This is turning into a great Holiday Season for X-Men fans, especially those looking for collections of the classic Claremont run. In the middle of November, Marvel released the X-Men Epic Collection: I, Magneto, a less essential but thoroughly enjoyable section of Claremont’s run, supported by the great art of Dave Cockrum. Now, starting December 8th, you can buy a new printing of the wonderful Uncanny X-Men: From the Ashes, collecting Uncanny X-Men #168-176, arguably the best part of the Claremont run not titled “The Dark Phoenix Saga” or “Days of Future Past.”
First off, this is a beautiful book to look at. That starts with a fabulous cover by Arthur Adams depicting the core team from this era, looking great next to the large, eye-catching figure of Dark Phoenix. The menacing, disfigured Morlocks in black and white in the background give the cover a touch of horror. You could easily be disappointed that Adams doesn’t do any of the interior art.
But your disappointment wouldn’t last long once you realize that this collection contains the bulk of Paul Smith’s seminal (but unfortunately brief) run as artist during Claremont’s tenure. The first two pages from the actual comics set the tone for what Smith has to offer: the classic cover of issue #168 and that issue’s famous “Professor Xavier is a Jerk!” opening spread, both well known images of Kitty Pryde.
For many X-fans, Smith’s renditions are often the first images they see in their mind’s eye when they imagine their favorite characters. As Twitter’s @ConorReadsXMen wrote to me, “The Paul Smith era is some of my favorite art on the run. His figures look like actual living people as opposed to action figures set in heroic poses.” In that vein, it’s not surprising that Smith depicted the X-Men out of costume more often than any other artist during Claremont’s run.
And not many artists could boast having drawn pages completely free of any dialogue or narrative captions from the famously wordy Claremont. And yet Smith’s visual storytelling was so strong, he achieves this feat three times in issue #173 alone. Articles have been written about the merits of Smith’s ten-issue run, seven of which are included in this collection.
Even the one fill-in issue (#171) features the wonderful Walter Simonson as substitute, and he doesn’t disappoint. Additionally, about two-thirds of the way through the double-sized issue #175, John Romita Jr. takes over after Smith’s rather abrupt departure, but he does so in such a way that I didn’t really notice the changeup at first. Then, Romita Jr. officially starts his equally legendary run on Uncanny X-Men with issue #176, included in this collection as the narrative epilogue to the over-arching storyline.
Speaking of the story, this is such a great part of the Claremont run. Nearly every issue includes at least one famous storyline, new character introduction or important event. The opening Kitty-centered issue ends with the first appearance of Madelyne Pryor. Then, in the next two issues, we meet Callisto and the Morlocks for the first time, culminating in Callisto’s famous knife fight with Storm. In Simonson’s fill-in issue, Rogue joins the X-Men, continuing Xavier’s repeated efforts to reform morally questionable mutants and former villains. After that, we experience Wolverine’s ill-fated wedding to Mariko. The collection comes to a close with the “return” of Dark Phoenix, which may actually be the least exciting issue, followed by an extended epilogue involving Madelyne and Cyclops’ wedding and honeymoon.
Obviously, the collection is heavy on the Claremontian soap opera style based on interpersonal relationships, which means it’s full of his outstanding character work. I could probably write multiple essays on a myriad of topics stemming from this collection of issues. But, I just want to go into two aspects which stood out most to me during this read-through.
First, these issues detail a surprising transformation in Storm’s character. We initially find her struggling with the pressures of leadership and the responsibility of having to make difficult moral decisions for others. On top of this — or maybe because of it — she struggles to keep her vast powers under control, a very common theme in Claremont’s X-Men.
In this unsettled state, she experiences two very impressionable meetings with two obviously gender-queer characters. One becomes an instant enemy and Storm’s knife fight with Callisto drives her to cross an ethical line she never would have in the past, stabbing Callisto and leaving her for dead. The other character, Yukio, becomes a friend (or maybe more), instantly attracting Storm’s admiration with her carefree but wildly reckless personality. Yukio lives every moment as if it was her last and is therefore free from burdens in a way Storm has never known.
As a result, Storm transforms from the beautiful weather goddess into a rebellious, gender-defying, Mohawk-bearing (and yet still gorgeous) punk. Internally, she has also changed from being intimately connected to nature to feeling alienated from this connection. For example, she rids her loft in the X-Mansion of all her plants.
Storm’s transformation could be interpreted in different ways, depending on your point of view. It could be seen as a fall from grace; the once beautiful and ethical goddess turned into an ugly socia deviant. Or it could be viewed as an act of feminist emancipation from the traditional roles and pre-existing expectations of the patriarchal society. Maybe the correct interpretation is somewhere in between.
Claremont instead makes things more complex, depicting both positive and negative consequences of this transformation. On the one hand, Storm appears freer, finding contentment in being able to define herself and her identity, rather than endlessly attempting to fit into the expectations of others, another common theme during Claremont’s run. But, she also acts out wildly, using her powers in reckless ways that almost lead to the death of her friends, seemingly without giving it a second thought.
Furthermore, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Storm first appears as a punk in the same issue that Wolverine is set to marry Mariko, juxtaposing the different directions these two characters are moving between the extremes of wild maniac and cultured society. If Wolverine is now “worthy” of Mariko’s hand and accordingly her civilized, upper-class world, does that mean Storm, often displayed and treated as on par with royalty, is no longer “worthy” of such things? Unfortunately, further developments in Storm’s punk phase must wait for the next collection.
The other story arc that I want to discuss is also the origin of the collection’s title, “From the Ashes.” Madelyne Pryor is introduced at the end of the opening issue (#168) and immediately catches Scott’s eye, but mostly because of her striking similarities to the deceased Jean Grey. From there, Scott and the reader find themselves constantly questioning whether Madelyne is the resurrected Phoenix/Jean. All the while, he (and we readers) falls in love with this dashing, capable and strong-willed woman.
In a sense, Madelyne serves as a symbolic personification of the way that Claremont’s most famous (and arguably best) storyline has lingered ever present in the X-Men franchise, and specifically Scott’s life, even 30 issues after its conclusion. As Andrew Deman of Twitter’s @ClaremontRun wrote to me, this storyline “directly addresses the shadow of the Phoenix and how it hung over the franchise, creating some resolution to that and thus a new path forward.” Still, Claremont makes Madelyne more than a metaphor, creating a complex, interesting and lovable character in her own right.
The recurring “Is she or is she not Jean Grey?” questioning all leads up to the 20th anniversary issue (#175), which is actually kind of a letdown compared to the excellence of the rest of this collection. Maybe that’s because the foreshadowing of Mastermind’s return too easily and too quickly revealed the hoax of Phoenix’s return. Or maybe it’s due to this issue mostly being more of the standard superhero fare, rather than focusing on the interpersonal relationships of the characters. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great issue, highlighting the strategic skills of Cyclops as he takes on Mastermind and the duped X-Men all at once. It’s just not quite as excellent as the rest of the collection. Nevertheless, it does give us this gem of a quote from Scott, standing at Jean’s gravestone just before his wedding to Madelyne.
In conclusion, it’s easy to understand why Marvel keeps putting out new printings of this collection. If you don’t own these issues of Uncanny X-Men in some form, then you know what to ask for for Christmas. If you have the money and want the prestige hardcover format (and can find a copy), then buy Marvel Masterworks: Uncanny X-Men Vol. 9, which also includes God Loves, Man Kills and the original Chris Claremont/Frank Miller Wolverine miniseries. But, buying Uncanny X-Men: From the Ashes along with TPBs of those other stories will probably cost you only half as much. And you’ll still get to enjoy this nearly perfect part of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men.
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