If you’re looking for an example of when X-Men was truly an episodic experience, this is it. In 1987, when the franchise was an untouchable sales juggernaut followed by scores of diehard fans, Chris Claremont wasn’t so concerned with giving new readers an easy jumping on point every month as he was with crafting a huge, epic story that spanned literal years, great news in particular for those of us who would pick it up in large chunks over a decade down the line.
This story took place just before Fall of the Mutants and was another battle between the X-Men and Marauders, of which there were dozens in between Mutant Massacre and Inferno. I just mentioned three big summer crossovers that were lynchpins not just of the X-Men but Marvel as a whole, and it’s impressive how Claremont was able to just keep his larger narrative trucking along while working those checkpoints in along the way.
Here, the Marauders have captured Cyclops’ wife, Madelyne Pryor—Cyclops was off being quasi-unfaithful in X-Factor—so the X-Men head to San Francisco to get her back. While there was a quick Wolverine vs. Sabretooth fight per usual and per advertisement on the cover, the thrust of the story was Havok learning that Polaris has been possessed by Malice and is now leading the Marauders, in the process causing him and his teammates the requisite X-Men angst.
Meanwhile, the Adversary, posing as Naze, is convincing Storm she needs to kill Forge, which probably would have saved the X-Men a lot of grief down the line had she gone through with it.
Interesting to note this was one of many X-Men stories from around this period set in San Francisco, as it seems Claremont was toying with getting them out of New York and moving them to the very place Ed Brubaker would settle them in 20 years later before he opted for Australia instead.
If you’re a Marvel Comics fan, you like are familiar with the Brood, but many have not read the earliest stories that introduced them, which is a shame because they are unheralded classics. This issue was part of the lengthy on-off saga in which they were introduced by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum, and like a lot of stuff that came in the years following the Dark Phoenix Saga but before the 80’s boom really set in, I think it goes overlooked.
The creepiest aspect of this issue, which begins the Brood saga in earnest, is that the X-Men have already been infected by the aliens, but they don’t know it; they’re all in a trippy state of going through the motions where they have tinges that something’s wrong, but don’t know what. They just go about their business unaware of the ticking time bombs nestled inside them.
Only one person does know the score, and that’s Wolverine. He busts out of the mental prison the Brood have the X-Men in and is unleashed on a planet full of crazy Cockrum-designed monsters where he can really cut loose, so you get a nice dose of action with your pathos. The latter comes from Logan’s realization that even if he can survive the environment, not only does he have an enemy within waiting to take over, so do all his friends, and he knows since his healing factor will allow him to stave off the infection that much longer, he will have to kill all of them rather than let them become Brood.
It’s a great sci fi story and a great horror story with all the X-Men twists you’d come to expect from two of the masters. The psychedelic nature of the general team’s fugue state and the bizarre landscape Wolverine fights his way across really push the boundaries of what Cockrum’s capable of and let him excel. The best was still to come in this story, but if you can track this issue down or get it in Essentials, I strongly recommend it, as you’ll understand why so many creators love to use the Brood.
As you can see by the cover blurb, this was the kick-off to the “incredible saga of the Starjammers,” aka the final act of the initial Phoenix Saga that introduce the Shi’ar to the X-Men specifically and Marvel Universe as a whole. As you can also see from the cover, this issue marked the full force debut of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Imperial Guard, from when I was a kid just because they had brightly colored costumes with awesome Dave Cockrum designs and an array of cool powers, to when I grew up and realized they were an homage to the Legion of Super-Heroes as designed by classic Legion artist Dave Cockrum. Half the fun for me when the Guard shows up is trying to figure out who is who’s Legion analogue, as after all these years I still have trouble nailing down much beyond Smasher being Ultra Boy, Oracle being Saturn Girl and Fan being Timber Wolf (who is Hussar supposed to be, darn it?).
This issue is a great fight between the X-Men and the Guard, but also amazing mythology building by Chris Claremont, as he’s setting up the Shi’ar, the M’kraan Crystal, D’ken and Lilandra’s crazy family drama, cool elements like the Soul-Drinker and Dath-Stars, and so on. It’s a testament to his skill and also to the strength of the X-Men that even though the franchises core message is really rooted in social drama as far as intolerance and acceptance, it’s always been fodder for great stories set in other genres and been one of the Marvel franchises most conducive to going cosmic.
Any enough can’t be said about how much Dave Cockrum rocks the issue, a true showcase of why he’s one of the all-time greats. Maybe the best pure designer when it comes to costuming and exotic looks in the history of comics, he’s also a master of the emotional expressiveness needed to convey the crazy stakes and wrenching twists of something like the Phoenix Saga.