X-Men Epic Collection: It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn (2019)
Reprints Amazing Adventures #11-17, Amazing Spider-Man #92, Incredible Hulk #150, 161, 172 & 180-182, Marvel Team-Up #4 & 23, Avengers #110-111, Captain America #172-175, Defenders #15-16, and Giant-Size Fantastic Four #4
Written by Steve Englehart, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, Mike Friedrich, Tony Isabella, & Chris Claremont
Art by Sal Buscema, Tom Sutton, Herb Trimpe, Gil Kane, Don Heck, John Buscema, Bob Brown & Jim Starlin
This is the easiest to pass up of all the original X-Men Epic Collections. It takes place in the gap between the initial run and Chris Claremont’s takeover in 1974, so we have a lot of short arcs with the X-Men guest-starring in other books. That was my mindset at first, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see this as a flame carried by people who loved these characters. It would have been easy to let the X-Men slide into obscurity like many other characters whose books got canceled. They could have fallen into comic book limbo, but because writer/editor Len Wein believed in the concept, he and other creators kept finding places for these mutant heroes to pop up.
For about 240 pages, we get a storyline focused entirely on Hank McCoy, the Beast. He was given a solo run in Amazing Adventures, which is where he went from being just a sizeable ape-like guy to a furry animal-like figure. An experiment causes Beast to grow gray hair over his entire body and a pair of fangs & claws on his fingers and toes. The look suits the name Beast much more, and it makes sense that this has been how he appears in popular media ever since. At one point, his fur changed color to blue, which I suspect had something to do with ink and printing.
Along with fur, the Beast develops a greater temper, one aspect that does not remain. I’m used to seeing him behave in opposition to how he looks but at the time, they were trying to lean into the horror trend at Marvel Comics. Books like The Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf By Night were relatively popular, so making Beast more of a monster does make sense. One of the stranger elements that has been dropped was his use of a rubber mask and gloves meant to resemble human skin. It was intended that he could live out his life in the daytime as Hank McCoy and be the Beast at night, but I’m glad this did not stick.
The rest of the X-Men show up here and there. Magneto surfaces in the pages of the Avengers to torture Quicksilver & Scarlet Witch. In the pages of Captain America, the X-Men take part in an extended storyline that folds them into Cap’s fight against the Secret Empire. Banshee is also incorporated into this story, keeping that even more obscure character alive. The deal with this collection is that it’s a potpourri of stories. So if you don’t like one in a few more issues, you’ll be on a different title with a different style. These are certainly not top-tier X-Men tales, but like I said before, Len Wein kept the dream alive, hoping for something more significant in the future.
There are two notable debuts here. The first is Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man who fights the Fantastic Four. If you are familiar with Madrox’s character in Peter David’s two X-Factor runs, he will be nearly unrecognizable. But the more significant debut happens in the Incredible Hulk when the jolly green goliath is trekking through the Canadian wilderness and ends up battling the Wendigo. The Canadian government dispatches a whirling dervish of claws codenamed Wolverine. Nothing substantive happens except introducing the character and having him fight the Hulk. Wein would bring Wolverine back when he penned Giant-Size X-Men and introduced the international team with which fans are more familiar.
Bronze age Marvel comics were a pretty big step down from the Silver Age glory days of the company. But this lull was building towards something special. Once the new X-Men hit the shelves, the team wouldn’t ever fade into obscurity even briefly again. The original X-Men would be reunited in the first version of X-Factor, a book whose first volume I have reviewed previously and did not enjoy. I don’t know, but those core five mutants just don’t work on their own for me. However, Wein & Claremont’s additions seemed to fill in gaps that made the concept finally click. If you are a true completionist, then this is a must-read but otherwise a very skippable volume of stories.