Along with Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil, Chris Claremont’ work on Uncanny X-Men during the late 1970s and 1980s was the most innovative and creative Marvel Comics title. But the comic was at its peak of brilliance when both Chris Claremont and John Byrne were working together on the book. They created characters, concepts, and storylines that creative teams have been riffing off for decades since. Without Claremont and Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men, there would be no Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, no Whedon/Cassaday Astonishing X-Men, and no X-Men films. Their run was a perfect mix of interesting concepts, compelling characters, and beautiful sequential storytelling. With loads of subplots, Uncanny X-Men sometimes seemed like a soap opera, but at times it had the gravitas of a Greek tragedy. “Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past” are highlights of the run, but there was also the introduction of Wolverine’s old team Alpha Flight, the possible death of all the X-Men, and an emotional storyline involving Professor X’s ex-girlfriend Moira MacTaggert and her son, the reality warping mutant Proteus. But the bedrock of Claremont and Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men (like most comics runs) was its strong characters.
In Uncanny X-Men, Claremont and Byrne returned to what made Marvel great in the 1960s and gave their extraordinarily powerful heroes feet of clay. And their weaknesses weren’t contrived or tacky, but things that actual people could relate to. Wolverine, who was John Byrne’s favorite character and the breakout character of the run, had a bad attitude, anger management issues, and threatened his teammates with violence almost every issue. However, his bravery in the face of great danger, bromance with Nightcrawler, and unlikely romance with the gentle Mariko Yashida made him one of the most contradictory and interesting X-Men. Claremont had a great knack for revealing the X-Men at their most vulnerable, like Professor X dealing with the failure of his ideal of mutant/human co-existence, or Jean Grey wrestling with a darker side of her personality that ends up consuming her. And characters struggled with even more relatable issues, like Kitty Pryde leaving home for the first time and Colossus also missing and worrying about his family in Soviet Russia.
However, Claremont and Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men wasn’t all about angst and navel-gazing. It was also a universe spanning adventure epic. The X-Men went from fighting Magneto in Antarctica to visiting Japan and Canada with a side-trip to pick up teenage mutant Kitty Pryde from the Chicago suburbs before battling the Shi’ar Imperial Guard in the Blue Area of the Moon for the life of Jean Grey. John Byrne’s detailed layouts gave each new location a unique “personality” from the dreary landscapes of Muir Island to the worldly opulence of the Hellfire Club and the Star Trek influenced Shi’ar battle cruiser. Even the X-Men’s training room was redesigned, and their training sessions acted an entertaining showcase for both their powers and personalities.
Uncanny X-Men could be Storm describing her powers in way too much detail and Colossus saying “Tovarisch” or “By the white wolf!” in almost every word balloon, but it could also be modern mythology. The “Dark Phoenix Saga” has obvious archetypes like the death and rebirth cycle and a hero’s tragic fall into evil, but Claremont and Byrne imbued their superhero soap operas with even more subtle mythical elements. For example, “Days of Future Past” acts as a kind of Ragnarok for the X-Men. The mutant leaders Professor X, Cyclops, and even Magneto are dead, and they are being rounded up into special camps guarded by deadly Sentinels. This indeed parallels the Ragnarok legend where the great gods like Odin, Thor, and Loki are dead, and the universe is in turmoil. However, there is hope after Ragnarok because the world will be repopulated by two humans survivors, and the gods will eventually return. This hope can be found in “Days of Future Past” when Kitty Pryde travels back in time to prevent this alternate future from happening. But there is always a chance that this horrible future could come to pass, and the “Days of Future Past” concept continues to be revisited in X-Men stories as recent as “Battle of the Atom”.
Along with thrilling epic plots, interesting characters, and compelling myth making, Chris Claremont and John Byrne were quite progressive for their time through their use and creation of strong female characters. And they weren’t one-dimensional warrior women. They ranged from the intelligent, resourceful teen Kitty Pryde to the majestic Storm and even villains like the ruthless Emma Frost and mutant activist Mystique. The women of Uncanny X-Men could hold their own with the men, and Storm even became the leader of the X-Men after Cyclops quit after Jean’s death in Uncanny X-Men #138. Claremont and Byrne placed female characters in active roles in their stories and didn’t just use them as damsels in distress or girlfriends of the male characters. They did fumble the ball a little bit with Jean Grey becoming “evil” for wanting more power as Dark Phoenix in a thinly veiled metaphor for repressed sexuality, but for the most part, Claremont and Byrne did an excellent job in giving their female characters fully formed character arcs and agency in their run on Uncanny X-Men.
A huge reason for Uncanny X-Men‘s increased quality during Claremont and Byrne’s run was the consistency of the art team. Except for two issues, John Byrne’s pencils were inked by Terry Austin and colored by Glynis Wein. Austin embellished Byrne’s wavy line work and added little details like the glint of Wolverine’s claws or the little cloud of brimstone that Nightcrawler emits when he teleports. And Wein is responsible for making the X-Men universe brightly colored and contributing to the overall action-adventure tone. She also made Dazzler’s light powers look really pretty. John Byrne also drew heavy hitting action scenes that made good use of the X-Men’s power sets. In Uncanny X-Men #133, Byrne showed how brutal Wolverine could be as he took down the Hellfire Club singlehandedly after being left for dead in the previous issue. His visuals gave Claremont a stage to tell many different types of stories with these characters from superhero battles to space opera and even relationship dramas.
Chris Claremont and John Byrne were the perfect combination for the character driven melodrama of Uncanny X-Men. Byrne’s art kept the plot moving forward and lent gravitas to both the X-Men’s fighting and arguing scenes. Claremont’s dialogue gave each X-Man a unique personality with verbal tics, character flaws, and creatives uses of their various mutant powers. Together, they plotted long form stories involving these characters in which they developed and changed. The greatest example of this is Jean Grey’s progression from Marvel Girl to Phoenix and finally Dark Phoenix. In a three year span, Claremont and Byrne brought the X-Men back from the brink of cancellation and turned them into Marvel’s most popular characters with the help of powerful characterization, striking visuals, and thrilling story arcs.