The final issues of the silver age X-Men get the Epic Collection treatment.
Out this week and coinciding with the latest Uncanny X-Men #1, X-Men Epic Collection: The Sentinels Live goes back fifty years to finish the line’s reprints of the team’s silver age stories. It collects the final third (X-Men Vol. 1 #46-66) of the series’ original run prior to cancellation as well as some short solo stories about Angel. The most frequently lauded portion of this era was definitely Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, and Tom Palmer’s run, but those issues only make up about half of this collection. How is X-Men Epic Collection: The Sentinels Live as a whole? Is it good?
The Thomas/Adams/Palmer run doesn’t start until about halfway through this volume, and the issues prior to it feature a wide variety of creators. Though the creative teams vary, one thing remains consistent throughout the first half: the quality is terrible. Reading through these issues, it feels remarkable that the series wasn’t cancelled sooner than it was. The writing is cringeworthy on just about all levels, from the plots to the dialogue.
The characters’ decisions are frequently questionable, and plot threads are introduced and glossed over in very ineffective ways. Take, for instance, Cyclops disguising himself as Erik the Red. There’s no build-up to it whatsoever, the charade ends almost immediately as Cyclops’s identity is revealed, and the whole strategy never comes across as being worth the effort. There are many other story beats that end almost immediately after being raised, particularly when it comes to antagonists. Juggernaut epitomizes the villain-of-the-week concept in this collection’s first issue when he gets mysteriously teleported into the Xavier mansion, just to be mysteriously teleported away at the conclusion. All in all, these early issues lack any sort of thematic cohesion or sense of narrative vision.
Also missing from this collection’s first half are many of the trappings that we now think of as making the X-Men the X-Men. Their status as mutants rarely affects the plot in ways that couldn’t be explained away by their being any other type of superhumans. The villains they face, for instance, are aliens and conquerors with little interest in the societal position of mutantkind. The mutant metaphor does come up at times, but it’s never handled in a way that feels substantial. As a result, there’s no sense that these stories are intrinsically X-Men stories that couldn’t be told using a different super-team.
With all that said, X-Men was hardly the only generic superhero book in the late ’60s. What made it remarkably bad, however, was its artwork, dialogue, and lettering. There are a number of artists in this collection’s first half, multiple of whom struggle with rendering consistent anatomy. The previously mentioned villains-of-the-week are also bland visually, with no unique flair to their designs. The lettering is also visually jarring, as lines of dialogue are split across bubbles in ways that feel disruptive to the flow.
Equally bad are the things the characters actually say. There’s a lot of scenery chewing and generic ranting here, and though the protagonists bicker a lot it’s never enjoyable to read. The X-Men are very unlikable throughout, thanks in no small part to the amount of blatant misogyny directed at Jean Grey. As much flack as she gets from her male teammates, she at least has a bit more agency than Polaris, who exists solely as a pawn of Magneto and a source of tension between Havok and Iceman, the latter of which creepily views her as his property.
While the narrative complaints I’ve mentioned thus far don’t vanish totally once Thomas, Adams, and Palmer take over, they do get significantly less frequent and jarring. Thomas and co. carry plots over from issue to issue, weaving more of an ongoing story than the creators who were on the title before them. There are also a number of characters introduced who, though not fascinating here, still have potential that other writers would go on to develop. Sauron, for instance, shows early signs of how likable and over-the-top he’ll later become. With all that said, the writing in these issues is nothing spectacular–it’s just markedly improved from the poor quality of the volume’s first half.
The most impressive players on this collection’s second half’s creative team are without a doubt Adams and Palmer. Adams takes what was previously an ugly title and makes it visually dynamic, with levels of experimentation and drama that stand head and shoulders above those found in most of the series’ contemporaries. Adams’ characters have fantastic facial expressions, especially when their mouths are hanging open in shock. The page layouts are even better, as Adams continuously experiments with his compositions and panel shapes. Palmer’s inking enhances the already impressive pencils, really upping the ante of the shadows and drama. All in all, this volume’s second half is a pleasure to look at, even if the stories themselves are only so-so.
Overall, X-Men Epic Collection: The Sentinels Live is a mediocre volume. On the plus side, Thomas, Adams, and Palmer deliver work that is surprisingly good for the time period in which it was created. Unfortunately, their work only makes up about half of the book. The issues preceding theirs are outright terrible, from the poor line-work to the dropped plot lines to the downright strange lettering and dialogue. Trekking through this volume’s first half is painful, and though Adams and Palmer’s artwork is good, it’s not worth reading over 200 pages of terrible comics to get to. I can’t even recommend this volume on the virtue of being historically significant, as most of the characters it introduces (Havok, Polaris, etc.) are C-listers at best. If you’re not an absolute completist of X-Men media, then I can’t think of any justification for picking this book up.