In a Nutshell
Whilce Portacio comes aboard as a new era begins.
Plot: Jim Lee & Whilce Portacio
Script: John Byrne
Pencils: Whilce Portacio
Inks: Art Thibert
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Colorist: Joe Rosas
Editor: Bob Harras
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco
In Australia, the Reavers are suddenly attacked by Sentinels, while in New York, the X-Men are attending a party at the Hellfire Club, by invitation from Emma Frost. Just then, Emma herself emerges, having fought off an assassination attempt. Meanwhile, Trevor Fitzroy meets with Shinobi Shaw, showing him footage of his Sentinels wiping out the Reavers, before leaving for the Hellfire Club himself. At the Club, Frost brutally interrogates her would-be assassin, increasing tensions between the X-Men and the Hellions, just as Fitzroy enters, killing Jetstream and chiding the assassin for her failure. In Australia, Pierce, running from the Sentinels, orders Gateway to send him to whomever ordered the attack, intending to surprise whoever it is. Back at the Hellfire Club, the X-Men and Hellions are attacking Fitzroy, doing little in the face of his advanced armor, when a portal opens and Pierce stumbles out, followed closely by the Sentinels. They destroy Piece and seemingly kill Frost, then attack Jean Grey. Later, in the aftermath of the attack, Senator Kelly arrives on the scene and berates the X-Men for the damage they've caused, but they step aside, showing him the body of Jean, saying they've already paid the most precious price of all.
Firsts and Other Notables
The linewide relaunch has arrived! This issue marks the debut of a new direction for the X-Men, along with the release of X-Men (vol. 2) #1 (and the retooling of X-Factor with issue #71). Chris Claremont is (mostly) out, future Image founders are in, as editor Bob Harras gives them the keys to the kingdom and tells them to go nuts, plotting as well as drawing both series. In time, that will prove to have been a less-than-wise decision, but for now, things are rosy as the series undergoes its most significant change since the launch of the "All New X-Men" in issue #94.
As such, this marks the debut of a new team of X-Men, as the roster of a dozen or so X-Men gets split into two groups, a Blue team and a Gold team. Uncanny will chronicle the adventures of the Gold Team, featuring Storm, Archangel, Iceman, Colossus and Jean Grey (and, eventually, Bishop), while X-Men (vol. 2) gets the Blue Team. As a result, this era is sometimes referred to as the Blue/Gold era (and I'll be tagging each entry as such), which lasts roughly up to "The X-Cutioner's Song" crossover, after which, with the Image guys gone, new writers Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell start passing characters between the two books more fluidly.
Though this particular assortment of characters is fairly arbitrary, and there's no denying Jim Lee got more of the "cooler" X-Men for his book, this is also the era of the franchise that was in place when I first got into comics, and as such, these particular groupings of characters have always carried a certain "rightness" for me.
With Jim Lee over on the new book, this marks the debut of Whilce Portacio as the series' new regular artist (he is also co-plotting with Lee), sliding over from X-Factor. He will stick around (with a couple fill-ins, of course) through issue #290.
With Claremont gone, John Byrne steps in this issue to script the series over Lee & Portacio's plot. He'll eventually take over scripting on the other X-Men book as well, after Claremont's final issue there, but won't last long on either title (I believe at this point Claremont is long gone even though he's got three more credited issues coming out, so he and Byrne aren't technically working on the X-Men together again in any meaningful way).
This issue marks the first appearance of Trevor Fitzroy, a green haired mutant who will shortly be revealed to be from the future, possessing the ability to create one-way portals through time (powered by life energy), and the archenemy of future X-Man Bishop. He will be a fairly significant recurring antagonist for the X-Men over the next of couple years, before eventually settling in as a minor villain with a strong connection to Bishop.
Via Fitzroy, this issue kicks the Upstarts plotline, previously teased in X-Men #268 and X-Factor #67, into high gear. Fitzroy first appears meeting with Shinobi Shaw (who killed his dad Sebastian in his first appearance in X-Factor #67), and they vaguely discuss their ambitions and some kind of contest between them. This plotline will serve as a closest thing to a narrative spine the Blue/Gold Era gets, though Lee and Portacio will both leave their series before resolving it, allowing it to sputter on in their absence and get ultimately wrapped up by Fabian Nicieza in an X-Force/New Warriors crossover. As a result, the storyline mostly consists of lots of vague motivations and hints that don't really add up and ultimately contradict each other, so, the 90s in a nutshell.
One specific detail from this issue that goes nowhere: Fitzroy is said to have a great hatred for the White Queen, though we never find out why, and little about what we later learn of Fitzroy's background suggests an explanation. Later developments in the Upstarts plotline (which turns out to be a sort of contest for young, up-and-coming villains, though the ultimate goal/prize of the contest will change several times) reveal that Fitzroy is targeting the White Queen and the Hellions here simply because they're high-value targets in the Upstart competition.
This issue marks the debut of the new Jim Lee-designed costumes in Uncanny X-Men, though in the case of this title, that mostly just amounts to Jean's new orange-and-blue attire that becomes her default 90s look, along with Storm's costume (which is basically her previous one, but with white replacing the black). Jean is also referred to as "Marvel Girl" once in this issue, but it'll be the last time we hear that name for awhile, as this is the era where Jean simply goes by her given name and eschews a codename entirely (which was also the case on the animated series), until she returns to the name Phoenix during the brief Seagle/Kelly run post-"Onslaught".
The Reavers, essentially the most significant recurring X-Men antagonists post-"Inferno", are effectively wiped out this issue, including Donald Pierce. Lady Deathstrike and Cylla (the pilot whom Pierce transformed into the new Skullbuster, last seen in issue #269) both survive and will continue to appear sporadically (usually in Wolverine) going forward, and the rest of the Reavers (including Pierce) will eventually return in one form or another, but this is pretty much the end of them for a good long while.
Similarly, this issue marks the end of the Hellions as a thing, with three of their number (Beef, Jetstream and Tarot) killed on panel, with the rest slated to die at Fitzroy's hands next issue. Most will return as zombies in "Necrosha-X", but with the White Queen shortly to be appointed the Headmistress of Generation X, the concept of a rival group of mutant students essentially ends here, unfortunately.
One Hellion who does escape is Empath. He is singled out in this issue as being present and appears to die with the rest of the Hellions in the next one, but officially, his appearance here is considered an error; last seen in Nova Roma with Magma, he'll next pop up in New Warriors (and later X-Force) still with Magma and perfectly alive, retconning out his presence in this issue.
The two biggest apparent deaths in this issue, however, those of the White Queen and Jean Grey, will quickly be reversed, as the next couple issues reveal neither is as dead as they appear at the end of this issue (though this issue does mark the beginning of a protracted period in which White Queen is in a coma and off the board, which lasts pretty much until just before the launch of Generation X a couple years down the road. For that matter, this effectively marks the end of her reign as White Queen, since Shinobi will eventually start a new Inner Circle, and her affiliations stay pretty true to the X-Men in one form or another from this point forward; however, she gets referred to as "the White Queen" pretty regularly, regardless). As result, while this issue often gets pointed to as another example of Jean dying (whenever anyone wants to make a point about Jean being the poster child for the revolving door of death in comics), it doesn't really stand as an example of such, as her death is clearly meant to be little more than issue-ending cliffhanger, common for many characters in comics, and not a serious status quo change.
Between the previous death of Sebsastian Shaw, the death of Pierce and the incapacitation of the White Queen here, this issue marks the end of the classic iteration of the Hellfire Club (as only Selene is left standing, and we'll see where she's at shortly). They haven't exactly done much since Magneto briefly proclaimed himself Grey King in New Mutants #75, but it's another example of how this issue is all about sweeping out the old to make way for the new.
Gateway pops up briefly, to essentially teleport Pierce to his death. We'll see him a few more times in upcoming Wolverine issues, but this is pretty much the end of any regular occurrences for the guy (infrequent as they'd become) until the beginning of Generation X. This is also the last we'll see of the X-Men's former Australian base of operations for even longer.
Senator Kelly also appears briefly, on the closing page of the issue, mostly just to rail against mutants and all the destruction they cause. Maybe Lee & Portacio were trying to recall the last time the X-Men fought in New York and Kelly's wife died (in X-Men #246-247), but her death goes unmentioned, and whatever Kelly's purpose here, he disappears after this issue, not returning until #298.
This issue features a wraparound cover, but is otherwise lacking in typical 90s cover gimmicks. Like every other notable issue from around this time, this issue received a second printing (denoted by the silver ink used on the cover).
The Chronology Corner
This issue takes place after X-Men (vol. 2) #5, specifically the opening pages of that issue, which shows the combined squads preparing their respective next courses of action, with the Gold squad, in their party best, preparing to leave for the party which opens this issue.
The Marvel Chronology Project lists Lady Deathstrike's appearance here as occurring after her recent stint in Wolverine, though it probably makes more sense for her to appear there after this issue (with the Reavers and Pierce all gone). However, that mucks up Wolverine's chronology, since his appearance in those issues takes place before X-Men (vol. 2) #1, which takes place before this issue.
A Work in Progress
Before Fitzroy's arrival, White Queen is attacked by a woman wearing strange armor; she's later shown to be known by Fitzroy, but no explanation is ever given as to who she is, and why she was attacking the White Queen at this point.
Beef & Bevatron, the two Hellions who first appeared in Nicieza's New Warriors, show up here, their only other appearance before their deaths. Kudos to someone for doing their homework and remembering these two.
Catseye, however, doesn't get the same treatment, as her dialogue is written normally, and not in her usual dialect.
Structurally, this issue is a bit of mess, but the ending moreso than anything, as Fitzroy's Sentinels score a major (apparent) victory by killing Jean Grey, after which Fitzroy and the Sentinels just disappear. As in, not teleport away, they just...stop appearing in the comic.
Ads for mail order services selling back issues have been common in comics for decades, but with the rise of the speculator market and the boom of the early 90s, they become even more common in issues around this time, and more overt in hocking their wares. This issue features an ad from Entertaintment This Month, which among other things, shills for the Jim Lee X-Men trading card set (I didn't realize that set was already on sale at this point) and tries really hard to convince you that random issues of Marvel Comics Presents are big time collectors items.
John Byrne On Returning to Script
"The X-Men are going to pay my mortgage."
Howe, Sean. Marvel Comics - The Untold Story. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. p329
While it tends to get overshadowed by X-Men #1 (which features Chris Claremont and Jim Lee, five variant covers, and is the best-selling comic of all time), this issue nevertheless marks a significant departure from what's come before, and is just as significant an introduction of the new status quo as the launch of adjectiveless X-Men. Even though it's only been a month since the previous issue, the end of the "Muir Island Saga" and the formal conclusion to Chris Claremont's tenure on the title (even though he technically left an issue before that), this reads like a lot more time has passed between issues. In part, this is because it begins somewhat in media res, with the X-Men already at the Hellfire Club, the new main characters of this title already broken into the (unnamed here) Gold Squad, with all that setup held for a future issues of Adjectiveless. And, of course, that feeling of this issue indicating the start of something new and bold is helped by the presence of Whilce Portacio on art; it's only been a few issues since Jim Lee left the book, but Portacio's work is still, in good ways and bad ways, unlike anything the series has seen thus far.
Of course, even beyond all that, this issue is designed to be looking forward, moving forward, at as much of a breakneck pace as possible (which is partially why its such a structural mess). In the absence of Claremont, his longtime X-Men collaborator John Byrne is brought in to script, but his sensibilities are easily overshadowed by the future Image founders' plotting. This issue is often derided by some fans for the way it seems to so casually sneer at the recent past, specifically, two of Claremont's more notable villain teams: the Reavers and the Hellions, both of whom are mostly wiped out (a few of each ultimately survive) with ease by the kewl new bad guy and his kewl new Sentinels. That reading isn't necessarily wrong, but it's less an indication of Lee & Portacio's disdain for Claremont (Lee, in particular, has never given any indication of possessing anything but respect for Claremont's work) and more of their relative inexperience. These are two young guys who broke in as artists and have been handed the keys to a sizeable, profitable, kingdom. They understandably want to go their own way and tell their own stories, and while pumping up your new villain at the expense of old villains isn't the best way to accomplish that, it is the easiest way.
Unlike X-Men #1, with Claremont at the helm and a general air of "back to basics" to leaven out the 90s-ness of it, this issue is a deep plunge into the 90s, of new costumes and cybernetic Sentinels and green-haired villains with vague, mysteries motivations and possible connections to things we already know. To go from issue #280 to #281 is almost as jarring as the transition from reprints featuring the original X-Men in issue #93 to the "All New" X-Men popping up in issue #94, maybe even moreso, and as such, it takes a lot of the criticism for the new look and direction of the franchise across the board on its shoulders. But it's important to remember that what we now consider flaws (and certainly what some fans did then as well) were considered by the creators to be assets. This book was supposed to suddenly get loud and extreme and different. And it is. It isn't to everyone's taste, and it hasn't aged well, but it is incredibly good at being exactly what Portacio and Lee wanted it to be.
Tomorrow, X-Force fights the Juggernaut in X-Force #3. Friday, a new look in X-Factor #71. Next week, X-Men (vol. 2) #1!