It’s a story that’s been told several times. Parker and Cruz’xs X-Men: First Class (the book series, not the movie), Joe Casey’s 1999 limited series Children of the Atom, and of course, reiterations and various retellings of how the crippled but ridiculously powerful telepath Charles Xavier gathered an orphan whose eyes shot unstoppable beams, a boy who could turn into ice, a prep school brat with angelic wings, a genius whose strength was almost bestial, and a frightened girl with untapped mental powers and turned them into his X-Men, fighting to save a world that hated and feared them. Between the books, the movies, three or four cartoon series, there’s not a geek around who can’t recite the early history of Cyclops, Iceman, Angel, Beast and Marvel Girl so one might ask why we need another retelling? Is it worth the rather steep $25 on what was a pretty good sized comic week? What does Hopeless do different that breathes new life into what could be a dusty subject?
I’m not going to lie. I love the original five X-Men. I feel like they’re friends and family and I can tell you who their parents are or were, where they were born, even interesting (to me) stories about their histories that are often forgotten or neglected. (Did you know that Scott Summers was being forced into a life of crime by a low level telepathic thug named Jack Winters before being rescued by the Professor?) Where this story succeeds is in the character of those five very young teenagers. The youngest, Bobby Drake, is about fifteen in this book, and the oldest, Hank McCoy is probably eighteen, if that. They aren’t prepared to become the great heroes they would eventually grow up to be. They are still scared of their powers, or posture to hide their fear, and each one deals with it in their own way. Cyclops obsessively runs Danger Room scenarios, excelling in leading a holographic team against robot villains, but freezing in the field when faced with the destruction of his powers. Iceman and Beast use humor and denial, trying to live a normal life. Angel and Marvel Girl float in and out of puppy love with each other. They’re teenagers, they haven’t mastered high school much less come to terms with their future as part of what’s about to become a very complicated war of species. Throw in the rising threat of Magneto and his Brotherhood, and the fledgling superheroes have to sink or swim. Several vignettes take us through their progression as they learn to come to grips with the fact that they are no longer part of the human race, at least in the eyes of the unpowered civilian, many of whom are incapable of distinguishing a good mutant from a bad one, and in fact, the star crossed history of the two principal faction leaders suggests that there really isn’t that much of a difference. Xavier clings to hope, whereas Magneto clings to rage, and the teenage superheroes have to make this choice themselves. Do they continue to risk their lives when those they save turn around and throw a brick at their head? Of course, we already know which side they end up choosing, but the path there is told in an interesting way, and the result is a remarkably charming and at times touching story. We know it already, but the telling is sweet and nostalgic, and we leave the book feeling uplifted. We can see the future. We know Jean Grey will die several times, that her marriage to Scott will ultimately fail. We know that Hank McCoy will accidentally further his mutation, and that Angel will be transformed into the razor winged Archangel by Apocalypse. We know this team will break up and change and their future holds drama and pain and loss. But as the book ends with the five young heroes standing together, at last, to rescue their mentor from their archenemy and, even in this precarious position, we know that they’ll save the day. They have to. They’re the X-Men.
The book itself is not just masterfully written, but the illustrations by Jamie McKelvie are crisp and clean. I particularly liked the design of the young Bobby Drake, who genuinely looks like a young kid, something that I find usually lacking. There’s no particular time setting for the story, and there’s no glaring trendy touches that can date the book on further reading. There are some odd touches though in both art and writing. The Maximoff twins for example, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, speak their very few lines in broken speech that I assume is to indicate their accent, described as Russian in the book, though us true geeks will know they are really Transian Roma. Some of the storytelling in the artwork is a little dull, clear and understandable but usually straight on, with few innovations. Perhaps to make up for the high price, Marvel throws in at the end, the first post Schism Uncanny X-Men, which puts Cyclops’s new Extinction Squad up against one of their trickiest foes, Mr. Sinister. It’s an interesting inclusion into the book considering the fate of the original First Class. Only Cyclops still stands as an X-Man. Beast and Iceman have left the team to follow Wolverine’s puzzling new “No Child Should Fight” doctrine, Angel has been mindwiped and is a practically a moron in the school’s care, and Marvel Girl, who of course became the Phoenix, is dead… again. Even the Professor stands against his former student, while Magneto has bent knee before Cyclops. It’s an odd capper but a good read, and a testament to hope. Things change and the future is never what we hoped it would be, but you have to survive, and to do that, you have to evolve.