This was another comic book that I came into possession of through swapping with my buddy Donald Sims, and it was an acquisition of some great interest. In general, for me during this period, any comic book with a 20 cent price tag seemed old somehow, vintage–even though I had started reading during the last days when two dimes would get you a comic book. But additionally, I had read X-MEN #1 in SON OF ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS and had started following the title thereafter, which featured the All-New, All-Different X-Men. But this was an opportunity to fill in that gap a little bit, to find out just what X-MEN was like as it developed, and how it ever got to the point where the entire cast was turned over. That was something that simply wasn’t done in the 1970s.
X-MEN at this stage had become a reprint book. For much of its run in the 1960s, X-MEN had been a middling series, selling down at the bottom of the Marvel line. Eventually, that led to it being cancelled–but the sales on the final Roy Thomas/Neal Adams issues convinced Martin Goodman that there might be life left in the publication still. So as Marvel expanded wildly in the 1970s, the book was brought back as a reprint series, which made it cheap to produce and brought in a bit of revenue. In essence, it was no different than MARVEL TALES or MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS except that there wasn’t any contemporary new series running at the same time. The characters would also show up hither and yon, and there was a small but vocal fan movement dedicated to bringing back the X-Men (one that was ultimately unhappy about how that wound up coming to pass–but that’s another story.)
X-MEN was the first regular super hero series written by schoolteacher-turned-writer Roy Thomas, and reportedly he didn’t feel all that much of a connection to it. Roy was an old school comic book fan, and so he was much more enthusiastic about writing AVENGERS, which was more in line with his all-time favorites, the Justice Society of America. Thomas honed his craft on X-MEN, though, figuring out how to channel the essence of Stan Lee’s style, his dialogue rhythms and story concerns, while being able to add his own perspective and flourishes to it. He was the most adept of understudies that Lee ever found, and so he became a crucial figure in Marvel’s development. As of this story, he’d begun a long-running subplot about a mysterious group called Factor Three who abducted Professor X and were behind a number of adversaries the X-Men ran afoul of. But it’s pretty clear in retrospect that Roy was making things up as he went along–he had no idea who Factor Three actually was and what they were after for several months, until he eventually was forced to answer that question. He chose to make it an underground consortium of evil mutants, assembling many of the X-Men’s earliest foes such as the Blob, Mastermind, Unus the Untouchable and the Vanisher under the command of the mysterious Mutant Master and his second in command, the Changeling.
In what is a good contender for stupid super-villain plot of the year, Factor Three is trying to bring about World War III, after which the mutants can rise and rule whatever is left of civilization (which wouldn’t be much.) As this issue opens, the X-Men have been forced to split their forces in two: Cyclops and Iceman attempt to intercede on an American military base while Beast, Angel and Marvel Girl head behind the Iron Curtain to do the same to the U.S.’s unnamed enemies. In both locations, the heroes are able to get the better of the evil mutants and prevent warheads from being launched and war from being declared. At this point, everybody vectors back to the hidden Factor Three base that had been the starting point last issue, and where the Mutant Master and the Changeling are still waiting–though the Changeling seems to have disappeared. Suddenly, Professor X appears, revealing that not only has he escaped, but that the Mutant Master has been the cause of the X-Men’s survival this whole time, for reasons of his own. His subordinate mutants beginning to question his motives, the Mutant Master orders a bevy of androids to annihilate the X-Men and his own evil mutants both.
Also freed at this moment is Banshee, who had been captured issues earlier himself. I was particularly excited to see Banshee here, as I knew from later issues that he’d go on to join the X-Men, and so I half-expected that to happen in this story. In any case, his sonic scream is not only able to destroy all of the assorted androids but it also demolishes the equipment that the Mutant Master was using to maintain a human form. See, he’s really an alien being from Sirius who was trying to start a World War in order to soften the planet up for his own people to invade and colonize. With his plans exposed, the Mutant Master commits suicide, his scaly body melting away rather than face his scorned forces and his enemies and suffer his defeat and disgrace. And then the real Professor X emerges, and tells the assembled group that the one who turned them on the Mutant Master was in fact the Changeling in disguise. Oddly, we never see the Changeling in his regular form in this story, only as Professor X, so for years I had no idea what he looked like. Having saved the world, Professor X decides that the X-Men and the evil mutants must depart with neither side gaining an advantage. And so, the battle is finished.
And then, as the X-Men return to professor X’s school in Westchester, Marvel Girl gives them all new costumes that she’s been working on. This was still another attempt to increase the sales appeal of the team, who up to this point all wore identical outfits in the manner of the Fantastic Four. I must reveal that I liked the Angel’s costume here, despite the fact that nobody else on Earth did. Of course, these new costumes had already been showcased on the cover, so they weren’t really much of a surprise. Also, while Banshee was still hanging around at the end of this story, he’d be gone by the next issue, not joining the group for many years yet. I found this story a solid outing with some good art by Don Heck and Vince Colletta, a pair who each have been maligned over the years but who were capable of putting together nice looking comic book pages. I didn’t have any particular complaints about how this issue looked.
In the back of the book, rather than reprinting the Origins of the X-Men story that had run alongside the lead feature during its initial printing, the editors chose instead to include a Stan Lee and Steve Ditko classic originally published in an issue of AMAZING ADULT FANTASY (the accreditation of the reprint on this page is incorrect, an occupational hazard.) It’s about an egotistical bodybuilder and weight-lifter who is recruited to represent the Earth in an intergalactic contest, bests all comers despite the fact that they seem stronger than he is, and winds up being turned into a statue for his trouble–the other competitors understood that this was the fate awaiting the victor. It’s a simple story, one of the first of these little 5-pagers that lee and Ditko would do in the backs of the early monster titles that I ever saw. Ditko’s artwork is the real star here–it’s open and expertly cartooned, with nary a line wasted.