Friday, June 2, 2017

Still Uncanny, after all these years

It's now 40 years since Chris Claremont and John Byrne started their run on Uncanny X-Men, and all these years later, there is still a modern gleam to their adventures, with the light of the future still bouncing off Cyclops' visor.

The stories can look clumsy and cheesy to modern eyes, but they still stand tall among their 1970s peers for sophisticated action and sublime characterisation. A lot has been written and said about this relatively short run on one single comic in the past four decades, but there are always new uncanny treasures to be found in these X-Men comics.

My first exposure to the wonders of this work was at a young age, but right at the tail end of the collaboration. I was barely in school when I read Uncanny X-Men #138, the one after the death of Jean Grey, and instantly fell for its chunky delights.

That particular issue was a great primer to start from, going over the past 100 and something issues of adventures and prejudice. It still took me years and years before I actually read those issues they were summerising in #138's graveyard soliloquy, usually in reprints, so a comic that was more reference book than actual story was extremely welcome.

In fact, the only Claremont/Byrne issue I had for ages was the Phoenix: The Untold Story comic, which was inexplicably everywhere in New Zealand. It might not have counted in the grand scheme of things, but the fancy, bright paper and behind-the-scenes round-table at the end of the comic made it more than worthwhile.

I have the whole run now, in the Classic X-Men format from the late '80s, where the stories were sometimes remixed and redone, which can be irritating as hell, but also gives the reader a better view inside Claremont's head, and the vast, wonderful X-plan he was immersed in for years. I still get those issues out every now and then, and I still marvel at their beauty, and their unashamed sincerity.

It's a stone-cold classic of a comic, and while there is the odd, noble attempt to tear it down and burn it all, the comic is an immovable monolith that often sits near the top of broad comic surveys.

It wasn't always this way - in their earliest incarnations, the X-Men were always the red-headed stepchild of the Marvel Universe, shoved away to the side of Lee and Kirby's grand tapestry, and only coughing back into life in the mid-70s as Marvel's latest desperate attempt to pump some diversity into their whitebread line, a truly international team of characters with richly different backgrounds.

Those low expectations that came with the first issues of the relaunch were its obvious strength, because nobody really gave a damn, so Claremont could do whatever he wanted, and with the hyperactivity of Dave Cockrum, it quickly became a shining light in mainstream comics.

As beautifully expressive as Cockrum could be, Byrne's arrival as regular artist really pushed things through to the next level, creating the slickest, deepest and most exciting superhero comic of its time, and setting a template that is still being heavily mined by modern creators.

For a comic that liked to take plenty of time to show the team in civilian life, trying to get their heads around modern society without beating up bad guys, it remained a pure action-adventure comic that never stopped moving.

In just a couple of years, they fought Magneto and the Imperial Guard and the Hellfire Club and there was an extended period where half the team thought the other half were dead. Then there was the usual Savage Land shenanigans, the debut of Alpha Flight, the annoyance of Arcade, the reality spinning of Proteus, and the introduction of Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde and Dazzler in one go. And it's a run of comics that actually has a fitting and noble climax with the entire Dark Phoenix storyline and its tragic ending, before rounding things out with a couple of small epilogues, and a two-part story about a dark alternative future - a timeline which would create a thousand spin-offs of its own.

There was swashbuckling and raw emoting and cosmic craziness and a team that became a family. It was a series packed with incident and invention, and a plot that kept pushing forward all the time. Every issue was created with breathtaking enthusiasm, and that energy shines through in every page, every panel.

Even more importantly, it took a cast of cliches and broad generalisations and made them feel like people who you could actually give a damn about, even if they looked like blue demons, or African goddesses.

In these early days of the all-new, all-different team, it was soon obvious that like every great Marvel hero, each character had their own small flaws, but these flaws weren't just something to be conquered or overcome, they were part of the character's overall existence, in a way that is still fresh.

Nightcrawler would hide his pain at never fitting in beneath charming bluster, and that just made him even more charming. Colossus spent a long time feeling like a useless hunk of meat, consistently failing to prove his worth in big battles, only to finally save the day when facing an enemy which couldn't stand his metal grip. Storm could fly free, and still struggled with the trauma of being buried alive.

Wolverine would quietly battle his own animalistic urge to goo off on his own, and would make noble - and ultimately successful - efforts to find a place he belonged. Banshee had a comedic Irish accent, and then lost his bloody voice. Even the stick up Cyclop's butt, the thing that made him such a good leader, bent and broke beneath the weight of his love for Jean Grey and his own responsibilities to the team.

In the years since this run, Byrne has downplayed his artistic efforts, confident that his later work had more substance to it, but with the glorious benefit of hindsight, it's easy to claim that this is some of his very best work.

It's 40-years-old, but still slick as hell. The vital inks from Terry Austin gave it a sheen that Byrne would soon abandon for a more jagged line (foreshadowing the Image style of endless cross-hatching), and while that glossy smoothness of his X-comics started to look dated for a while, it is now nearly immortal in its ease and accessibility.

The pages are also bogged down with never-ending narration, copious thought balloons and needless dialogue, but it always flows just as much as the overall plot goes, individual scenes of action and drama becoming endlessly re-readable.

A lot of the novelty of this comic has been worn down by the intense influence it had on super-comics for years. Every new superhero team tried to capture that same formula, and it became the ur-text for this level of superhero team-building for other groups for a long, long time. The X-Men themselves have tried to recapture it too, with limited success. Even the latest iterations seen in the X-Men Blue and X-Men Gold comics are still straining for those heights, with simpler team line-ups, and a renewed focus on adventure over long-term angsting.

It's always good to see someone trying for those heights, and it should be little surprise that they barely reach them. Even the decade of Byrne-less comics that Claremont continued with never quite got there, even with hugely talented artists like Paul smith, John Romita Jr and Jim Lee. The Claremont/Byrne comics are just as fresh and fun and fearless as they were when I was that little kid, studying #138 like it was the bible. Everything I needed to know about mainstream superhero comics was in those pages, and it's lurking there still.

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