October 19, 2016 by NowhereButPop
A while back I made a list of the 15 best X-Men stories written by Chris Claremont. Having written almost one-third of the entire Uncanny X-Men series in the span of 16 years, no one else has influenced the X-Men franchise as strongly as Chris Claremont. His run is the gold standard to which not only all other X-Men creative runs are compared against, but by which the industry judges itself.
This list is a sequel of sorts, judging the 15 best X-Men stories not written by Chris Claremont. We’re going to take a look at how some other creators shaped the X-Men universe and left their mark on the franchise. This list doesn’t include solo adventures (sorry Wolverine), stories that take place in non X-titles (sorry Champions and Avengers), or any X-titles not featuring X-Men proper (sorry New Mutants and Peter David’s X-Factor). However, miniseries or X-Overs featuring many different titles are allowed. There’s no particular order to this list, so with that in mind, let’s get to it:
Issue(s): Giant Size X-Men #1
Creative Team: Len Wein and Dave Cockrum
Its importance can’t be understated, the title “Second Genesis” not only refers to the new team of mutants, but also the rebirth of the franchise itself. Prior to this issue, Marvel wasn’t publishing new issues of Uncanny X-Men, merely reprinting previous adventures. This issue introduced Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus and other characters that would become staples across Chris Claremont’s run. It also served as a launching pad for the publication of new, original stories in the pages of Uncanny X-Men for the first time in five years. Without these characters and without “Second Genesis” there’s no way that the X-Men franchise would have blown up the way it did only a few short years later. The future of the franchise rested on Wein and Cockrum, and under pressure they knocked it out of the park.
Fall of the Mutants
Issue(s): X-Factor #24-26
Creative Team: Louise Simonson and Walt Simonson
Out of all three titles that participated in the “Fall of the Mutants” loose crossover, it’s the X-Factor issues that stand out above the rest. The X-Factor issues featured the best villain in Apocalypse, doing his dastardliest deed in turning Angel into his horseman Death, thereby taking the lamest X-Men and instantly transforming him into one of the coolest, most visually striking members of the team. It served as the climax of the married couple’s first year on the title, featuring Apocalypse’s master plan, the rebirth of Angel into the horsemen Death, and the rekindling of Cyclops and Jean Grey’s romance. Suffice it to say, The Simonson’s contribution to the “Fall of the Mutants” storyline didn’t disappoint.
Bishop to King’s Five
Issue(s): Uncanny X-Men #287
Creative Team: Jim Lee, Scott Lobdell and John Romita Jr.
For the first year following his introduction Bishop was the coolest thing happen in the pages of Uncanny X-Men. Like Cable he came from the future, but unlike Cable, he had a sick flattop. He looked more like a member of the Knicks than a mutant freedom fighter. But five issues after his first appearance, readers are shown how and why exactly Bishop travelled back in time. This issue generates so much mystery and intrigue about Bishop’s future, his origin, and the impending doom that the X-Men face from a potential traitor in their midst. It was really the first exciting issue in the post-Claremont era. Despite the fact that most of the plotlines introduced in this issue went entirely ignored, or painstakingly drawn out and poorly executed, within the context of itself, Uncanny X-Men #287 stands as arguably the best Bishop story. And that’s not even mentioning JRJR’s artwork which is probably his best offering while drawing Uncanny X-Men.
…When the Tigers Come at Night
Issue(s): Uncanny X-Men #309
Creative Team: Scott Lobdell and John Romita Jr.
Despite the fact that most X-titles are team books every successful X-Men run has featured a main character. For Scott Lobdell, it was Professor X who served as the main character, the focal point for exploration and analysis. Very few writers can writer Professor X as well as Lobdell did, who humanized the character by showing Xavier as a man who’s had to constantly sacrifice personal happiness for the sake of his dream of peaceful coexistence.
This issue, which takes place within Xavier’s dreams takes place right after he wiped Magneto’s mind and deals with the guilt that he feels over that and other crimes of the past. Most strikingly though is the revelation of Xavier’s doomed relationship with Amelia Voght, an incredibly underutilized character. Unlike modern interpretations of Xavier that like to make him do terrible things with his powers while showing no remorse, his dealings with Voght leave him feeling nothing but guilt, shame, and self-degradation. In one issue, Scott Lobdell was able to do more for Charles Xavier than most writers have been able to do over their entire careers.
…Show Me the Way to Go Home…
Issue(s): Uncanny X-Men #310
Creative Team: Scott Lobdell and John Romita Jr.
Even though Cable is the son of Cyclops, there’ve been very few father/son bonding moments between the two. Much in the same way that the previous issue humanized Charles Xavier, Uncanny X-Men #310 humanizes Cable, the poster child of everything wrong with 90s comics. In this issue Cable is not a warrior, freedom fighter, or walking gunman cliché, he’s a son looking to his father for answers. Serving as the perfect denouement to X-Cutioner’s Song, this issue brings two characters known for repressing their emotions closer together than any subsequent issues. Readers are shown the depths of Cyclops’ grief at initially losing his son, and Cable is filled with resentment, wondering why his father seemingly abandoned him. It’s an amazing issue that sheds new light on these two characters by placing them in important roles that later writers have overlooked—that of father and son.
The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix
Issue(s): The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix #1-4
Creative Team: Scott Lobdell and Gene Ha
Coming off the heels of Uncanny X-Men #310, this miniseries features gorgeous art from Gene Ha and possibly Scott Lobdell’s best work with the X-Men. Lodbell and Ha beautifully illustrate a world that’s simultaneously two thousand years ahead and behind of the present day as the world is ruled by a mutant aristocracy smothered by hedonism and decadence. Thrust into a future ruled by Apocalypse in order to raise Nathan Summers, the child who would grow up to be Cable, this miniseries shows Cyclops and Phoenix struggling not as superheroes, but as a family.
The miniseries also serves as the origin of Cable, aptly showing readers how an innocent child could become the battle hardened mutant messiah that we’re more accustomed to seeing. The highlight of the miniseries is the gut wrenching revelation that Rachel Summers gives to her brother, explaining to him why he must bear the burden of being Cable. In a decade infamous for bloated stories bereft of any soul or meaning, The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix is a poignant read that offers more heart than any X-Men comic written between 1994-2001.
Age of Apocalypse
Issue(s): Too many to count
Creative Team: Various
The last amazing X-Men storyline of the 90s and it came out in 1995! The name says it all as in this bleak timeline, Apocalypse rules supreme while Magneto leads a band of rebels against him. I’ve already written enough articles about how great Age of Apocalypse is, and even though it takes place on a parallel earth, it’s still required reading for any X-Men fan.
E is for Extinction/Imperial
Issue(s): New X-Men #114-126, and New X-Men Annual 2001
Creative Team: Grant Morrison, Frank Quietly, Ethan Van Sciver, Leinil Francis Yu, and Igor Kordy
This isn’t so much two separate storylines as much as it is one mega-storyline that concluded Grant Morrison’s first year on the title. Within one year, Morrison managed to turn the status quo on its head and breal almost every unwritten rule of the franchise. Scott and Jean’s marriage was on the rocks, Xavier outs himself as a mutant, Emma Frost joins the team, and Cassandra Nova commits genocide, and that’s just in the first three issues! Morrison packs a tightly wound plot that slowly untangles itself over the next 14 issues, rife with non-stop action, and a few not-so-vague meta comments on the X-Men franchise itself. This being Morrison’s best work on the series, the only drawback is that the art is completely uneven from issue to issue, as the notoriously slow Frank Quietly couldn’t keep up on a monthly schedule. But, the issues he did draw turned out beautifully.
Issue(s): Astonishing X-Men #1-6
Creative Team: Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
Coming off the the heels of Grant Morrison’s wildly successful New X-Men, Whedon and Cassaday were tasked with revitalizing the franchise once again. The duo brought the mutants back to their pre-Morrison status quo, but did so in a fresh way that managed to trim away the excessive continuity, unintelligible story arcs, and one-dimensional character developments that had plagued the X-Men franchise for the better part of 13 years prior to their arrival. Astonishing X-Men functions as a sequel to Morrison’s run as many plot threads are carried over. The first arc especially captures the wit and adventure of Joss Whedon while still staying true to the foundation that Morrison had built.
A cure for mutants has finally been found, and the X-Men are put in a moral quandary. The effect this has on one mutant in particular is especially interesting. But “Gifted” isn’t about just one character, in fact all six team members all shine in the spotlight thanks to Whedon’s knack for dialogue and Cassaday’s perfect artwork. “Gifted” was the start of something truly special, and it’s the perfect word to describe both Whedon and Cassaday.
Issue(s): Astonishing X-Men #13-18
Creative Team: Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
“Torn” deals with the return of Cassandra Nova, and even though her master plan isn’t as opulent or destructive as it was in “E is for Extinction/Imperial”, it’s no less sinister. She plans to restore her consciousness within the body of Shadowcat, and in doing so projects each X-Men’s worst fear. By itself, “Torn” can be a confusing read, but having read Morrison’s run and Whedon’s first two arcs of Astonishing X-Men, this storyline stands as one of the best of the 21st century. It’s also in this arc that Whedon and Cassaday turn Cyclops into an assertive and totally self-assured leader that he was always meant to be. The ending of issue #17 is a particularly awesome moment for fans of the character.
Blinded by the Light
Issue(s): X-Men (Vol. 2) 200-204
Creative Team: Mike Carey, Humberto Ramos, and Mike Choi
Not only did “Blinded by the Light” bring back the Marauders after an absence of over 15 years, it also reinvigorated the title in a way unseen since Grant Morrison was still writing X-Men. It’s on “Blinded by the Light”, a sort of lead in to “Messiah Complex”, where writer Mike Carey really hits his stride on the title. After decimating the X-Men (once again) the Marauders are trying to steal information about the future and it’s up to Iceman and Cannonball to thwart them from stealing Destiny’s Diaries, tomes that predict future events. It’s a real treat to see the Marauders rear their heads in to make life difficult for the X-Men after an absence of almost two decades. Mike Carey, Ramos, and Choi made sure that they brought back these mutant assassins in a way befitting their brutality and merciless ways…and they didn’t disappoint.
Issue(s): Messiah Complex #1, Uncanny X-Men #492-494, X-Factor (Vol. 2) #25-27, New X-Men #44-46, X-Men (Vol. 2) #205-207
Creative Team: Various
The first real X-Over in about 10 years, “Messiah Complex” is also one of the best X-Over’s ever. This specific X-Over deals with the first mutant birth since M-Day, and the child born will at some point in the future either save or condemn mutantkind. Despite being 13 issues long, the story never drags as there are plenty of twists, turns, and “wow” moments to keep readers thoroughly entertained. From the thrilling first chapter, to the introduction of a new X-Force, to Bishop’s betrayal, to the no-holds-barred final issue, “Messiah Complex” represents everything that readers look forward to in an X-Over. Despite the near perfect plotting and execution of the story itself, there are still a few flaws within the story—The artwork is very inconsistent between issues and Bishop’s motive for wanting to murder the messiah baby is never developed beyond “She’s bad for the future…I can’t tell you why, but trust me”. Even though Marvel never expanded on how the baby born would influence the future of the mutant race, or why exactly Bishop wanted her dead, in and of itself, “Messiah Complex” remains a must read of the 00s.
Issue(s): X-Men Legacy #225
Creative Team: Mike Carey and Phil Briones
We all know that Professor Xavier is the world’s most powerful telepath, but very rarely does he ever come off as a bad ass. All that changes in X-Men Legacy #225. In this issue, after getting most of his memories back, Xavier singlehandedly dismantles the Acolytes and has a brief, intimate reunion with Amelia Voght. Not only does he break up the Acolytes, he repositions them under the banner of a new mission: shepherding mutantkind through the future. This is one of the few purely Xavier-centric issue, but it’s no doubt the best. The initial purpose of X-Men Legacy was to focus on Charles Xavier as the main character, #225 not only gives Xavier is long overdo moment in the spotlight, this issue also serves as the best issue in Mike Carey’s run.
The Dark Angel Saga
Issue(s): Uncanny X-Force (Vol. 1) #10-18
Creative Team: Rick Remender, Jerome Opena, Billy Tan, and Mark Brooks
The worst thing that Marvel ever did to Warren Worthington III was to bring back Archangel back in 2008. However, the best thing to come of that was “The Dark Angel Saga”, a storyline that made Angel matter in a way that the character never did before. “The Dark Angel Saga” did for Angel what “The Dark Phoenix Saga” did for Jean Grey.
After being completely corrupted by the Archangel persona, it’s up to X-Force to stop his plan and redeem (ideally) purge him of Apocalypse’s influences. “The Dark Angel Saga” explores just how far a good man can fall, while also examining the depths that a person will go to redeem someone they love. Although all five members of the team get their fair share of attention, this really is a Psylocke/Archangel love story. For all the nonstop action and attempted genocide, the most memorable moment is found in the final issue of the story, which features one of the most heartbreaking scenes in any X-book.
Issue(s): Wolverine and the X-Men #42
Creative Team: Jason Aaron and friends
It seems like every future timeline is a bleak one for mutants, but for once it seemed like tomorrow might be brighter than today. The last issue of the first volume of Wolverine and the X-Men flashforwards to the future of the Jean Grey Institute and shows how much the school has expanded and what’s in store for the present day students once they grow up. It’s a lighthearted tale that doesn’t overdo it with the levity, but still stays true to the tone of the series. It acknowledges the bad times, but doesn’t harp on them. For a franchise that tends to pack on the doom and gloom, “Graduation” serves as a happy ending of sorts by showing a future where the X-Men have won their war against fear and hatred.
 However, Louise Simonson’s X-Factor is fair game since it featured the original five X-Men acting essentially as the X-Men. It was basically a second X-Men book until X-Men Vol. 2.
 And then Marvel had to ruin the best iteration of Cyclops by turning him into a segregationist nut job terrorist.