So... $100 for a bunch of thirty-odd-year-old superhero comics. What's the big deal there?
It's being released in tandem with the new X-Men: Days of Future Past movie that you may have heard about so much lately. The film's plot is based rather loosely on a two-part story that's collected in this all-new hardcover omnibus edition, along with twenty-three other issues and additional story material from other Marvel titles, plus some supplementary sketches and notes.
That seems like a lot of money if you just wanted to read a two-part comic book story from when Carter was still in the White House.
Well, duh. "Days of Future Past" (Uncanny X-Men 141-142) been available separately in a variety of formats for years now — there's even a brand-new hardcover edition with some later stories available. The point of buying this omnibus isn't just one story — though it's pretty solid — but because the volume represents most of the high-water mark of Chris Claremont's 15-year tenure as the writer of the series, from 1980-81.
That Claremont guy... he was a pretty big deal back in the '80s, wasn't he?
Oh yeah. Today his influence has been mostly eclipsed by guys like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman, but in the '80s, Claremont was the most popular comic book writer in the industry, hands down, writing with a distinctive (some might say hackneyed or self-parodying) style that combined traditional Marvel techniques of exposition and melodramatic tension with an unconventional focus on character development and interpersonal relationships. So while his stories tended, at least superficially, to feature the usual slam-bang action and world-takeover schemes, they also emphasized psychological realism and introspection, such that the fans felt they had an intimate bond with the characters' tumultuous inner lives. While Claremont's prose style was often turgid and full of redundant narration, especially by the clipped, cinematic style of post-Watchmen modern comics writing, his characters behaved in ways that felt nuanced and believable, and invited the readers' sympathy and concern — a major step up from the soap opera theatrics that had characterized most Bronze Age superheroes.
So who's in it? I remember the movies pretty well, and used to watch the cartoon, where Jean wore that weird Jazzercise outfit with the headband and the armor plating, and everyone had a bunch of pouches for no good reason. I'm guessing this is from before then.
Most of the characters should be recognizable to modern-day fans of the comics and movies. Professor X and Magneto are here, though they don't play quite as central a role in the comics as they do in the movies. There's Cyclops, already a dick, Wolverine, who was still mostly a mystery at this point and therefore infinitely more interesting, and Jean Grey, about to descend into madness and death as the Phoenix for the first and most shocking time. Storm is here in all her '70s glory, rocking a full head of hair and thigh-highs, as are Nightcrawler and Colossus. Kitty Pryde joins the team, albeit much younger and more naive than her contemporary adult incarnation. Rogue and Madelyne Pryor appear for the first time, albeit in radically different forms. Carol Danvers loses her Kree powers and Ms. Marvel identity but becomes an honorary member.
Okay... So what's so great about the stories in this book?
For one, it's got the final dozen or so issues in Claremont's legendary collaboration with co-writer/artist John Byrne and inker Terry Austin. Collectively, they were the John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison of modern superhero comics (along with longtime letterer Tom Orzechowski as the dependably loyal Ringo). Byrne's art, self-consciously cartoonish and flowing compared to the rigid Kirby/Buscema Marvel school, was remarkably well-suited in depicting the mutants' outlandish powers and costumes. The real secret weapon was Austin's inks, which provided the art with a sense of depth, detail, and texture, thanks to the judicious use of Zip-A-Tone and other enhancements. (Byrne's pencils never looked as good anywhere else.) The result was a superhero comic that looked like nothing else on the market, full of taciturn, steely-eyed men, beautiful, sensuous women, lush backgrounds, and lots of formidable-looking high-tech gadgetry. It was an aesthetic that aspiring artists would struggle to imitate throughout the '80s and '90s, most notably the Image guys like Jim Lee (who established his reputation on the book several years later). About halfway through the book, original artist Dave Cockrum takes over; his style is nowhere near as slick as Byrne's, but he's comfortable with the characters (he designed most of the new team members, after all) and has a pleasantly funky style, well-suited to curvaceous ladies and weird aliens. There's also some spectacular guest work by Michael Golden and future regular artist Paul Smith from Avengers Annual 10 and Marvel Fanfare.
But that's just the art. The stories here are also hugely influential. There's the second half of the "Hellfire Club" arc, followed by the "Dark Phoenix Saga," and the aforementioned "Days of Future Past" two-parter, all of which inspired numerous sequels and imitations in both the X-books and other, non-related superhero comics. Characters suffer, are transformed or corrupted, and sometimes even die... back when death in comics still tended to be permanent. As a result, they often find themselves struggling with depression, or madness, or intimations of mortality for themselves or their loved ones. Beloved heroes succumb to evil, and villains who seemed completely irredeemable show flickers of conscience and humanity. (Take note: George R.R. Martin was a huge fan.) That's pretty heavy compared to the Fantastic Four facing off against Doctor Doom again, or the Avengers battling the latest iteration of Ultron.
What really makes the X-Men of this era special, though, is the open-endedness and the sheer variety of the storytelling. At this point, the series wasn't a huge franchise, and it wasn't really even incorporated all that heavily into the greater Marvel Universe. The characters seemed to inhabit their own distinct corner of that reality — a real godsend for newbies who weren't huge comics readers or devoted Marvel Zombies. The X-Men could travel to outer space, or Dante's Hell, or Edgar Rice Burroughs-style Lost Worlds full of dinosaurs and angry primitives. Or they could go to real places you didn't normally see in comics back then, like Canada or Japan. Entire storylines could reference old episodes of Batman or the Avengers TV show. (There was actually quite a bit of camp and Brechtian self-awareness back in those days — Claremont was a drama major in college, after all.) There's even one issue with Magneto and the X-Men battling it out on a mysterious island full of squid-based architecture that appears to be H.P. Lovecraft's R'lyeh. Another story is basically a tribute to the last act of Alien, with Kitty as a teenaged Ellen Ripley in yellow and black spandex. There's even cameos from Popeye and a pretty funny Peanuts reference. Pathos, comedy, science fiction, supernatural horror, dystopia, fairy tale fantasy... there was something for everyone here. Put simply, if Avengers and Fantastic Four were the Star Trek of superhero comics, Uncanny X-Men was its Doctor Who; a freewheeling romp through an endless variety of tropes and situations.
Okay... So emotional depth, epic storylines, self-referential humor — what's not to like?
Actually, not that much. I imagine some people will be turned off simply because it's old, or because characters like Gambit or Bishop or Cable or that girl who throws bones out of her back haven't appeared yet. (I'm pretty sure everyone hates at least one of those mutants, though.) The writing style will strike some readers as unnecessarily wordy (seriously, it takes like three times longer to get through one of these things compared to modern superhero comics), while others may be put off by the cheesier bits of melodrama or Claremont's weirder stylistic tics, like his love of terrible accents. (Again: Theater major.) But on the whole, it's aged a lot better than most of the stuff from that era. The female characters act most of the time like independent adults with minds of their own, even though they have a tendency to get subdued by the bad guys and end up in hoochy-koo outfits. (The bad guys do tend to get their asses kicked by the women in return, it must be observed.) The narrative doesn't wander all over the place, this being before the emergence of crossover events and the many terrible spinoffs that would hobble the core book in the years to come. There are big arcs — some years in the making — but things tend to get wrapped up pretty decisively. This is long before the X-Franchise went all Dark Phoenix and was corrupted by its own limitless potential. (That period is maybe another omnibus or two in the future.)
And again, this is hugely influential stuff. Most of the team-based comics of the '80s and '90s drew heavily on it for inspiration. And to some extent, the dark, ironic, postmodernist superhero comics that came out later in the decade were a rejoinder to it, both stylistically and philosophically. You can even see its influence on famous creators who started out as non-comics writers, like Michael Chabon and Joss Whedon.
So, is this where I should get started?
Um... maybe, but probably not. The book actually starts midway through the Hellfire story, and there's a lot of setup in the first UXM omni, even though it takes a while for the characters and the creative teams to gel satisfactorily. But on the other hand, the second omnibus really does have a lot more in common with the franchise as we know it today, so you might not be entirely lost. The original X-Men book, which ran from 1963 to 1969, was never really all that great, despite a spectacular run towards the very end by Roy Thomas and Neal Adams, which was hugely influential on Claremont's approach to the material. If you have the Comixology app, you can find individual issues from the various eras to see if this is your thing.
But again... a hundred clams for a bunch of comics from the early '80s. Is this really worth it?
Honestly, it's up to you to decide. (Though you can find it cheaper through the usual online retailers.) I hardly ever buy new comics as it is, but I like to support local shops, and this is probably the most money I'll spend there all year. (Though there's that Morrison-era Doom Patrol omnibus HC coming out in August...) It was a big chunk of my childhood, and having these stories in a large-size physical format I know I can keep forever (as opposed to the vicissitudes of digital) means a lot to me. I might not drag it down off the shelf that often — it might fall and crush me — but I'll be glad knowing it's up there.