I first made the acquaintance of Marvel Comics’ X-Men in April, 1968 — one year prior to the publication of the subject of today’s post. — when they made a guest appearance in Avengers #53. That particular issue turned out to be the last chapter of a crossover story that had begun in the mutant team’s own book; and even though I now knew how everything would turn out, I was still curious enough about the characters and situations to go back and pick up the preceding chapter in that same month’s issue of X-Men (and even to buy the issue before that, when the opportunity presented itself). But though I enjoyed those two comics well enough, I wasn’t taken enough with either of them to keep following the series. As I wrote in my X-Men #45 post last year, that may have been partly due to the somewhat atypical circumstances surrounding the book at the time I sampled it. Marvel had then just recently decided to start downplaying the team concept in the series’ cover designs, in favor of spotlighting the individual members (or, in a few cases, major story events); a decision that was soon mirrored in the stories themselves, as the team actually broke up in the issue immediately following the Avengers crossover, #46. In addition, I was almost certainly influenced in my decision to pass on X-Men (at least for the time being), by my lack of enthusiasm for the competent but underwhelming art that then filled the title’s pages, by the likes of Don Heck and Werner Roth.
Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my general attitude of indifference to Marvel’s Merry Mutants, as, by virtually all accounts, the title was the publisher’s worst selling at the time — if not yet right on the edge of cancellation, then still uncomfortably close to it. Which is why, when Neal Adams — the hottest young artist at Marvel’s main competitor, DC Comics — came to Marvel expressing an interest in doing some work for them, and editor-in-chief Stan Lee gave him his choice of assignments… Adams chose to work on X-Men.
As the artist would later explain to Arlen Schumer in an interview for Comic Book Artist #3 (Winter, 1999), the main attraction of Marvel, at least so far as he was concerned, was the greater artistic freedom afforded by working “Marvel style” — i.e., working from a plot rather than a full script. And working on the publisher’s worst-selling title, rather than on, say, Amazing Spider-Man, went right along with that desire for freedom:
Stan asked me why I would do that and I said, “If I do the X-Men, your worst selling title, would you pay that much attention to it?” He said, “No, you can do what you want.” So I said that’s probably a pretty good reason for me to want to do it.
Of course, as an ordinary eleven-year-old comic book reader in 1969, I wasn’t cognizant of any such behind-the-scenes stuff. On the other hand, I did have at least a passing knowledge of what had been going on in the pages of the series, storywise, and even some awareness of the book’s frequent changes in creative personnel — simply because I always read every item in the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins, and every entry in the Mighty Marvel Checklist, published in every Marvel comic each month. Thus I knew, for example, that Jim Steranko had worked on an issue or two, as had Barry Windsor-Smith. (I actually have a vague recollection of standing at the spinner rack and flipping through the one issue with interior art by Windsor-Smith [#53] — probably drawn to the cover by the appearance of the villain Blastaar, whom I would have likely recognized from the 1967 Fantastic Four animated TV series — and thinking, in my youthful wisdom, that this guy’s art was kind of crude looking, but still had a kind of fun energy to it. Of course, I’d get an opportunity to make a more thorough appraisal of the young Englishman’s art when it turned up in the pages of Daredevil, just a month or two later.)
Thanks to those Mighty Marvel Checklist entries, I also knew that, though the X-Men had broken up in issue #46, they’d gotten back together just a couple of months later. Since then, they’d fought somebody named Mesmero, and also encountered the green-tressed Lorna Dane, allegedly the daughter of their arch-enemy, Magneto. Then they’d battled Blastaar (see above) before moving into an adventure involving the hitherto-unseen brother of team leader Cyclops (aka Scott Summers) and a baddie calling himself the Living Pharaoh.
All of that brought me (and the X-Men) up to issue #56. The Mighty Marvel Checklist entry for that book, appearing on the Bullpen Bulletins text page published in Marvel’s comics cover-dated June, 1969,, described the continuation of the Cyclops’ brother-Living Pharaoh storyline — and also announced the debut of a new artist on the series. Even before I and most other readers got around to reading that tidbit, however, we would most likely have already encountered the news of the new penciller on X-Men by virtue of this Bullpen Bulletin item, printed earlier on the very same page:
Clearly, the Marvel advent of Neal Adams was considered to be a big deal, and something worth highlighting more than just once. (It’s also pretty clear that Stan Lee and co. were really hoping that he’d soon drop DC and come over to Marvel full-time.)
I don’t actually recall what my original reaction was to this news, back in the spring of ’69, but I doubt I was shocked or awed. As of yet, I had absolutely no connection with the organized comics fandom of the day, and thus no way of knowing how unusual it was in that era for an artist (or writer) to work for more than one publisher at a time (especially without using a pseudonym). And while Neal Adams’ art had grown on me considerably since my original misgivings, back in the days of his early Detective and Spectre work for DC — indeed, grown so much that you could probably even call me a fan (although my eleven-year-old self probably wouldn’t have used that word) — I wasn’t avidly seeking out his art wherever it might be found. Heck, I wasn’t even picking up every issue of his run on The Brave and the Bold, as absurd as that seems to me now.
On the other hand, I did like Adams’ stuff, and so I’m sure I must have at least been interested to see what his X-Men would look like. But as things turned out, I didn’t pick up a copy of his first issue, #56. It’s possible that I just never saw it on the stands — that did happen — but it’s also at least conceivable that I saw the book and passed on purchasing it; perhaps, because I was underwhelmed by the cover:
OK, so it’s not really a bad cover. I’d still say it comes in a good distance behind this one:
…which, of course, was Adams’ original cover for his Marvel debut — but which was rejected by Marvel publisher Martin Goodman because he couldn’t read the book’s logo.
There are ironies abounding in this scenario. For one, the X-Men logo had been regularly downplayed on the title’s covers for a substantial period, less than a year prior (as discussed earlier in this post), which would seem to indicate that Goodman hadn’t considered it all that important at the time; and indeed, the current logo, designed by Jim Steranko, was at this time only seven issues old. For another, Adams had come to Marvel from DC in the interest of greater freedom — but DC had been doing innovative things with title logos on covers for years, since even before artist Carmine Infantino (DC’s primary innovator along that line, as evidenced by Batman #194 and Flash #174) had ascended to become an executive at the company. It’s unlikely that Infantino would have blinked twice at Adams’ original cover design — but Marvel, notwithstanding all its supposed free-wheeling attitudes, apparently had some pretty rigid ideas about covers. As Adams would later say in the Comic Book Artist interview referenced earlier: “Every time I tried to hand in something original, it was looked upon as being different and weird, where at DC I was expected to come up with original and fantastic covers.”
All that being said, Adams did turn out some good covers during his X-Men run — better than #56 Mark II, anyway — and the very next one, for #57, was one such (at least in my opinion). It’s somewhat unusual for Marvel covers of the period in having text appear in speech balloons, rather than blurbs; it also effectively depicts the titular heroes in action at the same time as it shows the scope of the menace they’re facing. Maybe my eleven-year-old self saw this cover in the spinner rack and was “sold” by it in a way I wasn’t by that of #56 — or, as I’ve already noted, maybe I just missed #56 completely, and this was the first Adams issue I actually had the opportunity to buy. But, however things went down, I did purchase X-Men #57, and took it home to read.
As I’ve already mentioned, thanks to the Mighty Marvel Checklist, house ads, etc., I at least had a rough idea who “little Lorna” was, and wasn’t completely lost before I’d even finished reading the book’s first page. (I was pretty close, though.)
The credits at the bottom of page 2 clued me in about Adams’ cohorts on the issue’s creative team (something I wouldn’t have gotten from the Marvel Checklist entry). I already knew writer Roy Thomas’ work very well, of course, from Avengers as well as from Doctor Strange and Daredevil. (This was actually Thomas’ second stint scripting X-Men, though I didn’t know that at the time.) I knew inker Tom Palmer’s name also, from his embellishment of Gene Colan’s pencils on Doctor Strange — and while it might have been ideal to have Adams ink his own stuff (as he had on most of his DC jobs that I’d seen), I’d eventually come around to the realization that the Adams-Palmer combo was almost as good. Certainly, when I first saw this artwork back in 1969, I was so knocked out by the amazing advancement over what I’d seen before in X-Men that I wasn’t worried too much about whether it could have looked even better.
You probably wouldn’t guess it from these first few pages (I know I didn’t), but neither Thomas nor Adams were involved with beginning the Living Pharaoh storyline that was still rolling along in issue #57, or in introducing the character of Scott Summers’ brother Alex. Writer Arnold Drake — in collaboration with artists Don Heck and Vince Colletta — had been responsible for both, but had scripted only the initial chapter of the saga, in issue #54, before handing it off to Thomas, whose return to writing X-Men commenced with #55.
It’s worth noting here, I think — simply because there seems to have been some confusion about it over the decades — that Drake and Heck’s story, in addition to featuring Alex Summers’s debut as a character, also introduced the idea that he, like his brother, was a mutant — as seen in the panel shown at left.
(Though, based on Scott’s reference to Alex’s “athletic prowess” being attributable to his being a mutant, it seems unlikely that Drake originally conceived of the younger Summers brother’s powers as being energy based. That particular revelation wouldn’t come until the last two pages of issue #55, which was of course written by Thomas [with art by Heck, Werner Roth, and Colletta].)
Drake’s script also established a mysterious connection between Alex and the Living Pharaoh, who also debuted in issue #54 — but didn’t offer any explanation for the bond beyond having the Pharaoh assert that both he and Alex (and presumably Scott, as well) were descended from the ancient Egyptian pharaohs — who, like themselves, had been mutants. It would be up to Thomas and his collaborators, then, to explore and explicate that link — ultimately revealing that both Alex and the Pharaoh had the ability to absorb the energy of cosmic rays, and that an increase in the power levels of one would result in the other becoming proportionately weaker. In issue #56’s climax, Alex asserted his control over this shared energy store, simultaneously de-powering the Pharaoh (who’d earlier transformed himself into the gigantic “Living Monolith”) and bringing the villain’s Egyptian temple crashing down around them.
Of course, I didn’t know most of that when first reading issue #57 in April, 1969 — indeed, all I really had to go on was the brief recap provided by Alex on page 3, above. But that, along with a few other bits of information doled out over the course of the story, would be sufficient to let me follow the story.
On the next page, Iceman (aka Bobby Drake) finally shows up with the local law enforcement representatives — but what follows proves to be an unpleasant surprise for our young heroes:
Things go south very quickly, as the police move to arrest Alex, and the young mutant lashes out with his newfound power in self-defense. The X-Men then move to disarm the officers before things can get worse:
With the final panel of page 6, Adams and Palmer made Cyclops seem formidable, and dangerous — perhaps even frightening — in a way he never had before (at least not to me), when rendered by Heck, Roth, or even John Buscema (in Avengers #53) — an effect achieved, at least in part, simply by making him look more real.
The “camel-jockeys” line that Thomas gives Cyclops in the same panel, on the other hand, hasn’t aged very well, coming off as culturally insensitive (at best) by today’s standards.
Despite the X-Men’s best efforts, they’re unable to espy Alex from the air — not too surprising, as he’s taken refuge in a nearby cave. There, the despairing young mutant soliloquizes over his unfortunate lot: “Even Scott… who’s always lived in fear of what his optic blasts might do… never had to cope with power like mine! Power that makes my every gesture a threat… my every movement a menace!”
But Alez’s misfortune is suddenly compounded, exponentially so, as he discovers he’s not alone in the cave, and his monologue has been overheard:
As with Cyclops, earlier, Adams and Palmer made Iceman seem more real to me here than he’d ever seemed before, through little details such as his frosty eyebrows and the gleam of light off his glacial left cheekbone.
Discussing this page in Comic Book Artist #3 some thirty years later, Neal Adams explained that he used the diagonal panel layout as an experiment to demonstrate “the greatest dimension on a comic book page that I could make somebody fall from… If I were doing it today, I would probably reverse this page, so I would have this last panel [i.e., the panel at upper right] down in the lower right-hand corner.” I think the artist is right on that latter-day call, although the experiment still “works” as is.
In Roy Thomas’ introduction to the Marvel Masterworks volume reprinting this story, the writer expressed his appreciation for “the way Neal made a black-&-white TV image actually look like a black-&-white TV image, and not just another drawing minus color.” That observation is spot on — although I think that the adept use of tones and color by Palmer (who colored the story as well as inking it) should be afforded some credit here, also.
The name “Trask” likely rang bells for most readers of this issue who’d already recognized the Sentinels as returning foes of the X-Men (a group which didn’t include me, naturally –and probably excluded a lot of other fans of the time as well, seeing as how the giant robots hadn’t been seen in over three years, and the three-part story from issues #14 through #16 which introduced them hadn’t yet been reprinted).
For their part, Iceman and the Beast recognize the name right away, as the panels that immediately follow make clear — and then go on to make the supposition (quickly proven correct) that Larry Trask must be the son of Bolivar Trask, the “eminent anthropologist” who created the Sentinels to defend ordinary humankind against the supposed “mutant threat”. (Apparently, his anthropology gig left Dr. Trask with a lot of time to dabble in robotics, and he turned out to have a real knack for it.)
In the first Sentinels storyline (which, incidentally, was one of the last X-Men stories produced by the original creative team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), the robots had rebelled against their maker almost immediately, avowing that to truly protect the world from mutants, they needed to conquer it first. They proceeded to coerce Dr. Trask into helping them prepare to make a whole army of Sentinels — but, in the end, the scientist sabotaged their operation, heroically sacrificing his life in the ensuing explosion.
Unfortunately for the X-Men (and all the other mutants of the Marvel Universe), the truth of what befell Dr. Bolivar Trask is apparently still unknown, at least so far as his son Larry is concerned:
Wait — that’s it? 15 pages and we’re done? But we were just getting to the good part!
Actually, I probably wasn’t surprised in April, 1969 when I got to the end of the “main” story in X-Men #57, and realized that the rest of the issue was occupied by a back-up feature. Both of my first two X-Men comics had included 5-page installments of the ongoing “Origins of the X-Men” strip, after all, and I had no reason to think that the format of the book had changed in the past year. All the same, I imagined I was at least a little disappointed to discover that the final quarter of the comic wasn’t by the Thomas-Adams-Palmer team.
“The Origins of the X-Men” had kicked off in issue #35 with the first chapter of a serial describing how Professor Charles Xavier recruited young Scott Summers to be the initial member of a new team of mutants (or, if you prefer, the first student at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters). Following the origin of Cyclops, the feature had moved on to similarly chronicle how Iceman, Beast, and Angel (Warren Worthington III) first came into their powers, and then came to join the team. By issue #56, only Marvel Girl (Jean Grey) — who had actually joined the X-Men in “real time” in their very first issue, in 1963 — was left.
“The Female of the Species” turns out to be not so much the first chapter in Jean Grey’s origin story as it is a quick overview of her abilities. There was precedent for this, actually — the book’s regular readers had already seen similar features for Cyclops, Iceman, and Beast, either at the end or the beginning of their respective origin serials. And the feature gets off to a engaging start, with Jean breaking the fourth wall to inform us that she’s going to try to turn the page of the very book we’re reading telekinetically — but if that doesn’t work, then, um, a little help would be nice. That bit sets a light, breezy tone that’s reminiscent of the bonus features that appeared in the back of Marvel’s annuals in the Sixties. And the “glitzy” idea to have the feature written by a woman — former Marvel staffer (and future Claws of the Cat scripter) Linda Fite — holds out hope that maybe we’ll get a different perspective on Jean Grey’s character than has been offered to date by her previous (and exclusively male) writers.
That’s a hope that’s quickly dashed on the very next page, however — as Jean first uses her powers to pick a batch of apples and bake ’em in a pie (yes, really) and then proceeds to show us how telekinesis is just as great for cleaning house as it is for kitchen stuff. I mean, you wouldn’t necessarily expect full-on second-wave feminism in a 1969 Marvel comic, but still…
OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Bring on the “bad guys“! Let’s see some action!
Wow. Just one panel of Jean using her powers defensively, and Marvel already feels obliged to liven things up with a little light bondage.
We move on to show Jean using her powers to slide back the latch on a door (yawn), and then to safely pass over a live volcano (which is actually pretty damn cool).
Admittedly, we’re not exactly in “Phoenix” territory here, but still — not bad.
On the next-to-last page, we finally get to see Marvel Girl use her powers offensively — and it’s pretty impressive, if not as “visual” as Cyclops’ eye-beams or Iceman’s frozen projectiles:
Of course, the non-visual nature of Jean’s powers makes it easier for her to use them in public, incognito, as the feature’s final scene demonstrates:
Ouch. Yeah, that last panel hasn’t aged any better than Cyke’s “camel-jockeys” slur in the main story. Just based on her later work, I’m inclined to speculate that maybe Ms. Fite was handed this feature to script after it had already been plotted and drawn — but I dunno.*
Anyway, it’s all rather moot, as is signaled by the last panel’s use of “Fin”, as opposed to a “Next issue” blurb. There wouldn’t be any more installments of “Origins of the X-Men”, as with the next issue, the main story would once again fill all twenty of X-Men‘s content pages, for the first time since issue #37. According to a personal retrospective about his collaboration with Neal Adams on X-Men, written by Roy Thomas (and published in his own comics history magazine, Alter Ego, in 1999), Marvel would have been happy to keep the lead feature page count at 15 pages, in consideration of Adams’ extensive commitments at DC (and in hopes of avoiding deadline problems); but, when Adams indicated he’d like to have all 20 pages to work with, Thomas “didn’t fight it”. I think we can all be happy that he didn’t.
And with that, we’re done for this installment of Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books. Next time, we’ll be discussing Avengers #65 — but never fear, we’ll return to Marvel’s Merry Mutants in May, when we’ll review the next twenty pages of Thomas-Adams-Palmer goodness. See you then!
*Just for the record, all the misgivings about the sexism in “”The Female of the Species” that I’ve expressed here are the opinions of present-day me, alone. Sorry to say, I’m pretty certain that the eleven-year-old me of April, ’69, didn’t blink an eye at any of it.