Four-Color Flashback: Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s ‘Uncanny X-Men’ #108-114

Welcome to our new column, “Four-Color Flashback,” in which we will occasionally discuss classic or interesting comic book runs. First up is the legendary 35-issue span encompassing Chris Claremont’s work with John Byrne on Uncanny X-Men. So legendary, in fact, that I’m amazed I’ve never read it. Claremont’s initial 16-year run on the book, from 1975 to 1991, has been so influential on not just the most successful superteam in the business, but also modern superhero comics as a whole, that at times it can feel like you’ve read the whole thing even if you’ve read nary a page. The four years from 1977 to 1981, during which John Byrne joined the series as penciler and co-plotter, are largely regarded as the pinnacle of Claremont’s work on the title. What with X-Men being in the air as of late, considering the release of X-Men: First Class and my recent purchase of the two hardcover editions of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run (itself a loving homage to 70’s-era Claremont), I’ve decided that now is as good a time as any to finally read the thing. If you’d like to play along, I’ll be covering seven issues a week for five weeks, starting with #s 108-114.

First, a little history on both myself and the X-Men. As a big comics fan, I’ve read many X-Men comics over the years, including some of Claremont’s later or more recent work. When I was younger, I cut my teeth on my dad’s comics collection, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve read some of the Claremont/Byrne stuff, as he owned his fair share of 70’s and 80’s X-Men. Though if I did, I don’t remember much beyond certain cover images. As for the X-Men themselves, before Claremont came along, well, Marvel’s mighty mutants were in dire shape. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who brought us so many of our popular superheroes, had created the pupils at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in 1963. The resulting 19-issue run, which I have read, is fun in the classic Lee/Kirby mold, and even introduced the series’ common sociopolitical themes, with the mutant-hating Bolivar Trask alerting humanity to the so-called “mutant menace” and creating the Sentinels to eradicate all mutant life.

Alas, unlike Lee creations such as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, the X-Men failed to catch on. By 1970, the series had been canceled, resurfacing nine months later as a reprint magazine. Then, in 1975, came Giant-Size X-Men #1, which reinvigorated the franchise by having Professor X assemble a new team to rescue the old one…who, with the exception of Cyclops and later Jean Grey, promptly quit the team in the series proper. The old team was fine, but the new one was dynamic and diverse, with characters whose powers seemed far more otherworldly than those of Angel or Iceman. Here was Colossus, a hulking Soviet whose body turned into metal; Storm, an African woman whose ability to control the weather had her worshiped as a god in her homelands; Nightcrawler, a demonic-looking German who could teleport to and fro; Thunderbird, a superhumanly athletic Native American. And then there was Wolverine, the pint-sized Canadian with adamantium claws who might just have been a homicidal maniac. The new team also consisted of old characters like Banshee, the Irishman with the sonic scream, and Sunfire, a flying plasma-blaster from Japan. Holding them all together? The X-Men’s original leader, the broody, moody Cyclops.

Well, he couldn’t hold them all together. In Uncanny X-Men #94, the first issue of the series with new material in five years, as well as Chris Claremont’s first issue, Sunfire quit. In #95, Thunderbird died. From there, Claremont began making promising changes both to the title and its characters. Instead of one-off adventures and two- or three-issue stories, Claremont began to weave intricate story threads into the tapestry of the standard superhero comic. Encounters with Eric the Red, the Sentinels, Black Tom Cassidy, Juggernaut, and Magneto all led to a space-bound epic foreshadowed by Xavier’s trippy fever dreams of the alien princess Lilandra. Most dramatically, Jean Grey underwent the transformation from cute Marvel Girl to all-powerful Phoenix after using her telepathic powers to protect her teammates from a solar flare upon returning to Earth. Jean died…then brought herself back to life. That’ll do a number on ya.

Which brings us to #108, John Byrne’s first issue. It took me longer to prepare for this column than I had anticipated because I dove into #108 only to discover that it was the final part of the X-Men’s intense foray into outer space to do battle with Lilandra’s evil brother, Emperor D’Ken. Story arcs didn’t always neatly divide themselves into issues of six like they do nowadays. Reading the book from Claremont’s beginnings and watching the great Dave Cockrum establish the bulk of these characters’ appearances will no doubt prove helpful in reading and writing about these issues, but it wasn’t necessary, strictly speaking. I have a feeling that even without the prior issues, I would have found #108’s “Armageddon Now!” to be an utterly thrilling superhero comic.

I mean, you’ve got the X-Men fighting aliens, which is never not awesome. That they’re joined by the Starjammers, one of Marvel’s more enjoyable B-teams, just sweetens the pot. In a dramatic touch, Phoenix mindscans the Starjammers’ leader Corsair, only to discover that he is Cyclops’ long-lost father. We see both the Avengers and the Fantastic Four at a loss back on Earth, because the universe blinks out of existence. I repeat: the universe blinks out of existence. Yeah. Shit gets real. To top it all off, here’s how the day is saved: Jean enters a neutron galaxy, becoming a literal flaming phoenix, and reknits an energy lattice. Claremont’s penchant for melodrama serves him well here, and the highest compliment I can pay Byrne is that in his first issue, Cockrum’s departure is barely noticeable. Byrne doesn’t really develop his own style here, but he does the story justice.

After the spacetravaganza, things cool down a little. Though, to the X-Men, a “little” is relative. #109’s “Home Are the Heroes!” is part-breather, part-set-up, as the team returns to Westchester and try to regain their bearings. Banshee finally reveals his true feelings to housekeeper/geneticist Moira MacTaggert–“Shut up, an’ kiss me, darlin’!”–who finds herself surprised to be kissing Sean right back. Ororo (Storm) tends to her plants, brewing up a summer shower for them in the attic. Meanwhile, Jean reveals the true nature of her new powers to her parents, who are more than a little freaked at their daughter’s omniscience. Peter (Colossus) tries and fails to put his experiences into words so that he can write a letter to his parents, while Kurt (Nightcrawler) prepares for a hot date. Scott (Cyclops) broods, because that is apparently his actual mutant power. As for Wolverine, things take an interesting turn when Weapon Alpha, an old comrade from the Canadian government, shows up. Wearing a battle suit he describes as “the ultimate product of Canadian technology” and calling Wolverine “Weapon X,” Weapon Alpha tries to subdue Wolverine and take him back to Canada, though he realizes he’s in over his head when Colossus, Storm, and Banshee intervene. Still, it’s the start of a very intriguing plot thread (and I’m sure most comics readers know all the eventual revelations pertaining to Wolverine’s origin, but I won’t spoil them here).

Unfortunately, it’s a thread that gets left to dangle for the time being. I’m reading the comics as individual issues, many of them original printings, and one of the coolest things about that is that I get to read the “X-Mail” letters column. In the lettercol for #110, Claremont explains that the issue is a fill-in with art by Tony DeZuniga in order to allow the creative team to keep the book on schedule. And that’s the thing: it feels like a fill-in. Hell, it starts with the X-Men playing baseball, which I’m pretty sure is the textbook definition of a fill-in. Then Iron Fist villain Warhawk shows up posing as a telephone repairman–really?–to gain entry into the X-Mansion before turning the Danger Room on the team. It’s all fairly boilerplate stuff, though it features some hilariously clueless policework from one Captain Delaney when trying to figure out how a bunch of schoolkids toppled a C.I.A.-trained assassin. His entire line of questioning consists of this exchange: “Warhawk is supposed to be unstoppable. So how’d you and your schoolkids do it?” “Luck, Captain Delaney?” “Why not? I wasn’t expectin’ a straight answer anyway. Be seein’ you, folks.” Marvel’s entire fictional police force should be ashamed of themselves.

The next few issues fare better for having a legitimate threat at their center: Magneto, the Master of Magnetism himself. He had duly defeated the new team in #104, and here follows former X-Man and current Avenger Beast as he tracks down the X-Men, brainwashed into being circus performers by Mesmero. Magneto disposes of Mesmero, hurling him out of the flying circus wagon he’s commandeered. Of course, Marvel in 1977 couldn’t condone cold-blooded murder even by one such as Magneto, so there’s a wholly unnecessary scene of some Mexican fighter pilots rescuing the evil hypnotist from his sure death. This time around, the team fares better against Magneto than it had before, but he still wins. He is almost defeated by Phoenix, who’s zapping his lifeforce, but he shapes magnetic forces around her, causing her to drain her own energy. And in a bit of clever thinking, he turns Wolverine’s claws on the Canuck.

The X-Men find themselves imprisoned inside Magneto’s Antarctic lair–which, by the way, is inside a volcano–where they’re strapped to chairs locked into their central nervous systems, rendering them unable to make a move. One of the complaints leveled against Claremont is that, in true Stan Lee fashion, he clutters every panel with words, denying the art a chance to speak for itself. The scenes of the X-Men trapped in Magneto’s chairs are good examples of this; instead of just letting Byrne show us how miserable and determined to break free the team is, Claremont shares their every thought with us. Which is good for keeping you in the moment, less so for dramatic power. In any case, through sheer force of will, Storm, once the finest thief in all Cairo, picks the lock (it’s a good thing she keeps picks in her headband). Phoenix links the X-Men’s minds, and they carry out a plan to defeat Magneto, which works pretty well until Phoenix blasts a hole in the roof, letting all the lava in. Kurt somehow thinks Magneto will agree to put them in a protective magnetic bubble, an idea which Magneto predictably laughs at as he flies to safety, thinking his enemies dead. Jean manages to get herself and Hank (Beast) to the surface, but the rest of the X-Men are left inside, presumably kaput.

Jean and Hank return to the school to tell Xavier that the team is dead. And contrary to what I said in that last paragraph, here Claremont says as much as can be said with as few words as possible. He narrates Jean’s walk to Xavier’s study, but in the following two panels, all she says is, “Professor? Charles…” Then there’s a silent panel of Jean comforting a sobbing Xavier, which packs a huge gut-punch simply because of how rarely Claremont leaves room for such silence. Of course, the team isn’t dead; instead, they’re chilling in the Savage Land, where dinosaurs and cavemen roam. In a cool sequence, Wolverine handily takes down a pterasaur. Throughout the series, Claremont shows obvious joy in getting to write Wolverine’s blunt, slangy dialogue, and when Kurt exclaims, “Mein Gott — from the looks of things, this beast never had a chance,” Wolverine’s perfect reply is, “Nope.” The team believes Jean and Hank to be the dead ones, and Storm, Cylcops, and the Jean-besotted Wolverine all mourn them in their own ways. Scott reflects on his loss by the lake, where he shaves his beard off, leaving only his mustache. When he looks in the water, he sees a reflection staring back at him: Corsair’s. It doesn’t take much for our little Mr. Broodypants to connect the dots. The issue ends on a cliffhanger as Storm has her life energy sucked out by the not-at-all-related-to-Tolkien Sauron, who finds her energy force so overwhelming that he turns into a, uh, were-pteranadon. I can’t decide if that’s brilliant, batshit crazy, or both.

My overall impression so far? It’s already easy to see why Claremont’s work on the title had such a huge effect on the medium, moving away from stand-alone adventures to character-driven epics. These early issues can at times be an uneasy mix of the two, with Claremont’s corny dialogue and excessive exposition distracting from some truly bold, layered storytelling. Claremont also goes overboard with the team’s multicultural dialects, Colossus calling people “tovarisch” every other issue and Nightcrawler shouting awesome things like, “Unglaublich!”  Don’t even get me started on how ridiculously accented Sean and Moira’s dialogue is. It’s nothing that truly hurts my overall enjoyment of the series–these are old-school superhero comics, after all, and there are some devices they can’t help but indulge in. Paul tells me, “[Claremont’s] wonky dialogue and verbosity settles into [a] more comfortable rhythm eventually. Or maybe I just got used to it.” I’m already suffering the same dilemma; I’d like to be able to say that Claremont’s way with words has already vastly improved from the Cockrum stuff, but it might just be that I’m becoming comfortable with it. Time will tell.

Byrne’s art, on the other hand, is nigh flawless. For his first couple of issues, he acted as a more-than-suitable replacement for Cockrum, but it’s during the Magneto arc that he truly finds his voice as an artist. It’s rich in detail without ever betraying the fantastic settings and events in the book. Byrne has a way of subtly expressing each character’s emotions: the maniacal glee in Magneto’s eyes as he explains his plan to the X-Men, the shock on Beast’s face when he discovers the new X-Men performing at a carnival, the unrestrained aggression in Wolverine’s every movement as he takes down the prehistoric beastie, etc. The monsters are grotesque, our merry mutants muscular and heroic. The action sequences call upon all manner of chaos and different mutant powers, and Byrne manages to deliver on every count. He is the consummate superhero comics artist.

As we move onto some of the more iconic storylines in the Claremont/Byrne run, as well as in all of X-Men lore, it will be interesting to see how Claremont refines his writing skills and if it’s possible for Byrne to turn in even better work. For now, I shall leave you with some stray observations and quotes:

  • Jean Grey’s been dead for some time in present-day comics continuity, so I had never really realized that she and Storm shared such a sisterly bond. To be fair, it sort of pops up out of nowhere, but so too do Wolverine’s secret affections for her. I can’t blame the guy, though; does it get much better than a super-strong, telepathic redhead?
  • Several times in these issues, Claremont uses “FRAK!” as a sound effect for Cyclops’ optic blasts. Of course, Battlestar Galactica has so thoroughly owned that exact phrase as a swear word that I couldn’t help but chuckle each time.
  • Sidenote: it is apparently impossible for me to type “Cyclops” without first typing “Cylcops.”
  • “An’ ye–Major Maple Leaf, or whate’er ye call yerself–“
  • Warhawk is telepathically contacted by his “master” upon breaking into the school, and though I think I know who it is, it’s one of the few interesting occurrences in an otherwise uninteresting issue.
  • When hypnotized by Mesmero, Jean apparently starts talking like a 1940’s gangster’s moll and Scott becomes a total douche.
  • “Kawabonga, sweet-ums!” I’m pretty sure they don’t spell “kawabonga” like that anymore. I’m also pretty sure it’s considered an awkward battle tactic to call a supervillain “sweet-ums” these days.
  • The nanny-bot that Magneto sticks the unmoving X-Men with is seriously terrifying. She’s like Rosie from The Jetsons if Rosie looked like she was fully prepared to scoop out your entrails at a moment’s notice.
  • “And for only the third time since she was a child, Ororo cries.” That’s so oddly specific I’m wondering if we might learn of the other two times.
  • Colossus’ main squeeze for decades has been a character we’ve not yet met, so it’s interesting to see him making googly eyes at Storm. Not that she’s not stunningly beautiful or anything.
  • After shaving his beard, Cyclops looks disconcertingly like R. Crumb.

See?

Next week: issues #115-121.

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