Want to get into the X-Men comics but don’t know where to start? Read on for the Leaving Proof guide to the definitive X-Men comics!
Every now and then, someone in the comics-themed message boards I frequent will ask, “How do I get started reading X-Men comics?” The easy answer is to just pick up the latest X-Men comic from the local retailer and go from there. It’s almost always the case, though, that when new readers ask about how best to approach the vast library of X-Men comics, what they’re really asking for is a list of the “definitive X-Men” comics and the answer to that question is a bit more complicated.
There was a time not too long ago when the X-Men franchise was the most popular American comics property in the world, with multiple publications outselling those featuring Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman. X-Men #1, published in the late summer of 1991 as a spin-off of the long-running Uncanny X-Men series, still holds the world record for most copies sold of a single issue (over 8 million). That unprecedented (and as-yet unparalleled) success did not happen overnight. And while many artists (Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, and Jim Lee in particular), writers, and editors helped contribute to that success, much of it came about because of the work of one man: Long-time Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont.
The Uncanny X-Men comic (which was originally titled X-Men) originated in 1963 as a Jack Kirby/Stan Lee collaboration and artist Neal Adams and writer Roy Thomas introduced to the comic many important characters and concepts during the late 1960s, but any discussion of the “definitive X-Men” comics—the X-Men stories that form the basis of the property’s significance in pop culture—should revolve around Claremont’s first run with the franchise. The defining character traits, relationships, conflicts, and politics that inform the larger X-Men media phenomenon—one that encompasses comics, live-action film, animation, video games, prose novels, and beyond—were all crystallized during Claremont’s original stint as the franchise’s lead writer which began in 1975 and ended somewhat acrimoniously in 1991.
One of the bigger problems when drawing up a list of definitive X-Men reading is the fact that Claremont wrote with a view for the long-running serial narrative. While he did write the occasional self-contained, “done-in-one” issue—indeed, some of Claremont’s best X-Men work falls into this category—it was more often the case that any given Claremont-penned X-Men comic had multiple concurrent storylines in varying stages of completion. These narrative threads could run for months or even years, alternating as the main plot or one of the subplots as the writer saw fit. Even when completed, these stories could have significant repercussions for the series several years down the line. Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men has an uncommon narrative dynamism and density but it also means that for the X-Men novice, perusing something like the acclaimed “Dark Phoenix Saga” (Uncanny X-Men #129–#137) in vacuo is significantly less rewarding than reading it with knowledge of the events of the preceding three dozen issues.
All that said, it is still possible to divide Claremont’s X-Men into distinct periods defined by creative partnerships and themes. Doing so should make the task of getting into the X-Men less daunting for the new reader.
Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975)
- Key creators: Len Wein (writer), Dave Cockrum (penciler/inker), Glynis Wein (colorist)
- Notes: It seems odd to start off a list of the essential Claremont X-Men with a comic that doesn’t even feature him as the writer, but the diverse, “all-new, all-different” cast that came to be most identified with Claremont’s tenure had its roots in this issue. X-Men founder Professor Charles Xavier hastily assembles a new team of mutant superheroes to rescue his original team, who have mysteriously disappeared while investigating the appearance of a powerful new mutant. Along with preexisting characters Cyclops, Banshee, Sunfire, and Wolverine (recently introduced by Len Wein in the pages of The Incredible Hulk), the revamped X-Men also included new creations Storm, Thunderbird, Colossus, and Nightcrawler. (An interesting sidenote: In designing these new characters, Dave Cockrum reused many design elements from characters he developed during his time as the artist on the Legion of Super-Heroes back-up serial in DC Comics’ Superboy.)
Uncanny X-Men #94–#108 (August 1975–December 1977)
- Key creators: Chris Claremont (writer), Dave Cockrum (penciler/inker), John Byrne (penciler), Frank Chiaramonte (inker), Sam Grainger (inker), Terry Austin (inker)
- Notes: Claremont comes aboard as the series’ regular writer and the new X-Men suffer their first fatality. Wolverine’s unmasked face is revealed for the first time in issue #98 (click here to read a detailed account of the development of the character’s design). Claremont and Cockrum begin laying down the groundwork for what will become “The Dark Phoenix Saga” (more on that in the next section). Important supporting characters such as Dr. Moira MacTaggert, Lilandra of the space-faring Shi’ar, the Imperial Guard (Cockrum’s thinly-veiled homage to DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes), and the Starjammers are introduced. Most significantly, we see founding X-Men member Jean Grey mysteriously gain a boost in her telepathic and telekinetic abilities and take on a new persona with the code-name of Phoenix. John Byrne, Claremont’s artist collaborator on Marvel’s Iron Fist, takes over the penciling duties from Dave Cockrum in issue #108.
Uncanny X-Men #109–#143 (February 1978–March 1981)
- Key creators: Chris Claremont (writer), John Byrne (penciler/co-plotter), Terry Austin (inker), Glynis Wein (colorist)
- Notes: These issues are generally regarded by long-time fans as the ones most responsible for establishing the X-Men as Marvel’s most important franchise of the 1980s and 1990s. The creative team of Claremont, Byrne, Austin, and Glynis Oliver (who was then married to Len Wein) start off their collaboration with a series of standalone issues and two- and three-issue stories featuring encounters against villains such as Magneto, Sauron, and Arcade which serve to establish the new team dynamic shaped by Jean Grey’s transformation as Phoenix. Their run then kicks into high gear with a superheroes-meets-Victorian horror tale set in Scotland (issues #125–#128), followed by the now-classic superhero tragedy, “The Dark Phoenix Saga” (issues #129–#137) which ties together many of the lingering plot threads from issues #94–#108. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” also sees the introduction of new X-Man Kitty Pryde. This landmark run ends with the two-part, time-traveling “Days of Future Past” story, which would have recurring implications on the X-Men stories (for good and for ill) of the next three decades.
Uncanny X-Men #144–#153 (April 1981–January 1982)
- Key creators: Chris Claremont (writer), Dave Cockrum (penciler), Joe Rubinstein (inker), Bob Wiacek (inker), Glynis Wein (colorist)
- Notes: Cockrum returns as the series’ regular penciler after Byrne leaves the title (reportedly due to long-simmering tension between he and Claremont over creative issues). While not as fondly remembered as the previous run, this period saw the publication of some underrated, entertaining stories including an encounter with Doctor Doom (issues #145–#147) and various issues showing the X-Men trying to move on from the death of one of their own in “The Dark Phoenix Saga” including a personal favorite of mine, issue #153 (“Kitty’s Fairy Tale”)—a whimsical fairy tale-style retelling of the events surrounding the Dark Phoenix.
Marvel Graphic Novel #5: God Loves, Man Kills (1982)
- Key creators: Chris Claremont (writer), Brent Anderson (penciler/inker), Steve Oliff (colorist)
- Notes: Not originally intended to be “in continuity”—Claremont meant for this standalone book to be set in an “alternate reality” where no other superheroes besides the X-Men exist—but events and characters in this comic eventually became referenced in the main Uncanny X-Men comic. One of the most overtly political X-Men comics of the era, it was published without the Comics Code Authority seal of approval due to its mature themes and strong language. Served as the inspiration for the plot of the 2003 feature film X2: X-Men United, the second film in the live-action X-Men film franchise. For the novice reader looking for a compact read encapsulating the main socio-political themes of Claremont’s X-Men, there is arguably no better option than this book. (Click here for a more detailed discussion of X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills.)
Uncanny X-Men #154–#167 (February 1982–March 1983)
- Key creators: Chris Claremont (writer), Dave Cockrum (penciler), Paul Smith (penciler), Brent Anderson (penciler), Bob Wiacek (inker), Glynis Wein (colorist), Don Warfield (colorist)
- Notes: The Shi’ar and the Starjammers return to complicate the lives of the X-Men. Recurring villains the Brood (a somewhat transparent take-off of the xenomorph from 1979’s Alien film) make their first appearance. One-time Avengers villain Rogue makes her Uncanny X-Men debut (also as a villain). Paul Smith takes over as the series’ regular penciler in issue #165. The New Mutants—a “junior X-Men” team introduced in 1982’s Marvel Graphic Novel #4—appear in issue #167 before getting their own series, also written by Claremont.
Uncanny X-Men #168–#176 (April 1983–December 1983)
- Key creators: Chris Claremont (writer), Paul Smith (penciler), John Romita Jr, (penciler), Bob Wiacek (inker), Glynis Wein (colorist)
- Notes: Claremont revisits the events and themes of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in a nine-issue run collectively referred to as the “From the Ashes” storyline. As can be gleaned from the subtitle, “From the Ashes” is something of a coda to “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and it features the introduction of Madelyne Pryor, a new romantic interest for X-Men leader Cyclops who bears a startling resemblance to Jean Grey/Phoenix. The former villain Rogue joins the X-Men in issue #171, although she still has a long way to go before she can earn her teammates’ trust. The Morlocks, a band of mutant outcasts who live in the sewers under New York, are introduced. Wolverine’s star-crossed relationship with Mariko Yashida gets the spotlight in issue #172. Storm gets her (in)famous mohawk hairstyle. John Romita Jr. takes over the regular penciler duties from Paul Smith in issue #176.
Uncanny X-Men #177–#201 (January 1984–January 1986)
- Key creators: Chris Claremont (writer), John Romita Jr, (penciler), Barry Windsor-Smith (penciler/inker), Dan Green (inker), Glynis Wein (colorist)
- Notes: The X-Men face off against the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, led by the shapeshifter Mystique. The mutant inventor Forge makes his first appearance (issue #184) and becomes a central figure in the “Lifedeath” stories (issues #186 and #198) illustrated by the acclaimed Barry Windsor-Smith. The X-Men encounter the Dire Wraiths in a quasi-crossover with the ROM comic. A character from the alternate future first seen in “Days of Future Past” travels back to modern-day New York. Long-time X-Men villain Magneto gets a redemption arc that coincides with a subplot about Cyclops finally moving on from his life as an X-Man and passing the mantle of X-Men leadership to Storm.
The X-Men comics post-January 1986 are reasonably accessible reading, too, but in my personal opinion, it was around that time when marketing concerns began to unduly affect the plotting and the writing of the comics. In particular, the editorial decision to launch a second X-Men spin-off title in X-Factor led to a “retcon” of key events from “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “From the Ashes” which did not sit well with Claremont. As the writer recalled at a 2012 comics signing event in Austin, Texas:
“We’d just gone to all the effort of saying, ‘Jean is dead, get over it,’ and they said, ‘Haha, we fibbed.’ So why should anyone trust us again? But that’s the difference between being the writer and being the boss.”
Further complicating matters was the marketing edict that crossovers between the three X-Men titles (Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, and X-Factor) should become annual summer events. While these crossovers—1986’s Mutant Massacre, 1988’s Fall of the Mutants, 1989’s Inferno, and 1990’s X-Tinction Agenda—did boost sales, they also disrupted Claremont’s long-term plans for the X-Men and the difficulty of keeping track of all the disparate narrative threads across the three X-Men titles led to all sorts of inconsistencies, contradictions, and redundancies.
It wasn’t too long before the relationship between Claremont and editor Bob Harras deteriorated to a point beyond salvaging (something I cover in much more detail here). Claremont’s final year on Uncanny X-Men basically saw him working as a glorified scripter, writing dialogue for stories written by Harras and artist Jim Lee. When Marvel greenlit the launch of a new X-Men title for 1991 (simply entitled X-Men), Claremont stayed on only long enough to write a three-issue farewell to the characters whose lives he had shepherded for the past 16 years.