Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Marvel Masterworks: The X-Men, nos. 22-31

2002 - available in hard cover

Written by Roy Thomas. Pencils by Werner Roth, and Jack Sparling. Inks by Dick Ayers, John Tartaglione.
Colours: uncredited. Letters: Art Simek, Sam Rosen. Editor: Stan Lee.

Reprinting: The X-Men (1st Marvel series) #22-31 (1960s)

224 pages

Published by Marvel Comics

Cover price: $49.95 USA / $76.25 CDN.

Western pop culture has evolved quite significantly in the last few decades. When first created, comic books, like their close kin, the pulp magazines, were seen as quick, disposable entertainment. They were printed on cheap paper, sold at cheap prices, and the toilers in the field were paid commensurately low salaries. Comics were seen as nothing more than a passing fancy for kids. It wasn't until, I believe, the 1960s that the pop phenomenon known as "collecting" really took root. Suddenly it wasn't just Ming vases that appreciated in value over time -- nostalgia was a new market force. Initially, that related mainly to select comics, in their original editions. But it established the notion that maybe, just maybe, comics weren't as disposable as people thought.

Eventually this led to trade paperback collections, reprinting comics on sturdy paper and between heavy covers. And today the comics themselves are printed on thicker paper, with more elaborate printing and colouring processes -- clearly, no longer meant to be read once and then tossed out with the week's garbage.

Which then, eventually, led to the rise of the lavish, hardcover collection. Marvel started the ball rolling with their Marvel Masterworks series, and DC quickly followed suit with their Archives Editions. These collect consecutive runs of much older comics between hard covers, on expensive paper, clearly meant to be tomes for the ages -- nothing short of a nuclear blast is expected to damage these babies.

Of course, the Marvel Masterworks and Archives series are, frankly, exorbitantly expensive -- moreso than even other hardcover comics collections of more recent comics. Sure, because these reprint older comics, there might be an added expense in tracking down the masters and cleaning them up for the crisp reproductions, and sure, maybe these editions really are just a little sturdier, a little more enduring than other hardcover graphic novels. But one can't shake the feeling that the price is part of the gimmick, to make it seem like -- wow! -- this is precious stuff. After all, these aren't just comics, these are "collectibles", with the original editions even pricier.

And just before you think ye reviewer is made of money, rest assured, I got this at a considerably reduced price (ain't I the bargain hunter?).

So, is it worth it?

Yes and no.

This is the third X-Men collection, compiling early, formative stories from the 1960s. This edition collects X-Men #22-31 (the Marvel Masterworks series is hard to number, since, technically, I think all the Masterworks editions -- including Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, etc. -- are considered a series, meaning the numbers jump around a bit; the first two X-Men books were, I think, technically vol.s #3 and #7 of the Masterworks series -- but such numbering may be irrelevant as the cover only lists this as "Marvel Masterworks: The X-Men, nos. 22-31").

Roy Thomas had assumed the writing chores just two issues previous from Stan Lee, the series' original writer, and artist Werner Roth had only been around a few issues before that, taking over from Jack "King" Kirby. Thomas would go on to become a veritable giant in the field, and was Stan Lee's regular successor at the time (as Lee dropped titles, Thomas would generally take over as scriptwriter) but, here, still a fledgingly talent, Thomas is feeling his way. The issues are admirably busy, with lots of panels, and lots of dialogue crammed into each panel, in a way that would be almost unheard of today. But there are still times when the action can kind of plod, as the megalomanical villains aren't always that interesting, nor their plans very unusual.

Thomas tries to play up a soap opera-y element -- the sort of thing that would come to dominate the title in later years -- but seems fixated on the unrequited love of Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) and Scott Summers (Cyclops), and the love triangle it forms with Warren Worthington III (Angel). But he just kind of belabours it, not seeming to have any direction. Ten issues later, Scott and Jean still haven't expressed their true feelings for each other, and continue to just pine away in thought balloons. And there's little attempt to craft sub-plots for the others. Well, there is the introduction of a cryptic threat, a criminal organization called Factor 3, but it never resolves in these issues, and is pretty vaguely developed as is; again, it seems like Thomas desperately wants to craft sub-plots, but has yet to come up with any.

Except maybe one.

Thomas takes a villain introduced in Lee's last script -- the Mimic, who can adopt the abilities of others -- and has Professor X recruit him to join the X-Men. The Mimic isn't an out-and-out villain, but neither is he a misunderstood sweetie, and his abrasive arrogance creates tension in the team. Thomas threads this through three or four issues, before resolving it in issue #29 which, overall, is one of this collection's better efforts (mixing low-key human interaction of the heroes going ice skating with a battle with a robot, the Super-Adaptoid). Another strong issue is #28 which introduces the Banshee -- a villain who, later fans will recognize, also subsequently joined the team as a good-guy. This issue is one of the best for its interplay between the villains, evoking some of the early Lee-Kirby issues when recurring foes, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, were sometimes actually more interesting, more colourful, and more complex, than the X-Men themselves.

Werner Roth was a restrained artist, more at home drawing low key series like romance comics, lacking the dynamism of X-Men co-creator Kirby. But there's still an appeal to his art, particularly when it can be contrasted with Kirby (such as in the earlier black and white collection, Essential Uncanny X-Men -- which reprints issues #1-24). Though here, generally on his own (Jack Sparling pinch hits an issue) the lack of flare is more apparent, but, nonetheless, it still has its appeal.

The interesting thing about the addition of Roth to the art chores is that, when the X-Men premiered, they did so almost simultaneously with DC Comics' Doom Patrol -- also about misfit heroes and their wheelchair bound mentor. There's long been debate about how much each influenced the other (everyone accepts the Doom Patrol was an attempt by conserative DC to try a more funky, Marvel-style series), and long time Doom Patrol artist, Bruno Premiani, was also an unusual choice for a super hero series, his art, like Roth's, being more suited to low-key, realist series. In other words, was the selection of Roth as Kirby's successor a coincidence...or was it Marvel trying to follow the lead of the Doom Patrol?

Anyway, as a sample of mid-'60s comics, and of early Roy Thomas writing, this collection is okay, with a decent amount of simplistic, Silver Age entertainment, and at least a couple of better-than-average tales. There are some familiar villains (Count Nefaria and a gang of second string felons) as well as foes that may never have appeared again (the Locus). But, all in all, does it really warrant a prestigious, hardcover, very expensive treatment? Probably not for the casual fan. Fortunately, Marvel also provides its much cheaper, mammoth "Essential" books, where, on cheaper paper and in black and white, it collects early runs of its comics (DC may, at last, be getting in on the act with similar volumes called Showcase Presents ...). Unfortunately, to date, most of the issues in this Marvel Masterworks edition aren't likewise represented in a cheaper Essential book (a few are, but not most).

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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