Amid the fallout over the political and religious messages hidden in “X-Men Gold” #1 by artist Ardian Syaf, it may be easy to overlook what’s at the heart of the new Marvel Comics series. In short, the series is a love letter from writer Marc Guggenheim to Chris Claremont’s “Uncanny X-Men” of the 1980s.
Guggenheim, a comics veteran more widely known as co-creator of the “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow,” grew up reading those books, beginning in 1980 with Issue 139, whose cover blurb “Welcome to the X-Men, Kitty Pryde … Hope You Survive the Experience!” has been immortalized over time, and is cleverly referenced in “X-Men Gold” #1. He acknowledged to CBR earlier this month that his creative decisions on the series are largely driven by his own nostalgia, most obviously reflected in the characters featured in the appropriately titled “Back to Basics” storyline.
But the influences of that “classic” X-Men era go much further than that. With the release this week of Issue 2, “X-Men Gold” firmly establishes itself as not only a callback but a throwback to that bygone era. Most of the elements, from the team lineup to the antagonists to the stakes, with relatively minor tweaks here and there. It doesn’t push any boundaries (at least not yet); it’s comfort food for longtime X-Men fans — and that’s perfectly fine.
After all, Claremont’s “Uncanny X-Men” era is considered classic for a reason, and not only because the title was a sales (ahem) juggernaut. It’s when many of the elements, and tropes, that have become staples of the property, across comic books, television, film and video games, were introduced, reinforced or popularized. The first two issues of “X-Men Gold” are packed with ’80s nostalgia, so much so that someone might want to devise a game of Claremont Bingo:
As widely publicized, the team lineup is similar to the one that powered “The Uncanny X-Men” throughout much the 1980s: Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Wolverine and Rachel Grey (née Summers), led by Kitty Pryde. OK, sure, it’s Old Man Logan, the Wolverine from an alternate future, but if you overlook the wrinkles, gray hair and lack of costume, he’s essentially the same character who rose to stardom during Claremont’s long reign, serving the same role as fighter-philosopher. And while Rachel, now going by Prestige (like her costume, that name will never stick), is no Rogue, she was enough of a fixture during the ’80s to feel at home here.
With the second arc already promising an appearance by Gambit (who didn’t actually debut until 1990), all that’s missing is a cameo by Longshot, rocking his vintage mullet, or maybe Lockheed. Where is that temperamental little dragon, anyway?
The concept at the core of the X-Men, that they’re devoted to protecting a world that hates and fears them, is borderline brilliant. It’s when the mutants drift from that mission, and withdraw from the unappreciative (even hostile) throngs of humanity — whether to space, the Australian Outback or Utopia — that everything weakens, and the X-Men start to feel like any other superheroes.
In March’s “X-Men Prime” #1, Kitty Pryde moved the X-Mansion to Central Park, the very heart of Manhattan, where the newly minted Xavier Institute for Mutant Education and Outreach is literally surrounded by millions who hate and fear mutants, emotions fanned by the recent war with the Inhumans. Guggenheim gives voice to that sentiment with Lydia Nance, the media-savvy director of the Heritage Initiative think tank, who seems cut from the same cloth as William Stryker and Sen. Robert Kelly. However, he adds a new wrinkle with the added threat of mutant deportation, demonstrating that the themes of fear and prejudice in the X-Men titles are, sadly, once again as timely as ever.
The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (and at Least One Alien)
The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants is nearly as old as the X-Men themselves, having debuted in 1964’s “The X-Men” #4, with Magneto as their leader. There have been numerous incarnations of the team over the decades — eventually “Evil” was dropped from the name — but for fans of 1980s “Uncanny X-Men,” Mystique’s first Brotherhood is undoubtedly the definitive one, with Pyro, the Blob, Avalanche, Destiny and Rogue, who of course defected to join the X-Men. That lineup is reflected, in part, in a new Evil Brotherhood that menaces the United Nations, the mayor of New York City and Kitty’s team, in the first issues of “X-Men Gold”: New takes on Avalanche and Pyro, the Morlock Masque, the former New Mutant Magma, longtime X-Men foe Mesmero and some alien-looking being.
While we can probably assume the reptilian Brotherhood member isn’t actually an alien, we can be certain Terrax is. Quickly dispatched in the first issue, he’s a herald of Galactus who’s more traditionally at odds with the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer. But, hey, the X-Men spent a portion of the 1970s and ’80s battling aliens like the Dire Wraiths and The Brood. Plus, Terrax’s original John Byrne design endures.
Yes, We Said Morlock
Although their prominence, to say nothing of their sheer number, has diminished in recent years, there were times in the 1980s when a reader could’ve been forgiven for thinking Morlocks made up half of New York City’s population. Mainstays of “The Uncanny X-Men,” “New Mutants” and “X-Factor” of the era, the sewer-dwelling outcasts even spilled over into such titles as “Power Pack” and even “Thor.” There were plenty of disturbing Morlocks, including the rat-communicating Mother Inferior, but perhaps none more so than Masque, whose chief role was to use his mutant flesh-shaping abilities to disfigure those not “ugly” enough to be true outcasts.
When Kitty describes Masque to Captain America as “former Morlock, permanent dipwad,” it may be because she’s experienced his powers firsthand, when she was kidnapped in 1984’s “The Uncanny X-Men” #179 to become Caliban’s bride.
Baseball is not only America’s pastime but also the X-Men’s, as the sport is an indelible part of their history and of the Claremont heyday. Or so it seems; yet, as CBR’s Brian Cronin once noted, Claremont depicted the mutants playing baseball just four times, the last during the writer’s return to “The Uncanny X-Men” in 2004. Still, it’s a classic device not only revived in “X-Men Gold” #1, as softball, but also commented upon by Old Man Logan, who adds another layer to the team’s favorite game.
“Always thought these games were a waste of time,” he tells Kitty from the bleachers. “But I was wrong. […] Softball’s normal. And normal’s always been in short supply in this outfit.”
One of the earliest Claremontisms, and undoubtedly the most popular among fans, the beloved Fastball Special debuted in 1976’s “Uncanny X-Men” #100. Although the maneuver, if not the name, may actually date back as far as 1958’s “Adventure Comics” #253, in which Superboy hurled Robin “like a javelin,” in its classic form the Fastball Special involves Colossus throwing Wolverine at a target. Still, there have been numerous variations over the decades.
“X-Men Gold” #2 introduces another twist as Kitty calls for a “T.F.S.,” quickly explained as a Telekinetic Fastball Special, in which Prestige sends Colossus flying into the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. The more math-minded readers might be able to estimate how much force is behind those two armored fists, but we can probably agree that transforming an armored Colossus into a 500-pound projectile is probably overkill against this Brotherhood. Save that for the (probably) inevitable battle against Juggernaut.
In a corner of the Marvel Universe so densely populated by telepaths, from Charles Xavier and Psylocke to the White Queen and Mastermind, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that mind control was a recurring element of Claremont comics. But, wow, X-Men plots of the era sure did rely on that device a lot. It’s represented in “X-Men Gold” with the inclusion of classic foe Mesmero, who forces Nightcrawler to teleport until he collapses from exhaustion, and who may be responsible for Magma’s involvement with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. However, he meets his match with Old Man Logan.
Death and Resurrection
Life and death have revolving doors in superhero comics — “Death is hardly permanent in our business,” Captain America reminds Kitty in “X-Men Gold” #2 — but it’s probably easier to name the X-Men who haven’t died and been resurrected than to list the legions who have. Guggenheim has some fun with that trope, with regular reminders that many (if not most) of the key characters in these first two issues have died before. Comments are made about, or by, Colossus, Logan, Nightcrawler, Terrax and Mesmero, and Kitty notes the original Avalanche and Pyro apparently are still dead, and these Brotherhood members are new villains have merely assumed their identities.
Catchphrases and Nicknames
If there actually were such a game as 1980s Claremont Bingo, “X-Men Gold” would have us a “Body and Soul” and “No Quarter Asked, None Given” away from a win. Beyond such aforementioned Claremontisms as softball/baseball, the fastball special and mind control, the first two issues of “X-Men Gold” are littered with classic catchphrases and cutesy nicknames, with Kitty referring to Nightcrawler as “Fuzzy Elf,” and in turn being called “Katya” and “Katzchen.” She also tries out “To me, my X-Men,” which doesn’t go without comment by Logan.He’s also played along, however, dropping a “Flaming” and a “Bub,” while Colossus has already muttered “Bozhe moi.”
Rachel has yet to summon the focused totality of her telepathic powers, but that may be something reserved for Psylocke.
The first two issues of “X-Men Gold,” by Marc Guggenheim and Ardian Syaf, are available now. “X-Men Gold” #3 goes on sale May 3.
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