X-Men: First Class — Volume 1 by Jeff Parker, Roger Cruz, Paul Smith, and Kevin Nowlan
Traditionally, fans of mainstream comics separate DC and Marvel on the basis of realism. As one of my friends once put it to me, the heroes of DC are aspirational, while the heroes of Marvel are relatable. You aspire to being as good, kind, and humble as Clark Kent is, even if he had a fairly normal childhood; you relate to Steve Rogers’ being someone who failed at everything despite having the right intentions, even if he eventually gets the opportunity to succeed because of everything he learned from those failures. In short—Clark Kent is from Smallville. Steve Rogers is from Brooklyn. It’s not a hard and fast rule, obviously, since who you aspire to be and who you identify with is a very personal thing, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
And there’s no other super group more tailor-made for the teen misfit with a cause than the X-Men. While the X-Men have their own sprawling mythos (I still find it awe-inspiring that Atlanta’s Oxford Comics has a special display for X-Men titles, with twenty comics featured each month), it always comes back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. (Although it’s currently called the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning, which I am all about.) The metaphor of mutants and mutation is a flexible and long-lived one. During the sixties and seventies, it was much more a metaphor for civil rights; in the aughts and teens, it’s much more a metaphor for queer rights. In every X-Men story, somewhere in the background, there’s a scared mutant kid (usually Rogue) manifesting their powers on their own for the first time and trying to negotiate being themselves and living safely in the world around them. This is why I responded so well to X-Men: First Class, the film, and when I was recommended this short series as a way to dip my toes into that sprawling mythos, I put it down on my list.
First and foremost, Jeff Parker and Roger Cruz’s X-Men: First Class is nothing like the film. Not that I was expecting that, as I knew that the film only took the title, but, for some reason, I was expecting it to be an update of the original X-Men comics still set in the sixties. That’s no one’s fault, but I do find the X-Men a little more potent when they’re more tied down to a specific time period. Since prejudices change as time marches on, willfully dating a story centered around prejudice makes it, perversely, more timeless. There’s a reason the entire franchise bends over backwards to maintain Magneto as a Holocaust survivor. It’s hard to be vague about hatred (unless you’re being allegorical, but that’s not an area where the X-Men are the most effective) and still make an impact.
But that’s what happens in this comic, and I wonder if that’s not something to lay at the feet of its “all ages” rating. Obviously, I’m all for all ages comics. Watching DC fall on its face over and over again in pursuit of an audience that apparently one straight white dude who loves grimdark really makes you yearn for a superhero show that the whole family can watch and enjoy together. (I mean, how else do you raise your nerdlings right? It’s not through Man of Steel easy readers, I’ll tell you that right now.) But I think there can be a temptation when you’re trying to make things palatable to a broader (or younger) group of people to pull back. Avoiding that temptation is the recipe for successful all-ages entertainment. The Golden Age of Pixar is a fine example of all ages entertainment that tackles large issues. After all,Toy Story 2’s handling of the theme of abandonment is known to make grown men weep.
In this case, it’s a series of straightforward adventures what doesn’t particularly explore any deeper themes. I feel like I’m saying this a lot in this review, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I like watching Sif bash heads in as much as the next girl. (We’ll miss you, Journey Into Mystery. May you be more than a line dropped on Agents of SHIELD in the future.) And I imagine my nephew at seven will respond better to “Cyclops blasting stuff with his laser!” than to the conflict between Magneto and Professor X over the right path towards mutant rights which fascinates me. But I think there’s a way to appeal to both the more surface pleasures of action-adventure and the deeper pleasures of intellectual stimulation in one package in order to appeal to all comers. It’s a difficult path to walk, and Parker and Cruz have done a fair job. But this just isn’t the X-Men adventure for me.
I do have two concerns beyond contemplating all-ages entertainment. The first is the art style. Roger Cruz’s general style leans more cartoonish than realistic, which has led to some lovely pieces. But parts of X-Men: First Class look like they’re aiming at more manga stylings, which dates it a little. My second is the treatment of Jean Grey. In the original comics in the sixties, everyone had a crush on Jean—including, creepily, Professor X, who lamented that his physical disability would be a barrier to their relationship instead of, you know, being her professor and much older than she is. But this sort of thing is why we have reboots—skimming off the best of what came before and making it even better. But in one story, Professor X orders Cyclops and Jean to rest at a rented house in Florida. Cyclops mopes, but Professor X winks at him telepathically and tells him he arranged for Cyclops to have alone time with Jean. Out of context, it’s a fine, if a little teen comedy, moment, but we don’t get into Jean’s head much in this collection, making her feel like a prize more than a member of the team. This improves—there is a story about Angel dating Scarlet Witch where Jean tells Pietro, her brother, off for trying to control her behavior—but it still doesn’t sit well.
Bottom line: Not the X-Men adventure for me.
I rented this book from the public library.