As we spoke about yesterday, this was the second of two early issues of X-MEN that my father brought home for me one evening after I’d inveigled him into stopping off at the Heroes World store in the Levittown Mall on his way home from work for just this purpose. I don’t know that I legitimately understood or appreciated the extra effort this required from him, but I do today. For all that my Dad could be a hard person to please, he was also pretty much supportive of my comic book reading throughout, and he took me to several conventions in New York City before we relocated to Delaware, where he’d wind up hanging around outside of the hotel for long hours while I went in and shopped and saw panels and stuff. Thanks for all of that, Dad!
This issue picks up on a prior cliffhanger and was produced by the same team that did yesterday’s #16: Stan Lee, Werner Roth (operating under his Jay Gavin pseudonym) and Dick Ayers. But there was one key element missing: Jack Kirby, the co-creator of the series, was no longer in evidence, no longer providing layouts (and plotting) for Roth. Accordingly, this is the point at which the title begins its slide into mediocrity, at least as a super hero book. Roth’s background was as a romance artist, and so he was quite good at the charming inter-personal stuff. But he wasn’t in Kirby’s ballpark as a dynamic action artist, nor was he as wildly imaginative or sure in his plotting skills. It’s not as though the series went to crap immediately, but it did begin to trend downwards, to the point where it was clear that the title just wasn’t all that much of a priority to anyone.
So picking up mid-stream, the X-Men were all ambushed as they returned to their Westchester Mansion headquarters by a mysterious foe who turned out to be Magneto, of course. Having bested them all one-by-one, Mags put them all into a cell attached to a gondola and set them adrift into the air, where they will ultimately perish at the edge of space. This is super-villainy 101 in terms of how not to deal with your fallen foes. Triumphant, Magneto first moves to destroy the Mansion itself before instead deciding to make it his headquarters. He realizes that Iceman is still at liberty, having remained in the hospital longer than the others due to injuries sustained in the X-Men’s battle with the sentinels. But he’s the youngest of the group, and so Magneto isn’t really worried about him. Just then, the Angel’s parents drop by for an unannounced visit. Fortunately, they’re members of the idle rich, and so they think nothing of the eccentricity of Magneto’s flamboyant costume. Mesmerizing them through magnetic attraction (however the hell that’s meant to work) Mags has a brainstorm in terms of how to best use them to advantage.
And a brief pause for another one of those wonderful Marvel house ads spotlighting other titles then on sale. The Galactus Trilogy is at the moment playing out in the pages of FANTASTIC FOUR, while Spidey is taking on the Molten Man in a bit of an underwhelming issue by Lee and Ditko. And MARVEL COLLECTORS’ ITEM CLASSICS is back with another bunch of early stories that many readers at this time had likely missed when they first hit the stands a few years earlier.
Up in the stratosphere, professor X has been able to free himself from the Mental Wave Distorter Magneto attached to him in order to deaden his telepathic powers. Once free, he’s able to roust the other X-Men. But unfortunately, none of them are really equipped to deal with their current crisis: Marvel Girl can prevent the gondola from rising any higher with her telekinesis, but being just a lousy girl, she can’t force it back down to the surface. and the air is thin enough that even the Angel couldn’t easily fly down from there. Probing the surface and learning that Magneto has captured the Angel’s parents, Professor X mentally rousts Iceman and sends him off to battle the Master of Magnetism alone in a last ditch strategy. Xavier is also able to learn how Magneto escaped the Stranger’s planet, where the mysterious alien had imprisoned both he and his lackey the Toad when last they’d been seen.
Magneto, meanwhile, has been proceeding with his own plan. Using the tech Xavier’s school is filled with, he intends to harvest the genetic information from Angels’ parents–genetics that have already produced one mutant–and use it to create an assembly line turning out custom made mutant soldiers, rank and file for his mutant army. But by this point, Iceman has reached the Mansion and doped out what is going on, and he ices up Magneto’s device to keep it from completing its function. From there, it’s a one-on-one running battle as the youngest X-Man attempts to outfight and stay one step ahead of his vastly more powerful foe.
And up in the stratosphere, Professor X has a plan as well. He has Cyclops use his optic blasts to punch a pinhole in the balloon that’s carrying the gondola aloft, causing it to leak helium and sending the payload slowly plummeting back to Earth. The Professor is counting on Marvel Girl to be able to halt the cell’s descent before they crash into the ground, and despite being female, she’s able to do just that. The X-Men arrive back on their home grounds just in time, as Iceman has finally succumbed to Magneto’s magnetic power. The team rushes in to the attack, but even all reunited, magneto seems to be more than a match for the bunch of them.
But as all hope seems lost, Professor X gestures skywards and Magneto’s features are suddenly filled with fear. Because the Professor has used his telepathic abilities to send a message to the Stranger telling him that one of his prize specimens has escaped captivity. Accordingly, Magneto runs for the hills, with the Stranger in close pursuit, and the danger is past. Well, except for those assembly line mutants, who are just about to wake up. (They’re here referred to as “android mutants”, no doubt as a pre-sop to the Comics Code that they aren’t actual living beings given that they all get wiped out in another panel or two.) But those artificial mutants disintegrate before they can be activated, as Iceman has shifted Magneto’s device away from Angel’s slumbering parents. They wake up with no memory of their ordeal (doubtless helped in this by the telepathic Professor X) and the issue closes out on a tranquil homemaking scene at the school. It’s a perfectly fine issue, but neither the visuals nor the story concepts are quite as dramatic or dynamic as they were only an issue earlier, when Kirby was driving the bus.
As last time, there’s another expertly-crafted Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page which serves to characterize the various writers and artists who work at Marvel while also pugging and shilling for the line as a whole. By this point, a couple of years into the process, Stan has this act down pat. He knows exactly what he’s doing here, and he’s confident in his delivery. This is a long way from his softer and more tentative letters page answers of only a few years previous.
There’s also that page dedicated to hawking Marvel merchandise, including this month’s big new release: an Incredible Hulk sweatshirt that’s a good example of the serious-but-not-too-serious style that Marvel was employing at the time. From the front, it’s a dramatic image of the Hulk stomping his way towards the viewer. But on the back, it’s clear that he’s dragging a wooden toy bunny-on-wheels behind him, like he’s a big kid. So there’s a gag built into even this bit of merchandise–and that’s part of what helps to make it so memorable.
And the issue closes out with another very entertaining two-page letters page presided over by Lee.