X-Men Visionaries: Neal Adams

A comic review article by: Shawn Hill

Collects X-Men (v.1) #56-63, #65

Comments: The copyright on my volume reads 1969, 1970, and 1996. This is the first direct edition of this trade collection, which has been reprinted with different covers, all usually with new art by Adams that reflects a fresh take on the content. The cover on my copy shows the 1969 team (just beginning to differentiate their costumes from their school days) launching themselves towards us dramatically. 

The individual issues have been separated into “chapters,” which are distinguished by new trade dress pages designed by Elan Cole that play some visually quirky games with Adams’s original art. It’s very fussy design, but they make up for it a bit by shunting all the original covers to the end, using the design concepts to offer information and credits in a visually dynamic way. 

The attractions of this volume are simple: solid writing from Thomas in his earliest post-Lee mode, gorgeously realistic and dramatic art from Adams in his first flush of industry-redefining success, and a definitive era of X-men yarns that weren’t enough to save a flagging title but ultimately paid off as the basis for the title’s unprecedented revival and popularity explosion five years later.

I first remember encountering some of this material in reprint form, in Giant-Size X-men #2. Not the classic one that wherein the All-new, All-different team that lives on today debuted, but the second issue that reprinted the sentinel and Living Monolith story in full. 

Even then, wrapped up in Storm and Wolverine and Nightcrawler and all the new International faces, I was intrigued by how these all-American teenagers with their fun powers and miniskirts and normative short haircuts had attracted such embittered and manipulative foes. What could be so bad about you that the government, or even a solitary madman, would build an army of robots to track you and “your type” down?

Yes, the metaphor that forms the ticking heart at the center of the X-men machine was fully in place back in 1969, a comics era that is often dismissed as Silver Age and silly but that actually found a lot of ways (often subtextual) to respond to the social upheavals taking place in the larger world at the time. 

This volume has a foreword by inker Tom Palmer in which he notes that working with Adams and Thomas was an amazingly creative and inventive time--an inspiration that changed his work and had him struggling to keep up with all the new ideas fomenting in the bullpen. (Palmer rates as one of the legendary inkers at this point, on the Klaus Janson level of bringing a more mature and nuanced system of shadows to his pages.)

The story titles are rather standard, in that pulpy “Let’s Make it Marvel!” style: “What is the Power?” “Do or Die, Baby!” “In the Shadow of … Sauron!” “Strangers in a Savage Land!” “War in the World Below.” If you read between those lines a little, you get a whiff or two of Tolkien, Heinlein and H.G. Wells, the juvenile reading touchstones of the era.

Some of those juveniles grew up to greenlight all sorts of projects in multi-media involving some of those classic inspirations, and it’s really interesting to ponder how inspirational someone like Adams was on young minds who’d never seen their heroes looking so emotive, graceful, powerful, or fashionable before. 

Not to discount Thomas, who pits the X-men against a variety of fairly similar foes--bad men who reveal their nefarious plans under miens of success and assorted symbols of high status:

  • Professor Abdol who, through some mumbo-jumbo, accesses the same power source as Havok, draining his life force whenever he turns into the Living Monolith.

  • Karl Lykos, the doctor who treats mutants in order to absorb their energies. When he’s got enough power, he becomes Sauron, the violently ugly were-pterodactyl.

  • Larry Trask, avenging his father’s Sentinel-related death with the help of the misguided Judge Chalmers, who wants more than anything to protect Trask from damning self-knowledge.

Of course, none of these foes are the potential world-destroying threat that is Magneto, who is always waiting in the wings.

Thomas also keeps Professor X out of the way for most of these stories, leaving our handsome teens to make their own way through the field of bad patriarchs. This is the period when he was thought dead, though he does eventually return at the end of the run. He’s all stern seriousness when he gets back, something Claremont picks up years later after another absence when the Prof. and the new team of mature adults have some grating encounters. 

As mutants they don’t get to spend as much time as the Teen Titans did having fun, but Thomas and Adams make a perfect team in depicting the interpersonal dynamics of this tightly knit band of youths, with expressive (albeit, melodramatic and soap operatic) outbursts of joy, anger, or frustration as they discuss and act on their dilemmas. 

Just watch, for example, as the stunning scarlet-tressed beauty and the bizarrely green-haired girl use their sneakier powers to trip up the boys who are showing off in the Danger Room.

Sauron leads them to the Savage Land, where we find the ultimate evil daddy, Magneto. He’s in his usual 1960s ranting mode, but Adams’s sensitive art poignantly points to his impending evolution to a more nuanced anti-hero, revealing a human face under that flashy helmet as he strives to convince and cajole the X-men into joining his cause. It’s almost as if he realizes that his visually striking but servile Mutates hardly make vital companions. 

This story has been mined many times both inside and outside the X-men, most recently in the second arc of New Avengers, when Karl Lykos again led a group of heroes to capture in the Savage Land. There are even similarities to it in Morrison’s E for Extinction arc, when the X-men are captured by Cassandra near her sentinel factory.

The sexual politics of the era play a role, too, as both Jean and Lorna struggle with power fluctuations and conflicts about accepting battlefield commands. In one memorable sequence, Lorelei has bewitched the male mutants, leaving Jean virtually alone to struggle against Magneto and some deadly machinery. When her powers wane, she cleverly makes use of her static male teammates, whose powers still function even if not under their control.

Adams has wonderfully dynamic and unusual panel designs, perspective shots and especially diverse figurative positions. He’s a master of dramatic gestures, and they enrich every page of these stories, whether dealing with broken teen heartache or eight foot lizards trying to take over the human race. 

The coloring has been redone for the collection, and the Adams/Palmer linework couldn’t look more at home with the varied and three-dimensional shades we prefer these days in our more veristic funny books. This was a team truly ahead of its time, and its one of the most consistent of the Visionaries collections. A must for the Neal Adams fan, unless you somehow have the original issues.

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