Thursday, December 21, 2023

All the X-Men: Astonishing art

All the heartfelt plaudits given to Chris Claremont's writing for the X-Men comics in the 1980s are all good and correct, but it's also totally true that it was always a comic that thrived or died on the strength of the art. 

Stepping back and reading the whole lot in a week or two makes this clearer than ever. It all starts with the propulsive thrust, insane designs and sheer emoting of Dave Cockrum, giving way to the smooth lines of Byrne and Austin, and they carried it into the comic's first real golden age. For all the histrionics of the death of Jean Grey, #137 of the Uncanny X-Men is a gorgeous fucking comic, with battles for the lives of friends and the fate of the universe is gleaming star ships and dusty, ancient space arenas

Big Dave coming back felt like a fatal step backward - he's still great, but what else have ya got? - and Paul Smith immediately felt like a step forward, with a new neon slickness for a neon decade. Smith had a more minimal line than most Marvel comics of the time, which mean they have aged a lot better, and just might be the first truly sexy X-Men comics since Neal Adams.

The transition to John Romita Jr was smooth as hell, taking place in the middle of an anniversary issue. The second-generation Marvel superstar was a real chameleon in his early days, able to pull off a decent imitation of Smith to start with, before getting into his first great proper chunky phase.

There would be some Barry Windsor-Smith, and that was always a dose of stone cold genius. The artist had the oldest association with Uncanny, working on the title back in the late 60s, but his style had become something truly wonderful, which was always a delight. Art Adams coming in to blow everybody away was also an annual bonus.

After Romita, the title did feel directionless, with the core team hiding in Morlock tunnels after the massacre, or hanging out in Scotland or San Fransisco. Marvel was clearly looking for the next big thing, and there would be a different artist every issue or two, with the likes of Alan Davis and Rick Leonardi getting a chance to shine. 

This period lasted almost a year in the late eighties, until the obvious candidate emerged with Marc Silvestri, whose dynamic action gave the title real cohesion, with a scratchy vitality that felt truly new.

Jim Lee and the rest of the Image lads were just around the corner, and would coldly cut Claremont's power on the x-titles out from under him. But in the last few years of the 1980s, the dynamic nature of the art merged perfectly with the weighty themes, ponderous dialogue and sheer sexiness of Big Chris' stories, for one last time. 

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