Comics You Should Own – ‘Uncanny X-Men’ #228-280

We’ve reached the end of Chris Claremont’s first tenure on the X-Men, and while these comics have some problems, they’re still worthy of your time!

Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont (writer), Louise Simonson (writer, X-Factor #37-39), Fabian Nicieza (co-writer, issue #279; X-Factor #69), Tom DeFalco (plotter, issue #228), Rick Leonardi (penciler, issues #228, 231, 235, 237, 252, 273), Marc Silvestri (penciler, issues #229-230, 232-234, 236, 238-244, 246-247, 249-251, 253-255, 259-261, 273), Rob Liefeld (penciler, issue #245), Jim Lee (penciler, issues #248, 256-258, 267-277; plotter, issue #274), Kieron Dwyer (penciler, issue #262), Bill Jaaska (penciler, issues #263, 265), Mike Collins (penciler, issues #264, 266), Whilce Portacio (penciler, issue #273; inker, issue #267; penciler, X-Factor #69), Klaus Janson (penciler, issue #273), John Byrne (penciler, issue #273), Michael Golden (penciler, issue #273), Larry Stroman (penciler, issue #273), Paul Smith (penciler, issue #278), Andy Kubert (penciler, issues #279-280), Steven Butler (penciler, issue #280), Walter Simonson (penciler, X-Factor #37-39), Terry Austin (inker, issues #228, 237), Dan Green (inker, issues #229, 231-233, 236, 238-242, 244-249, 251, 254-255, 259-261), Josef Rubinstein (inker, issues #230, 234, 257, 262-266, 280), P. Craig Russell (inker, issue #235), Hilary Barta (inker, issues #243, 278), Steve Leialoha (finisher, issue #250, 253), Kent Williams (inker, issue #252), Scott Williams (inker, issues #256, 258, 267-268, 270-277, 279-280), Art Thibert (inker, issues #269-270), Michael Bair (inker, issue #280), Bob Wiacek (inker, X-Factor #37), Al Milgrom (inker, X-Factor #38-39), Bill Wray (colorist, issue #228), Glynis Oliver (colorist, issues #229-235, 237-253, 255-260, 262-263, 267-268, 270-272, 275, 279), Petra Scotese (colorist, issue #236; X-Factor #37), Gregory Wright (colorist, issue #254 X-Factor #39), Mike Rockwitz (colorist, issues #261, 265), Nel Yomtov (colorist, issue #264), Brad Vancata (colorist, issue #266), Steve Buccellato (colorist, issue #269), Joe Rosas (colorist, issues #273-278, 280), Tom Vincent (colorist, X-Factor #38), Dana Moreshead (colorist, X-Factor #69), Tom Orzechowski (letterer, issues #228-242, 244-245, 247-249, 251-254, 256-263, 266-273, 275, 277, 279-280), Joe Rosen (letterer, issues #243, 246, 250, 265; X-Factor #37-39), Michael Heisler (letterer, issue #255, 257; X-Factor #69), Chris Eliopoulos (letterer, issue #257), Pat Brosseau (letterer, issues #257, 266, 273, 276), Clem Robins (letterer, issue #264), Tomoko Saito (letterer, issues #269, 279), Kevin Cunningham (letterer, issue #270), and Lois Buhalis (letterer, issues #270, 279).

Published by Marvel, 57 issues (#228-280 plus X-Factor #37-39 and #69, which come after issues #241, 242, 243, and 279, respectively), cover dated April 1988 – September 1991.

Some SPOILERS ahead, but not too many! And you can click on the pictures to biggify them!

And so we reach the Apotheosis of Chris Claremont, the final stretch of his epic run on Uncanny X-Men. Some people say Claremont didn’t do anything good after John Byrne left the book. Some say Claremont didn’t do anything good after Paul Smith left the book. Some say Claremont didn’t do anything good after John Romita left the book. Some say Claremont didn’t do anything good after the Mutant Massacre or Fall of the Mutants. But after that latter event, when the X-Men were believed to be dead by the rest of the world and were unable to be detected by anything electronic, Claremont began what might be the most Claremont phase of his run on the title, in both good and bad ways. Over the final four years of his 16-year journey on Uncanny X-Men, he had more power over a comic book franchise than perhaps anyone before, and possibly since. He is certainly the last person to hold such sway over a top-tier title, and this led to the height of his mad genius and also his ultimate downfall. One cannot speak of this run on Uncanny X-Men without looking at its end, not in a “he said, he said” kind of way through interviews with the creators, sniping at each other years after the fact, but in the way the comic evolved into something else and got away from Claremont. “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” to quote Proverbs, and while Claremont may not have been proud or haughty, he certainly fell like Lucifer, and this run chronicles that fall.

The story of what happens to the comic during these years is almost as interesting as the comics themselves. Claremont, as we saw last time, was at the top of his game when he decided to write a team book without an actual team. Before the Fall of the Mutants, that meant breaking up the long-time team and replacing them with new members like Psylocke, Dazzler, Longshot, and Havok. For the first 18 issues of this part of the run (#228-245), he used this relatively stable team – those four, plus Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, and Rogue – and wrote adventure stories in the usual vein of X-Men stories, in that they were good, veering occasionally into great. Dazzler and Wolverine team up for an adventure that takes place before the Fall of the Mutants arc in what is clearly an inventory story (#228); the X-Men drive the Reavers out of their Outback town and move in themselves (#229); the X-Men decide to play Santa and return all of the treasure the Reavers stole, which they do in one improbable night (#230); Colossus helps Illyana fight the demons in Limbo, pretending all the while to be the spirit of her dead brother instead of giving away their secret (#231); the team fights superpowered Brood who landed on Earth (#232-234); Claremont introduces Genosha and their Nazi-like enslavement of mutants (#235-238); Inferno (sigh) (#239-243); and the two comedy issues, girls’ night out (#244) and boys’ night out (#245). These issues have their good and bad spots, but they establish how hard it is to keep the status quo going, especially when the X-Men fight alongside X-Factor during Inferno. Claremont wisely introduced elements of doubt into the book, as the X-Men weren’t sure if they were doing the right thing in keeping this secret, and they didn’t seem to be doing what they said they were going to do anyway, which is finding the bad guys first so that they could mete out justice before people got hurt.

Then, in issue #246, he destroyed the team, and not so he could replace it with other characters as he did around the time of the Mutant Massacre. No, Claremont ripped the team apart and replaced it with nothing, just mutants doing their own things across the world and occasionally interacting. It was 30+ issues of some of the weirdest and radical storytelling in superhero comics history, yet people remember it today as “that era when Jim Lee made Psylocke into an Asian assassin.” It’s too bad, too, because Claremont really did some unusual things. In issue #246, Wolverine took off to star in his own comic – a synergy that became very much uncommon in the coming years, when characters could show up in multiple issues every month and barely anyone commented on them. In issue #247, Rogue goes through the Siege Perilous – the jewel that Roma gave to the X-Men so that, if they so chose, they go hit the cosmic “reset” button, as the Siege either took them to a higher plane of existence or wiped their memories and let them live a different life. In #248, Longshot – whom Claremont never quite knew what to do with, despite some successes – quit the team to “find himself.” Later in the issue, Havok accidentally “kills” Storm, although Claremont shows fairly quickly that she’s not dead (she shows up again, as a child, in issue #253). In #251, Psylocke convinces the rest of the team – Colossus, Havok, and Dazzler – to go through the Siege Perilous because they’re about to be killed by the Reavers and they’re tired of fighting. Wolverine, captured by Donald Pierce and the Reavers, sees all this in a “fever dream” while he’s nailed to a cross. So by issue #251, the only X-Men left are Wolverine and (if we’re feeling generous) Jubilee, who first appeared in issue #244 and followed the X-Women from California back to Australia (courtesy of Gateway, the aborigine teleporter who sits around on the hill outside town), where she’s been hiding out even since. And then things get even weirder.

Comics have always been weirder than regular fiction – it’s part of their charm – but Claremont did some strange things once he destroyed the team. Storm was regressed to childhood by Nanny, a delusional scientist who believed it was her mission to “save” mutant children, even if it meant turning adult mutants into said children. Polaris, who had been stripped of her magnetic powers in the Savage Land by Zaladane, suddenly started growing larger and getting stronger, as well as seemingly making everyone around her become more extreme emotionally. She ended up on Muir Island, where Legion – under control of the Shadow King – decided to mess with her and the inhabitants of the island, making them all a bit crazier. Masque took over the remnants of the Morlocks and began molding their shapes into grotesqueries. He then took one of the “ugly” Morlocks – Callisto, whom he captured – and turned her into a fashion model, luring Colossus (who is living as an artist in New York with no knowledge of his former life, courtesy of the Siege Perilous) into his snares. Dazzler ends up in Los Angeles, where her movie becomes a big hit, but she doesn’t stay for long after she realizes she can use her powers less offensively and more as a soothing balm (something I would have loved to see more of, frankly). Carol Danvers and Rogue separate and fight for the life-force they share, as only one can stay alive, until Magneto kills Carol and restores Rogue. Oh, and Psylocke becomes an Asian ninja assassin. See? Weird.

The weirdness doesn’t seem especially bizarre within the context of superhero comics, but reading them all at once years later, you get the sense that Claremont is pushing against Marvel, which couldn’t have been happy to see their flagship team scattered to the winds to be replaced by Banshee’s daughter and Amanda Sefton, among others. But Claremont, as always, is playing the long game, and that was something increasingly difficult to pull off in the comics world of the late 1980s/early 1990s, when Batman revived interest in superheroes as movie properties and artists such as Silvestri and Lee were beginning to be cognizant of the power they wielded. Claremont in these years was largely “artist-proof” – with the exceptions of a few issues, the art was quite good, but Claremont’s soap operatic storytelling was the main draw, at least until Jim Lee drew Psylocke, and while the comics world was drifting toward the “event” around which the calendar year revolved and artists wanted to be bigger and splashier, Claremont remained old-school, partly to his detriment (as we can see from his more recent scripts), but mostly to the detriment of Marvel and their main title. Claremont never quite got to do what he wanted in issues #228-280, and the tension between his desires and what Marvel wanted, as far as it comes through in the actual issues (again, I’m not going to get into anything that went on behind the scenes, mainly because I doubt if I could find anything but also because I always want to focus on the comics themselves), remains fascinating. It’s clear that Claremont wanted to tell his stories, while Marvel, seeing a golden goose and wondering how quickly they could kill it, wanted cross-branding to lure more people into the X-Universe. So we get the interminable Inferno crossover, the main story of which ran for eight issues over Uncanny X-Men and X-Factor, with a side trip to New Mutants and tie-ins with a bunch of other titles, and which “fixed” the Madelyne Pryor “problem” that Marvel, not Claremont, created in the first place. “Acts of Vengeance,” in which villains “swapped” heroes because the heroes, presumably, wouldn’t know how to fight them (I assume the villains had a key party to figure out who’d get whom), seems quaint today in a universe where everyone fights everyone else, but it was the loosest of crossovers anyway and gave us Asian Ninja Assassin Psylocke, so that’s all right. Then there’s the hot garbage of “X-Tinction Agenda,” in which Cameron Hodge’s face on a weird robot menaces our heroes and wrecked the title for a few issues, as it was so very, very awful. Marvel was intent on tying all the books together, while Claremont, it feels, kept watching his baby spin out of his control, until it became untenable and someone had to go. Instead of trusting the guy who turned the book into a juggernaut, Marvel trusted the artists who already had one foot out the door. Well done, Marvel!

It’s this tension that makes this run fascinating but also keeps it from achieving the heights of previous runs. This is the first post of Comics You Should Own where I will admit that a good amount of the comics contained within are simply not that good. There are comics I love but I can see that they’re just not great – the entire Todd McFarlane run on Amazing Spider-Man comes to mind, as I really enjoy those issues but recognize that the quality isn’t that high – but with this final section of Uncanny X-Men, separating the wheat from the chaff becomes that much harder. Inferno drags, but it can be entertaining, at least until the ridiculous Mr. Sinister shows up. Marvel created a stupid problem when they brought Jean Grey back to life, and Claremont did what he could to make Cyclops less of an utter dick, but the problem with Inferno is that even as he keeps upping the ante to make Madelyne worse and worse (she’s going to kill L’il Baby Cable!), in the back of our minds we keep thinking, “She isn’t wrong at all.” During the nine-part “X-Tinction Agenda,” Claremont tries to make cogent points about sovereignty and how the X-Men are viewed as terrorists, and while it makes no sense (the mutates, after all, are actual people, not machines), it’s nice to see him give it the old college try. He regresses Magneto into a quasi-villain, something that I assume was editorially mandated (as Claremont spent so much time redeeming him), and you can almost feel the reluctance on his part to make Magneto a boring bad guy again. The story with Magneto and Rogue fighting Zaladane is terrific, but it’s also sad – not because Magneto “betrays” his new heroism, but because it’s clear that Claremont doesn’t want to do it. The Masque story arc is dumb, but Claremont makes some subtle points about beauty and what it means in society and even whether it changes how we feel about people. He never really explores it in this run, but it’s somewhat disturbing that Peter falls in love with Callisto solely because she’s beautiful – he doesn’t know who she is, and why would Peter love Callisto anyway, given their history? – and that Callisto stays beautiful once Masque has been defeated, meaning Peter doesn’t have to make a hard choice about whether he loves her even if she’s fairly unattractive (then, of course, the Shadow King possesses Peter, and we don’t even know what happens to his relationship with Callisto). And, of course, there’s issue #266, about which we shall not speak (oh, I kid – I suppose I must talk about it briefly).

The problem with the crappiness of some of these issues is that they’re surrounded by great issues, and they also feature some of the best characters in superhero comics, characters that are great because of the work Claremont did with them. One of the problems I have with Gambit is that he came into being during the height of Claremont’s reliance on his famed writing tics – “focused totality” made its debut not long before Gambit did – and so therefore all he is are writing tics, and he never became (and sadly, still hasn’t become) a fully formed character. But the others were built up into great characters, so when they suffered, the readers suffered with them. When Wolverine turned into a Brood creature in #234, we knew he would reject the Brood egg because he’d done it before, but the struggle to do so was still real. When Rogue lost her powers in the first Genosha story and was sexually assaulted (the comic was still ostensibly an all-ages book, so Claremont went out of the way to claim that nothing “serious” happened, but it’s still clearly sexual assault), it was horrifying, because we knew from the years before that Rogue was terrified of losing control of her powers, so she tried not touch anyone, but she also desperately wanted to be touched by a lover, and the Genoshans perverted that desire. When Madelyne and Alex become lovers, we know it’s a bad idea (partly because, like his brother, Alex also abandoned the woman he claimed to love, but at least Lorna was clearly possessed by Malice and disappeared, while Scott knew where Madelyne was and abandoned her anyway), but thanks to all the work Claremont put in, we understand that it’s two people in pain clinging to what little comfort they can. The Reavers attack Muir Island and shoot Banshee, and while he doesn’t die (thanks to a quick spell by Amanda Sefton and the Morlock healer), the panel in which he gets shot is harrowing, because by that point, we could believe Claremont would kill Sean, and once again, we have years of history with Banshee, and his death would affect us. Storm’s “death” doesn’t have quite the impact because we don’t see it up close and she returns soon afterward, and even in the moment it felt a little fishy, but Psylocke convincing the other X-Men to go through the Siege Perilous is tragic, because Claremont shows how tired the last team members are and how surrender seems like a viable option. That we don’t see it in “real time” but as a flashback through Wolverine’s eyes makes it even sadder, because nothing can be done to change it. And, of course, in that same issue (#251), Logan is tortured by Donald Pierce and the Reavers and finally wrenches himself off the makeshift cross to which he’s nailed while Jubilee looks on, horrified that he has the will to do it. We know Wolverine has a strong will, and even we’re impressed by his actions. That’s due to the way Claremont has written him over the years.

Even as it was clear that Claremont was losing power, he managed to make the stories resonate. Issue #255, when the Muir Islanders and Freedom Force fight back against the Reavers, is a terrific, gripping tale, featuring a truly creepy Legion (possessed or at least influenced by the Shadow King) playing both sides and killing Destiny, the Reavers doing some damage to Mystique’s group, and Forge cobbling together a weapon that can kill cyborgs and saving the day. The Lady Mandarin arc is a highlight, both the best and worst Psylocke story ever told. (The list of great Psylocke stories is, sadly, fairly short.) It’s the best because it’s really good – the Hand rebuilds Betsy into an assassin, Claremont does a masterful job showing her history and why she slips easily into the role the Hand has prepared for her, she takes down Wolverine but then plugs into his psychosis, and she defeats the Mandarin. Her conversation with Logan at the end about not trusting herself is terrific because Claremont doesn’t end it easily, and Jubilee’s lack of trust in Betsy remains a point of contention between them for some time. It’s the worst because after that, nobody really knew what to do with Betsy. The whole “British woman in an Asian body” didn’t cause as much controversy as it would today, but it was still a bone of contention with some fans, but more importantly, writers kind of stopped trying to make Betsy interesting – it was as if the “British telepath who becomes an Asian ninja assassin” was simply good enough, and Psylocke became a boring character thrown at men (Scott, Warren) and sacrificed to Sabretooth so she could become even more inscrutable with the whole “Crimson Dawn” story before Fabian Nicieza decided to “solve” things by creating … well, the less said about Revanche, the better. Anyway, that’s not important right now, because the Lady Mandarin story is excellent. After that, we get the mini-saga of Dazzler, which shows her growth as she is no longer interested in the fame she once craved; Peter’s obsession with the altered Callisto; Forge and Banshee trying to find the X-Men; and Storm meeting (ugh) Gambit. Issue #268, the standalone Captain America issue, is excellent, placing Logan deeper into Marvel history and linking the Strucker twins (Fenris is one of the best and criminally underused villains in the Marvel Universe, yo!) to their ancestry. The story in the Savage Land where Magneto and Rogue fight against Zaladane is intense, especially because Magneto is willing to make the hard choices that no one else is and Claremont uses his past in an excellent way to show why he feels he must do what he does even if it costs him Rogue and his humanity. And the Shi’ar saga which brings Professor Xavier back into the fold is high-flying adventure, too. So Claremont was able to wrench the plot into something good even if it was against his wishes. Some of the plot twists are a bit convoluted, but nothing too egregious, especially for comics.

Another aspect that makes this run so fascinating is how light-hearted it can be at times. Of course, Claremont is putting his team through the wringer, so much of it is deadly serious, but he had also turned the team into a family of sorts, so they could argue and joke around with each other, and when characters are getting on each other’s nerves, humor can come from that for the readers. There are downright comedy issues, including #245, perhaps the funniest X-Men book ever, in which Claremont parodies the then-current DC Invasion! series with an alien invasion of Australia that interrupts Wolverine’s drinking, which is never a good idea. We get a scene at the Daily Planet (I miss when Marvel and DC – usually Marvel – considered their rival as either a part of the real world they don’t talk about or fictional creations within their own universe) in which “Perry White” doesn’t care about the invasion because Australia is “mostly desert” anyway, and we get the invaders’ secret weapon – the Jean bomb. In DC’s version, the gene bomb exploded and gave a bunch of characters super-powers (or altered some that already existed) – don’t worry about why they would do that! In Claremont’s version, he had a bomb shaped like a redhead that “possesses the power to fatally disrupt all relationships,” causing “brother to slay brother … and boon companions to tear themselves apart.” It’s hilarious both because it’s a good, Peter-David-level pun and because it’s true. The issue is drawn by Rob Liefeld in a perfect use of his skills, as every character is anatomically ridiculous, making the comedy work even better. Other issues and even moments are funny or heart-warming as well. The issue in which the X-Men turn into Santa Clauses is well done; Reverend Conover’s powerful belief in God is touching (even if Claremont left a nice plot thread dangling in issue #234, where it seems pretty clear that the paramedic is a still-disguised Brood, a thread that other writers had to pick up years later); the issue where Jubilee joins the team (issue #244) features inept mutant hunters who are somewhat goofy; during Psylocke’s transformation into Lady Mandarin, there’s a funny sequence with young Betsy and her brother Jamie and one of Jamie’s bimbo girlfriends; Alison’s brief renaissance in issues #259-260 is a nice satire of the movie industry; issue #261, which is somewhat dumb as it features basically an extended Danger Room sequence between Wolverine, Jubilee, and Psylocke against a group of mercenaries called Hardcase and the Harriers (in television terms, it would be a backdoor pilot), has some charming moments; Jubilee wears yellow, green, and red just about the time a certain DC movie and the comics with that character became huge; Jubilee’s whining in #268 about every woman Wolverine knows being hot is very funny, as is the way she looks down her shirt at her chest in the same issue. All of these moments are part of what make Claremont’s X-Men great – we can forgive some the egregious writing tics and the weird plotting because the characters often act like real – if somewhat heightened – people, warts and all.

Of course, this is a transitional era in comics history, as artists finally got the recognition they were due, even if the pendulum swung too far their way and had to be wrenched back a bit. For all the great art prior to this period, Stan Lee (at Marvel) had made it clear that writers were dominant, which of course led to Kirby and Ditko going their own way but also lessened the impact great artists had on titles. Even at DC, where Neal Adams changed the way Batman was viewed, Denny O’Neil got more of the credit for modernizing the Dark Knight, and just prior to this era, Alan Moore got more credit for Watchmen than Dave Gibbons did and Frank Miller got more credit for “Born Again” and Year One” than David Mazzucchelli did (even though, looking back on it now, Mazzucchelli is the reason “Year One” works as well as it does). Writer/artists were given more credit for their writing – John Byrne and Jim Starlin being notable examples – than their art. We can argue about the impact people like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee (and Silvestri, to a slightly lesser extent) had on comics, but they shone a light on artists that hadn’t been there before, and in doing so, retroactively shone a light on older artists who perhaps hadn’t gotten their due. What this means is that Uncanny X-Men, as the pre-eminent writer-driven title around, felt the effects of this paradigm shift. At the beginning of this part of Claremont’s run, Marc Silvestri was still the regular artist. Silvestri, especially when paired with inker Dan Green, does very nice work on this title and these issues. He was always quite good with Longshot’s innocence, and he does a good job in issue #230 when that innocence turns against Longshot somewhat when he can’t figure out what to do with the Reavers’ treasure hoard. Silvestri did more with Longshot than Claremont did, slowly making him a bit more hardened in the “real” world until he couldn’t deal with it anymore and quit. Silvestri also does fine work on the Brood story in issues #232-234, as his scratchy style makes the aliens look more twisted than when Dave Cockrum drew them, and his fluidity with his pencils meant that the transformations of the humans into the Brood are creepier. It was around this time that Marvel, giving the golden goose a good twist of the neck, decided to start shipping the book twice a month, meaning that Silvestri needed a back-up artist, which for a while was Rick Leonardi. Leonardi is perfectly fine, but the shift – he drew parts 1 and 3 of the Genosha story, Silvestri drew parts 2 and 4 – is jarring. Silvestri managed to draw all of Inferno, and his loose, jagged style is a very good fit for a world gone mad – anything wrong with Inferno (and there’s a lot wrong with Inferno) isn’t because of Silvestri. Issue #251 is a gorgeous issue, as Wolverine has visions of Psylocke as a half-human cyborg, then as Sabretooth. The moment where Betsy leads the X-Men through the Siege Perilous is terrific, with Silvestri nailing the myriad emotions roiling in each character. And of course, the great fight on Muir Island wouldn’t be as great without Silvestri and Green, from Lady Deathstrike’s vicious attack on Freedom Force’s plane to Destiny’s meeting with Legion to Forge blowing a giant hole in Skullbuster. Silvestri also does wonderful work on the issues with Alison in Hollywood, translating Claremont’s satirical script into a hilarious visual parody as well (although he did design Guido ridiculously, but perhaps we can forgive him as he couldn’t know how much Guido would be used in the future). Silvestri usually worked with Green, which is where he’s at his best. Other inkers seem to make his lines too heavy, which tempers his madness a bit, while Green seems to let him go a bit more. Silvestri drew 24 issues of this run, which is quite a bit, but not many consecutively, and while some of the fill-in artists were good, others weren’t. As I noted, Liefeld was perfect for the tone of issue #245, and Leonardi is a good artist, although Leonardi inked by Kent Williams in issue #252 is a truly bizarre and unpleasant experience. Kieron Dwyer is perfectly fine, as is Bill Jaaska, but Mike Collins, who’s the first artist to draw Gambit, wasn’t that good, especially at the action scenes. Paul Smith’s return for one issue was disappointing, and Steven Butler, who drew a good deal of issue #280 with Andy Kubert, was trying to look like Kubert but he wasn’t as talented. Of course, Jim Lee’s presence hangs over this run, and his work is phenomenal, but even he needs a good inker. Weirdly, Dan Green, who’s so good on Romita and Silvestri, doesn’t do Lee any favors in issue #248, Lee’s first on the book. It’s certainly not bad, but Green seems a bit heavy-handed, which is weird because he’s not that way with Silvestri. Later, of course, Lee is inked mostly by Scott Williams, whose hatching is a bit frenetic but is otherwise a fine inker for Lee. We see this when others ink Lee, like Whilce Portacio and Art Thibert, both of whom seem to make Lee’s characters a bit more “cute” than Williams does – Rogue almost looks like a little girl when Thibert inks Lee’s pencils in issue #269. As good as Lee is, we can see in hindsight that his presence on the book was beginning to overshadow Claremont, as he and the other future Image founders began to flex their muscles a bit. It’s a great thing for creative freedom, but perhaps not the best thing for Uncanny X-Men, which began a (admittedly, fairly slow) creative decline once Claremont was forced out. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but it’s axiomatic that the X-Men have never been as good – except, maybe, when Grant Morrison wrote them – as when Claremont was behind the wheel.

As you can tell, writing about this batch of comics is difficult for me because these are “my” X-Men, as I began reading the book in earnest during this time and went back through the back issue boxes and read the older ones with these issues in my mind as the “end point” for the characters. I try not to be influenced by nostalgia when I write these posts, as I noted, and even comics I actually enjoy to re-read might not make it here. I admit that some of these comics are terrible – there’s no excuse for “X-tinction Agenda” and Gambit remains a lousy character (although he might have been interesting if anyone ever did anything with his weird hypnotic voice power, which fell by the wayside not too soon after his introduction). Claremont’s and Marvel’s separate agendas make these comics odd to re-read, as Claremont seems to have plots in mind but the books are still often all over the map, feeling like Marvel wanted him to go a different way and he was trying to please two masters – himself and Marvel. But there’s so much that’s excellent – the dissolution of the team over issues #246-251 is tragic and gut-wrenching, the attack on Muir Island is exciting and nerve-wracking, the Lady Mandarin story is excellent, the Wolverine-Captain America-Black Widow issue is superb, Rogue’s adventure in the Savage Land shows the depressing fall of a man trying to be a hero, and the Shi’ar story is adventurous. Silvestri’s art, Lee’s art, and Leonardi’s art is strong, and we should never overlook the two other mainstays of the title, Glynis Oliver and Tom Orzechowski, one of whom brought a consistency to the artwork and the other who created innumerable moods simply by the way he wrote letters. So while there aren’t as many absolute classics like during the Claremont/Byrne run, the consistent arc of the Claremont/Smith run, the social commentary of the Claremont/Romita run, or the inevitability of the early Claremont/Silvestri run, they are still comics that pack a punch and show why this kind of comics storytelling was so successful for so long. This run is also on the cusp of the new era, and that makes it fascinating to read from a metatextual vantage point. The old guard was slowly on the way out, and the new guard was storming the ramparts. Are comics better or worse after the change?

Perhaps not surprisingly, there isn’t a good trade paperback series collecting these issues. I put the Jim Lee Visionaries link below in case you’re interested, as those issues manage to be almost self-contained, although not completely. Inferno has been collected, as has the X-tinction Agenda, although you should do yourself a favor and skip that if you’ve never read it. I’m sure bits and pieces have been collected over the years, but Marvel needs to get most of Claremont’s run after Paul Smith into a good solid series of trades. Maybe it will happen some day.

So we’re done with Claremont’s X-Men. He wrote the new book, X-Treme X-Men (gahhhh!), around the turn of the century and returned to Uncanny X-Men for a while, but the comics world had passed him by to a degree, and he was never as successful as he was on this title. Claremont might never be mentioned among the great writers of comics, but he should be considered one of the great creators, as he was able to take a group of new characters and mold them into a phenomenon, always pushing them forward and never forgetting that if the characters work, the plots will always work no matter how goofy. He was assisted by great artists, sure, but so much of what made the X-Men great was his ability to make the readers care about the characters and what happened to them. It’s why people constantly try to recapture that magic, and the fact that they’re not successful simply magnifies Claremont’s achievement. Most people who read comics have read these comics, but if you haven’t, perhaps now is the time to take a look at them.

Be sure to check out the archives! And next time, I will probably be writing about an entirely different title, as the post-Claremont X-Men were occasionally very good but generally not. We shall see what I get to next!

14 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    To be honest, this is where I stopped collecting the series. I remember reading The Fall of the Mutants, and parts of The Inferno storylines, but that was it.

    Never read about how Psylocke came to be, Gambit joining the team (was that before or after Claremont?), or when Jim Lee started on the book (Only the X-Men # 1-3).

    I couldn’t really tell you why I stopped, might have been the too many titles crossing over and it was a money issue.

    Maybe one day,I’ll get caught up on reading what I missed. I always did enjoy Claremont’s run on the series.

    BTW, did you hear about Gaiman & Miracleman? It’s finally back on and not because of my complaining!!!!

    1. Greg Burgas

      Tom: Yeah, Gambit joined the team during Claremont’s run. Sort of. He went to space with them in 274-277 and fought the Shadow King in 278-280, so he was part of the team, although it wasn’t really a “team” at that moment. But Claremont is responsible for it!!!! 🙁

      I did not hear that about Miracleman. Very cool. I’m totally sure it was thanks to you! 🙂

  2. Peter

    I’ve never read the tail end of Claremont’s run on the X-Men, so I don’t have much to say about these specific issues after the Brood storyline – but the end of your post really strikes a chord. It is a pity that Claremont’s career became so tied to the X-Men that when he was forced out, his career basically died as well. A lot of times, the name “Claremont” just evokes some of his catchphrases for me – “the focused totality of Psylocke’s telepathic energy!” and the like. It’s too easy to forget what a great writer he was (not just on the X-Men, but also on Marvel Team-Up, Iron Fist, Avengers Annual #10, heck, even his Man-Thing revival). I wish Marvel would pay him to actually write again, and for reasons other than nostalgia. I bet he could do a heck of a job on a random non-mutant character if given the chance.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Peter: I wonder if comics have just passed him by, unfortunately. We see that with a lot of older creators – their styles just fall out of style, so they seem weird and old-fashioned when they do new stuff, even if we’re completely comfortable with their old stuff. Claremont’s excessive narration and dialogue aren’t really in vogue anymore, so while I’d like to see him get a chance to do pretty much anything, I wonder how it would be received. Too bad.

  3. Eric van Schaik

    Hi Greg,

    Great post as always.
    While reading the post I’m glad I pulled out after Inferno.
    It was the perfect jumping off point for me.

    Good point about the Leonardi/Sylvestri art.
    It bugged me when the issues where coming out.

    After finishing Simonson’s Orion, and WW Hulk I plan to read mine X-Men collection again thanks to your posts.
    I’m finally getting my energy back to read comics again after all the shit for the last 16 months. After getting back to music (I’m going to see a John Carpenter concert in Utrecht in october btw) comics are jumping at me again.
    Just two weeks of work and then a 3 week vacation. Yeah!!
    (I’m not a Facebook type so I’ll wait for your Europe post when it arrives).

    1. Greg Burgas

      Eric: Thanks for the nice words! I do like quite a bit after Inferno, but it’s not a bad place to leave if it wasn’t working for you. It’s good to hear that you’re getting back into things. I know the past year and a half haven’t been great.

      I’ll probably put my vacation stuff into my next month-end post about various trades. I don’t want to bore anyone with an entire post about England, and that seems like a good place to ramble, as I do it anyway. So it should be up on the 31st or thereabouts!

  4. Louis Bright-Raven

    Claremont was never an ‘event’ writer, as was evident the more commonplace the crossover crap came to be (and this was something he constantly fought with Marvel over, especially once Bob Harras took over editorially at #232). It often seemed it disrupted his plotting style – the slow burn into the explosive climactic sequence, and then a conclusion with some leftover subplots which he may or may not get back to (depending upon who his editor was and when they / he remembered about it). The title became what Harras / Marvel wanted, instead of Claremont truly driving the book.

    I think most of what you said here was fairly spot on.

  5. Jeff Nettleton

    To me, part of the problem with X-Men was the sameness of storylines, over time. Settings changed, foes changed; but, the basic plot line got recycled endlessly. I stopped reading the book at the end of the Paul Smith run. Part of it was circumstance and access, which interrupted the flow; but, I found that it was a habit I didn’t miss. I had read the book, on and off, for quite a while and it just felt like it was spinning wheels. Artistically, I did not care for Romita Jr’s art and stayed away (liked it much better on the Demon in a Bottle Iron Man run).

    Every time I picked up an issue to browse, I could not follow what was going on, the art just didn’t wow me and I would put it back. I did eventually sample the Jim Lee issues and the new title; but, moved on rather quickly. I felt Claremont had run out of ideas and kept redoing Alien, in different settings (something the Comics Journal did a piece about) and the latest member that goes crazy and dark or the latest mutant holocaust. About the only X-Men book I picked up during the post-Smith time was the annual, wrapping up the Loki & Storm story, largely because of Art Adams.

    I think there comes a saturation point with a book like this and I had more than reached mine. I had a similar problem with New Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes (Justice League, too, by the time Giffen and DeMatteis were burnt out). I’ve had similar reactions to book series, where after a while you know the author’s tricks and you can predict the story in chapter 1. At that point, it is usually best to just move on.

    At that point, there were far too many other books that felt fresh and exciting, between the DC renaissance and expansion and really getting into the independents.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Jeff: I agree that’s a big problem with superhero comics, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t read them very much anymore. I don’t think we quite reached it here, though – the X-Men in the 1990s definitely felt that way, but Claremont seemed to be resisting that even as Marvel tried to steer him toward more familiar ground. Claremont was pushing the characters forward, and I disagree that he was repeating himself. Yes, the Madelyne Pryor story was silly, but it does feel more like editorial interference than something Claremont would have liked to do. Turning Psylocke into an Asian ninja feels very much like a Jim Lee idea, and by that time, perhaps Claremont saw the writing on the wall with regard to his position, but it’s still a cool story. He definitely re-used bad guys, but far less than most other superhero comics – at this time it seemed like the Joker showed up every month in one of the dozen or so Batman books – and when he did, it felt more organic than a lot of comics.

      I agree with you about saturation points, but for me, at least, that didn’t happen for many years after Claremont left the book. But if it came for you earlier, that’s the way it is! 🙂

  6. Louis Bright-Raven

    Jeff: Well, it wasn’t so much that Claremont kept repeating himself plot wise, so much as it was his infamous ‘tics’ as a writer – his catchphrases for each character, the simple redundancies of the ‘barebones / essential personality’ of each character that he seemingly never expanded upon. There’s only so many times you can read the same shtick about Wolverine being the best there is at what he does (especially when he isn’t – how many times does he get his ass thoroughly kicked?), or how every version of Phoenix’s soul burns joyously with the heat of a thousand suns, or the language tics of “By the White Wolf!”, “Mein Gott! / Ungaublich!” for Colossus and Nightcrawler, or how ‘young’ Kitty is all the time. (Oh that last one really burned me, because I was 13 when I first ‘met’ Kitty and I was growing up so why wasn’t she?! It really got old because the New Mutants were clearly maturing / aging.) It wears on you, because it can make you feel like you’re treading water instead of moving forward. The other truth is, under Shooter, no matter what happens to the characters, Shooter always wanted to you get them back to a ‘factory reset’ mode, which put all the books in a holding pattern of sorts – the illusion of change is there, but in reality, very little does.

    That changed once Shooter left, but not for the better. (This is true not just of X-MEN, but of the entire Marvel and DC universes, as we’ve seen as everybody now wants to ‘reboot’ every other year seemingly to some ‘factory default’ – but nobody seems to know or can agree upon what the default is. So Shooter probably had the right idea of keeping them ‘factory defaulted’ regularly.)

    As for you not liking Romita Jr.’s art on X-MEN – you probably really didn’t like him on Iron Man, either. You liked Bob Layton. JRJr. did rough pencils / breakdowns and Layton did the finished art on that run. Nothing else JRJr. has ever done in his career looks anything like that Iron Man run, because everything else is his finished pencils and the inkers remained true to him, instead of Layton running roughshod over it, for better or worse.

    RE: The “saturation point” – it all depends on when you started reading and what else you were reading at the time. For me, I started in the middle of JRJr.’s run (#196), so I was going forwards and backwards simultaneously reading the stuff during 1985-1991, and I was strictly reading X-Books during the first three to four years of that (about 1988-89), so I really didn’t have anything else to compare it to. That could be part of why I got bored with it once I had access to other comics and was reading a wider array of titles. But truthfully I’m pretty sure what got me bored was all the constant crossovers (I hated the original X-Men so X-FACTOR was nothing but a major annoyance to me – in fact the only time I’ve really ever been able to tolerate reading the stories of the original X-Men was the Byrne Hidden Years stuff and I wouldn’t call that stuff great), and Silvestri and Lee’s art. I was tolerant of it, but I was never a huge fan of either of them – they certainly held no candle to Byrne or Paul Smith on the title, didn’t measure up to Byrne, Perez, Walt Simonson, other artists on the market at the time whose work I much preferred. So Claremont’s departure on the book was an easy ‘jumping off’ point for me, even though I did continue through UNCANNY #300 just to ’round off’ my collection.

  7. Luis Dantas

    Claremont had good general ideas, but he also had a lot of weaknesses. I know that this is a minority opinion, but I think that one of those weaknesses was characterization. His high concepts demanded a lot of subtle characterization, and he just was not up for the task. IMO he began to run out of steam way back in #138, right after the Dark Phoenix Saga. The ideas where there and they sure sounded exciting, but the implementation resorted to informed traits far too often for confort.

    After that, his X-Men remind me of most Wonder Woman comics in that there is a nagging feeling that we ought to like the experience of reading them, but the proper means just are not there.

    When the time came to spotlight Wolverine, it was clear that he had no idea of what to do with him. To this day the character is lacks any substance, and it was not much better under Claremont. Yet the popularity of the X-Men kept growing and that led to a vicious cycle that exacerbated his shortcomings.

    Soon enough he burdened himself with a mishappen attempt at rehabilitating Magneto, then with sorcery and demons plots involving Illyanna, then Maddelynne Pryor, then utterly out-of-place concepts such as the Technarchy. It was daring, but it wasn’t well written.

    That eventually led to such a lack of direction that Inferno had to happen. Inferno was a lot of depressing smoke and noise surrounding the well necessary removal of much of the crippling baggage that Claremont had imposed on himself at the time. It did not flow at all well and we kept seeing the strings behind the puppets, but it had to happen if the X-books were to remain in publication.

    For a very long time after that – and to a degree, to the present day – the X-Men lost all of their natural flow and appeal and became a cornerstone of an odd consumption ritual.

    1. Louis Bright-Raven

      Well, more like the past 30 + years, so the end of the 20th century at the Big Two, as well, Frasersherman. You can pretty much mark the time with DC’s CRISIS / Shooter’s departure from Marvel, really.

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