Claremont and Byrne:
The Team That Made the X-Men Uncanny
by Al Nickerson
There was once a time when Marvel Comics published only one X-Men comic-book title. Hard to believe, huh? But, it's true.
Those were simpler times, when X-Men comics didn't take up a whole wall of a comic-book store. Back then, the X-Men were outcasts. They were mutants-"feared and hated by the world they have sworn to protect." In the very late 1970s and early 1980s, reading an X-Men comic was a bit naughty, a bit rebellious. Those were the days of Chris Claremont and John Byrne's X-Men.
Claremont and Byrne made the X-Men who they are today. Their vision of the mutants is the vision that still exists. Their stories are the ones that had the greatest impact on the X-Men mythology. Where would the X-Men franchise be without the likes of "The Dark Phoenix Saga" or "Days of Future Past"? Where would the X-Men comics and other X-Men entertainment media be without the Hellfire Club, Alpha Flight, Proteus, or Kitty Pryde?
Claremont and Byrne's X-Men began with Jean Grey saving the Universe from destruction. Soon after, Wolverine was duking it out with Vindicator before Mesmero captured the X-Men to appear in his circus. Things only got worse for the X-Men when they fought Magneto beneath a live volcano. The team made a trip to the Savage Land, stopped Moses Magnum from destroying Japan, and escaped from the conniving Arcade. The X-Men battled and destroyed the mutant Proteus. They saved Jean Grey from Mastermind and the Hellfire Club. Afterward, Jean Grey turned into the evil Dark Phoenix, and out of hunger consumed a star, which resulted in the death of an alien race. Such an act put Jean on trial before an extraterrestrial court, where she was sentenced to death. To save Jean Grey, the X-Men fought the Imperial Guard, lost, and watched Jean (Phoenix) commit suicide. Through their loss, the X-Men joined Alpha Flight to track down the beast Wendigo. They defeated the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants which, in turn, prevented an apocalyptic future (for mutants, anyway) from happening. Finally, Kitty Pryde wrecked the Danger Room while trying to survive an attack from an ugly monster. Sounds like a lot of fun comics, huh?
But, let's start at the beginning, shall we?
MEET THE MUTANTS
The original X-Men were created by (writer) Stan Lee and (penciler) Jack Kirby, and first appeared in The X-Men #1 (Sept. 1963). Along with their teacher, Professor Charles Xavier (a.k.a. Professor X), the team of mutants included Cyclops (Scott Summers), Marvel Girl (Jean Grey), Iceman (Bobby Drake), Angel (Warren Worthington III), and the Beast (Hank McCoy). Never an A-list Marvel series, X-Men became a reprint title in 1970 and limped along for the next half-decade.
With Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975), writer Len Wein and penciler Dave Cockrum introduced a new team of X-Men. The new members were Wolverine (Logan, later revealed to be James Howlett), Storm (Ororo Munroe), Nightcrawler (Kurt Wagner), Colossus (Piotr Nikolaievitch Rasputin), Banshee (Sean Cassidy), Thunderbird (John Proudstar), and Sunfire (Shiro Yoshida). One original X-Man, Cyclops, led the new group of X-Men.
The new X-Men's adventures continued within the ongoing series as of X-Men #94 (Aug. 1975). Issue #94 happened to be Chris Claremont's first issue as writer. Thus began a decades-long writing stint for Claremont on various X-Men comic-book series, spin-offs, and miniseries including The New Mutants, Wolverine, Excalibur, (the adjective-less) X-Men, X-Treme X-Men, Exiles, and New Excalibur.
ALONG CAME JOHN BYRNE
John Byrne came on board as penciler with X-Men #108 (Dec. 1977). Now, this wasn't the first project that Byrne and Chris Claremont had worked on together. Previously, the two creators teamed up in 1975 on Iron Fist, beginning with Marvel Premiere #25. How did Byrne get the penciling gig on X-Men? "I was a big fan of Chris and Dave's work on the title," Byrne explains. "Basically, I made it known around the [Marvel] office that if Dave ever left and the assignment didn't come to me, the halls would run red with blood."
Byrne got his wish: Dave Cockrum left X-Men. "Unfortunately, since he was doing such a great job," says Byrne, "Dave was simply unable to handle the demands of a monthly, and Marvel desperately wanted X-Men to go monthly."
Of course, taking over for an artist as great as Dave Cockrum can be a bit unnerving, as Byrne found out: "I was terrified about replacing Dave. I was and am a huge fan of his work. Plus, the book was really his book, even more than it was Chris'. When I got the assignment, I asked that Sam Grainger continue as inker, so as to 'soften the blow' for the devoted fans." That idea was editorially rejected.
Terry Austin became Byrne's inker on Byrne's first issue. Byrne and Austin's collaborative artwork was a huge hit amongst comic-book fans. In fact, so great was the art of Byrne and Austin's X-Men that it inspired me to become a comic-book inker. Anyway ... I digress.
There were many characters for Byrne to pencil in X-Men #108. He had to not only draw the X-Men, but also the Star Jammers and the Imperial Guard, as well. Was that much of a challenge for the new X-Men penciler? You better believe it! Byrne felt that drawing all of those characters was a "pain in the posterior! I was never a Legion of Super-Heroes fan, so I had no 'feel' for the [character-heavy, galactic] Imperial Guard, and the plot-which was still pretty detailed in those days-was such that I had to draw what seemed like 15 characters in every shot."
And so began Byrne's steady run on X-Men. Well, except for a fill-in issue by Dave Cockrum, that is. Two issues later, X-Men #110 (Apr. 1978) was illustrated by Dave Cockrum and Tony DeZuniga. Why is it that Byrne and Austin didn't illustrate that particular issue? According to Byrne, X-Men #110 "was an inventory issue that, for various arcane reasons, had to be used within a specific period. So what should have been my third issue became a fill-in."
In X-Men #112 and 113 (Aug. and Sept. 1978), things became very interesting for the X-Men when Magneto showed up. The X-Men battled the team's oldest foe underneath a live volcano. In the first fight, Magneto slapped around the X-Men fairly easily-which wasn't too surprising, of course. Magneto was superpowerful. Also, one of his mutant abilities was to manipulate metal, and what do you expect when two of the X-Men (Wolverine and Colossus) are made out of metal? In round two, in X-Men #113, Magneto took more of a beating after the X-Men began to fight as a team.
Some issues later, in X-Men #125 (Sept. 1979), Magneto was healing from wounds that were a result from his battle with the X-Men. Here, we got a quick glimpse to Magneto's past. We learned that Magneto once had a wife by the name of Magda. Around this time, in Avengers #186 (Aug. 1979), we found out that Magda was the mother of mutant superheroes the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.
Magneto isn't just a one-dimensional villain. Yeah, he's bad. Yeah, he believes that Homo Superior-mutants-should run things, and that he should be the one to rule the mutants. Still, Magneto is motivated by his politics ... warped as they may be. We now saw Magneto as a character with more depth given to him, thanks to Claremont and Byrne. He once had a wife, who, as far as we could tell, was not a mutant. Magda was a normal human being who was frightened by her husband's mutant powers. Kinda odd for a world-conquering mutant who believes that ordinary humans are nothing more than chattel. Like I said, Magneto became more of a complex personality.
Whose idea was it to add such history and depth to Magneto's character? Who came up with the idea to officially say that the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were Magneto's children? Former X-Men editor Roger Stern remembers, "It's been so long ago, but either John Byrne, Mark Gruenwald, or Steve Grant-or some combination of those folk-suggested that Magneto was the father of Wanda [the Scarlet Witch] and Pietro [Quicksilver]. It was my intent that the readers, but never the characters, would know ... and we've all seen how long that lasted."
Concerning Magneto's past and how the villain sees the world, Stern believes that Magneto has changed quite a bit over the years: "I couldn't tell you much more about Magneto's past, as it's all been changed so radically from what John and I intended, not to mention from what Stan and Jack had established."
THEY'RE DEAD, JIM (OR ARE THEY?)
After their battle with Magneto in X-Men #113, the X-Men are split into two different groups, each believing the others had died when Magneto's headquarters, located below an active volcano, became unstable.
Cyclops and his X-Men-Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Banshee escaped the collapsing volcano by tunneling their way to the Savage Land. Elsewhere, Jean Grey and the Beast eventually (and just barely, mind you) returned to the X-Mansion.
While in the Savage Land, the X-Men fought the energy-sucking villain, Sauron, in X-Men #114 and 115 (Oct. and Nov. 1978). They also joined Ka-Zar in saving the prehistoric jungle from Garokk (a.k.a the Petrified Man) in X-Men #116 (Dec. 1978).
Still, there were some fun times for the X-Men during their stay in the Savage Land. In X-Men #114, Colossus makes nice with a native girl by the name of Nereel. Years later, in X-Men Annual #12 (1988), we found out that Nereel had a son named Peter. There were quite a few hints that implied that Colossus (who is also named Piotr, or Peter) was the father of the young Peter, although in the Annual, it didn't look as if Colossus realized that he was now suddenly a father.
In X-Men #117 (Jan. 1979), Misty Knight (X-Men friend, ex-roommate to Jean Grey, and sweetheart of the superhero Iron Fist) bumped into Jean Grey at Kennedy International Airport. Afterward, in #118 and 119, Misty Knight helped Cyclops and the rest of the X-Men save Japan from the threat of Moses Magnum. In X-Men #120 and 121, Misty Knight even traveled with Cyclops' team back to North America where they faced the Canadian superheroes, Alpha Flight.
Now, during this whole time, Cyclops' team of X-Men still believed that Jean Grey and the Beast perished after their battle with Magneto. How come Misty Knight never told Cyclops and the other X-Men that she recently met Jean Grey at the airport ... that Jean Grey was still alive? I've always wondered why Misty Knight never said to Cyclops, "Hey! I just bumped into your girlfriend at the airport," or asked, "How come you all look so sad?"
Did I miss something? Or am I just wrong here? John Byrne may think that I am wrong: "This question has been asked many times, and my answer is always the same: 'Why would she?' Misty Knight would not have any way of knowing Scott and the others thought Jean was dead."
Some issues later, all of the X-Men happily reunited before facing the threat of Proteus. But not until some of them had trouble the heroes from the Great White North...
Wolverine was once employed as a special agent to Canada's Department H. The Canadian government wasn't too thrilled when Wolverine quit Department H to join the X-Men. In X-Men #109 (Feb. 1978), Wolverine's old buddy, Canadian superhero Weapon Alpha (a.k.a. James MacDonald Hudson), traveled to the United States to take Wolverine back home.
Where did the idea for Weapon Alpha (later called Vindicator and, then, Guardian) come from? John Byrne tells us that "he was my fan character, created long before I got professional work. Originally he was called 'the Canadian Shield,' after the mountain range, but because of Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D. that was rejected when he became a player in X-Men. So I went with 'Guardian,' but again there was already a Guardian at Marvel. Several, in fact! Chris came up with 'Weapon Alpha' and 'Vindicator,' neither of which particularly sang for me."
Were the rest of the members of Alpha Flight floating around in Byrne's head for some time, or were they created specifically for X-Men #120 and 121? In 1983, Byrne created the Alpha Flight comic book. Did Byrne have any aspirations to have Alpha Flight appear in their own book during his run on X-Men? Byrne states that "Guardian and Snowbird were fan characters. The other original team members were created to balance the powers of the X-Men. Subsequent members were created after Alpha got their own title."
CYCLOPS: CAPABLE LEADER OR JUST A WIMP?
In X-Men #126-128 (Oct.-Dec. 1979), the X-Men faced one of their most challenging foes ... the reality-changing mutant, Proteus. Wolverine, Storm, and Nightcrawler battled Proteus ... and failed. Afterward, the three X-Men appeared quite shaken by the ordeal.
Cyclops was concerned with the shape that his team was in. He used his leadership skills to test Wolverine, Storm, and Nightcrawler to see if they were capable to continue on. How does a team leader do that? Well, if his name was Cyclops, he picked a fight with them ... starting with an Adamantium-clawed mutant who would most likely make you dead if you pissed him off. I'm surprised that Wolverine didn't leave Cyclops a bloody mess. Maybe Wolverine was more rattled than anyone thought. Still, you have to give Cyclops some credit for taking such a bold move to check his team's stability.
Over the years, Cyclops has certainly shown his leadership skills as X-Men team leader. However, it seems as if Cyclops rarely received the respect that was due him. I've often wondered why that is. How come Cyclops never garnered the honor and praise that other superhero team leaders received? Is it because he is a straight-shooting good guy? Is it because of some disrespect to authority? Or is it because Cyclops isn't as popular as the rebellious, claw-waving Wolverine?
Roger Stern observes, "Cyke was fairly well respected as deputy leader for the first generation of the X-Men (Marvel Girl, Angel, Beast, and Iceman) ... and really, who else amongst that crew was Xavier going to pick? Jean's powers were still developing at the time, and the guys weren't likely to follow her commands. Warren [Angel] was a little too full of himself. Hank [the Beast], though the oldest, probably wasn't interested in a leadership role. And Bobby [Iceman] ... well, who was going to listen to the kid? That left Scott, the brooding introvert with the power that was potentially the most dangerous of the team. But Xavier had faith in him and he grew into the role.
"If those stories were being written anew today, Jean would be a better choice to lead the team," Stern continues. "But in the early 1960s, readers weren't ready to accept a girl leading a bunch of boys. Scott was never really comfortable in the role of leader ... just wasn't in his personality ... which, of course, made it all the more interesting. When the second team came along, none of the new members were teenagers, none of them were used to working together ... and Wolverine was not predisposed to following anyone's orders."
THE MUTANT OF STEEL
For a little while in X-Men, Colossus didn't feel like he was pulling his own weight within the X-Men. When fighting Moses Magnum in X-Men #119, Colossus thought, "I have let my comrades down. I am supposed to be the strongest X-Man, yet of late I have been as much use to them as a walking punching bag."
However, things really changed for Colossus during the X-Men's battle with Proteus (X-Men #126-128). Colossus was a fairly young man at that point. He was a gentle soul that had come face to face with complete evil. To prevent Proteus from killing again, Colossus acted as a true hero. He made the decision to kill the villain. Colossus' triumph over Proteus garnered some accolades from fellow X-Man Wolverine: "I'm proud of ya, Petey! I couldn't have aced that sucker better myself!" Of course, receiving such praise from a guy like Wolverine would surely eliminate anyone's self-doubt. Was Colossus' defeat of Proteus a coming-of-age moment for the X-Man? Maybe. Was this a true turning point for Colossus, where he might again believe that he was worthy to be on the team? Absolutely.
ENTER KITTY PRYDE
One of the X-Men's lasting members is Kitty Pryde. Kitty first appeared in X-Men #129 (Jan. 1980). She was cute, spunky, and she could phase through objects.
Who created Kitty Pryde? I once read that John Byrne named the character after a friend of his? Is that true? "Yes," answers Roger Stern, "Kitty was John's creation and was named for an old friend, I believe from his art school days. Of course, since then, she's become a very different character from what John intended."
Having a new, younger character join the X-Men seemed like a logical and interesting progression for the team, and for Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Was that the motive for creating Kitty Pryde? "I seem to recall that there was some interest in having some student X-Men again," Stern continues, "and Kitty was supposed to be the first of many. Along the way, that idea sort of morphed into The New Mutants."
THE HELLFIRE CLUB
The Hellfire Club first appeared in X-Men #129. The group consisted of an "Inner Circle" made up of mutants who sought wealth and world power. The members dressed in 18th-century clothing and were ranked by titles named after pieces in chess (Black King, White Queen, etc.).
With the help of Jason Wyngarde (a.k.a. Mastermind), the Hellfire Club forced Jean Grey into the Inner Circle as the new Black Queen. The X-Men were eventually able to stop the Hellfire Club, but not before Wyngarde's corrupting influence had a devastating effect on Jean Grey.
There were several very real 18th-century British Hellfire Clubs. They were religiously pagan groups that practiced Fait ce que vouldras, or "Do what thou wilt."
Where did the X-Men's Hellfire Club come from? "Chris and I were both inspired by the 'Touch of Brimstone' episode of television's The Avengers," reveals John Byrne.
"Touch of Brimstone" aired in 1966 as part of the British television series The Avengers (Season 4, Episode 21). The episode recreated the real-life Hellfire Club where Avengers John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel infiltrated the group. "Touch of Brimstone" was initially banned in the United States because the episode was deemed too controversial with its whipping scene and Emma Peel dressed in a dominatrix outfit.
Other similarities between the X-Men's and the British The Avengers' Hellfire Clubs included the White Queen Emma Frost, who Claremont and Byrne named after the character Mrs. Emma Peel; also, Jason Wyngarde, who looked very much like, and was named after, British actor Peter Wyngarde.
Our free preview ends here, but the article continues-with the Dark Phoenix/Death of Phoenix story (including JIM SHOOTER's recollections), Days of Future Past, Wolverine, and Popeye (?!)-in BACK ISSUE #29, shipping in July 2008.
BACK ISSUE #29 follows the X-Men's 1970s/1980s success and spin-offs in a special "Mutants" issue, including looks at the X-Men work of PAUL SMITH and JOHN ROMITA, JR.; ANN NOCENTI and ARTHUR ADAMS' Longshot; BOB McLEOD's and BILL SIENKIEWICZ's New Mutants; the UK's Captain Britain; the Beast as the first breakout mutant; the lost Angel stories; the return of the original X-Men in X-Factor ... and a "Greatest Stories Never Told" revelation of Nightcrawler's "original" father. Plus: A history of DC's mutant, Captain Comet, and a new chapter in BOB ROZAKIS' fantasy history of AA Comics! With a rarely seen X-Men cover by DAVE COCKRUM! Edited by MICHAEL EURY.
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