Friday, April 25, 2014

Review # 109: "Marvel Masterworks - The X-Men Vol. 6"

Before Len Wein, Dave Cockrum and Chris Claremont came along the X-Men sucked. Flat out sucked. Issue after issue of one-note characters taking on terrible villains in forgettable stories. Given how memorable the work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was in the early 60s, it's stunning to find a book so empty outside of some very rare exceptions. As a result, I was 100 percent certain for years that I would never pick up another pre-"Giant Size X-Men" collection again. I wasn't interested in seeing more pale shadows of these characters that I love - Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Beast, Angel, Charles Xavier, Magneto, etc. - ever again.

So I was stunned a few months ago when a list of the 50 greatest X-Men stories on "Comics Should Be Good!" included one from before the relaunch in the top 20. "Night of the Sentinels" boasts a notable creative team - Roy Thomas and Neal Adams, the same two men behind Marvel's first big event, "The Kree/Skrull War." Thomas and Adams had a short tenure on the title as it neared its cancellation, one that drew critical acclaim and strongly influenced the previously-mentioned Claremont and Cockrum. When the sixth volume of "Marvel Masterworks: X-Men" was reissued this winter, I took a chance on their run and I'm glad I did.

The collection gets off to a meandering start with Arnold Drake and Werner Roth running the show. The dialogue is a little too jilted and corny (the opening sequence where Cyclops is accused of murder is quite poor) and the art isn't all that eye-catching. However, this works as an excellent example of the title's mediocrity as elements begin to change. There's a drastic improvement in the quality of writing when Roy Thomas returns to the line. There are still corny elements, but it's a 60s comic after all.

The real change, though, is when Neal Adams comes aboard. His art is incredible. His forms and layouts are jaw-dropping, from beautiful to frightening when need be. Even better, Thomas rises to the occasion. He has to be a lot more creative and concise with his dialogue so as not to obstruct the art. For a writer who's been criticized many times for being too wordy, it's the perfect dose of medicine. The end result is a series that was finally - FINALLY - interesting. Learning that Cyclops has a mutant brother; the Sentinels abducting mutants across the Marvel U; Hank, Scott and Jean's creative rescue of the trapped mutants; the debut of Sauron; the AMAZING return of Magneto (probably his best pre-Claremont story.) Thomas and Adams were firing on all cylinders.

And then it all fell apart.

Thomas took an issue off, handing the scripting to Denny O'Neil. Denny's work here is substandard compared to what Thomas had been hammering out, and - even worse - not working with Roy drove Adams away from the series. Thomas and Adams would, of course, work together again on "Avengers" though - oddly enough - the O'Neil-Adams pairing would go on to even greater fame with their 70s run on "Batman."

Unfortunately for "X-Men," it was already dying by the time Thomas and Adams came aboard and even their creative surge couldn't save it. When a late issue only moved about half of its stock (enough for "Dr. Strange" to get cancelled for the same reason, though today selling 200,000 comics is looked at as a monstrous success), the plug was pulled. History has shown that cancellation was the best thing to happen to the X-Men line... but one can't help but wonder "What If?"

Rating: 8.5/10

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