werner roth

Review:  The Beginning - Issues 1-66

“Hello Jean Grey. Welcome to the X-Men. Could I interest you in a bit of SEXUAL ASSAULT?” (The X-Men #1 - Sept 1963)

I’m sorry but if I saw this in real life alls I would think is “man what impeccable handwriting.” (The X-Men #1 - Sept 1963)

omg look at the size of Xavier’s noodle (The X-Men #1 - Sept 1963)

Ok. Sorry. First, some bookkeeping. Because I have OCD. And I like to keep track of these things.

The initial run of The X-Men consists of issues 1-66 and was originally published from September 1963 – March 1970. The series was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but after issue 17 Roy Thomas did most of the writing and Werner Roth did much of the drawing. The X-Men fought Magneto 6 times (although during one of these encounters Magneto was actually a robot), the Juggernaut 3 times, the Sentinels twice, the Avengers twice, Merlin twice (yes, King Arthur’s Merlin), and Frankenstein’s monster once. There were many single issue enemies I had never heard of and don’t care to remember. Several future X-Men were introduced including Banshee, Polaris, Havok, and Sunfire, but none of them officially joined the team as an active member. Professor X appeared to have died in issue 42 and returned in issue 65, so he was not present for a third of the run. Scott and Jean angsted over their feelings for each other in thought bubbles approximately 147,000 times. The phrase “Holy Hannah!” was used approximately 147,000 times.

Despite his large number of appearances Magneto managed to kill exactly 0 people. Magneto managed to maim exactly 0 people. Magneto managed to successfully execute exactly 0 evil plans. In all his appearances Magneto managed to do not one ounce of harm to anyone but himself. However, Magneto saved the lives of about 10 people, including Angel, and he even took the time to make Angel a really nice new costume with a neat halo on it. The X-Men defeated the Juggernaut once by removing his helmet and zapping his brain, and twice by banishing him to the ruby dimension of the Cyttorak stone from whence he received his powers. The Sentinels were finally defeated when Cyclops tricked them into flying to the sun. I started reading sometime in August 2014. I took a 2 month break to read A Dance with Dragons. I started this blog on December 7th 2014. My wiener dog looked at me longingly with a tennis ball in his mouth about 300 times during this reading.

I mean look at this shit. “Don’t mind me. I’ll just be in here. Letting my short life slip away. Go ahead and have fun reading your little funny books all day.”

As a longtime fan I have always wanted to do this. Read all of the X-Men from the very start. There’s so much goobledeygook continuity in this series that it’s almost impossible to keep it all straight. But I wanted to see how things held together if I read it straight through, as God intended. And so far it’s tight as a ship. Almost to an obsessive level. The writers and editors really worked hard back then to keep all the characters and events consistent. This is something that was great about Marvel at that time, and it’s in contrast to the event driven focus of their comic books and the ubiquitous nature of their characters now. It is so refreshing to read serialized superhero stories like this again.

That being said there are also a few little annoyances that go along with reading comic books from this era. The stories are very formulaic with a new villain appearing almost every issue. And the writing is blaringly loud, screaming in your ear every second as if the writers were afraid you would lose interest if they stopped to take a breath.

I’m going to ruin pre-1970s comic books for you now. I didn’t notice this until about issue 20, but once I did notice it, I couldn’t unnoticed it. And once I noticed it, reading these comic books became a bit more of a chore. It would seem that comic book writers of this era didn’t use periods. EVER. Go back and look at the pictures I’ve posted. There isn’t a single sentence ending with a period. If these characters aren’t asking a question, or dramatically using ellipses, they are shouting. With exclamation points. CONSTANTLY. It doesn’t matter what they are doing, what they are saying, or what they are thinking. They are doing it loudly, and in my head it sounds like everyone is screaming through a megaphone.

I mean who sits around the breakfast table shouting like this? I mean besides most families.


And this brings me to the first questionable opinion I’m going to state. I wasn’t crazy about Roy Thomas’s writing. I know the man is a legend, and that he is well regarded for his runs on the X-Men and the Avengers and about a million other series, and that he created the Vision, Ultron, Sunfire, and about a million other characters, and that he would go on to succeed Stan Lee as editor-in-chief at Marvel, but I’m ashamed to say that most of the writing presented here didn’t do it for me. Aside from the aforementioned scream dialog (which admittedly is in every issue, not just the ones Thomas wrote, and was probably an editorial decree), the monster of the week formula got old very quickly, and the one-dimensional personalities of the main characters were not engaging. But perhaps my biggest peeve with Thomas’s writing is his belligerent overuse of the phrase “Holy Hannah!” Seriously what does that even mean?

I understand that Thomas was continuing the style introduced by Stan Lee in the first 17 issues, but the stories that Kirby and Lee came up with made up for the campiness by being much more memorable, exciting, and enduring. In fact, the only time Thomas’s work gets really interesting is when he’s fleshing out ideas that Stan and Jack introduced, such as developing Magneto or the Juggernaut, or revisiting the Sentinels’ vendetta against mutant kind.

This was all pretty darn good stuff.

And that brings me to the second questionable opinion I’m going to state. Please don’t murder me for this one. I wasn’t crazy about Neal Adams’s artwork.

I really don’t know what’s wrong with me here. Looking over the pictures I’ve taken from issues 56-65, the art is so rich and so amazing. What the hell was my problem while I was reading through these? I guess I felt like maybe it was too realistic. The faces and bodies too angular. The expressions too rubbery. I’ve always thought that if you put a real life person in a superhero costume it would look really silly or be too cumbersome to allow for effective crime fighting. For me, Adams’s art proves the former. His realistic style clashes with the fantastic settings and it often interfered with my ability to suspend disbelief.

I want to chalk these feelings up to having more classic sensibilities. I want my comic book art from this time period to be a little less realistic and a little more consistent with other silver age artists. For me anyway, the jump from Werner Roth’s strict layouts to Adams’s experimental style was too quick and jarring. I don’t know. Or maybe this is just a case of having something built up in my head for so long that it couldn’t live up to the hype. This was my first exposure to Neal Adams and maybe I’ll look back on this after a while and wonder what the heck I was thinking. Or now that I’ve had the experienced maybe I’ll be able to revisit these issues with more reasonable expectations and enjoy them more.

Goofiness aside, Adams’s artwork is always incredibly striking.

With all of this negativity, it probably seems like I didn’t enjoy reading these issues, and that’s not true. Despite these nagging annoyances there was so much stuff in here that made my nerd heart flutter. I already gushed at length about Jim Steranko’s artwork in issues 50 and 51. Those two issues were the pinnacle of the run for me. And not just for the art. These issues told as classic an X-Men story as anyone could ask for. The original X-Men and Magneto going at it at the height of their powers (a slight bummer when a few issues later it turned out that Magneto was a robot). Unlike the Neal Adams issues, I went into these with no expectations and that might be why I liked them so much more.

Steranko’s art has a sort of kinetic energy to it that heightens the tension of the story. I enjoyed these issues so much that I bought his entire Marvel Masterworked run on Nick Fury.

I have no idea when I’m going to read these.

Aside from the Steranko issues, I loved all the core themes, characters and plots introduced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the first 17 issues. Yes the writing is loud, but it’s just stunning how enduring their work is. The school, the original team, Xavier, Magneto, the brotherhood, the Juggernaut, and the Sentinels—these are the core elements of the X-Men mythos, and how they are presented here is very consistent with how they exist today. It’s amazing how much of their material has continued to persist and drive the series for so many years.

Despite the flaws in these issues this was a really enjoyable experience. The X-Men are my favorite thing in the world (tied with old video games, Buffy, and the Transformers). Getting to see the origins of everything was a ton of fun and I’m glad it’s all preserved so meticulously. I wouldn’t change any of it, not the art, writing, scream talking, newspaper panel layouts, camp, sexism, or the monsters of the week. It’s the sum of its flaws and a product of its time. I probably wouldn’t give these issues to someone who doesn’t enjoy comic books or who is unfamiliar with the X-Men and say “Here, this is what makes this so great.” But for anyone who loves this stuff as much as I do this is all can’t miss material. And the most exciting thing about these first 66 issues is they are merely the setup for what’s to come.