Some years back, I did a post about the “eras” of the X-Men, and this was part of the “superhero” era of the X-Men. This is as close as the book ever came to a straight-forward superhero book, but that doesn’t mean it’s not awesome!
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont (writer), John Romita Jr. (penciler, issues #182-185, 187-197, 199-200), Barry Windsor-Smith (penciler, issue #186; artist/colorist, issue #198), Dan Green (inker, issues #182-185, 187-188, 190-197, 199-200), Terry Austin (inker, issue #186), Steve Leialoha (inker, issues #189, 194), Glynis Wein/Oliver (colorist, issues #182-197, 199-200), Christie Scheele (colorist, issue #186), Tom Orzechowski (letterer), and Rick Parker (letterer, issue #199).
Published by Marvel, 19 issues (#182-200), cover dated June 1984 – December 1985.
Some SPOILERS below, I guess. Be warned! You can also click on the images to make them bigger, because that’s just how we roll around here!
(Obviously, if you’re going to get the X-Men, you’re probably going to try to get every issue, something I would definitely encourage. But if you really don’t want to do that, I’m going to explain why issues #176-181 are missing from this post. Fret not!)
After Paul Smith left Uncanny X-Men and John Romita Jr. came on board, Claremont once again floundered just a bit while he got used to Romita a little. Each artist is different, naturally, and it seems like Claremont does need to get in sync with his artists before things can really take off. There’s not really anything wrong with issues #176-181, and if you read them, they’re perfectly entertaining, but they seem a bit … off. In issue #176, Scott and Madelyne crash their plane on their way to their honeymoon and Scott has to fight a giant octopus. In issue #177, Mystique trains to fight the X-Men. In issues #178, Mystique and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants attack the mansion and the Morlocks kidnap Kitty. In issue #179, the Morlocks remind Kitty that she promised to stay with Caliban if he helped the X-Men, but he releases her from the vow when he realizes she won’t be happy with him. In issue #180, Kitty and Storm have a heart-to-heart, and the X-Men get sucked into Secret Wars. In issue #181, they return from Secret Wars and help drive a dragon away from Japan. Nothing terrible, but the presence of Secret Wars in the mix is a disturbing harbinger of things to come, as the X-Men kept getting caught up in the big Marvel events, making the issues #182-200 a bit disjointed (especially when they go off to Asgard to have their adventures between issues #199 and 200, which is ridiculous). But in the issues I’m writing about, Claremont seemed to be able to shift a bit more fluidly with the necessities of the greater Marvel Universe, and the first time he did, prior to these issues, it was a bit awkward. Similarly, in these early issues Romita’s art isn’t quite as good as it would become. He’s inked by Bob Wiacek, his father, and Brett Breeding, and not until Dan Green comes on board does his art really take off. Green is probably the second-best inker Romita Jr. ever had (Al Williamson, I would argue, is the best), and once he and Romita formed a good team in issue #182, the book becomes much better. Plus, Claremont seemed to find his focus, and while these issues are the most “super-heroic” of his X-Men run, they’re also when he really begins to lean into the mutant hysteria of the greater Marvel Universe. Claremont isn’t the most subtle of writers (heck, superhero comics aren’t built to be subtle), but he really sank his teeth into the mutant prejudice angle, and while he had dabbled in it before, naturally, in these issues it really comes to the fore.
The other thing that Claremont does is focus on the other X-Men more than the Big Semi-Feral Canadian In Our Midst. By this time, Wolverine was a bona fide superstar (his solo series didn’t launch until 1988, but he probably could have supported one in 1985), and Claremont didn’t really need to do too much with him anymore. Early on in this run, he and Kitty go off and have an adventure in Japan (I’ve read the mini-series, but I don’t think it’s worthy of being included here), and he’s once again out of the book for a while. When he gets back, he’s often in the background. This was smart – despite Wolverine’s popularity, he works quite well as the strong, silent type, offering advice occasionally – as he does famously in issue #196 when Kitty foolishly tries his cigar – but generally staying in the background until he feels like unleashing on someone. Claremont builds up the other characters in these issues, making this not only a solid team book, but one in which the characters are interesting in their own right. Prior to this run, he hadn’t really done too much with Nightcrawler and Colossus, even though they were part of the “original” group of “new” X-Men. During Secret Wars (which I haven’t read and feel no particular need to), Peter gets a new girlfriend who is then killed off (Jim Shooter wrote Secret Wars, but at that point he was Claremont’s boss, so if he wanted to give Peter a girlfriend and then kill her off, Claremont probably couldn’t object too strongly), and Claremont deals with the fall-out of that when Peter (foolishly?) tells Kitty about it. Until that time, Peter and Kitty had been flirtatious but nothing more, and it’s true that at this point, Peter was 19 and Kitty was still 14, so their romance at this time was always quite chaste, but Claremont ups the ante just a bit by making Kitty more devastated than we would have expected. This conflict between them drives their stories over these issues, and Claremont does a nice job showing how they heal. In issue #183, Peter “breaks up” with Kitty, which pisses Logan off, so he takes Peter to New York (with Kurt) for a lecture while Kitty leaves the team temporarily. Both threads are handled quite well – again, Claremont wrote teenagers really well in this time, so Kitty’s reactions to Peter’s statement are well done. When she talks to Ororo about leaving, she asks how she can compete with a ghost, which is an excellent insight, and she tells Ororo that she hates Peter with all her heart, but in the next breath she says she loves him. Meanwhile, Logan is lecturing Peter, who’s not taking it very well. Logan points out that it’s easy to love when there are no consequences – Peter can love the girl from the alien planet because she’s dead, while Kitty is growing up and things were getting serious with her (again, the age difference doesn’t come up too much, but Logan does say that they were talking about marriage, which … is a bit icky). Nothing gets resolved with words because Peter accidentally gets in a fight with the Juggernaut, which Logan watches with delight. After the fight, he points out that she was ready to marry Caliban to save Peter, and he never even thanked her. Kurt points out how harsh that was, but Logan doesn’t care. It’s a great issue, not only because Romita draws a great fight, but because Claremont gets at the heart of teen (and even adult) romance and what it should mean to love someone unconditionally.
Kitty goes off and has her Japanese adventure, and when she returns, Claremont incorporates her growth into the regular series. It’s a fascinating shift – Kitty seems grown up, while Peter acts more like a child, despite their age differences. Kitty is more confident and willing to speak her mind, and she even acts as team leader briefly in issue #195. Finally, they reach a detente in issue #197, when they’re kidnapped by Arcade. Peter pours his heart out to Kitty, saying part of his love for his dead girlfriend is guilt for having survived when he couldn’t save her, and he thinks he has saved Kitty from death, which brings about his epiphany. It’s not Kitty, though, just one of Arcade’s robots, but Peter feels better having said it out loud, and he and Kitty begin to rebuild their friendship. It’s a nice arc for Peter, mostly, and it allows Claremont to pull back on what was, let’s face it, somewhat of an untenable and even creepy situation. Until he could allow Kitty to become an adult, having such intense feelings for someone significantly older than she wasn’t the best strategy, even during a time when that kind of thing wasn’t as frowned upon as it is today. But it makes Peter a more interesting character, as well, as he shows some of the same growth from lovestruck boy to mature man.
Nightcrawler experiences some change, too, although Claremont never quite seemed to know what to do with Kurt, even though he used him in Excalibur fairly well after Kurt left the X-Men. In this run, Kurt becomes team leader after Ororo loses her powers and goes back to Africa, and the refreshing thing about that is that he’s not a particularly good team leader. He manages to get Rogue to activate her “sixth sense” power that she stole from Carol Danvers, but then jokingly asks for a kiss from Rogue, because Nigthcrawler sees himself as Errol Flynn and that’s what Errol Flynn would do. He forgets, of course, that Rogue can’t touch anyone, and as this is on his first outing as team leader, it doesn’t set a good precedent. He fails miserably when James Proudstar takes over NORAD mountain in issue #193, and is bailed out only because Proudstar really doesn’t want to kill Xavier. Kitty and Rogue save the day when Nimrod attacks in #194, and he’s not even present in issue #195. In #196, Claremont has him visit a priest, the first indication, I think, of his deep religious faith, an interesting component of his character that has never been properly explored, and it isn’t really here, but at least Kurt has a spiritual advisor for when he meets god-like beings like the Beyonder. Unfortunately, he’s too busy with his crisis of faith that he isn’t around when Kitty, Rachel, and Xavier almost get killed. It’s a minor arc for the character, as it gets pushed a bit into the background by the momentous events happening to other characters, but Claremont is bold enough to make Kurt not a leader, something we don’t see too often in superhero books unless it’s with a random character who gets killed quickly. Kurt is a fine X-Man, but he’s just not a leader, and Claremont does a nice job showing us that without dumping too hard on Kurt.
Claremont also introduces Rachel Summers (Summers-Grey? Grey-Summers?) into the book at this time, which works for a while but seems to be an albatross for years afterward. Rachel is the young woman who helped throw Kate Pryde back into the past in issues #141-142, the justifiably classic “Days of Future Past” story. In issue #184, she appears in “our” time and gets attacked by Selene, the energy vampire (who becomes her personal nemesis) and meets the X-Men when they rescue her, but it’s not “her” X-Men because she went back in time to a different timeline (Claremont opened up a whole can of worms with that; couldn’t he have just said that preventing Senator Kelly’s assassination in issue #142 obliterated the “other” timeline?). Rachel is a telepath/telekinetic, and Claremont makes her a hothead, which adds some interesting elements to her character. Obviously, she reacts very negatively when Kurt mentions that Jean Grey is dead in issue #188 – that’s understandable, considering Jean is her mother – but her past as a “hound” – a mutant used to hunt other mutants – has given her post-traumatic stress disorder, and for most of her time with the X-Men (before she moves over to Excalibur), she doesn’t handle it well. She breaks into the Hellfire Club in issue #189 in an attempt to kill Selene, which is pretty foolish for someone who isn’t all that trained in the use of her abilities. She has a panic attack in issue #193 and is out of action for most of the issue, but she manages to acquit herself well when the team fights Nimrod in issue #194. Her PTSD comes more to the fore in issue #196, when she and Rogue rescue a mugging victim only to discover he was spray-painting anti-mutant graffiti on a wall. So Rachel is already in a tense mood when she activates the “bomb” in Xavier’s office, which turns her psychic energy back on her and causes her a great deal of trauma. She freaks out and almost kills Phil, the ringleader of the plot to kill Xavier, but Magneto stops her and talks her down, which does not make her very happy. Finally, in issue #199, she embraces the legacy of the Phoenix, which is something that Claremont knew he would have to deal with when he brought Rachel into the book. He doesn’t do anything with it right away, but it’s fascinating that he chooses to have someone as damaged as Rachel try to hold onto the power. It’s obvious that it will bring her nothing but grief, but Claremont did a good job showing why she might want such power, given the tragedies she had experienced in her life.
Over the course of these issues, Claremont did perhaps his best work with Rogue and Ororo, linking them early on in the run and then sending Ororo to Africa to discover herself while Rogue stayed on to grow as a member of the X-Men. Issue #182 begins with Rogue flying back to New York from Japan, and she’s in a great mood until she hears a message from Michael Rossi, who is in trouble on the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. Rogue simply takes off and breaks into the helicarrier, where Rossi is being tortured by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, one of whom is a Hellfire Club mole. She breaks him out (and gets framed for murder when the mole kills his own partner, who, to be fair, was kind of a douche) and takes him to Cape Cod to help him recuperate, and that’s when things start to break down. She loses her train of thought a few times, Rossi doesn’t recognize her (he knows she’s Rogue, but they’ve never met) even though she speaks of him as an intimate friend, she’s speaking with a Boston accent even though she’s from the South. Suddenly, she realizes that she’s not who she thinks she is, and Rossi “helps” her along by grabbing her and telling her forcefully that she’s not Carol Danvers, with whom he was once intimate. She freaks out and runs onto the beach, where she tells Rossi everything about her fight with Carol and why she rescued him. He … does not take it well:
It’s a terrific emotional gut punch after the joy Rogue felt at the beginning of the issue, and it signals that Claremont is ready, at least a little, to delve more into the consequences of Rogue’s actions. He’d already done a little when she joined the team because she believed Xavier was the only one who could help her, and we saw the reaction Carol herself had to Rogue’s leaf-turning, but Claremont hadn’t had a chance to get into what it means to absorb someone’s entire life. With this excellent issue, he begins to show that Rogue is not right, and this drives the plot for a few issues. Issue #183 is the famous Colossus-Juggernaut fight, but Claremont does show Rogue in the Danger Room, pushing herself too far before Ororo rescues her. Ororo wants to help, but Rogue rejects it. In issue #184, Claremont introduces Forge, a mutant who can make anything, and he’s working on reverse-engineering a weapon of Rom’s that can take superpowers away. Finally, in #185, the government decides to track down Rogue and shoot her with the gun, as they are convinced she killed the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Rogue has left the X-Men and headed to Mississippi, where Ororo finds her. She offers to let Rogue take her powers freely, and Rogue experiences what it’s like to be Storm. Before the powers fade, though, the government agents attack her, and she defends herself, but she can’t control the weather powers as well as Ororo, and things get out of hand. At one point, Rogue thinks about saving a tugboat crew and believes that’s Ororo’s mind overriding hers, but she learns that Ororo had already regained her powers, and Claremont is pointing out that Rogue is transforming into a true hero. She and Ororo help the tugboat, but that only allows Henry Gyrich – the government’s main toady – to use the weapon. Storm knocks Rogue out of the way, though, and gets shot, losing her powers. Claremont drops the idea of Rogue going insane after this – one of the weaknesses of Claremont’s run is that he would dust ideas off, use them for a while, and then ignore them until it was once again convenient not to – but we can infer that her realization that she is becoming a better person calms her down, and she becomes a much more integrated part of the team, despite still not knowing how to handle her power. In issue #194, she comes up with the novel solution and taking all of her unconscious teammates’ powers to defeat Nimrod, and she even has a positive attitude about the world in issue #196, when she’s trying to convince Rachel that things aren’t as bad as in Rachel’s world. Rogue becomes a hero in this run, and the best part about it is that Claremont makes it feel organic, as she works through her anger and eventually comes out the other side.
The best character work that Claremont does in these issues is with Ororo, whom he obviously liked as a character before this, but once he decided to take her powers away, Storm really comes into her own. Claremont’s work to mature her during the Paul Smith run continues in these issues, as Storm is the true team leader (in contrast to both Scott earlier and Kurt later; she’s far more compassionate than Scott and far more competent than Kurt), reaching out to Rogue when Rogue needs it, finding her in Mississippi, offering to let Rogue use her powers, and saving Rogue when Gyrich tries to shoot Rogue with the power-neutralizing gun. Just that would be a terrific arc for Ororo, but Claremont does much more. Issue #186, “Lifedeath,” is the first of a few collaborations with Barry Windsor-Smith, a 40-page love story between Storm and Forge, as the inventor takes Ororo back to Dallas and his home so she can recover from losing her powers, and the two grow very close as he helps her. Then, of course, she learns that he built the weapon that took her powers away, and their budding romance is destroyed, although the feelings are still there. Claremont does a nice job in the issue, with his customary verbosity always present, naturally, but in the service of a heart-rending story of a woman who has lost the inner core of her being but still needs to move on. Ororo contemplates suicide, slowly heals, worries about whether Forge will think she’s pretty (which Claremont cleverly undercuts almost immediately), is betrayed, and sees the depths of Forge’s pain, all in one issue (plus, the X-Men are looking for her, but the extra length allows Claremont to get that in there, too). She rejects Forge but embraces herself, and walks away proudly. It’s a crucial issue in Ororo’s development, taking the rebel from Paul Smith’s run and turning her into more of an adult.
In a finite story, this would be the dramatic ending, but one of the great things about serialized fiction is that, like life, there are no easy endings, so issue #187 picks up right where #186 leaves off, with Ororo walking away in a torrential rainstorm. Instead of leaving Forge behind forever, she’s forced to go back inside his building and fight Dire Wraiths, and Claremont does a superb job showing how she’s still formidable even without her powers. Eventually the X-Men come to her assistance, but it’s still impressive to see how well she handles herself. She gets a final word and kiss-off of Forge, and finally gets to walk away. But she also decides that she has to leave the team and the country and head back to Africa, which she eventually does (after Kulan Gath takes over Manhattan in issues #190-191, which delays her a bit). While in Africa, she saves a woman from the unwanted attentions of Andreas Strucker and earns the wrath of both he and his sister, Andrea, the quasi-Nazi scions of Baron von Strucker and, when they join hands, the awesome mutant villains Fenris (I’ve always dug Fenris – don’t judge me!). Later, Andrea Strucker takes a shot at her, winging her and leaving her to die in the bush. She doesn’t die, of course, and she manages to make it across the desert, not before hallucinating about her teammates and Forge and contemplating suicide. She finds an overturned truck and a pregnant woman, who’s trying to return to her village. When she does, Ororo helps her give birth, which prompts the oldest man in the village to head out into the desert to die because the village can’t support a new mouth to feed, so when someone new is born, the oldest has to die. Claremont does a nice job showing the effects of industrialization on the African people, condemning those who came to Africa and exploited the natives but not letting the natives completely off the hook, either, as the elder tells Ororo that the natives didn’t use the land properly, as they quickly cast aside their old ways in pursuit of an easier life. For a mainstream superhero book, it’s a fairly nuanced look at the problems in Africa, and the old man’s speech prompts Ororo to realize that she has been neglecting her responsibilities and wallowing in self-pity following the loss of her powers. She returns to the team via Asgard (in the New Mutants crossover that has to be a post for a different day), ready to take up her position in the X-Men again. It’s a fantastic arc for the character, and Claremont wrote it very well.
Of course, none of this would have worked as well if Claremont and Romita hadn’t meshed. As I noted above, once Dan Green began inking Romita, he became “John Romita Jr.,” the artist everyone knows, even if we had seen signs of this Romita emerging during his run on Amazing Spider-Man, but it’s here that it blooms. Romita became kind of the house style of Marvel in the mid-1980s, despite his work never quite fitting in superhero comics – his figures are a bit more blocky and reliant on geometric shapes than the earlier Marvel “house stylists,” which were probably Pérez and Byrne, but Romita’s humanistic approach to figures struck a chord in readers, and his terrific work with body language and facial expressions – especially crucial in a soap opera like Uncanny X-Men, where Romita made us believe that half the cast was about to cry at any moment – made him a superstar. If we look at the first issue of this “run” (which, I know, begins earlier than #182), he moves Rogue from being in control and slightly cocky to happy to see Michael Rossi feeling better (it’s a false happiness, obviously, as Rogue is feeling Carol’s happiness, but Rogue is so dour so often that it’s nice to see her relaxed and enjoying herself) to confusion and mounting horror to utter despair. Romita is great at this sort of thing – when Kitty is holding back tears as Peter breaks her heart, only to crumble later; when Rachel calls Scott and can’t speak to him because she’s not ready to talk to a father who she thinks of as dead; when Storm leaves her hurt feelings behind and concentrates on being a bad-ass; when Rachel goes nuts because she “hears” that Jean Grey is dead; when Kurt berates himself because he asked for a kiss from Rogue, not remembering what it would do to her; when James Proudstar can’t bring himself to kill Xavier; when Andrea Strucker is enjoying shooting Ororo just a bit too much; when Andrea herself is terrified that she’s about to get brained by a rock; when Xavier tells Magneto he has to run the school. All of these small moments make the characters real, even a villain like Andrea, who is always awful but in one panel, Romita shows that she has human feelings, too. While Claremont never met a panel he couldn’t litter with dialogue, Romita can make almost any character more subtle than that, which makes it easier to take Claremont’s verbosity.
(Check out the many moods of Romita!)
Of course, Romita is good at the big action, too, and it’s impressive that he’s able to give us huge set pieces while, through his character work, still make the stories resonate. The fight between Colossus and Juggernaut in #183 is a classic, and while most of us can’t relate to two almost unstoppable men destroying a building, we can relate to Peter’s pain as he looks to take it out on anyone, even a villain who’s just trying to get a drink and chase some tail (Peter unwittingly saves Marko’s life, as the woman he was chatting up is Selene, who drains life forces and would have killed Marko). The fight between Rogue and Ororo and the government agents in #185 (which isn’t really a fight; Rogue and Storm are just trying to escape but they need to rescue the tugboat) is excellent because Romita is able to show how crazed with hatred Gyrich has become, and the moment where Storm loses her powers is just a terrific drawing. Romita draws excellent Dire Wraiths, as his use of hatching makes them look both slimy and segmented, putting us in mind of giant insects even though they look nothing like insects. He has fun putting the superheroes into medieval costumes in the Kulan Gath story, and even though that’s almost a throwaway plot, it’s entertaining partly because Romita does such a nice job with a giant cast. His Nimrod is a classic Romita creation, all blocks and straight, clean lines, and Romita is able to get across in just a few pages how indomitable Nimrod really is. His big action pieces in #200 are great, as he gives us a good sense of the scale of the battles but also never loses sight of the individuals, so it remains a very personal fight. Green, as I noted, is excellent, too, smoothing Romita’s hard lines just a bit to soften the drawings, adding elegant hatching but never overdoing it, and giving everything a more tactile feel to it. We can see this when Green doesn’t ink Romita during this run, in issues #189 and #194, when Steve Leialoha inks him. Leialoha is a fine artist in his own right, but whereas Green balances Romita, Leialoha leans into Romita’s style, and the result is a harder, thinner edge to the lines, which lack the lushness of Green’s inks. Romita, throughout his career, seems to look better when he’s being inked by someone who balances him, so while issues #189 and #194 look perfectly fine, they lack the verve of the rest of the run. Romita’s spectacle works partly because Green is there to bring it down to earth just enough to make it quasi-realistic. In a superhero book, that’s important.
Claremont gave us a spectacle in issue #200, which is why I end this section with that issue. It was a turning point; Xavier was injured and needed to go with Lilandra to get healed, which Shi’ar technology could do in less than an hour, but due to an issue with celestial machanics, he ended up staying in space for over 70 issues, which is an eternity in comic book time. Magneto, whose turn from villain to hero is not covered in this comic (it largely occurred in New Mutants), takes over the school, even though he’s reluctant to do so (given the way the X-Men feel about him, that’s not surprising). Claremont, we now know, had the next 100 issues kind of plotted out in his head, but he’d never get to write it the way he wanted to – the introduction of James Jaspers in issue #200 is a nice foreshadowing of what was coming, as Jaspers was the reality-controlling villain from another dimension that vexed Captain Britain during Alan Moore’s run on that title, and Claremont wanted to bring him into the “real” Marvel Universe. So issue #200 is a watershed, as Claremont, never one to shy away from change, upended the apple cart once again, and set the X-Men on their most divisive journey yet. But that’s a post for another time!
Marvel published their black-and-white “Essential” volumes collecting these issues, but I can’t find any other collected editions of these specific issues. That seems crazy, doesn’t it? Oh, wait, there’s one of those “Epic Collections” with issues #189-198, which of course leaves out the early issues where Storm loses her powers. Amazon has it for Kindle, if you’re interested. That’s pretty insane – Claremont’s work on X-Men should be collected in correct order and should be in print all the time, but I guess Marvel knows what they’re doing. Anyway, if you haven’t read these issues, I guess you’re going to have to go back-issue diving. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially when you get such fine comics!