Writer: Jeff Parker
Artist: Roger Cruz (p), Victor Olazaba (i), Val Staples (colors)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
The introduction on the first page reads ďThese are the untold stories of Professor Xavierís first class of X-Men!Ē Untold stories, eh? So in other words, these previously hidden stories chronicle the X-Menís early years. Now why does that sound familiar? I was no fan of John Byrneís retro series from six years ago, but the fact remains that the current administration at Marvel cancelled it and kicked him out, citing the series as redundant. So my question regarding First Class is, what does it bring to the table that isnít redundant?
I canít understand anyoneís obsession with the X-Menís early years. Vanilla costumes, a weak team dynamic, two-bit characters and hokey villains. It didnít really start to touch on the core themes of prejudice and human rights until Neal Adams took over art chores, at which point he was unable to turn the book around to the sorry sci-fi spectacle it had become. For whatever reason, Jeff Parker decided to use the same approach that didnít work forty years ago.
So if the story has nothing to do with mutants trying to protect a world that hates and fears them, whatís it actually about? Saving an ancient alien life form encased in ice from approaching drills in the Greenland arctic waters. Not joking here. I think those stakes rather speak for themselves.
The issueís narration is framed by a handwritten letter Iceman is composing to send to his parents. I can only fathom that the reason it wasnít written electronically was that it would rob the story of the hollow ending sequence in which he freezes and destroys the letter. Not that we didnít see that coming, since in the letter he spills all of the X-Menís secrets and repeatedly talks about how thatís not a good idea. So the ultimately cheesy ending is already telegraphed from the outset.
But wait, electronic mail? In the early days of the X-Men? Well, these are the ďuntold stories,Ē which are apparently meant to fit somewhere in between the gaps of the stories that were already told. So in between 1960s issues of the X-Men hanging out at the poetry club and drinking soda pop, they also had sleeker uniforms, a supercomputer that could talk and teach them, and they played X-Box in their spare time. You know, I donít mind series that try to update the history of certain characters with more recent settings, but when you say these are ďuntold storiesĒ set in the early days, youíre not actually erasing the Ď60s stories.
Logistics failures aside, the early days of these characters in no way benefit from a more modernized retelling. Nothing within these pages will redefine our impressions of these characters nor apply to their current status quos, what with Jean Grey six feet under, Angel off in limbo, Cyclops in control of his optic blasts and Beast a demented-looking cat. What remains is a throwaway story that has little to do with the X-Men and falls into the same trap it was accused of when Byrne wrote it: redundancy.
Marvel have this weird thing with writers. Theyíll attach themselves to a writer and not let go, so convinced of his talents that they have no qualms about immediately putting him on multiple titles. Most of the time, this confidence is woefully misplaced, and obviously so, as in the cases of Chuck Austen and Daniel Way, but sometimes they get it right, as in the case of the Bendis Who Wrote Daredevil and Alias, and now Jeff Parker, saviour of the Avengers and mastermind behind the Agents of Atlas.
In terms of tone, this leans more towards Parkerís Avengers work for the Marvel Adventures line. Thereís a definite young readers feel to X-Men: First Class, particularly in its streamlined, almost simplistic, plot; just as in his Avengers, however, Parker doesnít treat that as a restriction, and still manages to deliver an interesting story and good characterisation. There are also some nice little subtleties in the writing that suggest an attempt to reach a broader audience than the Marvel Adventures imprint goes for; some tell us more about the characters, like Xavierís refusal to allow his students too use email, suggesting that he wants to teach them how to properly interact with people face to face, a useful skill for the ambassadors of a new race; and some just poke some fun at the X-Men concepts, such as Icemanís surprise at encountering a disturbance so close to the school when it sometimes seems that all the X-Men do is wait at home for someone to attack them.
Not all the writing is quite as subtle; Xavierís ďlessonsĒ are heavy-handed exposition bombs that bring the script to a grinding halt, but there is a suggestion that itís just the way Parker has chosen to characterise the Prrofessor, as a man who canít help but speak in infodumps. However, the cute little references to what the X-Men will be like (Jeanís got a bad side, X-Men with claws are cool, etc.) donít seem to have much to do with characterisation and come across more as slightly clumsy exercises in foreshadowing.
All in all, while the writing is quite strong, there is definitely a feeling that the book is falling between two stools. This doesnít at all feel like part of the main X-book line, as itís supposed to be; instead it comes across more as one of the Marvel Adventures imprint, which conspicuously does not feature an X-Men title. I wouldnít be at all surprised to discover that this was originally intended as Marvel Adventures X-Men, but got ďpromotedĒ at some stage after art and script had been completed. Whatever the behind the scenes shenanigans, the result is a comic that feels somewhat out of place, despite its strengths. All that said, the X-books are typically characterised by an overly serious, almost pretentious attitude, so this title is something of a breath of fresh air in that respect.
Roger Cruz is a good strong storyteller, but his art lacks a certain vitality; his characters donít seem to have much life to them, except in action sequences, and Cruz seems content to just have them stand around in a rather listless manner. Heís also got the Beastís proportions dead wrong, presenting him more as a bulky, but normal, man than the slightly deformed fellow he should be. But Iím really just picking at an art job which, while not particularly vivid and exciting, is more than competently done.
Iíve given this comic the benefit of the doubt and reviewed it purely on its own merits; as a coherent part of the main X-Men saga, you can knock off half a bullet because of the vast difference in tone between this and its alleged parent titles. Taken on its own, though, First Class is a strong and enjoyable bit of comics storytelling.
Iím having very mixed reactions to this issue.
On the one hand, Jeff Parker puts together a fairly accurate recreation of the Silver Age: sentient computers, valuable lessons learned, and a terribly misunderstood Lovecraftian entity that wants to be left alone for the next 75,000 years (no, not Michael Jackson). He also adds a touch of modernity - little references to e-mail and X-Boxes, and a bit more detail to the characterizations than anything youíd find in the Lee/Thomas years (especially Iceman). Most importantly, itís a genuinely new story set in the past, not a continuity plug like John Byrneís The Hidden Years or a retelling like Joe Caseyís Children of the Atom. Itís fresh enough to generate interest, yet familiar enough to evoke nostalgia.
On the other hand, Iím left wondering what the point of this miniseries is; based on this issue and other available information, X-Men: First Class doesnít seem particularly devoted to doing anything with the setting or the characters, which raises the question: why use them in the first place? This story could have been written featuring any group of mutant teens, from Generation X to New X-Men (though in the case of the latter, I suppose the entity wouldíve had to mutilate a team
member or two). What Parker offers here is a throwaway story (in fairness, that does seem to be what heís aiming for), but anyone sticking around for the whole eight issues might want to consider whether theyíre content with that.
The end result is a perfectly average, disposable romp featuring the first X-Men. Itís pretty superfluous, and Parkerís writing isnít quite compelling or entertaining enough to make it anything more, but if youíre looking for a '60s plot with a '90s script, this is the place to go.
What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!