Apparently, I have a special place in my heart for well-intentioned failure. Even moreso for well-intentioned failure that turns into success somehow.
The X-Men are a curious property--when originally launched, they were one of the few Marvel launches that didn't catch on, and they tried pretty much everything--new team members (The Mimic, who probably failed because he was another milquetoast white dude in a team of them except he had all their powers and was a serious asshole besides) a long, over-arching storyline (Factor Three, which has to be the one continuity backwater no one's tried to mine again, possibly because it was completely asinine) hot-shot deaths (Professor Xavier, killed by a cave troll in the subway) breaking up the team, getting the team back together, two crossovers with Avengers, a Spider-Man guest shot, and, when all that failed, two issues by Jim Steranko, presaging the tactic of dropping in hot artists to revive a flagging title.
None of it worked. There's a lot of theories as to why this is--the scripting vacillated between Arnold Drake's lifeless and leaden writing and Roy Thomas' then-frequent habit of writing everyone as a whiny hysteric, the lack of any credible villains leading to never ending Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants--a lot--and somewhat also it was meant to parallel racism and address the issues of discrimination with a cast of well-to-do honkies in a fancy prep school, which sort of undercut the message slightly.
But no one thought to cancel the book--at least not yet--so X-Men kind of thrashed along, working through its growing pains in public, occasionally succeeding, often failing, and sometimes having the X-Men fight bad guys dressed as grasshoppers.
It is, I should add, my favourite period of X-Men ever.
Perhaps it's morbid curiosity.
Anyways, Essential X-Men Classic Vol. 3 (geez, what a title) covers the end of the original X-Men run, which ended up being a bit on the bittersweet side. It begins with a few dreary issues from Drake and Roy Thomas and Don Heck, who gamely try to convince us simultaneously that the Living Pharaoh is at all an interesting villain and Cyclops' heretofore unknown brother Havok is interesting despite being written entirely in Stan Lee Angstese. They're redolent of the plodding kind of storytelling and lack of characterisation that got us here.
Things pick up substantially (kinda) three issues in, as the stories Roy Thomas/Neal Adams runs begins. The story itself is still rather dull--the Living Pharaoh's alternate identity, the Living Monolith, isn't any more interesting--and it's full of the genteel racism of bygone years (watch as Cyclops calls Arabs "camel jockeys!") but the art's real nice to look at (in some places, looks a lot better in black and white) as Adams was really feeling his oats back then and packed every page with dynamic layouts and very kinetic action that all too often seems barely contained by the panel borders, and sometimes not even then.
The old urban legend is that Adams wanted to work on Marvel's lowest-selling title when he jumped from DC to Marvel, and I've always wondered if that was by design--working on the lowest-selling book, it didn't matter if what he did didn't work, because the book was pretty much on the block anyway, so he was free to cut loose.
The Thomas/Adams run is fondly remembered, and Adams has remarked--not unfairly--that pretty much every successive X-Men creative team has run through the same subjects they would--Sentinels, the Savage Land, Magneto--often in the very same order that they'd occurred in the Thomas/Adams run. If you look at Claremont's early run with the newer X-Men of the 70's you'll see he's not far wrong.
Of course, some of the Thomas/Adams run doesn't work today, and has been mostly abandoned. The Living Monolith, for instance, has rightly been put on the shelf, more or less. Sauron, yet another in a seemingly endless line of villains with hypnotic powers (seriously, they were a dime a dozen in Marvel in the 60's) fares a little better in that he's fondly remembered at all, but again, as he basically Ben Casey MD who turns into a Pterosaur who wears cutoffs in his off hours and no one remembers who the hell Ben Casey is anymore, he's fallen into disuse. And the less said about the Z'Nox story which closes out their run (wherein the most potentially devastating and astoundingly boring invasion force is defeated by a great big beam of love, as Paul O'Brien says) the better.
The Sentinels, the Savage Land, and the Magneto stuff plays a bit better, and these went on to become the major tentpoles of the franchise, really--even if the Savage Land stuff is a curious artifact that was bolted to X-Men continuity because Stan Lee felt like it that day.
In-between the Adams issues, Don Heck makes a yeoman's effort to draw very much like him in a story that introduces future X-man Sunfire and good God, talking of the genteel racism of bygone days, read this and cringe cringe cringe. To be fair, Sunfire is one of those elements from this run that hung on--he's one of the charter new X-men, after all (and, to show us how far race relations have come in the 5 years since X-Men was cancelled, he is less "Japanese villain" and more "inconsistently characterised asshole" and he quits real fast anyway, so. . .yeah.) it's just that the issue introducing him is . . .well, very problematic.
Then, X-Men ends with a very confusing issue involving the Hulk. But fret not, True Believer--there's still several hundred pages in this volume.
Our first stop post-cancellation is an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, wherein Iceman fights Spider-Man because Spider-Man has been set up (yet again) as a bad guy. It's a very middle-of-the-road story (it reads more like Iceman's wandered in to ASM's ongoing soap opera by accident) but, funnily enough, formed the basis for a Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends episode back in the day, which is probably the most current reference I will make in this entry.
From there, we stop in at Incredible Hulk, wherein, on the run from the damn US Army for the 90th time, the Hulk fights Havok while Havok tries to decide whether or not to go back to the X-Men (spoiler: he does) It's a fairly pedestrian issue of Incredible Hulk (I do not for the life of me know how they got so many issues out of the Hulk vs. the Army storytelling engine) livened up by John Severin inking longtime Hulk penciller Herb Trimpe's pencils, giving it a grittier than usual feel.
From there we go to Amazing Adventures #11-16, featuring the Beast.
There's not much to say about this--Beast gets a job at the Brand Corporation (for you old school continuity wags, you will recognise Brand as supplying disposable villains for more Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One issues than one could shake a stick at) turns grey and furry and then kinda bitches and moans about it in typical Marvel-esque "Oh God, what kind of monster have I become" gibberish for awhile, as Steve Englehart tries everything to make this rather stunted premise work (Patsy Walker, pre-Hellcat, even shows up. Why, I do not know) and Tom Sutton does a pretty good job with the art, but really. It's an unworkable premise in the long run and Englehart, like so many fans who'd become creators is writing too much like Stan Lee and aping the surface tics without the style or energy Stan brought to Marvel's formative days.
It also contains my least favourite fans-who-became-creators tic, wherein Englehart writes himself and a bunch of the Marvel Bullpen into one story wherein they give Beast and his girlfriend a ride so he can fight Juggernaut. This stuff stops every story I've seen it used in stone dead and I'm glad the practice is largely gone now.
There's a brief detour in-between Amazing Adventures issues, wherein, the X-Men pop in to an early issue of Marvel Team-Up and fight Morbius. Nothing of consequence happens, except an attempt to re-launch the X-Men fails and Spider-Man kisses Jean Grey because he's got a thing for redheads and their book's in reprints anyways, so nuts to them.
Beast's run in AA finishes off with a reprint issue, wherein Beast fights El Conquistador (and his sidekick Chico!) and we tie up a loose plot thread in an issue of Incredible Hulk, wherein the Beast gets dragged to Canada because the Mimic could potentially kill everyone on the planet. Englehart and perpetual Hulk artist Herb Trimpe demonstrate a rather dodgy understanding of Canadian law enforcement (I'm virtually sure Mounties don't all dress like Dudley Do-Right in these modern times) and bring off the rather odd trick of having an issue of Incredible Hulk wherein the Hulk's appearance is kind of an afterthought and really only happens because the story required that the Mimic die, and the Hulk was the easiest way to make that happen It's all a bit ropey, as the Beast feature in AA wasn't particularly successful (Beast's character renaissance would come in Avengers) and the Mimic's most current appearance had been in one of the reprints X-Men was running at the time, so the whole issue feels a bit . . .pointless, somehow.
The volume finishes out with a gallery of covers from the reprint run and some original art, and well, the whole mess with the X-Men finally rises like the Phoenix (see what I did there?) in Giant-Size X-Men #1, wherein the new X-Men, a more diverse and vital team that more accurately reflects the book's innate concept . . .totally failed again and is barely remembered today. These days, it's all pirate comics.
I kid, I kid.
Despite the fact that I'm very hard on the issues contained here, it's because, objectively, most of the stories in this book are rubbish. Those that aren't rubbish are very dated, and those that aren't rubbish or dated don't appear in this collection. The real value of this book is its existence as a record of just how Marvel evolved, re-evolved in the 70's and the dead ends they ran into as things developed. That, some pretty awesome Neal Adams art, and the fact that some of those dead ends lead to extremely goofy fun (God bless them for actually calling a story "DO OR DIE, BABY!") that can be had if you're in the right mood for it.