rescues Magneto from the Savage Land, Magneto convinces the Sub-Mariner to attack New York City, the Fantastic Four confront the invading forces of Atlantis, Havok gets chased through the streets of New York City by a racist mob, Angel mediates a domestic dispute between a 34 year old woman who has been in suspended animation and her 48 year old son, and eventually all the bad guys get defeated. Happy birthday, the end.
X-Men: The Hidden Years is an exercise in neurosis. I wanted to lay out the storyline from beginning to end to show just how manic it is. Literally, for these 22 issues, the X-Men do not eat, they do not sleep, and they don’t even get to use the bathroom. They jump from crisis to crisis without taking a break, hopped up on Xavier’s brain jolt juice to keep them going without any rest. This series was supposed to last much longer but was canceled supposedly because of editorial reorganization. I don’t know if this is true, but I don’t think I could have taken another 40 issues like this. Which is strange because on paper X-Men: The Hidden Years seems like such a good idea.
Some history. The original X-Men comic book began publication in 1963. Though it was original in its exploration of civil rights parallels and beloved by its creators who gave the series years to find an audience, it was never very popular. In 1970 the series was finally canceled and delegated to reprints until 1975 when it was brought back to life with new creators, new characters, and an entirely new storytelling style. This cancellation has always been disappointing for fans because not only did it deprived them of 5 years of stories right at the beginning of the bronze age of comic books, but it was bookended with incredibly high quality material. In 1970 just before the series went on hiatus Neil Adams and Roy Thomas revitalized the original team with a popular new direction that showed incredibly potential but ultimately came just a few months too late to save the series. And of course in 1975 Len Wein, Chris Claremont, and Dave Cockrum created an All-New, All-Different team that turned the X-Men into the most popular comic book in the entire industry.
At roughly 4 million copies, this comic book, which came at the very end of Chris Claremont’s 17 year run as writer, is still the highest selling comic book of all time.
To further antagonize fans, between 1970 and 1975 the X-Men made a smattering of appearances in other Marvel comic books that seemed to hint at big things happening to the team behind the scenes. Rifts were forming between characters and massive physical changes were happening to others, and sometimes these events were only mentioned in passing. When the series finally restarted in 1975 it was clear that the characters of the original team were older and more developed. Their relationships had evolved but it was up to the reader to fill in the specific details with their imagination.
It’s because of these reasons that people have always been curious about the X-Men stories that could have been told during the years it was canceled. Enter John Byrne and 1999’s X-Men: The Hidden Years. Byrne is no amateur when it comes to writing the X-Men. In 1978 he began a collaboration with Chris Claremont that resulted in the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past, the most famous X-Men stories of all time. There are few people in the comic book industry so entrenched in the mythos of the series or with a greater understanding and respect for the time period. And Byrne’s passion for the project is obvious as he writes and draws every single panel in an attempt to meticulously bridge the stories of the original series. He even enlists Tom Palmer who was inker during the Neal Adams run to help him more closely match the visual style of the stories that came before him. In the Hidden Years he obsessively sees to every loose end that the original series left open, weaving in and out of the authentic appearances the X-Men made in other comic books, addressing all of the persistent continuity while adding a ton of detail to flesh out the characters and their relationships. But unfortunately X-Men: the Hidden Years never reaches the heights of the comic books it is attempting to co-exist with.
Anybody remember this little ditty? Byrne drew it.
So exactly what goes wrong here? It seems like everything is in place for a historic and entertaining set of X-Men stories to finally come to life. While the material presented here certainly isn’t a complete disaster, in my opinion the main issue is that Byrne gets completely carried away with his task. He has so many ideas for things that could be happening during this time period, it’s like he had been dreaming about writing these stories for 20 years before he actually got the chance to do it. And I can’t deny it is a special kind of fan service-y fun to see all the little details get filled in. Such things as why did Magneto’s costume change between when he was seemingly killed in X-Men #63 and when the Sub-Mariner rescues him from the Savage Land in Fantastic Four #102?
Exactly when, how, and why were Warren’s parents horribly murdered by a vicious psychopath?
And whatever happened to that group of mutants that worked for the Yellow Claw back in that 1956 crime drama comic that everybody totally remembers?
There are a lot of clever elements bridging the stories of 1970 to 1975 that fans will love, but in the end there is too much stuff going on for this to be a concise reading experience. In addition to tying up loose ends, Byrne adds layer upon layer of new continuity, bringing in new characters and events, bringing back old characters that we don’t necessarily need to see again, and twisting the narrative with B, C, and D story threads that are completely unrelated to each other. Where the original series was more evenly paced, letting the X-Men catch a realistic breather in between their clashes with super villains and allowing time to build up to the next big encounter, the Hidden Years never lets up. There is no sense of tension as one thing happens after another, on and on and on. I hate to knock Byrne as a writer, but there is no patience here, no build up, and consequently there is no pay off to anything that happens.
It’s ironic that so much shit is going on in these issues because by definition this series is entirely inconsequential. This is the second major problem with the Hidden Years. Nothing important can actually happen in these stories. The characters cannot die or get maimed or mutate or get married or have children or undergo any development that is not already acutely documented. There can be no character development that we don’t already know about. Everything must end in exactly the state we know it to be in in Giant Sized X-Men #1. If Byrne’s manic pacing didn’t already kill the tension, the lack of stakes finishes the job.
I really wanted to include this picture of Kraven almost decapitating Angel’s 47 pound Savage Land bird-girl girlfriend with a karate chop to the neck. She was the only character that I was ever worried about because she pretty much gets tortured and mutilated throughout the entire series and we never see her in Uncanny X-Men which means Mr. Loose End OCD John Byrne was obligated to kill her at some point and she was the sweetest nicest little bird girl ever! She didn’t bother anyone! She didn’t even want to be there but the X-Men wouldn’t take her home! I was having a panic attack every time she was in panel because it meant there was some horrible new form of physical abuse awaiting her on the next page.
Despite all these misgivings, I do think that anyone who enjoyed the original run of the X-Men would get a kick out of this modernized sequel. It’s kind of like a movie sequel that comes out decades after the original. It doesn’t actually succeed in feeling like a natural extension of the series, but it does let us visit the characters and setting again, with tons of references to the stories we love. Byrne’s art ranges from rock solid to a little busy in spots, but I was happy to see him get the chance to draw these characters again. If only the writing could have been condensed. It seems like half of the material in these 22 issues could get cut without losing anything significant. With a stronger editor revising these stories, or if Byrne had another writer collaborating with him to keep him focused on the important stuff, I think this series could have been really great. Regardless, because it was canceled after only 22 issues for reasons unrelated to quality, these misgivings are moot. If the series had been better, the inevitable cancelation would have been even more disappointing. As it stands, I’m content with stopping here and getting back to the classic stories of the 1970s. Bring on furry Beast!!