My entry into the corner of the Marvel Comics universe where the mutants hung out came from two different directions at once. On the newsstands, I started picking up the latest issues of The X-Men and was immediately drawn to the crisp, bold artwork of John Byrne and Terry Austin. The Marvel style of comics was to have every issue of a comic end with at least a little story left dangling to lead in to the next issue, more so than DC or any other comics company at the time, and X-Men writer Chris Claremont was one of the best at this, with several storylines weaving in and out of each other in every issue, some storylines running for months, some running for years, and some never getting resolved. Basically, there wasn’t a solid entry point to The X-Men, you just had to jump in and do your best to figure out who the various characters were and what they were up to. But it was colorful, dynamic, and a little bit weirder than most other superhero team comics at the time, so I was happy.
The second entry point came at around the same time I’d started buying the latest issues. My brother and I were spending time with our Great-Aunt Sonya, walking around her neighborhood in Chicago. A book caught my eye and I immediately wanted it more than just about anything, and my dear great-aunt indulged me and bought it: Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee’s second collection of first stories from the beginning of the Silver Age. As it turned out, while I loved the book and reread it many, many, many times, I found origin stories mostly pretty boring and lame. I think that’s one of the reasons why the reprint of X-Men #1 was the story in the book that made the biggest impression on me: it wasn’t really an origin story. It opens with the members of the X-Men already with costumes, codenames, headquarters, and a leader. A new member joins early in and it’s through her eyes that we learn that superpowered mutants are just a thing, and maybe their powers have to do with the development of the atomic bomb (because radiation is cool!), but whatever, the important point is most normal people hate mutants and a lot of mutants hate normal people, so go fight Magneto, the Evil Mutant Master of Magnestism, and we’ll worry about the details later. Origin, shmorigin, we’ve got action and angst to get to! It also helped that Jack Kirby’s art was and always will be…so very, very Jack Kirby. I was well hooked.
And then it was 1980, and after a long, desperate battle on the moon between the X-Men and the Imperial Guard of the Shi’ar Empire, Jean Grey–that new member in the first issue that I loved so much and now one of the senior members of the team–took her own life to prevent herself from turning evil. Scott Summers, the brooding, uptight mutant called Cyclops, who loved Jean more than he could express, was devastated. I was, too. I cried when she died, just like Cyclops did. The following issue was a departure from most superhero comics. There were no bad guys, no fights, just the X-Men and their friends and family at Jean Grey’s funeral, while Cyclops looks back and how they came to this–by telling the entire story of the X-Men, from that first issue I loved so much up to the “Dark Phoenix Saga” and Jean’s death. Much like that special Doctor Who magazine would do a few years later, X-Men #138 gave me a view of stories I hadn’t considered before. This was one long epic, full of wide-eyed heroes and terrible villains, gods and monsters, deaths and rebirths. I’d read plenty of big-screen superhero stories before, but I’d never seen such a vast story laid out like this. It was bigger than The Hobbit. It was bigger than Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. It was longer and more intricate than the multiverse crossovers between the Justice League and Justice Society of America. And while the story of those misfit mutants was epic and colorful, rich and strange, it was also clearly and simply about finding love and losing one’s innocence. Powerful stuff for an imaginative, sensitive 10-year-old.
Because of the ephemeral, pop trash nature of comic books back in those days, stories were fairly patchworky, and I didn’t have the resources to see the bigger pictures. This one issue changed that. I could never think about or dream up stories the same way again.