UNCANNY! The Greatest Comic Book Run Ever pt.1


I come here only to praise what I sincerely believe as the greatest run in comics over
the last 40 years. My love of the Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and John
Byrne is never ending. It inspires me to this day, the story, the characters,
the ideas and most of all the unbelievable art of Byrne and Terry Austin.

First let’s address the idea that everything is “Of A Time”. Books, music,
films, television and comics are “Of A Time”. For fans that watched the birth of
the Beatles and the phenomenon that followed, that experience is elevated beyond
my experience of reading about it, which is exciting and thrilling to me,  but
it will not be the same. Not even close. When I tell  or show my boys about the
Magic Johnson led Laker squads of the eighties, they are intrigued and inspired
but they cannot possibly share the connection that I have as a teenager as I witnessed
and experienced that team in real time. Sports fans are famous for comparing and
contrasting teams from different era’s, another example of “Of A Time” playing
out in real time. Often, the person or person’s that did it first, is identified
as doing it best. Michael Jordan vs. Kobe vs. Lebron and their respective fan
bases play this scenario out on a daily basis across sports message boards and
social media. I maintain that unless you experienced the first Star Wars film
circa 1977, in a theatre, in real time then you have no idea whatsoever what
that film meant to the culture and how it changed everything around it for the
rest of time. Movies in 1976 didn’t look and feel like Star Wars and that film
changed cinema forever following its release in May, 1977. “Of A Time”
communicates an original connection with the material, and the realization that the
audiences that discover it later will not completely understand the importance
and the impact of that particular film, show, disc or comic book.  I assure you
that Uncanny X-Men, by Claremont, Byrne and Austin is most certainly “Of A
Time” as far as I’m concerned. The material can certainly be appreciated by present day
audiences, and admired due to it’s ahead of its time execution of pacing, story
and art, but the impact it had in its day, to its audience is unparalleled. The
X-Men were a footnote at Marvel prior to this run, post Claremont-Byrne-Austin,
the X-Men became the crown jewel of the company and its top performer for thirty
years. Ironically the title would be unseated on the charts by the youth that
inspired it and a company they formed.


For me it all started in 1975 at the corner Liquor store on Broadway and
Magnolia in Anaheim. This was obviously pre-direct market, pre-comic stores but
I was fortunate to have two local markets where I could purchase comic books
from. A convenient 7-11 corner market and a liquor store were directly across
from the closest intersection to my house. I visited both locations in search of
fresh comic books every single day. At the time my favorites were DC’s Legion of
Super-Heroes and Marvel’s Fantastic Four and Avengers. When there were no more
copies  of my favorite titles and the latest treasury sized edition reprints had
sold out, I would look at other offerings such as the X-Men or Freedom Fighters.
I always liked X-Men, mainly because it was another Marvel team book but also
because the cast intrigued me. This was during the period where the X-Men was in
its reprint cycle and the issues drawn by Werner Roth were circulating. ( Yes,
for an extended period of years, the X-Men recycled reprints of earlier stories
due to low sales. it was kept alive, but barely ) I favored both Angel and
Beast, they were visually and conceptually interesting to me, this is pre-Blue
Gorilla beast, but I didn’t love the book. It was a lower priority book for me,
on a rung with the 2001 comics that Marvel was adapting, far below The Defenders
and Marvel Two-In-One. That all changed with Giant-Sized X-Men #1

Giant-Sized X-Men #1 blew my mind. The new cast of mysterious characters
charging through the torn cover page featuring the original X-Men, visibly
distressed and endangered, was more than enough to thrill my eight-year old
frame. I grabbed it and consumed around ten pages before protectively tucking it
under my arm, ensuring a trip to the cash register for purchase. When I reached my home and settled under the tree in my front yard to fully digest these “All-New, All-Different” X-Men, my pulse was racing. Giant-Sized X-Men #1 remains one of the best stand alone introductory issues in the history of comics. Old team is
captured, new team must be assembled and save them. The story by Len Wein moves
at a perfect pace and the art by Dave Cockrum is lush, his best line work of his
career to date. Cockrum had illustrated many of my favorite Legion issues
providing a natural tether from one favorite to my new favorite.

Uncanny X-Men would resume its numbering with this new team, albeit on a
bi-monthly schedule. Chris Claremont assumed writing duties, an assignment that
would set him up as a legend in the comics industry and Cockrum continued on
art. When the series resumed, they killed a member of the new team in the first
regular issue , furthering the sense of danger and unpredictability of this bold
new direction. Cockrum and Claremont continued together for eleven issues before
Cockrum left the series. His last issue coincidentally introduced a popular and
long standing staple of the Marvel Cosmic universe, the Imperial Guard. This
team of Shiar protectors was an obvious swipe at Cockrum’s Legion of
Super-Heroes, with obvious riffs in every panel, Fang = Timber Wolf, Oracle =
Saturn Girl, Mentor = Brainiac-5 , Hobgoblin=Chameleon Boy,  Tempest = Lighting
Lad and so on and so forth. Having just experienced the Squadron Supreme and
their obvious Justice League influence, the Imperial Guard just blew my mind.
Their conflict with the X-Men and Cockrum’s obvious love for every frame made
this my favorite of Cockrum’s run. He went out with an absolute bang, the
highest of all possible notes.  The groundwork laid by Claremont/Cockrum was
substantial, the introduction of Phoenix, the rebirth of the Sentinels, Black
Tom and Juggernaut, Storm’s backstory, Imperial Guard, much if which was just
the base foundation for an incredible run of comics to come that remains to this
day, unmatched in modern comics history.


What came next, the creative changes to follow, would influence comic book and
pop culture at large for the next thirty-plus  years. Back in 1977, there was no
accessible newsstand comic book magazines like Amazing Heroes or later, Wizard
and there certainly was no Internet of any note. The reason I mention this is
because there was no advance warning of Dave Cockrum’s departure or of his
replacement, John Byrne accompanied by Terry Austin on inking chores. As I
picked up my copy of X-Men #108, wrapped with a business as usual cover by
series regular artist, Dave Cockrum, I had no idea Dave had left the book.
Nowadays we would know 3-6 months via the Internet and social media that there
was a changing of the guard, but in my youth, the discovery of a new creative
direction happened as you picked up the actual comic book in real time. I had
seen John Byrne’s artwork prior to this, I had collected the Charlton Comics
that featured his early work, E-Man and especially Doomsday was a particular
favorite of mine, although newsstand distribution was spotty in my area. Byrne
had drawn issues of various Marvel comics over the recent months but none of
them looked like this did. His work inked by Terry Austin’s futuristic inks was
eye candy in every sense of the word. It is the rare occasion that a new team
replaces an old creative team to your absolute satisfaction, delight and in this
instance, guilt. “How can I love this guy’s work more than Cockrum’s work because
I absolutely adored Cockrum’s work, but this work is so fluid and so crisp and I
don’t know if I can wait another TWO MONTHS for more of this Byrne-Austin
artwork goodness!! Why does this book have to be bi-monthly!!!????” In truth,
Byrne’s first art on X-Men was in service of cleaning up the story arc with the
Shiar and the Imperial Guard that Cockrum had started and established. Byrne
drew every X-Men member and the entire Imperial Guard with a confidence and
quality of a seasoned pro. For years, my comic book buddies in the neighborhood
and at school would describe Byrne as depicting every comic book character ”
Exactly as you would always want them to appear/look”. Remember we were 10-12
years old, this was how we could best describe our favorite taste in comic
books. But that description still feels right to me, in his prime, Byrne’s
version of everything was fan-approved and preferred.


There is a page in the middle of his first issue where the cosmic disturbance in
the story is felt throughout the Marvel universe and Byrne/Austin depict then
President Jimmy Carter, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers in a series of quick
cut panels communicating their concern. I can’t tell you how long I lingered on
that one page. The Uncanny X-Men, the Imperial Guard, the Avengers, Fantastic
Four and the President in one issue. This was comic book nirvana. Byrne had
depicted the F.F. And Avengers  in their respective titles prior to this issue,
but with Austin’s inks and the slick detail he provided, they looked different,
in truth, they looked better than ever before.  Byrne had an anime element,
mostly found in the faces and the big eyes and curves he gave his ladies. I saw
elements of Neal Adams, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby in his early work but it had
an anime sheen to the fluidity if the figures and faces. Bottom line, it was
fresh and original and combined with Terry Austin’s razor sharp ink line, it
looked like nothing else on the comic rack.

The next issue would begin a run of new characters and concepts that made this
book and cemented its legendary status. Upon returning home from their galactic
voyage, the X-Men partake in some casual rest and relaxation until they are
attacked by a vibrant character named The Vindicator, later re-named Guardian.
Vindicator signaled the sharp shift in focus that the book took in placing
increased priority and attention on Wolverine. His exchange with Storm before he
goes out hunting was the most insight to his true nature and character that we
the audience had experienced to date. He was a hunter at heart, not a ruthless
killer, resulting in Storm’s quick apology, with Wolverine feeling unduly judged
once again by teammates that don’t quite know what to make of him. Wolverine’s
careful approach to an unsuspecting doe is abruptly interrupted by Vindicator
who is in hot pursuit of Wolverine on behalf of the Canadian Government. Let me
make something clear, Vindicator looked COOl. His red and white costume was
cool, his powers were cool and his knowledge of Wolverine’s past had my full
attention. This particular issue was sold out at my local market, we had moved
houses and my new neighborhood had many outlets for comic books, but somehow,  I
missed this issue. My neighbor buddy  who was as obsessed with comics as I was
showed me the comic and led with his enthusiasm for Vindicator. He shared it
with me and we geeked out together. He was kind enough to allow me to keep the
comic over night and I wore that issue out, pouring over every frame. Vindicator
drops all sorts of back-story intrigue and hints at Wolverine’s mysterious past
as he tackles not only Logan but the entire X-Men before quickly teleporting
away and talk of returning with the full force of Alpha-Flight to back him up.
Whoa! This is a single issue clinic for how to properly introduce an exciting
new character. Every fan I encountered over the years were counting the days and
minutes for Vindicator’s return and the promise of ” Alpha Flight”
Claremont-Byrne-Austin were two-for-two, the X-Men was officially the coolest
book in the comics industry.

John Byrne X-Men 109 p 17

Following a fill-in issue that felt like it was a decade old in terms of
quality, Claremont and Byrne took the X-Men on a years long globe-spanning
adventure that introduced more new characters, such as the villainous Arcade,
depicted Magneto in the most sinister manner he had ever been portrayed,
transported them deep into the Savage Land with Ka-Zar and Garokk and finally
delivered the long-awaited introduction of and showdown with the
much-anticipated Alpha Flight.

Before I go further, allow me to offer a quick explanation for why I identify
this run as the greatest in the last forty years and possibly the best ever.
First, it’s a long, five year run spanning thirty-issues and the concepts and
characters introduced continue to influence comics, film and beyond.

The Hellfire Club
Alpha Flight
White Queen
Death of Phoenix
Days of Future Past
Expanded Imperial Guard

These character and storylines captivated the entire comic book culture. It
informed and influenced an entire generation of young fans who didn’t experience
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s ground breaking Fantastic Four run. These were seminal
comics that combined soap opera theatrics with multi-layered mysteries as well
as dynamic action and illustration that to this day looks ahead of our time,
much less the seventies.


In Part Two, we will explore more of the storylines and the artwork that
transformed the X-Men and the comics industry at large.

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