I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
It was always easy for me to determine if a particular issue of a Marvel comic book first appeared on the stands in the precise month that I began obsessively following four-color superhero adventures. Every title that month was topped with a banner that promised the possibility of a tidy sum of cash landing in the pocket of the purchaser, not by means of the periodical skyrocketing in value (though that fanciful vision of a well-maintained collection eventually translating into glorious riches was already taking hold among collectors) but through entry in some contest detailed within. Because of this cover-disrupting ad, I not only knew which comics I bought in those fateful first few weeks, but I could quickly identify those that I passed by for some reason. This was largely little more than a curiosity, but it also led me to realize that I missed out one of the major issues of my era: the landmark X-Men #137, the conclusion of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”
I prefer to think that it simply wasn’t on the newsstand for me to grab. Though it’s a vaunted run now, the Chris Claremont-John Byrne years of the title didn’t yield massive sales and the series may very well have been modestly stocked, all the better to reserve room for major hits like Amazing Spider-Man. I had fond, albeit foggy, memories of Marvel’s band of mutants, and purchased the series that reprinted their early battles, so there’s no real reason I would have ignored the more current travails of the team. I could have started in on the series at its arguable peak. Instead, it was several issues later than I began my own personal run with the title.
Uncanny X-Men #145 could have been built specifically to convince me to read it. It featured Dr. Doom, the biggest villain in the Marvelverse and the primary adversary of the Fantastic Four, the team that I immediately named as my favorite characters. It also featured Arcade, the wealthy sadist who amused himself by capturing superheroes and trapping them within his improbable, deadly theme park that had in part–speaking directly to my quarter-craving heart–a pinball theme. I don’t recall exactly, but I have a feeling I sought it out after reading about it in the monthly checklist that appeared in Marvel’s comics.
What I didn’t realize was the significance of the creative team behind the story. After thirty-plus issues penciled by John Byrne, Dave Cockrum was returning to the title. Cockrum had joined with writer Chris Claremont several years earlier in bringing X-Men back from the abyss, helping to relaunch a title that had been hanging on with reprints into something, as its covers quickly boasted, all-new and all-different. That was all lost on me. All I knew was that I suddenly had a big, bustling new cast of characters to begin sorting out. I also discovered that Dr. Doom’s staff apparently had a admirable reputation among the culinary class:
Storm was trying a diplomatic approach while her teammates scrapped their way towards him outside the castle, all of them hoping to free Arcade, who they believed had been taken captive by Doom. That was merely a bit of trickery on the villains’ part. They were working together and soon the X-Men found themselves in different devious traps while reserve members of the team charged to their rescue. Eventually the mutant heroes got free, though Storm, prone to claustrophobia, was definitely shaken by her confinement.
This was less than a year after the the end of the Dark Phoenix saga, and Claremont was already returning to that well, albeit with something of fake-out. In retrospect, it was an early warning sign of the way Claremont, the longtime writer of X-Men in almost all of their derivations, could take his storylines in endless circles. For me at the time, though, it was an exciting reference to a past I barely knew and longed to understand. Naively, I took it as a signal that anything could happen in these pages. Anyone was vulnerable.
Claremont continued to mine his recent history as the next story brought the X-Men back into contact with Dazzler, a character introduced in X-Men #130 and recently launched in her own title that tried to wring monthly thrills from a character that blasted adversaries with light while zipping around on mirrored roller skates. The issue is mainly notable for the always amusing comic book depiction of a hip, incredible nightclub.
Actually, the most significant part of the issue was the fairly artful way Claremont moved a key subplot forward. Scott Summers, known to the world at large as Cyclops, had recently left his post as leader of the X-Men. He wound up stranded on a remote island which happened to be the new home base for the X-Men’s mortal enemy, the malevolent mutant Magneto. It was build-up to a approaching anniversary issue, Claremont managing the tension of the situation nicely, but also balancing things out with welcome dashes of humor and lightness. For example, there was this diversion with the newest student at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, the lithe and lively Kitty Pryde:
Now I see this as a ironic tweak on Dave Cockrum’s noted mastery of costume design, but then it was just a nice character detail, one that helpfully emphasized the difference between Kitty and her more mature teammates.
In time for the special double-sized 150th issue, the X-Men were all assembled on the island, grappling with their oldest foe.
Though the sense that I was joining this series later than was ideal was potent enough that my last real stab at devoted collecting involved trying to acquire a complete run of the Claremont-Byrne issues, this was, in some respects, a perfect time to for me to start reading X-Men comics. Claremont had developed his operatic tendencies to a great, grandiose level that was enthralling to my young intellect. I was fascinated by the large tapestry of the Marvel universe and Claremont spread out over the vastness of his stories more luxuriously and shamelessly than most. I wanted these stories I read to be wildly, fabulously, indulgently big. Claremont, by the very way he constructed his X-Men tales, told me my instinct was a good one.
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe