New readers come to comics all the time – but comics have been going for decades and decades now, and it can be really confusing to work out a good place to start from. When I first starting reading comics, it was with a mixture of Wikipedia, Ebay and the ComicBookResources forums that I worked out which character was which, what trades I should buy, and which comics were the good comics.
So if you are, yourself, looking to start reading the X-Men – but you don’t want to start sixty years ago – then here’s my guide to the best contemporary starting points for the characters, from most recent to most distant:
The current X-Men run is spearheaded by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artists Stuart Immonen and Chris Bachalo. The X-Men here are split into two different factions: a team following Cyclops, and a team following Wolverine. Wolverine’s team are the main team, and features Storm, Iceman, Beast and several other recognisable characters. The idea is that Wolverine and Cyclops had a fight several issues ago regarding whether the young students should be trained to fight, or to be regular people. Cyclops felt they were going to be attacked no matter what, so they should at least be trained to defend themselves. Wolverine felt differently.
As a result, Wolverine’s team are based in the X-Men school, in All-New X-Men, teaching new characters how to learn their powers (in a book called Wolverine & The X-Men, which I wouldn’t recommend). Cyclops team, on the other hand – with Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost and Magneto, in Uncanny X-Men – are revolutionaries, on the run from the Avengers and hiding out. This is a more out there title, with offbeat art styles and crazier ideas in the main story. It’s arguably the weaker of the two books.
Wolverine’s team are in a book called All-New X-Men because of the central conceit: that Beast went back in time to when he and Cyclops were kids, and brought the original X-Men into the present – to remind Cyclops of how innocent he used to be. This backfired, half the original X-Men have joined Cyclops’ team now, and many of the stories revolve around the worry that if one of the time-displaced characters died, the present-day version of them would blink from existence.
Around these books you have X-Force, a series about a black-ops team of X-Men who go out and pre-emptively kill those who oppose the X-Men; an adjective-free book called simply X-Men which is set in Wolverine’s school; and a PR team who are unconnected with the main X-Men (All-New X-Factor).
That’s the current status quo for the X-Men.
ONE STEP BACK:
Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men
About ten years ago (yes, this is how far you have to go to get a really clean break and new starting point for the X-Men), Buffy writer Joss Whedon took over the X-Men with a book called ‘Astonishing X-Men’. Featuring a team of Cyclops, Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde, Beast, Colossus and Wolverine, this book breaks into four storylines, each of which is published in trade. The book reassembled the main characters together for a story which doesn’t sit too deeply into old continuity, and offers new readers a chance to get to know the characters a little better.
The stories are fine, for the most part – it’s not a brilliant run or anything, but it’s fairly solid throughout, and is a great introduction to how the various X-Men characters work around each other. You can pick up the series and read it without having to touch any other books, as well. The art is by a single artist throughout – John Cassaday, whose design sense informs most of the current X-Men designs now.
TWO STEPS BACK:
Grant Morrison’s New X-Men
Prior to Whedon’s run – and this is the comic which sets up most of the elements used by Whedon – was a run by Grant Morrison which used Cyclops, Emma Frost, Jean Grey, Beast, Professor Xavier and Wolverine. This was Morrison attempting to redefine the X-Men for a modern audience, really, and so he uses all kinds of weird concepts and characters in his run. It stands alone, although it leans heavily in lots of past stories. You don’t have to read those stories to understand his run – at some points you get the impression that Morrison certainly didn’t – but his X-Men certainly do lead you off in lots of unexpected directions.
You THINK that he’s using lots of old ideas you’ve never heard of before, but what he’s actually doing is inventing concepts himself and pretending they’ve been around for a long time.
It’s a really excellent run, and he more than anyone else is the man responsible for how the X-Men are seen today. He brought in Emma Frost, developed Beast, hinted at secrets within Charles Xavier, and made Cyclops the leader of the team. It’s a good jumping on point, because you can follow it with Joss Whedon’s run without missing out on anything.
THREE STEPS BACK:
X-Men: First Class
If you want to step further back, you’ll have to pick and choose one of Chris Claremont’s issues of X-Men – a supremely long run which made the X-Men important and interesting in the first place. However, it’s collected in unusual formats, and hard to pick up as a cohesive run.
So instead of any of that, I’d recommend you try a run called X-Men: First Class by writer Jeff Parker and several artists. This run, written a few years ago, tells the untold stories of the very first X-Men.
So the characters here are Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Iceman, Professor X and Angel. Immensely fun stories set at the very start of the X-Men being formed, these are light-hearted and entertaining stories suitable for all ages. They’re also followed by a run of Uncanny X-Men: First Class, which brings in Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Banshee and other familiar names.
If you jump on and enjoy any of these, you could also try some of the following:
Chris Claremont’s X-Men – where the X-Men comics stopped being a random Stan Lee creation and became actual stories with real characters.
Peter David’s X-Factor – which starts after Morrison’s run, wraps around Whedon’s run, and continues on for a very long time. This is about a mutant detective agency.
Mike Carey’s X-Men – which sits between Whedon’s run and Bendis’ run, and leads up to a big event storyline called Messiah Complex.
Schism by Jason Aaron and assorted artists – this is the storyline which explains the current rift between Cyclops and Wolverine. It’s okay enough, not fantastic but a decent enough primer.
Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men – which sits between Whedon’s run and leads in to Bendis’ run. Fun stories –but I wouldn’t recommend any stories credited to both Gillen and Matt Fraction. That period was a little uneasy.