Friday, October 25, 2013

Review # 67: "Uncanny X-Men Omnibus Vol. 1"

The re-launch of X-Men that began with "Giant Size X-Men # 1" is unlike anything else in comics. Under the pen of Chris Claremont, it revolutionized storytelling within the medium creating unrivaled, long-term, interwoven plots the likes of which had never been seen. He may not have created Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Iceman and Angel. He may not have created Professor X and Magneto. He may not have created Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler and Colossus. However, Claremont is without a doubt the father of the X-Men. He was on the book for nearly two straight decades, defining an entire sector of the Marvel Universe. Many of his plots have been adapted into major feature films and animated TV series. Some multiple times. The imprint he has left on his craft is massive.

But he does not deserve credit alone. Claremont was at his best when teamed with the right people. And he teamed with a lot of the right people. His time on the book with Dave Cockrum (who - with Len Wein - gave the team new life with international flavour in "Giant Size X-Men # 1") is the benchmark for re-establishing a franchise. It begins with the players, and the success of the X-Men after their 70's relaunch boils down to how the creative team made its superhumans human.

Marvel had made its bread-and-butter in the 60s on characters that were perceived as more realistic than those at DC, but the new X-Men really went the extra mile. It travels beyond the metaphorical and oftentimes ironic crafting of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and company who never completely delved into what their heroes loved and hated. They had their personality quirks, but none were all that out of step.

So leave it to Claremont and Cockrum to start adding many little tics to their dramatis personae, giving them layers that hadn't been seen before in superhero comics. Stan Lee would have stopped with making the demon-like Nightcrawler friendly, but he may not have made him a flamboyant, girl-chasing swashbuckler with a passion for old movies. How about Storm? Making a weather-God is simple enough. Making her an ex-pickpocket with claustrophobia who loves plants is something else. How about adding a Communist during the Cold War in Colossus? While he's the least-developed among his teammates during this time, his general goodhearted nature, workman ethic (and slight reluctance) enhances those around him.

Then there's what they do with older characters. Cyclops grows into an effective leader, rivaling the likes of Captain America. His insecurities about his position are thrown out the window. Banshee goes from being a generic supervillain to a likable, experienced contrast to his relatively young teammates. The biggest character makeover of all, though, is Jean Grey. Deemed by Claremont as "too Republican," he makes Jean more "downtown and funky." Oh, and then he has her power level shoot through the roof in a legendary moment, creating the first female cosmic-level superhero. That was only the beginning of where she was headed.

And then there's the matter of the man known as Wolverine. Ol' Logan was practically a background character on the same level as the not-long-for-this-world Thunderbird in "Giant Size X-Men # 1." While other members of the X-Men were pouring out their souls, he didn't have much to say. That air of mystery makes him stand out to a certain extent, but outside of readers learning of the "Logan" name and his claws popping out of his hands instead of his gloves (considered a small revelation at the time,) the surface had barely been scratched.

Then John Byrne joins the creative team and all bets are off.

To this day, Claremont and Byrne, along with inker Terry Austin, remain arguably the greatest creative team in the history of comics. While Cockrum's art and designs were top notch, Byrne's arrival on the book is a revelation. His pencils are jaw-dropping, the likes of which hadn't been seen since Neal Adams' short run with Roy Thomas. I would suggest that Byrne was not only better, but that it wasn't even close. He is aided greatly by Austin who used his inks to perfection, giving Byrne's drawing a sharp edge but also creating frighteningly-good depth when it was needed. There's a definite jump in quality when they join. (Sidenote: there's an Annual issue where Byrne steps aside due to work constraints. His replacement? GEORGE FREAKING PEREZ. And the cover was drawn by some Frank Miller guy.)

But it isn't just art that Byrne brings to the table. He and Claremont find perfect creative synergy as co-plotters, which brings me right back to Wolverine. Byrne's entrance signals Logan's character going into overdrive. While his healing factor would not officially become his power for a little while, Wolverine hints that he "heals real fast." His nature not only as a brute, but as a pure killer comes to the forefront. We also learn that his skeleton is made of adamantium. This collection brings us to the tipping point of the moment that would make him a legend, but we aren't there yet.

Oh, and by the way.... have I mentioned that the stories in this book are freaking AMAZING? It's hit after hit after hit. You have the new team uniting with the old on Krakoa. You have the return of the Sentinels leading to Jean's rebirth as Phoenix leading to the return of Magneto leading to the X-Men's first encounter with the Shi'ar. You have the carnival issue that twists into what is probably the BEST Magneto story EVER. The X-Men go on their "world tour," visiting the Savage Land, Japan and Canada (where Pierre Trudeau makes an appearance leading to a real-life media firestorm.) They encounter Arcade for the first time and have their epic confrontation with Proteus in Scotland. The omnibus closes with the first third of the Dark Phoenix Saga, which I'm sure you may have heard of (and which I will devote an entire review to down the line.)

The number of new, enduring characters introduced during these issues is staggering, unlike anything else you'll see outside of a storied launch. Nightcrawler, Colossus, Storm, Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost, Moira MacTaggart, Lilandra, the Imperial Guard, the Starjammers, Sebastian Shaw, Donald Pierce, Alpha Flight, Stephen Lang and Amanda Sefton all make their debuts here.

Simply put, it's likely you will not find more value in a collection of this size anywhere else. It's the dawn of the greatest run in the history of comics and any self-respecting fan needs to read this omnibus.

Rating: 10/10

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