If I share my Classic X-Men collection with you, it’s not merely because you are or are becoming an X-Men fan and I think this is required reading for your journey. When I share my Classic X-Men with you, I’m offering you a piece of my soul; a peek at what goes on in my head and the words and images that helped shaped the woman you see before you.
I’ve had many influences in my life. My brother introducing me to his comic collection is pretty high on that top ten list. He introduced me to most of my geeky obsessions, but handing over his Classic X-Men collection didn’t just set me on the path to geekery. I learned so much from those stories—specifically, the back-up stories that delved into who these incredible characters are. Starting me off this way firmly established me as a Make Mine Marvel kind of girl. I will still read DC Comics from time to time, but, while I love books like The Hiketeia and Batman: Knightfall, there’s a disconnect for me. I just can’t relate to DC characters that are pretty much gods in human form. Even human characters like Batman and Catwoman don’t quite work for me because I’ll never be that athletic or have that much money. When I first met the X-Men, they were wielding their superhuman powers and doing amazing things. But those feats were accompanied by those favoured back-stories, where I found characters that were human first.
Primarily written by Chris Claremont and Ann Nocenti, and drawn by John Bolton, the back-stories appear within most of the first 44 issues of Classic X-Men, which are themselves reprints of the original Uncanny X-Men stories. My brother’s collection was not complete, but I’ve since purchased the collected Vignettes, volume one and two, and filled in a few more issues along the way. These are stories about people. They deal with human situations and, while the characters do wear costumes and disguises often, they keep few secrets from each other, fewer still from the reader, and none from the writer.
“These were short stories, almost vignettes, focusing on a single character. As such, they quickly became surprisingly and intensely personal ones for me as a writer. I was getting into the characters’ heads and souls with a focus that often wasn’t available in the regular book, and doing so with a perspective of better than a decade’s worth of work on the title. With John [Bolton] I had an artist who could handle pretty much anything the story demanded in terms of setting, in terms of characterization, in terms of visual penache. […] With him I could tell stories that simply wouldn’t fit in the fast-paced, widescreen, mega-action adventure ensemble of the main series itself. I could take a slower pace. I could focus. I could stretch some boundaries (even if they were only internal) and maybe break some rules. And have some serious fun in the process. […] I could show a side of Peter Rasputin that was hinted at in the main book, his drive to be an artist, and the heights and depths to which that urge took him, especially with the realities of being a mutant. I could take Storm out for a midnight encounter with a writer who’d come to the end of his rope. […] I could lay the foundation for my own vision of Magneto. I could tell a story without words.” — Chris Claremont, X-Men Vignettes, 2001
This is where I got to know my favourite characters and, more importantly, understand what it was about them that I liked so much. Storm remains at the top of my list, but my appreciation for her goes well beyond her alpha mutant status. I will tell you again and again that what I love most about Storm is how she deals with her own weaknesses and flaws and overcomes her moments of failure with her own strength of will—not her mutant powers. Claremont often wrote Storm’s claustrophobia into the main storyline, but in “Fast Friends,” we get to see it for the first time through the eyes of Jean Grey.
Storm begins her career with the X-Men in innocence and naivety, but over time, she earns the role of leader. That duty comes with choices, which Claremont explores harshly in “Brigg’s Revenge,” a story that also speaks to Storm’s own prejudices. Through all of his stories, Claremont carefully plants seeds of what’s to come—in this case, Storm’s future encounters with the Morlocks, a sewer-dwelling group that do not fit the status quo of “pretty” mutants.
As a kid heading into my teens—particularly as a Black child who spent a good amount of time wishing she had blond hair and blue eyes—I could find myself in these pages. Sometimes, the ending was not happy, but when it came to acceptance and fighting prejudice, the X-Men taught me that I had to be brave enough to be myself anyway, as Nightcrawler learns on a dare with Wolverine.
Jean Grey died on the moon in Uncanny X-Men #137. If only she’d stayed that way. The character has since been resurrected countless times, but she has never been able to step away from her roles as Cyclops’ lover, the object of everyone’s desire, and the too-powerful host of the Phoenix entity. While Claremont is responsible for much of the storyline that led up to her death and fed her relegation to this status, he can’t be blamed for writers refusing to let go of those ties that bind with every resurrection. I cannot forget that, while Jean still loved Scott, when I first met her she was leaving the X-Men behind to get out on her own and let Scott decide if he truly wanted her to be part of his life.
Following “First Night,” “A Love Story” reveals Jean’s inner turmoil over her decision without a single word bubble or narration. Both before and after the Phoenix entity takes her over, Claremont uses the back-stories to explore a Jean Grey who struggles with her role as an X-Man and as her own person— which only becomes that much more difficult with a cosmic being wrestling with her soul, and the Hellfire Club doing its best to turn her into the Black Queen.
Classic X-Men is also where my Emma Frost adoration stems from, by way of Ann Nocenti’s iconic page where the White Queen gave me my first lessons in feminism and sexism. I was enthralled by her confidence and her arrogance. She was everything Jean and Storm were not and she spoke to my burgeoning Scorpio mentality. She was everything my religious mother would not want me to be, but I understood that she was the bad guy, and bad guys are meant to lose.
This is the scene that people—including myself—will use to justify Emma’s sexy attire, but the issue has to be taken in its entirety in order to understand its lessons (something the current iteration of Emma Frost is sorely missing).
The stories truly have no limits, bouncing from city to city, planet to planet. They tell of sibling rivalry, of unrequited love. They deal with death and mourning, fear and acceptance and hate. These were ideas that I perhaps did not fully comprehend as a child, but that I will forever appreciate being introduced to in this way. These are the comics I look forward to truly sharing with my daughters. They’ve played around with them already, with my then five-year-old drawing this image of Storm from the back cover of Classic X-Men #2, and my youngest daughter feeling very sad but proud of Jean’s self-sacrifice. I can’t wait for them to be old enough to devour the pages as I did and get to know these incredible characters, in and out of their superhero and villain costumes.