The X-Men's greatest adventures came from the mind of their greatest writer. We narrow down 53 years' worth of X-Men stories to the 15 best ones.
Like some mad alchemist, frenetically creating mystery elixirs and potions in search of forming something out of nothing, Chris Claremont singlehandedly forged the modern day X-Men universe from almost nothing at all during his initial 16 year run as writer on Uncanny X-Men. He took a comic book that had been cancelled for five years, made it a monthly series, and then turned it into the highest selling comic book on the market. During this run, which lasted from 1975-1991, Claremont took what was originally considered a second-rate Fantastic Four knock-off and turned it into the gold standard to which all other series were measured against.
Even when other seminal runs were lauded with acclaim, be it Frank Miller’s Daredevil, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, or Todd Macfarlane’s Amazing Spider-Man, they were all compared against Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. The language is always the same “Sales on (insert comic book title) rivaled Uncanny X-Men”. Easily the most ambitious, and arguably the most influential and important run in all of North American comics, Claremont’s tenure as writer of Uncanny X-Men rivaled Stan Lee’s run on Fantastic Four in terms of sheer creative output, while also grounding the franchise in a concrete sense of realism that was unparalleled at the time. The Hellfire Club, Mr. Sinister, Shadowcat, the Reavers, Dark Phoenix, Gambit, Mystique, the Morlocks, the fucking Shi’ar, these were all created by Claremont during his initial run. Basically, the only things that he didn’t create were the original X-Men and Professor Xavier, Magneto, and the Sentinels.
What makes his run so impressive, quite frankly, is that it was so great for the vast majority of the time. Here is a list of the 15 best stories that Claremont wrote during his initial 16 year run…because none of his stories during his later tenures were all that good. Although some of these stories exist outside of the Uncanny X-Men title, they were all written between 1975-1991 and feature the X-Men as the main heroes, so they still count as X-Men stories. Sorry, new mutants.
(Caution: 16 years’ worth of X-Men spoilers abide.)
Synopsis: The male members of the team get drunk and singlehandedly repel an alien invasion in the middle of the Australian Outback. What makes it so great is that it serves as a moment of levity and fun during one of the darkest times in pages of Uncanny X-Men. It’s one of the funniest stories written by Claremont, and it proved that the X-Men weren’t the self-serious masochist team of outsiders that everyone thought they were.
Iconic Moment: Wolverine saves the planet with a pair of twos.
Synopsis: This flashback issue reveals how Professor Xavier and Magneto first met, and why they eventually parted ways. “Gold Rush” features Nazis, PTSD, and the first appearance of Xavier’s baby mama. More importantly, it further explores Magneto’s history as a Jewish Holocaust survivor (an idea conceived by Claremont), and explains how and why he became the man he is today. It gave him something that he never had prior to this issue: a motive. No longer was Magneto an inane despot; he became a man who would fight until his dying breath to save his people from enduring another Holocaust.
Iconic Moment: Magneto kills Baron Von Strucker and funds his pro-mutant agenda with stolen Nazi gold.
Synopsis: Although the story originated as an editorial mandate for X-Factor to ditch Cyclops’ infant son so that they could rejoin the X-Men, “Endgame” is a story that succeeds more than it has any right to. Despite only serving as scripter, Claremont proved a boon to this story for his soapy and dramatic style of writing. In it, he explores Scott Summers, not as a superhero or a member of a persecuted minority, but as a father. It’s this emotional core, the depths that a parent will go to save their child, which provides the story with such a strong sense of purpose. The fact that it featured Apocalypse when he was still cool, and not a servant of the Celestials, works in its favor as well.
Iconic Moment: Cyclops sends his son into the future in order to save the boys’ life and says to the woman who will heal him, “When he’s better, you’ll bring him back”. The fact that it wasn’t a question, but a sorrowful demand makes this gut-wrenching scene all the more powerful.
Synopsis: A balls-to-the-wall slugfest between Lady Deathstrike and her Reavers against Wolverine. The issue starts in media res, after Wolverine has already lost his initial fight to Deathstrike and her gang. This fight puts every Wolverine versus Sabretooth fight to shame, as it’s more than a primal fight for dominance. The dichotomy between Deathstrike and Wolverine highlights the idea of losing one’s humanity to obsession, and the price of selling one’s soul. Wolverine had his humanity stripped away in order to turn him into a killing machine; Deathstrike willingly sold hers’ away in order to best Logan. Logan was turned into a monster, while Lady Deathstrike volunteered to become one.
Iconic Moment: Logan runs into Katie Powers after getting the shit kicked out of him by the Reavers.
Synopsis: Back in the day, when a writer wanted to humanize Professor Xavier, they would detail parts of his personal life before he create the X-Men. Now, writers just try and make him as shitty and irredeemable as possible… because that make sense for the Martin Luther King Jr. of the Marvel Universe, right? Regardless, this issue explains what exactly made Charles Xavier form the X-Men in the first place. It chronicles his adventures as a man and his first confrontation with an evil mutant, the hedonistic Shadow King. What Claremont did in this issue is give a reason for the X-Men exist: to fight mutants like the Shadow King and prevent them from abusing their powers. It was a transformative step in the franchise as it legitimized their creation. The Fantastic Four had Mole Man; the Avengers had Loki; and after 117 issues, the X-Men had the Shadow King.
Iconic Moment: Xavier gets pickpocketed by a young Ororo Munroe.
Splash image from the cover of Uncanny X-Men 241, "Inferno"; thumbnail image from the cover of "Inferno" 239.