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Claremont’s X-Men 5: The Last Huzzah

Hey, remember when I promised I’d have the next installment of this up before February? Funny story… Or, you know, not really. That’s the last time I promise a post by a specific date on here. Anyway: The John Romita Jr. years! It’s when Uncanny X-Men got really good!

I’m entirely biased by the fact that the comic I started “collecting” comics with was UNCANNY X-MEN #185, but that doesn’t necessarily make me wrong when I say that the run between Uncanny #173 and #200 – Yes, I’m stretching my previous two-year-at-a-time rule here – are the best the series ever managed. Claremont’s writing was bold and getting more and more idiosyncratic each issue (Look at some of the titles! “Whose Life Is It, Anyway?” “He’ll Never Make Me Cry” “Lifedeath” “Wraithkill!” These are not titles that someone both unconfident and with a sense of embarrassment could come up with), and he finally manages to pull the series out of the somewhat directionless slump it’d been in, to varying degrees, since Jean Grey’s editorially mandated death in #137. Yes, it took a fake Jean Grey resurrection in order to exorcize that particular ghost, but whatever works, right?

It’s also the period where the X-Men stopped being part of the Marvel Universe and a thing unto itself; aside from a couple of Secret Wars II crossovers a few issues later – although, even those crossovers are more like Beyonder guest-shots, as opposed to really “crossing over” with any MU books – things like the Dire Wraith storyline, Secret Wars aftermath and Kulan Gath (and, to an extent, Asgard) storyline here is pretty much the last time that Claremont really acknowledges the non-mutant rest of the contemporary Marvel Universe in the book. I’m not quite sure why it happens – Ego? Having finally grown sick of Jim Shooter? Somewhere between the two? – but it coincides with the period where New Mutants started really being a second X-Men series instead of just a spin-off: Storylines and characters crossed over between the two with increasing regularity, leading to the still-surprising “return” of the de-powered Storm happening outside of the book she’d called home for the last decade or so, and a period where it looked as if she’s stay with New Mutants for awhile, instead of rejoining the X-Men. By the time #200 had rolled around, ending months of cross-continuity between Uncanny and New Mutants that included annuals, “special editions” and Alpha Flight-co-starring mini-serieses, there really was a sense that Claremont had created a fiefdom as much as a franchise, and was happily walling himself off from outside forces.

(That plot, of course, had Loki fall in love with Storm the same way Dracula had earlier. Between that, and the sincere-yet-preposterous “LifeDeath” stories that followed Storm losing her powers, the weird fetishization of Storm as more Beautiful Black-And-Therefore-Exotic Goddess than character was in full-strength during this period, Claremont eagerly working out his kinks – literally? – with the character in front of his audience.)

Part of the groove that Claremont got back during all this time comes, I’m sure, from the stability and versatility of John Romita Jr.’s artwork (taking over from Paul Smith with #175), which seems at once “classic” Marvel and something more contemporary; unlike any artist on the book since Byrne, he can handle the melodramatic soap opera and superheroic action scenes equally easily, and make the combination of the two natural, and that pushes Claremont to become more grandiose in his scheming – For the first time in years, he starts long-term planning, putting subplots into motion that he’ll come back to later (In some cases, probably later than he intended: Nimrod’s appearance in #191 doesn’t really lead to anything for, what, fifty issues or so?) – but also, more successful in his execution: the whole “mutants are hated and feared and hunted” status quo is finally brought to the foreground with surprising subtlety, and through a combination of A-plot (Storm’s depowering) and B- (The appearance of Rachel, who finds this world too close to her own).

The climax of #200 – the X-Men left without their mentor and guiding light, who may or may not be dead, and their former enemy now, seemingly, reformed in charge despite his own misgivings, having to earn everyone’s trust – feels, in many ways, like a ballsy conclusion to the series, from a man with full confidence in his abilities. Claremont certainly had plans for how to continue, but within a couple of months, he was about to watch as his own success started to be his undoing.

17 Responses to “ Claremont’s X-Men 5: The Last Huzzah ”

  1. I’ll have to disagree here. Yes, the first half of RomitaJr’s run (up to, let’s say, #188) is ace, as you’ve described. But as soon as bloody Rachel shows up, it turns into a directionless mess plagued with attention-deficit disorder, from which it doesn’t really recover until the Mutant Massacre.

    The engaging Brotherhood/Cooper/mutant-persecution storyline ? Relegated to rare subplot scenes and a few isolated issues (such as the very good indeed #199-200). The semi-intriguing Nimrod storyline ? Barely present as a subplot until #208-209, and then mostly forgotten for a while.

    Instead, we get irrelevant romps like the Kulan Gath story, random story threads from New Mutants (Magus attacks ! John Proudstar goes berserk !) that barely add anything to this series, and tons of one-character-focused issues that concur to wreck whatever pacing would be left.

    But the worse is the walking plot tumor that is Rachel Summers. Her backstory may be coherent with the series’ themes, but her actual stories certainly aren’t. She spends whole issues in boring feuds with Selene (who’s never been that engaging an X-Men foe) and the Beyonder, of all people.

    Because of that, what should be major developments, such as Nightcrawler leading the team for ten issues or so, or the X-Men arbitrarily moving to San Francisco for barely a few issues, feel like complete afterthoughts.

  2. I have to aggree with JD. I have alot of love for the Romita material, but Rachel leeched tons of energy out of the series. In addition to all the plots and subplots that never really go anywhere, there’s also the fact that she had a mini-nervous breakdown about every other issue or so, often in the middle of a fight. The series was already pretty angsty and maudlin to begin with. Rachel’s constant freak outs caused it to get that much worse though.

  3. I’ll also have to agree with JD- I thought this era was one of wandering subplots that went nowhere, or at least nowhere with any kind of speed. In contrast to the epic nature of the previous Brood story, this era always seemed to set the ball, but never spike it. But I did I love the Kulan Gath story– all of the wandering stopped for two great issues that featured the X-Men saving the world (again), even as no one knows about it (again). Not to mention how it tied back to the classic Spider-Man & Red Sonja team-up from Claremont & Byrne’s work on MTU. I also loved the Romita Jr. art through here too- some of the best the book has ever had.

  4. First, let me stick up for Rachel Summers – true, she tended to dominate the plot, but I think that was intentional. Claremont was a master at cycling new and old characters in such a way as to keep things fresh, and devoting a long stretch of the book to what was essentially Rachel’s character growth seemed very organic to me. He wrote out a number of long-standing characters soon after #200, and although many people pinpoint that as the beginning of the decline I think it’s a sign that he knew better than to keep characters around after he’d stopped thinking of things to do with them – or, in the case of Rachel, Nightcrawler and Kitty, he shuffled them out of the deck until he found a better story for them since they didn’t “fit” the darker post-Mutant Massacre pre-Fall of the Mutants tone.

    And I really do think that the later period, specifically between the Mutant Massacre and the Fall of the Mutants, as well as the first year or so of Australia, are pretty damn great. It’s really great in hindsight to see how well Claremont demolished and rebuilt the franchise over these years. It was never boring – until the Siege Perilous, that is, when things went right off the rails.

  5. Yeah, I agree with JD too. Besides Rachel’s dominatrix look, Captain Britain’s sister being genetically altered to be Asian (which never made any sense to me and even if she was now Asian, how come she stopped talking with an English accent, and why wouldn’t she do everything possible to turn back?), and all the broken english.

    Wolverine went from being a man who hated and fought against the beast within (which, is what made him the coolest hero), to not even caring any longer.

    Worst, the bleak and depressing future that awaited the X-Men. Instead of being a nightmarish future that may come, it became an absolute certainty. Even during WWII, their were people that risked their lives to protect Jews and Gypsies. The United States isn’t the fascist country Germany was, so where were the non-mutants fighting for mutant rights?

    The X-Men went from being students (it was a school, after all) who fought for a better tomorrow and for civil rights, to an army of soldiers fighting a never-ending genetic war.

    I understand that it’s a never, ending battle, but ultimately there must be hope.

    Which is why I think Grant Morrison’s X-Men is the greatest ever.

  6. I was maybe 15 when X-Men/Titans introduced me to the Marvel Universe. My first X-Men issue was 162ish, the one where Carol Danvers became Binary. Loved that book so much I bought the back issues, at as much as $20 a pop, as far back as 120 (oh, era of routine TBP collections, where were you when I needd you?). I loved New Mutants, too, esp. the incredible Seinkeiwicz era.

    But I’m with JD … the Rachel era, and Magneto in a costume with a giant M on the front, that was where I dropped it, and didn’t buy another X-book until Grant Morrison.

  7. JD nailed it. As soon as Rachel and Nimrod showed up, the series took a nosedive and never truly recovered. It got pretty interesting in the Jim Lee days, if only because it was no longer really a team book and simply told weird scifi-ish character pieces in which anything could happen (and did!), but yeah, even the second Lifedeath story was rather crappy.

  8. Oh, christ, I forgot Nimrod. Yeah, that was it. He was … like a pink-tinged robot, is that what I remember? When I was picturing JRjr’s Rachel, after reading this piece, I think I was picturing Nimrod, too, maybe a specific cover. I hated that dude.

  9. Essential X-Men vol. 4 comes to a complete halt as soon as Paul Smith leaves. JR Jr. (whose X-Men art I’ve never warmed to) doesn’t find his feet for a few issues (maybe 179, the Kitty & Caliban issue), and the plots aren’t that involving. I’ve read most of the issues between 175 and 200 in Classic X-Men, but stopped buying the book out of boredom. I think part of it was my lack of affinity for Rogue, Storm, Kitty in this era, Rachel, or Forge. Give me Nightcrawler (in non-angsty mode) and Colossus any day. For me, the Smith issues were so much more fun than what followed (except the Asgard story, one of Claremont’s best), that everything else was kind of a letdown.

    Exceptions include Juggernaut vs. Colossus in a bar fight and that issue with the big dragon.

  10. It seems like a familiar refrain…

    I started buying X-Men in the 120s but by the time 200 rolled around, something had been missing for me for over a year. The pink Terminator (amongst other things) pretty much killed my interest and I dropped the series. I’d sample an issue here and there, but things eventually got too inbred for me to enjoy. Morrison’s run was the only time I started picking up the series regularly again…and I’ve stuck with the Astonishing runs as well.

  11. Pretty sure I’ve said his before, but Paul Smith’s run (especially the Return of Phoenix stuff from 173-175) rank among the best comics Ive ever read. I love Johnny Romita Jr’s work on Spider-man, but I never felt his X-Men stuff was up to par.

  12. Oddly enough, my first run as a reader of X-Men comics were these very issues as part of a gift subscription my grandmother bought me to X-Men Classic (I think I started around issue #176 and ran all the way until they stopped reprinting the book). Back then, the whole thing seemed like a very strange, outsidery take on not just what superheroes were but on what I expected the X-Men to be based on repeated viewings of that Pryde of the X-Men animated special on VHS. They really do feel like part of their own world (though part of my feeling that may come from the fact that I had no clue what the New Mutants stuff was all about to say nothing of what was going on with Storm). After reading this, I may dig those issues up again.

  13. I just wanted to say I really enjoyed these posts. Last winter I picked up the Essentials 1-5 at a flea market for like 2 bucks each. I knew the major storylines and had a couple single issues (mostly from the Classic reprints), but having the whole chunk- in glorious black and white- was exciting and almost daunting. These posts were a lot of fun to read along with.

  14. I agree with VoodooBen. Over the years I actually find myself looking back nostalgically at Paul Smith’s art. I liked his clean style and did not appreciate it at the time. I am not a big Romita fan and was not crazy about his joining the series.

    I quit the series during Inferno. Bad enough Wolverine stabs Rachel in the chest earlier on because she was trying to kill The Black Queen as an excuse to get rid of her (the incident being the first time I ever wrote a comic book company), having Alex sleep with Madeline, Scott’s wife really took the cake. By Inferno X-Men had gotten ridiculous, with crap like Genosha, Mister Sinister, Inferno itself. Claremont had lost it, but I guess sales were still so good no one had the guts to rein him in.

  15. You know, with the exception of his run on Thor and a few various issues of other stuff, I’ve never been into JR Jr.’s work. It’s got raw energy (which made him a great fit for Thor), but the characters often look bland and ugly with limited expressions, and that really didn’t suit an ensemble book like X-Men.

  16. I have to agree with JD and the others. After Paul Smith I didn´t like the JR Jr. art much. Also not a fan of Rachel at the time. I didn´t mind the dystopian stories, but they went nowhere very fast. If there would have been even a tiny resolution, those issues maybe would be more memorable. But Claremont seemed unable or unwilling to even end one plotline.

    On the other hand he did the over-the-top melodram at least better than all the following writers.

  17. I can’t believe what I’m hearing! Morrison’s run better than the classic Claremont run? Absolutely not! No one could take an average superhero book and turn it into a reflection of the real world around it. The fact that Chris turned so many superhero conventions on their head and really created a book that focused on family is enough to place his run in the history books. He created teams, blew them up, recreated them, blew them up again, ad nauseum, with awesome results. Uncanny became crap when he left after 279 to focus on X-men #1…consequently the death of great mutant books. Today’s books have eaten their own tail, with little or no regard to the canon that made them enjoyable in the first place.

    Nuff said!

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