"I want to start reading the X-Men comic books... where do I start?"
This is a question I hear a lot, addressed either to myself or others. It's kind of an involved answer, so I figured it was about time I wrote up a comprehensive blog post on the subject.
Obviously I am one fan, and this is going to be a biased post, but I think it'll be pretty comprehensive so hopefully fans of differing opinions won't be too upset with me. ;)
First of all, if you want to jump into a current story without wading through all the history of the X-Men, I would recommend you to catch up on the "Wolverine and the X-Men" comic book. It came out last year and has been extremely well written. At this point you would have a manageable amount of catching up to do, and then you'd be caught up with everyone else. All you have to know going in is that Wolverine and Cyclops had a big fight, the X-Men split up over it, and Wolverine 'got custody' of half the kids and started a school. Yep. Wolverine is headmaster. Check it out.
If you want to really dive in and read everything, but don't know where to begin... here's a suggested road map.
#0. Forget everything from the Fox movies. Except Professor X. Very little of it is comic canon, and although a few of them were good 'movies' they are horribly misleading about the X-Men in general.
#1. Watch "Wolverine and the X-Men" - the TV show. It has nothing to do with the comic book by the same name, nor does it follow any comic book title, but it does a wonderful job of showing the characters, themes and pivotal storylines that have populated the X-Men side of the Marvel universe for the past fifty years. It's either that, or do a heck of a lot of Wikipedia reading. (For that matter, I recommend Comicvine instead, as it's kept up to date and contains more information).
#2. Read "X-Men: First Class." It has nothing to do with the movie (which was excellent, but inaccurate) and everything to do with the canon first class - Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Angel and Iceman. Why not start with the very first comic? Because honestly those early comics get boring fast. Comics were written differently in those days, and X-Men was an example of the not so great side (it didn't really take off until Clairmont's run). In fact, for a time it was actually canceled. While I will recommend some old school stories (see #3!), do yourself a favor and start with First Class, which tells the stories that took place between the original issues, but has sharper writing and the benefit of modern art and printing technology.
#3. Read "Giant-Size X-Men #1". This tells the story of how iconic favorites like Wolverine, Storm and Nightcrawler joined the team, and their very first adventure with the original five (plus two of my favorites, Havok and Polaris!). It's an important story in that it strongly shaped the future of the X-Men, and ties into many future stories (such as Deadly Genesis, which we'll get to later.)
#4. Get your hands on Uncanny X-Men #129 and the ensuing story arc. Not only does this introduce you to Kitty Pryde (who is one of the most awesome X-Men ever), but it also gives you a good look at the origins of Emma Frost and the Hellfire Club.
#5. Read "The Dark Phoenix Saga." This is sold in a single volume trade edition, or you can track down issues #129-#138 of "The X-Men" (not to be confused with the "Uncanny X-Men" issues of the same numbers I referenced in the previous step. Complicated, huh?). This is Jean Grey's story, and remains one of the most iconic X-Men stories ever. Even if you skip everything previous to this, you really don't want to miss this one!
#6. Read "Wolverine: First Class." After the Phoenix Saga you'll be ready for something more light-hearted, and this follow up to "X-Men: First Class" is one of the funniest pieces I've ever read. It's also got tons of Wolverine and Kitty.
#6.5. Speaking of which... if you liked that duo, you might want to read their original pairing, in the miniseries "Kitty Pryde and Wolverine." It involves ninjas and samurai and lots of swordfighting.
#7. This isn't a vital story, but "The Days of Future Past" is worth reading, especially as it is going to be the basis of the next First Class series. Might as well know the source before Fox messes up again... right? Also, more Kitty!
After that, it gets complicated. You could literally continue on after Kitty's entrance or the Dark Phoenix Saga and read both titles to their conclusions. Which is hundreds of issues, and although there are some really good stories, there are also some really confusing ones, so if you want to catch up to the current state of comic affairs, you can, at this point, skip ahead to my next batch of suggestions (Intro to Modern X-Men, coming soon!). Or read both side by side.
At this point, you do have a solid knowledge of the important facts of Classic X-Men, so you can skip around, find out when your favorite characters have important arcs or introductions by checking the Wiki information. For instance, Rogue first appeared in the "Avengers Annual #10" and Gambit debuted in "Uncanny X-Men Annual #14." Kitty meets her dragon/alien Lockheed during the first Brood story (Uncanny X-Men #155). A vital growth period for Storm was her change in appearance and depowering, a story which starts during Uncanny X-Men #173.
There is one story that covers a lot of titles and issues that I can't just give you a handy reference to. It's an important story that you really should have some knowledge of, so I'm going to give you a quick summery here. (If you plan to read all of Classic X-Men yourself, then skip this so you don't get spoiled!)
After Jean dies (for the first time, see "Dark Phoenix Saga"), Scott grieves, then finds new love with Madelyn Pryor, who looks suspiciously like Jean. They have a son, Nathan, but when Jean's resurrection is revealed, Scott leaves Madelyn and Nathan for Jean. (Ouch.) Nathan is kidnapped by Mr. Sinister (who, as you know from "Wolverine and the X-Men" has a serious obsession with Scott and Jean), and Madelyn goes incognito with 8 other X-Men to live secretly in Australia and save the world without anyone knowing. (That's a fun arc, and introduces Jubilee. I highly recommend it, actually, but you don't have to read it to continue on to Modern X-Men.)
Anyhow, the 9 Aussie X-Men come back to the US, and Maddy finds out that she's actually a clone of Jean, created by Mr. Sinister. She kind of goes crazy and evil and has to be destroyed. Baby Nathan is recovered, however, but he is stricken with a virus that can only be treated in the future.
Scott and Jean get married and take Nathan into the future, where they spend nine years raising him before returning to the present day. Nathan stays there, until eventually he returns as a full-grown (white-haired!) man named Cable.
Oh, yeah, Scott and Jean have other kids from the future that show up, but Rachel is the only one you need to worry about. Rachel's cool. We'll get to her in the next post.
Anyhow, Madelyn+Scott=Nathan/Cable. Keep that in mind.