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To me, my X-Men fans!
It feels like its been a long, strange trip inside a big, metal bullet for the X-books over the last couple of decades, but with Marvel's parent company Disney recently reacquiring the movie rights to their band of merry mutants, and the return of the Uncanny X-Men title now solidified, we thought it high time to count down their greatest comics stories ever told. And on top of that, one of the team's greatest creators - writer Chris Claremont - will return to the franchise with October's X-Men Black: Magneto. What's more, his longtime creative partner, artist John Byrne, may be in talks with Marvel to return to the publisher after an almost-two-decade absence.
Now we know there are a literal ton of X-Men offshoots but we tried to stick with the books that actually have X-Men in the title. We also avoided just lumping full runs together because Chris Claremont wasn’t known for being brief and neither are we when it comes to talking about his run.
10. 'Gifted' - Astonishing X-Men #1-62 of 12
Following up Grant Morrison is no easy feat, but famed writer/director Joss Whedon was up to the task.
“Gifted”, the opening salvo of Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run, brought Colossus back, helped redefine Cyclops and introduced a mutant cure (providing part of the plot for X3: The Last Stand).
On some level, Whedon is Claremont’s heir apparent more than almost any other writer, if you just look at the work he’s done. Of course, in true Whedon fashion, the dialogue and wittiness of the script sometimes outweigh the impact of the plot - but Whedon put characterization at the forefront, and that allowed him to organically build as many “astonishing” moments as possible into his work.
And it never hurts to have John Cassaday on your side either. After years of no frills leather, Cassaday’s reimagined costumes for the team exude an understanding of each character’s history. For many, Cassaday’s costumes are the characters’ essential looks more than any before or since.
9. 'Wounded Wolf' - Uncanny X-Men #2053 of 12
Wolverine is essential to the X-Men, and Barry Windsor-Smith is an essential Wolverine artist.
“Wounded Wolf” features a face-off between Logan and Lady Deathstrike and her Reavers that humanizes the ol’ Canucklehead in ways that speak to the heart of the character. Windsor-Smith’s work here is exciting and inventive as falling snow crowds the pages, but never dulls the artist’s intentions.
Claremont’s penchant for occasional solo adventures with his characters showed us how he was able to juggle them all without letting them feel flat or underserved. Wolverine’s concern for young Katie Power and his decision to leave Deathstrike alive are crucial to understanding who Logan is. He can be brutal and unyielding in battle but he is not without compassion.
“Wounded Wolf” is one of the best examples of Claremont’s character work and it stands up for all time.
8. 'Age of Apocalypse' - Various Titles4 of 12
In a move that can’t exactly be replicated these days considering the way that everything is so entwined with the Internet now, X-Men fans in the 90s had everything they were reading replaced by all-new titles in an all-new dimension.
Unstable (and incredibly powerful) mutant David Haller had a plan to go back and kill Magneto - but ended up killing his father, Professor X, instead. This led to an alternate future where the Apocalypse ruled the world – the titular “Age of Apocalypse.”
The 90s get a bad reputation for indulging the worst parts of the comic book artform but this was remains one of the best stories of the decade for its sheer boldness. The characters we had come to know and love were forced into fairly different roles in the “AoA” timeline, and seeing how they’ve changed (or stayed the same) is interesting to say the least, and probably couldn’t work as well with any other superhero team.
And with artists like Joe Madureira, Chris Bachalo, Steve Epting, Andy Kubert and more onboard, it still exists solidly in the golden age of X-Men art.
7. 'Mutant Genesis' - X-Men #1-35 of 12
Your first thought is probably, “Wait, really?” But let me explain.
Though Chris Claremont’s storied X-Men run ended somewhat unceremoniously with this short arc as Marvel shifted the power balance from writers and editors to artists, all it takes is one look at the characters as imagined by Jim Lee and anyone on the planet can tell you who they are.
To this day, Lee and Claremont’s X-Men #1 stands as the highest selling single issue of all-time at over 8 million copies. The story inside the pages might strike some as a little thin, but Claremont’s commentary on the end of his time with Marvel is undeniable and Jim Lee turns in some absolutely monstrous pages.
Say what you will about the 90s but without this, we may never have gotten the X-Men: The Animated Series that we got. ‘Nuff said.
6. 'Lifedeath I & II' - Uncanny X-Men #186, 1986 of 12
Strong women have been a mainstay since the beginning of Chris Claremont’s run and Storm is without a doubt one of the greatest. From her humble origins as a street thief to her evolution into a leader and a goddess, Ororo Munroe has never proven an easy hero to break.
"Lifedeath I & II" show us a Storm who is struggling with the loss of her powers - but who eventually finds strength in situation. Claremont’s scripts deal with loss, forgiveness, coping and surviving in the face of trauma, and Storm learns that there is more than one way to have power.
And if you needed any other reason to consider this story, Barry Windsor-Smith turns in some of his best work on the X-Men with the expressiveness that oozes out of these pages.
5. X-Men: Season One7 of 12
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are visionary creators in their own right but their initial take on the X-Men is something of a product of its time - its telling that none of their stories appear on this list. But still, those formative years lay the foundation for everything Claremont and others have built on. Could there be a better way to contextualize them considering what we know now?
As it turns out, yes. Enter Dennis Hopeless and Jamie McKelvie. With the humanity and clean linework of McKelvie on display, Hopeless takes readers through some of those early years interactions between the Original Five and refocuses them for modern audiences.
By injecting some truly Claremontian melodrama, Hopeless gives a fuller picture of the X-Men’s Silver Age adventures and the people who would become the X-Men we know and love. X-Men: Season One stands as a great primer for any fans looking to dive in with these gifted youngsters.
4. X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills8 of 12
Anyone who claims the X-Men aren’t a metaphor for minorities in modern times probably hasn’t read this book.
Chris Claremont introduces William Stryker, a reverend with a big, bigoted bone to pick with mutantkind. The charismatic leader convinces his followers to take humanity into their own hands and the X-Men have to team up with Magneto to stop him. More than ever before, this is ground zero for the metaphor that fuels the X-Men. It’s not just that they’re feared and hated. This is a story about what happens when the world emboldens hatred and the worst parts of humanity.
And it would be a crime to not mention the incendiary artwork of Brent Anderson. While he’s probably not one of the first names you think of when talking about X-artists, his output here is stellar. There’s an unnerving darkness to the proceedings that fits the more mature tone, and Xavier’s nightmarish visions are rendered with staggering intensity.
3. 'E is for Extinction' - New X-Men #114-1169 of 12
Just as their first film slashed its way into theaters and turned everything we thought about superhero movies on its head, Grant Morrison’s team-up with Marvel’s merry mutants a year later provided a similar reinvigoration for the X-Men.
Morrison changed everything by twisting the tropes he knew had a little bit more to give. With artist Frank Quitely, he redesigned their costumes for the new millenium - favoring black leather gaudy spandex and canonized the idea of secondary mutation while paring down the core team to a more tenable and iconic few.
The result is the beginning of an era of new growth for the X-Men that still saw Morrison fall into the patterns that define the X-Men specifically. Over time, the cast grew and the soap operatic adventures filtered through Morrison’s brand of new psychedelia, allowing him to comment on the legacy of superhero comics’ greatest team with his work.
“E is for Extinction” is a reminder that the potential these characters have is limitless and that’s why they have endured.
2. 'Days of Future Past' - Uncanny X-Men #141-14210 of 12
Penciler John Byrne deserves most of the credit for this one, as writer Chris Claremont simply didn’t want to do another story with Sentinels, no matter how much Byrne wanted to draw them. So while the artist admits that the plot is slightly borrowed from an episode of Doctor Who, “Days of Future Past” still stands as two men at the height of the creative prowess finding opportunity and potential in these now timeless characters.
It’s impossible to deny the craft in this story. It’s only two issues long but the sense of dread and hopelessness in the face of this possible future is palpable. Kitty Pryde walking through a graveyard that’s filled with her friends while all the odds are stacked against her - that's the kind of image that sticks with the audience and the character.
Claremont and Byrne were experts at making readers feel like it all might be over at any time for the X-Men, and that’s part of what makes their team-up so great.
1. 'Dark Phoenix Saga' - Uncanny X-Men #129-13811 of 12
If there’s one story that defines the X-Men above all others, its the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s somewhat tumultuous creative relationship begins to come to an end with one of the greatest stories ever told.
Claremont’s soap-opera-styled plotting and characterization comes to the forefront as readers get a first row seat for the corruption of Jean Grey. Kitty Pryde joins the team. The Shi’Ar, Lilandra and the Imperial Guard are added to the mythos thanks to Dave Cockrum - suddenly, the X-Men’s world has bloomed into something much bigger.
The effect of this story can’t be overstated. Jean’s sacrifice would define the X-Men forever and while the Phoenix has a habit of rising from the ashes, it never lessens the impact of her initial death. Jean was more than a friend, lover or teammate to these characters. She’s also the first of many incredible women who would join the X-Men and for issues to come, we’d get to see how much she was really the lynchpin of the team up to that point.
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