Apr 18, 2017

Claremont X-Men Is the Only X-Men

Claremont X-Men Is the Only X-Men
Ben Smith

Grumpy old man alert! Claremont’s X-Men is the only version of the X-Men that has ever seemed like the real X-Men to me. Everything since has seemed like a pale imitation of what he accomplished. Considering he did everything but create the basic concept and a few of the most popular creators (he took over almost immediately after Len Wein and Dave Cockrum co-created Storm, Nightcrawler, and Colossus, along with adding mainstays like Wolverine alongside team founder Cyclops in Giant Size X-Men #1) I don’t feel like it’s that much of a “grumpy old man” assertion to make.

Recently, I decided I wanted to read some classic X-Men comics, and having read the John Byrne and Paul Smith runs several times previously, I decided to start with the comics immediately following Smith’s beloved run, drawn by a young John Romita Jr. Normally, I find a lot of ‘80s comics to be a bit of a chore to get through, but Claremont’s X-Men is one of the best exceptions. (He still has to deal with a lot of the necessary descriptions and recaps of the time, and he famously has some annoying dialogue tics, but overall the writing holds up really well.)

Some of the things I began to notice as I read the comics, are things that not only made it so popular at the time, but almost definitely not replicable in modern comics. The X-Men are as popular and beloved as they’ve ever been, but the comics will never be as good as they were under Claremont, and here’s why.

THOUGHT BALLOONS

I’m not one of those jaded old fans that pines for the old days of thought balloons and editorial captions, but it’s undeniable how essential thought balloons were to Claremont’s X-Men formula. Modern comics have evolved into using caption boxes as a more “sophisticated” form of exploring a character’s inner thoughts. However, that has limitations the thought balloons didn’t have. Captions tend to be much shorter, and often are used for internal narration. Thought balloons, as used by Claremont, expressed a character’s inner anxieties about themselves, or condemnations of others.

Here is a perfect example of both, as Professor Xavier struggles with wanting to take command of the team in the field, now that he was no longer paralyzed (at the time). Wolverine subsequently chastises him in his mind for his actions.



Storm was going through a bit of an identity crisis at the time, and her feelings about it were reflected explicitly in her thought balloons. Repeatedly having the characters “silently” express anxiety or fear, is just one of the reasons readers could identify and relate so strongly to the X-Men characters. The most blatant and intentional example of that was Kitty Pryde, who was always in her head struggling with her romantic feelings for Colossus (gross) or Doug Ramsey (seen here as the mutant master of the “friend zone.”)


It’s hard not to love anyone in some capacity once you really get to know them, and readers really got to know each X-Men character inside and out.

THE NOT-INVINCIBLE WOLVERINE

Mystique trains by fighting simulated versions of the X-Men (with help from a random guest appearance by personal favorite Arcade) and fatally dispatches of Wolverine by slicing his throat.

“Even your mutant healing factor won’t prevent your bleeding to death.”

Sorry, that’s not really an important reason, this grumpy old fan just hates how invincible Wolverine has become over the years.

SEXUALITY

Fellow Cube writer Travis pointed out to me the role sexuality played in a lot of Claremont comics. It wasn’t really as overt as modern comics can tend to be, it was definitely more subtle, but it was always there, and in many ways was more effective because of it. (Again, paraphrasing Travis, whoever added the first pair of fishnets in a comic book deserves a statue in their honor.) Uncanny X-Men #189 was basically a non-stop fetish display, with Rachel and Amara behind enemy lines of the Hellfire Club, in disguise as sexy maids.


They soon came into conflict with Selene, who was dressed in dominatrix lingerie ala Emma Frost (basically black panties, corset, and a cape… for showmanship). Just when I thought those were all the fetishes you could fit in one comic, this page happened.



Outfits like these were more common than not in Claremont’s X-Men comics. (Storm was in her Mohawk punk-rocker leather phase at the time, which I’m sure is a fetish for someone… besides me.) Characters were also falling in and out of love at the drop of a hat (like Colossus, more on that later) and there was always an element of mind control in a Claremont comic (arguably way too much).

Firestar made her comics debut as the love slave of an evil mutant named Empath.

REAL CHANGE IN A SHARED UNIVERSE

Not long after Romita took over as artist, the maxi-series Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars launched. The X-Men ended one issue being whisked away to join the action, with them returning with a few changes in the very next issue. (At the time, the regular series weren’t suspended or forced to tie-in with the original event series, they dealt with the ramifications immediately while the Secret Wars series occurred separately at its own pace. While they were gone, Colossus had fallen in love with an alien woman, ruining his relationship with Kitty Pryde (thankfully). This had ramifications not only on those two, but most of their teammates as well, which is a level of impact you don’t always get in today’s comics (events change things so often the characters can’t even react).

Here Storm wonders if everyone would have been better off if Colossus had died,
which is something I think all of us have wondered

Claremont was apparently a fan of what Mantlo was doing over in ROM: Spaceknight, because he spent several issues of the X-Men fighting Dire Wraiths. Forge even developed a gun that would take away mutant powers, based on the concept of ROM’s neutralizer. That gun was eventually accidentally used to remove Storm’s weather-manipulation powers, a change that would have a massive impact on the book and last for quite a long time.


Modern comics may reference the big status quo changes in their monthly comics (for example, Norman Osborn as the director of SHIELD/HAMMER during Dark Reign) but they can’t possibly match the level of coordination and seamless integration that comics in the ‘80s pulled off regularly.



The lineup of the team was constantly changing, almost from issue to issue. Rogue was still a newcomer to the team, trying to decide if she was truly a X-Man, or still part of the Brotherhood at heart. Storm famously was redesigned with her Mohawk and black leather. Cyclops had, for a long time, been a tangential member of the series, trying to have a normal life with his new wife Madelynne Pryor. (All of that groundwork was completely undercut when Jean Grey was resurrected, and it seriously damaged Cyclops as a character forever.)

Or until your true love comes back to life

Rachel, the future daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey, journeyed through time from an alternate future to join the team during this run. Forge was introduced, as a weapons contractor for the government. Storm left the team after losing her powers, with Nightcrawler designated as the new team leader. New Mutants would pop in and out of the book, enough to highlight and legitimize that they shared a world (and more specifically the same mansion) but not so much their own title was devalued. When Marvel published a Kitty Pryde and Wolverine mini-series, both characters actually, gasp, disappeared from Uncanny X-Men for the duration of the mini.


The idea of Marvel being confident enough to exclude Wolverine from the only monthly X-Men book they published at the time is almost inconceivable compared to the overuse of the character today. (Recent years where he’s been “dead” are the exception.) The team was constantly changing, but in ways that felt natural and an extension of the narrative being told at the time. It was that sense that the characters were actually living real lives, and could leave the team and have their own adventures for a time, that really added a level of believability and (for lack of a better word) realism to a comic featuring brightly colored superheroes.

Yet, there was still a clear division between the X-Men comic and the New Mutants comic. The same for X-Factor when it launched in the upcoming years. The level of team (and series) integrity made each book feel like it had a unique premise and goal. That’s something that has mostly been lost in the years since, with everyone basically a member of one large X-Men team, occasionally split out into separate arbitrary groups (usually one of which involves being the team willing to murder).

PLANTING SEEDS

Claremont’s security and sense of ownership as writer of the X-franchise meant that he often planted seeds for future stories that wouldn’t bloom until much later. (Sometimes not until many years later, as Claremont would famously forget seeds that he had planted, or get distracted by newer shinier ideas.) Mystique, when fighting those simulated X-Men I mentioned earlier, hesitated when it came time to attack Nightcrawler, even a fake version. Later they cut to Nightcrawler out on a date with Amanda Sefton, and randomly mentioning how he never knew either of his birth parents. It was obvious the reader was supposed to assume that Mystique might be his mother (or father, as the legend goes) which is something that wasn’t confirmed until (I believe) long after Claremont had left the series. That level of long-term planning has pretty much gone extinct. Even if a writer intends to have a long tenure on a series, so many things change because of events that they might never get a chance to execute many of the ideas they had planned when starting on a new book. That’s if they don’t get replaced on the title outright.

COMPRESSION

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I do like modern comics, but there’s no denying they are decompressed in comparison to older comics. I personally happen to enjoy that level of detail and commitment to exploring every moment of a story in-depth, but it virtually guarantees that no modern comic could ever match the amount of activity that occurred in a Claremont X-Men comic. Claremont could balance the soap opera of his character, along with a large amount of action, while planting seeds for future stories, and referencing the long history of the series, and juggle a large ever-changing cast. That level of packed content simply cannot be matched in the more widescreen style of comic storytelling today. That’s not to say it was automatically better, but you cannot deny that it is certainly makes for a different feel in today’s comics.

Now, your mileage may vary on which era of X-Men comics is the best, but what cannot be denied is that stylistically and structurally, Claremont’s approach to the series is something we will probably never see again. Without question, his writing was instrumental in the franchise becoming the juggernaut (pun intended) it eventually became. It’s up to each reader to decide if that represents the absolute peak of the franchise, or just some old comics that my grandpa loved.

Either way, I think we can all enjoy this sequence of Wolverine absolutely punking Colossus.


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