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Blah Blah Blah X-Men Blah Blah Blah

July 24th, 2008

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Uncanny X-Men No. 500 comes out this week. It’s neither the first comic to hit No. 500, nor will it be the last. But for me at least, superhero comics begin and end with the X-Men.

Before I discovered the X-Men, I’d get the occasional comic book at summer camp, usually Ghostbusters or Ninja Turtles. I never cared enough to find out what happened next.

The X-Men changed all of that. I was in sixth grade when the early ’90s animated series hit the Saturday morning airwaves, right around the time trading comic book cards was a popular lunchroom hobby. In other words, it was the perfect conjuncture of my age and pop culture. Both the television show and cards were a quick introduction and easy transition to 30 years of comic book history.

Just as it’s easier for a child to pick up a second language, it’s the same with nonsensical comic book stories involving alternate timelines, children from the future and cosmic entities (try to decipher the wikipedia.com entry on the character Cable and you’ll see what I’m talking about).

My friend Greg celebrated his 12th birthday party at a bowling alley. Everyone got comics as a party favor. I walked away with Uncanny X-Men No. 298. He gave it to me because he knew I liked the character Gambit, featured on the cover. The issue was part of a storyline building to the return of arch-villain Magneto. It featured the X-Men fighting the Acolytes, mutant zealots who worshiped Magneto.

That was it, I was hooked. I gave up the cards, quit the cartoon, but I haven’t stopped reading. Including back issues and trade paperbacks, probably the vast majority of the 500 issues are sitting in my parents’ basement — not to mention dozens of other X-titles. (Check out Insidenova.com later today to see my video review of Uncanny No. 500).

There’s not much that hasn’t been written about the X-Men: mutants are a metaphor for outcast teenagers (X-Men comics work best when they’re about teenagers learning to control their powers in a secret school… I wonder if J. K. Rowling was a fan?), a superhero retelling of the Martin Luther King/Malcolm X debate, 1991’s X-Men No. 1’s 8 million copies, the best-selling comic to date, Hugh Jackman, etc.

I don’t know if I could stop reading the X-Men comics even if I wanted to, even as much of it seems like a rinse-dry-repeat cycle. A villain returns, Wolverine gets a new female teenage sidekick, the mansion gets destroyed, a villain reforms, the X-Men rebuild. I followed the X-Men as I went through high school and got into more “sophisticated” comics like “Sandman” and “Watchmen,” as I went through college and discovered independent comics like “Fortune and Glory” and “Box Office Poison.”

I love these characters. I keep reading to see if a writer can show me something new, something I haven’t seen before with characters I’ve known longer than most of my friends. In the end, that’s why I keep reading, for that page 22 reveal, the moment where Xorn takes off his helmet, the moment where Wolverine regains his senses in the sewers, the moment to simply “wow” me as a reader.

In that spirit, here are my six favorite X-Men comics. All are part of a larger story tapestry, but all can be enjoyed on their own.

6.) Uncanny No. 304 preceded the 30th anniversary return of Magneto. This was quieter — and much more heartbreaking. Illyana Rasputin, about 8, is dying of the Legacy Virus (AIDS, for mutants) while her big brother Colossus is away on a mission. Jubilee, the team’s teenage wiseass, tries to comfort Illyana on her deathbed. It’s not a happy ending.

5.) Uncanny X-Men No. 129 — Not only was this the first appearance of current X-Men leader Emma Frost, it also kicked off the epic Dark Phoenix Saga, widely considered the best X-Men story to date. This issue also introduced a new teenage mutant, Kitty Pryde, who has the power to walk through walls. She was the first — and best — of every sidekick ever to partner with Wolverine.

4.) Generation Next No. 2 was only a small chapter of the “Age of Apocalypse” epic, but it’s my favorite. In this alternate reality, a battle-hardened group of X-teens attempt to break into what amounts to a concentration camp to save Illyana Rasputin (the scene where Paige Guthrie takes down the guard is sickening). It’s a pretty dark take on a team of teenage heroes, usually a lighthearted read. Here, even the kids know it’s a suicide mission.

3.) Giant Sized Astonishing X-Men No. 1 ended Joss Whedon’s 25-issue epic with as much action, grace and humor as you’d expect from the guy who created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and co-wrote “Toy Story.” The X-Men try to save an alien race as Kitty Pryde hurls toward Earth, trapped in a giant bullet. I won’t spoil too much here, but there’s a double page spread at the end that’s simply, well, astonishing.

2.) New X-Men No. 142 kicked off the confusing “Assault on Weapon Plus” storyline, something about Cyclops and Wolverine fighting robots in a giant terrarium. But the first issue stood alone as what makes an X-Men comic great: Cyclops and Wolverine drinking whiskey in a bar. Cyclops, a married man, is reeling that his “psychic affair” with Emma Frost is now public; Wolverine has a moment with arch-rival Sabretooth at the urinal.

1.) Uncanny X-Men Annual No. 17 features the death of C-list villain Mastermind and introduction of D-list villain X-Cutioner. The X-Men travel to Muir Island at the dying request of Mastermind (the Legacy Virus, again). Bishop, Iceman and Jean Grey fall prey to his out-of-control illusions and find themselves in a world where their dreams come true. Colossus and Archangel protect Mastermind’s comatose body from X-Cutioner. What really makes this story click on so many levels was it got to the heart of everyone’s motivation and, in the end, made Mastermind more of a tragic character than one of Magneto’s dumb henchmen.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072 or jeiserike@potomacnews.com.

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