I have said it before but it bears repeating for the purpose of this entry: the X-Men were my gateway drug. I had read random comics here and there, ones given to my by family just to keep me occupied for a couple minutes or found in garage sales. Nothing stuck though until that fateful day in the Denver Airport when I picked up my very first X-Men comic (more on that in a minute) and it started a love affair that has lasted until this day albeit to varying degrees.
So while listening to Kevin Smith's "Fatman on Batman" podcast, specifically an edition where Kevin and one of his guests list their favorite Batman issues/stories, I was inspired to make a list of some of my favorite X-Men stories. No real order, definitely not a complete list, but just a rundown of some of my favorite X-Centric issues & story arcs (oh yeah, and it is a purposeful thing that I don't dip into the sure things like Grant Morrison's run, "Dark Phoenix" or "God Loves, Man Kills"...just want to expose some other notables).
So what better place to start than with:
|Uncanny X-Men #224|
As for Claremont, he made the fact that I was jumping into a situation en media res completely tolerable given that the X-Books were on the verge of entering The Fall of Mutants, that the Registration Act and Freedom Force were things, that a powerless Storm was completely separate from the team for reasons unknown to me...
All of those things would, in the mindset of some in today's comic landscape (coughDCCOMICScough), be GIANT barriers to my signing on the the mutant bandwagon but because the writer made the effort to make his comic accessible, I was hooked and wanted to know not only where the story was going, but I wanted to know where it had come from. This led to my 8 year old self finding a local comic shop which was thankfully right next door to the karate studio I was attending and spending several days a week there, not just new comic day.
This was in the age before EVERYTHING was traded so I dug deep into back issue bins, began following X-Factor and New Mutants, and reading Classic X-Men (later X-Men Classic) until my back issue endeavors collided with Classic around Uncanny issue #170. Speaking of classic, that leads me to another couple of my favorites:
|Classic X-Men #19|
And again, even though I was jumping into to a show already in progress, I was able to pretty much pick up on what was going on AND want to track down the issues that came before to see how my favorites got trapped in the first place! Then, with the ending that split up the team, leaving Jean & Beast in Antarctica and the rest of the unit's fate in limbo, I had to know what happened!!! This stuff was epic!
Plus, one of the bonuses of these Classic issues, there were additional pages (although at 8 years old I didn't know they were added at the time) added to the main story AND a total new back-up story! This one fleshed out the character of Magneto in a way that I can look back on and safely say had never been done before. It filled in gaps in his history and it was BEAUTIFULLY rendered by John Bolton. These back-ups were a thing of wonder and the back-up alone is why this next issue is one of my favorite...
|Classic X-Men #25|
Wolverine solo...drawn by John Bolton...this back-up was a thing of beauty and probably one of the reasons that I fell in love with the character. It does a great job of fleshing him out as more than just the crazy runt with claws, although in the Uncanny issues I was already seeing he was more than that, and it is just a wonder to look at. Just thinking about it makes me want to either dig these issues out just to read the back-ups or go buy the Vignettes trades.
As an added bonus in the main story, you get Mariko Yashida making her first appearances in Wolvie's life (the previous issue being her first), you get Banshee losing his powers (a thing that stuck for well over 100 issues), and in the added pages, you get an Apocalypse appearance to tie him into Moses Magnum's origins! Speaking of Apocalypse....
It brings to a head the Apocalypse story that has been building in some fashion since X-Factor #5, it brings to crescendo the saga of baby Nathan Christopher Charles Summers that has been on-going since his birth in Uncanny #201 and really kicked into high gear during Inferno & the subsequent Judgement War arc in X-Factor, and his Nathan's fate certainly added even more intrigue to the Cable/Stryfe mystery unfolding in the closing pages of the original New Mutants series & subsequently in the original X-Force series...plus it was set on the Blue Area of the Moon which harkens back to the original Dark Phoenix saga oh so many years prior.
The closing of this arc also catapults the original X-Men who made up X-Factor into the Muir Island Saga over in Uncanny that would ultimately lead us to the introduction of the Blue & Gold Teams in the UXM & & X-Men books.
But most importantly, and the reason why this issue resonates in my mind, is because of the heartbreaking scene when Scott Summers has to give up his child, has to send little Nathan off into the great unknown with a strong possibility that Cyke will never his son again, in hopes that this mysterious Asakani woman can save his life. This is a man who, taking into account the sliding concept of time in comics, was without his son for 3 publishing years (so say like a year in comic book time maybe?). Now having only just gotten his son back, Cyclops was faced with the gut-wrenching choice of what to do, what to sacrifice, and...perhaps this is just me reading into it now...but giving is his son up to be saved is kind of making up for being a totally selfish douchebag since Jean Grey's not-so-dead body was found at the bottom of the ocean a few years prior. That's a thought I'm just now thinking for the first time by the way...
Any way it was the emotional hook of Cyclops and Nate that puts this one in my mind more so than anything about the Apocalypse/Askani stuff...oh yeah, and this story arc would also be the hook upon which the next entry into my arc would hang its hat:
So apparently, according to Wikipedia, this was a story arc not looked upon fondly despite its high sales numbers...well I don't give a damn! I look back on this story as one of the highlights of my comic book reading youth. Not only was it full of awesome art from the likes of Brandon Peterson, Jae Lee, Andy Kubert, and Greg Capullo but the story also brought together a ton of characters that had essentially been separate since the birth of X-Force, X-Men, and the overhaul of X-Factor that came about 15 months prior.
It took the "Cable & Stryfe have the same face" bomb that got dropped at the end of New Mutants #100 and used it for something major...if you call something like Stryfe, decked out in Cable-wear, shooting Professor Xavier in the face major. The arc brought Apocalypse into the field as an ally rather than enemy which in turn played into the Archangel dynamic as well as the Cable/Cyclops drama. It put X-Force, who were sans Cable at that moment, into the mix as a fugitive team. Guido working with Gambit, Feral and Wolfsbane occupying the same space thereby proving there were in fact two different characters (bad joke), the moon, Stryfe versus Apocalypse, Stryfe's torture of Jean & Cyclops on THE BLUE AREA OF THE MOON, and Scott Summers' nagging questions: is Cable my son or is Stryfe my son?
It was an epic tale that told a self-contained story AND built for the future! What a novel concept in this day & age where so many crossovers end up feeling to me like they exist ONLY to set-up the future and don't tell a complete story on their own. This was throwing everything out there and making it all work! History also tells us that Magneto ALMOST ended up a part of the story too AND a joke by Peter David is what ultimately led to Wolvie getting his adamantium ripped out in Fatal Attractions (more on that later)!
Plus the fallout from this arc also directly led to two of my favorite X-issues of all time! First up:
"The Open Hand - The Closed Fist"...the name of the story and representing the two sides of the coin when it comes to "the dream" from the perspectives of Charles Xavier (the former) and Cable (the latter). In the fallout of "X-Cutioner's Song" the X-Force squad is essentially being held prisoner while Xavier & Storm question Cannonball's decisions.
The beauty of this issue, along with being a great showcase for how far Capullo has come as an artist, is in its layers. For one it reconnects the former students of Xavier (Sunspot and Cannonball) with their former home, obviously via Sam's interactions with Charles & Ororo, but also thru Roberto's interaction with Stevie Hunter. Then it points out how distant the rest of the squad (Warpath, Siryn, Shatterstar, Feral, Boomer, Rictor) are from that touchstone. Sure some of them (Boomer, Rictor, Siryn) have a degree of affiliation but none of them were ever under the tutelage of Xavier directly and neither Warpath, Shatterstar, nor Feral spent one second under the wing of anyone but Cable. There are so many degrees of removal from "the dream" looking at say Beast to Feral...
This issue also provides set-up for the future but no in a way that intrudes on the main story...just enough to tease you and leave you curious for what's to come.
But the highlight, the absolute crucial part of this issue though, the thing that really defined Cannonball for the future (or at least should have), is the "open hand, closed fist" debate he has with Xavier using, of all things, a mouse. The crux of Guthrie's argument is that the supposedly safe and welcoming open hand can be used to slap you across the face (yeah...he nearly slaps Xavier across the face) while the supposedly violent & threatening closed fist can be used to protect and comfort (that's where the mouse comes in). THAT is my Cannonball, the guy who was taking the best from his three teachers (Xavier, Magneto, & Cable) and looking to mold them into an entirely new ideal for this new generation of mutants. It was furthered in the Counter-X Ellis run with his tutelage under Pete Wisdom AND it was why I was furious when Cannonball was reverted to the country bumpkin when he officially became an X-Man post-Age of Apocalypse..that's a whole other rant though.
This issue gave X-Force an identity, a STRONG identity, for the first time since the series began after a bunch of meandering issues about Externals and Cannonball dying and Gideon and Tolliver and lackluster Mark Pacella/Dan Panosian art. Also, and I am totally putting meaning in where there probably isn't any, it says something to me that this article on MTV.com here from 7/11/13 uses an image from this issue!
As for that other favorite issue that spawned out of "X-Cutioner's Song":
|Uncanny X-Men #303|
So "Song" spawned the Legacy Virus which was a pretty clear AIDS virus for the mutant community. It had claimed the lives of some minor characters like Infectia and Burke as well as some major ones like Jamie Madrox (later revealed to be a dupe), Moira MacTaggert (the only human), and Revanche (Psylocke's....whatever).
But the saddest moment, the one that ripped my heart out, was the death of Illyana Rasputin in UXM #303. UNFORTUNATELY her death was spoiled beyond belief when UXM #304 was released BEFORE #303. See #304 was part of the big "Fatal Attractions" crossover and I guess delaying it would have fucked up the schedule of the rest of the x-over...that's all assumption by the way.
So Illyana's story is sad enough on its own...the little sister of Colossus, as a little girl she was kidnapped from Russia to be used as a pawn by the villain Arcade, ultimately stolen away into Limbo while the X-Men were on some island where the barriers between dimensions were weak, and although it was only minutes on Earth in which she was lost in Limbo, with the way time moves there she reemerged from the hellish dimension as a teenager. She joined the New Mutants, struggled with her demonic side for years, was used by the demons S'ym & N'astirh to bring Limbo to Earth during "Inferno", and returned to her proper age during the closing chapters of that story.
She returned to Russia, her & Colossus' parent were murdered, she contracted the Legacy Virus, and that brought us to this story where, while the rest of the team was away, it all came to a head with Shadowcat (visiting from Excalibur), Jubilee, Jean Grey, and Charles Xavier in residence at the mansion and Moira MacTaggert there via video screen.
I'm honestly tearing up writing about this and reading the recaps...I think this was the first comic in the, at that point, 6 years I had been reading that had this kind of effect on me and it says something for my memories of it that it still does. Jubilee bonding to Illyana in these last moments of her life, the history of Kitty Pryde & Illyana coming into play, the reaction of Colossus when he returns home to the tragic news, the reading of Hans Christian Andersons' "Little Matchgirl", the BAMF doll, it's all so...heartbreaking. As Jubilee puts it in the end, since she has been hanging with the X-Men, she has mixed it up with Brood-things, Sentinels, Acolytes and everything. ‘So how is it ya can save the world every morning pre-wheaties…but when it comes to saving one little girl…zip?’
That could be a good time to end it but I've got two more specific issues I want to point out and one run in particular that, for me, is probably my favorite. First up, and kind of spiraling out of the earlier mention of "Fatal Attractions" and the Jubilee stuff in #303:
The ramifications of Xavier's mindwipe aren't the point here though. The point is Wolverine #75, for its fancy hologram and horror-flick image cover, is one of the most touching issues of a comic you will read. The race to save Wolverine's life while simultaneously returning to Earth from space is pulse-pounding, Xavier's willingness to risk his own life to get inside Wolvie's mind and help him is noble, the moment of Illyana's spirit shoving Wolverine's away from the light was touching as was the fact that is was Jean Grey's voice that pulled Logan back from the brink so he could save their lives.
Seeing Wolverine weakened from his ordeal yet forcing himself into a Danger Room scenario is, in it's own way, as heartbreaking as Illyana's death because he just can't cut it anymore. Add to that the revelation that Logan's infamous claws are in fact bone and you have a true moment in X-Lore. The real kicker to this story though, the one that makes it linger in my memory, is the letter (and his hat) that Wolvie leaves Jubilee when he departs from the team. It is heartfelt, it is a look at the core of the man, and can bring tears to your eyes just as well as the words of UXM #303.
Sadly, and maybe this is why they linger so, the next story that comes to mind is also one of death and tragedy in the life of Logan:
Time has taught us that Logan has certainly gotten around in his century-plus on Earth but the number of women that our beloved Canuck has deeply and truly loved has been few: Jean, Rose, Silver Fox, and Mariko. Of those four men, only Mariko ever stood at an altar waiting to be Logan's bride only to have the machinations of Mastermind dash all those dreams to hell. It was a manipulation that put Mariko into what I can only call a shame-spiral as, in the aftermath, she attempted to clean up her families criminal ties in order to make herself worthy of Logan's love.
The truly tragic thing was that those attempts to clean up the family were what ultimately cost Mariko her life, or rather, put her in a situation in which Logan had to choose: did he leave her to die a painful poisoned death OR use his claws to end her pain? The failed samurai chose the latter, the mercy kill, and broke his own heart in the process when he "snikted" the claws into his love...in my mind the last woman he truly loved.
My heart broke for him then, my heart still breaks for him now thinking about it and reading over the recaps, and what makes it even worse...if that's possible...is that it was not the last time Wolverine would have to make that choice. Whether intentional or not (and since Grant Morrison was writing it I assume it was intentional), Wolverine has to unleash his claws on Jean Grey in New X-Men #148 in hopes that it would unleash The Phoenix and save their lives. If it didn't work, well then he would have two dead loves on his claws.
This story in Wolvie #57 was a picture perfect depiction of the tragic figure that Wolverine truly was at that point...
Uncanny X-Men #205, X-Factor #87, X-Men #30, X-Force (Vol. 2) #26/UXM #524, X-Men #100, UXM #143, X-Men #110....just off the top of my head those are some great single issue stories for various reasons, most of them tragic probably, but I want to close it out with a mention of one of my favorite runs.
|Uncanny X-Men #269|
|Uncanny X-Men #229|
From Uncanny X-Men #229 until UXM #269, the lives of the various members of the team were in total upheaval. It all started when, in the aftermath of "Fall of the Mutants", the team elected to fake their deaths in order to (a) protect their loved ones while (b) striking at their enemies. It was an idea first floated out by Chris Claremont maybe two years prior in the aftermath of the "Mutant Massacre" but, in typical Claremont fashion, took years to come to fruition.
These forty issues saw the team set-up shop in Australia after deposing The Reavers from their very unique home, it saw the return of The Brood, the introduction of Genosha, Inferno, the team crumble in the absence of Wolverine & the "death" of Storm, the Siege Perilous, the Mandarin, Captain American, it saw a newer & stranger team born on Muir Island under the leadership of the repowered Banshee, it saw Jim Lee come to the fold as an artist, saw Gambit and Jubilee make their first appearances, did some crazy shit to Jean Grey in the Morlock tunnels, and eventually came full circle right before the "X-Tinction Agenda" by bringing Rogue back to Australia.
It was a crazy, experimental, unique time frame in X-history in which...for a long time...the traditional idea of what the X-Men team were did not exist. There was no mansion, no Blackbird or Cerebro, no Xavier, it was an adventure unlike any that came before it or any that has followed it. I think it is safe to say that, aside from Morrison's run, this is the most original section in the long history of the x-books and it was all guided by the words of Chris Claremont with the pens of men like Mark Silvestri, Jim Lee, Rick Leonardi, and Kieron Dwyer to bring those words to life.
If there is one issue though that I find a must-read over all the others it is this:
|Uncanny X-Men #251|
In fact, the only X-Men stuff I would tell you to avoid is any crap written by Chuck Austen or Frank Tieri. The worst....
Now bring on The Battle Of The Atom!!!