In the last post, we looked at the torrid torment of teenage mutant Illyana Rasputin, one of the second intake of students at Xavier’s school for the gifted in the 1980s. I first discovered the X-Men in the mid-60s, in the pages of the weekly b/w Power comics, before I could actually read. I can almost remember my mother reading a Roy Thomas/ Werner Roth story to me- it might even have been in the form of a reprint in Fantastic, which is, staggeringly, now a half-century old. The distance between then and now is akin to the distance between then and World War One!
Those months just before primary school, from 1967-1968, represent my formative experiences with the FF, Spidey, Thor, Dr. Strange, the Avengers and the X-Men. The first eight or so Lee/Kirby stories came my way shortly afterward in the very early Seventies but my fascination with the merry mutants, especially Cyclops and to a much lesser extent, Iceman, began with Power Comics. I bought a brace of issues on ebay a few years ago; they were first published in February-March of 1968.
Unlike the earlier Power Comics- Wham, Pow and Smash, Fantastic and its sister publication Terrific contained none of the traditional British humour strips. In their almost exclusively Marvel-reprint content, they were the precursors of the longer-lived British Marvel weeklies of the Seventies.
I was bought a few issues of Terrific as a pre-schooler but strips like Giant-Man and Sub-Mariner – even the Avengers- didn’t have the same impact as those in Fantastic. My earliest memories of the latter are of the Nefaria/Washington DC two-parter and its panoply of third-string villains. Those that are clearest, however, are of the 1968 issues leading up to Easter, astonishingly contemporary with Doctor Who’s Web of Fear and Fury From the Deep.
Shorn of US creator credits, these copies of Fantastic have a chummy editorial tone that sounds hip but avuncular. Ads for an anti-smoking campaign suggest the audience is sporty junior schoolboys; an ad for a Tonibell Miniball was absolutely beguiling when I was almost five- I don’t think such futuristic desserts were available in our rural stretch of the Central Belt.
Those Thomas/Roth stories of the X-Men which made such an impact on me are reprinted in colour in Lonely Are The Hunted and in order to revisit then, this post will have to be in three parts. Today’s first installment cover the stories originally published in the US from September 1966 to April 1967- or from the winter of 1967 into 1968 in the UK.
Reading them in sequence again after many years, I was struck firstly by Roth’s clean, charming art. His preppy Peyton Place mutants look like Archie’s Riverdale gang, who spend their down time in coffee bars taking in Beat poetry. We also see Thomas making links to the wider Marvel universe with guest-star cameos and also creating character who would re-appear throughout X-Men history.
If the X-Men title was struggling at this time, the antagonists in the stories Plague of the Locust/The Power and the Pendant/Holocaust are hardly stellar. August Hopper and his giant insects would eventually return in an issue of the Hulk. El Tigre and his South American goons are far from a “mind-staggering menace” but the man-god Kukulcan is probably the team’s most powerful foe since Lucifer, at least. Thomas would return to Meso-American misanthropes with Tezcatlipoca in Conan and the Feathered Serpent in All-Star Squadron.
The soap opera elements of the strip are ramped up by a suspicion that Cyclops may have unconsciously wounded his romantic rival, the Angel. Jean Grey has left for Metro College, where we meet two more students who will cause ferment for the team. The first is impulsive braggart, the Mimic. I was wild about the design of this character and he plays the gadfly Hawkeye in the group, appointed as Cyclops’ replacement as deputy leader.
Cal Rankin is only a member for three issues however. He is a pawn of the Puppet Master in Re-enter the Mimic, where we see a more sympathetic side to the only non-mutant X-Man. I actually found the first US reprint of the story in Prestwick Airport in the early 70s; this version contains the cameos of Wanda and Pietro and also Spider-Man , who are all offered membership of the team by Xavier. Jean gifts the group with new costumes: red belts break up the colour scheme and clearly this is another gimmick to make the book more dynamic.
The Wail of the Banshee introduces the threat of a shadowy conspiracy known as Factor Three and the verbose, elfin Irish mutant Banshee. He is a visually striking and almost grotesque character but his appearance is softened a great deal by the mid-70s. Banshee quickly becomes an informal ally; this is another issue I read for myself in a US reprint, this time on Glasgow’s High Street.
Early 70s reprints. Love those “framed” covers
The Mimic meanwhile has his last hurrah in When Titans Clash, which is the story I remember on my mammy’s knee. Xavier kicks Rankin out since he isn’t a team-player but he redeems himself to foil the Super-Adaptoid, losing his powers in the process. The story gives us another X-Men/Avengers clash in miniature. As a little kid, I thought the Super-Adaptoid was the Blob, probably because the name was easier to say.
The Warlock Wakes is a fill-in by Jack Sparling. I always found it a bit dull, with its futuristic, subterranean spin on King Arthur’s court. The villain is the erstwhile Mad Merlin from the earliest days of the Thor strip, He has a number of psionic powers and returns just over a year later as the Maha Yogi. The other Metro student in Jean’s life is earnest Ted Roberts whose sibling rivalry with brother Ted erupts in We Must Destroy the Cobalt Man. Ralph Roberts has a knock-off Iron man armour but his cobalt threat is a very tame one. The story introduces sultry Candy Sothern, a new romantic interest for Angel and we have glimpses of the Monkees Paw, even “hearing” a snatch of Like a Rolling Stone. The young mutants have quite the burgeoning social life as we’ll see next time.
Next: American History X-Men continued
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