X-Men #14, #15, #16 (Marvel)
Way back in the day, before they were Astonishing, Amazing, Xtreme, or even Uncanny they were just X-Men—five mutant students and their professor going out to save the world from evil mutants who threatened humanity and the dream of peaceful coexistence they shared with Professor X. But what happens when the mutants themselves become the target? X-Men #s 14, 15, and 16 address this idea with the introduction of the Sentinels, one of the greatest reoccurring villains the team has ever faced.
When anthropologist Bolivar Trask announce that he believes mutants to be a far bigger threat than anything the Cold War has to offer, people fly into anti-mutant hysteria. In response Professor X challenges Trask to a public debate in order to refute his claims. During the live televised debate Trask debuts his great anti-mutant weapon, the Sentinels, giant robots designed to protect humanity from the supposed mutant threat. Unfortunately from Trask, he loses control of his creations and they decide the best way to protect humanity is by ruling them. It is now up to the X-Men to save both mutants and humans alike.
While they are my all-time favorite X-Men villain, the first appearance of the Sentinels is not exactly the greatest comic story ever written. Stan Lee may be one of the most important men in comics, but his writing doesn’t exactly stand up fifty years later. Regardless of the fact that the issues feel dated, they are still a joy to read. There is something so honest and pure about Silver Age comics. It’s not just the time in which they were written, but also because the characters aren’t carrying around fifty years of baggage (seventeen from Chris Claremont alone).
While I love the characters as they are now, it’s also wonderfully refreshing to see them as they were originally. There is a great banter and playfulness between the members, especially Beast, Ice Man, and Angel. Scott and Jean on the other hand are adorably awkward. The overall story is about average for the time period. Certain aspects are really well thought out while others, not so much. The fact that Trask is an anthropologist makes perfect sense. Trask studies humans and how their society changes and the fear of mutants is an understandable conclusion for him to make. The fact that he made giant robots is a little less believable. Honestly, the most unrealistic parts all centered around Professor X. His ability to read and influence the computerized minds of the Sentinels doesn’t mesh with his particular skill set. Additionally, his final solution for disabling the Sentinels it filled with questionable science, even for a comic book.
The greatest thing about these issues has got to be the fact that Jack Kirby was doing the art for issue #14 and layouts for issue #s 15 and 16. He was not the artist for the full run, but there is definite Kirby all over the book. This was at the time when Marvel’s house style—with the exception of Steve Ditko— was Jack, and therefore every artist was copying him. Kirby’s nickname was “The King” and with good reason. There is a wonderful elegance in Kirby’s art and Jay Gavin does a marvelous job mimicking his style. If I hadn’t been paying close attention to when the creative team shifted, I wouldn’t have noticed the change in penciler. The Sentinels absolutely scream Kirby and it would have been exceptionally noticeable if Gavin had not maintained the same style going forward.
This is also the run of X-Men that really made me appreciate inkers. Tthe first several issues of X-Men were full of very heavy handed inks that removed any elegance from the pencils and really did a disservice to the overall appearance of the book. By issue #14, the inkers had been changed to Vince Colletta and Dick Ayers, and they make a world of difference. Gone are the heavy blobs of darkness, instead replaced with graceful lines that add definition and compliment the art instead of obscuring it.
Coming hot on the heels of issue #s 12 and 13, this is where Silver Age X-Men truly begins to take off. The book went from bi-monthly to monthly and began to have stories that spanned multiple issues, allowing for a more nuanced and interesting story. Also with Kirby’s departure after issue #14 and Lee giving up consistent writing duties after issue #19, the X-Men really start to come into their own. While not yet the soap opera-esque drama of the Claremont era, the character, villain and tonal foundations established here make this is definitely an era of X-Men worthy looking into.