Up until 1963, most comic book superheroes acquired their powers by accidental exposure to radiation (Incredible Hulk), cosmic rays (Fantastic Four), or chemical spills (The Flash/Barry Allen, Showcase no. 4, 1956). Well, what if they were born with their powers instead? Created by Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee and legendary artist Jack Kirby, the X-Men are mutants, humans born “with something extra” (Wells, 2015). X-Men no. 1 hit newsstands in September 1963 and has been in print ever since, spawning many spin-off series and cross-overs.
The Library of Congress has hundreds of X-Men comics and spin-off series (e.g. X-Force, New Mutants and more) among its collection of over 160,000 comic books, most of them original issues, that you can read in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room. In celebration of 60 years of mutant-kind, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite X-Men issues and series. By the way, titles cited in parentheses denote the first appearance of that character. They are listed in chronological order, but you can read X-Men comics in any order you like. I like to read issues based on who wrote them or drew them or both. There is no wrong way to read comic books. Here we go!
X-Men no. 1 (1963)
In Westchester County, New York, there’s a very special school run by Professor X, Charles Xavier, to teach teenage mutants how to control their powers to protect humans from evil mutants who feel they are the superior race. Mutant powers usually manifest during adolescence. Professor X himself is one of the most powerful mutants on earth with the ability to control minds and communicate telepathically across great distances.
His five students look like ordinary teenagers but are anything but. Slim “Scott” Summers, Cyclops, can project energy blasts whenever he opens his eyes. Only a special pair of ruby quartz glasses and his visor can harness it. Marvel Girl, Jean Grey, is telekinetic and has the ability to move objects with her mind. Henry “Hank” McCoy is Beast who possesses super-strength and the agility of a primate whether on his hands or feet (And no, he has not adopted his werewolf-like features or blue fur, yet. Amazing Adventures no. 11, 1972). Warren Worthington III is Angel who just happens to have a set of wings growing out of his back. Iceman is Bobby Drake, though, in early issues, he looks more like Frosty the Snowman with boots but minus the carrot for a nose. He has the mutant power to create ice and he gets around by surfing on a sheet of ice he sprays in front of himself.
In this first issue, they battle their arch-nemesis, Magneto, master of magnetism. His mutant power allows him to control all ferrous metals and Earth’s magnetism which gives him the ability to fly. Magneto believes that mutants are homo superior, the next stage in human evolution and therefore should rule over ordinary humans.
Giant-Size X-Men no. 1 (1975)
Meet the all new, all different X-Men! Professor X recruits an international group of mutants to save the original X-Men from Krakoa, the “island that walks like a man.” They are led by original member Cyclops and later by Storm.
This issue features the first appearance of Ororo Munroe (Storm), a Kenyan woman with the mutant ability to control the weather and Russian Peter Rasputin (Colossus) whose mutation allows him to transform his skin and other body tissue into practically indestructible organic metal armor. From north of the border in Canada, Wolverine (Weapon X/Logan/James Howlett, first appearance Incredible Hulk no. 181, 1974) joins the X-Men for the first time just to, as he puts it, “get out from under the red tape and rigmarole.”
Persecution of mutants by ordinary humans takes center stage in Giant-Size X-Men with the first appearance of German mutant Kurt Wagner. We witness Wagner being attacked by a mob in a village in Germany. Unlike most mutants who can pass for ordinary humans, Kurt resembles a blue demon complete with forked tail, pointy ears, and fangs as well as hands and feet with just three digits. Known as Nightcrawler, he emits a “bamf!” sound along with a purple cloud whenever he uses his mutant power to teleport. Professor X rescues Wagner from the angry villagers and convinces him to join the X-Men. The conflict between humans and mutants continues to be a major theme of many X-Men stories to this day.
Giant-Size X-Men no. 1 was written by Len Wein and inked by Dave Cockrum and is essentially a relaunch of the X-Men comics book series. Stories start to be geared toward older audiences, not just children.
My introduction to X-Men and the world of mutants began with the Phoenix Saga, specifically X-Men no. 101 (1976). Yeah, yeah, I know the Dark Phoenix story arc really begins with X-Men no. 129 (1980), but it helps if you know how Jean Grey became Phoenix in the first place.
Written by Chris Claremont and penciled primarily by Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) is exposed to cosmic rays when she shields a space shuttle carrying her fellow X-Men with her telekinetic and telepathic powers during its re-entry to Earth. After crashing into Jamaica Bay in New York, Jean reemerges from the water as Phoenix. As the series progresses, Jean slowly loses control of her powers that now far exceed those of Professor X who is considered very powerful in his own right. Technically, she’s been possessed by the “phoenix force”, but we’re just going to leave that little complication for a future blog post.
If you enjoy this series, there are plenty more Chris Claremont comics out there. For sixteen years (1975-1991), he wrote almost every issue of X-Men and created spin-off series like New Mutants, Excalibur, and X-Factor. Some of his stories have been adapted into movies.
X-Men: Alpha (1995)
The Age of Apocalypse begins! X-Men: Alpha kicks off the event* introducing us to an alternate world ruled by the super-powerful, nearly invulnerable mutant Apocalypse (X-Factor no. 6, 1986). Professor X is dead due to a time-travel incident that occurred twenty years in the past. Now, it’s survival of the fittest and humans are at the bottom of the food chain. Lord Unus (X-Men no. 8, 1964) and his Infinites are the stormtroopers that maintain order by exterminating any human they encounter or placing them in “pens.” The X-Men and time-traveler Lucas Bishop (Uncanny X-Men no. 282, 1991) are the only mutants willing to protect what’s left of the human race.
What’s really cool, though, is that the story flips the familiar roles of many characters in the X-Men universe. Magneto leads the X-Men, a mashup of original members and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. His wife is Rogue (Avengers Annual no. 10, 1981) and they have a son named Charles (not going there, way too weird, man!). They are joined by original members Iceman and Nightcrawler along with Sabretooth (Ironfist no. 14, 1977), Quicksilver (X-Men no. 4, 1964) and others.
Others have gone over to the “darkside” and become villains. Beast is a scary blue furry incarnation of Dr. Josef Mengele who delights in experimenting on mutants. Cyclops and his brother Havok (X-Men no. 54, 1969) are responsible for keeping him from going too far.
All three answer directly to Sinister who serves as one of Apocalypse’s “Horsemen” or lieutenants. Artists Steve Epting and Roger Cruz even altered every character’s appearance, giving all them a completely different look. This issue was co-written by Scott Lobdell, famous for Alpha Flight no. 106 (1992) featuring the coming out of the first gay major comic book character, Northstar, and Mark Waid, who writes comics for both Marvel and DC Comics. For full reading order, including prelude issues, check out Age of Apocalypse: The Complete Event.
House of M (v. 2, nos. 1-4, 2015)
All Hail King Magnus! Magneto’s (a.k.a. Magnus) dream of a world where mutants subjugate humans in the name of superior genetics is a reality. Written by Dennis “Hopeless” Hallum, House of M is a limited series that is part of the Secret Wars (2015) event. This is not to be confused with the House of M (2005) or Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars (1984) events.
House of Magnus, the royal family, rules Genosha, an autonomous region of a “patchwork of fragments of worlds” that form the planet Battleworld. Quicksilver, Polaris (X-Men no. 49, 1968), and the Scarlet Witch (X-Men no. 4, 1964) engage in palace intrigue while their father Magneto settles into his role as a despotic dictator who, in turn, answers to Doctor Victor von Doom (Fantastic Four no. 5, 1962), the supreme ruler of the entire planet. Order is maintained with the assistance of manned sentinel robots and Magneto’s elite royal guard led by Wolverine and Sabastian Shaw (X-Men no. 129, 1980).
Meanwhile, a human resistance plans an assassination attempt on Magneto. Notable guest stars include Luke Cage (Hero for Hire no. 1, 1972) , Hawkeye (Clint Barton – Tales of Suspense no. 57, 1964), Death Locket (Avengers Arena no. 1, 2013), and Namor the Submariner (Marvel Comics no. 1, 1939; first Silver Age comics appearance: Fantastic Four no. 4, 1962).
I’ll admit that Magneto taking orders from Doom, let alone anyone else, is a little far-fetched. His huge ego would never allow it. However, artist Marco Failla’s rendering of Magnus’ sentinels and the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I inspired (in my opinion) attire of the royal family and guards is really top-notch.
These issues represent a tiny fraction of X-Men comics that you can explore here at the Library of Congress. The Marvel universe of which the X-Men are a part can get really complicated, so here is a Beginner’s Guide to the Marvel Universe and Guide to the Many Marvel Multiverses (Earths) that provide you with a roadmap of sorts. For more information about additional X-Men series and reading order, I recommend checking out Crushing Krisis’ Become an Instant X-Men Expert. Enjoy!
*Event vs. Series
In the simplest terms, an event is a story arc that involves comic book characters across multiple series or the entire franchise (e.g. Marvel). The Age of Apocalypse (1995) event, for example, unfolds across multiple series like Amazing X-Men, Weapon X, and X-Man (just to name a few). The Secret Wars (2015) event involves the entire Marvel Universe and is a vehicle used to make large scale changes, such as dismantling the Marvel multiverse by effectively destroying it. For a better explanation, I recommend checking out What Are Comic Book Events?
Crushing Krisis: The Newest Oldest Blog in New Zealand (last updated 2016?). The Definitive X-Men Reading Order Guide.
DeFalco, T., Sanderson, P. et al. (2022). Marvel Year by Year : A Visual History.
Hill. J. and Jones, N. (2021). Marvel Universe Map by Map.
Thomas, R. (2017). The Marvel Age of Comics 1961-1978.
Wells, J. (2012). American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1960s, 1960-1964.