In a Nutshell
Magneto returns to face the reunited X-Men in a brand new series.
Co-Plotters: Chris Claremont & Jim Lee
Writer: Chris Claremont
Penciler: Jim Lee
Inker: Scott Williams
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Editor: Bob Harras
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco
In outer space, a team of SHIELD agents chase a group of renegade mutants to the doorsteps of Magneto's Asteroid M, drawing his attention. The intervention of Magneto upsets the Russians, over whom Asteroid M is currently in orbit, and they initiate the Magneto Protocols, prompting Nick Fury to propose an alternative approach to the US President. Meanwhile, the reunited X-Men train in their brand new Danger Room, playing a game of tag against each other and the new X-Mansion's defenses. Afterwards, they're contacted by Nick Fury, who informs them of the situation with Magneto, and they agree to help however they can. On Asteroid M, Magneto puts a stop to the fighting between the agents and the mutants, who pledge their service to him. Magneto is eager to remain apart from worldly affairs, but the mutants' leader, Fabian Cortez, convinces him the world will respond to his actions, and that he needs a suitable deterrent.
At Xavier's School, Cerebro alerts the X-Men to the arrival of Magneto's energy signature in the atmosphere, and Cyclop's Blue Team rushes to intercept him. They find him in the mid-Atlantic, where he has raised the sub Leningrad and pirated its nuclear arsenal. Though he argues it is merely an act of self-defense, the X-Men attack, and when he flees, Rogue gives chase, trying to convince him that his actions are only reinforcing everyone's worst fears about him. Their conversation is cut short by the arrival of Russian jets, prompting Magneto to detonate one of the missles, which sends Rogue crashing down. On Asteroid M, a wounded Magneto is tended to by Cortez, while Rogue awakens in Genosha, which is under attack by the mutants now calling themselves Magneto's Acolytes. The X-Men rendezvous with her and attack the Acolytes, but they are interrupted by Magneto, who doesn't condone the Acolytes' attack, but declares them to be under his protection just the same. Meanwhile, at the X-Mansion, Moira makes a discovery that convinces her everything that's happening is her fault.
Firsts and Other Notables
Though the X-Men have technically been a franchise since New Mutants launched, this issue marks the first time the characters have joined the ranks of Spider-Man, the Punisher and the Avengers in being featured in more than one book at the same time. It's hard to make clear just what a big deal this was at the time, given that nowadays there's routinely three X-Men books being published, along with a couple X-Forces, a handful of Wolverines, the occasional X-Factor and whatever the heck Uncanny Avengers is supposed to be, but the idea of publishing another X-Men book, one that was just about more X-Men and not a different take on the concept (ie "mutant students" or "X-Men posing as mutant hunters" or "EXTREEEEME X-Men!") was fairly radical in 1991.
Both Chris Claremont and Jim Lee (and most of the rest of the creative team) move over from Uncanny X-Men to launch this series; Claremont will only last through issue #3, while Lee sticks around through issue #11 (without any fill-ins, amazingly enough) before leaving to help launch Image. Claremont was initially scheduled to write both this series and Uncanny, but left Marvel entirely for reasons we'll get into in future posts; he ended up writing the first three issues of this series as a kind of severance package (he's said in interviews that writing this book more or less paid for his house), as by the time they saw print, he was already gone.
Following the reconfiguration of the various teams following the "Muir Island Saga", this issue features the first appearance of the X-Men's Blue Team (though the rest of the X-Men appear as well), comprised of Cyclops, Beast (both brought over from X-Factor), Wolverine, Rogue, Psylocke and Gambit. It's a pretty decent team makeup; while Jim Lee clearly got first pick of characters for his book and thus, this one features all the cool characters, it's also nicely representative of the various eras of the X-Men (Cyclops & Beast from the originals, Wolverine and Rogue from the 70s and 80s teams, with Psylocke and Gambit as the more recent additions).
The X-Men get new costumes this issue, designed by Jim Lee. Most notable (in terms of being completely different from their previous looks) are Cyclops and Jean Grey's; everybody else pretty much sticks with what they had - Rogue gets a new green-and-yellow bodysuit, but it's not vastly different from previous costumes she's had, while Storm's costume changes from all-black to all-white and gets some "X" logos added to the lapels. Colossus goes back to his classic outfit, with a few tweaks, while Iceman and Beast get an X-logo added to their trunks.
This also marks the debut of the "leather jacket X-Men" as Rogue (most regularly) wears a leather bomber jacket branded with the X-Men logo on it over her costume (Gambit is also wearing a coat, but he's been doing that since his first appearance). In a move that often gets mocked alongside other 90s trends but which I really kind of dig, in future issues, other characters will take to occasionally wearing leather jackets as well, giving the team a unified look beyond the handful of X-logos on their otherwise-unique attire. While that trend will eventually fade out, Rogue's jacket sticks around as a part of her costume longer than most.
Also, thanks largely to the animated series (which adopts these designs for its characters), these costumes stick around (with some variations) for a long time, becoming the characters' default looks for an entire generation of fans brought to the series by the cartoon.
In addition to new costumes, this issue features the debut of a brand new X-Mansion, rebuilt behind the scenes between Uncanny X-Men #280 and this issue (albeit one which looks just like the old one), marking the first time we've had an un-destroyed X-Mansion since Uncanny #243, and the first time the X-Men have operated out of it since #219 (or X-Men Annual #11). It comes complete with a brand new, state-of-the-art Danger Room, which features in the issue's opening pages.
Additionally, Professor X gets a brand new hoverchair (later said to be of Shi'ar design), which will be his principal mode of transportation for the next decade or so, and like the new costumes, remains a iconic look for the character amongst many fans.
Forge has also built the X-Men a new Blackbird jet (presumably, two of them, one for each squad).
Future issues will establish that Forge and Banshee are not assigned to specific squads, and function basically as support staff for the mansion along with Professor X (though Forge ends up spending most of his time in Uncanny, while Banshee will shortly leave the franchise entirely for awhile). Jubilee, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found, nor is her absence commented on; she'll return in issue #4 of this series (again, without comment), having appeared in Wolverine during the intervening months, and more or less function as a member of the Blue team for the duration of its existence.
This issue marks the first appearance of the Acolytes, a group of mutants with an almost-religious like devotion to Magneto. Notably, they form and pledge themselves to Magneto without his involvement (as opposed to him going out and recruiting them). Most of this iteration of Acolytes will not outlast this story, but the Acolytes as a group, with varied membership, will return and become a fixture of the 90s and last even into the 00s.
One member who does outlast this story is their leader, Fabian Cortez, who also appears for the first time. Like Trevor Fitzroy over in Uncanny, he will eventually be established as a member of the Upstarts, and like Fitzroy, he will burn intensely hot for a few years (even getting to be the chief villain of a 30th Anniversary-celebrating X-Men/Avengers crossover) before mostly disappearing into villain obscurity by the late 90s. This issue suggests he has healing abilities, but the rest of the story will go into more detail about what exactly he does (I've heard the character was named after Fabian Nicieza, whom Claremont apparently resented for helping oust Weezie from New Mutants, but I've never seen that corroborated).
Moira MacTaggert is shown to be living and working out of the mansion (presumably due to the damage done to her Muir Island facility during "The Muir Island Saga"). She ends the issue having made a horrible discovery, and will feature heavily in the next two issues of the series.
This remains the highest-selling single issue of comic book ever, with upwards of eight million copies reported as sold. Of course, those sales were to retailers, not directly to customers, and for all the people who bought numerous copies thinking they'd one day put their kids through college, the enormous print run pretty much ensured there would always be supply to meet even the most fervent demand, thus limiting the potential value of the issue.
In the most 90s thing to hit the X-books yet, this issue was released with five variant covers: one with a quadruple-foldout cover containing the entire image of the X-Men attacking Magneto (itself an homage to the cover of the first X-Men #1), printed on high quality paper with no ads for $3.95, and four more in which the main image is broken down into four pieces, one piece per cover, printed on regular paper and priced at $1.50 for the double-sized issue (the five different variants are usually labeled as #1A-#1E, with #1E being the gatefold cover). Like the polybagged trading cards in X-Force #1, the variant covers invariably helped boost sales of the issue, as collectors bought all five to complete the "set" (this is also part of the reason why, despite being the best-selling comic book of all time, it's also, nowadays, frequent quarter bin fodder).
Additionally, each of the different covers included a different double page pinup from Jim Lee (with the super gatefold cover edition also featuring all the pinups). One features a collage of X-Men villains...
...another the original X-Men....
a third, the X-Men lounging by the pool (I believe that's Stevie Hunter next to Jean, and possibly Opal with Iceman way in the back)...
and finally, a preview of things to come, most of which, for the most part, come true (the only weird one is the green, techno-organic-ish woman in the bottom left corner; I believe that is a reference to what will eventually become the "Phalanx Covenant" crossover).
The backside of #1E's gatefold cover features a group shot of all the various X-Teams (sans Quicksilver) by Jim Lee; I have a laminated, supersized poster version of that image which hung on the back of my bedroom door for many years.
There's also a one-page ad for issue #2, though it's a reproduction of that issue's cover sans logo, and two pages of Jim Lee sketches for new characters and designs.
A point of clarification moving forward: this series is technically titled "X-Men (vol. 2)", as Uncanny X-Men began life as simply X-Men, before officially changing its name to add the adjective with issue #142. It's often colloquially referred to as Adjectiveless or Adjectiveless X-Men (since it has no adjective in its title). Since "X-Men (vol. 2)" is kind of a pain to type every time I need to refer to this series, moving forward I will, generally, use "Uncanny" in reference to Uncanny X-Men, and "X-Men" in reference to this series.
On a personal note, this remains a favorite issue of mine, something I've read countless times in various forms (it gets oft-reprinted and re-colored), and reaching this point in my survey of the X-books feels like a big deal, akin to reaching Giant-Size X-Men #1 or the launch of New Mutants, something that seemed way off in the distance, almost unattainable, when I first started, yet here we are, with this latest watershed moment in the history of the franchise soon to be in the rearview like so many others.
I used the Magneto-only cover (#1D, technically) for this post since it was the first copy of the issue that I bought in my early collecting days. I purchased it around the time issue #9 or #10 of the series was on the stands for a few bucks (I actually had to pay more for #2). I do have all five covers nowadays, but only because I bought the other four for a quarter a piece at a convention years ago, mainly just to say I did so.
The Chronology Corner
This issue up to #5 all take place before Uncanny X-Men #281; the gap between the end of "Muir Island Saga" and this one is used by chronologists to slot in a bunch of guest appearances by the X-Men, including their appearances in "Infinity Gauntlet".
A Work in Progress
Since his last appearance in Uncanny X-Men #275, Magneto has retired to a rebuilt Asteroid M in orbit above Earth, saying he no longer cares about human/mutant relations, though he gets drawn back into the conflict by his would-be Acolytes.
Xavier hangs a lampshade on the purpose of this issue by pointing out that it feels like all the X-Men are coming together again for the first time.
Gambit is referred to as being "Acadian" instead of Cajun, which is kind of accurate (Acadians are traditionally considered the descendants of French settlers in Canada, but Cajuns are in turn descendants of Acadians who went south to Louisana) but not consistent with how he's usually described.
Professor X (or the Danger Room) is apparently capable of building telepathic robots, as Jean attacks Colossus during the training sequence, then is later revealed to be a robot duplicate.
Magneto returns to the site of the sunken submarine Leningrad, which he destroyed in Uncanny X-Men #150, to salvage the vehicle's nuclear arsenal.
Magneto notes that for all the savagery of Wolverine's attack on him, the two were, if not friends, at least respected allies during Magneto's time running Xavier's school, and in fact, Wolverine had argued taking a less aggressive approach towards Magneto earlier in the issue.
Rogue lands in Genosha, which is still rebuilding following "X-Tinction Agenda", and is greeted by Chief Magistrate Anderson. It goes unmentioned in the text (and isn't germane to the events of the issue), but it's worth noting that Rogue is the one member of the Blue team at this time who wasn't around for "X-Tinction Agenda" (also, her going from Soviet airspace, albeit in high orbit, and landing in Genosha, which is near Madagascar, is dubious, at best).
This also represents Magneto's first visit to Genosha, a nation he will later rule, though he has acknowledged its existence (and its former economy built on the backs of mutant slaves) previously.
Gambit is able to catch a bullet in midair.
Harry Delgado is introduced in this issue as one of the SHIELD agents chasing the future Acolytes; then he shows up as an Acolyte, complete with powers. Whether this is a case of Deglado working as a double agent, getting mind-controlled into joining the Acolytes, or merely a case of each group having a "Delgado" amongst them, is never made clear, though all three options are suggested by the characters.
Beast and Wolverine perform an unnamed Fastball Special together.
Psylocke thinks to herself that she could take down her foe telepathically, from a distance, but craves the thrill of hand-to-hand combat.
The Reference Section
Rogue says she loves it when a plan comes together, quoting Hannibal Smith from the A-Team.
We get two repeats of "Bang, you dead" in this issue; first, Gambit delivers a variation on it, after being duped by the Jean Grey robot.
Then, Wolverine delivers the line when he reaches the real Professor X and "tags" him.
Psylocke, of course, describes the nature of her psychic knife.
The shot of Archangel flinging Colossus at the mansion's defenses was used as the character's art on the X-Men arcade game console (Colossus was always my preferred character to play in that game).
Claremont is forced to script over a panel of the totally-normal-strengthwise Psylocke punching through robots, having her say that Forge designed robots so she could fight them.
Build up your Vocabulary with Beast: Vernacular
/vərˈnakyələr/. Noun. The language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people in a particular country or region (this issue is responsible for teaching me that word, as its the first place I encountered it as a kid).
Rogue refers to her and Magneto as old friends, and tries to speak to him through the personal connection they developed in the Savage Land.
The Best There is at What He Does
Another spot which shows a possible disconnect between art and script is when Wolverine attacks Magneto on the Leningrad; earlier, he had sided with Rogue, arguing that Magneto deserves to be reasoned with; on the sub, he attacks with an attempted killing blow (though Claremont could have easily scripted around it; instead of having Magneto say what a close call Wolverine's attack was, he could have noted that Wolverine tore his armor but was careful not to wound him, or something).
Wolverine notes that Cortez's scent is familiar, and Cortez seems to know Wolverine; whatever their connection, it has yet to be established or referenced outside this issue.
This issue introduces a new derogatory slang term for non-mutant humans, used by more zealous, anti-human mutants like the Acolytes: flatscan. It'll get used a lot by those types throughout the 90s, but doesn't pop up much anymore.
Bob Harras on launching a second X-Men series
"I thought it was the worst idea on the face of the Earth, but [Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco] was the boss and [he] basically said, 'Hey, we gotta do another X-Men book!' I think it was right after McFarlane's Spider-Man had come out and was a big hit. [Hesaid it was to expand the X-Men line. I remember thinking, 'How much more can we expand this thing? We have four X-books already: X-Men, Wolverine, New Mutants and X-Factor.' I thought that if we went to five, we were going to kill the golden goose. I thought it was not going to work. I thought it was just something that was profit generated and not creative. I kind of fumed for a day or two.
I think there was a lot of geekdom in my reasoning at that point. I knew on one level, of course, that we had to make money, but how could we differentiate the new book from the other X-titles? And how could we outshine Spider-Man? That was also a goal. It was like, 'I want to do this better than Spider-Man. I want to make this a big, big deal.' I wanted to make it more than just a publishing initiative. I thought, if we're going to put out the first X-Men #1 since Giant-Size X-Men #1, this should be a big, big deal.
DeFalco, Tom. Comic Creators on X-Men. London: Titan Books, 2006. p176-177
Tom DeFalco on launching a second X-Men series
"I had gone to Europe and discovered that the desire for more Spider-Man material was so great we could publish another Spider-Man book and make a profit, even if we didn't publish it in the United States. I decided to do it and everybody thought I was nuts. I realised we could expand the X-Books, too."
DeFalco, Tom. Comic Creators on X-Men. London: Titan Books, 2006. p177
As much as Uncanny X-Men #281 is about moving forward while blasting away at the past, this issue is pretty much the exact opposite: moving forward using the past as a stepping stone, embracing the past to give the future more meaning. As much as this is filled with new things - a new series, new costumes, new teams, a new group of followers for Magneto - it's also steeped in the past, short-term, long-term, and relatively ancient: Professor Xavier's return from exile, Rogue's relationship with Magneto, and "X-Tinction Agenda" from the not-too-distant past, Magneto's role as ally of the X-Men, and the existence of the New Mutants from the older past, Magneto's sinking of the Leningrad, his last act of outright Silver Age villainy, from the relatively ancient past. The end result is an issue that doesn't just reintroduce the concept of the X-Men as a group of superhero mutants operating out of a mansion under the tutelage of Professor X (a status quo not seen, in all its components, since Uncanny X-Men #199), but also introduces new readers (and some of those millions of copies sold HAD to have gone to new readers) to the rich historical tapestry of the X-Men. It's a primer on the X-Men, but also on the fact that these characters aren't brand new, and come with history.
As a result, this issue makes for a fantastic introduction to the X-Men for new readers. It's certainly not a perfect issue, on either the writing or artistic fronts; Claremont's tics are on full display - that final splash page is a pretty good microcosm for how Claremont's prose can sometimes get out of hand and crowd the art - while Claremont is also forced to script over some questionable artistic choices from Lee. But for the most part, this works: each character gets introduced and given a chance to illustrate their powers (the Blue team moreso than the Gold, of course, with Banshee & Forge mostly sitting things out), their personalities and relationships are on full display, it features the franchise's chief antagonist while continuing the work Claremont has done developing him, and while it gives a reader everything they need to know to understand and enjoy the story, it also isn't afraid to suggest that these characters are part of a larger world, with a rich history, beyond this issue. Reading this (a lot) when I was younger, it felt very much like a gateway, a transition point: after it was the new stuff, the stuff I was watching unfold each month. Before it was the entire complex, convoluted, engrossing history of the series, laid out for me to take, with this issue, in part, as my guide.
For an issue that could very easily represent the crass cash-in mentality of the early 90s speculator market, what with its five variant covers launching a spinoff of an already-bestselling series, it could have been much, much worse (it frankly could have been Uncanny X-Men #281 - and while it's easy to credit Claremont's presence as the difference, I do think Lee, as a plotter and collaborator, is steadier and more measured, with a better appreciation for the series' history, relative to Portacio). As is, it holds up reasonably well as an X-Men "pilot" issue, one which tells new readers what they need to know while entrancing them with shiny, energetic, widescreen art, but which still feels of a piece with what's come before, an issue which manages to look forward and start something new while still honoring what brought the narrative to this point.
Tomorrow, Alan Davis returns in Excalibur #42. Friday, Wolverine gets a fill-in in Wolverine #46. Next week, Beast guest stars in Spider-Man #15.