Yes, it’s time for more X-Men. Get used to it!!!!!
Uncanny X-Men / Wolverine by Chris Claremont (writer), Paul Smith (penciler, issues #167-170, 172-175), Walt Simonson (penciler, issue #171), John Romita Jr. (penciler, issue #175), Frank Miller (penciler, Wolverine #1-4), Bob Wiacek (inker, issues #167-175), Josef Rubinstein (finisher, Wolverine #1-4), Andy Yanchus (colorist, issue #167), Glynis Wein (colorist, issues #167-168, 171-175; Wolverine #1-3), Bob Sharen (colorist, issue #169), Paul Becton (colorist, issue #170), Janine Casey (colorist, issue $170), Lynn Varley (colorist, Wolverine #4), and Tom Orzechowski (letterer).
Published by Marvel, 13 issues (#167-175 and Wolverine #1-4), cover dated March – November 1983 (X-Men) and September – December 1982 (Wolverine). (Wolverine is actually set between issues #168 and #172.)
SPOILERS, I suppose. I mean, it’s not like these comics are famous or anything! And you can click on the smaller images to make them bigger, because occasionally they’re hard to see. Sorry about that!
After John Byrne left Uncanny X-Men with issue #143, the book floundered a bit for a while. All comics writers, to a degree, are affected by the artists they work with, but Chris Claremont, perhaps, is the starkest example of this, as his scripts with lesser artists pale when compared to those with better artists. Dave Cockrum, who returned to the book after Byrne left, is a solid artist, but he lacks the visual flair that Byrne has, and his storytelling isn’t as good, so Claremont’s scripts either got worse or were perceived as being worse, and the book, while still a pretty good read, slipped down in quality slightly. It’s not a surprise that the best issues of the next 20 or so were the ones drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz and Brent Anderson. It also didn’t help that Claremont sent the X-Men into space, where many writers have sent them and where things rarely work as well as they think they will. The original Phoenix story took place in deep space, of course, and years later, Claremont would send the X-Men into space to rescue Professor Xavier, but the X-Men in space misses more than it hits, and Claremont compounded the problem by keeping them in space a really long time. The Brood saga feels interminable even today, when we know it’s a lot shorter than it seems, and I can’t imagine what it felt like back in 1982, when it was coming out monthly. Toward the end of the Brood story, however, Paul Smith came on board as penciler, and beginning with issue #167, which is the final chapter of the Brood saga but also stands a nice “new beginning” for the team, the book got good again. Smith worked on the book only briefly (ten full issues, and while he didn’t pencil all of #175, he drew 29 pages of it – it was longer than usual – which is why I’m counting it as part of the ten; and people who can count will notice that this run is shorter than ten issues, but Smith drew issues #165-66, which are part of the Brood saga), but his legacy on the book is almost as strong as Byrne’s, so great was his impact. Plus, Claremont seemed reinvigorated by Smith’s presence, and during this run, we get perhaps the single best issue of the Uncanny X-Men, so that’s something.
As I noted, putting the X-Men into space never works too well, and it’s partly because we lose what makes the X-Men great, and that’s the fact that people don’t like them very much. We also get a bunch of characters that just aren’t that compelling, and the X-Men almost get lost in the shuffle. Lilandra and Deathbird’s imperial machinations have never been that interesting, although Deathbird, at least, became moderately more interesting over the years. The Starjammers are also not terribly interesting, and Claremont spent a lot of time trying to make readers care about Corsair and the tragic way he lost his son, Cyclops. As Scott isn’t the most interesting character in the world, Corsair comes off as less interesting simply by being adjacent to Scott. The Brood are great villains, but they actually work better on Earth – as their reappearance, years hence, will show. Claremont also really liked Carol Danvers, and a lot of the time in space was spent turning her into Binary, and while she’s not a bad character, she feels kind of awkwardly crammed into the X-Men. Claremont used her very briefly in this run, and then sent her into space for a time, which was the right move. At the beginning of this run, they have defeated the Brood but figure out that Professor Xavier is infested with a Brood queen, so they return to Earth in issue #167. They fight the New Mutants for a few pages until they realize they’re all on the same page, and then manage to rescue Xavier in the comiciest way possible – Lilandra clones his body and puts Xavier’s still unaffected brain into it, repairing his legs in the process. Comics are awesome, you guys.
One way Claremont made these issues better than the ones that preceded them is by getting a bit back to basics and playing some greatest hits. The X-Men are interesting when they’re dealing with slightly more realistic problems, but also when they’re growing and changing, forming relationships and seeing how those play out. Claremont did this a bit with Cyclops and Lee Forrester in the #144-166 interregnum, but he dropped that when Scott went into space. When he got them back to Earth, the first thing he did was have Xavier demote Kitty to the New Mutants, which she resisted. Many comics writers are not good at writing people younger than they, but in his early 30s, Claremont was able to make Kitty both really annoying but also true-to-life – she reacted much like a 14-year-old would. This allowed Claremont to do a riff on issue #143, as Kitty investigates something weird and finds some of the Sidri, the aliens that destroyed the mansion back when the Brood were first introduced in #154. Kitty has to fight alone (well, with the assistance of her dragon, Lockheed, who followed the team back to Earth from space) for a few pages, and she acquits herself just as well as when she fought the demon in #143, except this time Xavier is paying attention, and he decides she is mature enough to stick with the X-Men. In the same issue, Claremont goes for another “greatest hit” as he introduces Madelyne Pryor, around whom much of the rest of Paul Smith’s run will revolve. By grounding (pun and metaphor intended) the X-Men back in New York (when the mansion was destroyed and before they went into space, the made their headquarters on the island Magneto used to attack the world in issue #150, which took them out of their comfort zone a bit even before they went intergalactic), Claremont resets a bit, and the results are terrific.
In issue #169-170, Claremont introduces the Morlocks, another great decision – Claremont had already introduced Caliban, so his idea that all mutants are either “normal”-looking or even cool-looking like Nightcrawler wasn’t new, but an entire society of “ugly” mutants was excellent, and the idea that Callisto would want to “marry” Angel is another good one, because who wouldn’t? Aim for the stars, Callisto! This story is important, of course, because Claremont, after focusing so much on Wolverine for so long, was slowly developing the others, as well, and Storm is the logical choice. During the Brood saga, Ororo “died” and was reborn, and once the X-Men returned to Earth, Claremont began exploring what her new “life” meant to her. He had begun this earlier, of course – Dr. Doom had trapped her in metal, and when she broke out, she almost went crazy from her claustrophobia, and Claremont showed very well how powerful she was. Then, in issue #159, she was almost turned into a vampire by Dracula, and Claremont explored her sexual side a bit. Then, in issue #170, she challenges Callisto for leadership of the Morlocks, and in a magnificent fight, Claremont shows how she has changed:
The Brood’s evil changed something in Ororo, making her more willing to kill, and she saw no other choice with Callisto (Claremont immediately undercuts this fight on the next page when Nightcrawler explains that the Morlock healer saved Callisto’s life, but it doesn’t make the fight any less amazing). It’s another step on the journey for Ororo, which comes to an apotheosis in Japan, when the X-Men visit for Logan’s wedding. She meets Yukio, who had been helping Wolverine in his mini-series, and falls in love with the ronin’s lifestyle, as Yukio lives life on the edge and does not care about tempting death. There’s much that is sexual about superheroes, of course, but Storm’s time with Yukio is freighted with sexual imagery, from her powers going out of control and causing her to almost catch on fire in issue #172 to her joyous lightning spout in issue #173 when she decides to embrace Yukio’s “madness,” and finally, to her transformation from the lithe, very feminine “goddess” to the almost stereotypical butch lesbian when she gets a Mohawk haircut and dresses all in leather. Storm has embraced the “madness,” which subtly means she has embraced her own sexuality (of course Claremont wasn’t about to make her a lesbian in 1983, but it’s clear she has decided to become a “woman” at the very least), and which upsets Kitty, as to her, it’s almost like finding out your parents are having sex – no teenager wants to think about that! It really is a wonderful subplot, because it builds on what Claremont had done with Storm already, for many years, but it also was powerful in the moment. At the beginning of this run, Storm is still, relatively, the aloof goddess. By the end of it, she’s much more human and multi-faceted, even if Kitty and the other X-Men weren’t ready for it.
Claremont also revives Dark Phoenix, to a very small extent. It’s not her, something he and the characters make pretty clear early on, and we know Jason Wyngarde/Mastermind has returned – we can infer it from the cameo of the Hellfire Club in issue #169; Mystique dreams the same dream Jean Grey did, about hunting a human (with Mystique now as the prey), in issue #170; and then we see him briefly at the end of #173, when he breaks up Mariko and Logan’s wedding. It’s unfortunate that Claremont brought him back, because his fate at the hands of Jean was so fitting (Claremont handwaves Wyngarde’s insanity away very quickly), but it’s not the worst thing in the world, because it connects the X-Men to their roots and it pushes Scott forward from Jean, as he finally has to confront her death in a (relatively) healthy way. Madelyne Pryor (a name Claremont liked; a young girl in Avengers Annual #10 is named Madelyne Pryor as well) is a fascinating character, because Claremont has to differentiate her from Jean but still make her attractive to Scott (although in Scott’s case, making her a redhead is probably enough for him). Claremont links her to Jean – she was in a plane crash at the exact moment that Jean died, for instance – but she’s more independent than Jean was for much of her life, and Madelyne is able to roll with the punches pretty easily, even when Kitty gives her a dragon to watch after during Logan’s wedding. Claremont leads all this to issue #175, in which “Dark Phoenix” returns (of course, it’s an elaborate ruse by Mastermind, but the X-Men take a while to figure this out), and both Scott and Ororo show why they’re excellent team leaders as they take down the villain. Without knowing much more about Madelyne, despite the fact that he can’t seem to find any information about her before her plane crash, Scott marries her at the end of issue #175. In the long run, it probably wasn’t the best move, but Claremont had no way of knowing that Marvel was going to resurrect Jean. In the moment, Scott’s romance with Madelyne is a nice way to give him what he wants (a hot redhead) but also allow him to move on with his life.
Of course, Claremont focuses on Wolverine quite a bit, as this is just when Logan’s ascendancy into hottest character in comics began. In issue #168, he takes off on a vacation, and ends up in his own mini-series, drawn by Frank Miller (and probably quite a bit by Josef Rubinstein) at the apex of his Marvel popularity (this was right at the end of his Daredevil run and a few months before Ronin, which marked his DC debut). This series turned Logan from a killing machine into an honorable man, something Claremont, obviously, was trending toward, but which really came to fruition in the series. He attacks Mariko’s father recklessly and is dismissed easily, and he has to hit rock bottom, in the form of the slums of Tokyo and Yukio, before he can regain his dignity and show Mariko that he is worthy and her father is not. It’s a gripping story, and Claremont does a great job with it. (It’s also noteworthy that in today’s climate of characters starring in six books at once with very little recognition that they are in other books, Claremont actually kept Wolverine out of the X-Men while the series was occurring.) When he returned, we get issues #172-173, with the latter being perhaps one of the best single issues in comics history. In issue #171, Claremont cleverly added Rogue to the team. Rogue, of course, was a villain prior to this, as she famously stole Carol Danvers’s powers and memories in Avengers Annual #10. Claremont retconned in a relationship between Logan and Carol (a working one, not a romantic one) so that he would have a stake in Rogue’s arrival, and in issue #171, Carol – now Binary – leaves Earth because she feels betrayed by Xavier. But Xavier makes the salient point that Logan was not wanted by the more genteel elements of the team, and his commitment to helping all mutants, while it occasionally leads to tragedy, is paramount in his mind. Claremont knew the X-Men had become a bit too comfortable with each other, and therefore he did a smart thing with Rogue, because no one trusted her or liked her, especially Wolverine. So when the team shows up in Japan in issue #172 and Viper poisons most of them (only Storm doesn’t drink the poison, which is why she’s free to romp across Tokyo, but Logan and Rogue recover quickly because of Wolverine’s healing factor and Rogue’s odd amalgam of Danvers DNA – Claremont doesn’t quite explain that very well), Wolverine has to take Rogue with him to stop her and Silver Samurai, which they do in issue #173.
This issue is almost a perfect distillation of superhero comics in general and X-Men comics in particular. It’s 22 pages long, but it feels much longer, because it’s such a joy to gaze at and read. We get Wolverine and Rogue rousting punks in bars, looking for Viper and Silver Samurai, and Wolverine seems like he’s even beginning to enjoy Rogue’s company. We check in on Storm for two pages, and in those 13 panels, we see how much Ororo is enjoying her new freedom from responsibility. Rogue, confident that she can’t be hurt, almost steps into a trap, and Logan, showing that despite his growth in earlier issues and the Wolverine mini-series, contemplates letting the laser hit her just to see if she’s right. He saves her at the last moment, and in a very tense five panels, Rogue coyly comes close to kissing him as “thanks” for her rescue, but Logan brings his fist up under her chin and tells her to stop, which scares her. In those few panels, Claremont reminds us that Rogue is a youngster (canon says she’s 18 at this time, I think) and that even though she knows what she did to Carol Danvers, she’s, ahem, rogue-ish by nature, and that Logan is still very dangerous, even as his edges have been softened. It also foreshadows a similar moment later in the issue, of course.
Then Wolverine realizes they’ve been duped and that Viper and Silver Samurai are going to attack the hospital where Mariko is keeping watch over the poisoned X-Men. In nine exquisite pages, Claremont and Smith, along with Bob Wiacek’s terrific, kinetic inks and Glynis Wein’s dazzling reds in the background, show the fight between Wolverine and Silver Samurai, Silver Samurai’s defeat, Viper’s attempt to kill Logan and Mariko, Rogue’s sacrifice to save them, and Wolverine’s payment of his debt to Rogue. Claremont, usually a verbose writer, knows when he’s paired with a superb artist, and he doesn’t clutter the panels with too many words, but when he does use them, they hit powerfully, such as when Logan realizes that Rogue really is trying to change and that she deserves the benefit of the doubt. He saves her life, and it’s a stunning moment. I’ll show it below when I write a bit more about Smith’s art, but it’s a beautifully written sequence, too. Of course, the issue isn’t over yet – we get Madelyne’s introduction to the X-Men (which is awkward, thanks to Lilandra pulling a sword on her as she thinks Dark Phoenix is back), Storm’s new look and Kitty’s subsequent temper tantrum, and Mariko calling off the wedding. All this would be a six-issue mini-series today, and Claremont pulls it off in two, with this issue basically containing all the action. It’s marvelous. Wolverine’s approval of Rogue means that Scott trusts her enough to use her to help break through Mastermind’s spell in issue #175, a crucial moment for the team. Claremont continued to be excellent at creating these characters and, vocal tics notwithstanding, making them fully realized people with their own thoughts and motivations, but working together toward a common goal. This was when the X-Men were beginning to take off, popularity-wise, but Claremont was still in firm control of them, giving us an issue entirely devoted to down time, as the team returns from Japan (except for Logan, who tries to get answers from Mariko and fails) and we check in on some of their romances. It’s a quiet issue, but because Claremont did such a good job creating the characters, it’s a fun read.
Obviously, as I noted above, all writers seem better with better artists, and Claremont got to work with Miller and Smith, two artists with distinct but excellent styles. In 2014, when I featured Miller in my “Year of the Artist” posts, I wrote that Rubinstein is credited as “finisher,” and some commenters (Luis Dantas and Our Old Dread Lord and Master were the first two) noted that Miller didn’t actually pencil the mini-series, just did layouts (although he is specifically credited with “pencils,” which is why I list him that way). The Miller/Rubinstein team, however they broke down the pages (after some people claimed that Klaus Janson did more art on Daredevil than Miller, Janson himself stopped by and said differently, so I’m not going to say one way or another in this instance unless both Miller and Rubinstein comment on it), is terrific on the mini-series. Miller’s layouts are spare but effective, giving us just what we need and nothing else, but even then we still get a good contrast between the old money of the Yashida clan and Logan’s rough frontier presence. This was before minimalism in comics really became a thing, and while some artists can’t make it work, Miller and Rubinstein can, so when there is some very nice detail – the Kabuki theater scene, Logan’s vision of himself as a samurai – it has a bigger impact. The fight scenes are laid out wonderfully, especially the final showdown, and the pages right after that, when Mariko and Logan finally get a chance to talk, are stunning. Claremont, presumably because Miller had already written several comics, doesn’t try to step on his toes too much, restraining himself remarkably (although this is, as far as I can tell, the first instance of the world-famous “the best there is at what I do” line, which comes on the first page of the series) and allowing the art to tell the story. He can do this very well, it’s just that he doesn’t always choose to do so.
Smith’s art on the regular series is even more impressive. He had a lot more to do, and there’s never been any indication that he just laid the pages out and Bob Wiacek finished them. Smith is superb in these issues, beginning with the way he redesigns the Brood. He turns them from brutish, almost frumpy thugs when Cockrum draws them to sleek, evil killing machines. It’s not surprising that this is one of the most iconic and terrifying X-Men covers:
Smith has a looseness to his pencil art that doesn’t make things abstract, but makes them flow better than a lot of artists. The famous splash page of issue #168, for instance, works partly because we feel Kitty spinning, thanks to Smith’s work, especially on the way her hair bounces:
His characters are lithe, sprightly, and always, it seems, in motion. Their coiled potential energy is what makes the book feel so tense, even in quiet moments. Smith can draw figures in such a way that they always seem like their going to explode into action, which adds to the terseness of Claremont’s scripts. Smith, of course, is also excellent at action. I showed you the pages above of her fight with Callisto, and it’s impressive how much motion and action Smith crams into two pages. After a beautiful issue drawn by Walt Simonson (not a bad guest artist!) in which Rogue joins the team (and we get a nice contrast to compare with Smith, especially Simonson’s Ororo, who is built much thicker than Smith’s), we get the two-part Japan adventure, which is Smith’s masterpiece. Even small things, like the way he lays out panels to compare Mariko and Rogue, linking those two even before Mariko kindly welcomes Rogue, showing her humanity when the X-Men have been decidedly cool to her, is a neat trick. As Storm frees herself from her “goddess” persona, we get the amazing and terrifying drawing of Ororo losing control, which is not only a great drawing, but the wonderful inks and colors make it even more stirring:
Then, of course, we get issue #173. I’ve written about this before, when I covered Paul Smith in my “Year of the Artist” posts, but it’s worth looking at some of it again. The fight between Logan and Silver Samurai is only three pages long, but it’s amazing how Smith lays it out:
We can feel every slice and thrust, follow every move the two men make, and feel both Logan’s agony when Samurai seems to be winning and his contempt when he recovers and is about to kill his foe. Then, of course, Viper pulls out her fancy laser, which gets us to these brilliant pages:
I assume Claremont wrote this “Marvel style,” meaning not as a full script, so Smith decided to place Logan and Rogue in the corner of the final panel without anything cluttering it up. Claremont has to write something, but he keeps it concise, and Tom Orzechowski’s elegant lettering does the rest (Orzechowski: best letterer ever?). This is one of the great issues not only because of the way Claremont structures it, but because of Smith’s impeccable storytelling. And he gets to sexy up Storm, which is fun:
Smith couldn’t finish issue #175, as it was 38 pages long, but he did most of it, and as a swan song, it’s pretty great. He gets to draw a Phoenix effect, which I’m sure was a blast, and then he gets to draw a gorgeous Dark Phoenix. There’s nothing in the issue as staggering as some of the earlier issues – it’s a “greatest hits” issue, almost, as it’s the 20th anniversary of the X-Men – and so it’s just Scott trying to convince the rest of the team that Phoenix really isn’t back. Smith’s storytelling is still excellent, naturally, but there’s nothing that really stands out. Smith was ready to move on, and Romita came in to transition to his run, and his art on this issue is … surprisingly rough. Romita had turned into “John Romita Jr.” by now, but in this issue, he was still aping his father and other old-school artists a bit, and the shift from Smith to him is a bit jarring. It’s not bad, but it is weird. Romita would get a lot better when he took over as regular artist.
This brief run and the wedding that ended it mark an ending to a period of X-Men history, too, which is another reason to appreciate it. One of the reasons people call the 1980s a Golden Age at Marvel is because Jim Shooter and the higher-ups allowed characters to change and grow, and Claremont, especially, took advantage of that. This run marks the end of the “Phoenix Saga,” mainly because Scott is able to move on. When Jean first died, he ran away, and his time with Lee Forrester wasn’t as well developed as perhaps Claremont would have liked. Then he sent the X-Men into space, and nothing really got resolved. Then Claremont decided to marry Scott off, and while pairing her up with someone who looks exactly like Jean probably wasn’t the smartest idea, we get the sense from these issues (and some others, prior to Jean’s resurrection) that Claremont really was allowing Scott to move on. These issues also show the growth of Logan and the growth of Ororo and even the growth of Rogue, who splits with her foster mother, Mystique, to get help from Xavier, which is a very grown-up move. Storm’s transformation into a “woman” instead of a “goddess” felt real, because Claremont put in the work. Logan’s transformation into a “man” instead of an “animal” felt real, because Claremont put in the work. In today’s comics, things move so fast and readers are so enthralled by nostalgia that characters are trapped in amber, and any forward motion is often cut back almost immediately. It happened to Claremont, too, but reading these issues without knowing what’s coming, we get a wonderful sense of characters growing up and changing, which makes them far more interesting. Claremont didn’t know that Marvel was going to resurrect Jean Grey, which meant Scott would turn into a complete asshole, and the resurrection of Jean is still one of the worst in-story moves either of the Big Two has ever made. But these issues resonate because Claremont was able to deepen the great characters he already had, and Smith made the stories wonderful to look at. It’s not Claremont’s fault that the slow creep of nostalgia would begin to make these kinds of stories anathema to the general buying public. While he was able to, he wrote great stories about characters learning and growing. All while, you know, battling alien bugs and underground mutants.
There’s an old trade paperback, From the Ashes, collecting issues #168-175, and there’s an Omnibus collecting these issues plus a lot more, and I know the old Marvel Essentials collected this in black and white, but there doesn’t seem to be one of those fancy “Epic Collections” that Marvel replaced the Essentials with. I linked to the old trade, because it’s the most concise collection, but obviously, if you want these comics, you can find them, even if you want the single issues, which can’t be that hard to find. These are brilliant comics, and they’re definitely ones you should own. Don’t let me stop you from getting them!
Next: More X-Men? WOULD I EVEN DARE?!?!?!?