Dealer and comics historian Bob Beerbohm was recently talking about how the sales of X-MEN skyrocketed in his shop when artist John Byrne came on board the title with issue #108. He indicates that his guess is that the series might have been cancelled otherwise, though I find this difficult to believe. Based on what I’ve heard, numbers on X-MEN had been steadily rising all along and Marvel wanted to increase its frequency to monthly. But artist Dave Cockrum just wasn’t fast enough to produce the book that quickly, especially with his day job in the Marvel offices (in fact, just before his departure, he wasn’t able to produce it bimonthly, which resulted in a fill-in being inserted into the run.) Regardless, the arrival of Byrne signaled both the moment at which, because of his great speed and productivity, X-MEN could increase its schedule to monthly, and also the point where it began to catch fire in fan circles in a big way. For me, I didn’t know any different–I had been following the series regularly for several issues by this point.
And it has to be said: John Byrne, backed up by inker Terry Austin, put together a sleek, modern-looking comic book. Dave Cockrum was just about the best costume designer of the era, but even his designs wound up looking better in Byrne’s hands. Byrne also brought a strong sense of storytelling to the work. Writer Chris Claremont had been almost symbiotic with Cockrum in terms of charting the direction of the series, and so he extended the same courtesy to Byrne, who took full advantage over time. While the two creators’ opinions and thoughts on the direction of the series would diverge over time, in these early days, Byrne was just happy to be there, and he worked hard and contributed as much to the final mix as he was able to. You can really see all of the creators on the title just working like mad to put it over. There’s a “We’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show” atmosphere that permeates the X-MEN books of this time. They aren’t as polished as some other titles, and the central theme of mutant persecution still hadn’t come entirely into sharp focus as the driving force in the series–but X-MEN was still the cutting edge in terms of super hero comics at the time, and fans were beginning to catch on. Thus, the earlier issues of the run began to command ridiculously high prices as back issues for the time, as demand far outstripped supply. It was a big deal that X-MEN #94, a comic book only a few years old, was selling for $25.00 a copy.
This issue picks up where the last one left off: the X-Men have freed themselves from Mesmero’s circus, where they had been brainwashed and forced to work as performers–only to be confronted by their worst enemy, Magneto. Claremont and Cockrum had earlier brought the Master of Magnetism back to face this new iteration of X-Men, and their handling of him elevated the character in stature to the level of a Doctor Doom. Prior to this (and occasionally at the same time) Magneto was often a fulminating moustache-twirler, interested in power. A brute, a cad, despite his magnetic abilities. Here, Claremont and Byrne infuse him with some of the essence of Darth Vader. Magneto isn’t yet a Concentration Camp survivor–that would come years later. But he’s suddenly got style, panache, presence. What he’s also got is a grudge against the X-Men regardless of what the membership of the group is, and so he uses his magnetic powers to spirit the trailer in which they’re all standing away to his hidden volcano base.
Speaking of that base, Byrne revealed in an interview that it was accomplished by drawing just the left side and then statting and flopping the image–which makes sense and was a great time-saver. The last time the new X-Men had encountered Magneto, he cleaned their clocks and sent them running (sure, they had to answer an emergency call from Professor X, but still, the outcome of the battle was not in question.) but here, he’s looking for a definitive K.O.–and even before the trailer can set down inside his base, he explodes it with his power, sending the X-Men tumbling. And the battle is joined.
And what a battle it is! One of Byrne’s strengths was in his fight choreography, and here he gives each X-Man in turn a moment to shine before being struck down by their overwhelmingly more powerful foe. Additionally, Claremont infuses those moments with characterization. So Storm’s resistance to using lethal force tells us something about her character, Colossus’ sacrifice of himself to save Nightcrawler says something about his values, and Cyclops’ frustration that his team is attaching their enemy one by one rather than coordinating their efforts communicates his thinking as a strategist. The fight all plays out on pages that hold a lot of panels–the images, relative to super hero comics of today, are tiny. But everything just clicks here, and it doesn’t matter. This scrap is a lot more memorable than many later battles that used up a lot more real estate and featured huge images and double-spreads. Byrne and Austin made a meal with the tight quarters they had to work with.
Claremont and Cockrum, with a little last minute help from Byrne, had transformed Jean Grey into Phoenix, and made her into a cosmic powerhouse. This never entirely sat well with Byrne, who was more comfortable with the more traditional Marvel Girl. Either way, having a cosmic-level character as part of the X-Men was going to be a problem going forward either way, since it meant that most foes of the team could be easily dispatched. So here, Claremont and Byrne begin to scale Jean back to a more manageable level–she’s got the upper hand on Magneto, but then she hits a wall–Claremont intended that Jean had subconsciously set up limitations for herself so that her power would remain under her control, but I don’t think that’s ever outright stated in these books at the time. Regardless, this gives Magneto the moment he needs to turn the tables on her. And the fight finishes off with a memorable Wolverine moment–both him actually attempting to slash Magneto open (something that super heroes just didn’t do in 1978) and his response of turning the Canuck’s own claws on him. Again, this was still the formative Wolverine–not yet the long-lived samurai warrior, but rather a feisty and dangerous little fellow. He was the Hawkeye of the team, the spoiler character, the one who created conflict and drama because of his rough edges. While I think there’s a lot of value to the later, more nuanced interpretation of the character, I’ll admit that this early version is the one I first connected with.
So that’s game, set and match for Magneto, and when the X-Men revive, their adversary has put them in one of the most memorable and horrifying situations possible. In an earlier story, Magneto had been de-aged, reduced to a helpless child by Alpha, the Ultimate Mutant. The Master of Magnetism seems to have forgotten that this didn’t happen to him while fighting the X-Men but rather the Defenders–but in payback for having been made helpless, he’s strapped the X-Men into chairs that disrupt the neural connections between their minds and their bodies. So they are awake and aware, but they have no control over their bodies or their powers. He intends to keep them alive, helpless, and tortured by that very helplessness. It’s a really good cliffhanger, and Byrne and Austin’s rendering of each of the X-Men’s faces, climaxing on the Jack Kirby-style tight close up on Magneto drives that point home well. To Be Continued!
This issue also included a long missive on the letters page from future Marvel historian Peter Sanderson, who will be celebrating his 70th birthday in just a few days. Here, Peter gives a typically long-winded summary of his reaction to the climax of that first Phoenix story–his letters were always this long, and would typically be edited down to print. (And it’s not impossible that the letter above had itself been edited for length.) It would be Chris Claremont and his then-wife Bonnie Wilford who would help Peter get into the business, and from the letter above, you can see why both Chris and Bonnie might have remembered Peter’s name when they met him in person.