In which the team have to deal with Master Mold, part of a group of robots which were designed to get rid of all mutants – but then upped their game, overthrew their creator, and decided to get rid of basically all humans at the same time. Also, Iceman builds a flying saucer.
This is counter-intuitive to write, but I wonder if Stan Lee’s approach to comics is actually the better way to go about telling X-Men stories.
Right upfront, I’m going to have to throw in some huge assumptions that I’m going to make across the next few paragraphs. The first is that Stan Lee actually wrote the story that unfolds across issue #15 of (Uncanny X-Men), which is in no way a guarantee despite the byline. Stan Lee famously derived the “Marvel method” of storytelling due to his huge workload, in which he essentially asked his artist to tell some kind of story which he’d then adapt and lace speech over at a later date. With Lee being a huckster and many of his collaborators having passed on, it’s hard to know what he did or didn’t actually create himself, in most cases.
Secondly, I’m going to assume that Jack Kirby laid out this issue for Jay Gavin to pencil. Again, there’s no way to really know the division of labour or what the “designed by” credit offered to Jack Kirby really means, especially for someone like me who has done minimal research and is writing this off the cuff ten minutes after reading the issue. My belief here is that Stan Lee wrote the story in some kind of structured form, Kirby laid it out, Gavin and the rest of the artistic team drew it, and then Lee wrote over the speech bubbles afterwards. This could be hugely wrong, and I’ll look to the comments section with interest.
After reading issue #15 of Uncanny X-Men, I was struck by how clearly the X-Men themselves, who by all accounts are five normal looking white kids whose powers can all be hidden where necessary, come across as more unnatural in this story than they do today. Beast is nowadays a blue monkey looking dude, but the Beast written by Stan Lee is more unnerving and “different” than any time we’ve seen him in maybe the last ten years. Lee’s particular speech patterns and “wow golly” exposition, paired with consistent and slower-paced panel sequencing, make for a more unnerving mutant than we’d ever see today.
Part of that is the lack of gloss in the art – because it’s all in the dialogue. The issue basically has the X-Men sat on a hill, trying to cross a valley so they can break into a bunker which has been over-run by evil robots. In three parts, the team make their way across in various forms, and attempt to take back control. Once they’re in, things get a little more complicated as their rescues start to overlap with one another and cause problems, but essentially this is an issue of infiltration.
You wouldn’t think that from Lee’s dialogue in the issue, though, which never drops below awestruck at his characters. The third page wonderfully demonstrates how the powers of the five students all work – asked to get up a cliff, Iceman forms a ladder to climb; Beast essentially walks up; Angel carries Xavier up; Jean kinetically leaps vertically to the top; and Cyclops uses his concussive blasts to make handholds so he can climb it. Almost every time they use their powers in these simple ways, they exclaim at their own miraculous powers, which are still fresh and new to them in each instance.
When Angel ducks away from gunfire, he declares his relief at being able to escape in time. When Beast has a flashback to a family dinner, he remembers how he stands on the back of his chair with both feet, perfectly balanced – and his parents call him out. Xavier’s response “I’m anxious to observe your son under all conditions” is emblematic of Lee’s own interest in the fantastical nature of the X-Men. Whenever the artistic team draw something unbelievable, Lee wants the reader to notice.
I’ve always thought a lot of Stan Lee’s appeal as a writer came not from his proclamations and insistence on being embedded into brand – but from the innocence of his scripting. Everything is amazing and surprising, and readers aren’t given any time to get used to the existence of mutant powers in this world. Modern X-Men comics go into things with the understanding that people are now familiar with how the lanky kid can fire bright red lasers out his eyes, but Lee never takes that for granted. Perhaps because fairly often it was likely a surprise reminder to himself (he wrote a LOT of comics during this time) to see Cyclops launch a concussive blast, he gets so excited when he sees superpowers in action. And it’s infectious.
Whilst Lee’s astonishment feels dated in comparison to many of the characters he famously co-created, it seems to suit the X-Men. There’s been a lean towards suggesting that the X-Men shouldn’t seem any different to regular humans – but I’d argue Lee’s gasps of excitement at seeing Beast somersault are wholly earned, and in fact serve the characters beautifully. Like the Inhumans, the X-Men are supposed to seem otherworldly at times, and there’s no good to “the mutant metaphor” if mutantkind doesn’t act differently to the rest of the world. Everybody sits within their own context, and perhaps the X-Men should more often be situated as incredible and uncanny characters.
When matched to a simple artistic style, which plainly shows the characters doing amazing things without getting startled and overproducing the visual aspect of their powers, the X-Men suddenly seem like the greatest superheroes in the world. You can throw the wildest, most experimental artists in the world at the X-Men, but perhaps every so often it’d do us some good to sit back and actually marvel at them for who they are, and not for how well they can be made to look while they do it.
Uncanny X-Men #15: “Prisoners of the Mysterious Master Mold”
Written by Stan Lee
Designed by Jack Kirby
Pencilled by Jay Gavin
Inked by Dick Ayers
Lettered by Artie Simek