There’s a lot of talk in the media about comic books, and a lot of snark going around about continuity. Many of you non-comic book types might be wondering what the hell continuity is. It’s a pretty simple concept, it simply means that the stories in a comic book universe count towards a single coherent (as it were) history. It is the element that makes comic book universes work and allows for long lasting, and meaningful, character developments and story arcs. Long time fans, especially hardcore ones, are typically sticklers for continuity. Often times, they can quote writers, artists, years, and issue numbers for particular points of contention when making arguments. Continuity is serious business for fans. Unfortunately, a strict adherence to it can be a turn off to newer fans who often feel that comics are a vast an impenetrable mythology that can be very expensive to break into. This is largely untrue, occasionally there are points to hop on that require little background information and ease the reader into the larger history. Although, more often than not, many of the vast histories found within comics can be eschewed in lieu of finding a few key storylines that give enough information to allow the reader to move on unimpeded.
No continuous comic book storylines are denser, more involved, or more convoluted and confusing than that of the X-Men. Essentially, X-Men has been running without a major reboot since the 1960s. As such, there are over 40 years of story to condense into a time frame somewhere in the area of 15 years “comic book time.” When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby initially started the X-Men series, the original team of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, Beast, and Iceman were approximately 15 to 16 years old. Cyclops, now essentially a leader of the mutant people, could reasonably be considered to be anywhere in his early to mid-thirties. As such, please take this short list of (mostly spoiler free) landmark X-Men storylines (all conveniently collected into trade books) as your guide to navigating the world of those who fight to protect the world that hates and fears them:
The Dark Phoenix Saga:
This is probably the first truly landmark story in the history of Marvel’s Merry Mutants. This story will familiarize you with a number of aspects and characters of the X-Men mythos that are invaluable in understanding any number of X-themed stories. Firstly, you’ll become familiar with the Sh’iar Empire and it’s host of characters, such as Majestrix Llandra, her brother the mad Emperor D’Ken, Guardian the leader of the Imperial Guard, and the M’Kraan Crystal. Additionally, you’ll find yourself getting a crash course in the Phoenix, the Phoenix force, Uatu the Watcher, the Blue Area of the Moon, The Hellfire Club (most notably the White Queen, Emma Frost) and a classic line up of X-Men. You’ll meet Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, Beast, Storm, Dazzler, Shadowcat (then called Kitty Pryde and later Sprite). This story comes from a time when the team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne was king, and their stories could do no wrong. It’s not just a landmark X-Men story, but it’s a bona fide comic book landmark.
Days Of Future Past:
In this tale of time travel, psychic energy, genocide, and politics, you will find yourself introduced to a number of important ideas and concepts in the X-Men mythos. Firstly, lay your eyes on the horrible, horrible future in which the mutant hunting, giant, killer robots known as The Sentinels run the United States, and keep mutants in concentration and labor camps. The future is bleak and most of the Marvel Universe’s heroes—mutant and non-mutant alike—have been killed in battle and buried in a trophy cemetery that all mutants must cross to get to their labor assignments. Left to fight the good fight? Colossus, Shadowcat, Storm, Wolverine, and a few X-Men yet-to-be-born. You’ll be introduced to time travel, Senator Kelly, and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (as Freedom Force). You’ll also become familiar with the concept of a dangerous future where the X-Men have lost. This story has essentially informed the importance of Xavier’s Dream in every subsequent X-Men story. Ever.
Another classic from the team that could do no wrong, Inferno is a great follow up to the Dark Phoenix Saga as it deals with Cyclops coping with the (apparent) death of Jean Grey, and falling in love with a woman named Madelyn Pryor who bears an…ahem…uncanny…resemblance to his dearly departed, loved, and omnipotent girlfriend. In this story, you’ll become familiar with the X-Men’s relationship with the metaphysical, the realm known as Limbo, and its master Belasco, the mutant shaman/technology specialist, Forge, the Goblin Queen, as well as X-Men mainstay Rogue. Not the least of which you’ll come to know with the arch villain Mister Sinister, and his modus operandi to manipulate the Grey and Summers bloodlines to create a child who might one day become…well…you’ll have to read more to find out won’t you?
In this story, the reader is reintroduced to the character of Magneto in what would be the start of Jim Lee’s designs for the X-Men that defined the 90s (and the Fox cartoon). Also seen here is the bow out of Chris Claremont after a writing run that encompassed the 80s and touched both the 90s and 70s as well. You’ll meet Nick Fury, the Acolytes, and Asteroid M. You’ll find the feel of the 90s in the art of Lee and the sudden moral ambiguity to all actions. The world of the X-Men starts to feel a little less black and white in this story—it becomes defined less as a good versus evil dynamic and more of a contradicting philosophy dilemma. Mutant Genesis sets up Magneto as more of an anti-hero than a villain, and really adds a level of complexity to the dynamic that, though present in older stories, really resonates as Magneto’s charisma as a political leader shines.
Age of Apocalypse:
In this reality-bending full-line crossover story written and illustrated by a literal who’s who of comics, we find a world in which Charles Xavier died in the 1960s (aka 30 years ago from the perspective of the story) in a mutant battle including time-hopping, amnesiac X-Men. The battle awakens the world’s first mutant, known as Apocalypse, from his planning to take over the world in a most Darwinian fashion several decades earlier. As this occurs before the dawn of modern heroes, there is little opposition to the megalomaniac and he conquers the North American continent with eyes on the rest of the world. In this world, this alternate timeline, Magneto founds the X-Men in memory of his fallen friend Charles, and everything you thought you knew about the X-Men is turned on its head. This is another one of those X-Men stories that is touched upon forevermore and introduces alternate versions of characters that have taken on life unto themselves. These characters include Sabretooth, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Cyclops, Beast and Nate Grey, who is an alternate version of Cable, as well as original characters (mostly) Nocturn, Morph, and Xorn. The elements of this story are so distinctly dark and popular that they often appear in the mainstream universe either by parallel coincidence or via reality-jumping stories.
Well, that does it for today but, of course, that isn’t all. There’s plenty more baddassery to go around as the X-Men break into the 21st century and into today. Make sure you come back to Eat Your Serial tomorrow and check out part two of X Marks the spot!