The First Marvel Resurrection

As I spoke about last week, the early Marvel Comics was relatively consistent with the manner in which it dealt with death. As a general rule, when a character was genuinely killed (as opposed to suffering a “super villain death” at the climax of a story where they fell into the river or some such) that character legitimately was treated as demised for the long haul. Such characters could be memorialized, others could take up their costumes and positions, but they seldom were genuinely resurrected, at least not during this era. With one notable exception.

While it had been launched during the formative Silver Age of Comics like the rest of the Marvel line at this time, it was clear by the mid-1960s that X-MEN was a series that was in trouble. It floundered in sales, in part because it became a self-fulfilling prophesy, a place where either veteran talent could be deployed in an unimportant position in the line or where newcomers could be given a super hero try-out before assigning them to more important features. X-MEN also had a strong core concept and good characters, but nobody seemed to much know what to do with them. And so, as the book’s lights faded, as tended to happen, editor Stan Lee and writer Roy Tomas started to mess around with it.

In short order, the characters abandoned their blue and gold uniforms in favor of individual costumes. The title’s covers shrunk the name X-MEN to a relatively small size, choosing instead to logo either a member or two of the team (THE ANGEL! CYCLOPS AND MARVEL GIRL! etc) or else the key events of that issue (THE RETURN OF MAGNETO!) And the group was even split up, resulting in stories that starred only one or two of them at a time, spread out across the nation. But most severe of all, the school element of the series was dispensed with seemingly permanently as Professor X, the leader and namesake of the X-Men, was killed off. The issue in which he met his end may be the first comic book that blurbed the death of a main character in such an overt manner

In the story, it’s revealed that Professor X has been slowly perishing from radiation poisoning for several weeks now, and has only stayed alive with the help of Marvel Girl long enough for the group to prevent the underground warrior Grotesk from destroying the surface world. As a part of these measures, professor X passed on to Jean Grey a portion of his own telepathic abilities to augment her existing telekinetic talents–thus beginning her journey towards becoming Dark Phoenix. The idea here with all of these measures was to grab readers by the throat and compel them to pick the series up. But the result seems to have been the opposite of what was intended, and sales sagged rather than soared. In a quick turn-about, the X-Men were hastily reunited (so hastily that a story co-starring the Beast and Iceman was discarded before it was ever completed and remains unpublished to this day.)

The series continued to decay, and even stints by the supremely-popular Jim Steranko as artist and the debut of newcomer Barry Smith did nothing to arrest it. But then, the title got a fortuitous shot in the arm. Neal Adams had been making a name for himself over at DC, in particular on the Deadman series featured in STRANGE ADVENTURES. He’d run into Jim Steranko at one point, and Jim had explained to him how, at Marvel, the artists did the lion’s share of the plotting. This sounded interesting to Neal, and so at first opportunity, he went to see editor Stan Lee. Lee offered him a spot at Marvel–he said that Deadman was the only DC series that anybody at Marvel even looked at–and Neal preferred to work on X-MEN, as he reasoned that as a failing series, nobody would pay it much attention and he could do what he liked with it. He was paired with Roy Thomas as scripter and defacto editor. Roy had written the book for a long stretch, but had only just returned to it in an attempt to keep it afloat. Apparently, he offered Neal the chance to write teh series himself, but Adams preferred to work with Thomas.

Adams was a major stylist, and he did what nobody before him had been able to do: draw some eyeballs back to X-MEN again. It’s tough to remember so many years after the fact what an insane step up in terms of draftsmanship and dramatics Neal’s work was as compared to the sorts of mainstay artists who had been holding down X-MEN. And he and Thomas made an effective combination on the series, producing a run of stories that would become often-imitated and homaged, notably by Chris Claremont and John Byrne about a decade later.

At a certain point in their collaboration, Neal told Roy that he wanted to plot a story completely on his own. That turned out to be this issue, #65, which saw the resurrection of Professor X. It’s a matter of conjecture as to who was responsible for the idea to resurrect Xavier, but as Roy has never claimed any credit for the act, I tend to suspect that the idea was Neal’s. By that same token, Neal availed himself of a plot element that Thomas had left for himself back when Professor X had first been killed: that being the recent appearance of the shape-changing mutant called the Changeling. Roy had already worked out that it would be possibly to reveal that it had been the Changeling impersonating professor X who had died rather than the genuine article. In any event, Neal plotted this story of his return on his own, and Roy wound up not even dialoguing it, instead turning it over to Neal’s frequent DC collaborator Denny O’Neil to handle. The idea was that professor X had become aware of the impending arrival of the alien Z’Nox, who had designs on Earth, and he’d gone underground in order to work in secret to prepare a defense against them. It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but it was precisely the sort of hand-waving that was necessary to justify Xavier’s return.

Ironically, the issue ends with Professor X once again on the doorstep of death, his telepathic efforts having put him into a coma that only Bruce Banner can help him recover from. This also wound up being the last issue of the series that Neal Adams worked on–possibly because editor Lee had Marie Severin completely redraw an alien Z’Nox creature in order to make it more humanoid in appearance–Marie also wound up drawing this issue’s cover, which featured the same beast. And in any event, Adams’ efforts were too little, too late, as X-MEN was cancelled only an issue after this, the return of Professor X unable to be meaningfully followed up upon for several more years. And for all that the resurrection of Professor X flew in the face of the style Marvel had adopted, it was accepted with nary a waver from the fan base, an outlier at best. Death was still largely considered to be a sacrosanct thing, this one exception notwithstanding.

12 thoughts on “The First Marvel Resurrection

  1. Great entry! I’ve never really considered this being a resurrection story before. Just sort of a ruse. I never knew “the rest of the story”. It’s hard to believe that the dynamic duo of O’Neil and Adams didn’t pull the book out of the flat spin it was in.

    I feel like it was an odd thing to just do reprints of old stories after the book was canceled. Apparently, there was enough interest to make a profit, just not enough of a profit.

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  2. “Has it cost him… his LIFE?” sort of loses its dramatic impact when we’ve just seen him turn out to be alive and well despite his previous shocking death. But this is a really fantastic comic, in story and art, like a lot of the final silver age X-Men – surprising the sales didn’t improve enough to save the title…

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  3. When I first saw that cover — reprinted on issue 90, in a 7-11 on Bedford Street in Lexington MA (weird how I can remember that so strongly when I wouldn’t even start buying comics for a few months) — the name X-Men and the silhouette of the “Professor” in the wheelchair made me think this was somehow a team of young spies, rather than superheroes, like G-Men, working for some sort of government boss.

    Early the following year, when I bought my first issue of X-MEN, issue 37, the cover to that made me think they were YA science-fiction kids, like maybe in a John Christopher novel. Something about the X-Men made merest assuming they were superheroes, somehow.

    Maybe someday I should write comics that are what I assumed the X-Men were at first glance.

    Also, a secrets-behind-the-comics of this issue: Denny named the aliens the Z’nox because they were “strong as an ox.” Not that they ever got to demonstrate that in the story.

    And I never noticed this before, but I think Marie must have redrawn panel 2 of page 8. That doesn’t look like Neal’s work at all.

    >> It’s hard to believe that the dynamic duo of O’Neil and Adams didn’t pull the book out of the flat spin it was in. >>

    I wouldn’t expect O’Neil and Adams to cause a sales bump that Thomas and Adams hadn’t already delivered. But either way, this was before the direct-sales market, when it took almost a year to get final sales reports on comics. X-MEN would have been canceled based on the numbers on the first couple of Adams issues (or even the issues just prior). And the sales did go up during Neal’s run, which was enough to make Marvel revive the book 6 months after the final issue, first with a double-size special, then an ongoing reprint book. Not so much that they’d start paying for new stories (especially with Neal unavailable), but enough to put the book back on the stands, joining other reprint and semi-reprint books like KA-ZAR, MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS, WESTERN GUNFIGHTERS, SGT. FURY and others.


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  4. It’s a great issue. I particularly love the drawing of Jean in the first panel of page 6. If there’s a better panel than convey’s a face conveying happy/sad/relief I’ve never seen it. It’s so well drawn.

    In regards to the old guard who couldn’t keep up with Neal… the Don Heck/Palmer team don’t lose a step in issue #64 filling in for Neal. It looks great… there’s a lot of Palmer pulling it all together but he doesn’t bury Heck’s storytelling or drawing.


  5. Surprised you and Kurt didn’t mention when that Hank and Bobby story was shown, sort of. The blurb in the previous issue said they’d be going up against Metoxo the Lava Man. Cut to the 1994 Marvel Holiday Special, where the lead story is by Kurt, James Fry, and Neil Vokes and has Iceman and Beast go up against Metoxo in the then present day. But midway through, we get an extended flashback of their first encounter, with Hank in the appropriate costume for when the tale would’ve first been told. Also appearances by their girlfriends Vera and Zelda…and I believe their last appearances in the original X-Men run had been in Hank and Bobby’s previous “solo” outing in #47. It included a blurb reading “And if you can name Metoxo’s only prior appearance—you’re a bigger geek than Kurt and James are! –Sizzlin’ Sarra Claus” (Sarra Mossoff, the book’s editor). I doubt very much it was the planned story for X-Men v1 #49, but at least a then-contemporary encounter is part of Marvel continuity.

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    1. Well, that was a Metoxo story, but it wasn’t the one that was pulled back in the 60s.

      I hadn’t seen the surviving page(s?) from the unfinished story by then, or I’d have incorporated them into the story. Not the actual art, but the plot-fragment seen in them.


  6. In addition to the panel Kurt mentioned, the shot of the Fantastic Four on pg. 15 really sticks out. It doesn’t look much like Adams OR Severin to me. Possibly Adams originally drew another shot of random civilians, and then someone decided it would be a good idea to feature some familiar faces, and had it redrawn?


    1. The FF shot looks like Adams/Palmer to me. A little simplified, perhaps — I’d ordinarily expect them to put more spot blacks on the Thing — but I think Palmer’s trying to make the panels of humanity lighter than the dark graphics in between, so he went easier on textures here. And those look like Adams poses and faces.


  7. Although it would take more detailed sales data to discuss in any definitive way, I think it’s a genuine question how much the presence of “fan favorite” talent on a title actually boosted sales in the 1960s and ’70s and even to some extent the ’80s. Judging from the official reporting, Steranko’s presence on the SHIELD feature had no appreciable impact on sales when it was appearing in Strange Tales. (The dedicated SHIELD title, like all Marvel series that debuted between 1968-1977, did not have its sales publicly reported during that period.) An analysis of the extant sales data says that, assuming no loss of previous readership, Neal Adams’ presence on Green Lantern at most boosted per-issue sales by about 14,000. Even as late as the 1981-1982 sales year, John Byrne’s new-found presence as writer-artist on Fantastic Four only increased the title’s per-issue sales by about 40,000 copies. The real kicker is Amazing Spider-Man in the late 1980s, where during the first year-and-a-half or so of Todd McFarlane’s tenure as artist, the sales saw a steady although mild decline. (McFarlane seems to have been a beneficiary of the influx of new comics readers that accompanied the release of the 1989 Batman movie. The summer of 1989 appears to have been when the sales of Amazing Spider-Man not only turned around, but substantially increased.)

    Obviously fan-favorite talent could increase sales. But as the Claremont-Byrne X-Men and Frank Miller’s initial run on Daredevil demonstrated, they were mainly about increasing the appeal of the features. Sales weren’t conspicuously harmed by the fan-favorite talent leaving. Byrne’s departure from X-Men didn’t hurt sales; they continued going up after he left. During the 1983-1984 sales year, the first full year without Miller, Daredevil’s sales were still more than double what they were when Miller came on board. It remained one of the top-ten-sellers among ongoing color comics, with paid circulation in excess of 200,000 copies per issue.


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