I’ve very much been looking forward to X-Men Gold, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the series, since it was first announced. The major attraction for me was the main story, a brand new collaboration between writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod. It certainly helped that over the last couple of months McLeod has been posting work-in-progress pieces on Facebook, and they looked absolutely gorgeous.
As I’ve written before, Claremont is one of the key figures involved in revitalizing X-Men in the late 1970s, turning it into a major bestseller. After several years of X-Men being in reprint limbo, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced a brand new team in the pages of Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975. Wein plotted the next two issues, X-Men #s 94 & 95, then passed the torch to Claremont, who scripted those stories before going on to become the full writer with #96. Over the next 17 years, working with Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr, Rick Leonardi, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, Jim Lee, and other talented artists, Claremont crafted numerous amazing stories. More importantly, he did a superb job writing the X-Men and their supporting cast as very real, three-dimensional individuals, developing their various arcs over an extended period of time.
As for Bob McLeod, he is a fantastic artist, a gifted storyteller with a very polished style to his inking. He only worked on a handful of X-Men stories (the few times that he inked Cockrum were beautiful) but he co-created the spin-off series New Mutants with Claremont, drawing the team’s first appearance in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, and then working on several issues of their ongoing book. So it was great to see him reunited with Claremont for X-Men Gold.
Claremont & McLeod’s story is set between the events of Uncanny X-Men #s 173 and 174. Still in Japan, recuperating from their conflict with Viper & Silver Samurai, as well as the emotional wounds of Mariko abruptly calling off her marriage to Wolverine (long story, go out and buy Essential X-Men Vol. 4 for all the details) the team discovers there is a mysterious crisis taking place in nearby China. They head over to investigate, with Xavier, Lilandra, the Starjammers, and Maddie Pryor holding back in reserve in Corsair’s orbiting spaceship. The X-Men arrive to find that a horde of self-replicating Sentinels have taken over an industrial complex, and are on the verge of spreading out across the globe.
What follows is, of course, a spectacular battle between the X-Men and the mutant-hunting robots. But, as he has so often done in the past, Claremont skillfully weaves wonderful moments of character interaction and heartfelt dialogue into the action. Former enemy Rogue, only recently admitted into the team, still feels like an outsider, with the rest of the X-Men understandably cautious around her. Yet we see first Kitty Pryde and then Nightcrawler offer her the hand of friendship, letting her know that she is welcome. The father-daughter relationship that has developed between Wolverine and Kitty is explored, and Claremont (as always) gives the two of them wonderful chemistry. Off in space, Maddie is still trying to wrap her head around all the craziness she has suddenly been plunged into, but she is determined to find a way to deal with it because she loves Cyclops. Claremont really makes you care for these characters.
As for the art, McLeod does superb work. He choreographs the battle perfectly. Drawing a team superhero book is much different than a solo title, because the penciler really needs to give serious consideration to the placement of the numerous characters on each page, and how they interact with one another. McLeod succeeds at this admirably, very effectively “directing” both the dramatic action sequences and the more quite character moments.
I’m unfamiliar with the colorist on this story, Israel Silva, but he does an excellent job. His coloring really complements McLeod’s artwork. And it was so great that letterer Tom Orzechowski was on this book. He is one of the best letterers in the biz (it is such an underrated talent) and he has a long-time association with Uncanny X-Men, having lettered nearly every issue of the series published between 1979 and 1992.
There are several back-up stories in X-Men Gold. “The Sorrow Beneath The Sport” is plotted by Louise Simonson, penciled by Walter Simonson, and inked by Bob Wiacek, the creative team that so successfully chronicled the reunited original five X-Men’s adventures in the mid-1980s in the pages of X-Factor. Supplying the script is none other than Stan Lee, who co-created the original incarnation of the team with Jack Kirby half a century ago. It’s a nice little five page piece which both captures the playful wackiness of those early Silver Age stories, as well as observing that there was also a somber undercurrent, the notion that possessing super powers could be more of a curse than a gift. By today’s standards, Lee’s scripting may not be particularly subtle. But it definitely was significant in paving the way for the later, more nuanced work that other writers did in exploring the fallibilities & doubts of superheroes. In any case, the artwork by Simonson & Wiacek is top-notch.
Roy Thomas, the second writer to helm X-Men in the 1960s (among his numerous other credits) teams up with penciler Pat Olliffe of Spider-Girl fame to chronicle the very first meeting between Banshee and Sunfire, set shortly before Giant-Size X-Men #1. Turns out these two very different mutants happen to share a love of Elvis Presley. It was cool to see Banshee’s fondness for folk, country, and bluegrass referenced for probably the first time since the 1970s. I thought it was an interesting tale with some nice character moments. It was my favorite of the back-up stories in X-Men Gold.
Len Wein writes “Options,” which is set during the events of Giant-Size X-Men. It delves into Wolverine’s thoughts, examining his reactions to his new teammates. At first I was pretty taken aback by Wein’s story, but then I quickly recalled that early on Logan was written as a psycho with a hair trigger, and that it took quite a while for him to mellow out and not want to gut people at literally the drop of a hat. Jorge Molina does a good, if gruesome, job drawing this one.
The last story is “Dreams Brighten,” written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Salvador Larroca. It’s an examination of what was taking place in Magneto’s consciousness when Xavier was forced to telepathically shut down his adversary’s mind in X-Men volume 2 #25. This one didn’t quite work for me. I see what Nicieza was trying to do, but I think he needed more than five pages to achieve it. Plus, if you are not familiar with the “Fatal Attractions” crossover and the events that occurred a few years later as an inadvertent result of Xavier’s actions, this probably will not make much sense to you.
Despite a certain variable quality to some of the back-up material, X-Men Gold is definitely worth picking up for the fantastic lead story by Claremont & McLeod. They are both extremely talented creators, and I wish we could see more of their work nowadays. Marvel really should give them an ongoing title, or at least a miniseries. I really miss stories like this!
By the way, if you are interested in the creative process, please check out Bob McLeod’s Facebook page. For several weeks, he has been posting preliminary art, uninked pencils, and finished inked artwork for X-Men Gold. (A big “thank you” to McLeod for giving me permission to use the above image.) It’s fascinating to see the stages he went through in illustrating this story. And, once again, it definitely demonstrates just how much of the final look of the published artwork can be determined by the inker.