Like anything that’s been around for 60 years, the X-Men are defined by eras. I say this not to criticize or judge X-Men: Proteus (though I will, of course, do both in due time), but from the opening page where a shirtless Angel sports a gold chain, medallion and chest hair combo that would make Tom Selleck blush, you will be constantly reminded that this book was originally published in the 1970s. It’s admittedly charming at points, as the fashion sense and dialogue (particularly from the side characters and background reverie) are campy, fun throwbacks, but they can be a bit dissociative from time to time. It’s never enough to take you out of the moment, as this is a strong collection of X-stories, but there’s only so much bell-bottomed Scott Summers and Banshee Sean Cassidy looking a little too much like singer Shawn Cassidy you can handle in a sitting.
Collecting Uncanny X-Men issues #111-128 (as well as a few scattered annuals and an issue of Marvel Team-Up), Proteus honestly has little to do with its titular baddie. We don’t even get our first tease of Kevin MacTaggert until page 215, and the actual events for which the book is named don’t get started until page 365. This is actually par for the course for a lot of Marvel trades of this era, as many of the most beloved stories in X-Men canon (Days of Future Past in particular) were actually quite short. It’s hard to fault Marvel for giving you more bang for your buck, and many of the stories told in these editions do inform the tension and drama of the three (arguably four) issues that feature the Proteus story — but it is something readers should know going into it.
Now let’s start with the good. While a lot of the tales held within these pages may not have the flashy titles or iconic status of some of Claremont’s other collections, this is the writer hitting his stride with these characters. Barring the annuals and a Spider-Man team-up that makes sense but doesn’t really add anything to the story, this is a 17-issue hot streak from the series’ most prolific creative mind. It hits all the key-points for X-Men fans, too: Magneto fight? Got one. Savage Land? It’s in there. The X-Men in Japan? You know it. Wolverine fighting Cyclops? Shoot, not only does Scott beat Logan (and Kurt and Ororo), but Logan says he respects him at the end of it.
We get battles with underutilized X-baddies like Nanny, Sauron and Arcade, a throw-down with Alpha Flight, the first appearance of Mariko Yashida, the debut of the Shadow King, even the Heroes for Hire stop by (with Colleen Wing shooting her shot at a lovelorn Cyclops so hard that it’s no wonder the characters have seemingly not interacted at all in the past 40+ years). The events in these issues aren’t insignificant either, with two separate video games being created based on the Arcade section alone.
Whether you like him or not (and I’ve certainly lost taste for the writer in the past two decades or so), this is peak Claremont for all the good and bad that entails. The stories move at a brisk pace, never outstaying their welcome but giving you enough time to breathe between the beats. Each issue builds off the past, with a keen eye for continuity and making the small stuff count. The story rolls through different chapters in a manner that will keep your page turning.
Of course, there are definitely points where characters’ voices become so indistinct as to blend together. Sure, Wolverine’s rough-around-the-edges demeanor sets him apart from his fellow X-Men, but when some random thuggish baddie makes the scene, it’s like they shared the same Bub-y Einstein tapes as kids. Similarly, the Storm of this era liked to refer to Colossus as “Little Brother” as a signature, so when Cyclops does it toward the end of the book, it reads more like an accident than the kind of bonding moment it was likely intended to be.
Since we’re firmly in the Claremont era, it also comes with artwork from the legendary John Byrne, whose work in the post-Giant-Size X-Men era is as iconic as Claremont’s. Byrne’s depictions of the core cast are stellar and largely responsible for the way we understand the characters’ aesthetics even today. Yet, as I hinted in earlier in this review, there are also a few uniquely ’70s aspects that I miss. Notably, Wolverine’s receding hairline/widows peak always made him seem more skeevy and unscrupulous, and I miss it. Still, Byrne’s typical qualities are all on display here. Well-paced action, lots of X-Men in leisure suits and the kind of over-emotive faces that made the ’70s era stand out visually. Byrne’s not alone, either, as Proteus also features pencils from such luminaries as George Perez, Michael Netzer and Rich Buckler.
If there’s a complaint to be had, and it’s a fairly small one to be fair, it’s with the actual depictions of Proteus himself. Admittedly depicting a formless energy being with the ability to warp reality is not something covered in “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way,” but the execution isn’t always ideal. A lot of Proteus’ power is reflected in whirring lines and swirls, or seemingly random cuts, leaving a lot of the heavy lifting to be handled by inset text boxes Claremont is so fond of. This has the unfortunate side effect of stifling the pacing of the action in what should be the most exciting portion of the story.
Another quibble is the random inclusions of both the Incredible Hulk and X-Men Annuals. Historically, Annuals are self-contained stories that barely touch the central canon. Though it does feature both Iceman and Angel, the Hulk annual is the most egregiously unnecessary, featuring a convoluted story about Steven Lang becoming Master Mold. At least the other Annual’s dalliance with the ‘Flash Gordony’ world of Arkon mentions recent events in the X-Men books, and Marvel Team-Up plays off the Arcade arc featured earlier in the trade, but the three fifths of the Defenders fighting robots in space? Not sure who decided to add that one. It’s not a bad story at all, but very out of left field.
Overall, X-Men Epic Collection: Proteus is a great addition to your bookshelf. It’s a window back into a classic era of the series that features and celebrates a lot of the iconic elements of the series. Classic villains make appearances, important locations get some shine, and landmark characters make their first appearances. Sure, it’s not the most focused trade I’ve read, but there are no real complaints to be had about the additional content.