Breaking In! With Uncanny X-Men #111

Uncanny X-Men #111

Terry Austin, (Inks), John Byrne (Pencils), Chris Claremont (Writer) Tom Orzechowski (Letters), Mary Titus (colors)
Marvel Comics
June 10, 1978

There are simply too many X-Men comics.

I tried to jump into the series at one point, thanks to a love for both the movies and the ’90s cartoon I watched as a kid, and stumbled into Chuck Austen’s “She Lies With Angels” arc, a Romeo and Juliet retelling so saccharine and irritating that, with the exception of reading through Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men (which I also did not care for), I gave up. But I was sad about it.

The cover of Uncanny X-Men #111 showing the X-Men in their circus personas.

I genuinely want to like the X-Men, especially given that so many people at WWAC love these comics so much. But I would take one look at the issue numbers and shy away. Sure, I could ask for recommendations, but I don’t have the familiarity with Marvel that many people do. Would I end up as lost and frustrated as I did with the comics I’d already tried?

Enter Uncanny X-Men issue #111, assigned to me randomly. Written by Chris Claremont (a name I’ve heard), penciled by John Byrne, inked by Terry Austin, lettered by Tom Orzechowski, and colored by Mary Titus, this issue sees the X-Men becoming carnival workers. Beast, now an Avenger, finds Banshee as the barker, Wolverine as the “Man-beast of the Yukon,” and Jean Grey as an aerialist.

As it turns out, this randomly selected issue was a great point to jump on. I have enough familiarity with the characters to agree that yes, all of them being part of a circus is unusual. The plot is easy to follow: the X-Men are part of a circus, Beast wants to know why, and he has to break them out of their mind control spell, brainwashing, or whatever is at fault to restore things to normal.

A panel showing Jean Grey asking Wolverine who he is and telling him to keep away, calling for "Slim" Summers' help. Wolverine tries to explain who he is and that she has to remember she's one of the X-Men, while "Slim" Summers calls him a shrimp and implies he wants to fight to protect Jean.

Of course, there’s a bit of a twist at the end to drag you into the next issue. It wouldn’t be comics without it. But the issue works well enough, a fun little introduction to the various capers and japes of the X-Men in the late ’70s.

That said, if I hadn’t had at least some familiarity with the X-Men prior to reading, it might not have landed. Should I be concerned that Jean Grey is now an aerialist? Is there some kind of in-joke about Scott Summers wearing an extremely tight t-shirt that says “Slim” over one of his pecs? Why is this big, furry blue man walking around in a trench coat and hat? But given the X-Men’s mainstream popularity, even with a few stinker movies in the franchise, I doubt that’s much of a problem.

As an entry point, this issue works pretty well. By introducing the characters as changed versions of their actual selves, readers won’t feel like they’re coming in midway through a conversation—even if the mystery of how they’ve changed doesn’t work for new readers, they can still appreciate the story.

Three panels from Uncanny X-Men #111. The first shows Beast talking to Jean, who wears a lime-green coat and asks Beast to tell her what he's looking for. He says Jean Grey, and in the second panel she says that he has found her, but calls him a kook when he asks if she is Marvel Girl. In the third panel, Cyclops shows up asking if she is in trouble, and she asks him to get Beast out of there.
I have some questions.

The art and colors are bold and easy to parse, unlike many older comics I’ve read. They sometimes venture into garishness, as with the panel where Jean Grey, out of her aerialist costume, dons an extremely lime green jacket with her flaming red hair and lipstick. In some contexts, this would look awful. But in a circus, with fishnet tights and a casually dangling red shoe, it feels powerful. Jean Grey isn’t worried about a strange blue man bursting into her dressing room; she stares him down and asks for an explanation.

I don’t know that I’m going to pick up #112 so that I can understand exactly how Magneto is behind all of this, but reading this issue did something more impressive than pull me into continuity. It demonstrated that older comics are not always as difficult to parse as I think they are—thanks, everybody who told me Watchmen, et cetera, was the way to get into comics—and that even a random issue can be as good a gateway as any. Even if this issue, randomly chosen, didn’t get me hooked, that’s okay because I now know that I can choose an arc that does appeal to me without fear that I’ll be lost or unable to parse the art style and colors.

Comics can be incredibly intimidating to new readers, especially in a series like X-Men, where there are so many series, and so many issues within those series, that it feels impossible to know where to begin. Though starting with an absolutely random issue may not be the best approach—especially given how much our culture pushes “completionism”—it can work just fine. Be brave. Pick up an issue. If it doesn’t click, pick up another. You might be surprised by how much you enjoy […survive? – Ed.] the experience!

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Melissa Brinks

Melissa Brinks

Melissa Brinks is a freelance writer and co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast. She has an affinity for cats, cooking, gardening, and investing copious hours of her life in fictional worlds of all kinds.