Posted by: Graeme McMillan on March 29, 2010
Tags: Claremont's X-Men
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.