Trial by Fire!
Credits: Fred Schiller (writer), Jan Duursema (penciler), Rick Magyar & Mike Sellers (inkers), Matt Webb (colorist), Pat Brosseau (letterer)
Jean Grey arrives at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters for the first time. She’s introduced to her fellow X-Men and soon given her own uniform and code name, Marvel Girl. Professor Xavier sends the team on their first mission, to stop Magneto from sabotaging another satellite launch at Cape Citadel. The team arrives at the base and is given ten minutes by the authorities to deal with Magneto. They defend themselves from Magneto’s attacks, and eventually push him into retreating. Jean decides that she made the right decision in joining the team.
I only own two issues of this series, so I have no plans on reviewing it on a regular basis, but I thought I should at least mention the first issue. This is the start of Marvel’s ill-fated 99-cent line. The line was one of Marvel’s numerous attempts to bring back readers after sales plummeted in 1994, creating a line of books in the hopes that self-contained stories at a lower price could bring in more casual readers. As far as sales stunts go, I guess this one was pretty admirable. The line was poorly conceived from the beginning, though, and it’s only remembered now as the imprint that birthed Untold Tales of Spider-Man. The first problem with the line was that Marvel created it without realizing that mainstream retailers had no interest in dollar comics anymore. In order to be sold on newsstands, Marvel had to bundle two of the titles together and charge $1.95, which automatically defeats the whole 99-cent angle. The second major problem was content, as the line was filled with retellings of old comics, throwaway inventory stories, cartoon adaptations, and just one lone title that tried to create new stories that took place in old continuity. With the exception of Untold Tales of Spider-Man, which tried to appeal to both older and younger readers, it’s hard to believe that Marvel thought that any of these books could last.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, this issue is a retelling of Uncanny X-Men #1 (or X-Men #1, since “Uncanny” became the retroactive adjective for the original title). The hook is that it’s narrated by Jean Grey, who was originally a token female character without much of a personality. Chris Claremont had revealed years later that Jean and the Professor knew each other before the X-Men were formed, so presumably retelling the first issue from her perspective has some potential. Instead, we get a rushed recap of the first issue, with a couple of narrative captions thrown in that basically put Jean through an arc that consists of “I’m not sure if I should come here; I’m not sure if I like it here; wow, I love it here”. Since Jean doesn’t really do anything in the original story, and the retelling doesn’t give her anything more to do in the final fight with Magneto, the decision to have her narrate the issue doesn’t work. It reads as if the story is actually about Jean for most of the issue, then she drops out for several pages while the team fights Magneto, then she has a brief narrative caption in the final panel declaring that she’s decided she likes being a superhero.
The odd approach taken to continuity in this issue is also confusing. The characters don’t use the same dialogue or wear the same clothes they wore in the original story, but the plot follows the same basic outline. In doing so, it incorporates some of the plot holes and nonsensical elements that haven’t held up over the years. Viewed through modern continuity, it’s impossible to believe that Xavier would’ve sent barely trained (in Jean’s case, totally untrained) teenagers off to fight Magneto, especially when you consider the retcon that Xavier and Magneto already knew each other at this time. And would the Magneto we know today just fly off after a couple of teenagers wage a meager attack against him? Trying to cram the hundred-plus panels of story that appeared in the original issue into a modern comic that only has an average of four or five panels per page also seems foolish. Even though I usually don’t mind Duursema’s art, her depictions of the X-Men as teenagers here are just absurd. Cyclops has a neck the size of a tree trunk, and Jean has the proportions of a twenty-six year old stripper.
I’m not sure why Marvel decided to go in this direction, since Untold Tales of Spider-Man clearly felt no need to retell old stories, opting instead to insert stories in-between existing issues. Why not take that approach to the X-Men? Why create a series that appears to be a dubious attempt at overwriting the original issues, especially one that does so in such a halfhearted way? Actually, the one other issue I have is #4, which is written by Fabian Nicieza. It doesn’t retell UXM #4, but instead tells the story of Magneto recruiting the original Brotherhood, while incorporating all of the modern retcons about Magneto’s past. Basically, it’s Untold Tales of the X-Men, written by someone who had written quite a few X-comics. This actually has potential. I have no idea if the rest of the series followed in this tradition, but considering the low reputation it’s earned over the years, I doubt it. This series, combined with X-Man, helped to force me away from completism, since I knew it was being published but honestly felt no desire to ever read it.