Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men Vol 2

Adapted from my Goodreads review. Collects X-Men 101-110 (July 1976-January 1978)

One of the weird things about the initial Claremont/Cockrum run on the X-Men comic is that the X-Men – still considered a tricky customer, sales-wise – was coming out bi-monthly. These ten issues take a couple of hours to read now, but span almost two years of publication time, which has a noticeable impact on how they’re written. Claremont has time to craft his issues and make every sequence count, but also needs that time to make sure a comic full of still-new characters sticks in readers’ minds every two months. 

It’s one reason – as well as his natural preference – that character interaction is so much at the forefront here compared to battles. The first issue in this collection – 101 – is radical not because it’s The First Appearance Of Phoenix but because it’s the first time Claremont’s risked writing a story with no antagonists. Jean Grey is assumed dead, reappears, collapses, and the bulk of the story is around the characters’ response to that.

So by the time the team throw down with Juggernaut in 102, it’s been 120 days without an on-panel fight. That’s a whole new set of assumptions about what readers want (and will tolerate) in a serial comic.

OK, that’s just one issue, and for most of this stretch there are plenty of fights, though the energy in the story always comes from the team interaction around them and generally the fights work or don’t as extensions of that. In the Juggernaut fight for instance the line of conflict isn’t between the team and the villains so much as between Storm (paralysed by claustrophobia), her own internal struggles, and the ability of the team to understand what’s going on with her.

It would be wrong to say this is entirely new – the great received wisdom on Silver Age Marvel is that it innovated by allowing its heroes to express their anxieties and problems. I do think there’s a shift in tone, though. In the Stan Lee era conflict is often cathartic – it’s how the heroes resolve a lot of their issues: via clobbering (and realising his usefulness), Ben Grimm deals with his self-loathing around being The Thing (until next month, anyhow). In the early 70s it’s more common for the fights and the character work to happen side by side, with the fights unlocking new plot developments or reveals or status quo shifts which the characters can react to afterwards.

What Claremont is doing is slightly different. Here the pressure of danger and conflict is a catalyst for characterisation – a necessary efficiency when you only have 20 pages every 60 days and a core cast pushing double-figures. It has the happy result of making the comic feel more serious, stakes-heavy and exciting – the X-Men aren’t characters who can stop and joke or philosophise in battle, because there’s literally no space for it, but it gives the fights a very different vibe from other mid-70s Marvels, even ones with more sophisticated ideas.

By the end of this volume, though, the conflict-shows-character approach – so exciting in Claremont’s first issues – is starting to show its limits. There are only so many times you can see Cyclops or Wolverine yelling “BACK OFF, Mister!” at each other before you start hoping for some actual developments. The switch of artist from Dave Cockrum to John Byrne will help with this – Byrne’s tastes in storytelling are a little more traditional – but this volume is still very much the Cockrum era, a wild ride of great characterisation and chaotic visual flair.

Cockrum’s final story is the heart of this volume, and the first real touchstone episode of the Claremont era. The team are whisked across space and engage in a battle around the cosmic M’Kraan Crystal, a battle that allows Cockrum to go hog wild with his costume design skills introducing dozens of characters at once, and allows Claremont to literalise the points he’s been making about friendship and teamwork (with a big dollop of Jewish mysticism in there too – as with the “Leprechauns Of Cassidy Keep”, this comic is weirder than I and maybe you remembered).

The handful of issues this space story and its build-up occupy are another reminder of that extended publication time. The first time we see the Shi’Ar, our space-faring antagonists, they’re a crew designed as a Star Trek riff, officers gathered earnestly around a bridge. After the team’s trip to space, Nightcrawler and friends relax by going to see Star Wars, which had come out – and changed geek culture forever – while the X-Men’s space saga was happening. A coincidence which surely didn’t hurt sales, since Claremont’s ideas of mad Emperors and space swashbucklers scratched the Lucas itch in ways most actual imitations didn’t.

Not everything in this volume is great. Even with 60 days between issues, we have two non-Cockrum art fill-ins, one of which is a story fill-in too. These are weak, and so are some of the Claremont stories – after the team’s visit to Ireland there’s a perfunctory Magneto fight which reads very much like someone at Marvel said “What’s this Leprechaun shit Chris? Do a Magneto story.” The man who’ll turn Magneto into his signature character has no real idea what to do with him at this stage, at least not on the page. But mostly this run remains hugely readable – and while it got tighter, it’s still obvious why everyone spent decades ripping it off.