MARVEL MASTERWORKS: THE UNCANNY X-MEN VOL. 5 (Marvel, 2005; Hardcover)
Collects Uncanny X-Men Nos. 132-140, Uncanny X-Men Annual No. 4, Phoenix: The Untold Story No. 1, and the Phoenix story from Bizarre Adventures No. 27 (cover dates April, 1980- April, 1984)
Writer: Chris Claremont and John Byrne (co-plotter)
Artists: John Byrne (penciler), Terry Austin (inker); Annual 4- John Romita, Jr. (penciler) and Bob McLeod (inker)
Lennon and McCartney. Simon and Garfunkel. Claremont and Byrne. Like all great creative partnerships which produced art which has lasted through the ages, it was no picnic for those involved in the creative process. Two captains cannot steer a ship. The best creative partnerships can play off of the strengths of each creator involved, resulting in the sum being greater than the whole of its parts. Over time, things can become heated, and like the first two partnerships that I mentioned, Claremont and Byrne “broke up”...but that didn't happen until three issues after the ones collected in this book.
I have read these issues dozens of times, and their brilliance shines no less now than it did on the first read. Issue 132 metaphorically knocked the wind out of me as a teenager. The X-Men got their asses handed to them by the Hellfire Club. Time was that mutants were a rare, special thing, with only a dozen or two floating around the entire Marvel Universe. So it was a surprise for the X-Men to stumble upon this cabal of older, more powerful mutants who were more skilled in the use of their powers than The X-Men.
There was a time when Wolverine did not suck. No kids, I wouldn't lie to you. There was a time when a spray of bullets could wind the guy, where he could get knocked out in combat, or he could even get tired. The immortal, omnipotent ninja who heals instantly from an atom bomb did not exist when these issues were published. Wolverine was a feisty, cocky brawler. No “honor”, no martial arts discipline, only a slight healing factor. He developed a sense of smell during this era, “tracking” people by scent. His costume changed to the brown one that I grew up on in issue 139. Right around that time we found out his name: Logan. Wolverine was once one of my favorite characters. Now, he is unbelievable and unlikable on every level. I think that I even saw some promo art for a new series where he uses a gun for chrissakes. Yeah, because a guy with an unbreakable skeleton and claws needs a firearm. Sheesh.
Issue 133 is the first Wolverine “solo” story where we really see him cut loose. It's totally badass on all levels and should make anyone who thinks that immortal omnipotent ninja Wolverine is a good idea feel foolish.
Time was that Cyclops and Professor X were good guys, noble leaders even. Nowadays...sigh. It's a pity that these characters are dead to me, having been crapped up beyond redemption. I have not bought any new X-Men comics in years, and won't buy one ever again unless Claremont and Byrne reunite to bring the magic back.
The Dark Phoenix Saga...what is there to say, aside from comic book deaths once had meaning and weight. Issue 137 is brilliant, with the team in the fight of their lives with the life of a teammate hanging in the balance. This issue became a hot book after the fact because it was, first and foremost, a great story. Nowadays comic book deaths are a meaningless, dime a dozen marketing gimmick to be undone in a year's time. Those stunts have all but made a mockery of powerful stories like this. The rewritten word balloons in Phoenix: The Untold Story were crap. The original ending, as published in that one-shot, would have been forgettable.
The icing on this delicious cake is the Alpha Flight/ Wendigo two parter in issues 139 and 140. I met John Byrne at the Mid-Ohio Con in Columbus, Ohio in 2004, the last convention appearance that he made. He hosted a panel but everyone was too shy to ask him questions. Never one to know when to shut up, I proceeded to ask him endless questions. After the panel I stood in line to get my Uncanny X-Men Masterworks Volume 4 signed by him. (It was the current volume at that time.) I apologized for my endless questions and proclaimed my love for his work on this title. He told me a few tidbits of things that he intended to happen in issue 139 during the sequence where Nightcrawler went out to the Jeep to get their gear, and how it was colored incorrectly in the original issue (sun instead of moon, making it daylight instead of night time) and how there weren't supposed to be any words on that page. It was supposed to be colored red, like how the Wendigo would see things in infrared. He signed my book, and I got Chris Claremont to sign it at the Motor City Con a year or two later. It's like having a copy of Abbey Road signed by Lennon and McCartney.
Annual 4 marks the first time that future X-Men artist John Romita, Jr. took a stab at the title. I really miss comics that had such depth and characterization while being action packed. Comics that didn't rely on variant covers, crossovers, or cursing to be “cool”.
John Byrne is my all time favorite comic book artist, with the power of Kirby combined with the fluidity of Neal Adams. Claremont is one of the greats. For as much as people complain that his writing is “overly wordy” they fail to understand how much depth he gave these characters. The fact is that without Claremont you would not have the X-Men today, period. He built the “franchise” into what it is, and for that he deserves more respect than he gets from fans these days. When he's dead and gone you'll all come out of the woodwork and state how much you loved his writing. I choose to say it while he's still alive.
I must also give props to Tom Orzechowski, the greatest letter in the history of comic books. His clear, artistic hand lettering lent an air of elegance to everything that he applied his pen to. Letterers are like the cable company or the utility company...you never notice them unless they are not working right.
These issues are art of the highest order and should be packed up, along with the entire Beatles catalog, and sent on an interstellar journey to show aliens what beauty the human mind is capable of conceiving.
Junk Food For Thought rating: 5 out of 5.
The OCD zone- Marvel Masterworks are my poison of choice. This particular era of the Masterworks program was one of transition, from one of embarrassing mistakes to becoming the gold standard for comics restoration that many companies now employ.
I have bought and read this material so many times it is sad and sick. I had the originals via back issues in 1987-1988...then the original Uncanny X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga trade paperback...then again in Essential X-Men Vol. 2...then this book...at least the first version of this book that I bought.* Then I bought this copy...and will possibly upgrade to the Omnibus.
*Way back when, I used to actually pre-order all of my books through my LCS (local comic shop for you civilians out there). They ordered the variant cover, which I hate because it has a number on the spine which is the number of the book in the entire line rather than the volume number in that particular line. I bought it anyways, but immediately regretted it. I sold it for a nice sum once the variant went out of print and then bought this “standard consumer edition” online.
DVD-style Extras included in this book: All are one page each.
#132 page 6 original art by John Byrne and Terry Austin.
#132 page 15 original art by John Byrne and Terry Austin.
#133 page 11 original art by John Byrne and Terry Austin.
#132 original cover art by John Byrne and Terry Austin.
#137 original cover art by John Byrne and Terry Austin.
Unused splash page for issue 138, which had to be scrapped because Jean Grey died in #137.
Linework and Color restoration rating: 4.25 out of 5. While the color palette is faithful to the original publications, the linework has noticeable pixelation in a handful of spots. Most folks wouldn't even notice it, but I tend to skew uber-anal retentive. Masterworks editor Cory Sedlmeier and company have since made the pilgrimage to the Sparta warehouse and performed the Herculean effort of organizing and cataloging Marvel's film library, revealing pristine film sources that have resulted in the line wide upgrade that we have seen in the various Omnibus hardcovers and 2009-on softcover Masterworks. The softcover release (linked below for sale from site sponsor In Stock Trades) has improved restoration over this hardcover release. These same superior files will be employed in the forthcoming Uncanny X-Men Omnibus Vol. 2, due out in 2014. These things can be confusing for new readers of the program, but elder statesmen like myself are here to help you guys and gals out.
Paper rating: 4.5 out of 5. Glossy coated stock paper was the order of the day for the Masterworks program of 2005. While not optimal for material with flat coloring, it is still a nice paper with a good weight to it.
Binding rating: 4.5 out of 5. This era of Masterworks were perfect bound, which in English means that they had glued binding. They still laid pretty flat in one hand and didn't bother me much at the time of release. It was the mousetrap glued binding books that would surface in late 2005 that would raise the ire of the faithful, but that is a story for another time...