Gage Introduces "The First X-Men"

When Professor Charles Xavier created the X-Men he put a very public face on the struggle of the Marvel Universe's super powered mutant population. The original X-Men roster signaled to the world that not all mutants were out to disrupt or destroy society. It also let other mutants know there was a safe haven and community for them, somewhere they would be protected and could learn to master and use their often wild and tempestuous abilities.

Xavier created the X-Men at a time when persecution of mutants reached an all-time high, but mutants were persecuted long before "Professor X" formed his team. So who protected them before Xavier became a champion for mutant rights? Was there a team of mutant heroes and protectors that preceded Xavier's original five students?

This August, writer Christos Gage and legendary artist Neal Adams will answer those questions and more in the 5-issue miniseries "The First X-Men." CBR News spoke with Gage about the series.

CBR News: Christos, how does it feel to work with a legend like Neal Adams? And from the recent conference call about "The First X-Men" it sounds like Neal is more than just the artist on this project, is that correct? How much input did he have on the story?

Christos Gage: I'd say working with Neal is a dream come true, but honestly I'd never even dreamed about it, because it's something I never would have imagined could actually happen. It's like working with [Martin] Scorsese -- someone who is a titan of the art form and was redefining its language before you were born. And is still that good. I mean, I grew up staring goggle-eyed at Neal's giant Treasury Edition covers. When I was a kid, DC was putting out one Neal Adams treasury after another, or at least getting him to do covers -- so his art is always larger than life to my eyes. And when he turns in pages for "First X-Men," which I get to see in pencil form, they're just as awesome as the giant Ras Al Ghul head or the Kree/Skrull War. The last page of issue #1 is just so good -- he's still the man!

And you're right, Neal originated this story. He conceived the premise and the plot and pitched it to Marvel. I was brought in as a writing collaborator, someone who'd been working at Marvel a while and knew current continuity, as well as being kind of a nerd about past continuity. Plus I have experience in collaborative writing, including television, which is very much a team effort. So it's really more like I'm adapting Neal's story into script form, if that makes any sense. And it's very collaborative all the way through -- honestly, he's earned the right to say, "Shut up and do it my way! I'm Neal Adams, bitch!" But he's not like that at all; he treats me like I have every right to be here. Which I'm not sure I do, but I'm not complaining! Then I get to ask nerdy questions about forty year-old comics and he answers them. And then I get pages that look beautiful and go, "Oh my God, Neal Adams is drawing my script!"

Sounds like a pretty amazing experience. Around what time period does the story take place? What are some of the major historical events that are unfolding and happening when "The First X-Men" begins? How much time passes over the course of these five issues?

We didn't want to fix it in a particular historical era, because Marvel's sliding timeline means that if we said it was, say, the '70s, pretty soon that would be too long ago. So we tried to keep it vague -- there aren't references to cell phones or the internet, but we're not referring to Nixon or disco either.

If you mean in terms of Marvel history, it takes place when Professor Xavier was young, in college and at the start of his military career. And I'd say it spans the course of several months.

Where does the action of "The First X-Men" take place? What are some of the locales you'll take readers to before the story is over?

Mostly in the U.S., but we do go to England and Argentina.

Let's move on to characters. One of your central characters in this story is Wolverine. Can you talk about his motivations for getting involved in "The First X-Men?" If I'm not mistaken, during this time period he's still an agent of Romulus' conspiracy. Is Wolverine acting of his own free will in this story? And are his motivations entirely altruistic?

We don't get into the whole Romulus thing. Neal, [editors] Nick Lowe, Axel Alonso and myself all agreed on this -- we want "First X-Men" to be accessible both to longtime fans as well as to more casual readers who may not know the history of the characters in great detail. Anyone who has followed Wolverine's career knows his memory was tampered with a fair amount over the years; this story takes place at a time when he didn't remember much of his past. So yes, he is acting of his own free will, and he does want to try to help the emerging mutants of the world. That doesn't mean other aspects of his backstory are any less valid -- it just means that, in this story, what you see is kind of what you get.

I believe Sabretooth was also involved with Romulus at this time as well, correct? And beyond that what's the dynamic between him and Wolverine during this story? Does Logan exactly trust Creed?

Again, since we wanted fans who aren't immersed in Marvel lore to be able to fully enjoy the story, we are employing a little sleight of hand in terms of the history between Sabretooth and Wolverine. It's well established that various entities have messed with both their memories, so in this particular tale, as far as Logan and Creed are concerned, they've been working together for a little while as mercenaries, but beyond that they have no memory of earlier encounters.

In issue #1 I wrote a bit where a couple of government agents recognize Logan and Creed, and Creed later says, "How did they know who we are?" Logan brushes it off by saying, "We've been kicking around a while," suggesting their reputation precedes them. But that was my little way of acknowledging there are things about their past Logan and Creed don't remember. So we're not contradicting anything that might have happened before, but they don't recall it. As far as their dynamic, Logan is definitely the more altruistic of the two, and Creed is more the loose cannon. Logan trusts Creed in combat, but he knows he's a man with a dark side. Of course, so is Logan.

They both go through significant character arcs over the course of the story. For Sabretooth, especially, this is kind of his last chance at being something other than a killer. I love writing characters who have sort of given up on themselves and then grasp at a glimmer of hope of rising above their nature. Succeed or fail, it's always powerful.

The other major established character in "The First X-Men" is Magneto. What's your sense of the character during this time period? From the conference call it sounds like he's pursuing escaped Nazis when "The First X-Men" begins. Is he doing this as a member of an organization or for his own vengeful purposes?

Magneto's presence is important, but the big question is whether he wants to be part of Logan's team. Will he join or not? What I can tell you is that Magneto and Xavier never cross paths -- their first meeting as written by Chris Claremont is still their first meeting. Part of what makes this story interesting is that figures we see as great leaders in mutant history, like Magneto and Xavier, haven't become that yet. So you have someone in Wolverine who is really more of a field leader, a soldier, than a general, but he's adopting a role he doesn't necessarily feel totally comfortable in, because individuals who may be more suited to the position aren't stepping up.

And yes, this is a point when Magneto is hunting escaped Nazis. I think we all loved seeing that in the "X-Men: First Class" movie -- though I hasten to point out they borrowed it from the comics! -- and it seemed like a natural place for him to be in this story. He's doing it on his own, to get revenge for wartime atrocities.

How big a role does Charles Xavier play in "The First X-Men? Do we see him start to become the hero we know he'll be? Or will Xavier have a smaller role in this story?

He's not in the thick of the action, but he is an important background presence. One of the things Neal hit on that I thought was a really insightful observation was that this is a man whose mutation isn't visible to the naked eye. So why would he just suddenly decide to be the champion of mutantkind? Might his first instinct, as a young man, not be to try to pass as human?

The Charles Xavier we meet is at Oxford, engaged to Moira MacTaggart, and has no thought of being this big important leader figure. Over the course of the story, we see him take the first steps toward being the man he eventually became -- the qualities are undeniably in him -- but he didn't step off the Oxford campus fully formed as "Professor X."

All these characters were active mutants during this time, but none of them were doing things that would draw public attention to them. What's the status of mutant persecution when "The First X-Men" begins? Does the world know enough about mutants to "fear and hate" them? Or is some other agency besides the general public persecuting mutants at this time?

At this time, mutants are starting to emerge, but not in huge numbers. While the general public doesn't know about them, the government is aware of them, and is trying to apprehend and study them. They see mutants as a potentially huge threat and want to be on top of it, as well as see if these living weapons are something they can get under control.

So when a new mutant emerges, if accounts of weird happenings start to get out, a group of "men in black" show up, explain it away with some plausible story like swamp gas or a chemical spill, and it stops happening -- because the mutant has been seized. But the more often this sort of thing occurs, the more uneasy the public becomes, even if they don't have a name for the target of their hate and fear just yet. I should also point out there are differing ideas about how to approach the "mutant question" within the government, with FBI Agent Fred Duncan taking a more open minded view, while Bolivar Trask, creator of the Sentinels, has his own plan. Spoiler alert: it involves mutant-killing robots.

What else can you tell us about the plot and themes of this story? Are your main protagonists all together when this story begins or do events conspire to bring them together during the initial issues of "The First X-Men?"

We have a "putting the team together" sequence like you see in movies such as "The Magnificent Seven." I enjoy that sort of thing. It also gives us a chance to meet and get to know these cool new characters Neal has created for this story. That's why he's the legend he is. I'm over here going, "Draw Sentinels! Draw Magneto!" and he's like, "Okay, sure. But I want to do this new stuff too." He never stops creating new things.

Let's talk about some of those new things. The cover images and the conference call suggests that readers will be meeting several new characters, in both the friends and foes categories. What can you tell us about these characters and the roles they'll play in this story?

I'm not sure how much I can reveal -- I know Neal has mentioned Bomb, the kid with explosive energy powers. There's a tall, Amazonian looking woman who is not what she seems. And there are more, including a villain called Virus who I think has the potential to be the next MODOK!

Like I said, these are Neal's characters, so I don't want to say anything he hasn't mentioned already. Wolverine and Sabretooth gather them together and try to train them into something like a strike force, since their experience is with military-style operations. It's very different than the school environment Professor Xavier will later create.

Are there any other major supporting players in terms of brand new or established characters? Will "The First X-Men" contain cameos and Easter Egg appearances by other Marvel characters operating at this time?

Definitely. The team will encounter what I like to call "hobo Sub-Mariner" -- an amnesiac, mind-addled Namor who was living on the streets of Manhattan at the time. We will see prototype Mandroids, prototype Sentinels, the aforementioned Bolivar Trask and Fed Duncan (who was in early Silver Age issues of "X-Men"), a young Moira MacTaggart, and I might just have managed to squeak a Manphibian cameo in there. Sort of. Wait and see.

Between the characters and the history it seems like you're juggling a lot of continuity with "The First X-Men." What's it like writing a story like this? Did everything fit together nicely or does it require a little more work?

Some of the continuity bits seemed tailor made for us, like Fred Duncan. Looking back at early Lee/Kirby issues of "X-Men," Professor X already has this relationship with Agent Duncan, who heads up an office of mutant investigation, with the implication that he's been doing it for a while. And they're not antagonistic; they're helping each other. I had to think there were reasons they came to the point where a clandestine mutant would be willing to trust a government agent, and vice versa.

Also, there were things like Xavier's motivation for leaving Oxford and his fiancee, Moira, to join the military. According to the Marvel Handbook, he did that because there was another guy interested in Moira who essentially called him a sissy, and he decided he could prove he was a real man by becoming a soldier. I didn't buy that, and neither did Neal. The guy's a genius, not a second grader. So we could add some layers there -- he joined the military because he discovered his genius had put him on a government watch list of "possible mutants," and he wanted to throw them off his trail, both by establishing himself as a patriotic American and by getting to where he could use his mental powers on others to get his records expunged of any suspicious material.

Aside from things like that, it was more about deciding, "Okay, we're going to not worry about this" -- like all the Romulus stuff. Look, let's be honest: X-Men continuity is pretty convoluted, and while we're not doing it intentionally, I'm sure people will find contradictions, or pieces that don't quite mesh. At some point you just have to decide if your priority is being true to continuity -- some of which already contradicts itself -- or telling the best stories. We do care about continuity -- I probably care more than any other writer at Marvel besides Dan Slott -- but at the end of the day, our goal is to tell the best possible stories.

Let's start to wrap thing up by talking about art and tone. Neal has proven he can draw anything, but he has a particular flair for intense action and emotional scenes. What can readers expect from his work on "The First X-Men?" And how would you describe the tone of this series?

You can expect from Neal what he's delivered for nearly half a century: awesome, hard-hitting storytelling. His action scenes are great, of course -- I wish the whole story could have been double page spreads -- but it's his quieter scenes that amaze me with their power. He'll draw characters who only appear for a couple panels with such individuality that you can see their life story in the lines of their face.

Tonally, the great thing about having someone as versatile as Neal is that you don't have to just pick one thing. Yeah, it's an adventure story, so there's hard-hitting action, Cold War paranoia, and rough-edged characters grasping for a last chance at turning their lives around. But there are moments of humor, slices of horror, and the sort of human (or mutant) drama that's been a hallmark of X-Men comics from the beginning.

Here's an example, and I'm not even sure I should reveal this, but there's a scene after a battle in which Sabretooth had several bones shattered, and because of his healing factor, they healed wrong. So now he has to re-break them and set them so they'll heal properly. And he's breaking his own arms and legs, which is agonizing, and this other character is watching, and we see both the agony on Sabretooth's face and the reactions of this other character, and it's like having really talented actors performing. It's the sort of thing you do when you're working with Neal Adams because you know he can pull it off.

Finally, with books like "The First X-Men" and "Avengers 1959" Marvel is mining the time period between World War II and now to tell a variety of interesting stories. Would you be interested in exploring this time period further via a sequel to "The First X-Men" or another project?

I definitely would. And once the fundamental elements of "First X-Men" are established, I'd certainly be open to embracing the wider Marvel Universe more. The tricky thing is tying yourself to a specific era. Once you do, you have the advantage of being able to use elements of history in your story, as Howard Chaykin did in "Avengers 1959" and Garth Ennis is doing in the current Nick Fury MAX miniseries. I know Neal is a big fan of Howard Chaykin's (as am I), and since Sabretooth was on that 1959 Avengers team, it seems like a natural to explore those connections. But since we're less fixed in history with "First X-Men" -- i.e. "30 years ago" rather than "1982" -- it might have to be a separate thing, its own thing. But that's putting the cart before the horse -- let's get this book done and see if people want more before we start talking sequel!

"The First X-Men" by Christos Gage and Neal Adams arrives in August.

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