An X-Men Retrospective: Part 1

"To me, my X-Men."

This all started as a follow up to one of my Doux Five posts about classic comic book runs. I wanted to do something more detailed covering both Marvel and DC. That eventually evolved into doing a separate piece for X-Men because there was so much I wanted to write about it. X-Men is a comic I've had an on-off relationship for almost 30 years now. It wasn't the first comic I read, but it was the first one I read seriously. And then that continued to evolve into this multi-part retrospective. Which is all rather fitting considering X-Men is all about change and evolution.

In this series of posts I am just going to looking at Uncanny X-Men (1963) along with some of the companion titles like X-Men (1991), New X-Men (2001), and Astonishing X-Men (2004). I'll be looking at the history of the books, and what went on behind the scenes, and what I think of the individual creative runs. I'm not really going to recommend any individual storylines or crossovers. Personally I think crossovers are a terrible way to get into a comics because a) they are usually the culmination of months or years worth of storylines, and b) they are often quite crap.
THE STRANGEST SUPER-HEROES OF ALL (1963-1970)
Uncanny X-Men #1-66

If you're a completist the best place to start is with the original stories by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. First published in 1963, the X-Men were a team of mutants, people born with special abilities. According to Lee, he came up with the idea because he got tired of thinking up different ways heroes got their powers. The original X-Men were a rather bland, all white, all American team consisting of Cyclops, Angel, Marvel Girl, Beast and Iceman with Professor X dishing out the orders from their mansion HQ. Uncanny X-Men wasn't one of their most successful titles and the duo didn't work on it for very long. Roy Thomas took over as the primary writer with issue #20 and worked with a succession of artists, including legends like Jim Steranko, Barry Windsor-Smith and Neal Adams, but they were never quite able to turn X-Men into a success and the series was more or less cancelled in 1970.

Even the most die hard Marvel fans will admit that Uncanny X-Men is far from Lee and Kirby's best work. These early stories are, for the most part, just generic superhero tales, which is why many tend to skip this era and go right to the next one. If you really want to read about the X-Men's early days it might be better to check out Jeff Parker and Roger Cruz's X-Men: First Class series or Dennis Hopeless and Jamie McKelvie's Jean centric X-Men: Season One graphic novel. There's also Ed Piskor's X-Men: Grand Design, which is a fun recap of 30 years worth of X-Men history done in the style of an indie comic.
ALL NEW, ALL DIFFERENT X-MEN (1976-1991)
Giant-Size X-Men #1
Uncanny X-Men #94-280

Although the original series had been cancelled, Marvel continued to published Uncanny X-Men bimonthly, but these were just reprints of earlier issues. The series was eventually relaunched in 1975 with Giant-Size X-Men #1, written by Len Wein and illustrated by Dave Cockrum. After the original X-Men were captured by the living island Krakoa (remember that, it'll be important later) Professor X and Cyclops assemble a new, more diverse and international team to go save them. The new team consisted of Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Banshee, Thunderbird, Sunfire, and everyone's favourite Wolverine. Once they've been saved, the original X-Men all suddenly quit (except for Cyclops) and the new team take over.

The success of Giant-Size X-Men #1 led Marvel to begin publishing new Uncanny X-Men stories for the first time in five years. Cockrum stayed on as artist, but Chris Claremont soon replaced Wein as writer and would hold onto the job for the next 16 years. If you want to know how Uncanny X-Men got started you should read Lee and Kirby. If you want to know how Uncanny X-Men became the biggest thing in comics then you have to read Claremont. He may not have created them, but he sure as hell defined them.
More so than the original team, Claremont's X-Men were social outcasts who many saw as freaks and monsters. This made them more appealing and relatable to readers than other superhero teams like the Avengers and Justice League and contributed strongly to the comic's rising success. Claremont also favoured intricate, long term plots that would often takes months or even years to resolve. He also preferred more complex villains and changed Magneto from a one dimensional ranting madman into a Holocaust survivor who didn't want to see mutants share the same fate and gradually became an ally to the X-Men.

As much as I love this era I'll be the first to admit that not everything about it was great. For all the ground-breaking things he did with the title, Claremont still had many flaws as a writer. He'd often get carried away and write way too much dialogue and narration. He would constantly remind us what all the main characters powers were almost every single issue. The romance between 14-year-old Kitty Pryde and 19-year-old Colossus was just icky and the fact that so many modern writers have a nostalgic fondness for it says a lot about them. One of the few good things to come out of the original Secret Wars was that it put a sudden stop to it. Claremont's handling of racial politics, while well intentioned, could often be problematic.
Due to its sheer length, the Claremont era is best broken down by the six major artists he worked with: Dave Cockrun ((#94-107, #145-164), John Byrne (#108-143), Paul Smith (#165-175), John Romita Jr (#176-211), Marc Silvestri (#218-261), and Jim Lee (#166-177). Corkrum's first run and Byrne's really go together since Byrne (who also co-plotted the book with Claremont) took over midway through the last act of 'The Phoenix Saga'. Both runs work as one continues the story with 'Days of Future Past' as the big finale and Byrne's last issue, a solo adventure for Kate Pryde as she fights a demon alone in the mansion, a fitting (if unintended) epilogue. After Byrne's sudden departure (he had a falling out with Claremont over, of all things, Colossus ripping up a log), Cockrum returned for a second run before passing the reins over to Smith. Again, these two runs go well together, effectively forming a complete story that ends with Cyclops' marriage to Madelyne Pryor (which ended badly because the editors wanted him for a spin-off, but that's a whole other matter).

Romita Jr took over as main artist in 1983 and was followed by Silvestri in 1987. It was during this run that it became increasingly obvious that Claremont was growing tired of the same old status quo. He'd been writing Uncanny X-Men for a decade now and was looking to shake things up. Storm lost her powers protecting Rogue from government agents and had to learn to lead the X-Men without them. Xavier was written out and replaced by Magneto as the headmaster of the school. Cyclops, Kitty Pryde, and Nightcrawler were also written out and replaced by less popular characters like Psylocke, Longshot and Dazzler. After a battle with the Adversary in Dallas, which ended with the entire world seeing the X-Men die on live TV (they got better), the team secretly relocated to a new base in the Australian outback. Their old mansion HQ was later blown up by Mr Sinister during the 'Inferno' event. Finally, the team itself was torn apart and scattered across the globe. For a good year and a bit there wasn't a team of X-Men starring in Uncanny X-Men. Opinions on this era are deeply divided. For many, this is when Claremont really went off the rails and started writing the comic into the ground. Personally, I love it. The Outback era is one of my favourites. The X-Men at this point were just a bunch of chaotic dumbasses with a single braincell between them and it was Storm's.
The last five years of the Claremont run saw the rise of the infamous crossover. Things started off small in 1982 with the launch of The New Mutants, the first X-Men spin-off series. Since both teams were living under the same roof, and Claremont was writing both titles, little crossovers and team-ups became common. It wasn't until a third title, X-Factor, was published in 1986 that plans were drawn up for a big event that would unite all three X-Teams. 'Mutant Massacre' was a big success and more crossovers eventually followed. What's interesting about these early X-Men crossovers is that, even though they were meant to get you reading all the titles, they were structured in such a away that you didn't have to. For example, you didn't have to read X-Men and X-Factor portions of 'Inferno' to follow The New Mutants portion and vice versa. It wasn't until 'X-Tinction Agenda' in 1990 that you had to read all three titles to get the complete story.

'X-Tinction Agenda' saw all the X-Men finally reunited after years apart (weeks for them because comic time is different). Not long after Professor Xavier returned from space to once again lead the team as they joined with X-Factor to battle the Shadow King during the 'Muir Island Saga'. This was meant to be the opening salvo of a much larger conflict that would've been resolved in Uncanny X-Men #300 with Xavier sacrificing himself to save Magneto. Despite writing the same book for 16 years straight, Claremont had no intention of leaving and had everything plotted out for the next few years. Unfortunately, serious creative differences and tensions behind the scenes at Marvel would lead to his sudden departure before the 'Muir Island Saga' could be complete. Things were that bad that he didn't even stick around to finish writing his final issue, leaving halfway through Uncanny X-Men #80.
To Be Continued...

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very nice review/overview. I too have fond memories of the Australian Outback era.
Claremont is a very good writer, but he has some flaws like his wordy dialogue.
That said I grew up reading X-men and the classic era was great.
Storm is the MVP Wolvie can only dream of being.
Loved the late addition Jubilee and her fireworks.

Samantha M. Quinn said...

I never read the Kirby/Lee era or much of the Claremont Era (although I did read Giant Sized X-Men #1 and some of Rogue's introduction arc). I knew about the Collossus and Kitty Pryde romance, but I had no idea he started it with their ages so disparate. I'll fully admit I've never been fond of Professor X, Cyclops or Iceman. I was always drawn to Jean Grey (after the Phoenix Saga I might add), Rogue and Wolverine (more specifically X-23). It will be interesting to see what version the MCU crafts for these characters. They do not need to be introduced all at once, and I could see individual characters showing up in the various projects over the next few years before a movie about the formation of the X-Men. Anyway, thanks for doing this retrospective. I will be checking out the rest of it soon.