Roy Thomas seems to be paying attention to readers' requests. A fan letter in #28, written by one Barry Smith, asked for a crossover between the X-Men and another Marvel mutant. Namely the "Merlin" character from "Journey Into Mystery" #96 (September, 1963).
The result is the first encounter between the X-Men and an immortal mutant. Preceding Selene and Apocalypse by decades. That said, the story is less than coherent. More reminiscent of a 1980s Filmation cartoon. What I really loved in the issue is the artwork.
The first four pages really stand out from the average production of this series. The first panel alone has the X-Men menaced by spectral hand which seems to dwarf them. As they are transported from the Danger room to some unknown location, Jack Sparkling makes an effort to depict movement. Finally something other than characters standing around.
Jack quickly gives the spotlight to Jean. With the most detailed depiction of her body and uniform yet. She arrives at some unidentified hills. Arriving alone and finding Professor X already held prisoner. With their captor standing beside them, radiating with power. Add the three winged horses of page #4 and it makes for a usually impressive story.
Both the story and artwork go a bit downhill from there. But at least it never gets dull. The setting of the rest of the story is the secret headquarters of Merlin. Our villain loves anachronisms. His hideout is an underground castle, with Medieval and modern technology mixed up. even his private army consists of modern-day mercenaries, dressed as Medieval nights and equipped with a mix of modern and ancient technology.
It is not a brilliant story and there is no brilliant plan. Merlin plans to use his psionic powers to "turn the minds of mere mortals backward-- to the level of mankind at the time of King Arthur". Which somehow will allow him to rule the world. And he has chosen Jean Grey to be his Queen consort. The rest of the X-Men are just bystanders caught in his attempt to get her.
But it certainly provides some good moments for the various characters involved.
*Warren turns out to be the only X-Man who won't let go of Jean and his wings allow him to reach her location early on. He also provides the best comical line of the issue. His reaction to Merlin's attempts to woo Jean: "Don't let that wolf in wizard's clothing give you the moonlight-and-roses treatment". Later he cares more about her safety than the success of the mission. Some depth to the resident angel-in-love.
*Cyclops, on the other hand, contemplates about choosing between the fate of Jean and that of the world. Fearing that he might have to go for the second choice. A grim moment for him. But his obvious concern for her finally gives Jean a glimpse on his emotional state: "Could it be that he does love me -- but that, for some unknown reason, he's never told me?" That side of the love triangle seems to be advancing a bit.
*The Beast gets the splotlight treatment in the fight scenes. When forced to face one of Merlin's "knight", Beast disarms his opponent with minimal effort. Then effortlessly uses the poor guy as a projectile weapon, senting him flying. He later repeats the performance with a knight on horseback. Hank reminds his surprised teammates about his rarely used super-strength. He is also, much later, the one to physically restrain the Mad Merlin, using the immortal's own cape as a shroud.
*Iceman briefly turns into a one-man army. Most of Merlin's cavalry slips on the ice below their feet.
*Jean ends up rescuing her teammates' lives. When merlin collapses a tower over their heads, Jean manages to telekinetically lift the debris. Which is her most impressive feat in quite some time.
*Professor X has the last word. His powers are disabled for most of the issue, disabled by Merlin's psionic powers. He plays possum, not alerting Merlin that his powers are slowly returning. He is the one to return Merlin to his hibernation.
The one major flaw of the issue is Merlin himself. His power levels seem to be shifting within pages. In certain pages, the man psionically shuts down powers, mesmerizes people, effortlessly destroys buildings. In others he is simply running from his opponents, acting helpless. What is going on with him? No idea.
Merlin would return in #47 (August, 1968).