Essential X-Men Volume 2

Thursday June 19, 2003 @ 02:05 PM (UTC)

Book cover

This Marvel TPB (Trade Paperback) is from before, in the immortal words of Wayne, “we got the money.” One of the first Marvel actions upon the box office success (is success a big enough word? Once more with reverb: suuuuukseeeeeess!) of Spider-Man was to hire about a dozen people to start their Trade Paperback department. Since then, while they haven’t stopped printing these “Essential” suckers, they haven’t been forthcoming with the next installment. You see, the “Essential” books are cheap. Very cheap. Reprinted old comics on newsprint in black & white cheap. But I like them. They are sweet, sweet continuity.

This particular gem is a big newsprint collation of Uncanny X-men issues #120-144. Those issues were written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne. For those of you curious, this volume not only follows Essential X-Men Volume 1, but Essential Uncanny X-Men Volume 1. The latter volume comprises the first issues of the title, penned by Stan Lee himself. Now, I haven’t read those, but I can tell you this; they feature Cyclops, Marvel Girl (=Jean Grey), Iceman, Beast, and Angel; the heroes are younger and less experienced, though better at teamwork; and they all wear the same uniform. Very much the “Xavier’s Academy” focus. Those X-Men, along with part-time X-Men Havoc (Cyclops’s kid brother) and Polaris (Havoc’s green-haired squeeze), were mysteriously captured at some point. Cyclops managed to get free, and Professor X assembled the new X-Men at the beginning of Essential X-Men #1. These are an older, edgier, and wincingly multicultural group. They comprised Nightcrawler (German), Colossus (SOVIET Russian ooooooh!), Storm (Harlem + Egypt=whatever), Wolverine (history missing, presumed Canadian), Banshee (Irish), Sunfire (Japanese), and most wincingly of all, Thunderbird (Apache). Oh, and Cyclops (I’m not whitebread, I’m red! Well, everything’s red. My bad.)

Through stodginess (Sunfire), death (Thunderbird) and additions, we come up with the X-Men featured in this volume: Cyclops, Phoenix (=Jean Grey), Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, and either Banshee or Sprite, depending on the period. Banshee has these tragic power-negating attacks of laryngitis, ya see…well, it happens a lot to him. Eventually he gives over heroing as much inferior to settling down with his girlfriend. As for Sprite (Kitty Pryde, later "Shadowcat"), she’s a teenager added partway through. She has one of THE most cool powers ever to grace a comic book (phasing through solids, walking on gases/liquids), and, while the outdated writing is most winceworthy in her case, being a teen (Golly gee! Neat!), she’s still a very cool character.

Anyway, enough with that, on to the opinions! This volume contains some of the all-time classic X-Men storylines, including the Dark Phoenix saga, and my personal favorite, “Days of Future Past”. Both of these stories are epic and moving (at least to me). You shouldn’t have much trouble figuring out where you stand, because at the time extensive recaps and internal monologue explaining everybody’s powers was par for the course.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m trashing the writing, here. Some people probably have trouble with this style – very word-heavy, paragraph-heavy even, and not very conversational at times. (“Malefic destiny”? Dude, Scott, it was cheesy when the narrator said it, so you had to pick it out of the ether?) I admit if you have a headache it’s not the comic book to head for. But the plot is engaging, the action is quick, and the intense verbiage can be thought of as opera arias – certainly not realistic, but an important part of the art form.

The characters are well-defined but not shallow – each of them has problems and quirks that play into non-fight interaction, as well as the personality and style that is obvious in fights. Storm is claustrophobic, still grieving for her parents, and really alien to mainstream American culture; as well as being “dignified and moral.” Colossus misses his family and farming, thinks it would be wrong to act on his and Kitty’s mutual attraction (she’s 14 or so, he’s 17), and questions why he’s a hero and whether it’s disloyal to the USSR to be an X-Man; as well as being “stalwart and kind.” You get to know these characters very quickly – there’s not much subtlety at play – but you can’t help but care about them.

The art is really great. Of course it’s dated, and some people’s costumes (especially the bit players – Havoc and Polaris need a re-draw STAT) are just a bit weird, but Byrne draws action-packed fights that are easy to understand; clear, realistic emotions; and well-proportioned human figures (leaving aside the comic-book pretty-people issue – I mean that their eyes, heads, legs, always look comfortable and graceful, and in the right place. Don’t scoff, I’ve seen some really gifted comic book artists put eyes too high or forearms too short.) My only real beef is that a lot of the white girls look the same. Jean Grey is “pretty white girl with medium-length curly red hair.” Amanda Sefton is “pretty white girl with medium-length wavy blonde hair” et cetera. That, frankly, is still common (Ultimate Spider-Man, I’m looking at you!), and at least these are quite pretty.

In short? If you hate four-color superheroes…why are you reading this? If you can take a bit of camp and still care about the characters, this is a great thing to pick up. It has great characters, twisted plots, pretty pictures, the occasional funny, and, I’ll admit it, the first time I read it I cried at least twice. (“Once upon a time, there was a woman named Jean Grey, a man named Scott Summers. They were young. They were in love. They were heroes.” I get misty just typing that.) Time travel, gods, alien empires, love, betrayal, racism, pinball, roller skates, disco, and sweet sweet continuity. Can’t beat that for $14.95.


Enjoyed the review. I’ll actually be picking this one up. Never was into the Xmen as much, but now I just might have to bite the bullet.

It’s the cheapest continuity I’ve ever seen :) They’re only through Essential X-Men Vol 4, and, as I implied, I’m worried they’ll never pick up the ball again. The TPBs they’ve come out with since then are all story-arc defined, full-color dealies. Color is nice (Lorna Dane (Polaris) having green hair I didn’t know about for AGES), but frankly, I like having the issue numbers on the front and the TPBs numbered and consecutive!

Someone’s made a nice Amazon List explaining which issues are in which TPB, but it looks like “sandwich” issues - between the story arcs - may be dropping out of the newer TPBs. Frankly, I like those! That’s when the jokes get made, the characters discuss what’s happened to them with less bombast, et cetera. I may be the minority here though.

And my grandpa always said comic books would rot my brain. Ha! Felicity, you’ve got to be the most dedicated fangirl I’ve ever met, and yet you still use big words like “palimpsest”. Kudos on the non brain-rottage. I’m sure Grandpa would be astonished.

:) I am flattered both by your pointing me out as a dedicated fangirl and by your holding me up as an intellectual sesquipedalian.

It’s interesting that that impression of comic books persists. I think that, of Marvel, DC, Dark Horse books, it’s entirely untrue. Of Archie Comics, maybe.

Let’s take a look at the possible brain-rotting effects of comic books. A common attribute of brain-rottage among young people is reduced attention span. I hardly think this charge can be leveled against comic books. While they have fewer words per page than a conventional book, the continuity aspect completely undercuts any “instant gratification”. You read almost any comic book out there, and you want to read more. That’s the basic premise of the whole industry. Small, cheap (once upon a time) books that bring them back next week/month. If anything, the fact that you have to wait for next month to find out if Magneto destroys the nuclear power point, if Empress’s dad is really dead, and who is behind the strange rash of killings in Gotham City encourages patience and delayed gratification—not something most stodgy “those’ll rot your brains” guys think the younger generation gets much of.

Hmm…other brain rottage. Violence. Well, there may be a lot of that in comic books. But a lot of it, especially in DC, which is my big fuzzy comic-book-publishing teddy bear, is decried, analyzed, and consequence-ridden. There’s violence, I’m not going to deny that, and I’m not going to say it’s a good thing for kiddies. However, good comic books have ethical and moral discussions that could quite possibly outweigh that - both about violence and other issues. There’s a whole issue of Robin where his girlfriend decides they should have sex, and Tim (Robin) turns her down. And none of it is preachy, and all of it is well-written and moving. You know in The Lord of the Rings when Sam wonders whether Gollum thinks he’s the hero or the villain? I grew up without strong religious beliefs, and my moral impetus could be summed up by that question - do you want to feel you’re the hero, or the villain? Comic books could instill that kind of morals, I think.

I don’t know. When it comes down to it, I could talk about why comics are good all day, and most of it would be boring. Here are a few of my most important thoughts, without pretending to respond to allegations of brain-rot:

  • They’re a visual medium that still leaves room for the imagination.
  • The pictures and words often tell a completely different story. Not only is this something you CAN’T easily do with a single medium, but as long as we’re talking about kids, it teaches critical thinking skills.
  • They create a world, down to minutiae. Apart from Sir Thomas More in his Utopia, most authors don’t dare to bore us with how wide the streets are and how the doors open—in comic books, you can have that and the kitchen sink, without being boring. Seldom has there been a world so horrifyingly detailed as that of Transmetropolitan.
  • They can take chances. One issue of a comic book is not a huge financial risk. You can do something different every month. You can respond to current events fairly quickly. You can try something new without committing.

I love comic books.

ROFL. I think my wife has been working too much.

I have pleasent images of Magneto wrecking his vengance on Microsofts next business presentation product.

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