My pal (and frequent commenter) Austin Gorton, who blogs under the handle Teebore, has been methodically reviewing Marvel's X-Men in a series of posts over at Gentlemen of Leisure. He began with 1963's X-Men #1 and last week reached #101, a landmark for more than just its numbering as Jean Grey evolved into Phoenix. But the entry that I'd been waiting for is the one on X-Men #98.
Cover to X-Men #98 © 1976 and characters TM/® Marvel Comics.
Pencils, Inks: Dave Cockrum. Text, Colors: Unknown. Letters: Dan Crespi.
X-Men #98 is a sort of touchstone for me.
As I wrote in my first real installment of Empaneled — the raison d'être of this blog in its planning stages and much neglected as originally conceived — my earliest purchases of comic books were made at drug stores, 5-&-10s, "sundries" shops, convenience stores, and newsagents (indoor newsstands that sold a wide variety of magazines, cigars, and penny candy). The practice was common to most kids of my era as it was for previous generations, but my childhood also coincided with the rise of the so-called direct market — and within just a couple of years of my early, exponentially increasing comics obsession I was visiting dedicated comic-book stores during family trips to Philadelphia from our small-town New Jersey home. On an early stop at The Comic Vault, which later would become a regular haunt and eventually a place of employment, I was handed a copy of X-Men #98 and told that it was a title to watch.
It was early 1976, I was 5 years old, and while of course my mother was keeping an eye on me I'm still impressed that she allowed, if not encouraged, my interaction with grown men running a comic-book store. Mom had a been a comic-book reader, too, and she's told me often that having her own stash unceremoniously thrown out by her mother was — along with the obvious joy that it brought me— a key motivation in helping me amass, study, and preserve my collection. But I was floored to see other adults deal in comic books, let alone speak knowledgeably about them, and to have a grown-up recommend something to me was almost as confusing as it was awesome.
This was the dawn of the "New" X-Men, still known as such today — at least by readers of my vintage and older — despite the fact that the 2.0 team's introduction dates to 1975, well over three decades ago and merely (from a modern perspective) a dozen years after the publication of X-Men #1. Marvel's band of merry mutants, as Smilin' Stan Lee would put it, was the rare creation of Lee and Jolly Jack Kirby that never quite found its footing in the '60s Marvel renaissance. X-Men went on hiatus for most of 1970, after a too-little-too-late stint (spearheaded by Roy Thomas and Neal Adams) that's now acknowledged as a vital precursor to the New X-Men phenomenon; it was resurrected as a reprint book to keep the trademark alive until its "Second Genesis" in 1975's Giant-Size X-Men #1, after which new stories resumed in #94 of the regular series — whose covers heralded the group as "All-New, All-Different" before the title began its transition to The Uncanny X-Men. (Marvel was high on adjectives at the time, as evidenced by The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, The Invincible Iron Man, and naturally The Fantastic Four, whose descriptor was utterly indivisible from the title itself.)
Covers to Marvel Team-Up #4 and X-Men #87 © 1972, 1974 and characters TM/® Marvel
Comics. Pencils: Gil Kane (left); George Tuska (right). Inks: Frank Giacoia (left); Tuska
(right). Letters: Morrie Kuramoto (left); Sam Rosen (right). Text, Colors: Unknown (both).
The presence of a few other items in my burgeoning hoard meant that I wasn't entirely unaware of the X-Men concept. I'd read a reprint of Iron Man's encounter with founding member The Angel in Giant-Size Iron Man #1, cover-dated Oct. 1975 (the same month as that now-legendary X-Men #94). Among my other earliest comic-book possessions was a rare contemporary X-Men appearance during the "reprint years" in Sept. 1972's Marvel Team-Up #4, which had the group, in street clothes, joining forces with Spider-Man to battle Morbius the Living Vampire; many elements of the story freaked the bejeezus out of me, since while I almost certainly didn't own the issue hot off the racks I definitely picked it up somewhere before getting my hands on X-Men #98 and was a bit young for all the angst, moody Gil Kane artwork, and flippin' Morbius the Living Vampire. Rounding out my initial X-Men acquisitions, likely also a back issue picked up in trade or at a flea market given its date, was Apr. 1974's X-Men #87, reprinting the 1967 issue in which the original members graduated from their formal training and were given new outfits made by Marvel Girl. It's possible that by the time I got X-Men #98 I'd read a reprint of the team's debut in 1975's Son of Origins of Marvel Comics — the second volume in Simon & Schuster's series of great Fireside reprint collections — but I'm not so sure.
None of my haphazard encounters with the original X-Men team had prepared me for the onslaught of new characters and concepts that awaited me in #98, however. And had it not been for some small experience with the darker nature of Marvel comics (including Marvel Team-Up #4) in comparison to the generally lighter fare that was The Line of DC Super-Stars — not to mention Archies, Harveys, and Gold Keys — I might have passed on the recommendation altogether. "Merry Christmas, X-Men... The Sentinels Have Returned!" finds our heroes attempting to enjoy a night on the town in snowy New York City when they're attacked by giant, mutant-targeting robots; before and after they get to fighting, writer Chris Claremont has the X-Men banter, bicker, and generally behave in a way that I didn't expect from costumed crimefighters. Of course, X-Men wasn't your typical costumed-crimefighters comic book, even within the offbeat Marvel milieu — its protagonists came together to hone the use of special abilities many of them regarded as more curse than blessing, serving as a bulwark against other mutants who sought to conquer rather than coexist with humanity, "feared and hated," as their splash-page logline often read, "by the world they have sworn to protect."
X-Men #98 has several notable moments, from the revelation (to his fellow X-Men as well as the readers) that Wolverine's claws are a part of him rather than a component of his gloves to the introduction of the latest breed of Sentinels; you can read Teebore's informative takes on them as well as copious comments from me at his blog. While I didn't get the full import of many of those moments, not having been in on the New X-Men from the start, I had to agree with my Comic Vault counselor that there was something special going on — although neither of us could possibly have anticipated the heights these unconventional blackbirds ultimately reached. It would be a few years before comic-book stores were accessible on a regular basis and I made buying X-Men a staunch habit; indeed, even though I'd moved to the Philly suburbs by then, I remember buying the pivotal X-Men #137 off the spinner rack at my old Wildwood haunt Bar-Val in the summer of 1980 and — entranced by its mix of intimate character bits and epic cosmic adventure, expertly realized by every member of the creative team — wishing that I'd followed the series more consistently, because I'd loved what I had read and this was the culmination of it all.
Soon enough I was filling in as many holes in my run as possible, delighting and suffering through a growing number of spinoffs until my mutant mania burned out a decade after it was sparked that afternoon in 1976. It's probably impossible to tell if this is just my nostalgia talking, but even when I re-read straight on through from Len Wein and Dave Cockrum's debut of the new recruits in Giant-Size X-Men #1 to "The Dark Phoenix Saga" and beyond (as I'm doing now with Teebore, for the first time in about 10 years), I can't help but feel like the Golden Age of The Uncanny X-Men truly begins with #98. As much as I love parts of Cockrum's return to the series and Paul Smith's heartbreakingly short-lived tenure, I think that said Golden Age ends with #137 or at the outside with John Byrne's departure after #142, but that's another story.