Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review # 129: "Uncanny X-Men Omnibus Vol. 2"

On the one hand, the second "Uncanny X-Men" omnibus by Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Dave Cockrum isn't as fascinating as the first one.

On the other hand, it has parts four through nine of "The Dark Phoenix Saga" and both parts of "Days of Future Past." You know... arguably the greatest two X-Men stories of all time.

I love the X-Men and found it to be of consistent great quality under the long-tenured pen of Claremont. However, I am no fool. The series was never as good after co-plotter and penciller Byrne left, along with Greatest Inker of All-Time Terry Austin. When Byrne makes his exit, there is the sense of a downhill slide. Fortunately, it doesn't make it very far down the hill.

The main team had been pretty well fleshed out at this point, but a few tweaks come along post-"Dark Phoenix" to keep them growing. Cyclops leaves the team and is caught on the rebound by sailor Aleytys Forrester; Storm becomes leader in his stead and appears to show a knack for it; Wolverine is still Wolverine, but after what he did to the Hellfire Club he could do whatever the hell he wanted and it would still be captivating.

The two characters who gain the most in this collection, though, are not part of the main nucleus when this book begins. Despite her appearing for the first time in the first omnibus (though it's part of the story that splits the two,) this is the genesis of Kitty Pryde. Joining the school in earnest, her addition changes the entire team dynamic. The adults are now mentors, and at the age of only 14 Kitty offers a new perspective on an environment that - when it began - was made up of people her own age.

Here's what sets her apart in the annuls of comic characters: Unlike other examples of kids being added to a superhero property (I'm looking at YOU, Wonder Twins,) Kitty is not a detraction. She's an addition. For the time, she's written convincingly as a brainy, young teen. Claremont does for her what he did for the other X-Men previously, giving her outside interests and little quirks about her personality. Kitty shines the most in "Demon," the final issue for the Claremont/Byrne/Austin trio. Left alone at the X-Mansion on Christmas Eve, Kitty is forced to fend off an evil creature from beyond on her own. Finding that her power doesn't work against the monstrosity, she's forced to put her mind to work. It's a hell of an exit mark for Byrne, helping to insure that the character's presence would not have to be defended afterwards.

The other character who has a landmark moment in this collection is the X-Men's greatest villain, Magneto. Depicted only as a lunatic madman for years, the events of "I, Magneto" where we learn about his being a victim during the Holocaust change the game completely. Magneto was a big name at this point, but he lagged behind the likes of Doctom Doom and The Joker when it came to notoriety. With this issue, Magneto suddenly becomes the most complicated villain in comics. While I wouldn't call him a better bad guy than the other two I mentioned, he's the deepest character easily and is treated with utmost respect when it comes to motivations thanks to this story. Well, except for that brief spell during Grant Morrison's run but that's an angry rant for another day.

Along with the main series, this omnibus is peppered with additional material including two very outstanding annuals. One is among my favourites: "Nightcrawler's Inferno." For his birthday, Kurt receives a mysterious package. When he opens it, his soul appears to be sucked right out of him. Professor X calls in Dr. Strange to consult, and he draws the team into another realm to rescue their friend. That realm is the "Dante's Inferno" version of Hell, on-point enough to raise suspicion about where they really are but freaking cool nonetheless. John Romita Jr.'s art here is incredible from the gates to the fiery eyes of Charon to Minos taking the form of Jack Nicholson. Familiar or unfamiliar with the poem, the annual is exhilarating, disturbing and - at times - frightening. I love it.

The other outstanding annual is the rarely-printed "Avengers Annual 10." Written by Claremont, this is the debut of Rogue moments after sapping the powers of Ms. Marvel which she held on to for over a decade. Rogue is shockingly different in her early appearances, built much more like a villain and looking a little bit older than she would be depicted as later. It is still a memorable first appearance and rightly remembered as one of the greatest Avengers stories ever.

I must note, however, that a lot of the supplementary material is pretty weak. Stories about the Savage Land from four issues of "Marvel Fanfare" fall flat and are laughable at times; an X-Men/Fantastic Four crossover slogs. There is some bounceback, though, in a three-part issue of the black-and-white "Bizarre Adventures" that tell solo stories about Phoenix, Iceman and Nightcrawler. There's also the original ending to the finale of "The Dark Phoenix Saga" which is fascinatingly awful. They made the right call killing Jean, and you get to read a long discussion from the creative staff validating that point.

In the end, if someone asked me what "X-Men" books they needed to buy, this omnibus and the one preceding it are the best. Never before did the title feel so fresh. There was more greatness to come, but the X-Men would never again grasp as mind-boggling a consistency.

Rating: 10/10

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