This was an interesting twist on superheroes, exploring what happened when people got amazing powers at birth, and were thrust into a world that feared that hating them. Some became heroes, some became villains and a few just looked out for themselves. The X-Men is a slightly different experience for new readers than other series, in that you should really start with complete runs, rather than cherry-picking for the best work of the top writers and artists. The two best writers seemed to specialize in long-form storytelling, with several of the most acclaimed storylines involving the payoff to years of subplots, and the soap opera elements that have always been a big part of what makes the series so popular.
So let’s look at the major creative runs…
Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum’s Uncanny X-Men
While the X-Men is now one of Marvel’s top books, it was among the least successful Marvel superhero titles during the Silver Age. New stories starring the X-Men weren’t even commissioned from 1970 to Mid-1975, when the series became a twice-monthly reprint title. Everything changed with Len Wein and Dave Cockrum’s Giant-Sized X-Men #1, which introduced a new more diverse international team, with Storm from Africa, Colossus from Russia, Nightcrawler from Germany and Wolverine from Canada.
Chris Claremont took over as writer, and worked with Cockrum for another two years in Uncanny X-Men #94-107. The return of the series after a hiatus with a mostly new team is really accessible, as Claremont and company understood that many of the readers would be completely unfamiliar with the series. It’s not as good as what’s to come, but it sets the stage for the truly great material. And it’s enjoyable in its own right, with memorable battles against Juggernaut, Magneto and the Sentinels, as well as the beginning of the Phoenix Saga, and the death of an X-Man, something which wasn’t done very often in comics in the 1970s.
Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men
John Byrne joined Chris Claremont as the artist on the title from Uncanny X-Men #108-109, 111-143. It’s possibly the best run of any creative team of any comic book series, chock full of arcs that aren’t just among the best X-Men comics, but among the best of the superhero genre and the comic book medium. Wizard once declared three of the stories among the eleven best in comics.
This run includes Wolverine’s battles against Alpha Flight, a rematch with Magneto in the heart of a volcano, the Proteus saga as the X-Men face an obscenely powerful and remorseless young mutant, and the introduction of Emma Frost and the Hellfire Club. Kitty Pryde’s arrival to the team was the best version of the old story of the newcomer learning what it’s like to be a hero, and has served as the basis for most introductions to the X-Men in television and film.
Two stories have come to define the superhero genre. The Dark Phoenix Saga has the team fight one of their own members, as the woman formerly known as Marvel Girl becomes powerful enough to destroy civilizations. For my money, Days of Future Past is even better as we’re given a horrifying glimpse of a possible future for the Marvel Universe.
Wolverine (Mini-Series) #1-4
At the moment, Wolverine is one of Marvel’s top solo heroes. But it wasn’t always the case. His big moment was Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s famed Wolverine mini-series, which pit him against the Hand, and explored his ties to Japan, as he struggled against his lesser instincts. Uncanny X-Men #172-173 provides the follow-up. It’s the highlight of Claremont’s brief run with Paul Smith, and serves as Rogue’s introduction to the X-Men.
A handful of single issues remain important for appreciating the best character in the series: their archenemy Magneto. Uncanny X-Men #150 turned him into a different type of supervillain, as you understood exactly where he was coming from. If Professor X was the Martin Luther King of the mutants, Magneto was their Malcolm X, willing to protect his kind by any means necessary. Fire in the Night from Classic X-Men #12 (reprinted in Magneto #0) gave the origin. The OGN God Love, Man Kills introduced a new menace that forced the X-Men to team up with their greatest enemy. It became the basis for X2: X-Men United.
Grant Morrison’s New X-Men
In 2000, a desperate Marvel decided to give one of the best writers in comics near-complete creative freedom. New X-Men #114-154, Annual 2001 showed what mutants would be like in the early 21st Century, with mutant designers and twisted villains trying to graft mutant appendages to themselves. The X-Men felt like a real school, even if most of the focus was on a small core team, as well as a handful of students. Morrison’s ability to provide a kickass twists is often underrated. He has a fantastic sense of character, and is able to focus on a small X-team, as well as a few new additions within a massive universe consisting of the school and a dozen or so spinoff titles. The art’s inconsistent, and some major plot points are mentioned in passing, but as an X-Men run, it’s second only to Claremont/ Byrne.
In the spirit of the other introductory lists, if you’re looking for the defining stories for the series, and would rather not deal with entire runs, I would recommend the Proteus Saga (Uncanny X-Men #125-128), Wolverine VS The Hellfire Club (Uncanny X-Men #132-134), The Dark Phoenix Saga (Uncanny X-Men #135-137), Days of Future Past (Uncanny X-Men #141-142), God Loves Man Kills, the Wolverine mini-series and the first 13 issues of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. But it works so much better if you read the complete runs.
There are several ways to enjoy these comics. Most of the material is available on Marvel’s Digital Unlimited program for you to peruse at your leisure after paying a ten dollar monthly fee. Morrison’s New X-Men run is available as a series of trade paperbacks, or a massive $125 oversized hardcover. The Uncanny X-Men Omnibus Volume 1 includes the first Claremont/ Cockrum run, as well as the majority of the Claremont/ Byrne run, but we’re sadly missing a second omnibus with the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past. Both of those stories are available as separate trade paperbacks. The same material is also covered in black and white in the Essential X-Men Volumes 1 and 2.
Wizard’s X-Men Masterpieces Edition includes some of the most notable Claremont/ Byrne runs as well as Uncanny X-Men #150. Marvel’s most recent collection of the Wolverine mini-series also includes Uncanny X-Men #172-173.