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Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

Chris Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men for seventeen years, which is really quite a run in mainstream American comics, especially for a writer who didn’t create the property that he was working on. Over the course of a defining run that lasted almost two decades, the creator shaped the franchise from the forgotten stepchild of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – cancelled and reduced to reprints – into Marvel’s biggest and most successful comic book franchise. While the book hadn’t quite made it to the top of the sales charts by the end of this omnibus collection, it was well on its way – and you can see Claremont gradually moulding the team into the iconic collection of mutants that we’d see across a myriad of mediums.

Marvel had a smash hit on their hands…

Virtually any X-Men property or adaptation you’ve seen owes a huge stylistic debt to Claremont. Whether it’s X-Men: The Animated Series, Bryan Singer’s X-Men (or Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class) or even later comic books like Grant Morrison’s New X-Men or Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men or Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, all those classic iterations of the characters and the team find their roots in Claremont’s distinct take on Uncanny X-Men. That’s not to do a disservice to the original book that Lee and Kirby produced, but merely a fair and accurate appraisal. Claremont seemed to spot a window to do things that nobody was really thinking about in mainstream American comic books at the time – things that we take for granted today.

There are any number of factors that can account for the success of Claremont’s take on the team, from the larger aspects to the finer details. The most obvious distinction between the “all-new, all-different” Uncanny X-Men and just about any other team book on Marvel’s stands was the international aspect. Len Wein, who actually wrote the Giant-Size X-Men book that introduced the new line-up, deserves a lot of credit for mixing up an interesting cocktail, but it was Claremont who took that particular ball and ran with it. This era of Uncanny X-Men seems to be the only book I’ve read that is aware (in anything more than a passing manner) that life exists outside of the United States.

Colossus is always Russian in there…

Sure, teams like The Avengers would occasionally feature token members of different ethnicities or nationalities, and there was the odd Russian villain who’d show up in Fantastic Four to date the comic ridiculously, but – for the most part – superhero comics seemed to be a mostly American pastime. There were, of course, exceptions like Captain Britain, but they never seemed to make any real impact (as his erratic publishing schedule demonstrates). Whereas other teams might find space on their roster for one or two non-W.A.S.P. superheroes, the X-Men were a veritable United Nations.

There was Storm, the African princess (actually African-American, but her family moved overseas at a young age). There was Colossus, the Russian who lived with his family on a commune. There was Wolverine, everyone’s favourite pint-sized Canadian. There was Sunfire, an arrogant Japanese mutant. There was Banshee, an older Irish gentleman. There was Thunderbird, John Proudstar, the Native American who didn’t take any guff from anybody. And who could forget Nightcrawler, the blue-skinned German teleporter? Scott and Jean were the only two born-and-bred Americans on the team.

Dino soar!

And, to be fair to Claremont, he did his best to write his characters so that they were more than a collection of national stereotypes… mostly. Sure, there’s an unfortunate incident where a mind-controlled (it happens a lot) Colossus rebrands himself “Proliterian”, and the character is prone to referring to colleagues as “Comrade Sean” or making exclamations like “Lenin’s Ghost!” but Colossus is (mostly) defined more as the youngest X-Man and the one with the family back home (while the rest are footloose and fancy free). Banshee does suffer just a bit more from Irish stereotypes (or maybe it’s more apparent because I’m Irish), with dialogue like, “begorrah! ’tis Professor X himself now” and referring to himself as “Banshee-me-boyo.” The fact that Banshee’s ancestral home appears to be populated with leprechauns is also a bit disconcerting.

However, these problems are the exception rather than the rule, and I think Claremont’s version of the characters has caught on so well precisely because of the writer’s strength with characterisation. There’s a reason that Wolverine is the most famous member of the X-Men, and I really want to believe that it’s more than the fact that the miniature hero is the only member of the cast without any reluctance to hill. Claremont does a great job imbuing each member of the cast with a great deal of personality, far more – I’d argue at least – than any other ensemble cast in comic books at the same time.

It’s like a “greatest hits” collection!

Of course, Claremont does this with the use of his (admittedly) infamous purple prose. The pages are filled with dialogue and monologues – internal and external. I think that Claremont is perhaps single-handedly responsible for festering the idea that comic books are basically “soap opera for boys.” While he has a whole host of good ideas, the writer does occasionally go a tad overboard. When a bunch of bad guys teleport into a military base, we are treated to the following: “The box disappears, leaving in its place a shimmering silver oval, a hole in the air, a rip in the fabric of space and time. In short, a portal.” Yes, he effectively admits that he could have just said “portal.” There are countless similar examples throughout the run of issues presented here, and it’s a style that Claremont would continue to use throughout his extended tenure on the title.

To be fair to Claremont though, he seems acutely aware of his own weakness for that style of writing. “Just do us all a favour and spare us the soap opera, huh?” Wolverine requests on the author’s first issue. Xavier interrupts a dialogue-filled splash panel of the X-Men playing baseball, asking, “X-Men, is this a game or a debate?” When Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum continue the long-standing tradition of writing themselves into their comic (um… meta…), Dave is the first to declare to Claremont stuck monologuing, “Chris, do us all a favour – shut up an’ run!!”

A cut above the rest…

That said, Claremont’s style isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For all its heavy-handed clutter of beautiful artwork, it does lend a certain gravitas to proceedings. Chris Claremont writes big. Like, really big. You know that things are serious when Jean Grey’s new form introduces itself declaring, “Hear me, X-Men! No longer am I the women you knew! I am fire! And life incarnate! Now and forever — I am Phoenix!” Is it wrong that I hear her delivering that line in the style of Gerard Butler? “I. Am. PHOENIX!!!”

And Claremont does a great job guiding the team into its own little niche. Being entirely honest, Stan Lee just created the team as a generic bunch of superheroes – he created the idea of “mutants” simply because he didn’t want to have to come up with a whole heap of individual origin stories. In a Marvel Universe that already has The Avengers or the Fantastic Four, one might have been forgiven for thinking that the X-Menrepresented one super-team too many. Being entirely honest, I suspect that was a reason the team never truly caught on in its initial incarnation – a very early form of superhero fatigue. But what do I know?

It’s a total mindf&#k…

Claremont does an excellent job making it clear that his team are not second-stringers. Almost immediately, they are thrown into action on a threat that is clearly Avengers-level. “The Air Force called the Avengers for help,” Beast assures them, “but we can’t handle it right now.” Later on, as the Shi’ar crisis leads the entire universe to blink in and out of existence, both the Avengers and Fantastic Four are powerless to stop it, while the X-Men fight for creation itself. “We’re the Avengers, blast it!” the Wasp insists, “We’ve got be able to do something!” Her lover holds her tight, “Not this time, my love. It’s too big and too far away. Like it or not, this one is out of our hands.”

It set the precedent of the X-Men dealing with problems on a cosmic and galactic scale. I’ll be entirely honest, I was never that big a fan of the galactic stories featuring the characters. Hell, the Shi’ar arc is the one part of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men that I truly disliked (and I can forgive his work on Magneto or the infamous “done in a week”artwork). I mean, there were so many unique stories you could tell using mutants that it seemed a waste have them touring the universe doing generic superhero stuff – leave that to the Fantastic Four or the Avengers.

“X” appeal…

On the other hand, I do respect where Claremont is coming from. “These were comic books after all,” he explains in one introduction collected here, “why spend all our time in a world that looked pretty much just like our own when there were countless other planets, dimensions, times, genres to romp through?” And there’s no denying that there is a very undeniably “comic book” feeling to a lot of what Claremont writes. Much like the monologues and thought-balloons, these aspects are signs of the time. Claremont was publishing the book coming out of the period of comic book history known as “the Silver Age”, where Superman would force Jimmy Olsen to marry a monkey, or Batman would venture to another planet where he had Superman’s powers.

There are more than a few moments where I found myself shaking my head at the sheer volume of silliness on display. To give you a hint of context, let’s consider where Chris Claremont picks up the character of Magneto. When we first meet the supervillain here, we’re informed there’s been a break-in at Muir Island. “They went straight for the cell we’ve had Magneto in ever since he’d been turned into a baby,” we’re told. Yes, Magneto was turned into a baby. I’ll let you digest that. While nothing quite that silly actually happens on Claremont’s watch, some elements come damn close. Like Magneto’s somewhat poetic revenge, reducing our heroes’ mental ages to those of children and bringing in a robotic “nanny”to care for them. It’s silly. It’s daft. But, you know what, it’s comic books.

Perhaps he can win the X-Men over with his magnetic personality…

There are any number of similar moments throughout the run. There’s an especially surreal moment early on where Cyclops, mourning a deceased teammate, accidentally wakes up an old demon who had been sleeping on the grounds. What follows is a random issue-long battle that seems to exist solely so Dave Cockrum can draw one bad-ass-looking demons. Even the all-knowing Professor X is at a loss to explain what the hell just happened. Pressed for a theory, he responds, “I don’t know, Scott — I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure.” That’s Claremont at perhaps his weakest, with strange things happening for no apparent reason.

Other choice moments include Wolverine pulling a Dr. Doolittle. “Were you really talking with that tiger?” Nightcrawler asks, and Wolverine responds, “Yup.” Sadly we don’t see Wolverine using thatparticular super-power that often these days. Equally strange (and something that we have seen a lot more of), is the really strange idea that Scott Summers is somehow the abandoned child of an intergalactic space pirate. I honestly thought that being born with the ability to shoot lasers out of your eyes would make you unique enough, and Claremont doesn’t exactly weave that particular plot thread in gently. It’s thrown out in the middle of a huge battle for reality itself when a bunch of mysterious strangers arrive and one of them just happens to be Cyclops’ daddy. I know that we’re talking about a comic book here, but that revelation still makes me feel a little strange.

They’re poles apart…

There are any number of similar moments throughout the run, where it seems like Claremont is either trying to fit in one little idea where there isn’t quite room, or decides to arbitrarily cut a particular thread short. When the students of Xavier’s supposedly normal private academy somehow manage to subdue the wanted supervillian Warhawk, the detective in charge is naturally a little curious. “So how’d you and your schoolkids do it?” he asks, a legitimate question. Cyclops flippantly responds, “Luck, Captain Delaney?” Now, if I were a mutant, I’d be especially cautious about provoking a police officer to poke around the top secret school that houses a giant airplane under the basketball courts. Instead of being in any way curious or interested, Delaney replies, “Why not? I wasn’t expectin’ a straight answer anyway. Be seein’ you, folks.” I’m not even paraphrasing. The cop realises there’s something fishy, gets a smart-ass answer and is just like “what the hey?” I can’t help but wonder what the hell the point of that interaction was.

On the other hand, these occasional moments of absurdity do give us a handful of truly brilliant and honest-to-goodness “comic book-y” moments. George Perez drawing Colossus riding a dragon is cool. John Byrne drawing Wolverine fighting dinosaurs is also cool. Indeed, it’s fun to look at the colourful “supervillain and proud” assassin-for-hire Arcade as a proto-Morrisonian character. Much like one of the more fascinating supporting villains from Morrison’s Batman run, Arcade seems to relish the theatrical aspects of his chosen profession, rather than treating them as a means to an end. “Y’see ladies,” he explains to some captives, “any fool can kill — I wanted to do it with style.”

The Greatest Show on Earth?

And focusing on the admittedly silly parts of Claremont’s run does the writer a disservice. It ignores the rather simple fact that Claremont did a lot of very good work with drama and characterisation, that would be occasionally obscured by a random demon attack or a castle filled with leprechauns. I think that it’s too easy to focus on the minor and smaller details and miss the bigger picture.

Simply put, Chris Claremont might write hokey stories, but he writes good characters. Sure, he might do very silly things with them, like deage them into children or put them in sexy Asian bodies (with thongs), but Claremont has a grasp on each and every member of his expansive cast. it’s the smaller moments that really demonstrate this, like Nightcrawler’s decision not to wear a holographic projector in order to disguise his blue skin, and feeling far more comfortable with who he is. “God — or fate — or dumb look made me what I am, and I won’t hide anymore. Not even for the X-Men.”It’s hard not to smile a little bit at that character development.

To Hell and back…

You could make the argument that Storm is the real lead character of Claremont’s run, despite the fact that she’s never really at the fore of any of the plots as they occur. She’s the powerhouse of the team, which was awesome for a black female in the seventies. As one antagonist observes, she’s “obviously the most powerful X-Man.” It’s Storm who gets the most expansive back story (even more so than Scott “space baby” Summers), and she’s the only team member for whom we have a concrete history. Hell, Claremont even makes her the first X-Man to retroactively encounter Charles Xavier. Many would make the case that, over Claremont’s run, Storm would serve as the “backbone” of the team, and it’s hard to disagree. It seemed like she was the glue that held it all together through the countless changes.

Stan Lee is credited with the maxim that comic book fans don’t really want change. According to Lee, they simply want the illusion of change. And Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men was solidly built on the illusion of change. Len Wein’s Giant-Sized X-Men pretty much dumped the original line-up of “classic” X-Men and allowed Claremont to start fresh with his own batch. To the writer’s credit, he uses this switch to present the idea that Charles Xavier really was running a school, with the changeover from year-to-year that might be implied. As Jean Grey explains of her decision to leave, “You helped us grow up… and that’s just it. We’ve grown up. We’re not children anymore, Professor. We have to live our own lives now.”

Thunderbirds… I mean, X-Men to the rescue!

Claremont would keep things fresh during his seventeen-year run by constantly updating and revising the team roster, with the idea that various characters might outgrow the team or “graduate.” It was a clever idea that helped underscore the differences between the other superteams on the market. Of course the line-up of the Avengers would change, but it never created the same illusion of dynamic process that Claremont offered with practiced ease. In fairness, the line-up remains relatively static over the course of the issues collected here, but one can sense that the writer is preparing a new wave of X-Men by the last issue, introducing now-familiar characters like Dazzler or Kitty Pryde. The change was never really so radical that it became shocking, but Claremont teased just enough of it to keep things fresh and interesting.

By the way, it’s fun to read some of the letters collected in some of the issues here, in that they reflect how little comic fandom has changed over the decades. The internet is filled with fans declaring that any change to their favourite characters has ruined them forever, and it is strangely reassuring to see that it was always like that. In the early issues, in particular, it’s common to read letters from fans hostile to the dynamic new Uncanny X-Men and wanting the return of “their” book. Claremont has the new team take on (and vanquish) stand-ins for the old team repeatedly over the run, and it’s hard not to think that there’s something symbolic to the whole affair, with the classic characters standing in for stuck-in-the-mud fans, particularly when the fake Beast utters gems like, “We’re pardonably proud of our reputation… and we’re not about to see it besmerched by a collection of second-rate carnival freaks.”

Cyke out!

More than that, though, it seemed that the character actually grew under him. The team we’re reading about at the end of the thirty-odd issues collected in this giant tome is a great deal more mature than the bunch of misfits and loners we found at the start. It’s telling that the team has changed so radically that Xavier has no idea how to treat them on his return from outer space. “The original X-Men were teenagers with no idea how to cope with their mutant abilities,” Cyclops tries to convince his mentor. “We’re not teen-agers — or beginners. You can’t treat us like we are.” In many ways, Claremont’s greatest success with the franchise, along with embracing an international flavour, was turning it into a teenage coming-of-age tale. It’s telling that the group starts as a bunch of misfits and loners, but they appear as a much more focused team when compared against the state-sanctioned (but incompetent) military superteam Alpha Flight.

It’s Scott in particular, the original student of Xaviers, who benefits from the growth. There’s a sense that we’re watching the character grow from an insecure teenager into a man. Although (as with everything else), Claremont can be accused of leaning a little too heavily of teenage angst and purple prose, the evolution of Scott and Jean’s relationship seems to reflect that, with the two growing from an amorous young couple into more seasoned life partners – occasionally dirfting apart not through dramatic break-ups or soap opera affairs, but through the simple fact that both are growing and changing.

Trouble in her Jeans…

“After the shuttle flight,” Scott explains, recalling how Jean emerged as the new and more powerful Phoenix, “nothing had changed between us, yet everything had. She wasn’t the girl I’d loved anymore.” Storm is quick to offer a little nugget of life advice, “Perhaps it was simply that she was no longer a girl. As you are no longer a boy.” I think there’s some truth to Storm’s words, and not only because Claremont has a deep affinity for his weather goddess. In many ways, Cyclops and Jean seem to grow up together, and mature as a couple.

Which is perhaps the most interesting way to look at the Scott-Jean-Logan romantic triangle, which is perhaps the defining soap operatic element of this era of Claremont’s writing. There’s a rich irony in the fact that Wolverine is older than Scott (even if we don’t know how old yet), and still less mature. Wolverine’s obsession with Jean seems to come out of left-field, and his internal thoughts read like bad poetry from a love-struck thirteen-year-old. “Ain’t never cared about anybody,” the pint-sized powerhouse reflects. “I always liked bein’ a loner.” Of Jean, the angst-ridden outsider explains, “I lived my whole life not knowin’ what love is — an’ not carin’ either. Till I met you.”

Spreading her wings…

In many ways, Wolverine comes across as something of a petulant child in his affection for Jean. His attraction is intense, and he’s quick to chide Scott for accepting her loss far too easily. While Scott seems to accept his love is probably dead and get on with putting the pieces back together, Wolverine wallows in his own self-pity. And then latches on to the next warm-blooded female he can find, courting a young Japanese lady with the same passion and intensity he once reserved for Jean. Scott, in fairness, does flirt with Colleen Wing, but with nothing approaching the young intensity – and even then he’s more practical and cautious. In contrast, Wolverine is a hot-tempered child, prone to tantrums.

It’s telling that the conflicts Claremont sets out in these issues are still playing out across the X-Men titles today. Jason Aaron’s Schism is a continuation of the ideological conflict between Logan and Scott on how to lead the X-Men, with Logan leading from without and Scott seeking to direct from outside. Hell, one can even see the hints of the future divide between Cyclops and his former mentor, Professor Charles Xavier, with Cyclops wanting to be seen as a leader in his own right, while Charles refuses to treat his team as anything other than spoilt children in need of his direction. Developments like these seem to flow naturally from the setup Claremont establishes here, and I think the writer deserves credit for creating such a rich tapestry of character dynamics – so rich it’s still being drawn upon by his successors.

Live free or psi…

In fact, one can even see hints of the characterisation that Mark Millar would bring to Charles Xavier in Ultimate X-Men and the approach adopted by Ed Brubaker in Deadly Genesis. Under Claremont, Charles Xavier begins to gradually develop from a plot device and cardboard cut-out authority figure into a far more complex character. Claremont gives us an issue devoted to an episode from the character’s past, giving his a hint of Charles in action. More than that, though, Claremont adds the first blemishes to the psychic’s “Saint Charles” persona. This is the version of the character who refers to Cyclops as an ungrateful “cur” for daring to question his mentor. This is a Charles who is already keeping dangerous secrets from his team, setting a precedent for things to come.

“I’ve been with the Professor since the beginning and this is the first I’ve heard of your ‘Mutant Research Centre’,” Cyclops remarks to Moira MacTaggart. Given the crisis caused when “Mutant X” escapes, it’s hard to argue Professor X’s secrecy was prudent. We’re even treated to the personification of his darker impulses, with the externalisation of the Professor’s internal conflict – perhaps a predecessor to Grant Morrison’s Cassandra Nova – “the Mr. Hyde to my Dr. Jekyll.” This is a Charles Xavier who served in the Korean War and had his own adventures before forming the team, but also a man of such upper-class privilege that he drives a Rolls Royce and arrogantly assumes he has absolute authority over his young charges. Xavier is perhaps the least developed lead in Claremont’s run, spending quite a bit of time off-planet, but there’s still a hint of complexity there.

Taking on the Master of Magnetism with a skeleton made of metal? Wolverine never was too sharp…

In fairness, it’s still early days. Though Claremont has at least alluded to a lot of the characterisation that would define his run, there’s still the odd exception to be found, and it can be quite jarring. Perhaps Claremont’s definitive characterisation of a pre-existing character, the addition of Magneto’s tragic holocaust back story, is yet to even be hinted at within these pages. Still, the Master of Magnetism does get the odd moment of character enhancement here and there, even this early in Claremont’s tenure.

There’s a nice (if slightly strange) moment where we join the villain, not seen for issues, chillaxing on his orbital asteroid. Magneto’s kicking back, fixating on his foes, as supervillains tend to do. He’s halfway through his afternoon glowering session when a convenient computer error shows us an image of his former wife. Hm. I wonder if that’s going to be relevent later on. Still, it gives us a bit of insight into the character, and hints that perhaps the reason he’s so intent on proving mutants are superior is because he was a complete and abject failure as a human being. After all, Magda ran away “a long ago, when I still believed I was… only human.”

“Master of Monologuing”, more like…

But enough of that. Let’s move away from the adults, and talk a little bit more about the whole “coming of age” thing that really allowed Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men to stand away from the pack. I think that Uncanny X-Men really stands out when compared against most of Marvel’s output at the time, because it was a book that was consciously aimed at a slightly higher age group than most of the pack. Claremont seemed to be writing the book for teenagers, rather than pre-teens. You could discuss the various aspects of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men designed to appeal to slightly older readers (from Wolverine’s “I’m a tough-as-nails badass” attitude that made him the team’s oldest mental teenager through to a whole load of romantic angst), but I think the defining teenage facet of the book was the somewhat surreal sexuality that Claremont fed into the book.

Okay, there is a whole host of genuinely surreal stuff going on here, like the recurring mind-control/slavery and dominant/submissive sort of thing that Claremont would repeat throughout his run. There’s no denying that the author has a “thing” for strong women – one of the most refreshing aspects of the series was the way that the team’s two biggest offensive hitters were female – and Storm’s frequent desire to shed her clothes at the slightest opportunity adds to the heightened sexuality of it all. It’s very strange. Even before the Hellfire Club arrive with Emma Frost in all her white lingerie, there’s a definite sense that this is a very “kinky”comic book, despite the fact that nothing too filthy transpires.

Melting Ms. Frost…

Admittedly, comic book heroes and villains always wore gear that looked more than a little fetishised (skin-tight leather and masks will create that effect), but Claremont and Byrne pushed it up to eleven when it came to the Hellfire Club. Despite how ambiguous the text might have been, there’s now way that the “gentlemen’s club” was simply about business and political interests. The henchmen look like the gimp from Pulp Fiction, for crying out loud, while Emma Frost looks at risk of catching a cold (and a whip seems like a weapon of choice). It’s telling that Frost’s first command on subduing the team is “strip them”, before she imprisons the almost-naked teens (and Wolverine) in what look like “go-go” cages.

That’s before we even get started on the whole “subverting”of Jean Grey by Jason Wyngarde, which sees the redhead trapped in what seems to be a steamy eighteenth century romance novel. It’s telling that, in the fantasy, Jean transforms from a fully-dressed lady to a corset-and-stockings-clad temptress the moment that the pair marry. This isn’t sexual subtext. This is sexual supertext, and it serves as one of Claremont’s more distinctive hallmarks.

Go-Go, Gadget X-Men!

All of this feels very confused, sexually, which I think is why it works so well. Especially if the book is aiming to “grow up” with its heroes (and readers) hitting puberty. Alan Moore’s Watchmen would go on to make a conscious link between dressing up in a silly costume and the sexual hiccups of superheroes, but there’s no denying that Claremont hit on the same ideas (albeit in a slightly less sophisticated manner). I don’t think that comparison is unwarranted and while the suggestion that the kind of person who might dress up in spandex might have a few “kinks” is hardly revolutionary, I think Claremont was among the first writers to toy with the idea so directly. At the same time, that sexual element (which is, to be honest, a lot more complex and fascinating than most “cheap” sexualisation used in comic books today) helped set Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men somewhat ahead of the curve.

Speaking of the Hellfire Club, the set-up and introduction of the organisation demonstrates one of Claremont’s stronger gifts as a storyteller, and one which really suits the medium: there’s a genuine sense that Claremont has a long-term plan, and that he knows where he’s going. I’ll talk a bit in later volumes about how this might not always be a good thing, but it works really well here. Perhaps it’s the interplay that Claremont has with John Byrne, or perhaps it’s a sense of restraint on a book he’s still relatively new on, but all the plot threads – whether concerned with epic drama or characterisation – seem to be going somewhere.

Cookin’ up a storm…

It’s literally years before we get pay-off on the damage done to the mysterious “Mutant X” cell during the conflict between Magneto and the X-Men, and the confrontation feels the better for the build-up (as the original story ominously remarks, “but that’s a story for another time”). The first appearance of Jason Wyngarde only takes place a few issues before the Hellfire Club make their move, but the famous (and sadly not included here) Dark Phoenix Saga is heavily foreshadowed and hinted at through most of this giant tome. Claremont would later take this sort of approach and run it into the ground, leaving countless threads dangling out of absent-mindedness or occasionally downright malice, but here it works just right.

Of course, you can see how these sorts of threads can eventually end up wound so tightly that they undermine (rather than contribute to) the appeal of the series – I’m not sure, for example, we needed to revisit the attempts by Juggernaut and Black Tom to kill the X-Men in order to draw Arcade into the story – but that would come later down the line. For now, there’s a sense that Claremont was truly shaping and defining a world for his characters to populate, one with recurring characters and ideas and motifs. It was under Claremont that the X-Men really evolved into a cohesive universe of their own.

Testing Colossus’ metal…

It’s frequently argued that the X-Men might as well occupy their own little comic book universe. “Y’know, Xavier, I always felt that your school was far too insular,” Jean’s father remarks, and I’m sure many fans echo those thoughts. Sure, the mutants will occasionally take part in a gigantic crossover, or we’ll get a panel of two of the Fantastic Four or The Avengers in a suitably epic plotline, but – for the most part – Marvel’s resident mutants seem to find themselves forever isolated from the mainstream goings-on. Not that I’m going to complain about such things, I’ve never been fond of the idea that you should have to read a collection of books to follow a single thread, and I think that a shared universe makes people like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers look bad for tolerating the near-endless human rights violations that Charles Xavier’s students find themselves subjected to. To be honest, you could probably legitimately make the case that one of the reasons the franchise has remained so independent is because Chris Claremont developed such an expansive supporting cast that overlap with the rest of the Marvel Universe was seldom necessary.

However, the writer repeatedly demonstrates that he does like the idea of a vast shared universe. In fact, this section of Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men is perhaps the closest that the mutants have come to being wired into the larger Marvel Universe. Throughout Claremont’s tenure, he was fond of drawing in various supporting characters from other books and giving them a home among the X-Men – Sabretooth and Mystique are among the more iconic creations he drafted in from other titles, who went on to become associated with the franchise. Here, Claremont has Jean Grey move in with detective-for-hire Misty Knight, and has Cyclops flirt with Colleen Wing. The team face the former herald of Galactus. Storm visits Harlem and has a brief encounter with an endearingly blaxploitation Luke Cage (“what’s a righteous lady like you doin’ in a dump like this?”). In fact, for the annual collected here, Claremont even borrows the Avengers villain Arkon.

Do the X-Men work best in their own little bubble?

Hell, an entire arc is devoted to tying up loose ends from the recently cancelled Ka-Zar, a series about jungle men living in Antartica with pet tigers. It actually feels incredibly conspicuous and forced, especially because Claremont is never especially clear about what is going on. While you can follow the story, it feels like the issues were intended to close out a story that began in another book. In fairness to the editors, they accept as much in subsequent letter columns, and it’s the last time we see that sort of outside continuity hijack the series.

Another aspect of Claremont’s writing that works especially well is the fact that he manages to inject a great deal of uncertainty into the book. Superhero comics are fairly conventional forms of entertainment, and are mostly predictable. Batman will always win (at least in the long-term). Superman won’t stay dead. Peter Parker will always, ultimately, be broke and unlucky. While the stories collected here don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel or force me to pick up my jaw off the floor, there’s a sense that anything could potentially happen, which is hard to come by in a book like this. Although the roster remains (mostly) static, Claremont skilfully fosters just a hint of doubt as to whether every member of the team will survive every mission.

Team players?

The early death of Thunderbird is brutal, and the character has been one of the few Marvel characters to remain dead throughout the years (it helps that he wasn’t around long enough to establish a cult following). Of course, the Native American team member had to go, because he simply wasn’t interesting (his core personality and role on the team was already take by Wolverine, and his power set wasn’t unique, as one letters section concedes), but his death still reads as something of a shock. It happens just early enough in the title to knock the audience just a little bit off-balance, just like the arrogant Sunfire’s departure from the team. While we know from pop culture history that Cyclops, Jean and Wolverine are all still around and working with the X-Men, there’s enough room to build a sense of ambiguity around lesser-known characters like Banshee or Moira MacTaggert. We know that death may await the team, because most of them are new and “it comes with the uniform.”

I honestly can’t believe I got quite this far without discussing Claremont’s artistic collaborators. The first half of the book is illustrated by Dave Cockrum, who really doesn’t get enough credit for his artwork. It’s stylish and smart, and it really shines when he’s asked to do something creative (in many ways, Xavier’s nightmare looks like something from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing). I think that this section of the run gets a bit of a bum deal because both writer and artist were still really finding their feet. Claremont would find a much greater synergy with his later artists, like John Romita Jr. or Marc Silvestri or Jim Lee. That doesn’t mean that the pair don’t work well together, it’s just that it seems like the series is really only finding its feet by the time Cockrum departs.

The X-Jean…

And then John Byrne turns up. I won’t bore you with any observations about how the man is a fantastic artist, because you probably know that already. His artwork just really works with the title. There’s an argument that the series was at its creative peak when Byrne and Claremont were working together (with Byrne co-plotting), and I can definitely see the logic in that position. I think most would concede that the best work by the pair was actually just past the end of this lavish omnibus with stories like The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past, but there is a wonderful energy to the two working in tandem that is just hard to beat.

Speaking of which, where the hell is the second volume of this collection? This was one of the very first omnibus editions, released back in the day, and we’ve seen countless ones since. With some truly iconic comic book stories ahead, I can’t see why Marvel wouldn’t release the next big book. Especially since the X-Men universe has actually been fairly well collected, with every issue before this collected in omnibus, and the end of Claremont’s run (with Jim Lee) is also in this format. Hell, most of the big crossovers like Inferno or X-tinction Agenda are also available in big oversized volumes. I doubt my voice will make a difference, but, for what it’s worth: c’mon, Marvel, we’re ready!

Parting shots…

I don’t think that Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men represents comic book perfection. To expect perfection from one writer over seventeen years is to expect the impossible. However, I do think it’s important. Without Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, modern comic books would look a lot different. I don’t think we would ever have got Frank Miller’s Daredevil or The Dark Knight Returns, for a start. If you look at Claremont’s work, and that of his contemporaries, you’ll see the rest of the Marvel line slowly evolving to emulate what the British author was doing on Uncanny X-Men. Hell, you can still see the impact today.

More than that, though, it was fun. I know not every story is a winner, but even the clunkier ones still have a wonderful energy and a solid grasp of characterisation. Sure, it’s occasionally hokey, but it’s also occasionally superbly told. Even the silliest narrative diversions do pay off with nice moments, beautiful arcs and fun character interaction. What more could you want from a comic book?

You might be interested in or reviews of some of the rest of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run (and other assorted mutant-related work):

4 Responses

  1. Great review, and I’d definitely agree with you about Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past being the strongest Claremont/Byrne collaborations.

    That being said, between the omnipresent ellipses, terrible puns, and sheer lack of necessity of them, I’ve got to say that the captions for the pictures on this review (and most of yours, if I’m being honest) really wear me down.

    • Sorry about the terrible puns and ellipses, Drax… I shall strive for better puns and more exclamation marks!

      (I kid. I am thinking about phasing them out, but I like stupid puns far more than I should. And I think my prose can be quite dry without them.)

  2. I read a handful of issues ( around #159 – #170 ) when I was a kid and I loved it . Cockrum was great . I think I am opposite to you in that I love the cosmic stuff . I will always associate the X-Men with cosmic stuff , Lilandra and the brood etc . I recently bought X-men vol 1 omnibus hoping to get some of that nostalgia … it was a real chore to get through I am afraid . I don’t know what to say , maybe I don’t have the kid in me anymore but I do know I like some comics still today but this omnibus is … well it’s terrible . I hate to say it but that’s how I feel . Kind of very one-dimensional characters , silly dialogue , silly scenarios . I like your very honest review though btw . I am going to continue reading Vol 2 and Vol 3 , hopefully it gets better .

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