X-Men Masterworks volume 5

By Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, Arnold Drake, Jerry Siegel, Don Heck, Werner Roth, Jim Steranko, Barry Windsor-Smith & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1787-2(HC)                   :978-0-7851-5909-4(PB)

X-Men was never one of young Marvel’s top titles but it did secure a devout and dedicated following, with the frantic, freakish energy of Jack Kirby’s heroic dynamism comfortably transiting into the slick, sleek attractiveness of Werner Roth as the blunt tension of hunted outsider kids settled into a pastiche of college and school scenarios so familiar to the students who were the series’ main audience.

The team still consisted of tragic Scott Summers/Cyclops, ebullient Bobby Drake/Iceman, wealthy golden boy Warren Worthington/Angel and erudite, brutish genius Henry McCoy/Beast whose perpetual training with Professor Charles Xavier was seemingly ended when the wheelchair-bound telepath seemingly perished. Now his lifelong crusade to broker peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent race of mutant Homo Superior was left to his heartbroken ex-students…

This meander down mutant memory lane reprints X-Men #43-53, a crossover from Avengers #53 and pertinent extracts from Ka-Zar #2-3 and Marvel Tales #31; collectively covering April 1968 to April 1971.

Issue #43 began the reinvention of the mutant team with ‘The Torch is Passed!’ (Roy Thomas, Tuska & Tartaglione) as arch-nemesis Magneto returned with reluctant confederates Toad, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to ensnare the bereaved heroes in his hidden island fortress.

This epic action event was supported by an educational back-up tale entitled ‘Call Him… Cyclops’ (by Thomas, Roth & John Verpoorten) which revealed the secrets of the mutant’s awesome eye-blasts, after which the next issue saw the Angel inexplicably escape and encounter a revived Golden Age Timely Comics hero whilst flying back to America for reinforcements.

Stirring yarn ‘Red Raven, Red Raven…’ (Thomas and Gary Friedrich, with Don Heck layouts, Roth pencils and inks from John Tartaglione) was accompanied by the opening of the next X-Men Origins chapter-play as ‘The Iceman Cometh!’, courtesy of Friedrich, Tuska & Verpoorten.

X-Men #45 led with ‘When Mutants Clash!’ as Cyclops also escaped, only to encounter the highly-conflicted Quicksilver; a battle latterly concluded in Avengers #53 as ‘In Battle Joined’ (Thomas, John Buscema and Tuska) which depicted Magneto’s defeat and apparent death. Meanwhile, back in the back of #45, Iceman’s story of small town intolerance continued in ‘And the Mob Cried… Vengeance!’

‘The End of the X-Men!’ occurred in issue #46, with the reading of Charles Xavier’s will. FBI Agent Duncan – unseen since the earliest days of the series – reappeared and ordered the team to split up in order to more efficiently monitor different regions of the country for mutant activity.

That shocking pronouncement came just as the unstoppable Juggernaut returned from extradimensional exile, and took great umbrage at being unable to kill his recently deceased step-brother Charles Xavier.  Iceman’s origin then concluded with ‘…And Then There were Two!’ as the cold kid escaped the raving mob trying to lynch him by joining the X-school…

Friedrich was joined by Arnold Drake to script Beast and Iceman’s adventure ‘The Warlock Wears Three Faces!’ as ancient mutant Merlin once more re-branded himself – this time as psychedelic guru Maha Yogi – but again found his brain insufficient against the X-Men’s brawn. Topping off the action, Drake, Roth & Verpoorten explained the cool kid’s powers in gag-stuffed info feature ‘I, the Iceman.’.

As full scripter, Drake penned the Cyclops and Marvel Girl tale for #48. ‘Beware Computo, Commander of the Robot Hive’ is a pacy thriller involving a robotic revolution with a surprise guest villain lurking in the shadows, whilst ‘Yours Truly. the Beast’ wrong-footed everybody by outlining his powers before actually revealing his origin epic.

X-Men#49 offered a tantalising taste of things to come with a startling and stylish Jim Steranko cover, behind which Drake, Heck, Roth & Tartaglione revealed ‘Who Dares Defy… the Demi-Men?’

Nominally an Angel story, this convoluted thriller hastily reunited the team to confront the assembled mutant hordes of Mesmero and Iceman’s new girlfriend Lorna Dane… the daughter of Magneto…

This shocker was supplemented by the natal advent of Henry McCoy in ‘A Beast is Born’ by Drake, Roth & Verpoorten.

Drake, Steranko & Tartaglione reached incredible heights with the magnificently baroque ‘City of Mutants’ in #50; a visual tour de force that remains as spectacular now it was in 1968, but which was actually surpassed by Magneto’s inevitable return for ‘The Devil had a Daughter’ in #51.

The saga then rather rapidly wrapped up in ‘Twilight of the Mutants!’ with the team infiltrating the malign Mutant City to recue Lorna and bring down the evil overlord once and for all…

Don’t misunderstand me, however: This isn’t a bad story, but after two issues of Steranko in his creative prime, nobody could satisfactorily end this tale, and I pity Heck, Roth & Tartaglione for having to try.

The Beast origin chapters in those issues were ‘This Boy, This Bombshell’, ‘The Lure of the Beast-Nappers!’ and ‘The Crimes of the Conquistador!’, as the simian son of a gun is abducted by a would-be world conqueror in need of super-powered servants. That epic of child exploitation and the isolation of being different ended in #53’s ‘Welcome to the Club, Beast!’ but the issue’s main claim to notoriety was the lead feature which was drawn by another young superstar in the making.

Hard to believe now, but in the 1960s X-Men was a series in perpetual sales crises, and a lot of great talent was thrown at it back then. ‘The Rage of Blastaar!’ was illustrated by a young Barry Smith – still in his Kirby clone/appreciation phase – and his engagingly unique interpretations in this off-beat battle-blockbuster from Arnold Drake, inked by the enigmatic Michael Dee (I’m assuming its Mike Esposito), is memorable but regrettably brisk.

Completing the contemporary mutant exploits is a three-part solo saga starring the Angel which endured a peculiarly nomadic publication schedule.

In 1970 Tarzan analogue Ka-Zar starred in three giant sized reprint specials gathering his earlier appearances. These vintage yarns were bolstered by all new short sections – presumably try-out or inventory material. Issues #2 and 3 delved into the private life of the pinioned paladin with Jerry Siegel scripting ‘From the Sky… Winged Wrath!’ as Warren Worthington III visits his parents and sometime girlfriend Candy Southern just as a macabre criminal genius murders the mutant hero’s father…

Illustrated throughout by Tuska & Dick Ayers, the saga of unvarnished vengeance continues with the winged wonder ‘In the Den of the Dazzler!’ (a mad scientist bloke, not the later mutant disco diva) before concluding in suitably ironic fashion in Marvel Tales #30 as the villain attempts ‘To Cage an Angel!’ and pays a heavy price…

These tales perfectly display Marvel’s evolution from quirky action tales to the more fraught, breast-beating, complex melodramas which inexorably led to the monolithic X-brand of today. Well drawn, highly readable stories are never unwelcome or out of favour though, and it should be remembered that everything here informs so very much of today’s mutant mythology. These are stories for the dedicated fan and newest convert, and never better packaged than in this economical tome. Everyone should own this book.
© 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.