While it is great to see one of the many industry veterans still working, I finished up reading The First X-Men wondering if Neal Adams could have spent his time and talent better. Not that this was a bad comic or anything, just one that seems like Adams was looking for something to do and Marvel had a gap in their publishing schedule, so here we have an X-Men comic set sometime before Professor Xavier actually forms the X-Men and featuring him, Wolverine, Sabretooth, and Magneto. Nothing particularly groundbreaking there, but a perfectly serviceable variation on the running theme of X-Men: First Class, X-Men: The Hidden Years, and Professor Xavier and the X-Men (which was really new art for old stories, but close enough) that accomplishes its modest goals.
Mostly, those goals are to tell an X-Men story from before there was an X-Men team (when Nick Cavicchio interviewed him at Wizard World, Adams insisted this isn’t really a prequel, but it looks and it acts like one). As such, it’s definitely retro, not just in how it’s drawn or the kind of clothes being worn by the background extras–zoot suits and trilbies–but also in technique: there’s plenty of action that takes place between the panels (Wolverine and Sabretooth, er, “commandeering” some motorcycles), letting the reader fill in their own blanks, which is quite ironic for a comic dedicated to fleshing out the increasingly convoluted back story of X-Men characters; Adams’ background in 60s/70s Marvel and DC means he’s very economical with his pages (only one splash page and one two-page spread, both for large scale moments, unlike certain other comics that use them willy-nilly). This places the weight of the comic primarily on plot as characters and relationships are established with a snappy 1-2-3-4 tempo that few modern creators can match even when deliberately patterning their work after Silver Age comics. The last page alone contains what would be two to three pages of story in today’s more writer-centric titles. There’s also a winking sense of humor when it comes to a new character, illusion-generating Holo (a thin teenager), disguising herself as women that fit the more traditional (“sexy”) depiction of super-heroines, including one face that looks like a Jean Grey reference. Again, nothing that makes First X-Men stand out, but I have to admire it purely on a technical level.
The wrinkle Adams and co-writer Christos Gage add to the proceedings is that it’s Wolverine’s idea to begin gathering up mutants–which are being targeted by mysterious government types for research purposes, a nod to Weapon X–in order to help them cope with the world that hates and fears them. Xavier, as he’s introduced in this issue, is living a quiet life of academia and engaged to Moira MacTaggart, and very directly states he wants nothing to do with this whole mutants business. Continuity headache aside (if Xavier knows Logan before… ah, don’t think about it too much), this move also slightly cheapens Wolverine’s development over the years (going from loose cannon to taking responsibility for the next generation) by making current-Logan seem more like he was supposed to be this way, but it remains to be seen if Adams and Gage are simply using this to explore the feral part of his personality.
The issue’s own merits and flaws aside, what disappoints me about this is someone as talented and celebrated as Neal Adams could easily elevate any number of Marvel’s titles (assuming he wants to, of course, and something-something about assumptions), so a title like this feels like he’s being put on the JV team while others get the titles that comic fans will buy because they “matter” more for whatever reason. Maybe that’s a flaw in fan-logic or the industry, or even just a wrongheaded take on my part, but something about that doesn’t seem right.