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Blame it on this comic

The Uncanny X-Men #201
Chris Claremont writes, Rick Leonardi guest pencils with inks by Whilce Portacio and letters by the inesteemable Tom Orzechowski. Ann Nocenti edits.

This is where it all started for me.

I don’t know what made me go into the newsagent that day or pick up this book. It probably wasn’t the cover – a man with eyebeams (eyebeams!) is trying to kill a defenceless black woman; how suspect an image is that? – or the line on the cover ‘Who will lead them?’, because it only made sense if you knew what was going on in the first place.

The cover says January and the inside says 1986 but comics had the date three months in advance, so this would have been November of 1985. You could still get comics in newsagents in the UK and they were only 30 pence. Those were the days, eh?

This wasn’t the first comic I bought, however. I vaguely recall buying some Legion of Super-Heroes when on holiday, figuring that you got more super heroes for your 30p if their was an entire legion of them. I was also buying 2000 AD as well, which is practically a law in Britain but, even then, I preferred Grant Morrison’s Zenith to the majority of the other stories. We also used to get comics bought for us by family friends to shut us up when they came round to visit, mostly DC oddities like The Adventures of the Outsiders.

One comic used to quieten us had a reprint of a black and white X-Men story by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, where they saved the world from an alien invasion by the power of love. Which is incredibly stupid and a bit Star Trek (“Is this the emotion you humans call … love?”) but it stuck with me and popped to the forefront of my brain when I was scanning the racks, looking for something to spend the money earned from some stupid job like delivering newspapers.

Now, there was no magical reading event where I can remember with specific detail everything about this first dip into the world of mutants. But I did go out the next day and by The New Mutants #35 because I had seen them in the book and noticed that there was book with that title on the racks. And I never looked back. Claremont got his claws into my soul and I became a mutant junkie. I bought them from the newsagents each month, waiting for the next one to come out, not knowing when this would happen, completely absorbed. It would be a while before I was told the dirty secret of the comic book shop (Forbidden Planet, then a dingy shop, back when it was in Denmark Street, before it moved to New Oxford Street and then to Shaftesbury Avenue and became the huge shop it is now) so my collection wouldn’t go crazy for a while. So I had to make do with what what was available.

I read somewhere a lovely quote along the lines of ‘The Golden Age of science fiction was when you were 12.’ I think this applies here; comics were never so good as when you first discovered them. It’s a great time, when you aren’t concerned about the industry or writing a blog about them or finding out about women in refrigerators or which longtime DC character is being killed, raped or both. I thought I’d revisit that time by looking at the book which started me on it.

The basic story sees the X-Men come back after the events of issue 200, with Xavier with Lilandra in space and Magneto in charge of the school. Madelyne Pryor has given birth to a son with Cyclops (the child would eventually become Cable – does that make this his first appearance? Is this comic a collector’s item? ) and a powerless Storm challenges Cyclops to a duel to determine the leadership of the X-Men.

Now, I’m not going to Dave’s Long Box this book because (a) I’m nowhere near as good as Dave Campbell and (b) I’m far too emotionally attached to be able to assess it critically, but I thought I’d have a look at it, for old time’s sake.

The first page is weird – there’s a bunch of strange of looking people oohing and aahing over a baby; what the hell is going on here? What kind of splash page is that? This sort of thing wasn’t exactly what I had been anticipating (and the issue itself doesn’t exactly bristle with the four-colour action you would expect – I didn’t realise that this was a breather issue, coming off the double-sized #200, the climax of a big storyline, which took me ages to finally get a hold of, but I digress …).

The second page shows people in colourful costumes standing around, and a blue furry creature with two fingers instead of four and a tail who teleports and tickles someone, before there’s several pages of women talking about babies and ’emotional’ stuff, ending with Cyclops carefully explaining about his eyes for people like me who had never read an issue before – no waiting for the trade then.

But page 6 and we’re in space! Now that’s more like it. There’s a glowing woman flying in the void and there’s a big green lizard with a space ferret on his shoulder. Cool. They’re only talking but, still, they’re in a space ship!

Uncanny X-Men #201 panel of ColossusFrom space, the story turns to the Claremont trademark – the X-Men playing baseball! I’ve always thought this was weird, in hindsight; a group of people including an African goddess, a German circus performer, a Russian farmer and his sister, a Canadian secret agent and a Native American don’t sound like the sort of people who would particularly care to play the rather dull sport that is baseball. But what do I know? Having seen a man turn into living steel in the middle of hitting a pitch into orbit, at least this isn’t an ordinary game of baseball. (I have a soft spot for the odd, angular art of Rick Leonardi. There is a strange contradiction of slimness and long-limbedness with excessive musculature that is oddly appealing. From his unusual camera angles to the way he makes his characters stand, there is something distinctive that my lack of an art appreciation class disqualifies me from specifying. But I would look out for his art and still have the Marvel Comics Presents Colossus story drawn by Leonardi, who I always thought just ‘got’ Peter, and written by Nocenti.)

Uncanny X-Men #201 panel of CyclopsThe plot advancing aspect is the leadership duel. However, it is the casual discovery of the New Mutants, already in the danger room that meant more to me. Kids with cool super powers, learning to be heroes? How great is that? It’s not a crossover or anything special, just an aside to give you the integrated feel that Marvel books used to have (but I hadn’t encountered at that time; this sense of connection to the Marvel universe, which would affect the storytelling of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, was both cool and evil, as it caused me to buy more books that I didn’t need but felt that I should …) It helps that I always thought the depiction of Sunspot’s powers looked cool, with the little black specks around the silhouetted Bobby DaCosta, but that could be just me. Which is how I ended up back at the newsagent, buying The New Mutants #35, which had Sam Guthrie and his cool Cannonball visual effect. Ahh, nostalgasm …

Back to the point of the title of the comic. The fight itself didn’t mean anything to me, not understanding the emotions behind it. Then again, the fighting has never been the big draw of superheroes; just seeing the mad, wonderful super powers being used was enough for me. But at least this fight is based on character and conflicting emotions. That’s what gives it an impact. It was only by reading previous issues that I got the full depth of the story on Scott, a character I have always liked (and was glad that Grant Morrison did as well for his recent arc on the title).

The book finishes with a bit of Rachel Summers business which I had no understanding of at all (she’s the daughter of Cyclops and Phoenix from an alternate future timeline that won’t happen? WTF?). She was never a character I really found as engaging as Claremont did but I have a low tolerance for the whiny-but-powerful character – the last few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer suffered from that, with Buffy always bitching and moaning about everything that drove me crazy.

However, with this book I became an X-fan, particularly enjoying Chris Claremont’s writing and love of stories. I even met him once, at a UKCAC, where he was signing. I was so star-struck, I mumbled something incoherent at him, stared at the ground, waited for him to sign my convention book and practically ran away in shame. Pathetic, I know, but I was young (or, at least, younger …)

Looking back, it’s a little peculiar. There is nothing obviously special about this book that should start a love affair with comics. I think it is the small details that make it special. Kitty casually airwalking to her room. Scott looking away from the baby in the first page. Logan holding his nose when Kurt teleports. Rachel psilinking so that you can hear baby thoughts. The lettering of Orz (I love page 12 where Sam’s ‘love’ for Kitty stepping in to save his project is done with hearts in the speech bubbles; do they do stuff like that anymore?) The word ‘ZRAK’ for the sound effect of Scott’s eyebeams actually being drawn into the beams as they come out of his eyes. It might have been cranked out to meet the deadline, I don’t know, but it didn’t feel like it. There was something special about it all that had me hooked. I needed more.

Uncanny X-Men #201 panel of heart word ballonI still need more, perhaps not as much as I did then, but a good creative team with believable characters in stories that resonate will always work their magic on me.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Logan

    Uncanny #201 is indeed officially the first appearence of baby Nathan, the man that would be Cable. Yes, I’m a geek, and I do have this issue (along with almost every other appearence…sigh).


  2. David

    I was making a little joke, Logan, sad man that I am, hence the smiley 🙂 It wouldn’t matter who had a first appearance in this book, I’d still love it unconditionally…

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