Comic Book Review – X-Men Epic Collection: Children of the Atom

X-Men Epic Collection: Children of the Atom (2015)
Reprints X-Men #1-23
Written by Stan Lee
Art by Jack Kirby, Werner Roth, and Alex Toth

The X-Men have had quite a tumultuous history. When I was getting into comic books in the late 1980s/early 1990s, they were insanely hot. X-Men comics were some of the best-selling books, which spun off into action figures, video games, and multiple animated series. When we think of the X-Men, many immediately think of Wolverine. My personal favorites have always been Colossus and Nightcrawler. Yet, none of that is present at the beginning and wouldn’t be for over a decade. The original X-Men was such an oddball book, feeling like an afterthought by Stan Lee. 

The X-Men debuted in 1963 as Marvel Comics was in its third year of what we know it as today. The same month their first issue hit the stands was also the Avengers’ debut, which means Captain America was still on ice. Spider-Man was only on its fourth issue, introducing the world to the Sandman. The Fantastic Four, Marvel’s best-selling book then, was on issue 18, where they fought the Super-Skrull. There were also high-selling western books like Two-Gun Kid and Kid Colt Outlaw and romance/humor books like Millie the Model and Patsy Walker. It was a very different time in comics when the superhero book had not yet become entirely dominant. 

For those who’ve grown used to the decompressed storytelling of modern comics, reading X-Men #1 feels like watching a movie in fast-forward. In the first seven pages, Stan Lee introduced Professor X and his students (Cyclops, Angel, Iceman, and Beast) while devoting multiple panels to them, showing off their powers. We’re then shown Jean Grey’s arrival at the school and meeting with her new teacher and classmates. We then get three pages of Jean showcasing her powers while being hit on by Beast, who is subsequently embarrassed by her. Page 10 introduces Magneto, and he’s already commandeering nuclear missiles. For four pages, Magneto toys with the US military, defeating them at every turn. The remaining eight pages have the X-Men suiting up, traveling to the location of the attack, and defeating Magneto. Quite economical storytelling for one issue, eh?

I don’t think Jack Kirby was giving his all here. If you compare these panels to the Fantastic Four at the same time, it’s easy to tell which book the King really devoted his time & energy to. Each issue follows a similar pattern. We get some banter between the X-men. A villain shows up (Vanisher in #2, The Blob in #3) and does bad stuff. The X-Men fly in to save the day. Stan Lee understood there should be some variation, and in issue 4, we are introduced to the very explicitly named the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. This means readers see the return of Magneto and his four acolytes (Mastermind, Toad, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch). The Brotherhood becomes a recurring thorn in the X-Men’s side, but Lee makes them a bit more nuanced than a shadow version of the good guys. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are obeying under duress setting up their future move to the good guys’ side in the pages of the Avengers.

Issues 5 thru 8 continue the conflict with the Brotherhood, bringing Namor the Sub-mariner, into the story. The Blob shows back up in #7 and joins Magneto’s Brotherhood briefly. Issue 8 introduced Unus the Untouchable, a mutant with a powerful force field around himself. None of these stories are genuinely memorable, but they do introduce characters whose roles in the Marvel Universe would be. It’s funny to read these early appearances of Magento and The Blob only to go over to the current X-Men status quo, where all mutants have relocated to a utopian Krakoa. The Blob runs a bar on the island now and serves up drinks to the very mutants he once fought so fiercely. 

Issue 9 begins an ongoing sub-plot that I did not care for. This is centered on Lucifer, a mysterious figure responsible for Professor X’s paraplegia. I do not like Lucifer, I think he’s a stupid character, and clearly, most X-Men writers that came after felt the same way because, after the initial “Original” run of X-Men, he has faded into obscurity. However, this issue has the X-Men fighting the Avengers for the first time, which is the most fun part about the whole thing. 

Issue 10 re-introduces Ka-Zar, Marvel’s Tarzan knock-off, and the Savage Land, a prehistoric preserve hidden in the Antarctic. I really had fun with this one with all its pulpy elements. It felt the most distinct from the first year’s batch of comics. And the Savage Land is one of the few features introduced early on that seems to have had staying power, though it doesn’t get visited as often these days as it used to in the pages of Marvel Comics. Number 11 introduces the cosmic being, The Stranger, who kidnaps Magento and flies off into space with him, solving a problem for the X-Men. This was also Jack Kirby’s last issue doing full pencils on the title. 

Kirby would switch to layouts on many books because his workload was massive at the time. Handling the pencils from issue 12 was Alex Toth, another incredible artist whose style helped make X-Men look slightly different from the other books on the stands. The issue promised to reveal “The Origin of Professor X” and serves as a prelude to number 13’s “Where Walks the Juggernaut.” In these stories, we’re introduced to Cain Marko, Professor X’s step-brother. Marko stumbles upon an ancient temple while on tour in the Pacific Theater and becomes the titular Juggernaut. This is also a great example of how “Stan Lee” clearly doesn’t know what his mutants are, as Juggernaut is detected by the mutant-finding Cerebro. I’m sure at some point this got addressed in the lore, but within this collection, it’s funny to me how mutants are whatever is plot-convenient issue to issue. Eventually, it will be more clearly defined, but for now, it’s a toss-up.

Issues 14 through 16 are a three-part Sentinels story. The mutant-hunting robots are introduced as well as their creator Bolivar Trask. Because this is a decompressed story, the pace slows down, and we get more character moments. That’s not to say that Lee ignored these aspects, but with an ensemble cast rather than a singular focus, those personal life moments are a little smaller. I like seeing Iceman and Beast going to a beatnik coffeehouse with their dates. I don’t care much for the exhausting love triangle melodrama between Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Angel. Knowing that Jean will eventually get more fleshed out as a character in the future softens it, but man is it grating to see this soap opera play out. 

The Sentinel storyline is also the first time I feel like the book really embraces the prejudice themes Stan Lee would claim the book had. In the previous issues, we would get comments from bystanders that indicated anti-mutant sentiments, but introducing the Sentinels and having the establishment roll out a eugenics plan is pretty powerful. This is not a costumed villain like Magneto or The Blob & company. The villain isn’t even really the Sentinels; it is a society that sees a population of being as disposable. At the time, Professor X was a prominent talking head in academic circles, but he was a closeted mutant, knowing that if he were out, it would destroy his platform. 

Issues 17 & 18 compose a two-parter that teases a villain for the first issue revealing it’s…Magento. The story focuses on Iceman as Bobby Drake’s parents visit the school. I really do not like pre-Claremont Magneto. He’s just a low-rent Doctor Doom, a cackling mastermind villain who opines on his plans, etc. It’s a very bland character type rather than someone who feels fully realized. He’s nowhere close to being one of the most exciting foes introduced in this period. I think Juggernaut is more compelling based on his emotional connection with Xavier. Quicksilver & Scarlet Witch’s villainous careers lasted less than a year, and even they were more interesting than Magneto. Part of that is he’s given no backstory. He’s just an evil mutant without an honest exploration of that idea.

Issues 19 through 23 are Stan Lee’s final batch of issues and vary in quality. In one, we get introduced to the Mimic, a mutant who copies the powers of other mutants. A continuation of the Lucifer story arc ends with the villain revealed as an alien invader. I think it would make more sense to have made him a mutant, but the book clearly hasn’t pinned down what a mutant is quite yet. Then a two-parter where the X-Men face Maggia crime boss Count Nefaria. My overall thoughts on Stan Lee’s X-Men is that we’re seeing the great creator, for all his wonderful co-creations, did have problems developing concepts. It’s a testament to the writing prowess of Chris Claremont and his collaborators that transformed the X-Men into the powerhouse that it became. We’re not stopping here, though, as next week, we’ll be talking about what happened to the X-Men when Roy Thomas came on board to write.

One thought on “Comic Book Review – X-Men Epic Collection: Children of the Atom”

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