I continued to be a regular nuisance to my father, trying to convince him time and time again to stop by the Heroes World location in the Levittown Mall on his way home from work (since the bank branch that he operated out of was in that same mall complex) and pick me up back issues of various comic book titles that I was interested in. To his credit, he did this on a number of occasions during the time when Heroes World had a functional back issue section–before too long, though, that would shrink away to nothingness as the proprietors learned that what generated the most income in a mall store such as that one was apparel and toys, which spelled the end for Heroes World as a functioning comics shop at least in terms of its usefulness to me.
I would provide my father with byzantine lists of issue numbers so as to make sure that whatever he came across was a story that I hadn’t already read in reprinted form or whatever. In this instance, I was on an X-Men kick and so prevailed upon him to come back with some X-MEN back issues. He succeeded admirably, bringing home this issue, X-MEN #16 as well as #18 which we’ll cover tomorrow. That’s a pretty striking cover by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers–the combination of the forced perspective to make the Master Mold look colossal and the color approach (that beacon-like yellow background) really did it for me. Plus, these were relatively early issues in the run, from the early 1960s which was my sweet spot in terms of the comics I liked best. At the time, there was growing interest in the New X-Men that made those back issues skyrocket in price, but the Old X-Men were still largely looked upon as a failed series, and so back issue prices remained affordable for many years.
This turned out to be the final part of a multi-part adventure, so I had a bunch of catching up to do. But editor and scripter Stan Lee was always adept at recapping what hade come before. Jack Kirby provided layouts on this story for former romance artist Werner Roth (working under the pseudonym of Jay Gavin so as not to jeopardize his DC work) which means that what Kirby was really doing here was largely plotting the story. Pages from this job have copious border notes, as jack has to describe everything that isn’t readily apparent in his unfinished basic layouts. The gist of where we are is that scientist Bolivar Trask, who is worried about the growing menace posed to humanity by mutants, has devised a series of powerful robots called Sentinels to protect mankind and meet any mutant threat. But Bolivar built them too well, and the Sentinel Master Mold decides that he should be running the show. So now the X-Men are up against a band of killer robots designed specifically to deal with people like them and who want to dominate the world. Oops.
A quick stop-off here for a moment to admire one of those house advertisements that Marvel ran during this period. This one spotlighted a trio of classics: Steve Ditko’s finest moment on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, Kirby almost wrapping up the introduction of the Inhumans and the first issue of MARVEL COLLECTORS’ ITEM CLASSICS reprinting early Marvel books that readers who’d found the company more recently had missed. Seriously, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is up to issue #33 and this book reprints #3, from only few years earlier. At least there are 45 issues between the new FANTASTIC FOUR and the reprinted story–but even there, that’s a really short turn-around time. But there was clearly a demand for these early stories as Lee and his organization made reference to those earlier tales and built a sense of universe and continuity throughout the line. Sure, DC was ding reprint Annuals as well, but the stories in those seemed to be pulled at random, and weren’t especially relevant in the moment apart from their core entertainment value. At Marvel, the sense was that the whole affair was a single sprawling saga, and experiencing these early adventures would give one greater insights into the entirety of the whole.
Anyway, the X-Men had succeeded in locating the Sentinels’ stronghold, but they were overwhelmed and captured by their more powerful foes, leaving Professor X on his own. But the Professor had been on hand earlier when a Sentinel had keeled over during a news broadcast. Investigating the area, he determines that a gigantic display crystal atop the “Crystal Products Building” must have interfered with the robot’s command signals, so he gets the cops that he’s working with to commandeer the crystal in order to use it against the Sentinels. The X-Men, meanwhile, are trapped in an egg-shaped prison that places them under a heavier gravity, thus largely immobilizing them. But after the Beast is being returned to the cell after an examination by the Master Mold, the team makes a break for it, extricating themselves from their cell while the entranceway is opened and the gravity is lessened so that the Beast can be deposited within. This is a Marvel comic, so there are only so many pages that are going to go by without any fighting.
Unfortunately, for all that they’ve been said to have graduated from Professor X’s super hero training program, the X-Men are still novices at the job, and so while they’re able to make a good show of a fight for a couple of pages, they are swiftly overwhelmed once more by the superior numbers and might of their robotic enemies. And this time, with the Master Mold having learned all about them that it chooses to, the Sentinels intend to finish off their fallen foes. But before they can do so, the lot of them topple over lifeless. Professor X and the cops have arrived with the crystal and are positioning it directly above the Sentinel’s underground base so as to disrupt their signals. This gives the X-Men a chance to recover and to continue in their escape.
Meanwhile, the gigantic Master Mold has enslaved the Sentinels’ creator Bolivar Trask and put him to work building mechanisms that will be able to turn out hordes of new and improved Sentinels in short order. The Master Mold doesn’t appear to be impeded by the crystal hovering above his base, and Trask’s device is just about completed–the new Sentinels are not likely to be vulnerable to this latest attack. But it’s here that Bolivar Trask finds his nerve. He built the Sentinels to serve mankind, and he’s horrified at the menace that his creations have become. So just before he becomes the man who betrayed the human race, Trask heroically rebels, smashing the ionic power source that’s providing energy to his Sentinel-creating machinery. The whole place goes up in a fiery explosion, one which engulfs the Master Mold and Bolivar Trask alike.
It almost finishes off the X-Men as well, but the mutant heroes turn on a dime from “We need to locate and destroy the Master Mold” to “We’ve got to book it out of here before we’re all killed” and amscray the place toot sweet. Iceman, though, is injured during their escape, a plot point that’ll become important in X-MEN #18. And as the issue draws to a close, Stan makes sure that nobody misses its message about intolerance and bigotry by providing the moral in the second-to-last caption. The last panel, though, is a teaser, promising that an even greater threat is awaiting the X-Men back at their Mansion headquarters. And in this case, the next issue blurb was right–X-MEN #17 is probably the strongest of the early issues, a true tour-de-force. But I didn’t get to read that book until several years later, so I instead moved into the wrap-up of that adventure in X-MEN #18.
This issue also included a vintage Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page, where we can see Stan work his magic in terms of making the readership feel like they were all in on an excusive club. Some people have latter day tried to claim that every one of these pages is secretly about Stan taking cheap shots at his collaborators or being jealous of them or whatever, but I feel as though a simple, unbiased reading of them show this to hardly be the case. Sure, Stan’s sense of humor is maybe not to everybody’s taste, but on this page alone he gives his audience a sense of who all sorts of writers and artists and letterers working with the company are, the sorts of people who up to this point had largely worked in anonymity outside of the confines of the industry itself. Beyond that, it is just fun to read, at once playful and self-aggrandizing and self-effacing. As much as the stories, it was pages such as this one that made Marvel a stand-out among comic book publishers. And while there’s a bit of put-on to it, Stan is deft enough in his approach that most of it really does seem genuine.
There’s also this great page promoting the very early Marvel merchandising, including a set of T-Shirts (the X-Men one is spotlighted, of course), the six-foot Spider-Man poster that was offered for close to a decade, and the Mighty Marvel Stationary Kit, which was a hoot. Even this page, which is nothing more than naked shilling for shekels’, radiates a sense of excitement and inclusion. What reader having read the story that came before this wouldn’t want a T-Shirt or a poster or a stationary kid?
And by this point, all of the main Marvel books were carrying letters pages, typically two-page ones like this. And I’m sure that the letters themselves were cleaned up a little bit in terms of their grammar and punctuation and so forth, but just look at how erudite and charming this fan mail is. In crafting a style for his line and showcasing his own nutty sense of humor on the letters pages and text pages, Stan effectively encouraged the audience to do the same when communicating with Marvel. The result was a series of letters pages that are still enjoyable even after close to 60 years.