Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont & John Byrne Review – Omnibus 1 & Masterworks 1-4

Posted on Posted in Comic Books, Reviews/Commentary

 

 

“Uncanny X-Men” was a continuation of the long-running “X-Men” title that started in 1963, beginning with issue #94. That original title had been cancelled for a few years in the early 1970s and then revived as a bi-monthly title for a few years in the mid-1970. Hence, its numbering has always lagged other Marvel titles such as “Amazing Spider-man” by around 100 issues, even though all of Marvel’s flagship titles started within a couple of years of one another.

The X-Men didn’t become extremely popular until the introduction of those ‘new’ X-Men characters in the mid-1970s. With the slowly-rising popularity of Wolverine and his new cohort, the title eventually became the top-selling title at Marvel from the late-1970s until the early 1990s. Even today, it obviously still sells quite well.

Chris Claremont was the writer on “Uncanny X-Men” near-continuously during the 1970s and 1980s and he’s considered a legend, although many readers remain divided over the quality of his writing after around issue #175 or so. He only left the title in the early 1990s after disputes with Marvel management shortly after the launch, with artist Jim Lee, of a second title – “X-Men.” Given how many X-Men titles have flooded the market over the past 15-20 years, it might be hard to believe that there was really only “Uncanny X-Men” on the shelves until that companion series hit in 1991.

The first omnibus – and corresponding masterworks collected issues #94 through #133.  This covered that rebirth and ascendancy period. I’d never read most after between #100 and #129. My greatest familiarity with the series was via random reprints from that early era or via collecting the title in the mid-#200s until the early-#300s.

I stopped regularly collecting monthly comic books right around 1993 or so and finally let “Uncanny X-Men” go. I’d spent the prior couple of years buying comics that I wasn’t really reading anymore, because the stories were awful and the art was getting messy. I was loyal to a fault and it was tough to break such habits.

The art of John Byrne or Dave Cockrum from this early period of “X-Men” struck me as simplistic and less exciting than I wanted at the time. Now, I see it as much more timeless, clean, and beautiful than the work of the early 1990s artists that I once enjoyed.

Go figure.

Giant-Size X-Men #1, Issues #94-100

The first few issues would be considered the “Second Genesis” era of the X-Men and they had to do with sorting out the dynamics and roster of the new team.

Given how often Marvel has re-printed “Giant-Size X-Men” #1, it was something that I was quite familiar with. I’d original read it as a “Marvel Milestone” facsimile edition, then later in the first “Uncanny X-Men” masterwork book, and again with the Omnibus. I didn’t mind re-reading it though, as the story involved an exciting rescue mission adventure that did a good job of introducing what would become the new, ongoing X-Men team.

“Giant-Size X-Men” #1 writer Len Wein’s contributions to the modern X-Men mythos is often forgotten, but he co-created many of the new characters that people still love today. In particular, he co-created Wolverine, which alone could be considered one of the great accomplishments of modern comics. However, he also served as a mentor of sorts for Chris Claremont, who went on to be the definitive X-Men writer. Mr. Claremont co-wrote issues #94 and #95 with Mr. Wein.

When they debuted, none of the new X-Men were full-formed as the iconic characters that they would later become. They weren’t drastically different, but it would take Mr. Claremont and collaborators Dave Cockrum and John Byrne time to help each character find their eventual ‘voices.’

Mr. Claremont, who took over as the sole writer with issue #96, wrote in a confident, almost cocky style. In becoming more familiar with Mr. Wein’s style, I could see how Mr. Claremont was approximating the ‘house style’ of Marvel in that era, but he had his own flare, for better or worse, for very verbose scripting.

Most fans recall issue #95 as being notable for the surprising death of Thunderbird. His death presumably took place to remind readers that ‘anything could happen’ in the new reinvention of the X-Men.

The “Phoenix Rising” arc that climaxed with issue #100 involved the apparent death of Jean Grey after she saved the team from a space shuttle crash. The buildup to that moment was pretty spectacular, with a sudden attack by the Sentinels in issue #98 and the initial capture of the entire X-Men team by Sentinels-creator Stephen Lang aboard a space station.

Issues #101-110

The first few issues in this group were fairly forgettable, despite offering run-ins with the Juggernaut and Magneto. The book had an inconsistent creative team though and it seemed to be sputtering.

One notable element of this period was Mr. Claremont’s building to the early “Phoenix Saga,” which played out in pieces during issues #101-108, give or take a few fill-in issues that weren’t of consequence. This arc shouldn’t be confused with the later, and more well-known, “Dark Phoenix Saga,” but it served to set up those later events. Essentially, readers learned that something was ‘different’ about Jean after saving the team during their earlier space shuttle escape.

There were also hints of something more ‘cosmic’ at play, with Professor X being contacted by the rebel princess – and his future love interest – Linandra. Eventually the now-well-known Starjammers appeared and the X-Men got directly involved in a cosmic civil war inside the Shi’ar Empire.

The arrival of artist John Byrne with issue #108 resulted in a startling charge of energy to the book. The book was already heating up with Mr. Cockrum handling the artistic duties, but Mr. Bryne brought an additional ‘x-factor’ (pun intended) with his work. I really liked Mr. Cockrum’s work, but most would agree that Mr. Bryne’s contributions over the next thirty or so issues on “Uncanny X-Men” would both establish him as a major comic book superstar and also take the title to the forefront of the comic book industry.

After the resolution of that first cosmic story, the action returned to Earth. “Alpha Flight” fans would notice the first elements of that team popping up in issue #109, although Wolverine’s back story had previously included some background information involving the concept of Canadian super-heroes.

Issues #111-121

“Uncanny X-Men” issue #111 wasn’t legendary by any means, but it was presented more skillfully than one might assume and provided a good example of exactly how ‘different’ this new “X-Men” was in its era.

The plot centered on the Beast having to figure out why the X-Men had seemingly joined a travelling circus in Texas. He eventually discovered that they were under mind control from the B-list villain Mesmero.

Readers’ first tip-off that something was amiss involved Jean Grey preparing for a date. We later learned that she was getting ready for a date with – you guessed it – Mesmero. Mind you, this was the girl whom virtually every longtime X-Men cast member seemed to chase after at some point, so Mesmero certainly had competition.  At least under normal circumstances.

Wolverine broke free of Mesmero’s mind control and tried to help Jean, but she was still under Mesmero’s mind control and, thus, was afraid of Wolverine. In an edgy twist, Jean assumed that Wolverine was going to kill her and suggested that he do ‘whatever he wanted’ to her, just so long as he didn’t ‘hurt’ her.

That was crazy innuendo for the time.

How did Wolverine fix everything in the end? Well, he beat the heck out of Jean of course, thus causing her to snap out of the mind control. Like I said, this wasn’t the kind of stuff that readers regularly sawn in late-1970s “Fantastic Four” or “Amazing Spider-man” comic books.

Mr. Claremont and Mr. Byrne continued to build momentum over the next few issues with a much more effective appearance by Magneto. That clash ended with the team inadvertently split up, with each half of the team thinking that the other half had perished. It was many issues before the split teammates were again re-united. Much angst ensued in the meantime with Cyclops thinking that Jean was dead and vice-versa.

Cyclops’s group spent the next few issues in the Savage Land in Antarctica, and that tended to be the focus of the story. After saving the residents of the Savage Land from Sauron and company, the group then saved Japan from submergence by the evil arms dealer Moses Magnum.

Alpha Flight appeared in its more-defined form after Scott’s group returns to North America from Japan. The Canadian government continued to be upset that Wolverine had left them and this was another attempt to ‘apprehend’ him.

Issues #122-131, Annual #3

The “Murderworld” arc was the next significant storyline, with Mr. Claremont re-using the villain Aracade from an earlier issue of “Marvel Team-Up.” Arcade was pretty gimmicky, but if one looked past the conceit that he should have simply killed his victims rather than toying with them, Arcade’s Rube Goldberg-like approach to assassination was entertaining.

Annual #3 had a stand-alone comic that featured a forgettable story but some unforgettable George Perez art. In that era, Mr. Perez and Mr. Byrne were both amongst Marvel’s top artists.

The “Proteus” arc had a compelling villain, but didn’t keep my full interest, perhaps going on a bit long. Proteus as a character was interesting, with some legitimate reasons to seek vengeance on the world. His ‘reality warping’ powers were also unique.

While the legendary “Dark Phoenix Saga” didn’t officially kick off until issue #129, it was hard to read the “Proteus” issues without noticing the first flickers of the long shadow that that later story would cast. There were also sub-plots introduced in those issues, such as Jason Wyngarde’s mental visits to Jean Grey starting in issue #122, that played directly into eventually unleashing Dark Phoenix.

Both the first omnibus volume and masterworks (volume four) ended at the same rather-unfortunate point, right in the middle of the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” The “Dark Phoenix Saga” went until issue #138, so by ending at #131, this volume closed right as that story began to get rolling. Of course, one of the saga’s antagonists, the Hellfire Club, made an appearance. Thus, both Sebastian Shaw and the White Queen had their entertaining moments before the end of issue #131.

Kitty Pryde was also introduced, along with Dazzler. Kitty, of course, would go on to become one of the most beloved X-Men. Dazzler had a popular series of her own at the time, but her star faded along with disco music. The character still remained active in the Marvel Universe though and she does have a number of modern fans.

Conclusions

It was very odd that Marvel didn’t have the foresight to balance the prior Masterworks volumes such that the “Dark Phoenix Saga” wasn’t interrupted. It was equally odd that the collections department chose to follow the same ordering when compiling the issues for the omnibus volume. A cynical person could argue that the decision had everything to do with money and getting collectors to buy two expensive “X-Men” volumes instead of just one. It’s hard to argue against that theory, since the alternative would be that Marvel was simply sloppy in not having better collected edition foresight.

The content that was included, namely the majority of the Claremont-Bryne run, has been long-considered ‘classic’ material though. There are a few forgettable issues, but the many notable issues balance the book out and make it worthwhile to invest one’s time and money into.

For people considering a purchase of this book, keep in mind that there have been at least two printings. The original printing had a glued binding that apparently opened up quite well. However, if a collector planned on paying the high prices that this book sells for, they would want to search out the second printing, which had a sewn binding. Given the large size of the book, it would be a good idea to have as strong of a binding as possible and a sewn binding provides extra durability for multiple readings.

 

Bibliography


Claremont, Chris. Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men – Volume 1. Marvel, 2009. Print.
Claremont, Chris, Len Wein, et al. Uncanny X-Men Omnibus. Marvel, 2006. Print.
Claremont, Chris. X-Men by Chris Claremont & Jim Lee Omnibus – Volume 2. Marvel, 2012. Print.
Claremont, Chris, Ann Nocenti, et al. X-Men: Proteus. Marvel, 2009. Print.
Claremont, Chris, Terry Austin, and Ann Nocenti. X-Men by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee Omnibus – Volume 1. Marvel, 2011. Print.
Claremont, Chris, and John Byrne. Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men – Volume 2. Marvel, 2010. Print.
—. Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men – Volume 3. Marvel, 2011. Print.
—. Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men – Volume 4. Marvel, 2012. Print.
—. Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men – Volume 5. Marvel, 2012. Print.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *