?You know that TV show that your friends just don’t shut up about? The one they throw viewing parties for or, depending on their level of soul-sadness, write fanfic for? And you get so annoyed at their continued insistence that you seriously consider killing them with your feet, Sayid-style (you haven’t watched Lost? DO IT!). The awesome thing about television is that you can catch up. One hermit weekend holed up with your best friend Netflix Instant and you can plow through a few series of the new Doctor Who. Those friends who keep demanding you watch The Wire are also keen on showing off their DVD box sets by letting you borrow them.
The same cannot be said for superhero comics. Anyone wishing to get into Captain America from his metaphorical season one is subjecting themselves to hundreds of insane Golden Age stories that appeal only to that dude in your comic shop whose t-shirt is always moist. It’s hard to tell what’s important and what’s toilet paper when you’re staring at decades worth of funny books. There’s no way a human brain can handle reading it all.
The X-Men are no different. In their nearly fifty years of publication, the X-Men have enough comics and characters to be considered their own comic book company. What follows is a chronological list of the 11 purchases you can make to jump into any current X-Men comic with a real working knowledge of this team. Plus you’ll be able to point out the discrepancies between the comics and films and officially become that guy.
Note that this list excludes the initial ’60s run of X-Men. Most of those stories don’t age well and, in all honesty, all of the mainstream media adaptations of the merry mutants draw exclusively from the material from 1975 and onwards. Yeah, the Neal Adams run is great, but it’s only an album track to this list’s hit singles.
11) Uncanny X-Men Omnibus Vol. 1
?This is a big purchase, but oh my stars and garters is it essential. Starting with the team’s 1975 rebirth and concluding in the middle of the legendary “Dark Phoenix Saga,” this sucker contains over thirty issues of Uncanny X-Men and constitutes what could be considered the X-Men’s Bible. If you’re a fan of the movies, you’ll see familiar faces (Wolverine, Storm, Jean Grey, Cyclops) in their prime. If you’re a comic fanboy who’s new to the X-Men, you’ll get a crash course on how writer Chris Claremont and artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne revolutionized the dynamics of the team superhero book. Also, the X-Men get trapped in a giant pinball machine. How has this not made it into any of the films?!
10) The Dark Phoenix Saga
?As great as the Uncanny omnibus is, it does cut off halfway through what is widely considered the greatest X-Men story ever told. And just like Watchmen (you haven’t read Watchmen?! DO IT!), it’s one story that lives up to the hype. Sure it’s verbose, but that verbosity sharpens the core cast of characters (Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler and Phoenix) into real people that you don’t want Dark Phoenix to annihilate. Kitty Pryde and the White Queen make their debut and go on to become integral to the series. Added bonus, reading this will allow you to understand why nerds wanted to kill X-Men: The Last Stand with fire.
9) God Loves, Man Kills
?Because of all the baseball playing and intergalactic adventuring the X-Men do, it’s easy to forget that they’re a metaphor for persecuted minorities. Thankfully God Loves, Man Kills exists as a reminder. Reverend William Stryker (changed to Colonel William Stryker in X2: X-Men United) proves that an average human being with a passionate prejudice and a platform can cause much more damage than the Nasty Boys (and I don’t mean Janet Jackson’s backing band, I mean the X-Men villains). This story brought dramatic maturity to the X-Men in a story that still resonates. It’s not a light story, but hey, remember when the X-Men got stuck in that pinball machine?
8) From the Ashes
?The X-Men dirty up their glossy superhero veneer in this stretch of issues from 1983. Kitty Pryde literally fights for her place on the team, a sewer-dwelling mutant group called the Morlocks attack, the X-Men welcome a villain named Rogue (recognize the name?) to their ranks, and goddess Storm goes punk after stabbing a foe through the heart. This ain’t Fox Kids’ X-Men. Artist Paul Smith brings out the best in Chris “I can fit an encyclopedia entry in this panel” Claremont, who lets Smith’s smooth pencils do the talking. This trade has been out of print for more than a decade, but used copies can and must be found online.
7) New Mutants Classic Vol. 3
?Welcome to the wide world of mutants! The literally named New Mutants was the first of Uncanny X-Men’s many spin-offs. Starring a cast struggling with puberty on top of prejudice and killer robots, New Mutants hit its stride when Bill Sienkiewicz’s darkly abstract art got involved. Sienkiewicz, a name more puzzling than how Wolverine’s hair, used everything from pencils and paint to computer parts to illustrate the junior team’s battle with a Native American spirit and their introduction to the alien/sorta-mutant/quasi-robot named Warlock. As the X-Men’s cast continues to grow exponentially, the New Mutants remain some of the most beloved.
6) X-Factor Visionaries: Peter David Vol. 1
?Welcome to the ’90s, the equivalent of the comic industry’s acne-ridden high school yearbook photo thanks to the preponderance of boobs and guns and pouches and angst. Peter David and Larry Stroman’s highly regarded run on X-Factor embodies everything good about the ’90s: political awareness, well-executed satire, and wit sharper than Shatterstar’s double-bladed sword. This comic proves that any character, even perpetual second stringers like Havok and Polaris and no-names like Multiple Man and Strong Guy, can be compelling when handled by a writer who gives a crap.
5) X-Cutioner’s Song
?The X-Men have had annual crossover events since the late ’80s. For the most part they are impenetrable continuity bonanzas ranging from inspired (“Age of Apocalypse”) to insipid (“Onslaught”). “X-Cutioner’s Song” gets on this list because it’s a snapshot of ’90s comics that holds up surprisingly well and serves as a solid introduction to the wider world of X-Characters, all of whom populate the X-Men comics to this day. This story’s heart lies in the teams’ relationship with their father figure, Professor X, and Cyclops failed role as a father. Oh, Cyclops has a kid, by the way. It might help to have Wikipedia open while reading this.
4) New X-Men Vol. 1: “E is for Extinction”
?With stories full of psychedelic pseudo-science and dialogue as elegantly complex as poetry, Grant Morrison isn’t everyone’s bottle of Mountain Dew: Code Red (you haven’t tried Code Red? DO IT!). Love him or hate him, you have to admit that he revitalized a stale franchise when he took over in 2001. He re-opened Xavier’s School to a student body, added Emma Frost (the former White Queen) to the team, and crammed enough progressive ideas into the X-Universe to fill a college lecture course. He may have not treated the characters with the respect fans feel they deserve, and I will never forgive him for his Multiple Man orgy-of-one joke, but he routed the franchise in the direction it still travels in.
3) Astonishing X-Men Vol. 1: “Gifted”
?Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator and geek god Joss Whedon came to comics armed with his love and admiration of classic X-Men stories. Devotees of Whedon’s TV work will be pleased to know that very little was lost in translation. Whedon and the impeccable art of John Cassaday create a story that is a tonal update of the omnibus that kicked off this list. Astonishing X-Men is the X-Men done with a level of skill and attention to character not seen since the Reagan administration.
2) Messiah Complex
?Following a massive long-term blackout of mutant births, a new mutant is born in Alaska. What follows is an action-packed game of tag between a militant group of humans who want the baby dead, the evil geneticist Mr. Sinister who wants the baby for his own nefarious purposes and the X-Men who are fighting to keep the baby safe. Filled with tense drama and stylistic ultra-violence (the black ops, claw-filled version of X-Force debuts here), it’s like the ’90s never stopped.
1) Second Coming
?The most recent of all the big crossovers, “Second Coming” picks up right where “Messiah Complex” thematically leaves off. Much like “X-Cutioner’s Song” before it, this acts as a sampler of the various characters and status quos featured in the current crop of X-Books. The crossover also features a number of shocking deaths and, that old ’90s standby, variant covers. If comics are right and the ’90s are in vogue, then movies should prep themselves for a whole lot more Van Damme.