The X-Men have a long a storied history. Fortunately, like most comics, a few specific runs are often key to understanding the current status quo. This list will do two things. It will collect essential reading for understanding current continuity. And I’ll try to throw some of my favorites into the mix.
1. Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men #94-279
If you don’t have time or patience for the long-winded list of titles and storylines I can save you the trouble. The only thing you need to read to understand the X-Men is Chris Claremont’s run on Uncanny.
Technically, I would start with Giant-Size X-Men #1 though he doesn’t actually get writing credit on that. Claremont is the guy who writes the run so iconic that the rest of the writers have to at least pay tribute to it.
If you read a good chunk of his original run, then you can easily pick up any modern book and be able to identify half the current cast.
- X-Men: Blue: Why it’s Jean, Scott, Hank, Warren, and Bobby plus some Wolverine knockoff!
- X-Men: Gold: Kitty, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Rogue, Magik and another version of Wolverine!
- And, X-Men Red: Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Gambit!
And while that doesn’t get you into all of the side characters, knowing who’s who in the main cast can be half the battle. Plus, as you can see, despite it having been years since Claremont’s run, the characters he brought onto the team are still the ones taking center stage.
2. X-Men Season 1
It is with a heavy heart that I must admit, the Silver Age is not for everyone. Instead, I recommend X-Men: Season One. This story explains the early years of the Xavier Institute from the perspective of Jean Grey, the newest student. This is the most well-written and accurate retelling of the original silver age stories. Dennis Hopeless is writing these same characters in today’s books, and he specializes in teenage shenanigans.
Many people tend to forget about the origins of the team. And many people would say that the X-Men as we know them actually don’t begin until Claremont’s run. This retelling of their origin story serves to show just how much modern series depend on the dynamics of the Stan Lee and Kirby run. The relationship between Xavier and his students, between Jean and Scott, and between the X-Men and the world, are established in these early days of the team.
3. Days Of Future Past: The Uncanny X-Men #141–142
Days of Future Past is a storyline told during Claremont’s era that makes it onto every list. And for good reason. It establishes the X-Men’s age-old habit of dark futures and generated plenty of future stories. The cover alone has been spoofed to hell and back.
Days of Future Past is the story of how Kitty Pride, from a dark sentinel ridden future, goes back and time to avert the crisis. And the rest is worth reading yourself. This story gave X-Men writers carte blanche to start inventing dark futures. Which is how we wound up with Rachel, Cable, and Bishop. It’s worth reading for its impact on future stories alone.
Hell, just recently this storyline was revisited in X-Men: Gold.
4. The Dark Phoenix Saga #101-138
The Dark Phoenix Saga is, hands down, my favorite X-Men story ever told. The fact that it doubles as the ultimate X-Men continuity jumble is just a small bonus. The Phoenix storyline comes from a time before crossovers existed. You only need to pick up a hefty chunk of Uncanny X-Men to read it in its glorious entirety.
This story gives you Jean Grey at both her best and worst. It involves moments of sheer badassery and heartwarming friendship from all X-Men involved. Before the retcons, before the continuity snarl, this story was the epitome of what Claremont could do on the title.
If you don’t love Jean Grey after reading this, it’s safe to say she isn’t for you. I’ve listed #101 onward because I believe this story is best read in the context of the full Uncanny storyline, which requires reading the event which turned Jean into Phoenix in the first place.
5. Grant Morrison’s Run New X-Men #114-154
Just… all of it. After Claremont, he has one of the most iconic runs. He introduces secondary mutations and Emma Frost into the main cast. He brings on tons of side characters who become prominent in later stories.
This includes the Stepford Cuckoos and Quentin Quire. And he gets Cyclops and Emma into bed together and kills Jean Grey (again). Is it perfect? By no means. But the changes it made to the status quo are felt to this day.
6. Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men Issues #1-24
Joss Whedon is often credited as a return to form after the groundbreaking Grant Morrison run. He seamlessly continues and incorporated the previous continuity. You will likely want to read Morrison first.
It is also a great place for fans of Kitty Pryde. Whedon was an outspoken fan of the character so she get’s some important development in his book. Warren Ellis takes over the book after Whedon and continues the story after issue 24.
7. Schism & Avengers VS. X-Men
Wolverine and Cyclops break up. That’s it. That’s the comics. It’s not nearly as well thought out as you probably want it to be. But every character talks about it so enjoy. I’m not giving a reading order because this thing crosses over multiple titles. Pick up the trades for both this and AvX.
Is Avengers VS. X-Men good? Well. No. Is it very very important? Yeah, unfortunately. Avengers VS. X-Men is the story of how the X-Men and the Avengers get into a big scuffle because the Phoenix Force is very dangerous. It features Cable and his daughter Hope.
Scott became the bane of the mutant kind for doing something not totally unreasonable, and a lot of senseless fighting happens. This is the storyline that leads to Scott Summers being positioned as new Magneto. Plus Xavier dies, which is always a plus for me.
8. All-New X-Men Volume 1 & 2
All-New X-Men is probably the quintessential bit of Bendis’ run on the series. It opens with, you guessed it, time travel shenanigans. But, instead of visitors from a dark future, Present Beast reaches back in time and brings the original X-Men to the present day.
It has its flaws, but the idea is also hilarious. The book explores a lot of the personal, character-driven ramifications. It’s a must-read for Bendis fans and people who want to know what is going on with current events.
You can pass it up if Bendis isn’t your cup of tea.
9. Wolverine and the X-Men Volume 1 #1-42
Unlike a lot of the runs on this list, Wolverine and the X-Men isn’t on here because it’s super important to continuity. Or groundbreaking. It’s not even necessary to understand current X-Men plots. It’s on here because it’s delightful. After Schism Logan and Kitty set up shop as the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning. This is the misadventures of Logan and his students.
Quentin Quire, Idie Okonkwo, Broo and other’s, many of whom will reappear in Generation X by Christina Strain (equally delightful) go get in trouble. If you want something fun, that embraces the Xavier idea of X-Men as a learning institution, read this.
10. X-Factor Volume 1 #1-64
Like Wolverine and the X-Men X-Factor is here because it’s good. It doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its development of Jean Grey, Scott Summers, and the other original X-Men as characters, but it really should. Disguised as mutant “hunters” Marvel Girl, Cyclops, Angel, Iceman, and Beast rescue young mutants from danger.
This series is responsible for Apocalypse, Archangel, and developing a real romance between Scott and Jean. Louise Simonson takes over as the writer after the first few issues and is really someone you should take a look at. X-Factor still stands as a highly regarded X-Book and is worth reading given current shenanigans involving the original X-Men.