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.)
15. Uncanny X-Men 245: “MEN!”
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.
14. Uncanny X-Men 161: “Gold Rush”
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.
13. X-Factor 65-68: “Endgame”
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.
12. Uncanny X-Men 205: “Wounded Wolf”
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.
11. Uncanny X-Men 117: “Psi War”
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.
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10. Uncanny X-Men 160: “Chutes and Ladders”
Synopsis: In this issue the X-Men quite literally take a trip to Dante’s Inferno, and it’s one hell of an adventure. While trying to save Colossus’ kidnapped sister, Illyana, the X-Men wind up in Limbo, where they meet malevolent demons and future versions of themselves. These are versions of the X-Men that got lost in Limbo, and the results are quite frightening. Storm becomes a witch, Wolverine and Colossus are both dead, Shadowcat becomes a human/cat hybrid sex slave, and Nightcrawler loses his soul to become a demon (and a sex offender) both inside and out. Easily one of the most terrifying stories Claremont ever wrote, it’s also one of the most exciting and fun reads because of its stark change in pace.
Iconic Moment: Shadowcat sees the corpse of future Colossus crucified to the wall with a gaping hole in his chest.
9. Uncanny X-Men 232-234: “Broodfall”
Synopsis: The best storyline involving the sinister Brood, it’s a much more humane story than the original Brood Saga (which just missed the cut for this list). The Brood have come to Earth and are looking to infest the planet, only to run into the X-Men who are in their “take no shit from anyone” phase. What makes this story all the more riveting is the sub-plot involving the Conover Ministry, which has begun to openly embrace mutants. Being the opposite of William Stryker, Conover is a good and tolerant man whose life is irrevocably shattered by the Brood. The contrast between sci-fi battle royale and grounded religious contemplation is marvelously rendered and plotted by Claremont, who was at his creative height. The original Brood Saga is what made them evil, but “Broodfall” is what made them wicked.
Iconic Moment: The ambiguity as to whether or not William Conover, with Divine Intervention, helped to heal Wolverine after he becomes infected by the Brood.
8. Uncanny X-Men 235-238: “A Green and Pleasant Land”
Synopsis: The X-Men uncover the starling secret behind the economic and cultural success of the island nation Genosha, and it’s a secret with massive political and ethical repercussions. This arc introduces Genosha, a political allegory to apartheid-era South Africa. The X-Men work best when they’re grounded in realism and current events; it’s the most effective way to demonstrate the mutants as a marginalized population. With Magneto, there’s the heavy threat of extermination and persecution; with William Stryker, there’s the fear of irrational action and intolerance; and with Genosha, using race as a metaphor, we see mutants who are segregated and exploited. “A Green and Pleasant Land” brought a very real sense of politics, and by doing so really highlighted what the X-Men are all about.
Iconic Moment: Madelynn Prior goes ape-shit on a Genoshan torture squad and sows the seeds of her eventual self-destruction.
7. X-Men 1-3: “Mutant Genesis”
Synopsis: The last arc written by Claremont during his initial tenure, “Mutant Genesis” is a strong finish, a coda of sorts, to such a masterfully crafted run. After realizing that he is beyond redemption, Magneto is coaxed out of his world-weary ways by the Acolytes, a group of mutant terrorists who worship and revere the Master of Magnetism as if he were the messiah. At the same time, X-Factor and the remnants of the X-Men reform and reorganize the rosters into the iconic Blue and Gold teams. More than any other story, “Mutant Genesis” is most symbolic of the juggernaut that the franchise had become.
Iconic Moment: Magneto and his Acolytes sacrificing themselves to save the X-Men.
6. X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills
Synopsis: Once again, Claremont crafts a very real and cerebral story in a way that makes mutants part of the real world. There will always be religious fanatics out to hurt and kill anyone who doesn’t agree with them, and in this story, one particular man turns the spear towards mutants. William Stryker is a televangelist who plays upon peoples’ fears by openly condemning and covertly killing mutants. The threat of Stryker becomes so great once he kidnaps Charles Xavier, the X-Men are forced into working with Magneto to save the day. In God Loves, Man Kills, the X-Men aren’t superheroes, and Stryker isn’t a supervillain; he merely represents blind ignorance and intolerance, and the unsurprisingly seductive hold that they have on a mass audience. Stryker is only one man, but he has the power to fill an entire audience with fear, bigotry and hatred. He proves that not every battle can be won through a fight. His battle is for the hearts and minds, causing the X-Men to literally fight for a world that fears and hates them without their costumes or powers.
Iconic Moment: Magneto walks through a playground littered with the bodies of lynched mutant children.
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5. Uncanny X-Men 185-188: “Lifedeath”
Synopsis: This one’s got it all: mutants, aliens, demons, and government conspiracies… oh and Storm gets de-powered, also. In the midst of all this chaos, Claremont somehow manages to weave such a personal and poignant character arc for Storm. What most people tend to overlook about Claremont’s initial tenure is that Storm was the main character of his run. He took this untouchable and impersonal goddess and put her through the ringer in every possible way. Never was this more prevalent than in “Lifedeath”, where Storm loses her powers and her identity, falls in love only to be betrayed by it, and then takes a leave of absence from the X-Men. One of the reasons why the X-Men became as popular as they were was because the characters felt like real people, with real hopes and fears. There was no better example of this than “Lifedeath”.
Iconic Moment: Storm emotionally eviscerating Forge after she finds out that he was partly responsible for de-powering her.
4. Uncanny X-Men 274-275: “Crossroads”
Synopsis: If Star Wars is ultimately a story about the corruption and eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker, then one of the central storylines of Claremont’s initial run is that of Magneto’s failed attempt at redemption. This two-parter, primarily set in the Savage Land, brings Magneto’s character arc to a close, and finally proves that Magneto is beyond redemption. Beginning in Uncanny X-Men 150, Claremont molded Magneto from a one-dimensional fanatic into a sympathetic Holocaust survivor, fighting a pre-emptive war against the very same hatred and violence that cast a shadow across his childhood. Arguably the greatest Magneto story, “Crossroads” represents the truest depiction of Magneto and demonstrates just how much the character grew and evolved under Claremont’s penmanship.
Iconic Moment: Magneto kills Zaladane, ultimately proving that he is irredeemable and beyond redemption.
3. Uncanny X-Men 129-137: “The Dark Phoenix Saga”
Synopsis: Now, what X-Men list would be complete without mentioning “The Dark Phoenix Saga?” Everything that could possibly be said about the merits of this story has been said a thousand times over. There is one thing, however, that has been overlooked, and it’s one of the secret strengths of “The Dark Phoenix Saga”. Although it’s a nine issue storyline, “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is actually made up of a trio of three-issue arcs: the first arc introduces Shadowcat and the White Queen; the second deals with the Hellfire Club and the seduction and corruption of Jean Grey; and the final arc deals with the threat of the Dark Phoenix herself. Somehow, across these nine issues, Claremont masterfully crafts and plots his way around this grand storyline with a methodical and meticulous design. His vision for where he wanted to go with these characters and what he wanted to do with them is executed perfectly in “The Dark Phoenix Saga”.
Iconic Moment: The X-Men get the shit kicked out of them by the entire galaxy… literally.
2. Uncanny X-Men 141-142: “Days of Future Past”
Synopsis: It took about eight writers and 45 issues to create “The Age of Apocalypse”; it took Claremont only one half of two issues to create and detail the “Days of Future Past” storyline. In a dystopian future where Sentinels rule North America and mutants are places in concentration camps, the sole hope for survival comes in changing the past and sending the mind of an adult Kitty Pryde to stop the inciting action that leads to the rise of the Sentinels: the assassination of Senator Robert Kelly. This is a future that’s as bleak as possible, without ever seeming frivolous or over-the-top. There are only seven X-Men left to save their world, and it feels like the fate of the world is hanging on every single page. This is the very future that the X-Men fight to avoid, and in only two issues, Claremont brings this nightmarish reality to life in a frightening but electrifying way.
Iconic Moment: Kitty Pryde walking through a graveyard containing every single X-Men and meta-human.
1. Uncanny X-Men 239-243: “Inferno”
Synopsis: For whatever reason, the X-Men are at their best when they serve as a metaphor for real life events and marginalized groups of people… or when they fight an endless horde of demons. Case in point: “Inferno”. For a story that’s essentially one gigantic retcon, “Inferno” fires on all cylinders as a thrill ride that moves a mile-a-minute. After her husband (Cyclops) walks out on her, her son gets kidnapped, and she finds out that she’s a clone of Jean Grey meant only to bear Scott Summers’ children, Madelynn Prior loses it and goes a little funny in the head.
It’s stories like “Inferno” that intimidate new readers, but also entice them into wanting to read more. It’s also one of the best examples of the X-Men as a soap opera. After Prior goes apeshit and loses her mind, she makes a deal with quite a number of demons, double crosses them all, beats the shit out of her creator, Mr. Sinister, tries to commit infanticide, tells the Phoenix Force to “Fuck off” (something we all wish we could do at this point), and then tries to murder-suicide Jean Grey and herself. Although it’s a crossover with X-Factor and New Mutants, “Inferno” is an X-Men story as it’s spun out from the pages of Uncanny X-Men and plants the seeds for X-Factor’s eventual return to the fold. “Inferno” represents everything that was great about comics in the late ’80s and why they become so popular in the early ’90s. For the all the chaos that went on during this storyline, it was managed and executed perfectly by one of the greatest plotters in comic book history.
Iconic Moment: The X-Men slaughter the Marauders after having their asses kicked by them before… twice.
For however big the X-Men were, and hopefully once again will be, Claremont was the architect of it all. He took the least important book published by Marvel and turned it into a powerhouse that at one point outsold every other book by a three to one margin. Not only did he bring X-Men to the top, but he also kept them there, as this list has been compiled from stories throughout his 16 year run. Stories from 1978, 1981, 1987, and 1991 are all represented, not just to show even parity, but because for the vast majority of his time as writer, Claremont churned out masterpiece after masterpiece. (Excepting the Kulan Gath storyline from Uncanny X-Men 190-191, which is literally unreadable.) What it comes down to is this: anyone who’s ever been a fan of Marvel’s merry mutants probably owes it to Chris Claremont.