It’s time for more X-Men. This is the second installment of best X-Men stories of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, at least as far as I’m concerned as someone who came along some time later. I wasn’t even born yet for the stories that were covered in part one. But I was at least a toddler for most of the stories in part two, though I’m not claiming I was able to read them at the time. But that’s enough about me. It’s time to talk about the X-Men instead.
“Where No X-Men Has Gone Before”- the Sentinels and the Phoenix, Uncanny X-Men #98-101, 1976: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby told their Sentinel epic back in 1965 in issues 14-16. Roy Thomas and Neal Adams told their Sentinel epic back in 1969 in issues 57-59. But my favorite Sentinel story from this era is easily the one done by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum. They build on what has come before, but add some surprising new twists that make this story really stand out. For one thing, they start by having the Sentinels attack the X-Men during their Christmas celebration, bringing that little bit of extra despondency right from the beginning. Then, they have the Sentinels based in outer space, with the result that the X-Men have to borrow a rocket and blast off into space themselves. Then, they throw in a twist for the anniversary issue by having the new X-Men square off against the original team. Then, they come up with one of the most memorable victories over the mutant-hunting robots as an entire squad of Sentinels flies into the sun. And, finally, in a coda to the main story, they tell a great story around a crash-landing back on earth. The last issue, 101, not only includes the crash landing, it also introduces Jean Grey’s Phoenix powers and sends the X-Men off to Cassidy Keep in Ireland for their next adventure. It’s a great pivot issue between two great stories, but the crash-landing from outer space is a good enough reason to include it here.
“Where No X-Men Has Gone Before”- the Starjammers and the Imperial Guard, Uncanny X-Men #105-108, 1977: This is the culmination of the first Chris Claremont/Dave Cockrum run on Uncanny X-Men and it’s something magical. The story starts with a sinister Erik the Red. It features a shaky Professor X disturbed by dreams he’s having of an alien arrival. It flips to a big battle between Phoenix and Firelord, the former herald of Galactus. And then it turns into an epic outer space adventure with the Shi’ar, introducing Cyclops’ father Corsair and the Starjammers as well as the Imperial Guard, patterned after the Legion of Super-Heroes- another team book that Cockrum had been associated with. Once again, this story has a little bit of everything. There’s the great twist at the beginning, with an actual Erik the Red (Cyclops had impersonated him the first time around). There’s the wonderful revelation that the approaching alien Professor X had feared is actually the beautiful Lilandra. There’s a powerful individual clash between Phoenix and Firelord. And, off-setting that, there’s the biggest battle in X-Men history to date as the X-Men and the Starjammers square off against the Imperial Guard. The climactic battle itself is mind-blowing. Plus, there are the great personal moments and winks to the readers, such as the moment when Wolverine’s costume is destroyed and he “borrows” another one from Fang, the Imperial Guard member based on Timber Wolf. And, oh yeah, there’s a mad emperor, a crystal that can change reality, oddball guardians of the crystal and a climax in which the X-Men save the galaxy. This is the story that sets the standard for X-Men epics.
Mindgames and Magneto, Uncanny X-Men #111-113, 1978: In Part One, I complimented Arnold Drake for being one of the best X-Men writers for including twists in the story. While Chris Claremont is more noted for his driving action, this story shows that he knows how to include a good twist from time to time. The story starts with a simple, peaceful introduction as the Beast goes to the circus. But, once there, he discovers that his fellow X-Men are trapped in the sideshow. To make matters worse, none of them even remember who they are. The Beast manages to save his friends only to have the entire group whisked off into space in a circus wagon. It’s one of the most surprising moments in X-Men history. Even without looking at the issue, I can visualize the scene in which they’re hanging onto the side of the wagon looking down at the world far below them. Having barely escaped one trap, the X-Men now face Magneto in space. They fight him at his asteroid and lose, continuing the new X-Men winless streak against the master of magnetism. They wake up to find themselves imprisoned. Storm shows a surprising side of herself when she relies on her youth as a thief on the streets of Cairo rather than her powers to facilitate their escape. And then, the X-Men get to fight Magneto for a second time in one of their most desperate battles. Twists, mindgames, classic battles, surprising character moments- this is another story that seems to have everything in it.
The Savage Land Reprise, Uncanny X-Men #114-116, 1978: Hot on the heels of Mindgames and Magneto comes after X-Men classic. The Magneto story was full of great twists, but the biggest twist was to come. The second battle against Magneto took place in a base in the heart of a volcano. Once the X-Men finally defeat Magneto, the base and the volcano came crashing down around them. The result is two more great stories in this sequence. First, there’s a harrowing escape through the Antartic wastelands for Beast and Phoenix in issue 114. It’s a classic stand-alone story in which the heroes face off against only the elements. There’s a simple way of describing plots as Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself and Man vs. Nature. This issue is a classic example of the third plot as the Beast trudges through the snow carrying a semi-conscious Phoenix. But it’s also a great example of the second plot as Beast’s sorrow for his fallen friends, whom he believes to be dead, is as likely to defeat him as the weather. However, unbeknownst to the Beast, his friends aren’t dead. They escaped to the Savage Land for a story reminiscent of the Roy Thomas/Neal Adams run. In clear homages, the X-Men befriend Ka-Zar once more and fight Sauron once again. Yet Chris Claremont and John Byrne make sure to add a few elements of their own. They spend more time with the natives of the Savage Land, even giving Colossus a lover. And they add a new Savage Land villain in Garokk, the Petrified Man. Garokk is powerful enough that he’s been able to keep Ka-Zar at bay and he even captures a couple of the X-Men in the course of the adventure. With the previous trilogy, Claremont one-upped Arnold Drake in terms of twists. With this trilogy, Claremont one-ups Roy Thomas in terms of ongoing and overlapping adventures.
Uncanny X-Men #120-121, 1979: So far, I’ve picked a lot of
epics for the best all-new X-Men stories of the ‘70s. However,
one of my favorite stories from this decade is actually one of their
smaller tales. While returning from Japan, the X-Men stop over in
Canada. While there, they’re caught in a blizzard. More
importantly, they’re caught by Canada’s national heroes,
Alpha Flight. The X-Men had previously tangled with Guardian as he
tried to bring Wolverine back into Canadian service. Now, we see
that Guardian is just one member of a full team. This story just has
a solid set-up. There are two sets of heroes in this story, both
acting honorably within their agenda- bring a rogue agent back into
the fold for Alpha Flight, stand by a teammate for the X-Men. Plus,
the Alpha Flight heroes are interesting characters in their own
right. They have a good mix of backgrounds and powers. Plus, this
story is made even more interesting by the growth of Wolverine. When
Guardian first tries to take Wolverine away, there’s some
question as to whether or not the X-Men should just let him. After
all, Wolverine hasn’t exactly been playing well with others.
But, even one year later, Wolverine is becoming more and more of a
teammate. His loss would really hurt the team which makes the reader
emotionally invested in the outcome.
And that’s it: ten more reasons why the X-Men are the best team ever, in any decade. Of course, I’m never one to stop at ten. Come on back one more time for some honorable mentions.