When you're having fun, you never want the fun to end. And in this case, it doesn't have to. At least, not yet. After two rounds of the best X-Men stories of the 1980s, it's time for honorable mentions. Once again, I'll be going through the list in chronological order. Enjoy the ride!
Kitty's Fairy Tale, Uncanny X-Men 153 (1982): At this point in his career, Dave Cockrum seems more comfortable with fun tales like this than with battle books like the fight against Magneto in issue 150. He even follows up on this story with an excellent Nightcrawler mini-series. The premise is pretty simple. The X-Men are cleaning up after a recent battle and Kitty is put in charge of putting the younger Illyana Rasputin to bed. Illyana is still scared after the recent battle, so Kitty tells her a bed-time story. Kitty's plot borrows from the Dark Phoenix story, but everything else is vastly different. She and Colossus are buccaneers. Wolverine is a gruffer version of the Tasmanian Devil and Nightcrawler a lecherous version of the Smurfs. It's fun, light and amusing and it's just what the X-Men need. Even Cyclops is able to smile, despite the reminder of his former lover Jean Grey. Plus, the story gives us some remarkable insights into Kitty and her views of the rest of the X-Men. Most notably, her story lets us know about the progression of her crush on Colossus.
Dark Phoenix Returns, Uncanny X-Men 174-175 (1983): The X-Men stories of this era have started what will become an annoying trend- repeatedly referencing and retelling old stories. However, while Chris Claremont and company may go back to the well too many times in this way, there are examples in which this approach works. Chief among them is the return of the Dark Phoenix in these two issues. Cyclops has long left the X-Men behind. He's found and lost love in Lee Forrester and found it again in Madelyne Pryor, who just happens to be the spitting image of his first love, Jean Grey. In the first issue, Cyclops proposes to Madelyne while the two of them are vacationing at a cottage. Soon after, however, Cyclops starts seeing visions of the Dark Phoenix. Frightened, he rushes off to find the rest of the X-Men. In the anniversary issue, 175, the X-Men face off against the Dark Phoenix in a vivid battle. Unfortunately, they aren't fighting the Dark Phoenix at all. Yes, an X-Men villain has returned. It's just not Dark Phoenix. It's Jason Wyngarde, Mastermind, and he's manipulating the X-Men into seeing their worst fears. The X-Men manage to turn the tide and defeat Mastermind in what turns out to be a great tease of a story. At the end, Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor get married, causing further consternation to Wolverine over his own aborted wedding. Rich with emotion, full of action, and portrayed by the beautiful art of Paul Smith, the Dark Phoenix Returns was a strong contender for one of the best stories of the decade. Even as a sequel, it's definitely worth an honorable mention.
Barfight—"He'll Never Make Me Cry," Uncanny X-Men 183 (1984): It's hard to fit a small one-part story into a "best of" list. But that's what an honorable mention list is for. This is one of my favorite single issue stories from this era. The X-Men have recently returned from another planet, as depicted in the big crossover Secret War. While there, Colossus fell in love with a native, only to lose her before the X-Men returned home. Still wounded by grief, Colossus is cruelly brusque with Kitty Pryde, whom he now considers to be too young and immature for him. The other X-Men are upset with Colossus' behavior and Wolverine comes up with a plan. He invites Nightcrawler and Colossus out for a night on the town. After all, Colossus is an adult now. Or so he claims. While out, Wolverine gives Colossus a hard time about the way he's treated Kitty. And, since this is a superhero comic, they just happen to be at the same bar as the Juggernaut. Colossus gets into a fight with Juggernaut. Nightcrawler moves to intervene but Wolverine stops him. If Colossus wins, he'll have gotten some of the anger and grief out of his system. And if he loses, he'll have deserved it for the way he was rude to Kitty. I just love the way that Wolverine addresses a problem. He's direct about it. And he knows that there are worse things in life than to lose a fight. It's a great character issue, for Colossus, for Wolverine, for Kitty and for Storm as she comforts her younger teammate. It's a touching tale of lost love, lost innocence and lost youth. And it's one of the reasons why the X-Men were one of the best of the soap opera superhero titles.
Lifedeath I and II, Uncanny X-Men 186 and 198 (1984 and '85): Barry Windsor-Smith was brought in as a guest-artist for these very special tales. Now, I realize that the description "very special tale" can carry some negative connotations. There's a reason why Seinfeld rebelled against that type of story. And there are plenty of '80s comics with all the subtlety of an after-school special. These aren't "very special tales" like that. Rather, they're stories that show just how deep and personal and introspective a comic can be. Storm has lost her powers. And now, she's wondering if life is even worth living. In the first story, Forge- the man who created the weapon that cost her powers- is the one who tries to convince her. As they work through depression and anger and grief, they eventually find love. There are no bad guys, no world-shattering threats. There are incredible pictures as Forge uses his holographic transmitters to create incredibly beautiful landscapes. And there are intensely emotional scenes as Storm rails against life, Forge and everything. In the second story, Storm travels to her native land in Kenya. She looks for meaning to her life in the land she came from, and in the life she partially remembers from the time before she knew she was a mutant. She finds beauty. She finds people who remind her of her parents. And she finds that she's more than her powers. She's a person and her life is worth living, even loving. There is a reason why Chris Claremont gains a reputation for depicting women. It's usually though to be because he writes strong women. But it's more than that. It's because he writes women who are strong even when they're weak, as displayed poignantly in these two issues.
Phoenix/Hellfire Club/Nimrod, Uncanny X-Men 207-209 (1986): For me, this is the real highlight of the first John Romita Jr. run on this title. These three issues feature one classic fight after another. First, there's the showdown between two X-Men. Rachel Summers, aka Phoenix II, has stormed off to the Hellfire Club to kill Selene. Wolverine has raced off after her because X-Men don't kill and while he may have broken the rule in the past, he doesn't want Phoenix to have to live with the guilt of her actions. The result is a stand-off over Selene's bed in which Wolverine finally stabs Phoenix. Next, there's a showdown between the X-Men and the Hellfire Club. Naturally, the Hellfire Club isn't too impressed that a member of the X-Men broke into their building and tried to assassinate one of their members, even if another X-Man stopped her. The Hellfire Club pours out of their building in order to seek vengeance on the X-Men and the result is a huge battle in Central Park. The battle itself has some great moments, especially featuring Harry Leland's powers to affect mass. Finally, there's the third showdown in which both the Hellfire Club and the X-Men fight Nimrod. Nimrod is a super-advanced Sentinel who is programmed to kill all mutants. The battle in Central Park draws his attention and he jumps in to destroy both teams. Neither team is in much of a position to fight Nimrod, having already taken casualties against each other. It's no sure thing that they'll be able to win, even if they join forces. This stretch of issues marks a great mini-run, in which one great battle keeps being topped by the next.
Wolverine Crucified, Uncanny X-Men 251-253 (1989): This is one of the most powerful moments in the life of Wolverine. Perhaps even more significant than the later episode in which Magneto rips the adamantium from his body. Unbeknownst to Wolverine, the X-Men have disbanded. Their numbers depleted, they called it quits with the remaining members of the X-Men stepping through the Siege Perilous in order to start a new life. Wolverine had been off on a solo adventure at the time but he returns in this issue. He finds the team's Australian headquarters abandoned by the X-Men, but not empty. The Reavers have taken it back, and now Wolverine is suddenly thrown into a fight for his life. Taken by surprise, Wolverine loses. The Reavers drag him out into the Outback and crucify him on an X cross. Hanging in the sun, Wolverine hallucinates that his other enemies have come back to taunt him. Then, Jubilee pulls Wolverine down from his cross. She'd been hiding in the headquarters for a little while, known to the readers though not to the X-Men. She rescues Wolverine and drags him across the desert to safety, trying to avoid the Reavers as they hunt down their quarry and trying to keep Wolverine alive. It's a great moment for Jubilee and a great introduction as a hero. And it's a memorable moment for Wolverine. It's hard to forget the Marc Silvestri cover with Wolverine hanging on an "X," or the relief you feel as a reader when Jubilee finally pulls him down.
And that's it. If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a pretty big X-Men fan. I won't say I was tempted to pick every story. There are a few I don't like. But it was close. I hope you've had as much fun reading about them as I have recalling them.