Review: X-Men: From the Ashes trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

[Guest review by Doug Glassman.]

Thirty issues of Uncanny X-Men later, the young mutants are still reeling from the loss of their friend, but they also have their own issues. I was initially unsure about picking up X-Men: From the Ashes, an old, out of print trade, but then I saw that the first issue has one of the best X-Men first pages of all time: “Professor Xavier Is A Jerk!” Spoken by Kitty Pryde, this apt description of the team’s morally ambiguous founder comes about because she’s been demoted to the New Mutants, and rather unfairly so.

Much as in Dark Phoenix Saga, Professor X is still not used to his ever-changing team. Kitty’s issues pale compared to her friend, Illyana, who was Colossus’ kid sister until she grew up into a teenager in a hell dimension. Other changes since the previously-reviewed volume include Lilandra Nerimani being banished to Earth, Professor X gaining a new, cloned body, and the reveal of Cyclops and Havok’s father being alive as the leader of the Starjammers.

Now that we’re caught up, the real changes can begin. From The Ashes picks up on plot threads left over from Dark Phoenix Saga while continuing on from other events in the X-Men universe. For instance, Wolverine has just completed his first mini-series and is now ready for his ill-fated marriage to Mariko Yashida. Even with the next Wolverine movie adapting his Japanese adventures, they still seem odd; Wolverine himself points out how strange it is for a gruff Canadian to be marrying a Japanese beauty. Romance is a running theme throughout the book, featuring the budding Colossus/Shadowcat couple, Nightcrawler’s romance with Amanda Sefton, and Scott Summers’ new girlfriend, Madelyne Pryor.

One of the troubles of reading comics so many years later is knowing about the retcons and character alterations that will come later. I wasn’t able to put Jean Grey’s resurrection, Scott Summers’ reaction to it and Maddy Pryor’s final fate out of my mind, and the story becomes quite tragic because of it. Maddy’s not a great character, but she is clearly the best thing to happen to Cyclops for quite some time. His struggle over whether to return to the X-Men or go off in space with his father and the Starjammers never quite seems to be a legitimate problem, but I liked the options that opened up to him. What brands this trade as a sequel to Dark Phoenix Saga is the return of Mastermind, who wants revenge for Jean Grey's actions. The lead-up to this is actually a nicely-done mystery, and there are moments where you might think that Jean really is back and ready to kill us all.

An important group of Marvel characters is introduced in this trade: the Morlocks, a group of mutant outcasts. Actually, the “outcast” part is self-imposed: they have been either forced underground or chosen a hidden life because of how they look. I really have to admire Paul Smith’s designs for the Morlocks. He put an incredible amount of effort into creating beings that are ugly both inside and out. At the same time, there’s Caliban, the simple, bug-eyed mutant who falls in love with Kitty Pryde and becomes her own Phantom of the Sewers. He gets a softer, kinder character design, so it’s easier to feel sorry for him.

The two most important character arcs are for Rogue and Storm, with the former joining the team against the wishes of everybody but Professor X. A lot of the emotional baggage around Rogue and Ms. Marvel is lost if you don’t know their background, and for once Claremont omits a lot of those details. However, Rogue’s interplay with Wolverine makes up for it, and you can see how some of this side of her character, merged with Shadowcat and Jubilee, worked its way into the film version. Despite the harm she’s caused, the Rogue of From The Ashes is just a lost girl with a broken mind, just at the cusp of a major character evolution. It would take a few more years and the introduction of Gambit to really get that ball rolling.

Storm, meanwhile, has become the team leader while Cyclops is on a break. During the team’s adventures in Japan, she comes under the influence of Wolverine’s crazy friend Yukio, along with a combat injury which makes her powers unstable, Storm’s personality starts to change, making her take on a harder edge. When she has to fight Callisto, leader of the Morlocks, Storm nearly kills her and ruthlessly takes over the mutant underground. Later, Storm unveils her new “punk” look with a leather outfit and a mohawk. It’s a rapid change of character that at times feels like it’s going too fast. Today, there might have been a “Fall of Storm” mini-series to cover these changes, but Claremont had the best of intentions with this rapid change.

The art for this trade is primarily provided by Paul Smith, with assists from John Romita Jr. and Walt Simonson. You can tell which issues JRJR did because the characters have square heads, which is my one main critique of his work. Smith’s art stands out from Byrne because of his rounder faces. Compare, for instance, Byrne’s and Smith’s depictions of Nightcrawler. Byrne draws Kurt with a sharp chin, while Smith gives him a rounded jawline.

One reason to seek out this version of Uncanny X-Men #168-176 is the cover, a gorgeous portrait by Arthur Adams. I’m not entirely sure of the in-print status of From The Ashes, but I found at least a dozen at Baltimore Comic-Con and at many stores in the Maryland area, so it should be easy to find. This is truly classic X-Men, and if you liked the Dark Phoenix Saga, you’ll find this to be a good sequel.
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  1. I really liked this book, too. I don't believe it was ever available in hardcover, though, just paperback. Paul Smith is very underappreciated! - steve

  2. Agreed on Paul Smith--either our esteemed editor, myself or another guest reviewer should really review "The Golden Age".

  3. I see now the listing I showed for hardcover was kinda iffy; removed.

  4. the golden age is pretty good, as was leave it to chance. another Smith choice would be Dr strange 'into the dark dimension ' - steve

  5. It saddens me that in today's world of New52 and Marvel Now that we will never again see a run like Chris Claremont's on X-Men. His storylines and character development would build up over years and he would make hints at storylines that wouldn't pay off for years as well. He took stories and built on them so that it really did seem like it was one large story and not broken up into arcs like today. I read an interview with Rick Remender where he was talking about the end of his run on Uncanny X-Force, and he said that he had told the story he wanted to tell. That title has only existed for something like 30 issues! It was a special run and well worth the time and money investment to read.

  6. One of the side effects of the rise of TPBs is the demand for fixed-length arcs to sell more trades. Marvel used to be really fixated on the six-issue trade, and that only eased up because they could sell shorter or longer trades by marketing them as tie-ins to events. Modern epic runs, like Robinson's Starman and Fraction and LaRocca's Invincible Iron Man blur the line between arc and fully continuing story, but you have to marathon-read to really capture it.

    This is what makes Claremont's X-Men tricky to republish in full outside of Essentials--there's so much of it, and if you skip a few issues, you can get lost. Keep in mind that there are thirty issues between DPS and FTA, and you only get hints of what happened during that time. If I go and read the Proteus Saga (which is certainly a possibility), I can only imagine how differently FTA might read.

  7. It has always surprised me that Marvel never did a X-Men Visionaries series for Chris Claremont like they did for Peter David's run on Hulk. This was Marvel's flagship title for years and it is very undercollected. There are huge gaps in what has been collected, not just for Claremont but for other runs on the title as well. I would love to see Marvel start to rectify this.