With the newest movie in the “X” series on the horizon, Days of Future Past, there is a lot of interest in everyone’s favorite merry mutants. A new X-Men movie always means renewed interest in the comic book side of the franchise and if you’re new to the comic world, you might wonder what books you should read to help you best understand the long and detailed history of the world’s most resilient super heroes. Now, in the comic book universe, characters die, come back to life, die again, come back to life again, change roles, change teams, change costumes, and in the case of Psylocke even change nationalities. Rarely do stories impact the characters for any lengthy period of time. But every once in a while a story comes along that has such a deep impact that its ramifications last for years. Here are the five essential X-Men stories that have helped to define the X-Universe.
The All-New, All-Different Uncanny X-Men – Beginning with Giant Size X-Men #1 and continuing with Uncanny X-Men #94 (the first “new” issue of the X-Men since it went into reprints with #66 in 1970), these two books introduced a new cast of characters, essentially retiring the old crew except for Cyclops. These new students were recruited from around the world and for the first time mutants were Asian, African, Russian, German, and even Native American (and Canadian). Not only was there a more international flavor to the book, but the characters revitalized and caught the attention of readers everywhere. This core group formed the essence of the Uncanny X-Men and their characters are still associated with who the team is right up to the present day. Some have come and gone. Some have died. But these characters are the essence of the X-Men. Most would say this period of “new” X-Men ended with issue #101 culminating with the “death” of Jean Grey and the rise of the Phoenix.
Dark Phoenix Saga – The most influential work of the Claremont / Byrne era highlighting stories from Uncanny X-Men #129-138 and featuring the death (again) of Jean Grey. The character driven story arc was well-developed over many issues from even before #129, but the heart of the story happens over this 10-issue block. In it, not only do we discover Jean’s ultimate fate, watch her selfless act of heroism, witness what happens when power runs amok, but are introduced to a bevy of characters who have had a long-lasting impact on X-lore. We meet Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost, Sebastian Shaw, Dazzler, and the entire Hellfire Club. Although ultimately Jean’s death became an on again / off again thing, it shaped X-Men storylines over the next twenty years.
Days of Future Past – There’s a reason they are making this into a movie. Now, from early reports the movie will have a different take than the comic book, but this tale provided for many spinoff storylines, assorted timeline breaking characters, and an impact in the X-Men comics that have still lasted to this day. Probably considered the second most influential work of the Chris Claremont / John Byrne era, this story from Uncanny X-Men #141-142 was the first time travel / dystopian future revealed for the X-Men. It highlighted the discrimination of a scared nation against its own citizens. It forced us to recognize that the X-Men were only a stand-in for every discriminated social and racial group in America. And it challenged us to be better than that. Subsequent plot lines along the same vein as this never had quite the impact that this one did and it was the model for every apocalyptic future story to come.
The House of M – Three words capture the entirety of this series – “No more mutants.” Those three words caused a greater impact around the Marvel Universe than any in recent history. Spoken by mutant powerhouse, Wanda Maximoff aka The Scarlet Witch, Wanda obliterated nearly all mutants on the planet in one moment. It brought back the special nature of being a mutant that got lost over the years as different writers added to the pantheon of super powered beings. Part of the appeal of the X-Men had been this group of anti-heroes, oppressed by society, who despite their ostracism continued to fight for what is right. When that population grew into the millions with seemingly millions more just out of sight, the series lost its original focus and made humanity seem out of place. What began as a morality tale for humankind became a story telling the reader that they were irrelevant unless they were “special;” the ascendance of “homo superior.” Grant Morrison tried to balance the scales when Genosha, the island that harbored 16 million mutants, was destroyed, but soon the mutant population returned in full strength and it seemed like mutants nearly outnumbered regular human beings. That all changed in House of M when millions were reduced to hundreds. Mutants were once again outcasts in a world that feared and hated them. Unfortunately, that tenor brought about by the early days of the X-Men and continued through the 1980’s has never been regained. The closest it has come was through the brilliant storytelling of Joss Whedon (of Avengers fame) who came on board for a most memorable 24 issue run on his own book.
Origin – A limited series featuring Wolverine it answered the decades old question – who is the Wolverine? This mystery fueled many stories throughout the years since Wolverine’s first appearance and readers speculated like crazy about his origin. The answer was final solved – James Howlett. Other than revealing Wolverine’s origins, the story did little to actually affect the Marvel Universe. However, it is important because the mystery of his origin had been the basis of speculation for so long. It was the culmination of many questions about the character.