The X-Men Universe (or X-Universe) is ripe for great storytelling with fantastic superhero adventures. The most enduring factor of the franchise has always been about social messages against bigotry that can be applied to the civil rights movement, paranoia, and the LGBT community. Since its conception in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, there are bound to be endless stories that are among the best and too many that are simply weak. So After reading Chris Claremont’s entire 17-year run on Uncanny X-men and knowing the best of the best, here’s a guide to the best X-Men stories with their countless incarnations.
In the Beginning (The X-Men Vol 1-2, Issues 1-20)
The X-Men started as a school of five teenagers (Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Iceman, Marvel Girl) trained by a cripple. But a cripple with psychic powers! The world feared them, yet they still protected them. Suggestions would be to read the first 20 issues as they were written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. It’s the Silver Age, so there’s a lot of kookiness, but it’s a simpler time with great introductions of timeless characters: the Juggernaut, Ka-Zar and the Savage Land, the Sentinels, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and of course, the X-Men’s arch nemesis Magneto in the very first issue.
Flourishing Creativity (The X-Men Vol. 6, Issues 55-66)
Everything between issues 20 and 50 can be skipped, but the title started to gain some needed originality with Roy Thomas’ run partnered with psychedelic artist Neal Adams. New colorful costumes with new team members mixed with some of the strangest pop art of the 1960s. Some of the highlights are Cyclops rediscovers his plasma-generating brother Havok, the team initiates the magnetic controlling Polaris, and a final issue dealing with the Hulk. Great fun before it’s cancellation with issue 66.
Second Genesis (The Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1-2, Issues Giant Size X-Men 1, 96-110)
But the series would return with more flavor with the introduction of an international team of X-Men: Kenyan weather goddess Storm; Nightcrawler, the teleporting German; Colossus, the Russian metallic strongman; Banshee, the Irish sonic man; Sunfire, the Japanese firestarter; and Thunderbird, the Native American strongman. These issues would be the title’s foundation as the original X-men (except for Cyclops) left the team. Chris Claremont became the writer and stayed for 17 years but he set the bar high in these first couple of issues with the first X-Man dead (Thunderbird), the sprawling Phoenix Saga, and much more.
The Zenith Years (Uncanny X-Men Vol. 4-6, issues 125-142)
The next couple of issues continued to top itself with the arrival of new artist John Byrne. With Claremont’s “uncanny” collaboration with Byrne, they produced the best stories in the title’s history: A glimpse of Xavier’s past, the fight against reality-warping Proteus, the tragic tale of Jean Grey’s transformation as Dark Phoenix, the shocking reality of Days of Future Past, Cyclops‘ departure after Jean‘s classic death, and Kitty‘s initiated fight as a trainee. Future writers would try to top these achieving issues.
From the Ashes (From the Ashes TPB, issues 166-177)
Nothing can top those magnificent years, yet Claremont provided some great stories thereafter, especially with his collaboration with artist Paul Smith. Smith’s drawings are usually simple but provided unpredictable storytelling: the inclusion of villain Rogue into the X-Men ranks, Storm’s mantle as the new team leader, and the introduction of Madelyne Pryor, a woman who looks exactly like Jean Grey. Again, simpler time, but with a sense of unpredictability.
Issue 200-201: Xavier dies and is taken to the Shiar outer space for recovery while Magneto takes over as headmaster of the school. And after the birth of Madelyne’s and Cyclops’ baby, Cyclops dukes it out for leadership of the X-Men with a powerless Storm. Two important issues that any newbie can read.
For the die-hard fans:
After issue 201, Chris Claremont continues to write but with some hit and miss ideas that may puzzle any newcomer. The Crossovers are not everyone’s cup of tea because of it’s convoluted history, but do check them out after catching up with the basics: Mutant Massacre has the slaughter of the underground mutants, the Morlocks; The Fall of the Mutants has the X-Men’s death on television; Inferno attempts to explain Madelyne and Jean’s connection, and X-Tinction Agenda has the X-men and the their other teams enslaved in Genosha. Also noted would be artist Jim Lee, who immortalized the X-Men with his drawings. Look for the revival of Pyslocke as she transforms from a British, blond psychic to a purple-haired, psychic Asian.
The Iconography (Mutant Genesis TPB, issues 1-7)
Jim Lee drew the X-Men which would carry the team for the rest of the 1990s. The X-Men are divided, but after Xavier returns, he creates two strike forces: the Blue team and the Gold team. Some classic fun as they fight their original arch nemesis, Magneto. Also, this is the collection that ended Chris Claremont’s legendary 17 year run on the title.
For the diehard fans:
With the departure of longtime writer Chris Claremont, the X-Men entered the mess of the 1990s. Great ideas, but poor execution, especially the Legacy Virus storyline that went nowhere. The crossovers continued to be a mess with Fatal Attractions (Magneto sets a mutant sanctuary in space while removing Wolverine’s claws), X-cutioner’s song (The son of Cyclops’, Cable, has a clone that sets his revenge on the X-Men, the Onslaught Saga (Xavier becomes evil after mindwiping Magneto), Zero Tolerance (the Mansion is stripped and the X-Men are hunted), the Age of Apocalypse (an alternative world if Xavier never existed), and the Eve of Destruction storyline (magneto sets his mutant army against the human population). I say skip the 90s if you can because it’s a headache. Again, two words: Holographic Cards.
A Different Beast (New X-Men, issues 114-154)
Writer Grant Morrison took over the franchise and completely revolutionized the X-Universe after years of stale writing. Morrison rid the team members of the colorful spandex, made the school more accessible to all mutants, introduced the threat of Xavier’s twin sister (Cassandra Nova), decimated millions of mutants living on Genosha, and reintroduced the bitchiness of Emma Frost. His run was controversial, but made the X-Men take five steps forward in their evolution.
Back to the Basics (Astonishing X-Men, issues 1-24)
Writer Joss Whedon provided a simple straightforward tale with phenomenal art by John Cassaday as they bring back a classic X-Men, mess with Emma Frost’s mind, and showcase an X-Men’s heroic sacrifice. Simply astonishing and considered a pinnacle of X-Men history.
A Personal Favorite (X-Men: Phoenix-Endsong)
A personal favorite, writer Greg Pak makes sense of all the Phoenix lore and weaves an interesting tale as Jean Grey returns from the grave, again. Fantastic art by Greg Land and showcases why Emma Frost and Cyclops should be together.
New Frontier: 2005 to present (House of M, Messiah Complex, Uncanny X-Men 500)
It’s a great time to be into the X-men. The House of M had the reality-warping Scarlet Witch decimate 90 percent of the mutant population, the Messiah Complex crossover had the battle for the first mutant born, and the X-Men finally moved out of New York and into San Francisco while Xavier rediscovers his own past. Plus, the X-Men are heading into dark territory as Emma Frost is aligning herself with the villains again in Dark Reign.
The X-Men have come full circle after 45 years, and these collections are the best representation of the X-Universe. Pick and choose, and enjoy.