Sunday, December 24, 2006

Marvel Masterworks Uncanny X-Men #1

It's hard to warp my mind into the way-back machine to remember those days, but at one time, way back in 1975 (god that was 31 years ago wasn't it? I. am. old.) Chris Claremont was a young writer working on Iron Fist, a title created by Roy Thomas to cash in on a martial arts craze that was quickly dying down.

It was then that Len Wein tapped Claremont to head a revival of the rare Marvel title to be cancelled: X-men.

That's right, Claremont was at one time a 25 year-old intern just out of college given books designed to cash in on fads and books that Marvel was attempting to resurrect after being cancelled.

Of course, in hindsight, we can see this shiny hardcover Marvel Masterworks reprint of those heady days for just what it is: the beginning of one of the most storied runs in the history of comics and a book that should be on the shelf of every self-respecting library.

Claremont's run would wind up lasting until 1991, a 16 year tenure that still has not been matched in Marvel comics history (and given that most writers are given a 12 issue run on a book before being shuffled off to a different book these days, I believe the 16 year run never WILL be topped by a single writer on a single book).

But this reprint title lets us begin at the beginning. The title starts with Len Wein's Giant Size X-Men #1, which introduces the new team, including a cast of new characters destined to become pop culture icons not only in comics, but in hit movies as well: Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus and Wolverine (who had previous appeared as a guest star in a couple issues of the Incredible Hulk).

These heroes form a huge team that includes the original X-men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Beast, Angel, Banshee, Havok and Polaris) along with some less familiar new-comers including Thunderbird and Sunfire.

Then the title moves to #94, Claremont's first as writer of the comic. Claremont puts his stamp on the book immediately, paring the team down considerably. Iceman, Angel, Beast, Havoc, Polaris and Sunfire all leave in the first pages of the work (along with Jean Grey but we just KNOW she'll be back).

This paring down will give Claremont the room to do what he does perhaps better than any other writer since Roy Thomas: give each member of his team a chance to shine as characters while still delivering on all the action comic readers love (especially in teams).

This issue also sees the introduction of character arcs new to the X-men that will be staples of Claremont's entire 16-year run. Wolverine and Cyclops can't get along. Scott and Jean's love affair. And Cyclops' emergence from Xavier's shadow as the true leader of the team.

In issue #95, Claremont continues to pare down the roster of his new team but in a decidedly different way: Thunderbird dies.

The harcover ends with a fight with the Sentinels, introducing another of Claremont's central themes that helped to turn the X-men from a cancelled book about student-heroes into Marvel's top-selling title: The X-men are outsiders, a racial minority who are not superheroes by choice. They're freaks by an accident of genetics and most would much rather be normal folks instead of costumed vigilantes.

Finall Claremont introduces the Shi`ar and Lilandra, presaging the many science fiction overtones the series will carry.

In short I can't recommend this title enough. Not just for comics fans, for anyone who likes to read. It's a look at the beginning of a pop-culture phenomenon and the defining of some truly iconic characters by a legendary writer at the beginning of his career.

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