(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: The Brood Saga

What must be over a year ago, I started to read the entirety of Marvel Comics’ Uncanny X-Men comic book from the very beginning.

Originally titled just X-Men, the series started in 1963 and is still running today in some form after 53 years. With over 600 issues published, if it were a TV series it would have more episodes than The Simpsons. Issues average 20-22 pages each, so there’s probably about 12,600 pages total. That’s nearly the length of Artamène or Cyrus the Great, considered the longest novel ever published with 13,095 pages over 10 volumes.

So lots to read!

I’ve been sharing my progress on Facebook, and I kept threatening to blog about it, so here we are. It kills me to not transition all my old Facebook posts here but this whole daily blog challenge is about cranking stuff out, not toiling away forever to make it “right”. So we’re going to skip nearly 20 years of comics and start with the last set of stories I just finished reading.

I have no idea if this will appeal to anyone not into comics, but I hope it will. I’ll try to make this accessible. As such, a little background: The X-Men was an underdog superhero comic that became the biggest seller for Marvel in the ’80s and ’90s. Nowadays, they aren’t top dog like they once were. But back in the heyday, they were the cat’s pajamas. Wait, I’m mixing my pet metaphors. Their success was really made by the creative team of writer/co-plotter Chris Claremont and artist/co-plotter John Byrne. This period is most famously remembered for “The Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past”, two storylines that still influence superhero comics today. Creative tension drove Byrne off the book, but Claremont remained for a nearly unprecedented 17 years. His style of writing, using soap-opera plotting techniques and character-driven subplots to balance the action/adventure heroics, redefined superhero and fantasy comics for an entire generation. The success of the book led to spin-offs, which resulted in a blockbuster franchise that turned into video games, cartoons, blockbuster Hollywood films, and more. Claremont left the book in 1991 and since then an ever-expanding roster of creative talent have come and gone, adding their stamp to the lives of these characters.

I was a big reader of X-Men comics in the early ’90s, and had read a lot of the older issues through reprints over the years. But I had never read the entire series, from the very first issue by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, all the way through. With nostalgia-heavy affection for these characters, and a subscription to the Netflix-style subscription service Marvel Unlimited, I decided it was time.

It’s been a lot of fun going through these old stories. Due to their serialized publication, they are very much like magazines in that they are products of their time. Even so, there is a timeless quality to these characters and the themes they address. The fun and passion in these stories shines through. And of course, sometimes there are duds or clunkers too.

The batch of comics I most recently read was Uncanny X-Men issues 160-167, which includes “The Brood Saga”.

During this story, artist Dave Cockrum is replaced by Paul Smith, and what a welcome arrival. Cockrum had been the artist on the book right before the defining run by John Byrne. When Byrne left, Cockrum returned and I was sad to see his art wasn’t at the same level. I don’t know if he was just paired with an inker that didn’t suit his style or if he couldn’t keep up with the monthly schedule or what, but it just didn’t have that old magic. Paul Smith handled the last three issues of this storyline, and right away I was jealous of the alternate universe that’s out there where Paul Smith began his run earlier. Smith brought a really smooth and clean line to the book. I love the body language and acting he gives his characters, I love his page design, I love how he choreographs scenes. There’s a real elegance to his work, but it still suits a superhero comic. One of the things that really struck me was Claremont actually letting Smith’s artwork speak for itself. Claremont can tend to over-script, but there were a couple scenes with not a single word, just letting Smith do some wonderful storytelling. I don’t remember even Byrne getting that kind of breathing room.

For the story itself, The Brood Saga injected some energy and direction into the book. It seemed to be meandering somewhat after Byrne left. While it found some really nice moments, this really locked into something with some heat behind it. X-Men in space is always a little strange but it’s a recurring device in the series that can help cleanse the palate from the mutant angst themes. Even so, it can feel a bit like the X-Men are starring in someone else’s comic. That aside, if you’re going to do an X-Men In Space story, do it like this. This was closer to a horror and suspense story. It was at times trippy, disorienting, and a little gruesome (for an all-ages superhero comic from 1982).

The Brood are an alien race of bug-like gross things. Visually, they are more than a little inspired by the space creatures from the Alien movies starring Sigourney Weaver. But they can talk and shoot guns and fly space ships.

Once again Wolverine gets the spotlight as the coolest guy around, but in the context of the story it makes sense. Due to his adamantium skeleton and healing abilities, he’s the only one that ends up breaking free from The Brood. I want to be a little big vague here because I think there’s a really cool reveal that is actually quite unsettling that is best discovered in the story. Wolverine is the first to figure out this unsettling secret and is tormented over revealing it to his teammates once he helps them escape. Of course, the truth ultimately comes out, and everything works out but the journey there has some unexpected turns and weird mythology building that felt fresh for the series.

There’s some nice character moments throughout this. The big vastness of space is used well to give the characters some breathing room to react to the terrifying reveal.

Peter and Kitty finally verbalize what’s been pretty obvious for awhile: they like like each other. But, she just turned 14 and he doesn’t want to be a pedophile because being in space doesn’t make you not a pedophile. Still, it’s a sweet scene and Paul Smith’s art really relays how tender and sincere Peter is being.

Nightcrawler’s religious side is explicitly revealed for the first time. He has a brief conversation about faith with Wolverine, where he pretty flatly states he’s an atheist.

Storm really takes the news bad, although I didn’t quite buy how she found out.

And Scott makes a vengeful decision to go back and kill the Brood’s Queen, which establishes a darker side to Scott that comes back years later.

The storyline ends with a somewhat anti-climactic battle with their mentor Professor X, where he gets a new body that allows him to walk again. This issue felt a little uneven in compared to the rest of these issues. Even Paul Smith’s art didn’t seem as strong as the previous two issues. But it established that a significant period of time has passed since the X-Men were last on Earth. During that time, he abandoned that weird island in the Bermuda Triangle, rebuilt his school, and had begun to teach a new class of students.

This new class of students starred in the first ongoing spin-off, The New Mutants. Claremont wrote that series too, so I considered reading it along with Uncanny X-Men, but I was talked out of it on Facebook. It would probably distract me and tempt me to read other spin-offs, which ultimately would probably lead me to reading every Marvel comic book. And then I would never finish.

Last thought: I love the little Brood gnawing on Wolverine’s shoulder in the cover image above.

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