A couple of months ago, I wrote a four-part piece about the best X-Men stories of the 1990s. I’m a big fan of the era and I had a great time describing the action, the tragedy and the humor of the epics, the crossovers and the short stories. Now, it’s time to go back in time. It’s time for the best X-Men stories of the 1980s. Enjoy!
The Dark Phoenix Saga, Uncanny X-Men #129-138 (1980): This is it. This is the big one. Written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, this is the story that shows up on lists of the best comic book stories of all-time. And it deserves it. Reportedly, Claremont and Byrne had observed that over the years, a number of villains had reformed and become heroes but we’d never seen a comic book hero fall and become a villain. They decided to tell the untold tale and they chose beloved ingénue Jean Grey, aka Marvel Girl, for the role.
The Dark Phoenix Saga
is one of comics’ great tragedies. It explores the axiom that
power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Slowly, Jean
Grey, now known as Phoenix, begins to flex her powers in ways that
the readers and her teammates find morally questionable. Yet, the
fall is made even more tragic by the involvement of the Hellfire
Club. Jason Wyngarde, aka Mastermind, manipulates her mind and her
emotions which makes Jean Grey a victim of tragic circumstances as
much as of her own power. Uninhibited by any morality, Phoenix
eventually uses a sun to replenish her powers, causing the sun to go
supernova and killing billions of inhabitants of that solar system.
That crime brings Phoenix to the attention of the Shi’ar
Empire, now set on capturing and executing her for mass murder. The
tragedy is further deepened when Jean Grey is apparently “cured”
of the Phoenix power before she stands trial meaning that the Shi’ar
are convicting the innocent ingénue rather than the powerful
Phoenix. The X-Men, despite their earlier reservations, stand by
Jean Grey only to watch her sacrifice herself in order to save the
rest of the team.
As if the tragedy wasn’t enough, the Dark Phoenix issues include numerous other classic X-Men moments. There’s the introduction of Kitty Pryde (issue #129), a guest appearance by Dazzler (130), Nightcrawler abandoning his image inducer because he no longer wants to hide the fact that he’s a mutant (130), John Byrne’s beautiful Victorian costumes thanks to Jason Wyngarde’s illusions, Wolverine unleashed against the Hellfire Club (133) and Cyclops quitting the team in mourning (138). These issues have everything. No wonder the Dark Phoenix saga is considered to be a comic book classic.
Days of Future Past,
Uncanny X-Men 141-142 (1981): This is another of the classic
X-Men stories. It doesn’t hold up quite as well as “The
Dark Phoenix Saga” but it’s hard to hold that against the
original story. It’s just that it’s been copied,
imitated, parodied and revisited so often that it doesn’t seem
as original as it would have at the time. It’s kind of like
the original Terminator movie that way. But if you can shut out the
extraneous noise, you can still enjoy this stunning two-part tale: a
graying Wolverine, an adult Kitty Pryde, a dystopic future ruled by
mutant-hunting Sentinels, the death of the X-Men and a time travel
story before they’d become routine. It’s said that
imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The sheer number of
imitators should show you how much of an impact this story had upon
the imagination of its readers.
Demon, Uncanny X-Men
143 (1981): If it seems like I’m picking every issue from
the classic Chris Claremont/John Byrne run, well, there’s a
reason why it’s considered a classic. This issue is a real
change of pace. It shows that Claremont and Byrne can tell not only
the epic tragedy of a Dark Phoenix Saga but they can also showcase a
smaller story such as this one. It’s Christmas and the X-Men
are all off on a mission. Everyone that is, except for the newest,
youngest member Kitty Pryde who’s been left behind at the
mansion. Drawing from horror movie situations, Kitty Pryde discovers
that a demon has infiltrated the mansion. From there, the story
evolves into a cat and mouse came between Kitty and the demon. She
hides. The demon finds her. And again. Quickly, Kitty realizes
that the only way she’ll survive until the X-Men return is to
destroy the demon herself. She leads the demon in a deadly game of
hide’n’seek bringing it through the Danger Room, the
hangar and other super-hero features of the school. And yes, Kitty
proves her resourcefulness by killing the demon. The issue ends with
a nice surprise when the rest of the X-Men return home to a badly
damaged mansion. Joss Whedon has claimed that every young boy fell
in love with Kitty Pryde. This issue is one reason why.
Wolverine’s Wedding, Uncanny X-Men 172-173 (1983): First off, I love the Paul Smith cover to issue 172. It features an invitation to the wedding of Lady Mariko and Logan. But the added details are what make it great. There’s a little note from Logan reminding Nightcrawler to bring the beer. And there’s this big ol’ knife stabbed into the invitation, letting you know that the wedding isn’t going to go as smoothly as Wolverine might hope. Furthermore, the story delivers on the big promise of the cover. There is the beautiful romance between Wolverine and Lady Mariko, and the surprising revelation of a tender side to the X-Men’s resident berserker. There are the great character moments, including the friendship between the Nightcrawler and Wolverine and the continuing distrust of the newest X-Man, Rogue. And yes, the wedding doesn’t go off smoothly. Lady Mariko and the X-Men are poisoned. Only Wolverine and Rogue prove immune to the effects. They go off together in order to find out who was trying to kill Wolverine’s bride. The pairing continues the character growth for Wolverine, as he starts to take on the role of mentor to Kitty Pryde and now Rogue. As for the assassination plot, Wolverine discovers that Lady Mariko’s family is caught up in the Japanese mafia, the Yakusa. Shamed by her family, Mariko calls off the wedding. It’s a powerful story of love lost, even more heart-breaking because it happened to Wolverine.
“There’s No Place like Home”—Adventures in Asgard, New Mutants Special Edition & Uncanny X-Men Annual 9 (1985): Uncanny X-Men is well-known for the number of great artists who worked on the series: Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith and so on. However, some other great artists have contributed to the X-Men lore without working on the main title as a regular artist: Brent Anderson, Barry Windsor-Smith and Art Adams. Adams is the artist on this annual and it’s a work of beauty. The X-Men and the New Mutants are transported to Asgard in order to square off against Loki. But the story is much more than that. Art Adams is allowed to let his imagination run wild. Amara (aka Magma) becomes a fairy. Sam (aka Cannonball) becomes a knight. Dani (aka Moonstar) becomes a valkyrie. Adams gets to draw elaborate headdresses for Hela and Illyana, devise Nordic dress for the New Mutants and depict werewolves, flying horses and even the USS Enterprise from Star Trek thanks to the shape-shifter Warlock. It’s a beautiful and wonderful romp through a magical land. The X-Men of this era are well-known for their tragedies, but this annual proves that they can play the part in a fun fantasy as well.
That’s part one. And that’s five reasons why the X-Men ruled the decade of the ‘80s. Come on back for part two next week.