CAN'T GET MORE X-MEN THAN THIS
"X-Men" #45 (October 1995) might just be the Uncanniest X-Men-iest Marvel Comic of the '90s.
First, it has the special edition cover. They went big on this one -- it's a double gatefold than opens for a vertical presentation, even though the front cover appears horizontal. Neat trick! There's also some holofoil in the logo for good measure.
The story itself is super-sized. It's Fabian Nicieza's final X-Men issue, the end of the initial post-Chris Claremont phase of the X-Books.
It's all about Rogue and Gambit's forbidden love. Because there isn't enough about the X-Men to scream frustrated teenage lust, we have Rogue and Gambit, two star-crossed lovers who can never touch. And you know what they mean by "touch."
In a then-recent issue, Rogue had kissed Gambit to gain his powers to save his life or something, and now she's angsting out about it. She's following the trail of Gambit's past that her absorption of his powers left inside of her mind. She's doubly frustrated that she can't kiss him again, and it's not fair, and all her other friends can kiss the boys, and we get dialogue like Gambit talking about how he wants to be inside her, but he means it romantically, like in her heart and soul or something.
I don't mean to make fun of this stuff. I ate it up during my teenaged X-Men reading days, and it's a staple of the franchise. They are angsty teenagers, albeit with powers in a world that fears and hates them. So let's look at what tricks of the trade are used to sell this book, which might otherwise be a mopey depressing whine fest.
First, Nicieza externalizes everything. Rogue is tearing herself apart trying to solve Gambit's mysteries, but she's not just sitting there thinking about it. She's flying through the air. She's acting out, getting into little fights with Bobby Drake. She gets into a bar fight. She visits numerous places of visual interest, from city rooftops to abandoned theaters to crowded bars.
Nicieza keeps the book moving at all times. Someone's always doing something. They're not sitting around the table hashing things out. Iceman is standing over a tree on a pillar of ice he made, while Rogue floats gently in the air, curled up in a fetal position. That is where they have a deep and meaningful conversation.
Second, it's heavily character driven. This issue is almost completely about three X-Men characters thinking things through and acting out on their conclusions. There's not necessarily a villain they're fighting in the issue; it's pure character clashes. Right down to the end of the story, it feels well thought out. Even if you, as a reader, don't agree with those decisions, you can follow the road the characters walk down.
It's not all done through the word balloons and caption boxes, either. This is all through discussions and yelling and angsting. OK, except for Gambit. He's on his own for most of the issue, so he gets to play the caption cards. (I mean that literally, but we'll get back to that in a bit.)
Third, everything is big. Andy Kubert does a great job on the art, using the extra pages to draw larger images. This is a bold, splashy issue, matching the importance of the character issues at play as well as the size of the issue for an anniversary book. This is not conservative and careful storytelling. This, like so much of the art that became popular in the early '90s, is loud and in your face. Unlike so much of that other artwork that was copied off others' styles, it's close to anatomically correct and not overly filled with noodley lines hacked and slashed all over the place.
Everything about this issue is aggressive. Kubert's angles are bold and unsubtle. The issue starts with Rogue throwing a boulder at the reader -- a boulder that takes up half the page. It's followed by a double-page splash of Iceman breaking up the boulder before it damages their car.
When Gambit appears at a bar where Rogue and Iceman are involved in a scuffle, he blows up a wall and stands ready to fire more cards off in a double-page sideways spread.
Richard Starkings and Comicraft have sound effects that take up half the page when necessary. Characters shout with oversized balloons that have extra outlines.
My favorite part of the lettering in the issue, though, is how Gambit's internal monologue is show in the outlines of playing cards instead of regular caption boxes. It creates some ridiculously weird layouts for the text when the cards are fanned out.
The issue is unrelenting, save maybe a two page subplot that I'm sure was setting up future issues I don't remember. Everything else is pretty well-focused on the mystery of Gambit's past, how terrible it must be, and how much it's eating Rogue up.
The issue ends on a big revelation, which I'm sure played out in the months or years that followed. (I don't remember anymore.) Fitting the importance of that big revelation, it's presented sideways on a two-page spread that ends with five cards face up, showing a full house, deuces full of kings. It's not quite the Dead Man's Hand formation, though I'm sure it represents something.
If you hate X-Men comics with a passion, this issue is likely filled with everything you hate most about that. If you like X-Men comics, this is one of loudest and best examples of the art form in the mid-1990s. It's everything you'd have wanted at the time. There are lessons from it we can learn from to this day, whether writing X-Men books or something else.
If nothing else, learn to externalize more things in comics. Make things visually interesting somehow. Move the action around, have people do things instead of think them.
Take, for another example, "Uncanny X-Men" #383 (August 2000). This was part of Chris Claremont's original return to the X-Men. Remember those "The Neo" days? It's ok, most of us don't, anymore.
This issue was a "Giant-Sized Spectacular" clocking in at 38 pages of story for some reason. It's a complete tale that feels like a classic Marvel Mutant jigsaw story. What combination of characters together can provide the right mix of powers to survive a specific attack? Which one character will have to have a moment to overcome all the odds? What singular villainous force will come close to defeating them? Plug your answers into those slots and you'll get a story.
Claremont perfected that trick, and pulls it off well in this done-in-one issue. A group of X-Men go undercover in Russia to help Gambit pay off an old debt. Most of them are captured, and it's up to Storm to save them. She needs help, so she goes to the local crime lord to have a chat. There's a bit of give and take, and ultimately she gets what she needs at the price of owing a new debt to this crime lord.
Here's what stood out to me: Storm could have walked in the bad guy's house and had a chat with him, threatening him with the powers she could use. But, no, this is a comic book and that would be boring. Instead, she breaks into his bedroom and whips up a tornado-like event to carry him, sitting on his bed, up high into the earth's thinner atmosphere. There, the two sit down to have a chat, the full moon providing a background and the earth laying distant below their feet. It's a great visual.
These characters have these powers. These comic books are unlimited by budgets. I feel sometimes that there are comics that would work better with a little extra time for another script draft to consider ways to spice them up like this. Is it necessary? No. Does it stretch credulity? I suppose it might for some who aren't willing to get caught up in the world where these characters live. But I think it would produce a better comic book at the end of the day, which is what everyone wants, right?
It's the little things. Spider-Man doesn't just march a perp into the police station; he webs him up and leaves him hanging on the street lamp outside. Batman doesn't stand upright on a rooftop looking for crime in Gotham; he sits perched on a gargoyle overlooking the city. Robin and Nightwing don't sit down for tea; they practice their fighting moves, blindfolded, on top of a moving train.
It's the little things that add to what makes a comic book look exciting. It's good for the reader, and it's also good for the artist, who no doubt would rather draw something that interests them.
Speaking of which, Adam Kubert is the artist on this comic, so it's filled with all the artistic flourishes you've come to expect from him. Every page is dynamic, including some double-page spreads with inventive but not outlandish panel arrangements and layouts. He even adopts a slightly different style with this issue, which is told mostly in flashbacks. Those parts are drawn with a thinner line and no solid black areas. It reminds me a lot of the work Scott Kolins was doing on "The Flash" back in those days.
Richard Isanove handled the coloring for the series at this time, and unsurprisingly, did a great job. With those thinner-lined flashback segments, he matched the pen-and-ink look with a slightly more muted color palette. The shadow work is a little less busy, and the colors are lacking a bit of the saturation, perhaps. It works nicely, and is a good lesson for aspiring colors as to why being able to color in more than one style is a good skill to have.
This story doesn't give Kubert quite the same room his brother had in the "X-Men" comic I talked about earlier. Claremont packs each page a little fuller with this script than Nicieza. (The pendulum was already swinging back by 2000 from artist-driven comics to writer-driven, I suppose...) But there's still lots of room to get clever and inventive with the storytelling and layouts. Kubert does that without sacrificing storytelling. He uses an awful lot of tricks in this issue, including nine panel grids, double page layouts, large circular panels, Alphonse Mucha-inspired panel shapes and layouts, insets, starry field margin backgrounds, tall thin panels in bunches, and even more. There's no page that's boring here. It's even more impressive that Kubert pulls that off in a story that feels as tight and as controlled as this one. It's not just a few big fight scenes. It's people sneaking around and hiding in plain sight.
There's also a great fight sequence near the end where a guy whipping around his barbed wire lasso provides his own undoing.
I've read a couple other issues from this second Claremont era of the title, and they don't hold up nearly so well, to be honest. There are some great moments in many of them, but The Neo don't inspire anything for me, some of the costumes and power sets of the characters feel weird (which is a personal preference, not a critical one), and the mix of X-Men storylines being batted around at the time didn't grab me.
But even so, there are still some classic X-Men moments in there, many of which could be described by what I wrote earlier: Keep the action going, externalize all opposition, gang together the powers in interesting ways, and have an artist who can match the energy and excitement with his own technical skills and design.
It's a lesson that could be well applied to lots of other comics, particular superhero ones...