A scant six weeks after X-Men Vol. 2 #1 became the best-selling comic book of all time, Chris Claremont ended his fifteen-year run as writer of the X-Men. His departure (the final issue credited to him is X-Men Vol. 2 #3) wasn’t unexpected–news of his leaving Marvel had leaked a few months before the launch of the new series, and all three issues had been published after he’d left the company. Claremont had agreed to help launch Marvel’s second X-Men title as a kind of severance package for himself (he has since said the royalties from that launch basically paid for his house). Claremont ultimately left the X-Men because his artistic collaborator at the time, Jim Lee, wanted to do more traditional stories with familiar plot beats and villains. Claremont wanted to continue to push the X-Men forward, breaking new creative ground as he’d been doing for the past fifteen years. When it became clear that Lee’s approach was the one favored by their editor, Bob Harras (as well as with Marvel’s sales and marketing departments), and that Claremont’s time as the ultimate arbiter of the fates of the X-Men was up, he left. Bob Harras was comfortable with letting Chris Claremont–the man who, alongside a series of artistic partners, launched the X-Men to the top of the sales charts and birthed an entire interconnected line of “X-books”–leave, because he still had Jim Lee.
The 1991 relaunch of the X-books, including the release of a second X-Men title and new creative directions for Uncanny X-Men and X-Factor, all coming a few months after Rob Liefeld transformed New Mutants into X-Force, was driven principally by its artists. These artists were a collection of superstar talents whom fans adored and who drove sales: Liefeld on X-Force, Jim Lee on X-Men Vol. 2, and Whilce Portacio on Uncanny X-Men (as well as former Uncanny X-Men penciler Marc Silvestri, who continued working on Wolverine’s solo series amidst the relaunch). By the early ’90s, artists were ascendant in the comic book industry, and the combination of these hot artists with the best-selling X-Men was, in the eyes of Bob Harras and Marvel, a recipe for sales success. Yet the artists were well aware of the power they held, and soon, they’d go out looking for more. Before long, Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio would join Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, and three other fan-favorite sales-driving artists in an exodus from Marvel, forming their own comic book company where they could have complete control over every aspect of their work–a company called Image Comics. Within a year of Chris Claremont’s departure from Marvel, the artists who had been entrusted with the care of the X-Men would be gone, too.
X-Men Epic Collection: Bishop’s Crossing collects nearly the entirety of the post-Claremont, pre-Image Exodus issues of Uncanny X-Men and X-Men Vol. 2 (a pair of issues each, the last drawn by Portacio and Lee, respectively, remain to be collected in a future Epic volume). As such, this volume serves as a fascinating snapshot of an era in which the comics industry was booming, artists were driving stories far more than writers, and X-Men seemed–at least in terms of sales–invincible. The actual quality of the ensuing stories is very much a mixed bag, objectively, but at the same time, the issues collected herein are so representative of such a specific time in comic book history, theIR look and feel so ingrained in modern comic book DNA, that it’s hard to dismiss them entirely as lacking in artistic value.
It is as true today as it was in 1991 that the main selling point of these issues is the art. With the departure of Chris Claremont, Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio were given full creative control over both titles, and they plotted their respective series while also providing the pencil art. To shore up these young artists with little experience writing comic books, Marvel brought in writer/artist John Byrne to script the two books. Byrne, who penciled and co-plotted alongside Claremont some of the most well-regarded X-Men stories of all time (including the classic “Dark Phoenix Saga” and seminal “Days of Future Past”), had no illusions about his role during his return to the X-Men: Lee and Portacio provided the plots, he was merely there to write the dialogue and get paid for working on two of the best-selling comics of the time. Yet for all that, Byrne still only stuck around for roughly six months; as he told Tom DeFalco in the book Comic Creators on X-Men, he left when he became too frustrated with consistently receiving pages late, then having to rewrite dialogue when subsequent pages no longer matched earlier ones, his collaborators having shifted gears mid-issue. By the end of this volume, Scott Lobdell takes over as scripter, putting him in position to become one of the chief architects of the X-Men after the Image Exodus.
That Marvel was willing to hand over near-total control of both these books to a pair of young artists while kicking one X-Men legend out the door and relegating another to workmanlike scripting duty is a testament to the sheer popularity of Lee and Portacio. But for all the cliches lobbed at bad ’90s art–that it’s filled with unnecessary lines, lacks fundamentals, and sacrifices storytelling for cool poses and gratuitous female butt shots (all of which are true, to some extent)–it’s important to acknowledge just how dynamic and unprecedented the work was at the time (and also that much of the bad art that led to the proliferation of those cliches came from the imitators who followed in the wake of the future Image founders’ success).
Inspired by the earlier work of artists Michael Golden and Art Adams, Portacio and Lee developed styles which feature detailed figure work, dynamic action posing, and big, bold images bursting out of the panels and off the pages. What their styles lack in storytelling fundamentals, they make up for in energetic layouts, and their styles are a far cry from the standard Marvel “house style” of the ’80s, which prized clear storytelling and a sort of medium-range view of the action over the more zoomed-in and intense work of artists like Lee and Portacio. Essentially, the art collected in this volume is more focused on presenting engaging, but static images at the cost of sequential storytelling. This may make it poor art for a comic book–a medium whose dominant characteristic is sequential storytelling–requiring the scripter to do more work to cover up its storytelling flaws (an effort that eventually drove John Byrne to quit), but it nevertheless engages and excites the reader.
The story which gives this volume its name, “Bishop’s Crossing,” represents the central narrative arc of the Uncanny X-Men portion of the collection: the introduction of Bishop. Roughly five of the eight issues of Uncanny X-Men collected here deal with the arrival of Bishop, a mutant cop from a dystopian future set after “Days of Future Past,” who grew up idolizing the legendary X-Men and has followed a criminal from his era, Trevor Fitzroy, into the past. Uncanny X-Men #281-283 set up Bishop’s arrival and the immediate aftermath, in which Bishop emerges in the present and comes face to face with the X-Men he grew up admiring, only to spark a Misunderstanding Fight when the realities of the X-Men fall to live up to the tales on which Bishop was weaned.
Bishop is notable for becoming the first black male member of the X-Men. As detailed here, when the decision was made to publish two different X-Men books and split the roster of the X-Men and the original X-Factor (which was comprised of the original five X-Men from the Silver Age) across the two titles, Portacio and Lee set about assembling their rosters into what would eventually come to be known as the Blue (X-Men) and Gold (Uncanny X-Men) teams. Feeling the Gold team roster was a little underpowered, Bob Harras asked Portacio to add another member. Portacio decided to create a new character, Bishop: someone who was powerful and who would elicit reactions from the other team members. A Filipino-American himself, Portacio also decided to make Bishop Filipino. However, Harras stepped in once more, saying the marketing department wanted to add a black character to the roster, as the X-Men had developed a strong following amongst black readers. And thus, Bishop became the first black male member of the X-Men.
After his introductory arc, which ends with Bishop escaping from the X-Men to pursue his quest to kill all the mutant criminals from his era running amok in the present, Bishop returns to round out the final two Uncanny X-Men issues in this volume. Uncanny X-Men #287 (drawn by former series penciler John Romita Jr., filling in for Portacio) is especially notable. After Bishop completes his mission, the issue settles in for an extended flashback to Bishop’s time in the future just before he followed Fitzroy into the past. In the course of the story, Bishop discovers a long lost recording from Jean Grey; conveniently garbled, it nevertheless reveals that at some point in the past, the X-Men were betrayed and murdered by one of their own. In Bishop’s time, the identity of this “X-Traitor” is known only to the mysterious Witness (who looks an awful lot like an older version of the present day X-Man, Gambit), the last person alive who saw the attack on the X-Men, and he’s not giving up his secrets.
Not only does this kick-off the long running “X-Traitor” subplot, which will simmer in the background of the narrative shared by the two X-Men titles for years before being resolved in 1996’s “Onslaught” crossover, it gives Bishop a specific purpose in the present day: to stop the fate that befell the X-Men in his past, using his knowledge of his own future to prevent it from coming to pass . This leads into Uncanny X-Men #288 (with Portacio out again, Andy Kubert fills in; he will take over X-Men Vol. 2 after Jim Lee leaves). In that issue, Bishop accepts the X-Men as “real,” despite their differences relative to the legends of his youth, and officially joins the team, thereby giving the character an arc across the collected volume, from a time-lost mutant cop to a fish-out-of-water member of the X-Men with a new mission: to save the X-Men from a traitor in their midst.
Like the “X-Traitor” subplot, “vague mystery” is at the core of the two collected stories from Jim Lee’s X-Men Vol. 2, with each story built around two of the most popular–and mysterious–X-Men of the time, Wolverine and Gambit. In X-Men vol. 2 #4-7, Lee introduces Omega Red, a Soviet super soldier with a mutant death factor (the ostensible opposite of Wolverine’s mutant healing factor). He also reveals that during the height of the Cold War, Wolverine worked for the CIA alongside long-time foe Sabretooth and Maverick, a mysterious new gun-toting character introduced in X-Men Vol. 2 #5. Together, this mutant “Team X” (as it would later come to be known) battled a nascent Omega Red, stealing a MacGuffin device that would have curbed his death factor and necessitated putting him on ice. Decades later, he is unfrozen and set to beat the location of the MacGuffin out of Wolverine.
Also notable for Jim Lee’s decision to switch Wolverine back to his original blue-and-yellow costume, discarding the orange-and-tan one he’d worn since just after “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” issues #4-7 are an excellent showcase for both the strengths and weaknesses of Lee’s art. On the one hand, the issues are packed with intense, exciting imagery and sequences: the semi-infamous basketball game between Gambit, Wolverine and Jubilee in issue #4; the cover of issue #5 with Wolverine and Omega Red locked in ferocious combat, the inner workings of Wolverine’s claws exposed; an iconic group shot of the assembled Blue team as they come calling for their captive teammate in issue #7.
At the same time, Lee’s deficiencies as a storyteller are on display as well. For all that he can capture tremendous detail in his art, he can also lose track of details, with certain characters’ appearances shifting from page to page (and sometimes even panel to panel). He also loses track of the overarching plotline at times, with the location of the MacGuffin and the overall goals of Omega Red and his masters shifting between issues, again necessitating the kind of fix-’em-up scripting that so bothered John Byrne. The Omega Red/Wolverine story gets by on the energy of Lee’s art and the novelty of seeing Wolverine’s (still largely unknown) past explored in some detail; think about the plot too long, though, and the whole thing falls apart.
From there, Lee picks up Portacio’s work with Bishop, introducing him to Lee’s team of X-Men in X-Men Vol. 2 #8 and bringing Bishop face-to-face with Gambit, the man who may or may not become the Witness and/or X-Traitor in Bishop’s future. Their tense confrontation leads into the reveal of Gambit’s heretofore unmentioned wife, kicking off a crossover with the hugely-popular-at-the-time Ghost Rider that finds the X-Men traveling to New Orleans and helping Gambit defend his family from the parasitic alien Brood. Like the earlier Wolverine story, the delightfully-titled “Brood Trouble in the Big Easy” gets by on the energy of Lee’s art and the novelty of getting glimpses into Gambit’s also-mysterious past. Also like that earlier story, both the plotting and the small details in “Brood Trouble” can occasionally be sloppy.
Inasmuch as there’s any kind of narrative thread connecting the stories between the two different X-Men titles in this collection, it would be the introduction of the Upstarts. A collection of young, edgy new villains desperate to attain some sort of vaguely-defined prize by killing high profile targets in order to amass “points,” the Upstarts were intended by Lee and Portacio to be part of the big, overarching plotline of their runs. However, it barely got off the ground before the collection ended and Lee and Portacio left for Image Comics, leaving the Upstarts plotline to be advanced and, ultimately, concluded by later writers, the original plans of Portacio and Lee–if they even had any–lost to time. But the Upstarts–even in the haphazard, conflicting information given about them by Lee and Portacio across these stories–represent the storytelling approach and general iconoclastic sentiments of the young artists who would, despite essentially being given the keys to the kingdom at Marvel, create for themselves a kingdom where they have complete control over their own stories.
Lee taps into the Upstarts plotline in his Omega Red/Wolverine story (the villains who unearth Omega Red and set him against Wolverine are members/applicants–the confusion on that point is emblematic of the Upstarts plotline on the whole), but it is over in Uncanny X-Men that the group really comes into focus. Uncanny X-Men #281 is drawn by Portacio and plotted by him and Lee and is the first issue of the original X-Men book published as part of the new relaunch. In it, Trevor Fitzroy, the time traveling enemy of Bishop, introduces himself to readers by sending a group of killer robotic Sentinels to wipe out the villainous Reavers. The Reavers were cybernetic killers who served as the chief recurring antagonists of the X-Men during the latter portion of Chris Claremont’s run. At one point, they even captured and crucified Wolverine. Yet they are wiped completely off the board within the first few pages of the new era. Later in that issue, Fitzroy attacks the Hellfire Club, former foes of the X-Men who had entered into a tentative truce with the team. By the time Bishop makes his first appearance, Fitzroy has captured and killed nearly all of the Hellions, the students of Hellfire Club leader Emma Frost, and seemingly killed Frost herself. During these attacks, Fitzrot plots and cavorts with Shinobi Shaw, a fellow Upstart. Shinobi was introduced a few months earlier by Portacio via a backup story in an issue of X-Factor by killing his father, another prominent Hellfire Clubber: Sebastian Shaw..
Bumping up the credentials of a new character by having them defeat an older, established character is hardly something new to comics, even in 1991. But both the scale and mercilessness of these Upstarts–as well as the timing of their debut, coming in the midst of massive overhaul of comics’ best-selling franchise, an overhaul that drove the signature creative voice of that franchise away–makes them more than just another example of that trope. The message here is clear: those old characters had their day, but it’s time for them to move aside in favor of the hot new thing. It’s the ethos of Lee and Portacio and their generation of ’90s superstar artists manifesting in the stories they are telling.
One of the ironies of the Upstarts and their “out with the old, in with the new” attitude is that Lee and Portacio left their books before doing much with the characters aside from introducing them; not even the hot new thing was enough to hold their attention. Thus, as much as the apparent iconoclasm built into the Upstarts might sting (especially for long-time readers and/or Chris Claremont, though he was probably soothed by his piles of “retirement” money), that sting is lessened by the fact that the Upstarts don’t really have the impact Lee and Portacio intended them to have. They are, ultimately, less “the hot new thing” and more flash-in-the-pan characters who do their thing and then shuffle off stage (and, of course, this being serial comics, nearly everyone the Upstarts killed eventually returns in one way or another). The realities of an ongoing, serial narrative, of Lee and Portacio and their creative vision leaving shortly after this volume concludes, renders the Upstarts, for all their mercilessness towards the “old guard,” as little more than a laughable footnote in X-Men history.
Yet for all that, the Upstarts’ fate doesn’t drag down this volume. While they will ultimately crash and burn as characters for the most part (or transform into entirely different characters in order to become successful), they still represent that sense of something new and exciting coming in and sweeping away the old. Their promise might go unfulfilled, but that only becomes apparent in other, later, stories to be collected in other volumes; in terms of this one, the Upstarts are all promise.
Ultimately, it is difficult to examine these stories free of nostalgia. Anyone possessing a passing familiarity with the X-Men, even if they’ve never read these particular stories before, will likely feel the pull of nostalgia whether they know it or not. It cannot be overemphasized just how big the X-Men of 1991 and 1992 were. X-Men Vol. 2 #1 sold millions of copies. Jim Lee was at the top of his game (the same time the issues in this volume were first published, he drew 90 unique images for a set of trading cards dedicated to the X-Men and his art). The looks of the X-Men in this collection (several of whom received revamped costumes from Lee) are embedded in the minds of a generation of fans, whether they ever picked up a comic or not, thanks to their use in the X-Men animated series, which used those designs for its character models and aired its first episode three months after the final Lee and Portacio issues were published. Several of the plotlines and characters introduced by Portacio and Lee in this volume were adapted in that series, including Bishop and the X-Traitor, Omega Red, Gambit’s wife, and Wolverine’s past as a CIA agent, putting those stories in front of a wider audience than any comic book could reach. And while “lingering mysteries and simmering subplots” is a technique that existed, for the X-Men and comics in general, long before them, Lee and Portacio’s particular approach to storytelling–“toss out a cool idea, figure out how to pay it off later,” as seen with the reveal of the X-Traitor, the creation of Maverick, and the hints at a past between Gambit and Sabretooth–becomes a defining narrative technique of the X-Men of the ’90s, executed repeatedly by Lee and Portacio’s successors on the series. Thus, it’s easy to come to these stories for the first time and still find something pleasantly familiar about them, in the looks of the characters or the beats of the plots or the style of the storytelling.
For me, it’s especially difficult to avoid nostalgia when reading these stories. One of the issues collected here–X-Men Vol. 2 #8, the one with Bishop accusing Gambit of being the X-Traitor, the X-Men hanging out by the lake, and Rogue getting hit in the face with a boysenberry pie–is the first X-Men comic I ever picked up, the beginning of a run that continues uninterrupted to this day. For all these issues’ faults–and I’m not so blinded by nostalgia that I can’t see those faults, from the sloppy plotting, the static artwork, and the too-cool-for-school attitude about anything “old”–these are foundational stories for me, and I can’t escape their pull.
Despite all those faults, there are things to admire and appreciate here, even without nostalgia. The big, bold artwork. The rush of new ideas and the promise that it’s all leading somewhere important. The good side of iconoclasm, the part that isn’t just dismissive of what’s come before but says “we’re not going to keep doing something just because that’s the way it’s always been done.” There is a playfulness permeating the stories collected in this volume, the feeling of a bunch of kids who grew up loving comics being given the chance to finally tell their own stories–a sense that having been given that chance, they’re not going to hold anything back. For as much as the Upstarts might represent a sort of dismissiveness of past events and characters, it’s clear that Lee and Portacio are having a blast telling these stories. That comes across on the page, whether revisiting them years after first plucking them off the shelves of a seedy strip mall newsstand and tobacco shop, or experiencing them for the very first time.