I used to have hundreds and hundreds of X-comics, but I now have more issues of Kick-Ass than the Uncanny X-Men.
The rest have gone in various purges – eaten up in online auctions, swapped with mates and given away to kids – but I’ve held onto a few X-books – I still love a lot of the incredibly weird mid-eighties New Mutants and X-Men annuals and specials (especially when Art Adams was involved), and I will never, ever get rid of my Alan Davis Excalibur comics.
I’ve also held on to the first 45 issues of Classic X-Men from the late eighties, partly because it’s always nice to have the brilliance of those wacky and still-meaty Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne comics, and partly because of those absolutely mental backups.
Even though the X-Men are now nowhere near as groovy as they once were, there have still been millions of words singing the praises of the original comics that were reprinted in Classic, so there is no need to go into that, although it could be noted that they still stand up a lot better than their other contemporaries of that time. Byrne’s art is as polished as ever, nobody ever drew a screaming face with quite the same passion as Cockrum, and Claremont laid out a storytelling template that was so rich, he could go back to it again and again, and its influence ended up seeping into almost every mainstream superhero comic.
All those imitators and dilutors couldn’t change the fact that they’re great comics, but they’re not the main reason for holding on to these comics in this particular format. It’s the little extras, which included some splendid covers and frontispieces, (with our man Adams playing a large part in that as well), an early example of remix theory showing up in mainstream comics, and some fantastic back-up stories.
Those back-up strips managed to be something that really was all new and all different at the time these X-comics were published. Even though they were centred around stories that were more than a decade old at the time (and are now more than three and a half decades old), they also brought a late eighties sensibility to mid-seventies comics.
It’s easy to see, even under the guidance of the same writer, a subtle evolution of the mutant story. There was only a decade or so between those original Uncanny X-Men and the Classic reprint series, but the growth was there as the clunkiest of characterisation gave way to surprisingly subtle storytelling.
After all, it had been a significant decade of change for superhero comic books. It followed another huge seismic shift in the decade before, where the DC heroes went from charming clunkiness to streamlined speediness, and Marvel took its soap operatics to the cosmic level.
But there was still another sizable shift in regular superhero comics between 1975 and 1986. Storytelling evolution is always with us, and fittingly, the X-Men were at the front of this evolution for much of its history. The artists from the X-books redefined popular art comics in the mid nineties, (for better or worse), Morrison's x-run was the centrepiece of Nu-Marvel and its current average-ness is indicative of super-hero comics as a whole.
But under the deceptively soft line of John Bolton, the back-up stories told tales set in and around well-known comics, adding depth to those more simplistic stories and showing just how bad things were in the background.
Sometimes they were surprisingly uplifting and there were little moments of triumph for common decency, like Nightcrawler walking down Main Street, USA without hiding his real face, but they were also stories where an innocent woman gets her throat cut to prove a point to Magneto, or where Sebastian Shaw has the Hellfire Club brutally shot to make way for his own Hellfire Club, filled with his psychopathic and snappily-dressed mutant buddies.
The work by Claremont and Bolton has a strange, dream like quality. Never strictly canon, and all the better for it, these side-steps often showed an affinity for mood over plot. Even though Claremont could cram a lot of plot into these short stories (especially when he did something about a character with a real history, like Banshee,) Bolton’s art gives the stories an atmosphere that is oddly unique.
Bolton’s art was terribly unfashionable at the time, when names like Lee, Liefeld and McFarlane started appearing in big mainstream comics, but it still absolutely beautiful work, capturing Wolverine’s scowl, mad space wars and vast existential terrors with equal aplomb. It certainly stands up a lot better than those early Image founders’ efforts.
Things got even odder when Ann Nocenti, still doing marvellously weird things in titles like Longshot and Daredevil, started writing the back-ups, and brought out Bolton's sense of weirdness even stronger. Nocenti was less inclined towards filling in gaps, and, thankfully, was more interested in telling her own tales. They’re still creepy and memorable and often involved some kind of disturbing body horror that would be right at home in a Cronenberg film, and oddly fitting for a comic about mutation and evolution.
While these back-ups often told the story behind the story, the other extra material in Classic X-Men were all about the gaps between the panels. Additional story pages featuring all new material, cut and pasted into the old narrative, adding to the complexity and covering over youthful indiscretions.
These new bits fleshed out the past in incredible detail. It wasn’t always a good thing – it could disrupt the flow of the original work (something George Lucas was still figuring out more than a decade later) and they could make the whole thing a bit wordy for its own good, but there is the odd bit of depth. They gave none-more-eighties- villains like Apocalypse and Mr Sinister background roles in stories that were printed years before they first appeared.
Directors' cuts are everywhere now, but this early example of a remixed mainstream comic book was just as clumsy and oddly endearing as you would expect. It’s easy to sneer at these efforts, but hell, I still find it fun to try and figure out where the seams are.
Eventually, they stopped bothering to insert new stuff and the back-up stories dried up. Bolton stopped doing them after a couple of years, and there were some inspired efforts (including that Jim Lee fellow), they weren’t quite the same, and often tied into more modern X-comics in a way that left a bad taste in the mouth.
By the time they got to the end of the Byrne era, the Classic X-Men editors decided to ditch the additional material, and just do straight reprints (although there were still some lovely covers to come by the likes of Mike Mignola and Adam Hughes).
I stopped getting it soon after this, but I never got rid of that run, and even went to the effort of filling in the few gaps I had. (It took more than a decade.) Because even though these classix are now available in variable formats, and some of them are lavish and sexy, I like the Classic X-Men comics and their weird little extras the most.