Monday, June 22, 2015

Review # 161: "X-Men Epic Collection Vol. 1 - 'Children of the Atom'"

Stan Lee is one hell of a creator. But I don't need to tell you that. His mark on popular culture grows by the day as franchises attached to his name have become multimedia phenomena, shattering records worldwide. Lee deserves all the praise he receives.

However, he is not perfect.

Stan Lee could never write dialogue worth a damn and he was a hindrance to his own artists. Lee was afraid to let the pictures tell the story and would over-describe every piece of action in each of his books. As a reader, it's maddening as going through Marvel's early boom period becomes a slog. In many cases - like in Fantastic Four or Spider-Man where he was firing off on all cylanders - it's tolerable. But when the creative juices aren't flowing as well, you end up with something like "The X-Men."

"But wait!" you exclaim. "The X-Men are iconic characters! For years they were the most successful property in Marvel history!" That's correct. And while Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Cyclops, Jean Grey, Angel, Iceman, Beast, Professor X, Magneto, the Brotherhood, Juggernaut, the Sentinels and many other iconic characters, it's ridiculous the credit them for making these characters popular. As they appear in the early X-Men issues featured in the Epic Collection "Children of the Atom," many are bland and flat or - even worse - unlikable.

Still, it's unfair to suggest Stan and Jack didn't influence what would inspire others in the future and there are many watershed moments to be found in the series' first 23 issues beyond simple character debuts. In issue 3, Stan creates a romantic spark between Scott and Jean, reinvents Beast - who had been your average lug for the first two issues - as a scholar, turns Bobby into a prankster and gives Warren a rich family. In issue 12 - really a turning point for storytelling - he introduces Juggernaut as Xavier's half-brother in a brilliant origin story that finally gives one of the X-Men villains chops. In issue 14, Stan makes his most important move: suggesting mutants are hated and feared. That continues to define the X-Men today.

The problem is - despite all this - the X-Men at this time are scripted poorly. Not only are they bereft of personality or motivation, they are such straight-arrows that it's disgusting. They obey every order Professor Xavier barks at them without question, even when he's being a complete dick - and, trust me, that happens a lot. Xavier yells "SILENCE!" at his students at the drop of a hat, and conveniently neutralizes himself when the team is in trouble. When he reveals to the team that he had feigned losing his psychic powers to that they would have to go at it on their own against Magneto and the Brotherhood (of EVIL Mutants,) I don't know how the team could have possibly stayed on. Maybe their blandness worked as a magnet.

Speaking of which.... LORD, is Magneto ever a lousy villain at this stage. The Master of Magnetism - who is supposed to be this world-level threat - holes himself up in lousy apartments with his Brotherhood when he as a bloody ASTEROID at his disposal. The prime use of his power, it seems, is to threaten others into doing his bidding when he could, y'know... actually be spending this time ripping structures out of the ground. Magneto also gains strange powers at the drop of a hat. Suddenly, in one issue, we find out he's psychic. The next, those powers are gone. Sadly, he's just one cog in the wheel of characters in this book who are nowhere close to being fully realized.

If anything, he's overshadowed by two members of his own team. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are by far the best two characters in the early issues of "X-Men." They have personality, they have clear motivation and - most important of all - it is easy to sympathize with them. It's no coincidence that the Maximoffs were ripped from the pages of "The X-Men" and made Avengers. They stand out that much. I suppose it goes to show that "Stan the Man" could still make some magic even when the overall product wasn't working.

Despite all this, it's still fun to go back to the X-Men's roots and find out how it all started. "Children of the Atom" is chock full of history for those who follow it, though it really only serves to show how radically different - and how much better - this book would become after its relaunch more than a decade later. "Giant Size X-Men" by Wein and Cockrum (before handing the reigns to the REAL father of the X-Men, Chris Claremont) is where you start with this franchise; "The X-Men #1" by Lee and Kirby will do nothing more than make you wonder how this property ever became a hit.

Rating: 5.5/10

1 comment:

  1. I recently started re-reading these early issues and was similarly struck by how bland they were, especially in comparison to my memory of them. I had read the first issue in the early '90s and the first Essential volume when it was released around 1999, and I think a lot of the enjoyment I got from them must have been the result of super-imposing what I knew of the franchise -- the animated series, the upcoming movie, the "hated and feared" theme -- onto these stories. Taken on their own merits, though, they definitely rank toward the bottom of Lee & Kirby's early creations at Marvel.