Top 10 Essential X-Men Storylines
Harrison Solar, ’22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
It’s been a rough few years for X-Men fans. Due to not owning the film rights, a ban was placed on using the X-Men in Marvel marketing materials. As a result, the comics themselves suffered. No longer was X-Men the biggest title at Marvel, but instead given little to no attention. However, Disney has the film rights back, so the comics are finally feeling the love. The franchise has been relaunched under writer Jonathan Hickman in two mini-series: House of X and Powers of X, acting as a starting point for a brand new era. They’ve been the first critically acclaimed X-Men series in years, bringing the X-Men a resurgence in popularity. Also, with Disney owning the film rights, it’s only a matter of time before the X-Men are added into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With all eyes on the mutants, there are sure to be people wanting to learn about the X-Men, more specifically, what comics to read. This is a list of the Top Ten essential X-Men storylines for beginners to pick up in order to get a fundamental understanding of this awesome corner of the Marvel Universe.
Disclaimer: Although there’s a lot of overlap, this is not a top ten best X-Men storylines list. Many fantastic stories such as Mutant Massacre, the Lifedeath duology, and The Trial of Magneto are not on this list as they’re not exactly essential to getting a fundamental understanding of the X-Men.
10. The Brood Saga (1982)
Although the X-Men have typically revolved around fighting prejudice and bigotry (usually in the form of supervillains), a surprising aspect of the X-Men is their relationship with space. Stories involving the X-Men travelling away from Earth has been done many times, with the best example being The Brood Saga. Told in The Uncanny X-Men #155-157 and #162-167, written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Paul Smith, the X-Men travel to space to fight against the villainous Deathbird. Deathbird is the sister of Lilandra, Empress of the alien Shi’ar Empire. She plans to use the parasitic alien race called The Brood to wrest control of the Empire away from her sister. The X-Men join Lilandra and a group of space pirates called the Starjammers in order to defeat Deathbird and her army of Brood. The Brood Saga is an incredible space epic filled with memorable character moments, great action, heartbreak, gorgeous artwork, alien politics—and space whales (yes, really). While The Brood Saga is definitely a departure from the typical X-Men story about discrimination, it’s nevertheless an essential read to grasp the space-fairing side of Marvel’s mutants. As a bonus, for fans of Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers is heavily featured!
9. The Demon Bear Saga (1984)
The Demon Bear Saga isn’t a mainline X-Men story, actually taking place in a spin-off title, New Mutants, specifically in issues #18-20. Three issues isn’t very long, but The Demon Bear Saga is no less effective. Written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz, Demon Bear is a story that has been built up to since the very beginning of the series. In the very first issue, Dani Moonstar, a member of the New Mutants, claims that her parents were killed by a spiritual being called the “Demon Bear,” and soon it will come for her as well. Her teammates never believed her, until 18 issues later when Dani is mauled to near death by the creature. She’s taken to a hospital in critical condition, but the Demon Bear is coming to finish the job. It’s up to the New Mutants to save their teammate and friend by defeating the Demon Bear once and for all. It may not be a main-line X-Men story, but The Demon Bear Saga is still one of the greatest events in the history of the X-Men franchise. This storyline has all the heart, drama, and darkness that came to define the X-Men for the next few decades. Bill Sienkiewicz provides stellar art, his style becoming a defining feature of the New Mutants series for years. His messy, abstract artwork gave The Demon Bear Saga a sense of ferocity and darkness not seen in any other comics at the time. His depiction of the titular Demon Bear turns it into an other-worldy creature with undefined proportions, adding to its sheer size and horror. The Demon Bear Saga is a fantastic, short, one of a kind horror story that sowed the seeds for the X-Men franchise’s tone in the years to come.
8. Wolverine (1982)
Considering how popular of a character Wolverine is, reading older X-Men books brings quite a shock. Wolverine was pretty boring! He had no name other than “Wolverine,” his powers weren’t clearly defined, he had no origin, very little established backstory, and little to no personality outside of always being grumpy. This all changed in 1982 when Chris Claremont decided to boot Wolverine from the X-Men for a short time, and alongside superstar artist Frank Miller (known for Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns) created a four issue mini-series to delve into Wolverine as a character and his backstory for the first time. Wolverine sees the titular character travel to Japan, which is revealed to be something of a home away from home for him. In Japan, he attempts to win the hand of Mariko Yashida, a former lover and heiress to an extremely powerful Yakuza crime family. He’s forced into a traditional sword fight with her father, Shingen, in which he dishonors himself by unsheathing his adamantium claws. Wolverine is cast out, but now he goes on a journey to regain his lost honor and earn the affection of his beloved Mariko. This is the first time Wolverine has been presented as a well rounded character, as the reader learns Wolverine’s thoughts on honor, death, his own animalistic nature, and even love, which has never been explored before. Following this mini-series and his return to the X-Men, Wolverine sky-rocketed from being one of Marvel’s most uninteresting mutants to one of the most fascinating and popular superheroes of all time, all thanks to this four issue mini-series. Wolverine by Claremont and Miller is an essential read for better understanding one of, if not the, best X-Man.
7. Days of Future Past (1980)
Time travel has played a major role in the X-Men franchise for decades. There are a vast amount of time travel stories in X-Men, including Legionquest, Age of Apocalypse, Messiah Complex, and more. It all found its roots in the short, but hugely impactful story, Days of Future Past. This storyline, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, is told in The Uncanny X-Men #141-142, and mainly focuses on the newest and youngest member of the team (at the time), Kitty Pryde. In the far future of 2013 (just roll with it), the world has been taken over by a race of giant genocidal robots called “Sentinels.” In a scheme to stop the Sentinels from ever taking over, the adult version of Kitty Pryde has her consciousness sent back in time as she possesses her younger self. Adult Kitty, in her teenage body, alongside the X-Men, travel to stop a mutant terrorist named Mystique and her Brotherhood of Evil Mutants from assassinating Senator Robert Kelly. Unfortunately, if their operation is successful, his death will cause the dark future to occur due to the butterfly effect. Days of Future Past isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it’s still a very enjoyable, simple time travel adventure, which would eventually inspire dozens of X-Men time travel stories from then on.
6. E is For Extinction (2001)
Grant Morrison, one of the biggest writers in the history of comics, was mainly known for his work over at DC, having written critically acclaimed series such as Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and JLA. In 2001, Morrison began work on his first series at Marvel, New X-Men. In Morrison’s first storyline, he was aided by long time collaborator and artist Frank Quitely to produce E is For Extinction. Told in New X-Men #114-117, Morrison’s first foray into the world of the X-Men saw him launch the team into the grittier, edgier 21st century. Out with the flashy costumes, in with the black leather suits. Despite the ridiculousness that Morrison’s time on New X-Men reached, it always stayed very grounded in reality, offering the most realistic and fleshed out take on mutant/human relations so far. One of the biggest additions to the X-Universe during this time is how Morrison fleshed out the classic Xavier Institute, populating the school with teachers and a full fledged student body, all of whom the reader grows to care about over the course of his run. In regards to E is For Extinction specifically, it tells a dark, fascinating tale of a woman from Charles Xavier’s past come back to haunt him and the X-Men, with a scheme that may result in the extinction of the entire mutant race. There are seemingly endless twists and turns, including a classic villain joining the team, which keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. E is For Extinction is only the first four issues of Morrison’s run on New X-Men, but if you read and enjoyed this story, I can’t recommend enough that you track down the rest of Morrison’s run. As great as E is For Extinction may be, it’s only the beginning of Morrison’s incredible X-Men epic that all fans should read.
5. Gifted (2004)
Grant Morrison’s critically acclaimed run on New X-Men ended, due to being cancelled, and was replaced by Astonishing X-Men, written by Joss Whedon (of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and The Avengers fame) and illustrated by John Cassady. The X-Men were defined by their doom and gloom in the previous decade and a half, but Whedon brought back the more light-hearted tone of the classic ‘70s comics. Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men picks up right after Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, so the new book has most of the same cast carried over. The first storyline, Gifted, told in issues #1-6, continues the never ending trend of mutants facing potential extinction as a scientist develops a “cure” for mutation. Despite what would normally be pretty dark subject matter, Gifted maintains its sense of optimism and camp. The flashy yellow and blue spandex returns, classic characters make their long awaited return, and of course, the team goes to space again. This story has all the great characters, action, and heart that makes the X-Men so loveable. Not only is Gifted extremely well written and illustrated, it’s just a hugely entertaining book. Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men truly feels like classic X-Men with a coat of modern paint. As was the case with E is For Extinction, Gifted is only the first part of Whedon’s X-Men epic, so, just like Morrison’s work, I highly suggest reading the rest of Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men if you enjoyed Gifted.
4. X-Men: Season One (2011)
The original Silver Age X-Men series by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby… wasn’t great. It wasn’t terrible by any means, but it was definitely missing something compared to series like Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man. Ultimately, it suffered due to the cast of characters. The original five X-Men of Cyclops, Marvel Girl/Jean Grey, Angel, Beast, and Iceman were underwritten, and as a result were fairly uninteresting. In 2011, Marvel launched their Season One line of original graphic novels, retelling the origins of their most popular characters in a modern context. The X-Men were one of the first to get the Season One treatment, written by Dennis Hopeless and illustrated by Jamie McKelvie. Not only does X-Men: Season One do a fantastic job of modernizing the Silver Age X-Men, but massively improves it. Hopeless understood that the key to a great X-Men story is, well, the X-Men, so the majority of the focus went into the original five. Thankfully, Jean Grey (who was completely devoid of personality in the Silver Age) is the focal point in Season One, and through her, the reader really gets to learn about the X-Men’s original cast of characters. Ultimately, Hopeless makes all the original X-Men extremely likeable and believable teenagers. Season One isn’t solely a superhero story about the X-Men fighting villains, but mainly focuses on the members of the team, fleshing out their personalities, hobbies, friendships, and even romances. While X-Men: Season One may be a little lighter on action, the story still remains extremely engaging due to the well rounded and likeable cast of characters. Getting an idea of how the X-Men even formed as a team is obviously important to know, but reading X-Men: Season One is a significantly more satisfying method of learning that history without actually reading the Silver Age material.
3. Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975)
You may have noticed how the majority of the entries on this list were written by someone named Chris Claremont. Claremont was the writer on The Uncanny X-Men for a whopping 16 years, from 1975 through 1991. His work completely revamped the struggling Silver Age comic book, bringing it from obscurity into being the most popular series at Marvel Comics. The X-Men have been influenced by Claremont’s definitive run on the series ever since, which brought fans countless new iconic characters and stories. Every X-Fan agrees that Claremont’s work is THE definitive X-Men, but his run truly kicked off with a single issue not written by him. Marvel writer Len Wein was a huge fan of the Silver Age X-Men, and wanted nothing more than to breathe new life into the series. Wein was a busy man, so he couldn’t write the actual series, but he made an agreement to write a single issue to act as a soft-reboot before handing the series off to a new writer, who ended up being Chris Claremont. Working with artist Dave Cockrum, Wein wrote Giant-Size X-Men #1. This single issue isn’t the best written X-Men story of all time or anything, but it was critical in setting up the entire future of the X-Men franchise. Giant-Size X-Men #1 saw the original Silver Age X-Men pass the torch down to a new team of (mostly) original characters, most of whom have gone on to become incredibly iconic. Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus, and more all get their first appearance in this one issue, with the most famous X-Man, Wolverine, joining the X-Men for his first time! While technically not a part of Claremont’s legendary run on The Uncanny X-Men, Giant-Size X-Men #1 provided the backbone for not just the following 16 years of Claremont’s time writing the series, but consequently went on to influence the X-Men franchise for the rest of its history.
2. God Loves, Man Kills (1982)
The X-Men have mainly been known to tackle issues related to discrimination and bigotry, but no X-Men story deals with that subject matter better than God Loves, Man Kills. This story was an original graphic novel printed in Marvel Graphic Novel #5, written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Brent Anderson. God Loves, Man Kills introduces William Stryker, a Catholic reverend who believes it is his literal God-given mission to drive the mutant race to extinction. Stryker kidnaps Professor Xavier, planning to use his telepathic power to kill every mutant on Earth. For the first time, the X-Men ally themselves with Magneto in order to rescue Xavier and prevent a genocide. The X-Men have been a thinly veiled metaphor for civil rights since the Silver Age, but God Loves, Man Kills was the first X-Men story to truly address bigotry in all its monstrosity. Claremont doesn’t shy away from addressing hate crimes, religious extremism, allegories for closeted homosexuality, allusions to the Holocaust, and he even writes the villains to use racist terms—with no censorship—to really make an impact. God Loves, Man Kills is a brutal, adult, and fantastic critique of bigotry and religious fundamentalism in America under the guise of a superhero comic book. While it’s much, much darker than most X-Men stories, it’s easily the best example of the “Mutant Metaphor” done well. If you think you can handle the subject matter, God Loves, Man Kills is an essential read for not just fans of X-Men, but for all readers of the comic book medium.
1. The Dark Phoenix Saga (1979-1980)
Even if you’re not a fan of the X-Men, you’ve most likely heard of The Dark Phoenix Saga. It’s the most iconic X-Men story of all time, and for good reason. This is the greatest X-Men storyline ever produced. Originally printed in The Uncanny X-Men #129-138, Dark Phoenix is widely considered to be the magnum opus for both Chris Claremont and illustrator John Byrne. Everything that makes an X-Men story great is present, including lovable characters, fantastic artwork, top-notch action, and incredibly engaging emotional moments of both triumph and heartbreak. Dark Phoenix was truly a massive event, uniting almost every X-Man up to that point to save Jean Grey, who was driven mad by her own overwhelming power. Each and every character gets their time to shine, most notably Wolverine, who the reader gets to see go berserk for the first time ever. But ultimately, this is the tragedy of a woman named Jean Grey, as her overwhelming powers drive her to become the X-Men’s most powerful villain at the time. The Dark Phoenix Saga is the comic book medium’s own perfect exploration of the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and still remains just as powerful, moving, and heartbreaking as it was 39 years ago. For many fans, including myself, The Dark Phoenix Saga is the ultimate X-Men story.