Let’s take a look at everyone’s favorite X-Men era! Don’t deny it!!!!!
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont (writer), Rick Leonardi (penciler, issues #201, 212), John Romita Jr. (penciler, issues #202-203, 206-211), June Brigman (penciler, issue #204), Barry Windsor-Smith (artist/colorist, issue #205; penciler, issue #214), Bret Blevins (penciler, issues #211, 219), Alan Davis (penciler, issues #213, 215), Jackson Guice (penciler, issues #216-217), Marc Silvestri (penciler, issues #218, 220-222, 224-227), Kerry Gammill (penciler, issue #223), Whilce Portacio (inker, issues #201, 204), Al Williamson (inker, issues #202-203, 211), Dan Green (inker, issues #206-208, 210, 212, 215-216, 218-223, 225-227), P. Craig Russell (finisher, issue #209), Paul Neary (inker, issue #213), Bob Wiacek (inker, issues #214, 224), Steve Leialoha (inker, issue #217), Glynis Oliver (colorist, issues #201-204, 206-226), Petra Scotese (colorist, issues #217, 219), Bill Wray (colorist, issues #226-227), and Tom Orzechowski (letterer).
Published by Marvel, 27 issues (#201-227), cover dated January 1986 – March 1988.
As usual, there are some SPOILERS here. Don’t say you weren’t warned! Also, you can click on the images to embiggen them, if you can’t see them clearly enough!
For many people, the classic stage of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men ended some time before this, either when John Byrne left the book, or when Paul Smith left the book, or when Professor Xavier was whisked off to space. Perhaps some people think the first part of this run, which ends with the Mutant Massacre, is the end of “classic” X-Men stories. But the stories after the Massacre, while a bit disjointed, are terrific, and show Claremont doing something that all writers should strive for – making changes in his work without regard for the consequences. After issue #200, Claremont decided to destroy his team. At this point, Uncanny X-Men was Marvel’s top-selling title, and Claremont had been writing it for about 11 years. He had all the power, and he used it to utterly wreck the team that readers loved. In the process, he wrote some of his most gripping stories. The latter-day Claremont X-Men is difficult to break apart, but this first section ends pretty definitively with “The Fall of the Mutants” story, as Claremont had already broken down the team, but then decided to kill them off (they got better!). It was a huge break from the established world he had created, and promised an interesting future. Throughout these two years of stories, that’s what readers got: uncertainty, confusion, fear, a break from the past and hope for the future. It was dizzying, and while there were some problems, it’s still amazing that Claremont not only did it, but managed to pull it off.
Part of the problem with this run is that having ascended to the top of the mountain, Claremont and the X-Men had become the standard-bearer for Marvel, which meant that Marvel tried to fit them into the larger Marvel universe (which they had always been a part of, of course, but which had never seemed that important to them) and also, they decided to expand the Mutant Universe, much to their detriment. The New Mutants was the first attempt at this, and Claremont wrote that book for a while, so he could keep them separate from the X-Men and also know what was happening in both comics so they wouldn’t contradict each other. Then Marvel, in their infinite wisdom, decided to resurrect Jean Grey and form X-Factor. Claremont didn’t write X-Factor, so he couldn’t coordinate with it quite as well, but he and Louise Simonson kept the books separate, and all was (sort of) well. But the temptation had set in, and it wouldn’t be long before ancillary titles were springing up all over the place. Some were terrific, no doubt (Excalibur‘s first year or so is excellent), but the point was that Claremont had become a victim of his own success, and Marvel saw dollar signs. This led to a dilution of the product, something we’re still dealing with 30 years later.
The plans for X-Factor were in place when Claremont wrote issue #201, the first issue of this run and the first after Professor Xavier left Earth. Issue #201 shipped on 8 October 1985. Fantastic Four #286, in which Jean Grey was (blech) resurrected, shipped a week later. X-Factor #1 came out a month later, on 12 November 1985. So Claremont knew that Scott Summers was going to be joining X-Factor, and so he basically had to figure out a way to get him there. So he turned Scott into a dick, a move that the character has never really recovered from. Issue #201 is a terrific, tense issue, as Scott fights Storm for the leadership of the X-Men, and Storm proves that even without her powers, she’s awesome. After the events of the previous few issues, the X-Men get a much-needed break, but that just means people have to talk to each other, and tensions boil over. Madelyne has given birth (look, it’s li’l future Cable on the first page of the comic!), but she did so alone, as Scott went off to Asgard to rescue the X-Men and then got blipped to France to fight Fenris in issue #200. Madelyne points out that everyone called her from Paris except Scott, and she gave birth on the kitchen floor of the X-Mansion without him. Later, Scott says he has to stay to lead the team now that Xavier is gone, and Madelyn rightfully calls bullshit on that. To compound his dickishness, Claremont gives them this exchange:
Not only is Scott being a dick, but Madelyne’s right – what skills does he have to earn a living? Take that, douchebag! She then asks if he’s so afraid that they can get along without him, another devastating body blow. “Is your life so hollow — your sense of self-worth so fragile,” she asks, “that you believe you’re nothing without them?! What about me, what about us?! My commitment to you precludes everything — are you telling me the same doesn’t hold true in reverse?!” Scott has no answer for this, which is perhaps for the best, and after he loses the leader-off to Storm, he wonders if he has any place with the team or Madelyne. Of course, he would soon ditch Redhead #2 and go back to Redhead #1, and Madelyne would disappear from this title for a time, until Claremont circled back around to her, sans baby, getting chased by Marauders. Despite her turning evil later (a necessity, given that then Scott could be somewhat exonerated retroactively), issue #201 makes it clear that Scott is an asshole, and he’s pretty much been an asshole since. It feels brutally real, which is what all great X-Men stories feel, because Claremont doesn’t necessarily care about making all of these people admirable, but the idea that Scott isn’t an asshole is no longer viable. As usual, it’s all Kurt Busiek’s fault!
After this break, Claremont decided that it was time to further fracture the group. In issues #202-203, Rachel goes to San Francisco and tries to kill the Beyonder, and the X-Men follow. She tries to become Phoenix and destroy the universe to save it (which makes sense, right?), and she steals (well, borrows) some of the life essences of the X-Men to gain even more power (some of them give theirs willingly; most don’t). Rachel and the Beyonder eventually learn the uniqueness of each life and how precious it is, so nothing happens, but two crucial moments occur in this issue: when the Beyonder blips the X-Men cross-country in their jet in issue #202 (they’re about to follow Rachel; he just makes it easier), he doesn’t bring Nightcrawler with them; and Rachel steals the life essences of teammates like Wolverine and Storm after Rogue and Kitty sacrifice theirs willingly. In issue #204 (unfortunately, one of the poorer X-Men issues of Claremont’s run), Nightcrawler bemoans the lack of “fun” in the X-Men anymore, as he wants to be the swashbuckling rogue again, but beings like the Beyonder make him question his faith in God and make the world too dire a place (this has always been the problem in superhero comics – how to reconcile a “God” when there are so many beings who are as powerful as “God”). Claremont is beginning to marginalize Kurt, and while character-wise, it’s an interesting development – what to do with a character who thinks about life one way when the direction of the series is changing? – it means Kurt is less and less part of the plan moving forward. Meanwhile, Rachel’s theft of the life essences of her teammates has dire consequences in the near future.
After a superb issue #205 (which I’ll discuss below), the X-Men get attacked by Freedom Force, the new government-sanctioned, renamed Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and it’s a solid fight issue. Another crucial moment occurs near the end, when Madelyne Pryor (although we might not know that yet, and she’s unnamed in this issue) is brought into a San Francisco hospital suffering multiple gunshot wounds. This is another small thread that becomes much more important a bit later on. In issue #207, we get the fallout from Wolverine’s fight in #205 (he’s in bad shape as his body recovers) and from Rachel’s decisions in #203, as the X-Men don’t quite trust her anymore. Rachel keeps dreaming about Wolverine attacking her, and it’s driving her mad, and in her despair, she decides to kill Selene, whom she blames for all her problems. Wolverine tracks her to the Hellfire Club and tells her that the X-Men don’t murder people, even though both of them have killed people before (which, he says, is different from murder). Wolverine isn’t strong enough to fight Rachel, but he goads her into getting close to her, and we get one of the more devastating endings to a mainstream superhero book you can find:
After this, there’s really no going back. Claremont begins the next issue with the X-Men appalled by Logan’s actions, but he keeps defending them. Rachel, severely wounded, finds two more people killed by Selene, and she attacks Wolverine in her Phoenix form. This is an age-old debate, one that superheroes have often because they actually have the power to do something about such dire threats to humanity, and Claremont does a decent job showing it from both angles. They try to track Rachel, but the Hellfire Club is also out looking for her, and the two groups come into contact with each other as they both find her at the same time. Rachel gets away, but the two groups are intercepted by Nimrod, the hunter-killer Sentinel from Rachel’s future, and that’s when things really get bad. Nightcrawler, believing he can pull the same stunt on Nimrod as before – teleporting a part of him away – goes against Storm’s orders to try it, but Nimrod figures it out and blasts Kurt as he’s about to start teleporting, and Kurt vanishes. Colossus manages to take Nimrod down, but before the X-Men can put an end to him, he teleports away, leaving two Hellfire Club members dead and Kurt nowhere to be found. Rachel, meanwhile, discovers Spiral and her Body Shoppe, which can remake someone completely but puts their soul in jeopardy, and Rachel becomes someone else and disappears from the comic for good. We don’t see Kurt again until almost the end of the next issue, #210, when he appears in a warehouse, getting harassed by a bunch of angry men. Peter, Kitty, and Illyana (Peter’s sister) find him and rescue him, talking down the angry dudes, but Kurt says he has lost his powers. Magneto, meanwhile, is considering an alliance with the Hellfire Club, as their strength will help the X-Men through what he believes are trying time ahead. This is the first glimpse we get in this comic of X-Factor, with someone whom Magneto believes to be Madelyne Pryor but is, of course, Jean Grey. This issue is also significant because it sets the stage for the final dissolution of this iteration of the team, the Mutant Massacre story that begins properly in issue #211.
Issue #211 is another gut-punch of an issue, one that Claremont did really well mainly because he was so familiar with the characters. He had spent time with them, so even though the only ones who die are a lot of random Morlocks and a bad guy, it still feels tragic because Claremont had done the legwork with regard to the Morlocks. No, Cybelle’s death early in the issue isn’t the most awful thing in the world because we never knew her, but just the idea of the Marauders walking into a large community of relatively unarmed folk and killing them all is horrific, and Claremont does an excellent job showing that. Of course, he juxtaposes it with some quiet scenes at the mansion – except for Kurt trying to teleport, all is pretty well, and nobody seems to care that Rachel has disappeared – that are ruined when one of the Morlocks manages to make it to the property and tell them what’s happening. They end up in the tunnels, where Riptide – who spins rapidly and flings razor-sharp ninja stars as he does so – gets the drop on Kurt, leaving him severely wounded and unconscious. Claremont also briefly lets us know that we’re in a crossover, as Cyclops fires an optic blast from off-panel at them but they are cut off from X-Factor before they can confront them. Then, Rogue’s power is neutralized by Scrambler, who takes away powers, and Harpoon, whose harpoons turn to fiery energy when he releases them, throws one at her to kill her. Kitty phases and jumps in front of the harpoon, but for some reason it still affects her, and she goes down. Colossus tries to reach her, but Riptide blocks his way, and that leads to this harrowing page:
Part of the impact of this page is precisely because Claremont had been writing the book for so long. He had done a good job showing us that Peter was a sensitive soul, one who always tried to find a peaceful solution, but this had pushed him too far. Peter had killed before, when he took out Proteus, but that had been disrupting energy, as Proteus no longer had a body to speak of. This is Peter grabbing someone by the throat and cracking his bones, and it’s still horrific, decades later. The Marauders take off before Peter can kill anyone else, but the X-Men are horribly wounded – Kitty can’t become solid, and in issue #212, Colossus collapses from his wounds and even though Magneto heals him, he’s paralyzed for a time. The massacre ripped the X-Men readers knew and loved apart, and Claremont made it more powerful than you’d expect, mainly because they had been “his” for so long.
These injuries effectively end the team as readers had known it for so long. Colossus and Nightcrawler had been there since the beginning of the “new” X-Men, and Kitty had been around for so long that it felt like she had been there since the beginning. In issue #215, the three injured X-Men are taken to Muir Island to help their recovery, and that’s the last we see of them as active heroes for some time – Colossus returns in issue #225, but Kurt and Kitty eventually form Excalibur. In issue #213, Claremont adds Besty Braddock (Psylocke) to the team (she first shows up in issue #211, after making her American comics debut in New Mutants Annual #2, which came out a few weeks before issue #211), then in issue #214, Alison Blaire (Dazzler) joins after the X-Men free her from the grip of Malice, a disembodied mutant that possesses people and makes them act … maliciously, and then in issue #215, Longshot is part of the team (he joined in X-Men Annual #10, which came out in September 1986, a few months before #215). Finally, in issue #219, Alex Summers (Havok) officially joins, although in true Summers fashion, he barely thinks of the fact that he’s leaving his girlfriend, Lorna Dane (Polaris) behind in New Mexico (he briefly wonders how he’ll explain joining to Lorna, but he never seems to try, and by that time, she’s possessed by Malice anyway). These changes come fast, and probably left long-time readers dizzy. It’s clear, though, that Claremont wanted to show that no one was safe, and the introduction of new characters meant new interpersonal relationships, as perhaps he felt he was getting too comfortable with the old characters. Whatever his motivation, the issues following the Mutant Massacre feel like they come at us quickly, with no time for the readers or the X-Men to catch their breath. That was probably deliberate; the Marauders had shown that the world was changing, and despite Sentinels in the past killing mutants, the stakes were much higher with the Marauders, especially because they didn’t require a huge government budget to function. Claremont was making the comic a bit more dangerous, which was a fairly bold move at the time.
After assembling this team, Claremont enters his end game for this section of the title, as Ororo decides she wants her powers back (due to the increasing dangers the X-Men face), so she goes in search of Forge. She meets his old mentor, Nazé, who is no longer human (although Ororo doesn’t know that yet, but we do) – he’s possessed by a trickster god, and he manipulates Ororo into finding Forge, who’s the only one who can stop him from entering our dimension, and killing him. Ororo doesn’t kill Forge, of course, but the two of them are sucked into another dimension, where they spend over a year falling in love (Storm wanders the Earth for a while, too, like Caine in Kung Fu). Meanwhile, the X-Men are rescuing Madelyne Pryor (where we find out that li’l Baby Cable has been kidnapped, but Scott, presumably, is still off canoodling with Jean and knows nothing of this) and fighting Marauders, until Mystique and Freedom Force show up and tell the X-Men that the world is going to end and that the X-Men are going to die (Destiny, the precognitive seer who is in no way Mystique’s lover, can see their fate). They know it happens in Dallas and involves Forge, but the X-Men, of course, don’t run away from a fight, and so the team (with Colossus, somewhat healed, rejoining them) heads to Texas, fights the trickster, and with the help of a newly-powered Storm, defeats him. Of course, Forge needs to use their life essences to create a spell to defeat the trickster, so the X-Men die, but they get better! Yay, comics! The trickster’s adversary, Roma, the guardian of reality, brings them back to life, and they decide to stay “dead” to protect the ones they love. And so not only did Claremont break up the team and build a new one, he “killed” them, cutting them off from their old lives. In issue #227, we briefly see Kitty and Kurt, and of course they think the X-Men are dead, and they decide to form Excalibur to continue Xavier’s dream … but that’s a post for another day! In this book, Claremont neatly put an end to the relatively stable existence of the team and threw them to the winds. As I noted, he brought a bit of danger back to the book, and despite it remaining a mainstream superhero comic that wasn’t going to go too far outside the lines, it was an interesting path he chose.
All of this is plot churn, of course, which is something we see a lot in superhero comics. In Claremont’s time, it was more common but not necessarily standard to not only churn the plot, but show the consequences of so much action, and Claremont does that really well in these issues (and beyond, of course). Of course, Scott’s dickishness toward his wife and son is perhaps the biggest plot “twist” and the one that has the most consequences, considering it led to Cable, but even in these issues, we see that Madelyne is hunted by the Marauders and her son kidnapped without Scott stepping in to save anyone, probably because he was off running around after Redhead #1 with his tongue hanging out. She joins the X-Men in Dallas and is “killed,” which means she’s stuck with them, and she begins canoodling with Summers Bro #2 for a while (fitting, as she is Redhead #2) until Claremont and the Marvel higher-ups decide the only way to make Scott not look like the utter asshole that he is is to turn Madelyne evil. Then there’s Rachel. She is so angry at the Beyonder that she tries to kill him, but this gives her the opportunity to appreciate life in all its many facets. Instead of doing something positive with that, she decides to kill Selene, because Selene takes away some of those beautiful facets. Rachel is so damaged by her past – the future timeline – that she has no idea how to respond to anything without violence, and that leads to Wolverine making the questionable decision to stab her in the heart. Wolverine is in that position because he was beaten up pretty well by Lady Deathstrike and her Reavers in issue #205, so his healing factor is straining and he doesn’t have time for a knock-down, drag-out with Rachel. But because he stabs her, she is unable to help against Nimrod, where presumably her Phoenix powers would be a big help. Her absence allows Nimrod to hurt Nightcrawler pretty badly. Kurt himself is in that position because he regained his sense of joie de vivre in issue #204, and swashbuckling means rushing into situations without caring about the consequences. The recent, cynical iteration of Nightcrawler probably wouldn’t have attacked Nimrod by himself, but the rejuvenated Kurt Wagner jumped right in and almost paid the ultimate price. This leads him to push himself harder, and he’s too tired to avoid Riptide in the Morlock tunnels, almost costing him his life and leading to his separation from the X-Men (and eventually, to Excalibur). Meanwhile, the other charter member of Excaliber, Kitty, gets injured by an energy harpoon, and Claremont doesn’t immediately figure out a way to fix her. She remains in limbo for a long time, and while Claremont doesn’t examine her feelings too much, it’s a reminder that heroism has a cost beyond just death, as Kitty probably wished she were dead a few times during her time as a “ghost.”
Meanwhile, Logan’s injuries from issue #205 mean he doesn’t have much of a choice with regard to Rachel in issue #207, and he has to take her out quickly. His injuries, however, are still not completely healed, which makes his desperate fights against Sabretooth in issues #212 and 213 that much more devastating. We also see the psychological toll Deathstrike had on him, as he begins to lose faith in his senses, which makes him devolve into more of an animal. He tells Sabretooth in #212 that once he’d love to fight, but he had a job to do – getting the Morlock healer back to Xavier’s to help the wounded. But in issue #214, he gets possessed by Malice and, even after Malice has moved on, he almost kills Storm, because he thinks Malice is still possessing her, and in issue #215, he smells Jean in upstate New York and loses it, turning frantic and knocking Storm out in his effort to get to the woman he once loved. Later, as he roams through the woods, he sees the girl Storm was trying to protect from the three older supermen who have decided to hunt and kill criminals shoot two motorists whose car had broken down, and he does nothing. He regains his senses, but Claremont doesn’t let us forget that his battles have effects, not only for him, but for others, as the two motorists would be alive if he had been lucid, as he would have stopped their killer. Storm, naturally, goes through a great deal of change in this run, defeating Scott in single combat to take leadership of the X-Men, but also having her own problems, because under her leadership, the X-Men fall apart. She fails to keep the X-Men safe, and this leads her to take chances, such as trying desperately to save Priscilla, the girl who is getting hunted in issues #215-216, even though Priscilla doesn’t want nor really deserves her help (she’s not a nice person). Storm is so focused on getting her powers back, a story that begins in issue #220 and leads up the “Fall of the Mutants” that she fails to realize she’s being manipulated by the trickster god, and her foolishness leads to the team’s “death.” Ororo is still a terrific character, but Claremont is able to show her fallibility and the consequences that arise from it, and it makes the book richer.
Meanwhile, we get new X-Men, and this is perhaps where Claremont took his biggest risk. Rogue was still on the team, but she was still a relative neophyte, so Claremont paired with the other new arrivals in issues #217-218, when she, Dazzler, Psylocke, and Longshot take on the Juggernaut and manage to defeat him, just barely (and his rampage was a distraction so that his partner, Black Tom, could rob a bank, so the X-Men succeed but fail anyway). Claremont shows the new members working together as a team, trying to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, but even after their bonding, he doesn’t forget the tension between them, as he reminds us that Rogue once attacked Dazzler when Rogue was still a villain, and Alison hasn’t forgiven Rogue yet. It takes a Marauder attack in issues #221-222 for them to finally put their pasts behind them and become friends, and it feels organic because of the situations Claremont puts them in – they have to trust each other, and that leads to camaraderie. Meanwhile, Psylocke joins the team in issue #212 (although the X-Men don’t officially welcome her until the following issue), and Claremont, who had written her before when she showed up in Captain Britain’s British comic (she’s his sister), understands her quite well, too – she’s an action junkie in a demure body, and a lot tougher than she looks, as she proves in issue #213 when she manages to hold off Sabretooth until Wolverine shows up. Introducing so many new characters (Havok included, although he had a much longer history with the team) was a gamble, but it felt like Claremont might have been getting a bit stale – the original characters were still interesting, and his writing for Kurt and Kitty feels rejuvenated when he does so in Excalibur a few years after he sidelined them in the main book – and new characters gave him a chance to re-examine the team dynamic, with Logan now an elder statesman, no longer the team hothead, and the newer (though not necessarily younger) members playing the role of babes in the woods. It’s a natural progression for Wolverine, and it also gave Claremont the chance to write some new characters and introduce some different conflicts. Psylocke had already been through some wars with Captain Britain (which included her having to kill someone), Dazzler had had a big career in music that got ripped away by anti-mutant prejudice, and Rogue had been a villain who basically killed Carol Danvers. Even Longshot, as bright as he is, had gone through some harrowing events. Unlike the original X-Men back in 1975, these X-Men had lived in the world, and they exhibit a bit more world-weariness than even Nightcrawler, whom we met getting chased by a pitchfork-and-torch-bearing mob like he was in Frankenstein, showed early on in the book. These X-Men were not gathered by Charles Xavier for a higher purpose, they fell into the X-Men when their lives disintegrated. It makes for a slightly more mature take on the concept of the team, and it’s one reason why these comics are so strong despite Claremont ripping the old standards to pieces. He turns them into a team quickly and effectively, so when they fight the trickster god in issues #225-227, they feel like a family and their sacrifices are more powerful. Claremont adds some nice nuances to the story, as well, as a reporter and cameraman get caught inside Forge’s building during the final fight and record the team’s heroic actions, giving them good publicity just as they “die.” Claremont started to do this a bit more as he wrote the X-Men – not every human was a mutant-hating bigot, and even those that were suspicious of mutants occasionally changed their minds. It’s not the most subtle thing in the world, but it did make the book feel more “realistic” than just showing humanity as stereotypical racists. Claremont even does this with the villains – the Marauders are straight-up bad guys, but when Freedom Force shows up during “The Fall of the Mutants,” they’re far less villainous than before (perhaps because they’re now government-sanctioned), and they’re smart enough to realize that the trickster poses a much greater threat than the X-Men, so they work together. Even the Hellfire Club isn’t quite as evil as they were – they help fight against Nimrod (another case of smart people recognizing the greater threat) and they even are willing to elevate Magneto in their ranks and bring the X-Men under their protection. Claremont has always been a humanistic writer, and while even before this run he rarely wrote bad guys who were simply pure evil, here he shows even more shades to the world of the X-Men, and it makes the book stronger.
One of the reasons why this period of the X-Men isn’t as highly regarded as earlier ones has to do with the rotating artists, I believe. Prior to this era, the title had solid stability on art. Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith (brief, but with only one break), and John Romita, Jr. were the principal artists over an 11-year period, which is fairly remarkable. This run begins in the middle of Romita’s first tour of duty on the book (he’d return in the 1990s), and it continued the consistency of artists on the book. Beginning with issue #175 (for which he did the final ten pages or so), Romita drew 31 of the next 36 issues, ending with issue #211 (where he shared penciling duties with Bret Blevins). After issue #200, he took a little more time off, skipping issue #201 (not surprising, given that #200 was longer than usual) and then issues #204 and #205, which focused on individual members of the team, which seemed to be where Claremont put in little “skip months” for his artist. Once Romita left the book in issue #211, things went a bit wonky. Over the next 16 issues, seven different artists drew issues of the comic. Now, Marc Silvestri came on with issue #218 as the semi-regular artist and drew 8 of the next 10, including the double-sized issue #226, but he never became as consistently timely as previous artists. I’ve made the point before that comics ought to have consistent artists, and if one can’t do it, companies should make sure they have two, and this round-robin of artists would seem to contradict that, but there are a couple of reasons for this. First, the book was already successful. Yes, perhaps new readers might be put off by picking up a comic that one month was drawn by Alan Davis and the next month drawn by Jackson Guice and the next month drawn by Rick Leonardi. But Claremont was at the top of his game during this time, and while the artists still mattered, people were invested in the book because Claremont had turned it into a comic where readers knew the characters well and cared what happened to them. In years to come, there would be some lousy art, but what happened to the characters was so important that the book could survive some occasional artistic hiccups. Second, the artists are all really good. This had been a staple of X-Men books for years – even back when Cockrum was drawing the book, the guest artists were Brent Anderson and Bill Sienkiewicz, and Paul Smith’s only skip month was drawn by Walter Simonson. When Romita needed a break, they got Barry Windsor-Smith. During this period, we got Leonardi, Windsor-Smith, Davis, Guice, Blevins, and Kerry Gammill, which is not a bad line-up at all (yes, I’m ignoring June Brigman, not because her issue is terrible, but it’s weaker when compared to the other artists in this line-up). Romita manages to do cosmic quite well in issue #203, when we revisit the M’Kraan crystal, and of course his blocky Nimrod is definitive, managing to be sleek while still being stocky, a Romita specialty. Leonardi’s sharper, more angular line work makes Storm harder in issue #201, so we believe that she would fairly easily humiliate Cyclops. Alan Davis, who drew quite a bit of Psylocke when he was drawing the Captain Britain comic, does an excellent job making her lithesome form contrast with her harder edge in issue #213, and of course, as Davis is the master of comic book characters smiling, we get this terrific scene:
Davis is marvelous at fight scenes, too, so his battle between Wolverine and Sabretooth is terrific, and he even does a wonderful job showing how short Logan is and how gigantic Sabretooth is, which makes their battles all the more impressive. Silvestri’s scratchy, frenetic style goes well with the action issues he draws, as the world he creates looks like it’s gone a few rounds with the Hulk – there’s just a sense of rubble even when he’s drawing sleek skyscrapers, as Silvestri is good at making it appear that the world is about to crumble. While he’s never great at facial expressions (the Silvestri Face FTW!!!!), his loose style makes his body language superior, so his characters always look like they’re reacting appropriately to the world around them. Silvestri was around 29 years old when he started drawing the book, and it does feel like he brought some youthful exuberance to the comic (not that the other artists at this time were old; Bret Blevins is actually younger than Silvestri, while Romita and Davis are only a couple of years older than he is). While Silvestri is never going to be the most subtle of artists, he’s great with the BIG emotions that are necessary in a book like the X-Men, so when the team is fighting a hopeless battle against their own deaths, Silvestri makes it work wonderfully. Of course, the masterpiece, artistically, of this run is issue #205, “Wounded Wolf,” in which Wolverine fights against Lady Deathstrike and the Reavers. Barry Windsor-Smith, who did such a nice job with the Storm solo stories earlier in the run and would draw a nice-looking Dazzler story in issue #214, goes all out, and Claremont matches him perfectly. This is probably the best solo Wolverine story ever (even with the addition of Katie Power!), and it’s structured beautifully, with the focus on Katie for the first few pages (after the brief introduction of Deathstrike, who was transformed in Spiral’s Body Shop) until a Reaver (Cole), knocks her over as he’s firing a gun into the snowstorm. That allows us to get the full-page splash of Logan as our introduction to him, and also allow us to imagine what the hell happened to him that the killers could do so much damage to him. He acts like an animal for several pages as Katie helps him escape and he slowly regains his faculties, and then he can take the fight to the bad guys. It’s an amazingly tense issue, culminating in a horribly brutal fight with Deathstrike, in which Logan almost rips her apart. Then, of course, Claremont and Windsor-Smith hit us with the unforgettable ending:
Windsor-Smith is a great artist for this issue – his detailed artwork makes each slice and wound more brutal, each rivulet of blood on Logan’s face more terrifying, and each windblown snowflake more tangible. The night and the snow mean that Windsor-Smith doesn’t need to show everything, and his work with silhouettes in this issue is stunning. Claremont, as is his wont when working with top-notch artists, eases a bit on the clichés and sticks to basic dialogue and narration, which turns this from purple prose almost into a noir story. It’s a brilliant comic, and worth getting even if you want to skip every other issue in this run (but don’t do that; they’re really good!).
With this run, Claremont showed that he was very willing to take even more chances with the comic than he already had, and it kept the X-Men from growing stale (not to say they would if Kurt, Kitty, and Scott had stayed with the team, but who knows) and positioned them as an anomaly in the comic book world – a team book without a real team. Yes, by the end of this section of Claremont’s epic, there was a “stable” “team” – Ororo, Logan, Peter, Alex, Rogue, Betsy, Alison, and Longshot, with Madelyne providing … well, sexytimes to Alex, eventually, but I guess logistical support for the team? But Claremont wasn’t satisfied with that team, either, as we’ll see. This section of the run tore apart the beloved team and kept pushing the members forward, as Claremont showed that his characters could grow and change, and it remained fascinating to read (even with company-mandated missteps like turning Scott into an ass). The artistic cavalcade didn’t hurt the overall look of the comic as much as you might think, perhaps because the artists were all solid or perhaps because in Jim Shooter’s Marvel Age the strictures on “house style” were more rigidly enforced. I certainly understand why long-time readers might have been put out by Claremont’s changes, but reading these comics without the patina of nostalgia for the older days of the X-Men reveals a powerful, fairly mature story that rewards far more often than it disappoints.
Naturally, the collection of these issues is a bit messy. Marvel has just offered a new collection of the Mutant Massacre story, which includes all the titles that contributed to it. There’s a few “Fall of the Mutants” collections, which have issues #220-227 plus a bunch of the other mutant titles that were part of the story (which isn’t really a crossover, just a bunch of bad things happening to the various mutant teams). There’s a collection of issues #199-209, but it looks out of print, which sucks. As usual with X-Men comics, I wonder if these are simply easier to buy as single issues from deep dives into the back issue boxes. Either way, they’re definitely excellent comics!
Hey, I started an archive for these posts! I know I have a bunch from CBR that I have to migrate over, but that’s a massive undertaking and it’s going to take me a long time. This archive just has the ones I’ve done here, but it’s a good start, in case you missed some of the posts!