Comics You Should Own – ‘Uncanny X-Men’ #96-143

Of course you should own this run of comics, because it introduces the world to Dazzler and is therefore the greatest collection of comics in recorded history!!!!!

(Uncanny) X-Men by Chris Claremont (writer), Bill Mantlo (co-plotter, issues #96, 106), Dave Cockrum (penciler, issues #96-107), John Byrne (penciler, issues #108-109, 111-143; co-plotter, issues #113-143), Bob Brown (penciler, issue #106), Tony DeZuniga (artist, issue #110), Sam Grainger (inker, issues #96-98, 102-104), Frank Chiaramonte (inker, issues #99, 101), Bob Layton (inker, issue #105), Tom Sutton (inker, issue #106), Dan Green (inker, issue #107), Terry Austin (inker, issues #108-109, 111-117, 119-143), Ricardo Villamonte (inker, issue #118), Phil Rachelson (colorist, issue #96), Don Warfield (colorist, issue #97), Janice Cohen (colorist, issue #98), Michele Wolfman (colorist, issue #99), Bonnie Wilford (colorist, issue #100), Andy Yanchus (colorist, issues #101-110), Mary Titus (colorist, issues #111-112), Glynis Wein (colorist, issues #113-114, 116-128, 130-133, 136-143), Francoise Mouly (colorist, issue #115), Bob Sharen (colorist, issues #129, 134-135), Dave Hunt (letterer, issue #96), Annette Kawecki (letterer, issues #97, 100, 110, 113), Joe Rosen (letterer, issues #98, 106-107, 109), Irving Watanabe (letterer, issue #99), John Costanza (letterer, issues #101-103, 119), Bruce Patterson (letterer, issues #104, 112), Tom Orzechowski (letterer, issues #105, 108, 111, 116, 118, 120, 122-143), Denise Wohl (letterer, issue #108), Jean Simek (letterer, issue #114), Rick Parker (letterer, issue #115), Clem Robins (letterer, issue #117), and Diana Albers (letterer, issue #121).

Published by Marvel, 48 issues (#96-143), cover dated December 1975 – March 1981.

SPOILERS, I guess? I mean, are there people who don’t know what happens in this run? And you can click on the images to embiggen them, in case you can’t read all the prose contained within!

There’s a reason why the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne run on X-Men (they only became “uncanny” in issue #114) is so beloved. These are phenomenal comics, and one of those runs that not only have most comics fans read, but one that most comics fans agree is superb. When I first started writing “Comics You Should Own,” I did so with the idea that I would spotlight comics that weren’t as famous, because everyone always talked about runs like this but not other great ones. In that idea, I wouldn’t have written about stuff like this, because of course these are comics that you should own. That idea went by the wayside rather quickly, and I’ve written about comics that everyone loves, such as Simonson’s Thor or Sandman. And so we reach this run, in which Claremont decided to turn Jean Grey into Jesus and see what happened. You know, fun stuff.

Can I write anything new about this run? It’s been dissected so many times, by smarter people than I, so probably not. But it’s probably not a bad thing to be reminded of how amazing these comics are. I’ve read them many, many times, but until I just gave them a re-read, it had probably been 20 years since I had, and I was once again blown away by how stunning they are and how fresh they feel, even 40 years later. I didn’t read them when they first came out, because I was only four years old when the run began and even when it ended, I wasn’t reading comics then. I first read them in the late 1980s, when my best friend let me read them, and eventually I bought them. I own through issue #120 in fancy Marvel Masterworks editions, the first of which is from 1989 and cost a measly 30 dollars. I tracked down issues #121-140 and #143, buying “Days of Future Past” in the nice squarebound edition Marvel published in 1989. Even though I like some of the later issues of Claremont’s run a bit more, that’s simply because I think of those as “my X-Men.” They’re great comics, and I’ll get to them soon enough, but this epic is more renowned for a reason. Claremont and Byrne are at the top of their games here, and the excellence of almost every issue in this run is relentless.

Many of you might think, “Hey, what about Giant-Size X-Men and issues #94-95? Those are part of the run, you know!” Well, sure, and any collected edition worth its salt will begin with those, and as most people who don’t have this already will buy it in collected editions, they’ll read those, too. But if you don’t happen to have this run yet and are committed to buying it in single issues, good luck and have fun spending a shit-ton of money, but you can certainly skip those three issues. Yes, historically they’re important, but they’re just not all that good. Krakoa, The Island That Walks Like A Man, is a silly villain, the brief introductions of the new X-Men are rehashed in better forms many other times, and the way the X-Men defeat Krakoa is sketchy at best. The Count Nefaria issues that follow are noteworthy solely for the fact that Thunderbird dies, but he was a weak (and stereotypical, although that wasn’t as big a problem in the 1970s) character anyway, so they don’t really matter, either. Issue #96 is when Claremont finds his footing (Len Wein wrote Giant-Size X-Men and co-plotted issues #94-95) and began writing his long-term epic. He introduced Moira MacTaggert in this issue, as well as Stephen Lang and his new Sentinel program. Wolverine starts to be “Wolverine” in this issue – he was a rampaging dude in the first few issues, but here we see his hair-trigger temper, as he almost skewers Nightcrawler and rips into Kierrok and then regrets it, commenting how he’s been in therapy to repress his animalistic side but it still comes out. This is also the first issue in which Storm’s claustrophobia rears its head, as she freaks out when she gets dragged into the cairn from which Kierrok accessed our world and she manages to destroy it in her fury. Kierrok is a forgettable foe, coming through a cairn that just happens to be on Xavier’s property (man, what kind of weird place did he buy?), but issue #96 happens to tie into the final Byrne issue, when a demon left behind when the cairn exploded menaces Kitty Pryde, so it’s a good place to start. It feels like a Claremont X-Men comic rather than just a bland 1970s superhero comic, which the previous three issues kind of feel like. With issue #96, the book began to take the form we all know and love.

The idea of turning Jean Grey into Jesus dominates this run, as it begins to take form in issue #97, in which Charles Xavier starts dreaming of Lilandra, his future lover and future ruler of the Shi’ar Empire and in which Eric the Red, who turns out to be a Shi’ar agent, kidnaps Havok and Polaris for seemingly no reason (Claremont often threw stuff against the wall to see what stuck, and Eric’s reasoning for kidnapping Alex and Lorna is so weak that I can’t believe it’s the initial reason for it; I wonder if Claremont had another idea in mind and then altered it when Jean’s story took over the book for a while). Jean’s first appearances as Phoenix last until issue #114, essentially, when she thinks the rest of the X-Men are dead and leaves the country for a time, eventually ending up at Moira’s research facility on Muir Island. Claremont re-introduces her as Phoenix (after checking in with Jean very occasionally in the interim) in #125, when Proteus begins wreaking havoc. By then, she’s already come in contact with Jason Wyngarde and we’re on the way to her ascension as Black Queen and then Dark Phoenix. It’s pretty clear, reading them in hindsight, that Claremont wasn’t quite sure what to do with Jean, so he had to sideline her for a while to figure it out. Once he did, we get stone cold classics, as the X-Men meet the Hellfire Club and Jean turns into a sun-eater. Even after her death, Claremont and Byrne are still dealing with the loss, which is why Byrne’s final issue, #143, is a good place to end this run, rather than with Jean’s death in #137.

Jean-as-Jesus is a fascinating idea, not because it was new, but because of the way Claremont (and Byrne, who co-plotted most of the issues, but I hope you’ll forgive me for just using Claremont’s name as shorthand) wrote it. Most people refer to Phoenix as a “god,” and in fact the X-Men do in the books a few times, but to me, she’s more Jesus, because she’s so human. Obviously, her sacrifices make her more of a Jesus figure as well, but her humanity sets her apart from other characters who have god-like powers, and it provided a template for dozens of comics afterward. She’s also a woman, which Claremont never makes a big deal about but which is always in the subtext, as we can read so much into it simply because of societal expectations and stereotypes. She sacrifices herself both times for the X-Men and even to save humanity in the second case, as she knows she can no longer contain Dark Phoenix, but she also does it for romantic love of Scott Summers, and while this personal connection makes the sacrifices more relatable, one wonders if a male Jesus figure would have had a romantic interest. Her last word as an ordinary human, in X-Men #100, is “Scott!” In that case, she is reborn, but in issue #137, when she sacrifices herself again, she calls Scott’s name once again, and this time there is no resurrection. The love she has for one man both enriches the story and diminishes Jean’s larger sacrifice. Jesus is never quite relatable in the Bible, because he never seems to have a human anchor (Mary Magdalene could have played that role, and perhaps she did in apocryphal Gospels, but the Church scrubbed that from history), but that makes his ultimate sacrifice that much more awesome, as we know he’s doing it for all of humanity. In X-Men #100, Jean is not sacrificing herself for humanity, just for the small group on the shuttle trying to get back to Earth. In issue #137, however, she is sacrificing herself for not only humanity, but all sentient life, yet that is overshadowed by her love for Scott Summers. The final pages of her life are still amazingly stirring, even after we’ve read them so many times for so many years:

Jean being a woman means that Claremont trucks in some stereotypes, as well, and it’s fascinating to look at them because I’m fairly certain not many of them were intentional. One stereotype about women is the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, and Claremont puts this front and center. In the first iteration of the Phoenix, Jean is the “Madonna” stereotype, the mother figure who nurtures and restores. She saves the X-Men, of course, and then we could argue that she literally gives birth to a new universe in issue #108, when she goes inside the M’Krann crystal. Claremont implies as such, linking Jean and the X-Men to the Kabbalah and the “tree of life,” with Jean as “Tiphareth,” the center of the tree. In issue #108, Byrne draws her to imply that she’s giving birth to the neutron galaxy, which is a sphere (an “egg”) underneath her Phoenix form. She is the nurturer, the creator of the new universe. God/Jesus, yes, but the Mother of All, as well. In issue #110, Warhawk, of all people, manages to knock her out with tranquilizer darts because her powers don’t kick in, and then in issue #112, Claremont begins “de-powering” her, as Magneto inexplicably saps her energy. Then she heads off on her world tour, ending up in Scotland. There, she begins the transformation into the other side of the stereotype, the Whore (Claremont wouldn’t be so crass as to consider that, and it might be an ugly word to describe Jean, but it fits). In issue #122, we first see Jason Wyngard, and Jean thinks that he’s handsome. In #125, we discover that Wyngard has been following her on her journeys, disguised as different people, but making her more accepting of strangers. It’s also the first time we see her as the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club, which of course means wearing a merry widow corset and little else. This is also the first issue in which she “time-jumps” to the 18th century, when she and Wyngard are already lovers. In #126, she again believes she’s living in the 1700s, this time on a hunt with Wyngard, with Claremont narrating: “Her pulse quickens at the sight and sound of him, her thoughts turning to the days — and nights — to come.” It’s even her idea to hunt a man, which Wyngard says is a capital idea. At this point, it’s unclear whether Jean and Scott have even had sex, yet Claremont is making Jean excited by the thought of sex with Wyngard, and her idea about hunting a man is nice foreshadowing to her role as Destroyer (even though we know it’s not really “her” idea, as Wyngard is manipulating the simulation). Her powers are almost useless against Proteus, which goes with her “de-powering” that Claremont had been toying with, and Proteus defeats her fairly easily in issue #128. In issue #129, she and Scott re-affirm their love for each other even as the time-jump illusions grow stronger, and finally, in #130, Wyngard “marries” her in an illusion, and Scott sees them kissing passionately. Scott thinks “I’ve never seen her act like that – it was as if she wasn’t Jean at all, only someone who looked like her.” This could be read as a long game leading to the retcon of Jean coming back to life years later, but it also fits the idea of Virginal Jean becoming the Whorish Black Queen and then Dark Phoenix – Scott doesn’t recognize the woman who kisses so passionately, because their love has always been pure and, it’s implied, chaste. In issue #131, she and Emma Frost battle, and we see the evil creeping into her when she confronts the White Queen:

Later in the issue, after Emma has been “killed” (she got better!), Ororo is the next person to sense something about Jean. When Scott asks her how she seemed during the fight, Storm says she was “Not human. When she uses her power — as Phoenix — there is a ferocity about her … and a grandeur … She has changed so much.” Obviously, by now Claremont knew where he was going with the story, so he could put words like this in the book and know it would pay off. As we see in the next issue, when the X-Men visit New Mexico and the home of Warren Worthington, she and Scott fly out to a mesa and get it on, and it’s implied this might be the first time they ever have, and it’s after Jean has begun to change into “Evil Jean,” which isn’t a coincidence. In the same issue, she becomes the Black Queen fully. She embraces her cruelty in issue #133, striking Storm when she thinks Ororo is an uppity slave, but the shock of seeing Scott get “killed” in Mastermind’s past drags the “Good Jean” back to the surface in issue #134, but she’s certainly not completely back, as she tracks down Wyngarde and gives him what he wants, driving him insane in the process:

The old Jean would never have done that, of course, and it’s a mark of how well Claremont and Byrne have structured the issues that she arrives at this point organically, and how it’s an easy step to Dark Phoenix, which she appears as for the first time at the end of the issue. If Mastermind can corrupt her and she can make him pay in this way, why shouldn’t every other corrupt thing in the universe pay as well? Of course, to a god-like being, everything looks corrupt, and that leads to the final stages of Jean’s life. She destroys D’Bari, killing billions of sentient beings in the process, and then wipes out the Shi’ar starship, which brings Lilandra back into the picture. She returns to Earth and almost kills the X-Men, but Scott’s love and Xavier’s power saves them and her at the last second. She has to pay for the murder of the five billion inhabitants of D’Bari’s system, and so, in issue #137, she sacrifices herself again. But if we get back to the stereotypes that Claremont is working with (whether consciously or not), we see in Dark Phoenix a hysterical reaction of a woman who has been treated poorly by men. Mastermind manipulates her and, we could argue, rapes her (it’s clear he never actually has sex with her, but in her mind, she believes she does, and it’s under false pretenses, so the argument could be made), and she responds by succumbing because she believes she loves him, but it’s only the “death” of her true love that snaps her out of it, and then she goes completely nuts. Her revenge is certainly satisfying, but it seems like a “female” thing, one a more level-headed man would never exact, although that could be me reading too much into it. Her transformation into Dark Phoenix, however, is the ultimate shift from Madonna to Whore – no, she doesn’t suddenly start having sex with everyone, but the Madonna is also the “mother” trope, and early in her incarnation as Phoenix, she is certainly the nurturer. The “Whore” trope can also be seen as a destroyer, a woman with no sense of propriety, who wrecks the ordered life of marriage and society, and Jean certainly destroys quite a lot in her brief time as Dark Phoenix. As she shifts to her “evil” side, we’ve seen, she’s more willing to indulge her sexual side, and even the coloring of her costume indicates the shift. When we first see Phoenix, her costume is green, which links her to her original Marvel Girl outfit, but it’s also the color of fertility and nature, and Phoenix basically recreates a universe, becoming the most fertile mother in history. When she shifts to Dark Phoenix, she is colored red, the color of blood and passion, and Dark Phoenix is certainly more passionate than Phoenix was, in a bad way. Red is also the color of destruction, and it’s perfectly complementary to green, providing a nice visual cue that this Phoenix is the antithesis of the one who saved the universe. Red is bad-ass, yes, but I would argue that it symbolically shows the shift from “Good Jean” to “Evil Jean” well, and it’s another feminine shift from the Mother to the Harpy. Again, it’s probably unconscious – Phoenix originally wore green to link her to Marvel Girl, and she shifted to red because red looks awesome – but it’s interesting that those two colors were the ones used.

The other thing Claremont does well is limit Phoenix, as he realized that she would be too powerful to be on the team, another thing that has always vexed writers when they go this route. After her initial burst of power in the M’Krann crystal, Claremont figures out ways to take her out of action, usually when people catch her by surprise. Magneto is able to defeat her because he’s older and wiser, plus he’s been rejuvenated by is stint as a baby (don’t ask; it’s comics!). Then, of course, Jean thinks the X-Men are dead, which affects her psychologically. She doesn’t know much about her powers, so Proteus is able to hold his own against her, and by then Jason Wyngarde has his hooks in her. The Jesus parallel becomes more obvious as Mastermind tempts her, and she almost falls, coming out of it only when Scott “dies.” Only then is the full force of the Phoenix unleashed, and Claremont cleverly makes sure that Jean is never irredeemable (I’m not getting into the famous controversy over who wanted to kill Jean off and who wanted to save her here), so that her “fall” comes from a place of love and is therefore understandable. She resists the obvious temptation from Wyngarde but can’t avoid the less obvious temptation of godhood because she wants revenge on the man who twisted her so much. The “de-powering” of Phoenix always feels like a plot point, but Claremont does a nice job kicking the can down the road for a few years, which makes Jean’s acceptance of the power even more tragic. She doesn’t do it selfishly, either when she first becomes Phoenix in #101 or when she finally turns to the dark side in #134, and that’s the horror of her decision. Claremont knows this, and her powerlessness in so many situations becomes a bit more metaphorical, which is a nice touch.

Obviously, while the story of Jean-as-Jesus drives the plot, Claremont’s genius lay in taking these characters and making them real, and this run on X-Men is so good because we care about the characters early on and remain that way throughout Claremont’s long association with the book, beyond issue #143. Despite Marvel’s insistence that their comics in the 1960s were different than DC’s because they treated the characters like “real” people, the writing on the books is often painfully stilted, and the raw emotional torment the characters went through screamed soap opera rather than “realism.” No one is going to accuse Claremont of being the most realistic writer, but his X-Men felt different than the 1960s Marvel characters because they were, for one, nicer to each other more often than, say, the Fantastic Four were to each other, but also because Claremont realized that if he was going to lean into the entire “mutant racism” angle that the X-Men had always flirted with, he needed characters that couldn’t “pass” as human. The original X-Men could easily blend into society, as could 75% of the Fantastic Four and that chap with the spider powers. So Claremont gave us a black woman with white hair and blue eyes to hit the racism angle harder, a blue-skinned, furry demon character so he could lean into the religious intolerance angle, and even a Russian communist in case he wanted to lean into that down the road (which he never really did; Peter, in fact, seems to move from Russia to the United States with remarkable ease). With Kurt Wagner, he got to explore the idea of accepting yourself, as Kurt gradually gets rid of the “image inducer” he uses early in the run and starts walking around in public as himself. Late in the run, we get Kitty Pryde, of course, who is going through puberty (another metaphor for mutant powers), which adds another wrinkle to the mutant theme, and is Jewish, which is another angle Claremont could use in his allegory (her last name is on point, too, which isn’t surprising in a comic-book world). He throws in Sean Cassidy to link the team to the past a bit (which he does with Cyclops, mostly), but also to add another layer to the storytelling, as Banshee is a reformed criminal, so the prejudicial angle could easily be turned against him. Claremont will develop these characters more in later years, but he does a nice job with the foundations, especially with Ororo, whose convoluted origin story has been retconned a little (she no longer loses her parents during the Suez War, naturally, as that would peg her to firmly in time) but which gives us an unusual problem – claustrophobia – and a fairly logical reason why Professor Xavier found her in Kenya. As the only woman on the team who doesn’t turn into God, she has a good role in the book, as Claremont makes her feminine but not stereotypically so, so that she’s the only one on the team who raises plants, for instance, but she’s also obviously going to be the team leader the instant Cyclops goes off and has his little whining sessions. Claremont does a good job making these characters a family, as they get along and argue in equal measure, but he also has the room to show how they grow into their roles on the team. We see the bonds they forge because it happens in “real time,” not magically overnight, and therefore the reader is more invested in the success of the team.

Of course, the break-out star of the book is Wolverine, and with the accretion of 40 years’ worth of overexposure, it’s easy to forget how damned cool Logan was back in the early days. Wolverine is the most interesting because he’s the most mysterious – yes, Kurt looks like a demon and he doesn’t know the truth about his ancestry, but Claremont rarely mentions this during his time on the book and Nightcrawler was never popular enough for it to matter too much – and because he’s kind of the stereotypical anti-hero. He has “short man syndrome,” as he walks around with an inferiority complex because he’s literally looking up at people; he doesn’t think anyone can love him because he’s short and ugly, so the forced love triangle with Jean and Scott makes him the wronged party by default, which endears him to readers; he’s kind of a nerd when it comes to women, as he buys flowers awkwardly for Jean in issue #101 and then throws them away when he realizes that he’s not the only one who cares about her; he has a charming courtship with Mariko Yashida that shows he’s not all gruff. But his exterior is all tough guy, which makes him an attractive character to write, and Claremont has a ball with him. It begins with Giant-Size X-Men, in which he resigns his commission in the Canadian army by slicing his superior’s tie with one claw, which gives us a good idea of what kind of person he is. He doesn’t do much in those first few issues, and in issue #96, we again get a sense of how hot-blooded he is when he tries to slash Kurt when Kurt laughs at him. He has no manners, as he carves a tic-tac-toe game into Xavier’s desk in issue #96 (a great visual cue by Dave Cockrum, unless Claremont told him to put it in), and as I noted above, he tears into Kierrok even though he’s been in therapy to stop that sort of thing. This is a very 1970s theme, and Claremont hits it a bit hard (when Claremont tries to look up “subtlety” in his dictionary, he’s surprised to find that it’s not there), but it’s fascinating that Claremont was willing to humanize his hero so quickly after showing what a bad-ass he is. Most writers would have let the bad-assery dominate for years before bringing in regret, but not Claremont.

Wolverine is still Wolverine, though, so Claremont has to turn him against Scott to make the love triangle with Jean work, and at the end of issue #97, Scott allows Eric the Red to escape rather than shoot down the man carrying his brother. Wolverine freaks out at this and they almost come to blows, but Ororo, showing that team leadership again, steps in and stops it. Wolverine has no interest in joining the Christmas festivities in New York in issue #98, because he’s such a loner, but when Stephen Lang slaps Jean after they’ve been captured, that inspires Wolverine to break free of his restraints. This brings up another seminal moment in the life of Wolverine, as no one, it seems, knew this before:

This ties into the fact that no one, not even Claremont, seemed to know what Wolverine’s mutant power was. It seemed, early on, that Claremont was leaning into his heightened senses as being the power, but that never really went anywhere. In issue #128, for instance, Cyclops wastes precious time in the fight against Proteus because he uses his optic beams to “catch” Wolverine when he’s falling, and he thinks that not even Wolverine can survive a fall from the height, even though he’s survived a lot worse because of his healing factor. Even in issue #133, Wolverine himself doesn’t mention it when he’s shit-talking the Hellfire Club guards, and Storm doesn’t mention it in issue #142, so maybe even then Claremont didn’t know what his power was. The earliest indication of his mutant power is, as far as I can find, issue #116, when he tells Storm that he heals fast. But that’s glossed over and not explored, so who knows what Claremont thought. This lack of a specific power makes Wolverine even more mysterious.

It takes Claremont until issue #103 to give him a name, when the … sigh … leprechauns call him “Logan.” It takes much longer for his teammates to learn it (Kurt learns it in issue #139 and he is the first of the team to know), because no one ever asks him (which seems strange, but okay). Claremont wisely makes sure that Wolverine isn’t all-powerful in these early issues, too, which is nice. In fact, he gets knocked around by most of the foes in the early issues, mostly because he’s so hot-headed that he just charges into battle without thinking. Claremont occasionally plays it for laughs, as when Jahf knocks him into orbit in issue #108, but usually it’s just to show how unhinged he can be and how much he struggles with it. Claremont begins turning Logan into something different, though, and it’s this give-and-take that makes him so interesting. We saw his concern for Jean in issue #101, but we can put that down to a man keen to get laid and steal a woman from a stuck-up prig. In issue #109, Wolverine says he’s going hunting, and Ororo gets angry at him for killing innocent animals, but he tells her that he doesn’t kill them, just gets close enough to touch them. It’s another little tidbit that shows us how much deeper Logan is than he first seemed. This makes him more than just a killer, so when he begins to be the Wolverine we all know and love, in the classic issue #133, when he fights the Hellfire Club’s guards alone, we’re much more on his side than if he had just been a hot-headed punk. After that issue, Logan begins to be more the star, but Claremont is still able to keep him mysterious. He shows his complex side more and more, as when he talks Snowbird out of her feral state in issue #140, and he has a leadership role in the future in issues #141-142. But he’s also still full of rage, as when he almost attacks Kurt in issue #143 when Kurt tries to innocently kiss Mariko under the mistletoe. At this point, Wolverine was a fascinating character, and where Claremont did some of his best work with him is in his relationship with Jean.

The Jean-Scott-Logan love triangle is one of the most forced sub-plots in comic book history, and has never really worked as well as the countless writers who have tackled it think it does. The first time Wolverine talks to Jean, he’s telling her to scram in issue #94, as she wants to live on her own for a while. In issue #98, he seems to have no interest in her at the beginning, but when Stephen Lang slaps Jean later, Logan goes into “protective man” mode and freaks out a little. He tries to convince her not to throw away her life in issue #100, but that seems just like concern for a person who’s basically about to commit suicide, not love. Then we get the aforementioned flower-buying incident, and a few minutes after that, Logan gets angry when Xavier sends them on an “enforced vacation” because he wants to stay with Jean. We get nothing else about their relationship until issue #110, when Jean calms him down after he gets angry during a baseball game and Wolverine muses that he never cared about love until he met her, but again, this comes a little bit out of nowhere. Then the X-Men end up in the Savage Land and they think Jean’s dead, and at one point, Wolverine hallucinates that Scott is fighting Jean and he almost kills him, but while the attack is ferocious, Wolverine believes that Cyclops is hurting a teammate, and it doesn’t reach the point where he thinks about how much he loves Jean. Logan meets Mariko in issue #118, and it appears that Claremont is going to put the love triangle on the back burner, as Logan even muses in #123 that his crush on Jean was fine for a present-day thing, but Mariko might be worth more of a commitment. They don’t really have a reunion in issue #126, as only Scott gets one individually with Jean, so it seemed like Claremont had eased off completely. But then in issue #128, when Proteus grievously hurts Jean, Logan freaks out and says “I loved that lady” before ripping into the villain with his claws. Yes, it’s in the past tense, but still. All of this might not make the love Wolverine has for Jean the most convincing, but it does lead to some great moments in the Dark Phoenix issues, as Wolverine has become less of an animal and more of a man. This is most evident when Wolverine has a chance to kill her, but at the last second he can’t do it. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it still works wonderfully:

The triangle never became such a major plot point in these issues, although it would never really go away, either. Claremont did just enough to make it clear that Logan had feelings for Jean, but presumably he didn’t want to make him such a heel that he would steal her from Scott, because this was still during a time period when men were seen to “steal” women without much thought given to the woman’s agency in the matter. Claremont wrote women quite well, but even he was still a product of his time. The love triangle is always a bit clunky, but with these early issues, it was more about showing that Wolverine had the capacity for love rather than him trying to break up Scott and Jean, and it worked well in that regard.

Claremont is helped in all these endeavors by his penciler and co-plotter, Byrne. Dave Cockrum provides serviceable art for the first 14 issues of the run (I’ll include the first three issues that I don’t think are all that good), but while Cockrum and Byrne both started in the comic book industry at about the same time, Cockrum was seven years older than Byrne and seemed to be from a different school, style-wise, than Byrne. Cockrum’s art is solid but a bit stiff, and it feels more like 1960s art in the vein of John Buscema and John Romita than Byrne’s, which has a much more 1970s feel and it clearly in the style of Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Mike Grell, the Young Turks of comics who forged an art revolution in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Cockrum obviously gets to draw Phoenix the first time, and she looks perfectly fine. But when Byrne gets to draw her, she is a terrifying example of snake-like beauty and evil:

Byrne is a better artist than Cockrum, but it’s also that his style fits a kinetic action book, as his figures are a bit more rounded than Cockrum’s are, making them more realistic, and while both Cockrum and Byrne are very good storytellers, Byrne does a better job with the cramped confines of 1970s comics, as he always knows where everyone is in relation to each other, and he manages to squeeze more detail into each panel, giving us a meatier read. We see this in such disparate places as Garokk’s city in issue #116 to the horrific shooting alley that Ororo finds in issue #122, from the sleazy disco where Dazzler sings to the opulence of the Hellfire Club. Byrne gives us a marvelous sense of place, no matter where his cast goes. Of course, he does amazing work on the “big” issues of the run, from the distorted reality crated by Proteus, which shows his imaginative side, to the cramped confines of the Hellfire Club, making the fight inside the brownstone even more tense and exciting. The tour de force of Logan ripping apart the Hellfire Club’s goons is so white-knuckling because it takes place in such close quarters, with the fighters close enough to inflict real damage, so while it’s only a few pages long, it’s so intense that it doesn’t matter. Byrne’s Phoenix effect is wonderful, a fluid fire creature that is both beautiful and terrifying, something we can believe can both restore and destroy a galaxy, while Cockrum’s looks just a bit smaller and less cosmic. Of course issue #137 is a masterpiece, both of writing and of art, as Byrne makes us believe that these titanic beings are clashing with each other and destroying the very structures around them. The two-page fight between Colossus and Gladiator is astonishing, mainly because Byrne manages to get so much onto those pages that so many other creators would have stretched out – Byrne doesn’t need to do it to show us the impact a fight between these two would have. Finally, in issue #143, Byrne does so much to make the fight between Kitty and the demon unfair, as the creature is so much larger and faster than Kitty, and even though it’s no a movie and therefore Byrne loses the element of motion that makes horror movies so effective, he still manages to make it unbelievably tense and even believable that Kitty would last as long as she does and triumph the way she does. It’s a superb ending to his run.

Byrne, of course, is assisted by Terry Austin, one of the best inkers in comics history, and while its tough to tell what the inker does in some places (I don’t know how detailed Byrne is with his pencils), we can still see the effect Austin has on the art. Austin skips one issue of Byrne’s art, and Ricardo Villamonte’s inks give us a looser feel to the art, as the hatching is not as precise and the blacks are less evident, which means the faces aren’t quite as nuanced. Austin uses blacks well throughout the book, adding depth to faces and dimensions to the misc-en-scene. His hatching and stippling add nice shades to the art, heightening the “realism” of Byrne’s work. Again, I don’t know how much Austin added after Byrne drew it, but I can’t imagine this classic panel of Wolverine would look anywhere near as good as it does if Austin hadn’t inked it:

It’s the small touches that make or break inking, and Austin knows where to do that well, which is partly why the art looks so good on this run. Cockrum was inked primarily by Sam Grainger, who’s like Cockrum in that he’s perfectly serviceable but he doesn’t transform art, as Austin can do. Byrne and Austin were a perfect combination, and the fact that Byrne was able to draw 35 of the 36 issues once Cockrum left (and, of course, Cockrum stayed on schedule as well) means that the book has a wonderfully consistent feel to it. It wasn’t even bi-monthly for long when Byrne came on board – the last month it skipped was July 1978, after issue #111. So Byrne was drawing it monthly, and while the issues were shorter (the issues were 17 pages long until issue #139, when a ten-cent price increase came with – shocking! – an increase in pages, to 22), that’s still an amazing achievement, especially given the dense issues he had to draw.

Byrne and Claremont fell out, of course, and Byrne left the book after issue #143. He began getting credit as a co-plotter almost immediately, but who knows if he was contributing in that regard prior to issue #113. I could make the case that every single issue that Byrne drew on this comic is a stone cold classic, even the “minor” ones like the Japan issues or the Canada issues. It’s not a stretch to say that beginning with issue #125, the book went through perhaps the single greatest year of issues in comics history – issues #125, 126, 127, and 128: Proteus; issue #129: the introduction of Kitty Pryde and the Hellfire Club; issue #130: the introduction of Dazzler; issues #131, 132, 133, and 134: the fight against the Hellfire Club and the emergence of Jean as Black Queen and then Dark Phoenix; issues #135, 136, and 137: Dark Phoenix. Then, after a recap issue #138, we get the two-part Wendigo story, which is very good but not quite a classic, and then “Days of Future Past” and Kitty versus the Demon. So of the final 19 Claremont/Byrne issues, you could easily make the argument that 16 of them are among the best superhero comics ever. That ain’t a bad track record at all. This was before Claremont’s writing tics became too evident (no “I’m the best there is at what I do,” for instance), and it was just before Byrne decided he could script as good as anyone, so why did he need Claremont? (Byrne left the book because he and Claremont no longer saw eye-to-eye about how Claremont wrote the dialogue.) This collaboration is one of the most fruitful in comics history, and while it couldn’t last forever, the sheer excellence of the comics they produced and the immense influence those comics had on Marvel history is staggering to think about.

This run has been collected so many times it’s almost impossible to think of a comic book fan who hasn’t read it, but on the off chance that you’re one of them, I linked to the Dark Phoenix Saga below, and it’s easy to find the rest in some kind of collection. The original issues are fairly expensive, but they have all those cool 1970s advertisements, so there that! There’s really not reason no to read there comics. There’s a reason they always finish high in polls about the best comics ever. They really are that good!

10 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    What? GSX #1 and #s 95-96 not that good?! Why, they’re worth it simply to see Nightcrawler call Frog-man “Herr Frosch.”
    I kid, of course. Those issues are important as set-up, but yeah, story-wise they aren’t that strong. However, I have to say that when I first learned about the existence of Thunderbird (in X-men #138), I was fascinated by the character and kind of sorry that he was eliminated so soon.
    Can’t disagree with any of your superlatives concerning this run. I jumped on with issue #120, right in the thick of the Claremont-Byrne-Austin run, right at the perfect age, 10 going on 11. As soon as I read that issue I knew I *had* to have this book every month. And yes, when I re-read this as an adult, the stories lost none of their immediacy and relevance for me.

    While I think your observation of Jean-as-Jesus certainly has validity, I find the Madonna-Whore thing a bit strained. First of all, even in more recent readings, I never got the impression that Jean and Scott got it on for the first time (either with each other or in general) on that mesa. Quite the opposite: to me, it seemed to be implied that their relationship was more than hand-holding and occasionally kissing, i.e., that they were in fact also having sex, even before Jean became Phoenix. (And something that may be neither here nor there is that Scott almost went all the way with Colleen Wing before he found out Jean was alive.) Second, I also thought it was rather strongly implied that Jean may have had sex with one of the guises Mastermind/Wyngarde assumed when they encountered each other on a beach in Greece (although I’ll acknowledge that maybe I’m reading too much into that one panel…) So basically, I’m saying I don’t think that a) she only lost her virginity on that mesa, and b) I don’t think the question of whether she was sexually experienced had any bearing on her succumbing to the dark side of her immense power.
    And then there’s the whole supposed love-triangle thing. Based on my readings of the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne run, I’ve never found any indication that that triangle existed anywhere except in Wolverine’s head – as you seem to suggest, it was more of a device for readers to get to know Wolverine. Nowhere in the run do we see Jean show any sign of being even a little attracted to Wolverine, nor do we even see Scott seem troubled, much less, jealous, of any potential competition from Logan. That stuff was sort of shoe-horned in later, once Wolverine became one of Marvel’s superstar characters. (And I could go on about how little I liked that turn of events, but I think I’ve droned on enough…)

    1. Greg Burgas

      Edo: It’s pretty cool that the issues still stand up. I know some comics from childhood really don’t, but we idealize them because of when we read them. These are still terrific.

      Part of the problem with the sex thing is that it’s 1970s mainstream comics, so sex is not really acknowledged. It’s hard to figure out if Scott and Jean were having sex before their night on the mesa, and so I was just going by my impressions. I know that Scott almost moved in with Colleen, but again, not much of their relationship was on the page, so it had to be implied. Frustrating. The Greek dude that romances Jean … yeah, he only shows up in one panel, and so I decided to ignore him, even though in a Classic X-Men back-up story, that panel gets expanded and yes, it’s strongly implied they have sex. I decided not to use Classic X-Men stuff, though, because it came out so many years later and there was plenty of retconning in them, like Logan’s healing factor being well known or even Claremont turning the random woman that Kurt meets in issue #98 into Amanda Sefton. So yeah, while I’m not saying I’m right and you’re wrong or vice versa, I admit that I’m stretching a little bit, because it’s so hard to read sex into a Marvel comic from the 1970s/early 1980s. And I imagine that, like the green/red dynamic, so much of the sexual implications in the book was unconscious.

      I agree that the love triangle in these issues was really one-sided, but I wanted to bring it up because of how it humanized Logan and also because so many other writers, Claremont included, ran with it in later issues. But yeah, I don’t like it very much, and it’s weird that that’s how Claremont decided to humanize Logan.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        Hmm, didn’t even know about that back-up story. I had temporarily dropped out of comics reading by the time Classic X-men got around to reprinting the issues when Byrne took over as artist, so I never saw that one. But yeah, I remember that there was a lot of retconning in those back-ups.

  2. Louis Bright-Raven

    Greg:

    A simple Google search of “John Byrne X-Men Pencils” or “John Byrne 70s & 80s Pencils” will bring up various examples of his pencil work from that era be it the X-Men or his Spider-Man Marvel Team Ups, Avengers, Iron Fist, what have you. You can see that John drew very tightly and extremely detailed in his own right. What Terry Austin did that other inkers didn’t, was he was a master with technical pens in addition to pen and brush, particularly on backgrounds / architectural / mechanical stuff, and as such he could draw with a much thinner line weight than other inkers could. This created a level of depth to the art that nobody else could match, and often critics of Byrne will say he was ‘lazy’ on other books he penciled that Austin didn’t ink (Byrne wasn’t; it was just that Terry added layers of stuff in backgrounds and shading that other inkers didn’t because THEY were lazy). The other thing that Terry added, was zip-a-tone and duo-shade screen effects that created yet more layers of shading and lighting effects that weren’t there otherwise. To give you an example, there’s a splash page of Magneto behind a table / desk from issue #111-113 thereabouts (I believe when he’s captured them and they’re inside his mountain lair with the robot nanny) where he’s got all kinds of different levels of what you referred to as ‘stippling’ / pointillism. Those are actually zip-a-tone cutouts that were layered onto the original board. Part of the reason this was done was because of the era of newsprint and the limitations of what the paper stock could handle in terms of ink.

    Byrne left the super-tight pencils behind in the mid to late eighties and early nineties, starting about midway through his run on ALPHA FLIGHT, but particularly when he started regularly inking himself starting with the OMAC miniseries, which he drew on duo-shade boards, which allowed for him to add all those hatch effects by brushing a special solution over the boards in certain areas. He continued to do this on certain issues of NAMOR, NEXT MEN and DANGER UNLIMITED. Byrne did this partly to try to recreate the “Austin effect” in his work on his own, I suspect. It worked to a certain level of degree in its own right. But due to the expense of the boards and the extra time it takes to do that work process (and him not getting paid any more money for it and fans not really appreciating it to be honest), he stopped doing that.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Thanks, Louis. Good to know! I didn’t mention the duo-tone stuff in this run, mainly because it wasn’t as prevalent as, say, when Byrne did it on Namor. But it does add a nice effect to things. It’s too bad not a lot of artists use the effect these days (one would think it would be easier doing it digitally, but I guess not).

  3. Louis Bright-Raven

    “It’s too bad not a lot of artists use the effect these days (one would think it would be easier doing it digitally, but I guess not).”

    1) Too many of the popular pencilers today over-render their work, leaving the inker less time to work and honestly throwing in duotones would probably ‘muddy’ the art worse than what it already is.

    2) The prevailing attitude editorially today is let the colorists handle the lighting and shadows, instead of the line art, which is a big reason why so much comics art today ‘sucks’ comparative to earlier eras. It’s also why when you see all these old 60s to early 80s comics being reprinted and digitally remastered in computer color, it often looks like crap.

    3) Yes, there are computer programs that give you some levels of effects (including emulating these effects in Photoshop in more recent versions of the program and some other programs that I don’t own so I can’t think of their names right now), but that’s more software to buy and learn how to use, plus if it’s going to be computer colored, it often gets overpowered and defeats the purpose of having done the work. If you’re doing B&W, then yes, it can be awesome. But as you know, a large percentage of American comics fans are rather snobbish and foolishly turn their noses up at B&W comics.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Louis: Yeah, a lot of pencils go straight to colors these days, which means we get different kinds of shading. Now that digital colorists have figured some things out, it doesn’t look quite as horrid as it used to, but you’re right that we lose some of the cool stuff inkers could do. And more comics should be in black and white! 🙂

  4. Peter

    Great write-up, Greg. I don’t really have much else to say except to add to the consensus that these issues hold up remarkably well. I think the last time I re-read any of these issues was right before the “Days of Future Past” movie was released, and boy howdy, they still hit the spot.

    The other thing that I find remarkable about this run is that you could pick up pretty much any issue as a starting point and become completely engrossed by page 3. I think the first issue I ever read was the 2nd issue of the Proteus storyline, and I was hooked! I think people tend to single out Claremont’s X-Men as the point when continuity started to become more of an impenetrable shield to potential new readers rather than a tool to add texture to characters and their universe. While the web of plots and sub-plots in his stories did become gigantic, I think Claremont actually did a great job juggling all of those threads. Every issue was a satisfying reading experience with a beginning, middle, and end even though some plots could continue across dozens (or hundreds) of installments. I’ve read a couple of #1 issues of recent X-Men comics out of morbid curiosity, and I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. They were far worse “jumping-on points” than any random issue from the 70s or 80s, and they were paced as if one just cut out an arbitrary number of minutes from a movie and called it Part 1of a TV show rather than putting in the work to craft a satisfying pilot (if that makes sense).

    1. Greg Burgas

      Peter: That’s an excellent point. When I first read these, I think I started with #137, which is not really the best place to start! But it was told so well (and, sure, they had extra pages to work with) that even though I knew what the end was, I really wanted to find out how we got there! Claremont did introduce a lot of elements that took forever to pay off, but they were often so brief that it didn’t interfere with the main story, and often they were incorporated quite well into the main story and only later did they become plot points on their own, which is pretty clever. I hate to sound like an old man, but superhero comics from the Big Two today are much less “reader-friendly” in terms of new readers, and it is quite frustrating.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.