Classics Reissued: The Essential X-Men vol. 2
by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, et al
“They’re just great big compendiums,” my shopping companion said when he saw the long row of “essential” paperback reprint volumes produced by Marvel Comics over the last few years, and this is exactly right: these are fat no-frills black-and-white reprint volumes that serve up a couple hundred pages apiece of various Marvel comics runs over the past fifty years. The paper stock has traditionally been terrible in these volumes, the reprint quality spotty at best, and one of the principal glories of the original issues – the rich four-color process for which super-hero comics are best known – is entirely missing. What readers get – and what Marvel is surely hoping potential new fans will prize – is the ability to read hundreds of back-issues for a fraction of the money they’d need if they tried to buy the individual original issues from their local overweight, insulting comic-shop owner.
There are ups and downs, of course, although Marvel seems intent on not acknowledging that fact. The company has given us both “Essential Ant-Man,” featuring 25 issues absolutely nobody on Earth could ever possibly care about, and the company has also given us several “Essential Avengers” and “Essential Spider-Man” volumes collecting issues that helped to shape the entire comics industry. Those shelves of fat compendiums contain signature gems – and plenty of junk.
With the possible exception of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko first volume of Spider-Man stories, no “essential” volume currently offers the reader anything nearly as seminal as this one (recently re-issued on significantly better paper-stock, thus almost certain to hold up to many more re-readings), Essential X-Men Volume 2, featuring 25 issues of the “X-Men” title that relaunched in the 1970s with writing by Chris Claremont and artwork by Dave Cockrum. That re-launch rather confusingly continued the numbering of the original “X-Men” series, even though writer Claremont wasted no time in jettisoning most of the old team of mutants who strive to protect a world that hates and fears them. The original team featured the apelike Beast, the ice-producing Iceman, the winged Angel, the telekinetic Marvel Girl, and the eye-beam blasting Cyclops, all lead by the wheelchair-bound Professor X. In Claremont’s re-launch, Cyclops stayed but his old teammates left – and were replaced by a ham-handedly ‘international’ cast of new mutants: the armor-plated Russian code-named Colussus, the German demon-like Nightcrawler, a sonic-powered Irishman called Banshee, an African weather-manipulator named Storm … and a clawed Canadian savage named Wolverine.
The relaunch steadily gained in popularity, and Claremont gained confidence writing their adventures. After a handful of issues, Cockrum bowed out and the art chores were taken up by rising fan favorite John Byrne – and one of those rare comic book teams (no exaggeration to invoke that same Lee/Ditko category) was born.
Fans went ballistic, and “X-Men” became a phenomenal hit. Essential X-Men vol. 2 is the collection that assembles those phenomenal issues (serving them up minus the rich coloring done mainly by Glynis Wein), and this higher-quality re-issue of that volume gives new and old fans alike the chance to experience these undeniably effective issues all over again.
The centerpiece storyline is the celebrated “Dark Phoenix” saga, in which Marvel Girl (who eventually returned to the team) becomes possessed by an all-powerful cosmic entity known as the Phoenix. To her teammates, she seems to be deranged by power, and both they and then later a coalition of fearful galactic civilizations band together to stop her. The storyline has remained one of the most popular of all time with comics fans, and it shows Claremont’s plotting abilities at their strongest. Unfortunately, it also shows his persistent latent sexism at its strongest as well. In this volume, Storm is beaten or tortured half a dozen times, Marvel Girl becomes uncontrollably possessed, and when a new female character is introduced in later issues, her superpower is … the ability to turn completely insubstantial (the better to flee in terror whenever trouble arises).
No, the point of these issues is Wolverine, a new kind of character for Marvel Comics – grim, businesslike, unsentimental, ruthless-yet-charismatic (as usual, Marvel’s competitor DC had invented such a character decades earlier – and in the popular consciousness, Batman is still far more recognizable than Wolverine). Claremont scarcely ever strikes a false note in building this character, and Byrne’s renditions of him growing increasingly individualistic – by the time this volume gets into full-swing, Wolverine not only doesn’t look like a super-hero at all, he almost looks like an actual person.
There are quite a few high points in this collection, with the team facing off against not only Dark Phoenix but reality-altering Proteus, the cannibalistic Wendigo, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the posh-but-deadly Hellfire Club, and even Dante’s Inferno. Also included here is the fan-favorite two-part storyline “Days of Future Past,” in which we see glimpses of a bleak future in which mutants have been hunted and herded into camps by a fearful human populace. The main drawback to enjoying these stories is the rapidly increasing intrusiveness of the author himself – as the series progresses, Claremont’s already-notable verbosity reaches flat-out hilarious levels. Characters go from over-talking to speaking in blocks of exposition all the time, including when they’re falling to their deaths or fighting for their lives, and the tic becomes a parody of itself. “These clothes – they are very nice – they probably cost more than what my family’s farm back in Russia makes in a year – I miss my family – it’s been far too long since I saw them – my mother, who was always loving to us children, my father who was stern but fair, my little sister – oh, how I miss her – she must be eight years old by now – or is it seven? I have always been poor at math – my teachers always told me so – first old Mr. Lermontov told me, then he lost his tongue in a combine accident – I wish I’d done more to help him – I’ve always liked pickled cow’s tongues, but that is probably an insensitive thing for me to admit, even to myself – but I cannot help it! But maybe I should try to help it …” – all while the character is dodging flame-thrower bursts, or some such. Even stoic Wolverine succumbs to the dictates of a frustrated novelist.
But even excess verbiage is defiantly loved by fans of the title during this, its signature heyday. Re-reading these charismatic issues, especially in the grip of some pardonable nostalgia, it’s easy to forgive just about anything.