Retrospective: The X-Men #1 (September 1963)

Back in 1984 I’d just moved to America, had been introduced to Dungeons & Dragons, started listening to a lot more music, and picked up my first Marvel Comic. That first comic, an issue of Secret Wars, introduced me to a universe of characters who I quickly fell in love with. One team stood out for me above the others –The X-Men.

Now, almost 40 years later, I’m heading back to where it all began for our team of Mutant misfits. My plan with this column is to relook at each issue, starting with the September 1963 release of the first issue of The X-Men, and journey with them through their adventures, losses, personnel changes, good times and bad, throughout the years as they changed from The X-Men to The Uncanny X-Men on a run that would last 544 issues – and spawned dozens of spin-offs and introduced some of most iconic heroes and villains in comics, and wider media, today.

Whilst X-Men #1 debuted in September 1963 it was not the first comic that year to feature a wheelchair bound super genius bringing together a group of young misfits and freaks in his mansion, to train them to become a superhero team to help ‘normal’ humans who shunned them, and fight against an evil Brotherhood.

A few months earlier in June 1963, in DC published title My Greatest Adventure #80, the world was introduced to the wheelbound brilliant inventor and engineer Dr Niles Caulder (or The Chief as he was known until his true identity was revealed in My Greatest Adventure #88) and his team of freaks known as Doom Patrol. The similarities didn’t end there between the two titles, with Doom Patrol fighting the Brotherhood of Evil whilst the X-Men battled the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Both teams became hated and feared by normal humanity, and so on.

I personally think that the launch of the two titles, so close together, was more fluke and co-incidence than Marvel deciding to copy an idea from their rivals DC. It takes time to produce a series of comics, and the fact that the two titles launched within three months of each other would have meant a remarkable effort and turnaround on Marvel’s part if they’d decided to create a new team inspired upon the popularity of the initial appearance of Doom Patrol.

But I’m not here to talk about Robotman, Negative Man, Elasti-Girl, Beast Boy and co (although I did enjoy the Doom Patrol comics in the late 80’s/early 90’s and have been loving the current TV series – although still on Season 1 of that as I write this).

So, equipped with my Marvel Unlimited subscription (I don’t have the $10,000 to spare to buy even a tatty original, let alone the few hundred thousand dollars to buy a Grade 9.0+ copy!) let’s take a look at the “fabulous first issue” of “The strangest super-heroes of all!” – The X-Men #1.

With the dream team of Stan Lee (writing) and Jack Kirby (Illustration) the X-Men introduces us to Professor X, the teacher and mentor of an exclusive private school in New York’s Westchester County. At the start of the series we’re introduced to four teenage boys who are the school’s sole borders. Cyclops, The Angel, the Beast and the sixteen-year old Iceman.

One thing that strikes me from page one is that Professor X seems to be a bit of dick in the early days. His initial psychic call to class, “You are ordered to appear at once! Class is now in session! Tardiness will be punished!”, sets the tone to a number of interactions with his students. That said, trying to control a group of teenage boys, who we get to see are not the most disciplined, might mean he needs to take a stronger more authoritarian tone with them in the early days.

It’s not clear how long the four students have been at the school, but they seem to still be getting to know each other, although have had enough training to start developing new ‘stunts’ to their core powers – as shown when Iceman freezes The Beast’s arm that he’s learnt with his frosting powers. An action that results in the first, of many, confrontations between team mates with Iceman calling the others a bunch of softies and The Beast promising to make him “eat those words”, before Angel intercedes reminding them that there is “no fighting in class”.

This leads to the first training session we see, that allows us to be introduced to each individuals powers. Beasts agility, Angels flying, Iceman’s ability to create ice structures and throw snowballs, and Cyclops ability to fire powerful blasts from his eyes. The training session is interrupted by Iceman getting frustrated at being treated like a kid because he’s “a couple of years younger than the others”, goofing around just to prove The Professor right, and then getting into another fight with The Beast which leads into Cyclops training session to treat the team as opponents. This results in a free-for-all with Professor X psychically saying “a few minutes of roughhouse is good for all of you to help you let off steam!”

The training session is brought to a close when The Professor announces that a taxi is approaching with a new student, “a most attractive young lady!”. The teenagers all rush to the window and watch as the new student leaves the taxi, with comments such as “Wow! She’s a real living doll!”, “a redhead! Look at that face… and the rest of her!” and so forth, with only Cyclops refraining from leching over the new recruit (“A girl… big deal! I’m glad I’m not a wolf like you guys!”.

The sexism grates whilst reading this, but I’m reminded that this was written in the 60’s and also is a group of teenage boys. Whilst a number of the comments, and subsequent actions, of some of the team are certainly not things we’d tolerate, the comic also doesn’t glorify these with the girl in question (Jean Grey) certainly holding her own, giving the boys back a taste of their medicine, and coming across as a strong female figure, even if some of the boys come across as quite immature.

So, Jean Grey (aka Marvel Girl) is introduced, and we also here the first mention of “Mutants”, as Professor X (or Professor Xavier as he introduces himself to Jean Grey) says “You, Miss Grey, like the other four students at this most exclusive school, are a Mutant! You possess an extra power… one which ordinary humans do not!! That is why I call my students… X-Men, for ex-tra power!”. We also learn the names of the other X-Men’s alter-egos: Hank McCoy as The Beast, Warren Worthington The Third as The Angel, Bobby Drake as Iceman, and Slim Summers as Cyclops. Yes, apparently Cyclops was originally called Slim and had a name change a few issues later to Scott.

Anyway, a few more panels of the boys swooning over Jean Grey (“She has one very obvious power… the power to make a man’s heart beat faster!” – The Angel) results in Cyclops going to get a chair for her as the boys ask her about her powers… the chair suddenly leaves Cyclop’s hands, zooms across the floor making The Beast leap out of the way, and stops for Jean to sit down and explain that she’s has telekinesis, the ability of move objects by the will of her mind.

Xavier then explains more about the school, and his own background (born of parents who had worked on the first A-Bomb project, a childhood accident left him in a wheelchair, etc), and the fact that evil mutants exist who want to either destroy humanity or rule the Earth, and it’s the X-Men’s job to protect mankind.

Which leads conveniently to the first villain to appear in the X-Men series…. One other than the Master of Magnetism himself… Magneto.

Tucked away in a secret laboratory near Cape Citadel Magneto finalises his plan to crash a missile test as it’s launched into the atmosphere. The sixth top secret launch to end up crashing, as we learn from the next days newspaper headlines. Later that day Magneto announces himself more forcefully, by taking control of the bases machine gun and tanks and also writing “Surrender the base or I’ll take it bty Force! Magneto” in the sky using magnetized dust particles.

With the base not making any moves to surrender, Magneto uses his power to launch a missile from the base and crash it into the sea. The base just doubles its guard which causes Magneto to make a personal appearance at its gates, taking control of the soldiers weapons so they can’t fire at him. Using his power to repel anything that comes in to range of him, he walks into the base sending soldiers flying away from his invisible barrier and trapping them in an ‘invisible fence’ of magnetic energy.

Meanwhile, back at the school, Iceman, The Beast and The Angel are caught ogling by Marvel Girl (“Honestly! Can’t a girl get any privacy around here?”) but all are then summoned by Professor X, being gruff once again… “Attention, X-Men! This is Professor Xavier! Report to my study immediately… you have fifteen second! No excuses will be tolerated!”

The Professor explains that a crisis is occurring in cape Citadel, with the first of the Evil Mutants believed to be responsible. The team are about to have their baptism of fire… and gleeful rush off for their first mission.

The X-Men arrive with the military at a loss of what to try, so they give the X-Men the all clear to try after Cyclops asks them to “hold your fire for fifteen minutes” so they can take care of things.

Cyclops uses his beam, wearing himself out in the process, to cut a hole through the magnetic barrier Magneto put up. Magneto, caught off guard by the energy feeback, stumbles, and launches a barrage of missiles at the team. We see the team’s training come in to use as the various members weave, doge, and help each other take out the missiles out before they can do any harm.

The Angel discovers Magneto, who encases him in a heap of objects as a prison. Cyclops, recovered enough to help out, destroys Angels prison freeing him as the team gather together. Magneto uses their presence in the same area to try and kill them off using rocket fuel, which Iceman managed to shield the team from. Thinking the X-Men defeated Magneto turns his attention back to his plans, only to once again be interrupted by the team emerging from the explosion site. He creates a magnetic shield to mask his escape, with the team unable to follow him.

But the base is saved! Much to the congratulations and relief of the military brass, with one proclaiming “I will not ask you to reveal your true identities, but I promise you that before this day is over, the name X-Men will be the most honoured in my command!”. We also get a glimpse of a future name change over a hundred issues away, with one of the military commanders claiming “Uncanny! Your fifteen minutes are not up yet!”. Although that was obviously a throw away comment and was not a premonition of the future…

…and thus ended the first issue of The X-Men.

All in all I found it quite weird reading the issue as the team came across, in general, as incredibly immature and fragmented. Teasing and internally fighting, but banding together when it mattered. The sexism, as I mentioned above, was rather jarring but was slightly alleviated by the fact that Jean was introduced as a strong female character who could hold her own and pull the boys up on their behaviour. Showing them it was not becoming and would largely not be tolerated. It was odd finding out that Cyclops was called Slim initially, before Slim became his occasional nickname.

Would I have continued reading The X-Men if this had been my first introduction to them? Probably not, but that’s due to more how society, writing and art, has improved over the last 59 years. X-Men number 1 has a lot of elements of its time, but on the flipside also has what appears to be a very strong and independent female character in Jean. Roll on issue 2…

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