The Episodic Days of Future Past: Why I Love Those 80’s Uncanny X-Men.

by Stephyn Phillips

When I was a kid in the 1980s, there were not many things more compelling and exciting than getting a new issue of Uncanny X-Men. I would search the couch cushions like a crackhead to find $0.60 to get the latest issue (today’s poor kids have raid more than couches for their $3.99 fix). I would then skateboard across town to the liquor store or 7-11 with my fingers crossed, praying that someone else didn’t get the last copy before me. I could not miss an issue. These were my people and my stories. In the mid 80’s, while my parents were concerned about shows like Cheers, I was reading about “real” characters and how they lived in a world that hated and feared them.

Chris Claremont wrote some amazing stories in those books that still carry a place in my heart as some of the best stories I’ve ever read. Multiple decades and English degrees later, I still turn to those stories and those characters as my threshold for immaculate storytelling (sorry Shakespeare). Granted, I’ve read many comic/graphic novel stories that have compared or even surpassed Claremont’s run over the years, but noting that puts a smile on my face and in my soul like those books did. There are two distinct reasons why this legendary X-Men run surpasses everything for me.

First thing is characters. Oh my God! Is there a better roster in the history of the universe than the X-Men from 1980-1991? Storm, Cyclops, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Rogue, and the baddest of them all…Kitty Pryde! Oh, and a guy named Wolverine, who instantly mesmerized any kid on the planet with one look at his retractable claws and pointy mask. Even the later recruits were gems. Where most franchises failed to recapture gold with later additions (G.I. Joe losers like Crazy Legs and Transformers abortions like Wheelie come to mind), newer X-Men like Gambit, Psylocke, and Jubilee were legit. I can’t go any further without pointing out that Claremont had help. Backed by a ton of great artists like superstars John Byrne and Jim Lee, who helped create these icons, Claremont’s stories were more than reading a comic—they were like looking into the X-Men’s world every thirty days through the best drawn “windows” imaginable.

That brings me to the other reason why those books were so good back then—episodic storytelling. This is crucial to the success and legacy of that book. It was NOT about the fighting. Yeah, those were epic as well, but between those fights we were given issues about the characters themselves and their relationships with each other. One of my favorite stories of all time is about Colossus and Kitty working through their failed relationship after Secret Wars in Uncanny X-Men #197. Sure there are Doombots and punching involved, but the main focus of the story is Colossus’ guilt and his realization that Kitty is growing up. I lived through the X-Men for many different reasons as a kid (dreams of power, being an outcast, fantasies about Dazzler), but that break up between Peter and Kitty killed me. But it also taught me as well. About life, love, and friends. That stuff was my 90210 before I knew I needed such a thing.

While this stroll down faded memory lane is therapeutic and making me want to leave work and go grab my “Phoenix Saga” issues, the reason I point it out is that those types of moments rare in current comics—especially the X-Men books. There are very little issues devoted to character development, and in a convoluted group like the X-Men or the Marvel Mutant population in general, that is a killer. Since the days of Claremont (and probably the 1990s comic boom that forever altered the comic landscape), issues about relationships don’t happen often. Hell, even the master Grant Morrison had to tell Cyclops’ leaving of Jean Grey for Emma Frost in-between fights and alternate timelines! We could have used much more time devoted to the end of that seminal relationship—not to mention to understand what the hell was Cyclops thinking?!? It feels like today’s comics just don’t take time for us to get to know our characters.

The biggest reason for this is probably money. Comics can’t slow down. They have to keep rolling to get to the next multi-issue crossover that has the heroes bickering, before they come together and realize they just spent eight months and 37 tie-in issues beating the crap out of each other. Think about it. How quickly do we bounce from crossover to crossover? There was not enough time to fully explain and explore the ramifications of Age of Ultron before we were forced into Infinity, which led to Time Runs Out, which fed into the newest Secret Wars—which left us overwhelmed and our wallets empty. Characters are spending time between massive fights recovering and fighting their own villains (rightfully so), but they don’t spend time on each other. In Cullen Bunn’s run on Uncanny X-Men, Monet flirted constantly with Sabretooth—and that is the most relationship development I can remember in years since the aforementioned Grant Morrison love triangle.

It’s not that I have some great desire to read X-Men love stories—I don’t. What I want is a focus on episodic storytelling. That same day-to-day examination of the lives of these characters that made us 80’s kids fall in love with them in the X-Books. At this point, I would settle for one of those old games of baseball the X-Men used to get into. I know the X-Men are currently in a situation story wise where that would be difficult, but that is more about Disney and movie-making politics. Also, I am not crapping on the current writers of X-Men, or any comic writer. Bunn, Dennis Hopeless, and Jeff Lemire are doing amazing jobs. It’s just not what comics are about any longer. About a decade ago or so, comics stopped being about episodic storytelling in the “issue-to-issue” sense. There has been a sense of writing in comics that feels like every writer is telling a story to be collected neatly into a trade paperback or graphic novel collection. Like each one is telling their own mini-movie of the characters. And that’s good.  That makes for amazing stories and sales, which continue to promote the medium I love! But think about Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men. The scene where Colossus and Kitty reunite, only to be separated again is predicated on the reader’s love for those characters during the Claremont days or episodic, character developing storytelling. Yes, it is still a great story and moment in Whedon’s storyline, but the power and emotional reaction lies in the fact that we are supposed to give a damn about Colossus and Kitty! If something similar happens ten years from now between characters like Pixie and Hellion, will we care? I hope we will.

There is an overwhelming amount of this writing that is just me being an old man or not understanding the current medium. I know character development happens. Books like the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl have it and the Walking Dead is amazing episodic reading (the show and their dragging on of storylines is another story). Hell, kids today don’t care about waiting for a story and seeing what happens a month, week, or day later. At times, neither do I. I burned through season one of Daredevil on Netflix in three nights. But I love having a week to wait in anticipation when a show is good. The buildup adds to the excitement. But there is a reason why movie serials are extinct and daily comic strips aren’t as popular as they once were. Today’s society needs their instant gratification. We have turned into a world that is excited by what is new and has the patience of a hyperactive toddler. Maybe we don’t need episodic storytelling or character development. The Avengers films don’t have it and they are pretty awesome…then again, the Flash TV show does, and it’s pretty awesome too. I guess somewhere in the middle would be about perfect.