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Committed: Claremont & Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men

Some comic book loves are such passionate, enthralling affairs that they can never be revisited. For me, the Uncanny X-Men was that book.

The other day I was sitting in a cafe, totally ignoring the ambient music they were playing, when suddenly a song came on which took me right back to when I was a tiny little kid, listening to my first album over and over (and over) again. Madness were singing My Girl and without even remembering how, I knew every damn word of the song. It was weird because I don’t think I’ve listened to it once in the intervening years, but it had really stuck. It was great, remembering a time when those lyrics I knew so well didn’t make sense to me. By the time I had got to the point of finally having a relationship (and then smothering each other enough to need space), when I might have finally understood the song, I’d moved on to greener musical pastures.

Back then I loved Madness, I listened to them as if there were no other music in the world. I can’t remember when, but at some point there was all this other music to listen to and Madness fell by the wayside. Until I heard My Girl in the cafe had forgotten how much I’d loved them, I had inadvertently sealed that up in a little mental time-capsule.

Similarly, there is one comic book which I once loved to pieces and yet have never wanted to reread. This series totally and completely absorbed my attention. It consumed me, I read and reread each issue until they began to fall to pieces and then I lovingly stashed them away in boxes, only to completely ignore them. These were the first comic books to shape my growing aesthetic, and in turn every other aspect of my taste, not just in comic books but in life.

These comics were Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin’s run on the Uncanny X-Men. An early run of 10 or so which I had in the British, black and white, over-sized reprints.

Did I always prefer monochromatic comic books and design, or did I learn to love it through the clean, sparse lines of Byrne and Austin? At this point it is impossible to say, but I do know that for a few years there were no other comic books that I reread in the same way or with the same frequency that I read those Uncanny X-Men. Nothing else had as much impact, visually.

While I can’t pin some things down, this was definitely the birth of my obsession with American comic books (as apposed to my previous broad interest in any cartoon drawing I could get my hands on.) Available only to me in those magazine-sized, black and white reprints I rifled through every magazine rack in every store I could, trying to find the eye-catching, full-color color covers of a new issue. At the time I had never read anything with such an emotionally charged, hyper-dramatic undercurrent to every story, nor such beautifully fluid artwork as the alchemy between John Byrne and Terry Austin. I was captivated by the swirling cloaks and flowing lines, even as the extreme reactions and power struggles progressed.

Stumbling upon this comic book series for the first time, it was smack in the middle of some story arc involving an incredibly powerful escaped mutant. By all rights, I should have been lost. Nowadays people make a lot of noise about the difficulties of new readers and their potential reluctance to jump into ongoing storylines, but back then all I cared about was how I could find out more. Understanding that I was in the middle of a story, I set about finding the few preceding comic books that I could get my hands on.

Today I realize that despite this love, despite what it all meant to me back then, I’ve never sought to reread these comic books. Unlike nearly every other story that grabbed my attention since, I never felt the draw to revisit that time, and until I remembered my musical past this week, I never really thought about why.

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First of all, it is an issue of quality. The old comic books are in the UK in a box somewhere, and the reprints I bought of them are the smaller, color format of the originals. The coloring on comic books in those days was quick and dirty, further simplified by the low-quality printing. For me all it really did was water down otherwise beautiful art (and my apologies to the colorists out there, but in those days the paper and impossible deadlines were to blame, not the hard-working professionals.) While I haven’t reread those Uncanny X-Men, I did pick up Claremont and Sienckiewicz’ reprinted New Mutants when they came out a couple of years ago. While Sienckiewicz’s art was still innovative, Claremont’s dialogue no longer had the thrall for me that it held back then. This is partly because his style of writing at that time worked spectacularly well for the melodramatic teenage version of me, but doesn’t work as well for the slightly more sedate adult version of me that I’ve grown into.

More importantly, my desire to leave the book alone is also due to the mass murdering incarnation of Phoenix. Everyone talks about being shocked or outraged when Jean Grey died, but I don’t remember caring much. By then I’d lost my deep investment in the characters. The horrible betrayal I felt at the changes in Phoenix hit hard. Who cared about the death of some red-headed girl in a green dress? It was Phoenix I’d fallen in love with and Phoenix’s rise to power which enthralled me. Watching her discover her strength and sexuality was profound, and I never understood why she needed to go mad with power. It was what I think of as a classic Snow White syndrome. In the Disney version of Snow White, the main character’s stepmother (the queen) is incredibly powerful. If she handn’t gone “mad with power”, taking everything to unhealthy extremes, she could have had a wonderful life as the second hottest and most powerful woman in the kingdom. Instead someone decided that women can’t be hot and powerful, so she went “mad with power” and destroyed herself just like Phoenix did… Hence Phoenix came up against the Snow White syndrome.

The implication is that if only Phoenix had been less powerful, she might have been able to handle it. Sadly the comic creators imply that because she is simply a weak-willed woman, she cannot handle so much power, eventually it is all too much for her and she destroys herself by becoming evil. While I continued to be a loyal reader, the magic spell this comic book had cast upon me was broken and I took an emotional step back from it.

Now I can look back on the little time-capsule that this comic book represented for me and love it. Researching the book to talk about it now, I’m once again impressed by the quality and impact of the art and story. Without disturbing that fragile little bubble of comic book memory, I enjoy the time that was the evolution of the Uncanny X-Men and a deep love of comic books.


The first comic that started me collecting comics was Uncanny X-men (vol1) #109, introducing the Vindicator, John Byrne’s 2nd issue. I got it in my stocking Christmas ’77. To me the Claremont/Byrne run is the pinnacle, far exceeding anything done by Moore/Gibbons, Morrison/Quitely, Miller/Janson, Michelinie/Romita/Layton, Thomas/Buscema, Busiek/Ross/Anderson, Wolfman/Perez. While I truly love the works of many of these, no love is like the first love.Thanks Sonia, now maybe some of these whippersnappers will take notice and see that Bruebaker/Bendis/Ellis/Morrison/Milliar all suck from the teet that is #108-143!

Comics and I have a long history of near break-ups that are salvaged by one series. The Claremont-Byrne-Austin run on Uncanny X-Men was the first of those saving graces. It was just cool enough to convince me that I could try to continue reading comics while becoming interested in opposite sex.

In other words, it was pretty damn cool.

While I had read Spidey Super Stories and DC Treasury before then, the second Proteus issue is the comic where I became a “collector”.

Oddly enough it was the trippy art where Wolverine hears Nightcrawler’s words as orange splashes that sold me on color comics over the stuff from the newspapers, a bias that lasted until TMNT.

I dunno. I get what you’re saying, but the number of male characters in comics who go “mad with power” must be at least double the number of females. It’s a common enough trope in all types of stories, not just Snow White or the X-Men which happen to feature female leads and villains. The fact that Claremont and Byrne wrote such a great character and gave her such importance in a story in a genre which mostly focuses on male characters and male power fantasies has to count for something, doesn’t it? If this were the only comic featuring a “mad with power” storyline and if only female characters who went mad, I might be more inclined to agree. But that kind of story comes out every week in comics and it’s almost always men who can’t handle the power.

Unfortunately the thesis of this article, that Phoenix, as a female, was too weak willed to handle great power, as evidence for the mysogyny of comic book creators, falls apart when you take into consideration that key plot points for both Thanos, in the Infinity Gauntlet, and Dr. Doom, in Secret Wars, were their respective inabilities to handle unlimited power. This led both to ruin. It would be more effective to imply that comic book creators are misanthropes, and think lowly of humanity…wait…Thanos is not human…I will rephrase, comic book creators are nihilists, and hate everything. Basically, this article fails to provide reasonable evidence that Claremont and Byrne think lowly of women.

Great article,Sonia!

When my new step mother asked me why I was still reading comic books in high school,I let her read this run…she never asked again.

az-your last sentence…couldn’t agree more.

#109 was my first X-Men issue, although I was exposed to them in Iron Fist #15 first. The series blew my mind. The battle underneath the Antarctic volcano against Magneto remains my favorite story. At the time, I believed that the heroes could die. How I waited 60 days between issues –! Unbelievable.

Tom Fitzpatrick

April 20, 2011 at 5:46 pm

In all the years that had passed to present day, I still find that the Claremont/Byrne Uncanny X-men run to be the best of all X-men comics/runs/stories. There had been a couple that came close to rivaling this run, such as: Whedon/Cassaday — Astonishing X-men, and Morrison’s New X-men. Close but no cigar.

I seem to remember reading about some death threats sent to Marvel over the killing of Jean Grey/Marvel Girl/Phonix (good or bad, green or red).

Not too sure if that was rumour or fact.

Matt Hartwell-Herrero

April 20, 2011 at 5:50 pm

I still remember discovering X-Men #112 & #113 at the local 7-11. I was happy to fork over my $0.35 and was totally blown away by the art and the story. It seemed dark and dangerous (I especially loved the scene where they were confined by Nanny and Storm was freaking out with her claustrophobia and use her hairband lockpicks to bust them out. And that was just the ramp-up to the whole Dark Phoenix Saga which was awesome. The subsequent Paul Smith run was amazing as well! MEMMMOORIES….


I don’t think the exploration of themes such as “power corrupts” or whatever in a story makes someone a misanthrope either.

@ sgt pepper:

I don’t think that a reasonable person can deny that Chris Claremont has a tendency to, well, fall in love with certain female characters. He heaped attention upon them and made them the focal point of the series. Jean Grey was the first, but Storm, Kitty Pryde and Rogue followed in turn.

These romances tended to follow distinct pattern. First, you had a female character who had their previous life disrupted and maybe was little bit of a fish-out-of-water (the arrival of the New X-Men, adapting to America, coming to Xavier’s, absorbing Carol Danvers memories). Next, they tended to form a forbidden and/or impossible romantic attachment (Wolverine, Colossus, Gambit). Then, they encounter an older, more experienced character who is a little on the kinky tip (Mastermind and his bondage-y illusions, Callisto and crypto-lesbianism, Wolverine and the trip to Japan, Mystique and whatever that deal was). That character brings out the “darkness within”. In the process the female character usually gets a big power-up (Jean become The Phoenix, Storm becomes assertive enough to lead the X-Men, Kitty becomes a ninja, Rogue gets the Ms. Marvel powers).

Being his first trip to the rodeo, Claremont over-did the whole “Darkness Within” bit. Unlike the others, Jean’s crime was pretty irredeemable. He also placed the big power up prior to the crime. That is the only thing about his pattern that Claremont really switched up, which suggests that he might have thought better of it.

I’m pretty sure it was Shooter who decreed that Jean die, not Claremont and Byrne. If I remember right (from a Legends column, natch), Chris planned to have her live on. So the “she’s a woman and can’t handle it” interpretation — while a totally valid way of looking at (even if I personally got something different out of it) — wasn’t artistic vision or the author’s intent. TO me it would seem to be the product of a too many cooks in the kitchen… cooks each trying to make a different dish. Just sayin’.

Anyway, I love these issues. These comics are what really hooked me back in the day. But I was hooked by the Classic X-Men reprints (including those killer Steve Lightle and Art Adams covers). Yeeeeah!

Nick – I don’t think the point is that she died, the point is that she lost control of her power and genocided a planet. That lack of control leads to the criticism Sonia offers *and* Shooter’s insistence that she die.

I have a friend who’s been blogging about the Claremont run on X-Men from a feminist perspective who brought up some interesting points. The biggest one being that John Byrne thought that, once the Dark Phoenix Saga was over, Jean Grey would just be Cyclops’s wife, so it wasn’t important whether she live or die anyway, so he didn’t care that Shooter made them kill her.

He then contrasts this with Claremont, the guy who wrote Storm as the leader of the X-Men, had her encounter sexism from both Prof X *and* Cyclops, but had Wolverine — the coolest guy on the team — consistently follow her, and other female leaders, because there’s nothing wrong with a tough guy following a female leader.

@ Sean:

Do you have a link to that blog? It would be an interesting read.

I don’t know what it is about this run, but even though I was way past adolescence when I first read most if it, it blew my mind. The Byrne/Claremont chemistry on this run might just be the best there’s ever been in comics. That’s evidenced by the fact I can take or leave pretty much anything else either of them did apart, but if my house was burning down, this is one of the things I would grab on my way out.

Spooky. My second great comic-buying phase came in my late teens, and was sparked off by these very same black-and-white reprints. So yeah, my first intro to these ‘new’ X-men (as a kid I’d read the original incarnation) was the Proteus saga, and all the madness that followed. Guess I was kinda spoiled…

This is the run that all X-Men comics, good and bad, have tried to re-create. Claremont/Byrne is as good as it got on anything that they did together.

Didn’t Rogue absorb Ms. Marvel’s powers in her first appearance?

Ms. Marvel and Marvel Girl are different characters.

Maybe Rob was fooled by the Cockrum sash.

May I have permission to reprint this on my blog. I will cite you as the source. I love this article.

Yes Shell, that’s fine with me.

Hmm, funnily enough, I have an opposite view of this. When the Dark Phoenix saga first came out, I was 13. At the time, “everybody knew” that women weren’t as strong or as smart as men, that we were all supposed to be “nice” and “silent” and be helper figures. Our options as comic book heroes were limited and essentially boiled down to playing helpers and weak martyrs who then were remembered as “perfect” (and perfectly passive). Even Wonder Woman couldn’t seem to refrain from tripping over her own lasso half the time, like some slasher heroine.

If you read the feminist SF of the time, most of those characters are so wishy-washy by today’s standards that you want to slap them and yell, “Get a grip, girlfriend! Go torch something! Go! Blow stuff up!” There were exceptions (Joanna Russ’ Alyx, anything by Tanith Lee), but they were few and far between. And the idea that a woman could only become a sword&sorcery heroine through some sexual trauma was nearly universal.

So, Phoenix was a huge dose of brand-new fantasy fulfillment for a teenage girl. Shy, underpowered, pretty, helpful Marvel Girl sacrifices herself to save The X-Men (who are, at that time, in a big and ugly merger of old and seasoned vets versus new, more diverse, more powerful, and seriously arrogant newbies) by piloting a shuttle through a radiation storm and “dying”, and returns as the awesome, overpowered Phoenix (with a fabulous, semi-practical costume where her ta-tas weren’t hanging out and great hair, to boot). We see her struggle with these powers (The actual lifespan of the “good” version of Phoenix was several years not months), growing stronger and stronger. The final result of this burgeoning of power to godlike proportions (Think Gary Mitchell in Star Trek: TOS) was inevitable, regardless of the gender of the character, and was even repeated in male characters like Professor X and Magneto later on.

In fact, the really cool thing about the Phoenix was that this was completely a man’s storyline, given for the first time to a female character. It was emphasized repeatedly, for years before she went dark, that the only reason Phoenix remained a hero with her cosmic powers was because of the superhuman, nay, goddess-level, wisdom, humility and strength of will of Jean Grey, herself. It was also emphasized to the very end that the only thing that was ever going to stop the Phoenix was the Phoenix. No man was ever going to be able to come along and control her or defeat her–as she proved time and again, especially in her casual and brutal destruction of Mastermind after discovering his treachery. Not even the cliche of Cyclops’ Power of Wuv was enough. No Yellow Crayon moments for Dark Phoenix.

Even in the resurrection storylines later on, it’s emphasized that Jean Grey’s conscience is the only real control on Phoenix in her human form. And when she ended up flipping out, they had to find a rather cheesy way to do it because they couldn’t think of a way to have her lose control that wasn’t OOC, even though it was set up from the beginning that she was an overpowered character and would inevitably lose control. And just as we secretly want to see Banner Hulk out or Batman go vigilante, we wanted to see Phoenix go dark. Because Nice Girls never did that and we were tired of being “nice”. Dark Phoenix was Jeanie or Samantha Gone Bad.

As for Jean Grey ending up married in the original concept of her storyline…eh. *Now* we know it wouldn’t have worked, but at the time, it seemed a logical extension of her total subversion of female stereotypes in comics. I mean, the male superhero gets the girl. Why couldn’t the female superhero get the boy?

I’m not trying to claim that Chris Claremont is (or was) a perfect writer. He ran X-Men into the ground before he left and he did have some pretty weird hang-ups regarding his heroines. But it was assumed all round by X-Men fans, male and female, during the 80s and 90s, that he had a thing for writing superstrong women and rather wussy men, which got him labeled (not always kindly) as a “feminist” when it wasn’t fashionable to be that, especially if you were a guy. I see him as one of the forerunners to Cameron, Raimi and Whedon, male writers who gave us strong female characters that probably wouldn’t have existed without the likes of Jean Grey and Storm and Kitty Pryde and Psylocke and, hell, even Dazzler. I just find it really surprising that anybody could see Phoenix as anything but an early feminist icon of comics, let alone as a misogynistic stereotype. I think the worst you could call her is a proto-Mary Sue.

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