It has been over one year since I recommended Chris Claremont’s early years on “Uncanny X-Men” in this column, and since then I have very, very slowly been making my way past ‘Days of Future Past,’ reading whatever Claremont I can get my hands on in chronological order. The early 80s are when the main book starts to develop multiple spin-off series, and while the “Uncanny” issues of those years are great (and introduce the truly wonderful Paul Smith), the best books of the post-‘Days of Future Past’ period are, in my opinion, the first few offshoots from the main book that Claremont wrote.
When talking X-Men comics outside of “Uncanny,” the premier off-shoot of question is unquestionably the graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills. We actually already recommended God Loves almost two years ago, so I’ll only devote a bit of space to it, but let’s be honest: this is the X-men comic. It is safe to say that nearly every X-Men comic published since its release stands in God Loves‘ shadow. “Hated and feared” had always been the key words of the X-Men, but Claremont’s graphic novel really brought it to the forefront in a way that was incredibly grounded in real-world observances — and, sadly, real-world hate. Brilliantly illustrated by Brent Anderson, now better known for his work on Astro City, God Loves, Man Kills is the X-Men comic you should have read by now. If you haven’t, close this window and pick it up in either paperback or hardcover, or in the fourth volume of X-Men Essentials (recent printings only).
The first big X-Men ongoing spinoff was “New Mutants,” originally written by Chris Claremont. While the mutants added to the cast when Len Wein relaunched “Uncanny” were approximately the same age as the first class of mutants, the students introduced in the New Mutants graphic novel were half a generation or so younger than the original X-Men. Kitty Pryde may have been an X-Men for a good amount of issues by this point, but the X-Babies, as Kitty called them for some time, were the first younger class to be introduced (later to be echoed by Generation X, the New X-Men, and Generation Hope). For a younger class, though, Claremont’s later stories in “New Mutants” were surprisingly dark, and showed a very mature side of the popular writer — once, of course, he no longer had to have guest appearances by characters such as the Thunderiders. A major draw to “New Mutants,” though, is the art: after a few solid issues by Bob McCleod and Sal Buscema, Bill Sienkiewicz steps in and does the kind of work that only Sienkiewicz does, pushing the capabilities of 80s comics printing to their very furthest boundaries. The main obstacle for getting into the New Mutants is that their debut graphic novel is smack dab in the middle of an “Uncanny” arc, where the original are supposedly dead and gone, and the first few issues continue to stretch this thread until the team’s return. If you’re already reading, or already have read, the older issues, then you have no reason not to check out the series, currently collected in the New Mutants Classic line. Even if you aren’t familiar with the context of the team’s founding, though, no X-Fan can go without a copy of ‘The Demon Bear Saga,’ Sienkiewicz’s debut, which can be found in either an out-of-print trade of the same name or volume three of New Mutants Classic.
A bit of an oddball amongst this group is the highly underrated “Magik: Storm and Illyana.” On the one hand, it’s a great read — on the other, it is a good example of why X-Men comics are so damn difficult to just jump into. The entire series happens between certain pages of “Uncanny” #160, and can thus be really jarring at first to readers who haven’t read that issue yet. Between the beginning and end of the mini, though, the majority of the series takes place in an alternate universe of sorts, so it is not entirely unaccessable by new readers — think the Age of Apocalypse in significantly less issues. Besides the frame of “Uncanny” #160, this isn’t a superhero comic at all, but a rather dark fantasy, wherein Colussus’s younger sister grows up in a world dominated by the demon lord Belasco, wherein only a few of the original X-Men survive. In a sense, this is a thematic prequel to the darker material Claremont would inject into “New Mutants,” especially considering the fact that Ilyana eventually became part of the team, and while it is dated in some regards, it definitely stands as an example of the tonal shift comics were going through at the time. To top it off, the underrated great John Buscema is at top form in this mini, allowing his typical Marvel house style to adopt a more sinister tone, and telling his stories as flawlessly as always. “Magik: Storm and Illyana” can be found in a pretty pricey hardcover that doesn’t have wide distribution, but you might be able to scrounge it (or the original minis) up for cheap somewhere.Continued below
In my personal opinion, the finest of the batch is the first Wolverine miniseries, illustrated by Frank Miller. This miniseries was released when Miller was a rising star, before “The Dark Knight Returns” had cemented his name as one of the most recognized in the industry. Sorry Claremont — Miller is the reason to pick up this book. As one would expect, the storytelling is incredible. The climactic claw/sword fight in particular is nothing less than stunning, equal parts exciting and streamlined, and reveals exactly why Miller’s name should still be revered, despite all of his current craziness. Of course, the story, too, is interesting; set in Japan, the story follows Logan as he pursues the love of his life (well, one of them, anyway), Mariko. By removing the now most famous mutant from the X-Men, Claremont was able to add even more character to the most enigmatic X-Man without resorting to revealing anything about his shadowy past. “Wolverine” is a great read whether one is familiar with or new to the best there is at what he does, and the current paperback collection even collects the two follow-up issues of “Uncanny” (no gorgeous Miller art in those, though).
Then, of course, there is “Excalibur,” but… well, I haven’t read any of that yet! Hopefully these great reads can hold my fellow X-Men newbies over until next time. Considering the gap of time between this recommendation and my Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne recommendation, I guess I’ll be seeing you all in a year and change.