As per usual, this post contains spoilers that should be of little consequence to anyone who’s familiar with the modern X-Men, or with wider comics culture.
If you missed my early posts on this massive readthrough of mine, you can find them under my dedicated X-Men tag.
This slate of issues is written by Chris Claremont and pencilled almost entirely by John Romita, Jr; a big milestone for this title, with its frequent artistic shifts. Inker Dan Green appears in the credits most often, though Bob Wiacek, John Romita, Sr, and Steve Leialoha also lend their talents.
The two issues not pencilled by Romita--#186 and #198--are by Barry Windsor-Smith. We’ll talk about them a little more below.
And now, my friends, we stand in the Era of the Crossover.
NEW MUTANTS has found its footing and now often intersects with UNCANNY X-MEN in ways large and small. Members of the Power Pack appear as Special Guest Stars, with some indication the X-Men have done the same over in that all-ages series. Kitty and Wolverine disappear for a while to star in their own miniseries. There’s this whole thing with New York getting turned into a magical land from #189-91, with plenty of Special Guest Stars from other titles. And, of most relevance to modern readers, both SECRET WARS and SECRET WARS II go down in between the lines, with varying degrees of impact on UNCANNY.
These crossovers stand apart from the sort of thing we’ve seen before in that the creators try to present them as required reading. Yeah, you can power on through UNCANNY X-MEN without pausing to check out these other books, as in fact I did, but it’s no longer possible to get the full X-Story from UNCANNY alone, or from UNCANNY and the occasional miniseries about a beloved character (or two).
As of the early 80s, UNCANNY is a flagship title that doesn't always feature a complete arc in its ages. It’s a pretty big change, and one that heralds the dawn of the modern superhero setup. Like I’ve said before, reading UNCANNY X-MEN from start to finish allows us to watch the history of comics unfold. All the now-standard (and occasionally defunct) structures and tropes show up here, more or less in line with when they appeared in the wider comics landscape. It’s fascinating.
There’s still stuff plenty in UNCANNY for those who don’t want to venture further afield, of course. These issues mark some enormous changes for the X-Men as well as for comics storytelling as a whole.
Y’all know I’ve gotta zero in on Storm first, seeing as how she’s my favourite. As per usual, the creators put her through the emotional wringer. She’s been struggling with her identity for a while by this point, and things get a hell of a lot more complicated for her when an experimental ray gun steals her powers--and when she discovers the gun’s inventor is the man she’s rapidly falling in love with. Legendary artist Barry Windsor-Smith steps in to illustrate two issues entirely focused on Storm: one in which she acknowledges her power loss and another in which she searches for a new path upon her return to Africa.
On the one hand, I appreciate the focus on Storm. It’s clear Claremont and Romita (and Windsor-Smith) are interested in her, and are keen to explore new territory with her instead of keeping her static. I’m inclined to think this is at least partly because they realized they were often making her The Girl instead of letting her express the sort of anger the male X-Men come out with on a regular basis. With these issues, they give her the space to reflect on who she is, how she got that way, and who she’d like to be in the future.
At the same time, though, because Storm is the only WOC in the regular cast her struggles often feel like an exercise in Breaking the Awesome Black Woman. And while she doesn’t break permanently, she certainly does crack. We can read this as a testament to Storm’s strength, which is what I’m inclined to do, but that’s far from the only possible interpretation.
I should note that the power loss is somewhat easier for the modern Storm-loving reader to process because we all know it's not permanent. Those who read the comics as they were released had no such guarantee, and the sheer length of this storyline surely fed their concern.
While the crossovers and Storm’s struggle drive these issues, there’s heaps of other action in between with plenty of space for the various characters to explore new facets of themselves.
Rogue gets a fair amount of page time as she settles in with the team and comes to realize she likes the people and the work they do. She’s also confirmed as eighteen years old, giving her a clear place within the team’s unacknowledged but still very present age-based rank system. (We haven’t seen anything concrete about Nightcrawler’s age in this particular title, but from the way the others treat him I’m assuming he’s in his early- to mid-twenties.)
Rachel, too, becomes a proper member of the team with a couple of issues focused on her solo adventures and a few deeper explorations of what life was like for her in the horrific future she escaped. From what she says and who she hobnobs with, I assume she also spends some time over in NEW MUTANTS.
Kitty gets a miniseries, as previously stated. She also has a horrible, rapey storyline in which she’s kidnapped and forced to marry Caliban (who decides not to hold her to it after she proves her love for her friends), and an absolutely terrible panel in which she throws the n-word at a guy after he calls her a mutie. This is meant to be Kitty’s way of showing him how much racial slurs hurt, but it comes across as cruel, painful, and out of character. I like her less for it.
Cyclops is absent for most of the run, having gone off to Alaska with his new wife, but he pops up every now and again while Claremont et al decide whether they’re actually gonna retire him, as per their original plan, or continue to develop his character arc.
Magneto keeps away for a while, only to reemerge as the X-Men’s new BFF because of something that happened in one of the crossovers. As per the brand standard, not everyone trusts him right away; however, he does forge a small rapport with Kitty when they attend a Holocaust memorial event, and he voluntarily goes to trial for his crimes in #200.
As a point of interest, Magneto's lawyer--Gaby, whom Professor X once made out with in a flashback issue even though she was his vulnerable patient; see Rule #1--gets several of his crimes thrown out because of the time he spent aged down to an infant. She argues he can’t be held accountable for things he did when his body was way older than it currently is, even though his mind is still the same; a precedent that’ll impact superheroic court cases for the next thirty years.
Of course, Magneto’s still got a lot to answer for even with his early crimes thrown out. He’s one of my favourites, as I perhaps haven’t made clear, but he’s still a villain and you can’t blame anyone for distrusting him or wanting him to face justice. The creators run right up to this idea via the trial, then veer away from it in order to keep Magneto as a viable character.
Which is to say, at the very end of the issue Professor X leaves to have possibly-life-saving surgery in space. He doesn’t tell anyone except Magneto, whom he leaves in charge of the New Mutants in specific and the wider mutant situation in general for however long he’s gone.
This takes the whole Unlikely Team-Ups thing to a whole new level.
Another small but important development: in #176, somebody finally says mutants are born, not made. I assume this has been firmly established elsewhere by this point, but until now anyone who’s read only UNCANNY X-MEN hasn’t seen anything to definitely refute Professor X’s earlier claim that mutations are caused by external forces that act on fetuses in utero. This, too, will be both interesting and important down the line.