Gateway Comics — X-Men

This is a new recommendation thing I’m going to do where I list works in a franchise that are good for new readers, that hopefully make them want to check out more of the franchise or character. It will be sporadically updated (like everything here) and mostly feature franchises/characters that I am personally familiar with, although I will be using others’ opinions at times. For the first entry, I’m going to tackle the mother of all beasts, the X-Men.

The X-Men are the poster child for convoluted comic book continuity. There is a character who is the son of someone younger than him, who was sent to the future to save him him from a disease, and then came back to the present and has a history of time-travelling and dying… and this character has almost always had at least one series where he is a main character since he was created. But this type of superhero drama is also what’s great about the X-Men; they can so easily blend drama of all types with superhero and sci-fi plots. Not only that, but as a minority stand-in, it’s incredibly easy to relate to mutant characters.

However, none of that changes that the X-Men franchise has a reputation for being impenetrable. Yet, they were my gateway drug into comics (along with Batman) and I have a good knowledge of their various series. It’s only appropriate that I start with the X-Men, so here we go, my recommendations for how to get into the franchise of the Merry Mutants!

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New X-Men: Academy X by Nunzio DeFillipis and Christina Weir

New X-Men: Academy X hearkens back to Marvel’s very foundation: relatable characters doing some fantastical things. Younger mutant characters are always very hit-or-miss. They have a history of being very fad-focused, addressing popular culture or cultural issues in a way that is relevant when they were created, before quickly falling into disuse once the decade is up, or becoming background characters. One of the best generations of young mutants would be the cast of New X-Men: Academy X, later just New X-Men (2004) — not the weird Morrison one — which featured a diverse cast of characters with various personal issues that feel timeless.

New X-Men: Academy X was essentially a teen drama with the Xavier Institute as a boarding school backdrop and is a perfect, continuity-free entry point for new readers (although you should probably read the brief New Mutants (2003) series that showed the individual kids being recruited) that shows why so many people latch onto the X-Men; these characters are some of the most human in the superhero genre.

What made New X-Men: Academy X a great series was how the characters were so fleshed out. You had Surge, the feminist (sometimes straw feminist) character at odds with her Japanese background; Prodigy, the… boyfriend of Surge, who had more interesting things done with his powerset; Wallflower the shy girl who had to manage her pseudo-brainwashing abilities, etc. It was easy to find a character you could relate to, and yet none of them felt like they fell into stereotypes necessarily. Stories focused on characters’ personal lives and interpersonal drama, rival junior teams, aloof teachers and friendship. When the series renamed itself New X-Men in the wake of House of M, it got a lot darker and bloodier, but there was still some decent character work that came out of that as the team became what to be the last generation of mutants.

New X-Men doesn’t link too much to other X-works and it is the best “young mutants” work that shows why people get so attached to this franchise, especially if you discover it as a teenager. Drama and character work is where New X-Men: Academy X excels, using diverse mutant characters to create interesting stories. While some superficial elements can feel a bit dated, I think this is the roster of new mutants that truly stands the test of time (mostly).

Good for: People who like character-driven stories and aren’t averse to drama, especially teen drama.

If you like it: Continue! There’s the New X-Men: Hellions miniseries that served to further flesh out some of the Hellions; the rival junior team of X-Men that served as rivals to the team. You can also continue to read the series once it’s renamed to New X-Men, which eventually ties in a lot more with the regular X-Men ongoings including some crossovers.

From there, if you’re interested you can read the series that those crossovers include, such as Uncanny X-MenX-Men and X-Force. For a much goofier take on the whole “X-Men Academy” concept, Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men (2011) run is a popular read, although pretty divisive; I personally found it more grating than entertaining, not helped by the fairly one-dimensional cast.

Links:

New Mutants (2003)

New X-Men: Academy X and New X-Men (2004)

New X-Men: Hellions

Wolverine and the X-Men (2011)

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X-Factor (2005) by Peter David

Now we have a big one! X-Factor was a long-running series by Peter David, primarily focused on the antics of mutant detective agency X-Factor Investigations. X-Factor is an example of the versatility of the X-Men franchise; this time mutant stories are framed within the crime noir genre (at least at first). David uses a cast of B and C-listers that editors gave him free reign with, while also telling great self-contained stories tied to wider, multi-arc narratives. X-Factor is an example of a really great spin-off mutant comic and the versatility of the X-Men franchise

The cast of this series rotates somewhat, but is primarily: Jamie Madrox (Multiple Man), the indecisive and nonchalant leader of the group who can duplicate himself into “dupes” that each embody a single aspect of his personality unfiltered; Layla Miller, a deus ex machina from the House of M storyline who possesses foresight, who David fleshes out and gives a sense of playfulness and eerie mystery to; Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane), a mutant who can transform into a werewolf and had a strict Presbyterian upbringing; Monet St. Croix (M), an alpha bitch Emma Frost-esque character who is basically psychic Superman; Theresa Cassidy (Siryn), the motherly daughter of former X-Man Banshee who possesses a sonic scream and flight; Julio Richter (Rictor), a depowered mutant who used to be able to create earthquakes; and Guido Carosella (Strong Guy), who is… a strong guy. All these character have great arcs across this series and are eventually joined by other characters such as Shatterstar, Longshot, Polaris and Havok. Yikes. However, David does a great job balancing the large and rotating cast, and every moment a character has involves strong characterisation.

X-Factor deals with the fallout of House of M, when the Scarlet Witch depowered the majority of the world’s mutants. X-Factor initially sets out to find the cause of the depowering (only a handful of characters know it was the Scarlet Witch) but also deal with more low-stakes plots such as those involving cheating husbands and Jamie confronting one of his wayward dupes. All of these stories provide the characters with potential for character development and exploration, all while maintaining a sense of humour that David uses sparingly enough as to not be distracting. While X-Factor eventually takes part in a crossover with the other X-books, it largely kept to its own little corner, while still managing to be a long-running title — this is what makes it such a good, filling read.

Good for: People who like character-driven stories, darker looks at the Marvel universe and who are open to stranger, more B-list characters.

If you like it: The series goes on to become All-New X-Factor, which is nowhere near as good, despite still being written by Peter David, and does not star any of the original 2005 characters; instead focusing on Lorna Dane (Polaris), Pietro Maximoff (Quicksilver), Remy LeBeau (Gambit), Doug Ramsay (Cypher), Danger and Warlock.

Most of the 2005 cast would go unused for a while, though Jamie Madrox was brought back to prominence in the strange Multiple Man miniseries that is good for those open to stranger structures and time-travel antics.

Links:

Madrox: The Multiple Man

X-Factor (2005)

All-New X-Factor

Multiple Man

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Uncanny X-Men (2013) by Brian Michael Bendis

The X-Men can often become stagnant, wallowing in interpersonal drama while fighting off whatever bigot comes knocking at their door. Brian Michael Bendis had the unenviable task of following on from the mythos-shaking Avengers vs. X-Men, which had a profound impact on the X-Men franchise. However, Bendis did his best to move the franchise forward into uncharted territory with Uncanny X-Men, which focused on a Cyclops-lead team of fugitive X-Men on the run from not only the law, but other superheroes.

In the aftermath of Avengers vs. X-Men, Scott Summers (Cyclops) finds himself on the run from the law. With him are former-enemy-turned-ally Magneto, ex-girlfriend Emma Frost and mutant sorceress and borderline villain Illyana Rasputin (Magik). Along for the ride are a gaggle of new, younger mutants who essentially serve as students; although they are by no means the focus of the series.

Cyclops is now seen as a controversial figure in the world: to some he’s a mutant terrorist, to others he’s a hero. Bendis does an admirable job depicting mutant rights in a modern light, with mutant rights activists and police brutality (the latter is slightly overblown) while having Cyclops deal with the consequences of his actions and SHIELD, the X-Men and the Avengers out for his head. Of course, the plot also tackles the budding powers of Magik, who is fun to read in her casual murder glory. Bendis’ dialogue, while repetitive and annoying at times, is easy to read and helps to keep a good flow going. The stories themselves range from interesting to relatively boring, but overall Bendis’ world-building and character work in this series is a breath of fresh air for the franchise, especially in light of what came after. Please note that this series does eventually take part in the Battle of the Atom crossover and sort of requires you to read All-New X-Men (2012) to make sense at times, but it’s not that big a deal in the long run.

Despite how uneven it is, Bendis’ Uncanny X-Men is a mostly enjoyable read that modernised the franchise in smaller ways. Ignoring some of the dialogue (as an Australian, Bendis’ attempts at emulating Australian slang is terrible) and the typical “Bendis probably made up most of this as he went”-style of writing, Uncanny X-Men serves as a good example of the interesting ideas that the X-Men can breed. Maybe it didn’t end on that great a note, but I can’t say I regretted reading this.

Good for: People looking for a more character-driven take on the X-Men with an emphasis on world-building, morally grey characters and interesting ideas in the superhero genre.

If you like it: Magneto received a spin-off during this series written by Cullen Bunn; despite how much I dislike his work, his Magneto run is surprisingly enjoyable based on what I’ve read, and I’ve heard okay things about it. It has a darker take on Magneto who has lost much of his power.

Despite being what I consider terrible reads, Extraordinary X-MenDeath of X and Inhumans vs. X-Men serve as the follow-up to Cyclops, Emma Frost and Magik’s stories and have a somewhat connected tone, though Cyclops and Emma themselves don’t appear in Extraordinary X-Men. Be warned that these are near-universally considered terrible. If you’re going backwards, I’d say Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men (2011) is an engaging read if you want to see pre-fugitive Cyclops and Emma Frost as heads of the mutant race, joined by Magneto. Magik can be found in New Mutants (2009) before transferring over to Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men and she’s delightful, although the series’ quality declines once Jim Zub leaves as writer.

Links:

Uncanny X-Men (2013)

Magneto

Extraordinary X-Men

Death of X

Inhumans vs. X-Men

Uncanny X-Men (2011)

New Mutants (2009)

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Astonishing X-Men (2004) by Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon’s more classic take on the X-Men following Grant Morrison’s experimental New X-Men is the comic you want to read if you want a more traditional comic. It has interpersonal drama, space stories and a bit of romance. No, it isn’t as amazing as many people say, but it’s enough to wet your appetite and short enough that it’s not too intimidating a read.

The cast of Astonishing X-Men are an inoffensive mix of older X-Men characters, featuring Scott Summers (Cyclops), Logan (Wolverine), Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde, Piotr Rasputin (Colossus) and Hank McCoy (Beast). The plot is a bit all over the place; the opening story is the most new reader friendly, taking on the idea of a cure for mutants (that was subsequently adapted into X-Men: the Last Stand) and the emergence of a new alien foe for the X-Men. Whedon returns the team to a more straightforward superhero approach, removing most of the experimental and soap opera elements of the previous runs. Instead, the character drama mostly comes — strangely enough — from dealing with the aftermath of events from before the series, such as the death of Jean Grey and Kitty Pryde returning the X-Men after a long absence. However, Whedon holds readers’ hands on these points and dialogue is natural while still informing the reader about what’s happening.

What makes this less of a friendly read would be the awkward need to address other plot points. Such as the return of Cassandra Nova (from Grant Morrison’s New X-Men) and a reformed Hellfire Club. Here, Whedon seems to think he’s a bit too clever and new readers can very easily get lost. Thankfully those stories are resolved in one arc.

Good for: People looking for a more traditional superhero comic with adventure, minor character drama and lots of big action moments.

If you like it: The series keeps going under different writers, which I have not read. But for a less drama-based take on the X-Men, Kieron Gillen’s run on Uncanny X-Men (1963) (which begins at #531) works as a more traditional superhero comic before becoming much more interesting; it also deals with some of the fallout of Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, interestingly enough. The series eventually relaunched under Gillen as Uncanny X-Men (2011) and would go on to play a part in the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover. Charles Soule’s Astonishing X-Men (2017) run has the same tone as Whedon’s run, but stars a wildly different cast and can come off as a bit flat and emotionless at times.

Links:

Astonishing X-Men (2004)

Uncanny X-Men (1963)

Uncanny X-Men (2011)

Astonishing X-Men (2017)

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