Rediscovering my love for the X

With the surprising critical and creative success of the Messiah Complex storyline that just ran through all of the X-books, I suddenly found myself in a position that I haven’t been in since the late 1980s and early 1990s – buying a lot of X-Men books and being quite happy about it (mostly).

As Ron and I like to say, we seem to be in the midst of an X-aissance.

But, as much fun as Messiah Complex was, it was rereading a couple of the classic X-Men tales that drove me to pick up the phone and dial up Ron and say “I get it. Now I understand why you are always talking about the Claremont years.”
Here’s what happened. After we taped episode 52 of iFanboy I read Ron’s copy of From the Ashes, which I had never read before. That lead me to excitedly pull out my old trade paperback copy of The Dark Phoenix Saga, which I have not read in at least five years. Keep in mind, dear reader, that I have a long history with the X-Men. While it is not as in-depth as some, it definitely covers a lot of years and a lot of ground. I have read stories from all of the X-Men eras. Well, almost all – not really the bad late 1990s stuff; I jumped ship from the world of Merry Marvel Mutants at that time and haven’t come back in any serious way until recently.

Since it had been a long while since I had read the really classic stuff and because I am so well versed in the current X-books because of Messiah Complex, the juxtaposition of the two eras hit me like a falling piano.

In examining that juxtaposition I think I may have inadvertently tapped into the reason why I have been resistant to reading the X-books since I stopped collecting them in the 1990s. There are actually two main reasons and it comes down to those two age old comic book standards – story and art.

Until 1986 there was but one main X-book – Uncanny X-Men. (New Mutants had been around since 1983 but there was little-to-no interaction with the main book) Now there are at least four main books – Uncanny X-Men, X-Men: Legacy, X-Factor, and X-Force. That’s not to mention Wolverine, Cable, New Exiles, and Young X-Men. And let’s not forget Astonishing X-Men. This is undoubtedly due to the popularity of the franchise, the willingness of company to exploit said popularity and the willingness of the fanbase to be exploited. Why shouldn’t Marvel publish ten X-Men related books if the fans are going to eat them up?

One reason why not is story. The old Claremont comics were the only game in town, allowing the story of everyone’s favorite mutants to be tighter and, dare I say it, cleaner. One team with a set roster of members with the occasional guest stars led by one writer allowed for a cohesive (if sometimes complicated) vision. Chris Claremont didn’t have to worry about coordinating his story with four other writers or interrupting his narrative to shoe horn in the latest crossover. He just told his story, unfettered. And with only a relative handful characters to focus on, he was allowed to give these X-Men an immense amount of depth. No one got the short shrift. One of the things that hardcore X-Men fans always talk about loving so much is each character’s rich back story and the complex history of relationships that they share. This begins and ends with Chris Claremont and is the result of years of one writer having to only focus on one book.

From one book came many and now we have the recently ended 13 part Messiah Complex crossover event, hailed by many as the return to greatness for the X-line. And for the first five or six weeks I was definitely one of those people. It was exciting, it was action-packed, and it had great characterizations. But by the middle issues the wheels started to get wobbly and I’m afraid that by the end at least one of the wheels completely flew off the whole thing. Part of the problem with Messiah Complex was a microcosm of the problem I have with the entire line – just too many characters. So many characters that I didn’t know who at least half of them were but that almost didn’t matter because they were often out of the story as fast as they came in. Most of them didn’t even register with me. If someone held a gun to my head and asked me to name all of the X-Men who appeared in that story I’d be in big trouble. Sometimes a cast of thousands is not a good thing. Sometimes it’s just way too much. And sometimes that’s to the detriment of the story.

By the late 1980s, the X-Men books became the primary destination for hyper-detailed, super sketchy art, a style that has had a stranglehold on the books even to this day. Overly detailed has become the signature X-Men style. It is almost as if Marvel pays X-Men artists by the pencil stroke. But it wasn’t always this way. After more than two decades of one dominant art style – typified by the likes of Jim Lee, While Portacio, Mark Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Joe Madueria, Billy Tan and Chris Bachalo – I had forgotten that my primary memory of the X-Men, the way these characters are the most comfortable in my head – is represented by the big, clean, brightly colored art of John Byrne.

When I first opened up The Dark Phoenix Saga I was flooded with memories. Nice, warm, comfortable memories. It was a very similar feeling to what I felt when I recently reconnected with someone I was friends with 13 years ago. These were the X-Men I loved. This was how they looked. Byrne’s Wolverine was short, stocky and hairy. His Cyclops was tall and lean, as befitting his nickname, Slim. Kitty Pryde was a skinny, gangly teenager. The picture you see to the right of Wolverine is how he has always looked in my head. Compact, powerful, and with a glint of danger in his eyes and a hint of evil in his smile. Seeing John Byrne’s X-Men was just like seeing long lost old friends.

Putting aside all the connotations that come along with the name John Byrne now in 2008, there is no denying that the man pretty much owned comics in the late 1970s through the 1980s and into the 1990s. He definitely owned me for decades. I remember in 1991 at the start of my freshman year of high school and we had one of those get to know you sessions in one of my classes and the guy I was paired with – Daniel Weiner? – also read comics. He asked me who would draw the comic book of my life and I answered John Byrne without hesitation.

Related to the difference in art is the difference in coloring. Comparing the classic Claremont years to the modern books is a contrast in eras. These days the world of the X-Men is pretty drab. Lots of heavy shadows and muted colors. The dark color scheme is in high contrast to the bright colors of the old books. This is as much a company-wide coloring philosophy as anything else – Marvel’s books these days are, on a whole, colored way too dark. There are, of course, some exceptions to this, such as the outside-the-box X-Men book written by the big time TV guy.

For the reasons listed above, I now understand why Astonishing X-Men struck such a strong chord with me. I hadn’t realized it while I was devouring each issue over the last three years, but Astonishing X-Men is the one modern X-Men book that comes the closest to the classic look and feel of the Claremont & Byrne era. The story is focused. It exists all on its own without spilling over into a myriad of other books. The cast is tight. The team is not overwhelmingly large and features a healthy mix of personalities, veterans, new characters, and couples. Wolverine isn’t the main focus of the action. Rather he’s a strong supporting character who stays in the background until a well-timed quip or a explosive bit of ferocity is needed. It’s even a skeench overly-intricate and confusing. Which… well, it happened sometimes with the classic X-Men stories.

As for the art of Astonishing X-Men, I now know why seeing John Cassaday’s take on the X-Men was at once jarring and familiar. Jarring because his big, clean style was in high contrast to the overly detailed world that the X-Men have been trapped in for decades. Familiar because it is very similar, stylistically, to the X-Men as portrayed by John Byrne. His panels aren’t crammed full of extraneous lines and details, the art has room to breathe.

It wasn’t just the great writing and art that got me, clearly this book triggered something deep in my subconscious memory. The spirit of Chris Claremont and John Byrne is alive and well in Joss Whedon and John Cassaday.

Where does that leave me now? Well, I have a powerful desire to read more X-books. But will the modern day X-books satiate my desire? I’m not entirely sure. Astonishing X-Men is over but for one more issue. I have been a big fan of X-Factor since its inception and I really enjoyed (the first half of) Messiah Complex. Some of the new X-Men books are intriguing and I may give a few of them a shot, certainly more than I would have in the past, prior to Messiah Complex. Will that do the trick? Only time will tell. I will say this, I have a nagging desire to read the old stuff. A nagging desire that just won’t go away. As interesting as I might find the idea of a few of the new X-books, I find myself thinking more about hunting down the Uncanny X-Men Omnibus (even if I have a serious problem with the collection philosophy – they should have started with X-Men #1!) and getting more trades of the old stuff.

I now understand why Ron always talks so wistfully about the Claremont and Byrne era. I’ve rediscovered my love of the X – but like most loves, I might find this one will ultimately leave me unfulfilled.


  1. Hey Connor,
    I had similar problems with the Messiah Complex. I haven’t been a big X-guy prior to Astonshing, which, I have to say it, only picked up because of the name Whedon attached. And I only bought the huge hardcover, so I have the end of that story still way before me.
    Anyway, after reading this I wanted more, so I went out and picked up the Essential X-Men Vol.I which is brilliant; I just love it!
    So, Messiah Complex came along and I started to read that as well. First half amazing, even though I didn’t know half of the characters. Second half (only)okay, because I didn’t know half of the characters.
    I had no idea of the relationships. I had no idea who is bad, who was bad and who will be bad. Or good for that matter.
    Still, it was fun. Irritating fun.

    P.S. At least I now I know what a friend of mine must’ve felt when he watched one of the last episodes of Twin Peaks, without knowing anything else…

  2. Great article, Conor.

    I really wish that Marvel would begin reprinting the mid- to late-’80s X-Men comics in full-color. The more detailed the art style becomes, the worse it looks in the Essential black & white style. The Essentials are, however, fantastic, and I would hardily recommend at least the first three volumes. By the time you get to Paul Smith’s run, though, I think the coloring adds a tremendous dimension to the storytelling. (They’re up to Essential Vol 8 now, which I’m hesitant to buy not so much because I own most of the issues already, but because of what b&w Silvestri looks like. Can you even imagine b&w Jim Lee? Yikes.)

    I’ve never understood why Byrne is so elevated as an X-Men penciller. He seems inordinately overrated even considering that he was on the book during the Dark Phoenix Saga! Cockrum’s style was at least as important to the development of the title, and during that era I think Cockrum and Bryne’s styles were similar enough–it seems bizarre that many people ONLY mention Byrne. Besides that, Paul Smith’s work is my personal favorite on the title; every character is so cleanly and softly rendered. And John Romita Jr. also did fantastic work on the book in the early ’80s, before he developed his more recent “bulky” style.

    Again, great article. I’d be curious to know what the iFanboys think about Claremont’s thwarted plans for X-Men before he resigned in ’91: the death of Xavier in issue #300, Wolverine as an assassin of the Hand, etc. I hope someday Marvel will publish can alternative run of #280-#300 so we can finally see these stories and allow Claremont to finish what he set out to do.

  3. Great post.

    One thing I’ve been thinking is that maybe Marvel made a mistake using the Messiah Complex to launch so many new X-books. Maybe they should have done what they did with Spider-man and cut the books down to one thrice months title.

    Think about it, wouldn’t you be much more likely just to buy Uncanny X-Men if there wasn’t an X-Men (now X-Men Legacy), an Astonishing X-Men and a Young X-Men?

    Though it would have to be a bit different, since it’s not a single character title, revolving teams could focus on their characters while keeping continuity better balanced and not having to use third or fourth tier X-characters to fill the roster. If Marvel wanted they could focus on the Astonishing X-Men team (Cyclops, Emma Frost, Beast, Wolverine, Colossus, Shadowcat) for a few months even, since that’s been the strongest iteration of the team for awhile.

    As it is too many of the books are stacked with characters that nobody really cares about other than die-hard X-fans like me (and even I can’t care less about Lady Mastermind). The original X-Men and a few additions such as Wolverine, Shadowcat, Colossus and Nightcrawler are really the characters I want to read about.

    The format switch would still let writers tackle other aspects of the universe. Every few archs could be a Young X-Men story. They could also keep books like Wolverine and X-Factor which are only sort of about the X-Men.

    So again, roll Astonishing (after Whedon’s run), Uncanny, Young, X-Force and Legacy into one title called Uncanny and make it three times a week. Heck even let Astonishing be a title that comes and goes on its own depending on when a special (ie. Joss Whedon) creator wants to play with the team out of continuity.

    I’d be reading more X-Men, and I already read a lot of X-Men.

  4. I meant thrice monthly. I don’t even know what “thrice months” means. That’s what I get for posting at 6:30 am.

  5. I agree with you Conor a 100% on the feeling of classic Claremont Byrne X-men. All conditions to make that comics a timeless success were there… Now I read Claremont, I just don’t know why I get so lost, can’t finish his comics (And I feel sorry, because I want to like them, If not for anything… for nostalgia at leatst.) And Byrne’s art with all the digital brightness and glares nowadays, that just doesn’t suit him. Well there were always be the old books.

    I have a question about a comment you made.

    How can a piece of art by Hyper-Detailed and Super Sketchy at the same time, I thought Sketchy meant lack of detail?

  6. To me, sketchy means “a lot of lines”. Admittedly, it’s not an artistic term, rather it’s my own term.

  7. I’ve been thinking about bying the CD/DVD collection of Uncanny (mostly because it’s really cheap there because no one wants to buy it), and I’ve always kinda liked the X-Men but haven’t had the nerve to start reading it. I really like Messiah Complex (except for the ending, of course), and kinda want to read something other than X-Factor

  8. I bought The DVD and it was great. Right up until the mid-late 80’s when x-factor started coming out. Since you only get Uncanny there is a lot of confusion as to whats going on since thing’s are happening in that, as well as Secret Wars II (I didn’t even know there was one until I started reading this) but it’s still a good deal.

  9. I’d recommend buying the CD/DVD over buying the Essentials; I read the classic issues for the first time in black and white, and in hindsight that was a mistake.

    Are the X-Men really still popular enough to support so many titles? I know they were, but it doesn’t seem like any of the ancillary books are especially big sellers. It seems like the ten-book strategy is what you do when something is selling 200,000 copies, not 30,000. I mean… X-Force? Really?

    They need ten books to warehouse all those characters. As a team, the X-Men are like a roach motel. Other teams– Avengers, FF, JLA, whoever– have new members join and old members leave. The X-Men never get rid of anybody; they just add another wing to the mansion and put bunk beds in the den. Iceman might move out for a while, but he’ll be back. Cannonball joined the team when he was 15, and he’ll be living in that same room when he’s 47.

  10. Oh O.K…I was thinking along the lines of when McNiven has to rush his work, so he sacrifices detail and all the eyes becomes straight lines.


  11. Wow, I thought at first that you got addicted to Ecstasy.

    anyway, great post

  12. I like “ren-X-ssance”

  13. Well stated, Conor, but I have to yearn for an effective interpretation that doesn’t harken back to the days of Claremont and Byrne, regardless of how halcyon they were.

    Can’t anyone create a new, redefining legacy in these books? Or are they hopelessly owned by C&B forever?

  14. Great post — yay for X-book love. Most of the X-men I’ve read has been in the ’40 years’ DVD, which is really a great thing to have, though I wish the format were a little more readable. The pages are double-scanned so they’re a pain to navigate, at least on my laptop screen. But on the other hand, I pretty much keep that DVD in my laptop so that I have 40 years of Xmen with me more or less all the time.

    A couple runs I particularly love — issues 100-109 or so where Jean Grey first becomes the Phoenix; I always think it’s a shame that the Dark Phoenix Saga isn’t packaged with the prequel arc, because the impact of what happens to Jean is even greater if you can see what an awesome, powerful character she has the potential to be. I also love the Brood Saga (drawn by Cockrum, who I prefer slightly to Byrne). And I’ve got a soft spot for issue 143-50, or so, when Cyclops is living on a shrimp boat with Lee Forrester (who later ends up dating Magneto).

    And I should probably try to say something intelligent about why the X-books seem to eat good writers alive, but I really think Conor nailed it.

  15. I have been devouring X-men through the Essentials and from Morrison up. So at the moment (as far as my reading goes) x-men went from there start to 89, took a break and came back with Morrison. It’s rather good that way.

  16. that panel from last week’s Astonishing is great

  17. Ahhhh yes, the old Byrne X-Men… hello old friend. Takes me back to days when life was simpler *Sigh*