Friday, November 7, 2014

Review # 150: "X-Men by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee Omnibus Vol. 2"

The second "X-Men by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee" omnibus is a piece of history as it redefines the series and sets it on the path to its greatest era of commercial success. Most of what happens here is an extended, gradual reset as Professor X, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Iceman and Archangel are brought back into the fold and the team returns to the X-Mansion.

It's also where Jim Lee really made his bread and butter. With the launch of a second "X-Men" title (to go along with "Uncanny X-Men,") he assumed a great level of control in terms of both story and design. These are the X-Men casual fans associate with most: depicted with a flair and style that was unmatched. The freshness of these books, especially from "X-Men #1" forward, contains some of the most eye-popping art of the 90's. Lee's characters jump off the page, a style that was imitated but never duplicated after his abrupt departure.

However, the legions of fans this look created were missing out on a major piece of the puzzle: Chris Claremont. The author who made the team popular in the first place is gradually forced out, writing the final issues of his original run. Claremont did not see eye-to-eye with editor Bob Harras over the series' new direction, as Claremont felt he had "been there and done that." With Lee and Harras more on the same page, Lee was re-purposed as artist and co-plotter and the practical reboot began.

Most stories ahead of "X-Men #1" are devoted to re-establishing a previous status-quo. In the pages of "X-Factor," Scott's son Nathan is abducted by Apocalypse and infected with a techno-organic virus, forcing Cyclops to send the baby far into the future; In "Uncanny X-Men," the team heads to space to foil a Skrull plot to infiltrate the Shi'ar empire and reunites with Charles Xavier; In "The Muir Island Saga," amnesiac artist Colossus regains the memories of his past life, Xavier loses the use of his legs (again) and the story ends with both teams merging (outside of the scraps that were left over for the government-era "X-Factor." Peter David's transition issue here shows there were great things ahead.)

The quality of these stories is almost tragic, because the various creative teams involved here - Claremont and Lee on "Uncanny X-Men" and Claremont, Lee and artist Whilce Portacio on "X-Factor" - do some great work. Harras claims he was convinced that once the teams were fleshed out on the other side that Claremont would still be a willing partner. Unfortunately, it was a gamble he lost out on that was made worse when Lee split seven issues later to launch Image Comics. In the immediate aftermath it created a massive sales windfall aided greatly by the launch of the X-Men cartoon series (ironically powered mainly by Claremont stories.) However, the loss of Claremont who brought change after change after change was replaced by a continual status quo that left the series in desperate need of a kick in the ass by the time Claremont returned a decade later. Sadly, even he was incapable of doing so by that time.

It is easy to notice some of the cracks in the foundation, many of which come during Claremont's scripting. I don't know who was ultimately responsible on the creative side, but the number of times the team is mind-controlled or otherwise manipulated into fighting each other is ridiculous. They split over Skrulls in space, they hunt each other as the Shadow King's puppets on Muir Island, half the team gets brainwashed on Magneto's Asteroid M, Mojo casts them as warring factions in a twisted version of "The Wizard of Oz...." Even when the Inhumans get involved during a story, the Royal Family is forced into battle with one another. Also, some of the new 90s post-Claremont characters are hit and miss. Omega Red has stood the test of time (as has Bishop, who makes an appearance here. His arrival and opening arc are contained in a different collection,) but Maverick and Mojo II: The Sequel landed with a thud.

Still, what you'll find in this omnibus is very entertaining and does not show the wear from the creative battles going on behind the scenes. It's visually stunning and holds a boatload of comics history including an avalanche of bonus material (the ENTIRE FIRST SET of X-Men trading cards is reprinted here, for instance.) If you like Jim Lee, this is a must. And if you're a big fan of Claremont - like me - his exit is must-own.

Rating: 8/10

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