GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

X-Men - First Class

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X-Men: First Class - Finals 2009 (SC TPB), 144 pgs.

coverWritten by Jeff Parker and Len Wein. Pencils by Roger Cruz, layouts by Amilcar Pinna, and with Colleen Coover and Dave Cockrum.
Colours: Val Staples. Letters: Nate Piekos. Editor: Nathan Crosby.

Reprints: X-Men: First Class - Finals #1-4, Giant-Size X-Men (1st series) #1 (2009, 1975)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

First reviewed August 20, 2009

X-Men: First Class was a bit of surprise success for Marvel. At least, I'm assuming it was both a surprise and a success.

It began as an eight issue mini-series presenting "untold" stories of the original X-Men, but with a healthy helping of humour and an All-Ages sensibility that, unlike some "All-Ages" projects, was still perfectly enjoyable for adults -- it merely meant there was less emphasis on violence and mayhem. It then led to a regular series, as well as spawning a whole slew of similar series: Wolverine: First Class (telling retro tales set during X-Men comics of the early 1980s) and Uncanny X-Men: First Class (reviewed below -- telling tales of the original "new" X-Men circa comics from the late 1970s). And though the regular X-Men: First Class series came to an end after only 16 issues, it's not clear if that was a result of tepid sales...or simply writer Jeff Parker having taken it as far as it could go. Because it spawned one more spin-off: the four issue mini-series, X-Men: First Class - Finals, which though still featuring the original X-Men, jumps ahead a couple of years from the X-Men: First Class series to tell essentially the last adventure of the original team before the advent of the "new" team.

So the heroes are no longer in their black and yellow costumes, but sporting their later, more individualistic togs, and they're preparing to graduate from the School for Gifted Youngsters, contemplating what will be the next step in their various lives. And it's a cute touch, to have it be they really do regard the school as, well, a school from which one graduates and moves on -- and that being "X-Men" is not necessarily how they figure they will always be identified.

Like much of Parker's First Class run, it's a likeable, amiable effort...while being a bit thin and breezy. The First Class comics often worked best as just one-off plots, not always lending themselves well to serialization -- and here the story is stretched over four issues! As well, Parker is too self-conscious of the tale being a fond farewell, the "plot" amounting to mainly references to past First Class issues...and some original X-Men comics as well. References that are brought about either by a Danger Room training session utilizing facsimiles of foes they'd fought, an actual returning foe, or strange apparitions that plague them, as well as re-visiting one or two places they had been to in the First Class comics.

It can be a bit thin and a bit rambling -- a sequence battling Danger Room robots takes up most of an issue! And this problem becomes more noticeable in a second reading (a few years later). Nostalgia is fine -- though it's a mix of nostalgia for Parker's own run which can seem a bit narcassistic, and nostalgia for X-Men stories many modern readers have never read! But Parker hasn't concocted some complex plot that legitimately draws upon and integrates past characters and events into the ultimate "classic" X-Men adventure -- so much as it's just a contrived collection of "greatest hits" strung togeter by a paper thin plot!

Still, what was appealing about Parker's run remains intact: the light humour and badinage between the characters, the camaraderie. It isn't that Parker recreates the original Lee/Kirby/Thomas/etc. feel exactly -- the characters were rarely this flippant and wisecracking. Yet he doesn't betray the essence of the characters (although there is a sameness to Parker's approach to personalities and speech patterns). Sure, the emphasis on casual banter even when in a fight robs much of the tension out of it -- but you aren't really supposed to believe anyone's going to die anyway. And essentially what Parker is going for is to evoke the sense of teens palling around, in a way that Lee and Thomas maybe didn't as much -- kind of reminding me a bit of the Silver Age/Bronze Age Teen Titans in that respect.

And it helps that the quips and interplay is often genuinely funny...and also genuinely affectionate. Even their put downs aren't barbed. These character are genuinely friends, even family, as much as they are a team.

And the plot also reflects some nice attention to character, as the team tries to puzzle out why some mysterious things have been occurring -- leading to some character insight.

One could argue a subtext here is the idea of a younger, more innocent X-Men that has yet to undergone the traumas and scars that succeeding years (and creatively desperate writers and editors) will subject them too. Of course, the X-Men were never quite this carefree as even the old comics had their share of angst. But it makes a nice theme -- the "young" X-Men on the verge of the burdens of adulthood.

Joining Parker is artist Roger Cruz who drew the original First Class mini-series and, though not as regularly, much of the subsequent series, too. Though here he's often working over layouts supplied by Amilcar Pinna. But the result is that if you liked the earlier First Class series, this maintains a consistent visual flavour. And it may even be better work at times. Maybe working from someone else's layouts meant Cruz could spend more time on the finished work. So though there's still an angular cartooniness...there's also a little more realism and depth (maybe supplemented by Val Staples' colours). There's an opening splash page of Jean Grey's head that's just gorgeous (in all the definitions of the word)...likewise, a panel of her sleeping in the final chapter is also memorable.

Hmmm. Maybe he just likes to draw Jean sleeping!

Rounding out this TPB is a reprint of Giant-Size X-Men #1 from 1975 which first introduced the "New" X-Men. Parker's mini-series ends with the original X-Men leaving on their final, post-graduation assignment to the mysterious island of Krakoa. The Giant-Size X-Men issue of course relates how Professor X recruits a new team to rescue the original class from that island. Not that it's an entirely seamless segue. The membership of the team as depicted in the two stories doesn't quite match up. But like with most of the First Class stories...you aren't really supposed to nitpick, the agreement between author and audience is more, Parker won't break from continuity too much...and we forgive the few times he slips.

At the same time, it is ironic such lapses -- particularly given the nostalgic, "romp down memory lane" intent of this mini-series' plot. Angel refers a few times to his parents -- but I believe his parents were actually dead! Rather, I think his dad had been killed off in stories published in the 1970s (some solo Angel stories, not in The X-Men comics) and his mother killed off in John Byrne's earlier retro-X-Men comic, X-Men: The Hidden Years. Parker makes allusions to the original comics, but he may have dismissed The Hidden Years as apocryphal since I'm not sure he ever referenced any stories from it! Maybe the First Class and The Hidden Years are both meant to be viewed as slightly outside "real" continuity.

The Giant-Size X-Men issue has been reprinted so many times over the years, chances are even a lot of casual fans probably have it somewhere in their collection. Still, if you don't -- it's a better than decent adventure. The tone is, of course, markedly different from Parker's. Darker, more an action-thriller than a light-hearted romp, and with the characters bitterer, more snarky. One can't escape how significant it was, revamping the then-floundering X-Men series and starting it on the road that would see it become a major foundation of the Marvel Entertainment empire. Viewed that way, it maybe won't live up to any excessive expectations. It's not particularly deep or profound, and the formula is pretty straightforward: Prof. X recruits various new characters and they break up into little pairings to tackle the menace before uniting in the climax. But in the telling it's well done, well paced, with some mood -- I've often thought writer Len Wein had a good "ear" for phrasing, and could often be counted on for a nice twist toward the climax. And you get an early appearance by Wolverine, and the first ever appearances of Storm, Nightcrawler and Colossus.

The First Class - Finals arc is a gentle hearted visit with a likeable vision of the original team. While the classic introduction of the "new" X-Men is a fairly strong -- and seminal -- adventure.

This is a review based on the story as it was serialized in the comics.

Cover price: $__ USA


X-Men: First Class - Tomorrow's Brightest 2007 (SC TPB) 180 pages

cover by Marko DjurdjevicWritten by Jeff Parker. Pencils by Roger Cruz, with Paul Smith. Inks by Victor Olazaba.
Colours: Val Staples. Letters: Nate Piekos. Editors: Mark Paniccia, Nathan Cosby.

Reprinting: the eight issue mini-series (2006-2007)

Rating: * * * *  out of five

Number of readings: 2

As the X-Men have become mega-popular over the years, there have been occasional forays into telling retro stories featuring the founding team (Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Angel and Iceman) from before the comic was one of the pillars of Marvel's publishing line. There was X-Men: The Hidden Years, which told stories set just before the formation of the "new" team, and X-Men: Children of the Atom, which was a prequel to the original stories. And then there's Jeff Parker's X-Men: First Class.

This TPB collects the original mini-series (which was successful enough it led into an on going series -- of the same name! Which can definitely be confusing if you come upon the issues in the back issue bins). And it's an odd mix of intents.

Unlike so many projects that arise these days, this is not a "reimagining", per se -- this isn't meant to retell previously told adventures, or give radical new spins on old origins. These are "lost" tales that fit inbetween the old issues. At the same time, Parker and artist Cruz aren't rigorously recreating the milieu -- the time period has been modernized with contemporary expressions ("Dude!") and technologies that didn't even exist back when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first created the team (John Byrne did the same thing in The Hidden Years). Cruz has even slightly redesigned their costumes! (Though a character refers to their "other" costumes, as if maybe these adventures take place on days when their regular costumes are at the cleaners!) And the Cerebro room is modelled after the "big round room" of the later movies. While Cyclops and Marvel Girl are an item...whereas in the original comics, the mutually unspoken love between the two was stretched out for a long time.

Yet, in other respects this is meant to act as "lost" stories. This isn't an eight chapter epic, but eight independent stories (if you only found one or two issues at a comic shop, they'd still be eminently readable on their own), where the characters will make references to adventures from the original comics. In one issue Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch make an appearance...and it is mentioned that they used to be members of the disbanded Brotherhood of Evil Mutants -- a group who otherwise doesn't appear in these issues.

The result is a comic which continuity purists might find a bit annoying, whereas those wholly unfamiliar with the early X-Men might find it a bit confusing (though it's generally explained as you go).

But if you can forgive those problems...it's actually a whole lot of fun.

Because another way Parker breaks from tradition is that these stories are told with a heaping dose of humour, seeming like the X-Men meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or even, the X-Men as sitcom. There is still an adventure aspect to the stories, and it doesn't stray over into self-parody or anything. But it's meant to be a fun, light-hearted series. Though there are character-focused undercurrents, angst isn't really the order of the day.

This was part of Marvel's "All Ages" brand, telling stories deliberately meant to get away from the grit and the violence of their regular line (but unlike the other All Ages series, this is still sort of meant to be in regular continuity). So no one dies, or gets seriously injured, and though there are action-adventure tales (the team's encounter with Spider-Man foe the Lizard is one of the most suspenseful portrayals of the character I've seen!) some stories are more about misunderstandings, where conflict is resolved with dialogue more than fists.

It's family friendly in a way that can endear it to older, adult readers, rather than alienate the same.

The art by Roger Cruz is energetic and enjoyable. It's slightly cartoony, but in a way that suits the light-hearted tone, while also being dramatic enough to capture the action and adventure scenes, as well. It's open and detailed without being cluttered.

The first few issues, inparticular, boast some clever ideas and intriguing plotting that makes you want to turn the pages, to see where it's all headed. Parker's "tell it in one issue" stories are refreshing in an age of protracted stories where thin plots are stretched out over multiple issues. It's in that way more than anything that he evokes the spirit of the old comics. (Ironically, the subsequent on going series did start to employ "to be continued" stories).

And the humour and witty banter works quite well, so that you can find yourself grinning, even chuckling, without totally losing the sense of these being the X-Men, and therefore characters you're supposed to take seriously.

Though re-reading these issues a while later, simultaneous with re-reading the original Lee/Kirby stories, provides an interesting contrast. Parker's modern tales are, generally, better than the simpler, 1960s comics -- more interesting and diverse plots, wittier dialogue, better pacing (less emphasis on protracted fights) but I would actually argue the Lee/Kirby stuff did a better job a making you believe in the diversity of personalities. Cyclops, Beast, etc. all seeming to be their own person. Parker's tendency to rely on similar patois and continual wisecracks can actually make his X-Men seem a little more homogenous.

Of course part of the gimmick -- seeming inevitable with these sorts of retro projects -- is to work in existing Marvel characters the team never met the first time their stories were told. So we have encounters with The Lizard and the shape-shifting Skrulls, and guest appearances by Thor and Doctor Strange (though from the context, it's obvious the team had met him in their original run). And, admittedly, tying stories too much into the Marvel Universe and familiar characters can rob the plots of some of their freshness.

Ultimately, the first half (also collected as an over-sized comic New Beginnings) seem the strongest, Parker's plotting just a little sharper and original, the intriguing hooks just a little more intriguing. Once we get into the second half, the issues are still fun and enjoyable...but seem to lack that extra edge. Admittedly, maybe that's partly the inevitability of familiarity. When I read the first few issues, I didn't know what to expect, and so was pleasantly surprised by how delightful it all was. And maybe I was just becoming jaded by the later issues.

But overall, this emerges as definitely a "feel good" collection -- a refreshingly fun and funny romp with the merry mutants of yesterday.

This is a review of the issues as they were originally serialized in the monthly comic.

Cover price: ___


X-Men: First Class (various) 2007 (SC TPB) ___ pages

Written by Jeff Parker. Pencils by Roger Cruz, others

Reprinting: X-Men: First Class #1-16, plus two specials, over three TPBs (2007-2008)

Rating: * * * 1/2  out of five

Number of readings: 2

Reviewed July 22, 2009

After the success of the original X-Men: First Class mini-series (collected -- and reviewed -- above) there followed a monthly series that ran sixteen issues (and two double-sized specials) collected in three TPBs (though it's unclear whether it was intended to run longer, or was simply another "mini-series"...particularly as it then spawned the four part finale: X-Men: First Class - Finals). Anyway, I won't give these a full review, as I only have random issues from the run, but enough of them -- nine issues (so far) -- to offer an opinion that these volumes remain eminently enjoyable.

Each volume is comprised of usually a two-part tale, and some single issue stories. The tone varies from more comedic and light-hearted (the Beast and the Iceman go off on a road trip with nary a super foe in sight in #4) to more suspense/adventure oriented (Cyclops solo investigates disappearances in rural country in #10) with a run-in with Sentinels (#6-7) and the obligatory guest stars designed to match the "retro" milieu of the series, meeting characters they didn't meet in the original issues, sometimes as they were in comics at the time. So they meet Medusa, but before she was identified as a member of the Inhumans, still an erstwhile member of The Frightful Four, or they join up with Machine Man -- but a prototype of the robot hero who, after all, wouldn't be introduced into continuity until a bit later. They also meet The Man-Thing (again, a character arguably from a bit later), The Hulk, and others. Most of the plots are self-contained in their issue or two, but for the issues collected in the third volume a sub-plot is teased along involving Angel leaving the team.

As mentioned in my review of the first mini-series, the point was to present a lighter, more "All Ages" X-book in contrast with the sometimes overly dark n' gritty tone of the main series. That doesn't mean there isn't death and nastiness...but it's restrained, the emphasis more on wit and wisecracks, and exploring the notion of these teenage heroes, tweaked a bit from how they originally were in the old Lee-Kirby comics (including a more modern setting)...while still staying relatively true to the characters as they were already established (the Beast and Iceman seem more closely palled, Cyclops is a little more dour than the rest, etc.) Some of the stories are suspenseful (the Cyclops tale from #10) but there can be a certain light-weightness to others, a breeziness that can prevent them from maybe being "must read" classics, and some of the plots are paper thin such as the Hulk encounter in #5 which basically is just 20-pages of the X-Men hunting n' fighting the Hulk. Interestingly enough, not only did the team encounter the Hulk in the old comics (albeit toward the end of their series' run) but the original X-Men had already retroactively encountered the Hulk in arguably the first example of such "retro series" -- The Rampaging Hulk magazine).

But if often too breezy, leaning more towards comedy than drama, the stories are also a lot of fun, something to pick up for a feel good, kick off your slippers read. Each volume has its share of better and lesser stories...and each will probably put a smile on your face.


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