We’re just about a month shy of the release of the latest X-Men film Days of Future Past, an undoubtedly interesting experiment with the franchise that will meld together the longstanding cast and characters introduced in 2000’s original X-Men film with those introduced in 2011’s X-Men: First Class. It’s an interesting scenario that will welcome back a lot of old favorites to the film series (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen among them), and will also hopefully rectify some continuity mistakes made by the series between 2006-09.
Since the original X-Men film basically kicked off the golden age of comic book cinema that we are currently enjoying, you likely don’t need to be reminded that there’s an enormously rich publication legacy with the X-Men characters over at Marvel Comics. The X-Men are one of the pillars of the entire Marvel Universe, with the assemblage of mutant heroes protecting a world that hates and fears them containing legions of the publisher’s most beloved characters. Personally, I was a little late to the X-Men party as a comic book reader, because I found the continuity and history rather dense and prohibitive. It wasn’t until I read some rather high-concept comics with the X-Men characters that I truly began to understand them, and now count them as the trailblazers they are. Coincidentally, some of the very stories that turned me onto the X-Men in the first place are high-concept stories, on their own a bit more complicated than the usual fare designed for the uninitiated. They dabble in themes that the upcoming film looks to be dabbling in, which makes me all the more excited to see how much inspiration may have been used from these books for the new film.
So, without further ado, here are some X-Men comics recommendations before sitting down to the new film!
“Days of Future Past” by Chris Claremont and John Byrne
If you didn’t already know this, it may surprise you to learn that the actual “Days of Future Past” comic book arc is a mere two issues long. Nonetheless, it still managed to help define one of the most critically-acclaimed runs with the characters by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Unlike the film, which looks to be dividing us between an alternate present and the past, the original story gave us an unaltered present and a possible future. Then, the present was 1980, and in the future, the year 2014 (ha!), the United States is ruled by sentient Sentinel robots: giant behemoths originally designed to keep the mutant population in check have instead risen to power, hunting down mutants and placing them in internment camps. It’s up to X-Man Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat, to travel back in time into the mind of her younger self, and work with the “present” X-Men to try and avert this horrific future at a pivotal moment in history.
Fundamentally, you may notice that there are a few differences between this and the purported film. While Kitty Pryde will appear in the film (played once again by Ellen Page), her role in the original story has been transferred to Wolverine in order to account for the change in eras (Kitty, in the film timeline, wasn’t alive yet in the past that Logan goes back to). Either way, though, a comic book film that takes its title from a beloved and classic comic book story always tends to make the original material worth looking at, and when it comes to “Days of Future Past,” you really can’t go wrong. Claremont and Byrne crafted a classic tale that brings the themes of alienation and marginalization of a minority to the forefront, as well as continued behavior like that to a massively exaggerated, but oddly natural conclusion. Our heroes not only fight to protect the world that doesn’t understand them, but they also fight for their own survival. It’s a quick read, but an undeniably compelling one, and one of the pivotal arcs from Claremont’s long tenure with the characters.
New X-Men by Grant Morrison
“Days of Future Past” was actually a story I got to later. Early on, I figured that if I really wanted to make an effort to get into the X-Men, I would do so under the guiding hand of my favorite comic book writer. This led me to the 4-year run with the characters by Grant Morrison in the pages of his series, New X-Men. On its face, some of the concepts in Morrison’s stories may seem outlandish or crazy, but right out of the gate in the very first issue, Morrison plays with Sentinels, as well as tying their origins into prehistory. From there, the run proves to be one of the most engaging and imaginative in the entire history of the characters, with new revelations found out about Wolverine’s past (He’s Weapon X, right? Do you think that “X” is a letter…or a number?) that also ties into greater Marvel U history, along with really strong thematic explorations of what it means to be a separate species from humanity.
One of Morrison’s inherent strengths when taking on superheroes with a lot of history is his ability to get to the core of the concept, in this case mutation, and explore every aspect in very fresh ways. With the concept of mutation comes a look at evolution, and the true sources of the next stage for homo sapien. Morrison also creates one of the most fundamentally strong and interesting explorations of a classic X-Men villain, creates some new ones, and manages to play with the expectations of readers so much that Marvel was legitimately shocked by what he pulled off, and changed the continuity after he left, basically saying “Don’t worry! That didn’t happen!”
High concept, bold story direction, classic characters, and very much a spiritual successor to something like “Days of Future Past” all help make for probably my personally favorite X-Men comic book run that I’ve read yet. If you’re interested in reading it, Marvel’s released it incrementally in a few trade paperback collections, or you can grab the entire run in a beautiful omnibus collection!
Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross
One thing that might be missing from many of these stories is the feeling of period drama that the new film will attempt to create, since most comics take place on a “floating timeline” and are always happening in the moment in time in which you read them. One story that actually maintained a period setting was Marvels, written by scribe Kurt Busiek and beautifully painted by superstar artist Alex Ross. Marvels tells the story of the creation of the Marvel Universe in the actual times in which the comics were published. The first issue tells the story of Captain America and the Invaders during World War II, and issue #2 then thrusts events into the 1960s when other mainstay Marvel heroes began appearing: the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Avengers among them. Issue #2 primarily focuses on the X-Men, and it was the cover to Marvels #2 that I think made me first really understand and empathize with the X-Men characters more than I ever had before. In fact, as I started typing the description below, I got rather misty just thinking about what it’s depicting.
The cover depicts a lynch mob throwing rocks in the direction of a little mutant girl, obviously hateful in their intolerance of someone who is different from them. Thankfully, the little girl is in the hands of original X-Man Angel, who is fully living up to his moniker by flying the girl away from that world that hates, fears, and doesn’t understand her. By setting the story in a very real historical era of political turmoil and unrest between races and classes, the story of the X-Men packs a bit more punch, and helps further contextualize what may have been in the minds of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as they first put pen to paper for the very first X-Men stories.
Not only is Marvels a perfect, well-rounded tour de force for the Marvel Universe in general, it also helps give specific strength and meaning to the formation, and even creation, of the X-Men as a concept. By placing the new film in its own historical era, maybe the filmmakers will try and send a similar message. Whether they succeed or fail, though, you can always read Marvels to see it explored very effectively. It’s available as a graphic novel.
Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
Designed as a sequel to Morrison’s work on New X-Men, Joss Whedon helped craft a narrative that uses many of the characters from the upcoming films in prominent and interesting ways. Wolverine, ever the gruff soldier, has some of the richest character moments you can find here in this run. Beast is very well represented as the cunning intellect and practically unmatched physical specimen of the team, and Kitty Pryde also has a very front-and-center role in the entire story as much of the team’s heart. Also providing shocking and nuanced character moments are Emma Frost, Colossus, and even Cyclops, normally derided for being the team’s leader. Whedon and Cassaday help to give him moments in this run that truly help to show why Scott Summers is the leader of the team.
Also highlighting this particular run is the fact that it’s written by Joss Whedon. He brings the flair he has for dialogue, humor, and sometimes gut-wrenching emotion fully to bear while writing characters he has an obvious reverence and affection for, and with an artistic collaborator like John Cassaday on his side, it proves rather difficult to find better X-Men than this. When read in tandem with Morrison’s New X-Men, Astonishing carries even more narrative weight as it helps to conclude a full arc explored by both Morrison and Whedon. While Morrison tends to focus on the abilities of the characters and the larger-than-life situations they can intuitively create, Whedon, of course, focuses on the minds behind those abilities. It’s just as strong in concept as any X-Men story you can read, but Whedon’s effectiveness as an emotional communicator makes Astonishing a very personal story for the characters, while also leading to the natural conclusions that the personalities in play can create in the wild circumstances of these extraordinary people.
Astonishing is available as part of a graphic novel series from Marvel, and unfortunately the omnibus edition of the entire thing is currently out of print. Either way, it’s a very good run to check out, and gives great insight into several of the new characters you’ll likely be introduced to in the new film next month.
So those are my recommendations, but do you have any that I may have missed? Leave a comment below and add to the discussion, or feel free to leave your thoughts about these stories if you’ve read them! Chances are that if you take the plunge with these, you’ll become very familiar with the characters from the upcoming film – so much so that they’ll likely start to feel like old friends before you even sit down in your seat at the theater.
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