Uncanny X-Men Masterworks Vol 1

When I clicked on Giant Size X-Men 1 in Marvel Unlimited it definitely wasn’t with the intention of starting a large-scale re-read of the 70s and 80s X-Men. I had a vague urge to find out exactly how different and ludicrous the first appearance of Krakoa (THE ISLAND THAT WALKS LIKE A MAN) was. (It was very ludicrous). But I found myself reading on, and then reviewing the Marvel Masterworks volumes on Goodreads.

Marvel Masterworks aren’t the best or most intuitive way to read this stuff. You’re better off just slogging through on Unlimited. But for Goodreads purposes each of them were the right size for a chunky review.

For their Freaky Trigger serialisation I’ve edited them a bit and made explicit some of the references and spoilers. I have made a basic assumption that readers know a) who the X-Men are and b) that they’ve heard of Chris Claremont, the man who wrote them during their 70s and 80s rise to becoming Marvel’s most popular comic characters.

MARVEL MASTERWORKS: THE UNCANNY X-MEN Vol 1 contains Giant-Size X-Men 1 and Uncanny X-Men 94-100.

Reading a bunch of 70s Marvel makes the strengths of Chris Claremont’s opening stretch of X-Men stories clearer. With characters who’ve become such fixtures it’s easy to assume success was predestined – that there’s something inherently special about this cast rather than what the creators did with them. It’s also tempting to look out  for the things that would become Claremont’s best-known tricks – his long-term plotting, his particular narrative voice  – but in this stretch of issues those aren’t really in place.

Yes, Claremont’s writing is histrionic and caption-heavy, but so is everyone’s at Marvel in the mid-70s. The house style at the point Claremont took over the X-Men was just a flared, crushed-velvet version of the Roy Thomas style, where you paper over the lack of actual incident by pumping up the volume. Except of course there really IS plenty of incident in these issues too – a whole new cast, half of whom immediately quit or die. The captions freaking out feels legit for once, because there’s a lot to freak out about.

Still, while the overdriven style has more justification it’s not what makes the book distinctive (as you can see from Len Wein’s very similar narration in Giant-Size 1). Nor is the plotting – yes, there’s a big subplot involving Xavier’s bizarre space dreams, but it’s notorious for introducing nonsensical complexities into what’s already a fairly baffling story. The space dreams work because artist Dave Cockrum draws the shit out of them, not because of any long-term ideas Claremont has.

Who’s zooming who

As for the characters, if X-Men had any holdover identity in 1975 from its previous incarnation as the strangest teens of all the emphasis was firmly on the “strangest” part. In these issues a bunch of new, freaky-looking heroes collide with a set of weirdo characters and concepts from the earlier run plus a few new oddballs: Krakoa The Living Island, Count Nefaria And The Ani-Men, the N’Garai (one of a horde of Lovecraftian ripoffs plaguing the Marvel U at this point), and poster boy for subplot confusion Eric The Red. None of these are worth much on their own but it’s the patchwork of them that sets the tone for this very early phase of the book – none of these discontinuous pests needs any development or real motivation, which gives Claremont more time to get to work on the relationships between the characters.

Which is the actual work he’s doing better than almost anyone else in superhero comics here. For most of this volume, clashes with villains are the backdrop needed to build relationships (friendly and otherwise) between the heroes. Far more so than the FF and Avengers, these relationships are the story. Piotr’s naivety, Kurt’s determination to make a found family work, Cyclops’ perfectionism, Wolverine as an agent of chaos.. these are already what’s creating the stories’ momentum.

Claremont is quickly mastering character-clarifying moments and scenes (Nightcrawler taunting “Herr Frosch”; Wolverine slashing away Jean’s dress to help her fight) which stick in the mind more than any of the supposed stakes or resolutions. He’s also always carving out space in the story where he can quickly check in across the whole cast to contrast their responses to a situation. The two big crises in this run – Thunderbird’s death-wish stupidity and Jean Grey’s self-sacrifice – both happen after the corny central threat of their story has been dealt with, so they can work better as pure character moments.

Jean’s imminent death on a radiation-raddled shuttle is the final scene of the book, and even 45 years on it still works as tremendous pulp comics – the momentum of the scene pushing the decades of story that rest on it out of your mind. Instead it has the power it earned from the year of story leading up to it – the sense of ruthlessness created by Claremont’s initial deck-clearing and the work done quickly and deftly since then to convince you that these characters matter.