Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, the long-awaited prequel to Marvel’s X-Men franchise detailing the rise of Professor Charles Xavier and his gifted mutants, hit theatres Friday to tremendous geek buzz. In that spirit, let’s take a look back at the reboot of the X-Men comic franchise, an age in which Marvel opted to breathe new life into their band of mutants by creating a virtual second class of heroes, ushering in some of Marvel’s most memorable characters in the process. With Giant Size X-Men #1, published in the fall of 1975, Marvel Comics rebirthed what was to become one of its most powerful comics properties, and gave rise to a new era of mutant domination.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men have been in virtually continuous publication since their debut in 1963, but people who weren’t around to see it happen often forget that the franchise has had its downtime. From 1969 to 1975 the comic was still printing, but it wasn’t inventing new mutant adventures. For six years the book flew under the radar with a series of reprints of the original X-Men stories after low sales in the late 60s prompted the cancellation of new stories in the title. In 1975, Marvel decided it was finally time to reboot the property, with a new team of mutants to bring in new readers for a new age.
Giant Size X-Men #1 is the launch of this new era. Written by the legendary Len Wein (perhaps best known as the co-creator of DC’s Swamp Thing) and drawn by Dave Cockrum (who went on to a prolific career with both Marvel and DC), the book takes previously used Marvel characters, new creations and old conventions and splices them together to create a new hybrid for the 1970s era.
Charles Xavier is recruiting mutants, and he’s leaving no stone unturned. In Germany, he finds Kurt Wagner, condemned as a monster by his fellow Germans, and recruits him as Nightcrawler. In Canada, he finds government agent Wolverine. In Russia, he finds the might youth Peter Rasputin, who will become Colossus. In Africa he finds Storm, in Japan Sunfire and in America Thunderbird. These, along with Banshee and former team leader Cyclops, make up the new X-Men, and their first assignment is to get the old X-Men out of trouble.
Cyclops explains to the new team, some of whom are reluctant to jump on the mutant team-up bandwagon, that he and the other original X-Men (among them Jean Grey, Iceman, Angel and newer additions Havok and Lorna Dane) set out a while back for the island of Krakoa in response to a distress call. Once there, something strange happened, and Cyclops was the only one to escape. Now he needs the help of other mutants, who have been hastily cropped together into a new team, to rescue his companions and rebirth the X-Men.
It’s fitting and, in a way, brilliant that Wein would choose to introduce the X-Men’s new mutant members by having them rescue the old ones. It sends a message that the new kids in town have the street cred to back up their reputations. That, combined with the prior Marvel appearances of Banshee, Cyclops and Wolverine (who Wein helped create) build a relationship with the reader that’s almost immediate, rather than a simple process of meet and greet like any other debut book.
Wein’s dialogue is anything but realistic, particularly the inner monologue balloons that sometimes appear when his characters are thinking (Kurt Wagner refers to himself as Kurt Wagner in his own head, as if he needs to remind himself what his own last name is), but it doesn’t stop the story from thrilling the reader with the possibility of it all. Corny or not, the scenes in which Xavier seeks out his new recruits are just plain cool, especially for a reader familiar with the X-Men mythos. For Wolverine, Nightcrawler and Colossus, among other, this is where it all begins. If you’re a serious fan, it’s enough to give you goosebumps.
If you’re seriously into comics history, Giant Size X-Men #1 also holds a lot of weight. It’s not only the relaunch of what has become an indispensable series, but it’s also the issue that led to Chris Claremont’s historic 16-year run on X-Men, a run that birthed the legendary storylines “Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Day of Future Past” and saw the rise of Emma Frost, Psylocke, Rogue, Shadowcat, Mystique, Gambit, Sabretooth, Mister Sinister and a host of others. In short, it’s impossible to imagine the X-Men today without the era that began in 1975, and Giant Size X-Men #1 is the genesis of it all.