AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:
3.7 out of 5
Essential X-Men Vol. 3
(Art by Dave Cockrum, Joe Rubinstein, Bob Wiacek, Jim Sherman, Bob McLeod, Brent Anderson, George Perez, Terry Austin and John Romita Jr.)
Nineteen issues-worth of X-Men adventures from the early 80s. Here the X-Men battle Doctor Doom, Arcade, Magneto, the Hellfire Club and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, as well as teaming-up with the likes of the Avengers, the Starjammers, the Fantastic Four and Doctor Strange.
Unfortunately for my appreciation of this book, I read it immediately after having finished 'Essential X-Men Vol. 2' (reviewed here), which contains perhaps the best run of X-Men stories ever published. Until reading this book I had never appreciated just how much influence artist and co-plotter John Byrne had over the series, but now I suddenly see that the Claremont/Byrne collaboration was something of a perfect storm of creative talent, with a certain Lennon and McCartney vibe, which means that Byrne's departure from the series sees it take an immediate downturn.
Here we're returned to a far more episodic type of storytelling, with the long-form sagas like Dark Phoenix done away with and replaced with a series of shorter, less consequential stories. These include entire issues' worth of content that amounts to nothing; such as, using just two examples, comatose hallucinations and bed-time fairytales. We also lose the progressive character development seen previously and instead the X-Men sort of reset to the status quo after almost every adventure. This is nothing unusual in comics, but that makes it no less disappointing considering what has come before.
If you've not read the Claremont/Byrne run then perhaps you'd enjoy this book more than I did but, honestly, why waste time on this when you could be reading that one instead? At least now I finally know why the Kitty's pet dragon is called Lockheed in later stories.
2 out of 5
Essential X-Men Vol. 4
(Art by Dave Cockrum, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr., Walter Simonson, Bob Wiacek, John Romita Sr., Brett Breeding and Dan Green)
Collecting eighteen issues of 'Uncanny X-Men' from the early 80s, this book sees the mutant superheroes battling the Brood, Mastermind, the Morlocks, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and Dracula himself.
This volume brings back the longer story arcs which I had missed in the previous collection but sadly starts with the Brood Saga, which was this book's low point for me. There's simply nothing original or interesting about the Brood themselves, being half-hearted knockoffs of the Xenomorphs, and the artwork was particularly uninspiring. Truth be told, the first quarter of this book felt like a real slog to get through and events within it, which should have been a massive deal, have little or no lasting consequences.
However, once the X-Men return to Earth the qualities of the stories (and art, for that matter) get much better. I particularly enjoyed the story arc set in Japan, where the X-Men are reunited with Wolverine who has just come through the events of his first solo series (reviewed below) a much-improved human being. Whilst there's nothing here that holds up to the quality of the iconic X-Men run Claremont worked on with John Byrne, the rest of the book involves solid adventures that feel emotionally invested for the characters.
One last point I have to address is the romance subplots, which are pretty weird, although I have to say that Logan's relationship with Mariko is handled very well. First off is Scott's relationship with Madeline Pryor. Whilst it's well-enough written, I can't help but feel weird about seeing these character go from meeting to marrying in the blink of an eye, more or less on the basis that Madeline looks identical to Scott's dead ex-girlfriend. That rings all kinds of alarm bells for me. However, not so many alarm bells as the fact that Kitty Pryde is the subject of a fair amount of amorous attention. It's bad enough that she, at fourteen, is apparently in a relationship with the nineteen or twenty year old Colossus but then there's a whole storyline where she's kidnapped by the Morlocks to become Caliban's lover. At one point he strips her and puts her in a dress whilst she's unconscious and at another she's manipulated into marrying him so they're not 'living in sin'. She's fourteen! (Perhaps I should just be glad that she's not depicted in her underwear as much as she was in the last volume).
3 out of 5
Excalibur: Mojo Mayhem
(Art by Arthur Adams, Terry Austin and Bob Wiacek)
Whilst taking a short trip away from her Excalibur duties Kitty Pryde AKA Shadowcat encounters a group of desperate fugitives; the X-Babies. With the Agent in hot pursuit, dedicated to forcing the X-Babies into contractual exploitation at the hands of Mojo, Kitty and her young charges flee the length and breadth of Great Britain.
So, there's a lot here to unpack for the uninitiated. First off this occurs at one of the numerous times that the X-Men were 'dead', so Kitty and Nightcrawler have joined the British superteam Excalibur. Mojo, introduced in 'Longshot' (reviewed here), is the ruler of the alternate dimension known as the Mojoverse, where he exploits slaves for the entertainment of the masses. And then there's the X-Babies. They are aged-down versions of the X-Men created by Mojo and very much playing into a weird trend in the late-80s/early-90s of having baby-fied versions of more familiar characters (the Muppet Babies were the most famous - and definitely the best). So, it's important to know all of that going in or this book would make absolutely no sense to you.
As you can imagine from a story involving Mojo, created as a biting satire of despotic, spineless TV executives, and the baby versions of the X-Men, this is not a book to be taken too seriously. That gives mixed results in that the satirical and metatextual humour is pretty strong (unlike in Mojo's introduction in 'Longshot') but at the same time it feels like it cheapens the Excalibur brand a bit. I've always been a big Excalibur fan and it's a shame that there's very little serious attention given to the fact that Kitty is still mourning the 'deaths' of the X-Men and is then presented with miniature clones of them. It should be a significant character moment but isn't included because it would, rightly, clash with the playful tone of the story as a whole.
I have to admit to being a bit of a fan of baby Wolverine (Wolvie) though. Imagine Wolverine's surly temperament and penchant for violence but in a toddler...
3 out of 5
The Uncanny X-Men: Days Of Future Past
(Art by John Byrne and Terry Austin)
Dating from 1980, this book collects the two issues which made up the now-iconic 'Days of Future Past', in which Kate Pryde psychically travels back in time into her younger self from an apocalyptic future in an attempt to prevent the horrors to come. The X-Men of the 1980s 'present day' must then save anti-mutant presidential candidate Robert Kelly from being assassinated by the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.
The 1980s was a period when comics were rapidly growing up and, it has to be said, growing bleaker in their outlook. When you add this tonal shift to the race-relations angst of the X-Men it produces one of Marvel Comics' most influencial and enduring storylines (so much so that it became the basis for one of the best films of the movie franchise - my favourite, in fact - in 2014; a year after the setting of the dark future within it). And do not doubt that this story earns its place in the history of comics, because what we get here is a powerful story of a future where xenophobic rhetoric has led to the breakdown of the US as a nation and resulted in a holocaust which, in a haunting scene, sees Kate Pryde walking through an endless graveyard past the headstones of the X-Men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and more.
It has to be said that the 'present day' sections of the book aren't as compelling, but that's mostly because they don't have the awful novelty of the 'future' scenes. Despite that, they still have the wonderful element which makes the X-Men unique of Marvel's super-teams; the fact that they have to spend their efforts trying to prove themselves as the good guys in the face of prejudice in a way that the likes of the FF or the Avengers never really have.
I should point out that artist John Byrne co-plotted this story with Claremont (and, I think, came up with the concept), but since it's the latter credited as 'Writer', that's why I've not put it under Collaborations. Don't hate me; I am very aware of just how vital comic book artists are to the nature of the stories that the writers create and that their creative input shouldn't be overlooked (see Steve Ditko/Stan Lee/Spider-Man).
5 out of 5
The Uncanny X-Men: Days Of Future Past/God Loves, Man Kills
(Art by John Byrne, Terry Austin, John Romita Jr., Bob McLeod and Brent Anderson)
Marvel's Mightiest Heroes Book 57. An omnibus containing two of the most influential X-Men stories of all time. Katherine Pryde is sent back in time to 1980 from 2013 to prevent her nightmarish future from coming to pass in 'Days of Future Past' and the X-Men face persecution and death at the hands of zealots let by Reverend William Stryker in 'God Loves, Man Kills'.
Where other books of the Mightiest Heroes series collect one early storyline, often the character's introduction, and one later more significant storyline, this book picks out two stories from the early 80s which exemplify not only who the X-Men are as characters within the Marvel Universe, but also the importance of Chris Claremont's iconic run on the series.
This version of 'Days of Future Past' includes the run-up issues which have no direct bearing on that story arc but, with a mission to Canada with Nightcrawler, do help to establish Wolverine as one of the most important members of this iteration of X-Men and his potential for leadership. We then get the main story itself, which shows us an apocalyptic future where the Sentinels have enslaved North America and wiped out nearly all mutants and superheroes. It's a core story framework that Marvel would revisit numerous times but it was never done better than writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne did it here.
'God Loves, Man Kills' was the first full-length X-Men graphic novel I ever read and its impact has never lessened in my mind over the past 25-odd years. Mutants have always been used in Marvel as an allegory for real-world bigotry and nowhere has it been depicted most brutally and emotionally than in this story. This is a superhero story which opens with two children being shot dead in a playpark before being strung up and hung with a sign saying 'Mutie'. The obvious parallels with not only the Nazi treatment of Jews but also the treatment of black people in America throughout the 20th Century cannot be avoided. The issues are given their due weight too, where in the hands of a lesser writer this could easily have fallen into the trap of trivialising those issues. Claremont doesn't presume to offer solutions either, he simply highlights the problems and then shows us one group of people trying their best to hope for a brighter future (the X-Men) and one man who believes that violence is the only and inevitable response to the violence suffered by his people (Magneto).
Put simply, the two stories collected here are among the best things ever produced by Marvel.
5 out of 5
The Uncanny X-Men: Love And Madness
(Art by John Romita, Dan Green, Bob Wiacek, Sal Buscema, Tom Mandrake and Kim DeMulder)
A Marvel Pocket Book collecting issues of Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants from the early 80s. Kitty Pryde AKA Shadowcat is kidnapped by the White Queen Emma Frost just as the rest of the X-Men, as well as the rest of Earth's major superheroes, are transported offworld by the Beyonder. It then falls to the untested New Mutants to take on Frost and her own team of mutants; the Hellions. Later, Rogue assaults the SHIELD Helicarrier, Colossus battles the Juggernaut and the X-Men have to rescue a disoriented timetraveller.
At first it took me a while to get my head around the X-Men presented here, since their 1980s incarnations were very different from both their origins and also from how the characters are better known now. Storm is going through her punk phase, Professor X is up and walking, Rogue is still barely rehabilitated from being a supervillain and the likes of Shadowcat, Cannonball and Magma are more-or-less children. However, when I did manage to settle back into the era I started to really enjoy the book. In fact, for me, it really hits its stride when the X-Men are taken out of the picture and the so-called New Mutants have to take centre stage. It was interesting to see these characters as untested youths, since many of them later become familiar as fully-fledged members of the likes of X-Force, Excalibur and the X-Men themselves. It was also interesting for them to be pitted against Emma Frost's Hellions who are, in many ways, a dark reflection of themselves.
Oddly, once the X-Men themselves return from the events of Secret Wars, the book isn't quite as good. It takes on a much more 'threat-of-the-month' feel and loses some of its story cohesion. However, its still worth reading just to see things like Colossus and Juggernaut slug it out, Nick Fury placing a kill order on Rogue and the X-Men encountering Rachel Summers, the alternate-future daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey, for the first time. Also, there's a hilarious moment when a giant dragon from Battleworld is terrorising Tokyo and a Japanese official says "It can't be, this is the off-season!'.
One thing that did bother me a little was that one of the main themes in the book is the love affair between Shadowcat and Colossus and yet we're explicitly told that he's 20 and she's 14. That's just not right.
4 out of 5
(Art by Frank Miller and Josef Rubinstein)
The inspiration for James Mangold's movie 'The Wolverine', Logan's first solo story in a starring role sees him travel to Japan in search of the love of his life Mariko. However, he soon discovers that she has been forced into a marriage with an abusive husband by her father, Lord Shingen. Shingen disgraces Wolverine, who then finds himself caught between the ninjas of the Hand and the fiery assassin Yukio.
It's strange to think now that before this story Wolverine was a largely undeveloped B-list Marvel superhero, with little or no exploration of who he was as a person. Here, however, Claremont takes him away from the heroes and villains of America and instead plunges him into the honour and tradition-bound culture of Japan. It turns out the perfect way to explore Logan's inner conflict of man versus animal and, honestly, I can't think of a single Wolverine story I've read so far that does anything better with this character than what Claremont does here.
It's a good thing that the writer also chooses not to have him face off against any super-powered enemies too and what we get instead is an interesting array of compelling human characters, something rare now, let alone in the 1980s. Foremost among them is Mariko, caught between love and duty, but I also really enjoyed the femme fatale Yukio, with the two women acting as reflections of the two sides of Logan's own personality.
To begin with I was a little disappointed with Miller's artwork, but later on in the book his depiction of Wolverines battles with both ninja and samurai are brilliantly put together pieces of comic book art.
Honestly, I was tempted to give this book a perfect score, but I chose to knock it down a peg due to Logan's inner monologue so often being repeated expositions of who he is and what his powers are; an annoying trope of comics of the 60s, 70s and 80s.
4 out of 5
Collaborations & Anthologies:
Decimation: X-Men - The Day After (here)
Essential X-Men Vol. 1 (here)
Essential X-Men Vol. 2 (here)
Madrox The Multiple Man: Multiple Choice/Madrox The Multiple Man! (here)
Marvel Platinum: The Definitive Guardians Of The Galaxy (here)
Power Man: New Avengers - Luke Cage/Power Man And Iron Fist (here)
Professor X: Psi-War/The Muir Island Saga (here)
Star Wars: A Long Time Ago... - Dark Encounters (here)
Star Wars: A Long Time Ago... - Doomworld (here)
Star Wars: A Long Time Ago... - Resurrection Of Evil (here)
Star Wars: A Long Time Ago... - Screams In The Void (here)
Star Wars Omnibus: Wild Space Volume 1 (here)