For a franchise with its roots deeply implanted in the world of comic books, there are a plethora of other ways that one could discover the X-Men. I, for one, first fell in love with Marvel’s mutants through the still-excellent 90s cartoon. It’s fair to presume that many others were won over by the widly-popular live-action movies. Beyond that, you could have easily discovered them through many other means, such as their toys or appearances in video games. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if a large portion of X-Men fans have never experienced the source material.
Maybe you’re one of those people. Up until earlier this year, I was one of those people. Where the heck do you start? X-Men as a comic book franchise spans over 50 years, dozens of comic lines and probably thousands of characters. Furthermore, the franchise is well-known for being one of the most self-referential and convoluted, as characters travel through time, fall in and out of love with each other, or die and come back to life repeatedly. Even now, if you ask anyone reading the current X-Men comics if Jean Grey is alive, the answer you will get back will probably make your head spin.
I am by no means an expert, but I think I’ve read enough bits and pieces throughout their history to make some recommendations to new readers. This list of reading material presented in chronological order to give you context for where they all fit within the greater continuity. However, I don’t necessarily recommend reading X-Men that way for a number of reasons that I’ll explain as I go. For now, below is my list of 8 good places to start reading the X-Men!
Individual Issues: X-Men #1-10
In 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the world to the world’s strangest heroes. Back then, it was just Cyclops, Ice Man, Angel and Beast. Jean Grey, at the time of issue #1, was just joining Professor X and the team. They get very little time to master their powers and train as a team before Magneto attempts to take control over the world. As part of their initial run, they also cross paths with The Blob, Namor and even the Avengers, which is the first of many times that they’ll cross paths throughout history.
Start here because it’s the very beginning
This Marvel Masterworks collection contains the first 10 issues of X-Men. For those who want to read in chronological order, this is the book to get. For everyone else, this is a great opportunity to experience what the original world of X-Men was like. At the time, these mutants were just teenagers who barely had a grasp of their powers thrust into roles with a tremendous level of responsibility. This theme of growing up is a recurring one in the franchise’s history, though it’s notable here in that you get to read the roots of many principle characters and their motivations. Some of them have more-or-less stood the test of time, such as undying love between Cyclops and Jean Grey (even if she can’t manage to stay alive for long). Other aspects quickly faded away, such as the creepy crush that Professor X had on Jean that I presume was quickly swept under the rug afterwards.
Having said that, I don’t think these original issues make for a great read in modern times. The plotting and dialogue haven’t aged well, and there’s a hollowness that permeates throughout, especially if you’re familiar with what the X-Men would ultimately become. Before the series developed a social conscious, it was just another super hero book that didn’t do much to differentiate itself from the marketplace at the time. Even at the time, this material didn’t do much to earn an audience, as the series was basically canned for a few years. To its credit, it does lay the groundwork for an amazing future, but I really don’t think you’ll get much out of it in terms of entertainment value.
2. Uncanny X-Men
Read: The Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1 (Marvel Masterworks)
Individual Issues: Giant-Sized X-Men #1, X-Men #94-100
The original X-Men have been captured! Well, everyone except Cyclops, who somehow managed to escape. He needs to save his fellow teammates, but he’s not gonna be able to do it alone. With the help of Professor Xavier, they scour the world in hopes of creating a new mutant team to save the original gang. Unlike Cyclops’ original group, this new batch of mutants are mature adults who are well-adjusted to their powers, though their ability to work as a team is highly questionable. After saving Beast, Jean, Ice Man and Angel, there’s more trouble up ahead from the Sentinels!
Start here because it’s probably the best starting point
This is an excellent starting point for new X-Men readers. This second genesis of the team also acts as the introduction for Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Banshee; all of whom would become household names in the world of comics. While there’s certainly a focus on the new class, the original group still finds a way to make an impact throughout. In particular, the relationship between Cyclops and Jean Grey really begins to flourish here. The final events in this book are also the moments that would lead to Jean becoming the Phoenix, which you probably already know becomes a very important thing later.
Best of all, the writing and art are awesome. Len Wein’s writing on Giant-Sized X-Men redefines the franchise so profoundly that it still basically stands as the blueprint for everything X-Men that came after it. Chris Claremont took Len’s vision and ran with it by giving the characters and stories a level of depth that made the series strike a chord beyond the standard superhero fluff that X-Men used to be. Dave Cockrum also does an excellent job of illustrating the action in a way that still gives these scenes the appropriate level of impact. Extra kudos are in order for the character designs, as the looks of Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcawler and Banshee remain largely unchanged for decades.
As I finish writing about this era of X-Men, I’m starting to think that this is the place to start. Still, there are other places on the list that one may to start with, so let’s keep this going.
Read: X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga
Individual Issues: X-Men #129-137
Ever since Jean Grey got possessed by the Phoenix Force, she’s been struggling to keep her ungodly power in check. However, the Hellfire Club have more nefarious plans in mind for new abilities. Through some sneaky mental tricks, they’re aiming to unleash her full potential while under their control. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with the X-Men, but they seem horribly outmatched against this group. Things only get worse when Jean Grey completely loses control, as the Phoenix is bent on destroying the entire universe one galaxy at a time.
Start here because The Dark Phoenix Saga is the all-time best and most important X-Men story
You might have heard through the grapevine at some point in your life that The Dark Phoenix Saga is the best X-Men story. Having recently completed it myself, I totally agree. Chris Claremont is at his peak here, as he crafts a smart and dramatic story that brings the best out of every character. Everyone gets a chance to shine, from Jean Grey possessed as the Phoenix all the way down to newcomer Kitty Pryde, who would later on grow up to do amazing things of her own. The stakes are at their highest with Cyclops, as he struggles with the good possibility that he and the others might have to kill the love of his life in order to save the universe.
If you’re going to read X-Men, you must read The Dark Phoenix Saga. It is a phenomenal piece of work that will probably stand tall forever as the definitive X-Men story. But do you want to read it first? If you have a general understanding of the plot, either through the cartoon or movie, go for it. If you have a general familiarity with the characters, this isn’t a bad place to start, either. If you’re coming in cold, I’d recommend reading at least Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1 to give you a bit more background.
Individual Issues: X-Men #141-142
In the future, Sentinels end up taking over the world while enslaving all of mutant and mankind in the process. Short on options, Professor X, Magneto and the remaining mutants devise a plan to send Kitty Pryde back in time to prevent the Sentinels from ever being created. Will the X-Men of the present day believe her story? And if so, can they successfully rewrite history by stopping the key event that caused this whole mess in the first place?
Start here because you loved the Days of Future Past movie
I haven’t always been a fan of Fox’s X-Men movies, but Days of Future Past is excellent. Making the jump from the movie to the comic is a logical progression and one that I certainly endorse. Chris Claremont is still on fire here, as this dark and brooding tale is another classic. Even if you’ve watched the movie, it won’t spoil the comic, as there are many different ways in which the two differ. In the comic, Wolverine isn’t the one that does the time-traveling, the ending is different and Quicksilver is nowhere to be found, which is actually kind of unfortunate after the movie did such a great job of featuring him.
This storyline is only two issues long, so the trade paperbacks usually add in a few additional issues to round things out. In the book I have (linked above), it comes with the few issues that connect Days of Future Past with the Dark Phoenix Saga, as well as a Christmas special starring Kitty Pryde. Some of these issues are of questionable quality, but there is a great Wolverine mini-arc there, as well a generally strong showing by newcomer – and eventual fan-favourite – Kitty Pryde throughout.
Issues: X-Men Vol. 2 #1-7
In the late 80s, the X-Men franchise began its meteoric rise to superstardom. That hype reached a crescendo with the release of X-Men Vol. 2 #1, as this relaunch of the X-Men series became the best-selling comic book issue of all-time. With the legendary Chris Claremont writing the stories and hotshot artist Jim Lee doing the pencil work, what could possibly go wrong?
Start here if the 90s X-Men cartoon is what first got you into the franchise
When I decided to go on this X-Men vision quest, it was important for me to find the source material that inspired the 90s cartoon. While the show did its own takes on many classic story lines, the look is clearly taken from Jim Lee’s work during the Mutant Genesis era of X-Men. This look certainly holds up today and is probably still the most popular vision of what the X-Men are in people’s minds. It’s not hard to flip through this work and picture this being part of the show.
That said, it is kind of hard reading Chris Claremont’s last hurrah on the franchise. The main Mutant Genesis tale that pits the team against Magneto is obnoxiously wordy and poorly conceived; a hallmark of his later work on the X-Men. To be fair, he’d been working with these characters for almost 20 years straight by this point, so it’s not surprising to see him eventually run out of gas. The saving grace to this collection is the Omega Red story that follows it. Written by John Byrne, he introduces a now-classic villain in an excellent story that brings Wolverine to the forefront.
All things considered, this probably isn’t the best place to start reading the X-Men. You’re probably better off tackling this one later. However, if you must start with the X-Men you recognize from your youth, then I’m not stopping you from picking this one up first.
Issues: New X-Men #114-154
From what I gather, the 90s were not the X-Men‘s finest hour. Trying their best to capitalize on the franchise’s meteoric rise, Marvel drove the whole thing into the ground with a cavalcade of bad spin-offs and crossovers. Realizing the error in their ways, Marvel enlisted Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely to clean up the mess. Maybe they could have righted the ship through subtle tweaks to the formula. Instead, this duo went out of their way to destroy the franchise of old while paving a new way forward for Marvel’s legendary mutants.
Start here for the beginning of the modern era of X-Men. Also start here if you want to read the franchise’s most dramatic departure.
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s run on X-Men is the most challenging and divisive in the franchise’s history. Some people love how much they tried to distance their stories from the X-Men of yesteryear, while others hated the new writing and art. Personally, there are a number of things about New X-Men that make me swoon and cringe. Still, no one can argue how important the events are that take place within their stories. From the massacre of 16 million mutants, to the uprising of the new students, to the dissolution of Scott and Jean’s marriage, these are massive moments that are amazing to read in the moment. Much of what takes place in New X-Men is referenced or built upon in future works, which makes this run even more important to the overall ecosystem. I have my gripes with how the whole thing ends, but this is a list about starting points and New X-Men‘s initial arc is a doozy.
Issues: Astonishing X-Men #1-6
Before he wrote the first Avengers movie, Joss Whedon created Astonishing X-Men. Picking up right where Grant Morrison’s story left off, Whedon injects a lot of classic elements into the mix as well as a refreshing level of self-awareness to the proceedings. The end result is a brilliant mix of classic X-Men storytelling with modern sensibilities.
Start here for the best modern X-Men story
Whedon created four great stories during his time on X-Men, with the first being his best. In Gifted, a rumored cure to the “mutant disease” has the potential to rock the world to its core. This story is filled with action and shocking moments, along with just the right touch of nostalgia and thoughtfulness. This story was so strong that Marvel turned it into a motion comic not too long after. By the time you wrap up Gifted, I can’t imagine how you wouldn’t plow through Dangerous, Torn and Unstoppable. I get that Whedon moved onto bigger and better things, but imagine what could have been if he’d stayed on longer.
8. All New X-Men
Read: All-New X-Men Volume 1: Yesterday’s X-Men
Issues: All New X-Men #1-6
The X-Men are at war with each other. The events of Schism split the mutants between team Wolverine and team Cyclops, while the events of Avengers vs. X-Men left Charles Xavier dead at the hand of Scott while possessed by the Phoenix Force. In hopes of trying to knock some sense into Cyclops, Beast travels back in time to bring the original X-Men of the 60s into the present day to reason with him. Of course, when you noodle with time-travel, there are consequences, as the original team can’t stop themselves from breaking the space-time continuum.
Start here for the current X-Men continuity
There are no less than five X-Men comic lines in the Marvel Now universe, not including solo characters or related groups like X-Factor or X-Force. If you’re going to start with something in the current continuity, All New X-Men is the one to get. All of the other books play off of the events from here in varying ways, though they all use All New X-Men as their focal point. Since this series is still active, you can continue with it on a monthly schedule once you’re all caught up.
It also doesn’t hurt that it’s great. I started my vision quest here with only the cartoon as a knowledge base and got a lot out of yet. In between books, I caught up on the older material, which only made this series better, as it constantly makes references to past events while breaking them at the same time through this time-traveling gimmick. Years after this series began, I still have concerns that the whole thing will collapse under the weight of the time-traveling shenanigans at play. That day may eventually come, but for now, this X-Men series is a great read for any audience.