Posted by: Graeme McMillan on August 30, 2009
More Claremont retrospective! This time, the first two years of the Byrne run, wherein everything comes together remarkably quickly, and I compare John Byrne to Joe Sinnott. Or something.
Ignoring the fill-in in UNCANNY X-MEN #106 (Although: Chris Claremont and Bill Mantlo together! There should’ve been much more of this), #107 starts off Claremont’s third year on the title with an important milestone: The last issue before it truly becomes the X-Men we recognize. Oh, so many things are almost there, but it’s as if Dave Cockrum was holding Claremont back from achieving full Claremont or something; as soon as John Byrne and Terry Austen appear in #108, everything clicks into place: The characters’ speech patterns, the “giving your life force to save existence” soon-to-be-cliche makes its first appearance (including Storm saying “It is my life to give, my friend” by way of explanation), the overly elaborate soap opera – space pirate and furry Corsair is Cyclops’ dad?!? – the book just suddenly becomes the X-Men through some unexplainable magic, much in the same way that Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four suddenly makes sense when Joe Sinnott starts inking Kirby in the late #40s. By the end of that third year, Claremont has already worked in his first psychic mind-rape.
(It’s possible that one of the reasons that the early Claremont/Byrne issues seems like the book makes this leap into a more pure X-Men-ness is because that run has become the touchstone for most fans, and subsequent creators, as the “best” X-Men run ever, but it’s more than that; Claremont’s writing suddenly becomes much clearer and more focused when Byrne appears. I don’t know if there was an obvious reason behind the scenes – The editor’s still Archie Goodwin throughout, so it’s not that…? – but the shift is noticable and somewhat odd, when reading the issues in quick succession.)
By the book’s fourth year, it’s made it to monthly status in time to really start working out the kinks; oddly enough, the fourth year feels very much like the first two, in that Claremont revisits old X-Men villains and stories (Magneto, Sauron, the Savage Land, Sunfire), but at the same time, you can tell that he’s also more in control of the characters and the plot than he was previously – Magneto’s appearance pays off months of foreshadowing by showing Cyclops’ fears about the new team “not being ready” and getting their asses handed to them, for example, leading to the first period (of many, it becomes a favored Claremont trick when he wants to switch things up) where the world believes they’re dead, which allows him to show Scott and Jean outside of their relationship for pretty much the first time in their history. Unlike before, where it felt as if Claremont was using old characters and ideas because he didn’t know what else to do, this time it feels as if he’s comfortable and knows what he’s up to.
The confidence is matched by Byrne and Austen’s incredibly slick visuals. I mean that as much as an insult as a compliment, I have to admit; as revered as the art in these issues is – and as good as it is, as well – it really is very much eye candy, and at times overly glossy and soulless. Byrne’s women, in particular, are almost distractingly… I don’t know what the word is… vapid? glamorous, in a bad way? generic? They lack personality, despite what Claremont puts in their mouths (Now, that doesn’t sound right), and occasionally the art feels so… professional, and impersonal, and “perfect,” that it pulls me out of the experience and leaves me cold. Am I alone in that?
The comfort and confidence – and newfound success and acclaim – were making Claremont and Byrne more bold, though; by the end of the fourth year of Claremont’s run on the book, he’d put the team back together with one exception… and that’s because he was already at work laying the groundwork for the Dark Phoenix storyline, which would change superhero comics – and Uncanny X-Men in particular – in ways that he couldn’t even have imagined.