Where to Start with The X-Men by Jay Edidin
Originally appearing in our inaugural Quarterly Almanac, Where to Start with The X-Men is the first in an ongoing series of essays detailing where one can start with any number of SFF/popgeekery topics. For this round, we tapped Jay Edidin of Jay and Miles Xplain The X-Men. Enjoy!
MY NAME IS JAY EDIDIN, and I explain the X-Men.
Don’t laugh: it’s a living. Even in the sprawling landscape of superhero comics, the X-Men are notably unwieldy: fifty-three years, thousands of comics, dozens of spinoffs, three animated series, and two cancelled pilots (not to mention the brand-dubious Mutant X). And then there are the movies: once the X-Men’s most accessible point of entry, the feature-film franchise now spans sixteen years, eight installments,2 and a tangle of branching timelines and contradictory continuity that would do the comics proud.
Last month,3 the eight chapter of Fox’s X-Men franchise hit the theaters to baffle and bewilder a whole new generation of fans;4 who will then—Xavier willing and the creek don’t rise—find their way back to the still more convoluted world of the comics, where a rival generation of long-term X-Men readers will be waiting to judge the hell out of them for not knowing who Adam X the X-Treme5 is.
But you, dear reader; you will be ready. Because—surprise!—you’re about to get a crash course in the ins, outs and retcons of comics’ greatest superhero soap opera.
Trust me. I’m an X-Pert.
X-Men hit the stands on September 1, 1963. Written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, X-Men #1 introduced a team of five yellow-and-black clad teenagers, billed on the cover as “The strangest superheroes of them all!” in a pitched battle with Magneto, the Master of Magnetism.
The Silver-Age X-Men lasted 66 issues before lapsing into reprints and then an extended hiatus.6 They re-emerged in 1975, with Giant-Size X-Men #1, written by Len Wein and drawn by Dave Cockrum, which replaced most of the original all-WASP team with a new, older, international line-up. Cockrum would stay on as series artist, but Wein was shortly replaced by Chris Claremont, who would go on to write the title—and shape the widening X-line—for the next seventeen years. Most of the elements of X-Men that have made their way into popular consciousness—including the franchise’s distinctly soap-opera feel—have their roots in Claremont’s run; and the storylines of four of the films7 draw heavily from some of his best-known storylines.
Under Claremont, X-Men rapidly grew from a fringe book to Marvel’s best-selling title, branching into a range of spinoff series: New Mutants, which introduced a new team of superpowered teens; X-Factor, which reunited the original five Silver-Age X-Men under a new banner; Excalibur, which brought Marvel’s merry mutants across the pond to team up with Marvel UK headliners Captain Britain and Meggan; and Wolverine, which featured the X-Men’s most popular member in much bloodier solo adventures.
In 1991, Marvel relaunched X-Men. Propelled on the cresting wave of the comics-speculator boom, X-Men #1, scripted by Chris Claremont and drawn by Jim Lee, still holds the world record for best-selling comic of all time. In 1992, Fox launched the animated series that defined the team to a generation of kids, mixing Lee’s iconic costume designs with varyingly loyal8 adaptations of Claremont’s classic storylines. In 1994, facing bankruptcy, Marvel sold the X-Men’s movie rights—along with several other franchises—to Fox, where they remain to this day.
The X-line foundered through most of the ‘90s, and didn’t really regain its footing until 2000, when Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely took the reins of the flagship title, New X-Men; and the first Fox feature film introduced a new generation to the franchise and ushered in the modern era of superhero movies. This is the X-Men—comics and film—in which the modern incarnations of the franchise find their most direct roots.
The X-Men vary a lot from incarnation to incarnation, but most iterations share a few common factors:
THE PREMISE: The X-Men are mutants—possessed of a common genetic mutation that gives them a shocking array of superpowers, which usually9 manifest around puberty. Concerned by the widespread persecution of mutants10 and the rise of evil mutants, Professor Charles Xavier assembles the X-Men, a band of mutants dedicated to fighting to protect a world that—to varying extents—hates and fears them.11
THE MUTANT METAPHOR: The X-Men are, fundamentally, outsiders. They work in the margins—often at odds with established power, occasionally in uneasy alliance. As such, mutants tend to serve as a varyingly obvious stand-in for actual marginalized populations. The groups for which the X-Men serve as a metaphor have varied to reflect the social and political concerns and consciousness of different eras; and often come at the expense of actual representational diversity in X-media.12
THE SOAP OPERA: Despite the tights and fights, X-Men is traditionally a heavily character-driven franchise, with a heavy helping of love triangles, faked deaths, surprise clones, and dramatic retcons.13
THE TIMELINES: Sure, everyone in the Marvel Universe time-travels these days; but the X-Men did it before it was cool. The X-Men the source of a disproportionate number of split timelines and alternate chronologies,14 and their continuity is convoluted even on the significantly skewed scale of long-running superhero franchises.15
Got all that? Good, because it’s time to take a look at the core cast! Because there are a whole lot of X-Men—like, hundreds—I’m going to stick with the ones you’re most likely to meet in X-Men: Apocalypse:
PROFESSOR X (Charles Xavier):16 On both page and screen, Professor X is the telepathic founder and mentor of the X-Men. He’s ludicrously wealthy, and in most timelines ends up bald and in a wheelchair. Professor X nominally works toward a dream of peaceful human-mutant cooperation but is regularly tripped up by his own hubris and his persistent belief that it’s okay to train up teenagers as a paramilitary group.
Currently in the comics: Dead.
MAGNETO (Erik Lehnsherr, plus a whole lot of other aliases): Professor X’s best frenemy and the X-Men’s oldest antagonist (and frequent ally), Magneto is a Holocaust survivor and mutant supremacist. He controls magnetism, which in the Silver Age meant “literally anything we make up, with no actual understanding of how magnets work” and later gained marginally more (and still shaky) resemblance to actual magnetic fields. In X-Men: Apocalypse, he at least temporarily works for the eponymous villain.
Currently in the comics: Running a semi-renegade team of X-Men.
CYCLOPS (Scott Summers): One of the original five in the comics; part of the second generation team in the movie Cyclops is the field leader of the X-Men. He’s socially awkward but a capable tactician, has an atypically rough relationship with his superpowers—optical energy blasts that he can’t control without adaptive technology—and generally comes in a two-pack with Jean Grey.17 Director Bryan Singer has described the teenage version of Cyclops who appears in X-Men: Apocalypse as both a “rebel” and a “jock,” both of which would differentiate him significantly from his comics counterpart. He’s older than his brother (Havok) in the comics and younger in the movies, an inconsistency that bugs me more than it probably should.18
Currently in the comics: The original Cyclops is dead, but there’s a time-displaced teen version of him currently running around with three of his four time-displaced classmates and a handful of modern X-teens.
PHOENIX OR MARVEL GIRL OR WHATEVER SHE’S GOING BY THESE DAYS (Jean Grey): Like Cyclops, Jean Grey is one of the original five in the comics; part of the second generation team in the movie. Jean is a telepath and telekinetic, always a redhead, occasionally evil, and the hypotenuse of X-Men’s most persistent love triangle. In the comics, she has a complicated and somewhat symbiotic relationship with a cosmic entity called the Phoenix Force; in X-Men: The Last Stand, the Phoenix was reframed as a suppressed alternate personality. Jean is arguably the most powerful member of the X-Men; suffers from persistent Silver-Age Girl Syndrome;19 uses codenames only sporadically; and generally comes in a two-pack with Cyclops.
Currently in the comics: The original Jean Grey is dead, but there’s a time-displaced teen version of her currently running around with the primary X-Men team.
BEAST (Hank McCoy): The only original X-Man in both comics and movies. Started out as a nerdy dude with outstanding acrobatic ability and prehensile toes; turned blue and furry as a result of irresponsible science, which is a running theme with Beast. Smart, personable—more in the comics than the movies—and occasionally obnoxiously self-righteous, Beast is also the X-Man most likely to irrevocably fracture the space-time continuum.
Currently in the comics: The original version of Beast is running around with the quasi-mutant Inhumans. There’s also a time-displaced teen version of him currently running around with three of his four time-displaced classmates and a handful of modern X-teens.
MYSTIQUE (Raven Darkholme): Blue-skinned shapeshifting femme fatale; Professor X’s adopted sister in the movies, Rogue’s adopted mom and Nightcrawler’s biological mom in the comics. Mystique is usually an antagonist, but she’s the kind of sympathetic antagonist who regularly gets her own ongoing series and periodically joins the X-Men.
Currently in the comics: Running with Magneto’s X-Men team.
HAVOK (Alex Summers): Cyclops’s younger brother in the comics, older brother in the movies. Havok is one of the few characters who’s significantly more interesting in his cinematic incarnation. The comics version of Havok has been largely defined by struggling to get out from under Cyclops’s probably very neat shadow and a dissertation in geophysics that has remained unfinished since the mid-1970s; the movie version is an ex-con, a Vietnam vet, and one of the original X-Men. Both versions generate energy blasts.
Currently in the comics: Unaccounted for.
JUBILEE (Jubilation Lee): The sassy poster child for neon early-’90s mall culture, Jubilee rose to stardom largely via the animated series. She generates energy bursts (“fireworks”) from her fingertips, and at least visually represents one of the more comics-loyal adaptations of X-Men: Apocalypse’s new generation of mutant kids.
Currently in the comics: Unaccounted for. Also a vampire with an adopted kid, because, sure, why not?
NIGHTCRAWLER (Kurt Wagner): A blue-skinned (blue-furred in the comics) teleporter. In the comics and the early movies, Nightcrawler is a paradoxical mix of swashbuckling happy-go-lucky circus performer and devout Catholic, including a brief stint as a maybe-priest. His movie parentage remains unconfirmed as of Days of Future Past—it may have been revealed by now in Apocalypse—but smart money is on the same parents as he has in the comics—Mystique and a bright red demon-looking dude named Azazel.
Currently in the comics: Hanging out with the main X-Men team.
WOLVERINE (James Howlett, James Logan, Logan, That One Guy Who’s Freakin’ Everywhere): Small, angry Canadian with accelerated healing and a skeleton made out of unbrekable sci-fi metal. Wolverine is basically the main character of six of the seven pre-Apocalypse X-Men movies,21 and so overhyped in the comics that it took like six miniseries to kill him off, and there’s still a version of him running around. The movie version is plagued by the lingering repercussions of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a spectacular trainwreck notable for the fact that at no point did anyone bother to inform the writer or director that wolverines aren’t actually wolves.
Currently in the comics: The original Wolverine is dead. The character currently using the code name Wolverine is named Laura Kinney; she’s a female, teenage, and an exponentially more interesting clone of the original. She’s currently headlining her own ongoing series and road-tripping around with four of the teen time-displaced original-five and a handful of other teens. (There’s also a grumpy old version of Logan running around with the main X-Men team, but he’s from a different timeline, and he doesn’t go by Wolverine.)
STORM (Ororo Munroe): Storm controls weather. In the comics, she was raised as a thief in Cairo and was briefly worshipped as a goddess20 in Kenya before joining the X-Men. How much of that backstory carries over to the movies is unclear: in the first three, she’s a singularly two-dimensional incarnation of the character; and in Apocalypse, she starts out as a teenager and a villain, although she’ll presumably switch sides before the end. Storm can fly, has a sweet Mohawk, and is generally the coolest person in any given room.
Currently in the comics: Running the X-Men.
ANGEL (Warren Worthington III): Another one of the original five. Angel made a brief appearance in X-Men: The Last Stand; how that version of the character relates to the one in X-Men: Apocalypse—who appears to be the same age in a movie that takes place 20 years earlier—is unclear. Like his comics counterpart, the Angel of Apocalypse has—again, at least temporarily—thrown his lot in with the Apocalypse, and gotten a sweet set of bladed wings in the bargain.
Currently in the comics: The original version of Angel is an empty shell controlled telepathically by Psylocke. There’s also a time-displaced teen version of him with flaming wings currently running around with three of his four time-displaced classmates and a handful of modern X-teens, and dating the current Wolverine.
PSYLOCKE (Betsy Braddock): Psylocke is a telepath and sometimes-telekinetic. She’s also Captain Britain’s twin sister, and the embodiment of a lot of really uncomfortable colonialist appropriation and fetishization of Asian women’s bodies: in the comics, she’s literally an upper-class white British woman swapped into the body of a Japanese assassin named Kwannon.22 Along with Angel, Storm, and Magneto, Psylocke at least temporarily works with Apocalypse in the movie.
Currently in the comics: Running with Magneto’s X-Men team, flying Angel like a really creepy drone.
APOCALYPSE (En Sabah Nur): Apocalypse is—at least allegedly—the first mutant. In the comics, he’s given immortality, a sweet space ship, and significantly souped up powers by the Celestials. (In the movie, he’s also confirmed to have been a whole lot of major deities.) Apocalypse is super into what he terms “natural selection”—in practice anything but—and generally runs around with a gang of four horsemen—in the case of the film, Magneto, Psylocke, Angel, and Storm.
Currently in the comics: One of those characters who never really dies. He’s currently the center of a minor cross-line event.
Confused yet? Great! That means it’s time to dive into the comics! X-Men has a lot of good jumping-on points, but here are a few of my favorites:
Giant-Size X-Men #1: You can start back in the Silver Age—it’s definitely worth tracking down some of the Neal Adams-drawn issues, if nothing else—but the modern X-Men trace their roots back to 1975. If you want to read through Claremont’s run—and hit iconic stories like the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past—this is your first stop.
New X-Men vol. 1 #1: Grant Morrison’s run on the X-Men radically reconfigured both team and school, and brought back a lot of long-term fans who’d drifted away during the messy maelstrom of the ‘90s. This is really where the modern X-Men start, but if you’d rather skip ahead, there’s always…
Astonishing X-Men #1: Joss Whedon and John Cassady are an incredibly rare phenomenon in the world of superhero comics: long-term fans who manage to keep their run on a title simultaneously steeped in nostalgia and remarkably accessible to new readers. Whedon’s X-Men are a more traditional take on the team than Morrison’s; and if that’s your jam, you’ll probably prefer them.
X-Men: Season One: Dennis Hopeless and Jamie McKelvie’s modern retelling of a lot of the Silver Age is the entry-level X-book I recommend most frequently. It’s technically a stand-alone graphic novel, unconnected to any other X-Men timeline; but you’re not going to find a better introduction to the original five X-Men, a better-written Jean Grey, or a better spin on the Silver Age. (If you like this volume, I’d recommend jumping to the current All-New X-Men series, likewise written by Hopeless, with a significantly overlapping cast.)
X-Men: First Class: No relation to the movie of the same name, X-Men: First Class—like Season One—basically exists in its own discrete timeline; which, again, is largely an updated spin on a lot of Silver Age stories and themes. It’s accessible, engaging, and kid-friendly in ways the central lines often aren’t.
God Loves, Man Kills: Originally a stand-alone Marvel Graphic Novel. The definitive X-Men story (and the basis for X2: X-Men United, if that’s a selling point for you.)
BONUS RECOMMENDATION: Cyclops vol. 2 #1-5. Cyclops is my favorite X-Man, and the first arc of his first ongoing—starring the time-displaced teen version who’s currently running around the Marvel Universe—is one of the best Cyclops stories, ever.
IF YOU WANT TO DIVE INTO THE CURRENT STUFF: The entire Marvel Universe largely reset after Secret Wars, which you’d think would result in less continuity-mired and more accessible titles, but has actually resulted in the reverse. All-New X-Men—which follows four of the five time-displaced teen versions of the original X-Men and a handful of modern X-kids road-tripping around the country—and All-New Wolverine—which features the solo adventures of Newer Better Wolverine Laura Kinney—are consistently delightful; the rest of the line is hit-and-miss.
1. Yes, seriously.
3. Technically next month, as I write this. Last month, as you read it. That’s the magic of print deadlines!
4. Of course, I haven’t seen Apocalypse yet—again, I’m writing this from the past. Well, your past. My present. Anyway, for all I know, it could be really straightforward, and—sorry, I couldn’t even finish typing that sentence without cracking up.
5. Adam X is a half-human, half-Shi’ar24 Fred Durst lookalike with the dubious mutant power of making people’s blood explode if it was exposed to air. Sporting a backwards baseball cap and a leather jacket covered in blades, Adam X was briefly teased as a potential third Summers Brother;25 and is the distilled incarnation of everything that was either wrong or right about comics in the mid ‘90s, depending on how you feel about skateboards and casual use of the term x-treme.
6. The Silver Age of Comic Books lasted from roughly 1956-1970. Until the Silver Age, superheroes had been a relatively fringe segment of comics; under the auspices of the new-minted Comics Code Authority, they rapidly rose to dominate the medium.
7. X2: X-Men United, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Wolverine, and X-Men: Days of Future Past; respectively drawn from God Loves, Man Kills; the Dark Phoenix Saga; Wolverine vol. 1; and Days of Future Past.
8. And heavily bowdlerized.
9. But not always! See, for instance, Nightcrawler, who was born with blue fur and the ability to teleport; and Havok, whose mutant powers didn’t manifest until his early twenties.
10. Of course, in a fictional universe brimming over with people who can fly, punch through trains, or turn invisible, the disproportionate marginalization of one group of super-powered heroes takes a certain degree of suspension of disbelief. (But then, so do people who can fly, punch through trains, or turn invisible.)
11. Said hatred and fear most often take the form of giant pink robots called Sentinels; because, sure, why not?
12. The WASP-y teens facing coded xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism in the ‘60s; the homogenously hetero cinematic X-Men standing against coded homophobia in the early ‘00s; and so forth.
13. Retcon is short for retroactive continuity, which is what happens when a writer decides, “Oh, that established plot point didn’t happen that way—it happened this way.”
14. See: Days of Future Past, Age of Apocalypse, House of M, Forever Yesterday, Days of Future Present, Yesterday Tomorrow, Age of X, Earth Askani, the Summers Rebellion, the other Summers Rebellion, Days of Past Future, Apocalypse X, et cetera.26
15. Shameless plug: For a much deeper dive into this mess, listen to Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, a weekly podcast all about the ins, outs, retcons, clones, and continuity of comics’ most convoluted superhero soap opera; with visual companions to every episode—along with video reviews of current X-titles, interviews, art, articles, recaps, and more—at xplainthexmen.com!
16. Over the years, the X-Men have been fantasy cast a lot. Those fantasy casts generally reflect current entertainment trends, with one consistent exception: the role of Professor X, was almost universally assigned to Patrick Stewart for the dozen years between the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the first X-Men film.
17. Cyclops is my favorite X-Man, because we’re both uptight jerks.
18. Also, they’re supposed to be orphans,27 and I guess they have parents in X-Men: Apocalypse? Don’t mess with the Summers family tree, X-movies. It’s confusing enough as-is.
19. Stan Lee’s Silver-Age teams tended to feature a single female member, whose personality was never really developed beyond “the girl”; most of those characters have remained chronically underwritten in subsequent incarnations. See also: Sue Storm (Fantastic Four), Janet van Dyne (Avengers).
20. This detail was somewhat retconned away in the Storm ongoing series, to the immense relief of pretty much everyone.
21. Kwannon, in Psylocke’s original body, later died of the Legacy Virus, a ham-handed stand-in for AIDS.
22. Most notably, X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which Fox somehow managed to turn a story about a teenage girl into a story about the same three old men twice.
23. I don’t, and neither should you.
24. The Shi’ar are aliens with fancy plumage and a sprawling space empire. Aren’t you glad you asked?
25. Years later, the actual Third Summers Brother was revealed to be a nondescript guy with the unimpressive codename of Kid Vulcan. After dropping the “Kid” from his name, Vulcan went on to commit patricide, take over the Shi’ar empire in a bloody coup, and die at the hands of a better-established Summers Brother; presumably because no one had taught him to channel his aggression into skateboarding and calling other adults “bro.”
26. I made at least three of those up, but at this rate, they’ll probably be official by midday tomorrow.
27. Well, they’re kind of orphans: Scott and Alex grew up thinking that both of their parents were dead, but it turned out their dad was actually a space pirate, because, comic books.
A quarterly collection of awesome, selected and edited by The Book Smugglers
Collecting original short fiction, essays, reviews, and reprints from diverse and powerful voices in speculative fiction, THE BOOK SMUGGLERS’ QUARTERLY ALMANAC is essential for any SFF fan.
IN THIS VOLUME (JUNE 2016): Tansy Rayner Roberts, John Chu, Genevieve Valentine, Susan Jane Bigelow, Sunil Patel, Charles Payseur, Roshani Chokshi, Jay Edidin, Ana Grilo, and Thea James.
THE BOOK SMUGGLERS’ QUARTERLY ALMANAC: Volume I – The TOC
- Introduction – The Book Smugglers • Essay
- Cookie Cutter Superhero – Tansy Rayner Roberts • Story
- Ninefox Gambit – Thea James • Review
- How to Piss Off A Failed Super-Soldier – John Chu • Story
- The Invisible Woman – Genevieve Valentine • Essay
- Medium – Charles Payseur • Story
- Where To Start With The X-Men – Jay Edidin • Essay
- Crimson Cadet – Susan Jane Bigelow • Story
- Captain America vs. Iron Man vs. Batman vs. Superman – Sunil Patel • Essay
- The Geek Feminist Revolution – Ana Grilo • Review
- On the Smugglers’ Radar – The Book Smugglers • List
- The Vishakanya’s Choice – Roshani Chokshi • Story
- Learn to Love Your Mary Sue – Carlie St. George • Essay
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