Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Fifteen Best X-Men Graphic Novels

If you type ‘X-Men’ into google, then almost every result on the first page brings you a link describing the movies, video games, or TV shows. The comics themselves? Barely get a look-in. It suggests that the majority of X-Men fans actually don’t read the comics, and if sales figures are any representative than yes, that’s totally true. Most people get to the X-Men books through a different medium – whether it be through their interest in Joss Whedon, love of Michael Fassbender, or passion for Rogue’s accent in the original cartoon, y’all. So what those people need… what YOU need, is a guide to getting into the X-Men. The characters have been around for almost thirty years now, and that’s a LOT of continuity to work through.

Don’t worry, you guys. As always, Comics Vanguard got y’all back, We’ve cut through the crap to collect the fifteen best X-Men graphic novels ever published, which are ranked and listed below. The graphic novels collect the X-Men best stories into single books, which resonate with the core themes of the series and show the characters at their most entertaining. If you’ve been wanting to get into the X-Men but always struggled to find a jumping-on point, then this list should help! Here goes…

15: X-Men First Class: Tomorrow’s Brightest by Jeff Parker and Roger Cruz (2007)
New Reader Friendly? Yes!
Cast: Jean Grey, Cyclops, Iceman, Angel, Beast, Prof X.

The First Class series of books don’t tie in to the movie of the same name, so don’t go in expecting a hairy Professor who touches his forehead every time he wants to get a girl’s phone number. Instead, the books concentrate on the very first cast of X-Men debuted by Stan Lee. With the characters entering the superhero World at the start of issue #1, this series is a showcase for humour and silly fun aimed at all-ages. Jeff Parker made his name as a Marvel writer through these stories, and was quickly offered some of the big-name titles as a result – his writing is warm, centred around character and personality, and filled with charm. The characters come across as actual friends, as opposed to cogs in some giant mechanised franchise. It’s easily the best comic to get if you want a simple entrance into the World of the X-Men. It also features some of the worst pick-up lines ever put in print.

14: Storm: World’s Apart by Chris Yost and Diogenes Neves (2009)
New Reader Friendly? More or less.
Cast: Storm, Black Panther, Cyclops.

Storm is arguably the most popular member of the X-Men, although certain websites will claim that she only ranks fourth. She grandstands her way through the cartoons is a thoroughly entertaining, entitled way, and you can get more of that in this miniseries published by Marvel a few years ago. It centres around Storm’s two worlds: while a member of the X-Men, she recently also got married to a character called Black Panther, who lives in Africa. Balancing these two lives in tough, especially when your enemies try to use it against you. Neves’ art is breathtaking in this mini, accompanied by deft work by colourist Stephan Roux which makes every page jump off the panel. Yost has a great handle on Storm’s voice, and if you want to see her straight-up wrecking people (phrase © Chris Sims) then this mini sees her destroy armies, friends, and enemies with glee. It’s the best-written Storm you’ll find this side of 2001, and showcases why people love her so.

13: Astonishing X-Men: Gifted by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday (2004)
New Reader Friendly? Yes
Cast: Cyclops, Emma Frost, Wolverine, Beast, Kitty Pryde

Joss Whedon’s run with the X-Men is possibly the main gateway for new readers to enter the World of X-Men. His fanbase are innumerable, and vastly powerful. They have decided that Eliza Dushku is to continue acting as a career, despite grandiose evidence suggesting this is a poor decision. His run on the X-Men is flawed, especially towards the end, but this first trade collects the first six issues – and hey, they’re pretty decent. It may take a while for you to get your head around the status-quo of some X-Men characters, because the films took massive liberties with them, but once you accept that Emma and Cyclops are dating and that Prof X isn’t around, you’ll start to get an idea of just what kind of World the characters live in. Whedon oversteps the mark with Buffy-speak, and the stories are decompressed like you wouldn’t believe (meaning that the story progresses very slowly) but artist John Cassaday is an exceptional talent, and Laura Martin in the colourist. Art teams don’t get much better than that. This first arc sees the X-Men trying to be proper superheroes, to prove to the World that mutants aren’t a threat to mankind. Mankind responds by creating a ‘cure’ for mutation. Things don’t go well.

12: Cable & Deadpool: The Burnt Offering by Fabian Nicieza and Patrick Zircher (2005)
New Reader Friendly? Almost!
Cast: Cable, Deadpool, Cyclops, Iceman, Beast, Rachel Grey, Rogue, others

You’ll have seen Deadpool in Wolverine: Origins. Well, in this book he’s wearing his costume and teamed up with enigmatic tactician Cable, and the pair’s mismatched team-up works surprisingly well under the pen of Fabian Nicieza. This is the second trade from his run with the characters, but it’s definitely the best story he wrote for them. In the story, Cable uses his growing mutant powers to create a utopian island for people to live. The idea is that he will become seen as a Messiah-figure and people Worldwide will unite in their support of his plans for the future. Deadpool, meanwhile, is a little iffy about the plan because he quite likes his job as an assassin. As things go on, we find that established world powers don’t really like the sound of Cable’s proposed utopia, and so they send a few people over to cause trouble. Among them? The X-Men. Deadpool decides to team up with them to find out Cable’s motivations, and the results are funny, clever, explosive and… actually rather sweet.

11: Angel: Revelations by Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa and Adam Pollina (2009)
New Reader Friendly? Yes!
Cast: Angel.

This miniseries focuses on original X-Men member Angel, and his origin story. Underused by every medium – including comics – this mini argues the case that perhaps Angel could be an interesting character if written right. Featuring expansive artwork from Adam Pollina (one of the best artists in the business), this story slowly develops a smart framework through which it views the central figure. He’s rich, he’s white, and he has angel wings – he’s not always that fun to read about. But Aquirre-Sacasa’s story looks at the character from several offbeat perspectives, ultimately creating a neat storyline that puts forward a great case for why the character should be more respected.

10: Generation X Classic: Volume #1 by Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo (1994)
New Reader Friendly? Not bad
Cast: Emma Frost, Banshee, Jubilee, Husk, Chamber, Monet.

Every ten years, Marvel try again to release a ‘student’ book to accompany the mainstream, adult X-Men titles. And when I say that, I mean that they release a book featuring teenage characters, in a school setting, to try and create a new generation of characters to capture the attention of a new generation of readers. New Mutants is the most famous example, but Generation X was probably the best-written one. Featuring a cast of characters you’ve heard of but never knew much about, the series starts out with a belter of a storyline – and the trade captures every moment of it. The series came out of a crossover event storyline known as “Phalanx Covenant”, in which the central premise was that shapeshifting aliens were capturing X-Men and replacing them. The only people able to fight off this invasion are Banshee and Emma Frost – a hero and villain, respectively. Teaming up with a group of teenage characters who they rescue from alien clutches, they decide to go into business as co-headmasters of a school for mutants. And that’s where the story really picks up steam – Jubilee, Husk, Monet and Chamber all sign up as new recruits for the school. Their adventures provide a colourful contrast from the main X-Line, which at the time was especially terrible and boring. This was literally the only bright spark amongst a sea of terrible nineties X-Men books.

9: Magneto: Testament by Greg Pak and Carmine Di Giandomenico (2010)
New Reader Friendly? Yes
Cast: Magneto

This book was written before the X-Men: First Class film, and is undoubtedly one of the main sources for Magneto’s depiction in the movie. Pak’s story doesn’t feature any X-Men. This is a brutal exploration of life in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, as a young Magneto is brought in along with his family. The story is unflinching in the way it treats the character, and as realistic as anything you’ll find in mainstream comics. If you thought X-Men: First Class provided a fascinating look at the X-Men’s ultimate villain, then this book will be perfect supplementary reading.

8: SWORD by Kieron Gillen and Steven Sanders (2010)
New Reader Friendly: …Yeah, basically
Cast: Beast, Agent Brand.

If you’ve read Joss Whedon’s run and want more from the side-character ‘Agent Brand’, then this book is perfect. The single most inventive and funny series Marvel have published in years, it was inevitably cancelled after only five issues were released. But those five issues make up an excellent trade, filled with superb jokes and wonderful pacing. Kieron Gillen’s sense of humour is to everyone’s tastes, and teaming him up with fellow subversive Steven Sanders proved to be an inspired move. The series stands away from the rest of the Marvel Universe, although it features constant cameos from characters like Cyclops and Spider-Woman. Focusing on a space station floating round Earth, we see a day in the life of Agent Brand as she attempts to make sure no aliens invade the planet. Things go wrong very, very quickly, and she finds herself not only fighting for life against several threats – but doing so while stood next to a liberated, wise-cracking Beast. If the space lasers don’t get her, then the laboured puns certainly will.

7: The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and John Byrne (1980)
New Reader Friendly: Not brilliant
Cast: Jean Grey, Cyclops, Prof X et al.

Probably the most famous X-Men story. The Dark Phoenix Saga has been retold by every spin-off the franchise has spawned: versions appear in the cartoon, the games, the film series… and for good reason. Even now, it’s a shocking, staggering piece of work, which tells a complex story in a compelling way. New readers beware! Claremont’s style of writing doesn’t take any prisoners, and is quite dated in parts – in particular, he feels the need to tell you everything that’s happening every few pages. But the story holds up as the first example of an epic X-Men storyline, and set the scene for the rest of his groundbreaking run with the characters. If you read Whedon’s run first and still aren’t sure about some of the characters, then this is going to really throw you off – Emma Frost is villainous in this story. But stick with it, because the heart of this story has informed the series for decades since.

6: Uncanny X-Men First Class: Hated and Feared by Scott Gray and Roger Cruz (2009)
New Reader Friendly? Yes
Cast: Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Colossus, Banshee.

After the success of the First Class books, Marvel decided to continue on with the idea. Moving onto the second team of X-Men ever assembled, Scott Gray takes charge of the stories and has great fun with the disparate members of the team. This is a good way to get used to characters like Storm and Banshee, before you read them in other stories, as Gray takes their most well-known characteristics and uses them in unexpected ways. You’ll see the friendships start to develop between certain members of the team, and some classic scenarios subverted. A recommended way to jump into the X-Men if you want to see them going off on grand adventures and enjoying themselves for once.

5: X-Men: Mutant Massacre by Chris Claremont, Louise Simonson, Walter Simonson, John Romita Jr and Sal Buscema (1986)
New Reader Friendly? Not that much
Cast: Loads

This storyline sees the X-Men try to prevent a massacre of mutants from occurring in the sewers of New York City. It’s a classic X-Men storyline, although I only put it in this list because I’d accidentally listed Magneto Testament twice. Classy journalism from Comics Vanguard! It’s a good story though, with typically strong characterisation from Claremont. Probably not best for new readers, although you could probably get into it if you try hard enough.

4: X-Men: Supernovas by Mike Carey, Chris Bachalo and Humberto Ramos (2008)
New Reader Friendly? Not particularly
Cast: Rogue, Cannonball, Cable, Mystique, Iceman, Omega Sentinel, Sabretooth

Rogue may have been the main character of the X-Men films, but in the comics she’d never really been a member of the A-List until Mike Carey got hold of her. Supernovas is the story which finally sees Rogue take charge and showcases the character to the maximum. Carey is a continuity master, picking up bits and pieces of storylines nobody even remembered anymore and turning them into vital turning points in his narrative. As a result, the story he tells isn’t particularly aimed towards new readers. With Bachalo and Ramos as his artists, however, this trade paperback is one of the best-looking you could hope to see – mere men cannot even begin to comprehend the number of bizarre perspectives this book will treat you to. And the story itself is brilliant, racing around all the corners of the X-Men Universe and turning some of the least appealing characters into complex, clever, and interesting members of the X-Men. Carey never matched this, his first storyline, and it’s going to be remembered as one of the all-time greats.

3: From The Ashes by Chris Claremont and Paul Smith (1983)
New Reader Friendly? Yes
Cast: Kitty Pryde, Colossus, Rogue, Storm, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Angel, Cyclops et. al

If you want a trade which sums up the X-Men, then this is the one. Filled with memorable moments, ‘From The Ashes’ tracks the period of time just after the Dark Phoenix Saga ended. It sees the X-Men together, in their mansion, developing their powers and integrating as a team. This trade alone sees Kitty Pryde’s infamous “Prof X is a JERK” rant, Rogue join the X-Men, Wolverine’s engagement to Mariko, and Cyclops fighting a giant octopus. Maddie Pryor shows up towards the end, too, which leads into one of the best X-Men stories ever collected…

2: Inferno by Chris Claremont, Louise Simonson, Mark Silvestri etc (1989)
New Reader Friendly? Almost!
Cast: Cyclops, Colossus, Magik, The New Mutants, Storm, Wolverine, Maddie Pryor, Jean Grey

Claremont’s greatest storyline sees the X-Men and New Mutants working in different areas of New York to stop a demonic invasion. Years of storylines are pulled taut in Inferno, leading everything to a massively epic climax in which NOTHING WAS THE SAME AGAIN! But really, this was one of the stand-out X-Men stories, in which Colossus was made into an admirable protagonist and also a subway train turned evil and started eating people. There are two strands here – the first, which isn’t that interesting, is the New Mutants’ attempts to save their kidnapped member Magik from captivity. The second strand deals with their failure to do that, and the X-Men have to deal with the mess of a demon invasion. And then Maddie Pryor goes mad and flies to the top of the Empire State Building. Inferno is, we should mention, totally insane. And awesome.

1: E is For Extinction by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (2001)
New Reader Friendly? Yes
Cast: Prof X, Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast, Jean Grey

Grant Morrison kicked off his run on the X-Men with the biggest bang comics had ever seen, and immediately throws every one of his trademark idiosyncrasies into the story. From robots to mind control, everything gets thrown into this story as new villain Cassandra Nova makes her mark on the mutant race. This book features a classic team of X-Men, in a thoroughly modern setting which was intended to act as the bridge between the films and the comics. The team wear the outfits from the films, and – apart from Beast – are the same team shown on the big screen. The storyline is drawn by Frank Quitely, whose singularly expressive character design alone makes this book worth a read. But what really makes this book the best trade you could buy is the way Morrison ramps up the stakes. Within a few pages he’s established the strong relationships between the X-Men, from the friendship of Beast and Jean Grey to the teamwork of Wolverine and Cyclops. He’s also brought in new, aggressive villains, and upped the world’s population of mutants by millions. Mutantkind are growing into the dominant force on Earth. E is for Extinction is the first story in Morrison’s run, but also one of his best. It’s a true epic.


Ju-osh said...

As you and I seem to share a lot of the same superhero sensibilities, I thought I'd list a few more X-books you might like:

1. X-Force/X-Statix by Milligan, etc.

2. Soldier X by Macan & Kordey

3. X-23: Innocence Lost & Target X by Kyle & Yost

4. Messiah Complex & Second Coming by Yost, Brubaker, etc.

*If you enjoy those last two, I'd highly recommend the following trades that collect related short stories/character pieces that take place between those books:

4a. X-Men: Second Coming Revelations by Yost, etc.

4b. X-Men: To Serve and Protect X-Men: To Serve and Protect by Yost, etc.

4c. The 4-issue Nation X mini-series. Note: NOT the whole Nation X tp! Most of that is convoluted crap.

Steve Morris said...

Well, I do enjoy a good anthology. Disliked Second Coming, but Messiah Complex is one of the best X-Men stories told. A little convoluted for beginners, but well worth reading if you're caught up with Brubaker and Carey's runs.

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