My Misspent Youth — The X-Men Companion II

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Once I locked into superhero comics as a youngster, my appetite for them was insatiable. The array of colorful wonders available for purchase at the local grocery store underwent fierce scrutiny from me every time I was toted along on a shopping trip, the adults undoubtedly pleased to leave me rustling through the periodicals in an eager hunt for exciting new issues. (Otherwise, I would have been following close behind them making a plea for every sugary nightmare foodstuff with a clownish character on the package.) By financial necessity, I needed to be selective, but that didn’t prevent me from doing my level best to glean what was happening in every odd corner of the Marvel Universe from the studying beautifully bombastic covers and snatching the occasional glimpse at the pages within.

That craving to know everything about the fictional adventures that captured my imagination led me to further seek out reference material that both provided creative background and traced character continuity with a reverence usually reserved for musty detailing of the mythology around the United States of America’s founding fathers. Magazines and other more modestly priced periodicals, difficult as they were to come by, were my usual source of such material, but on occasion I whined just relentlessly enough to get a surrendering caretaker to shell out the extra money required to get something a little thicker. In appreciation, I would usually read those books until they were worn down like an ancient shoe. That was certainly the case with one of my most prized possessions: The X-Men Companion II.

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The trade paperback was published by Fantagraphics, home to peak-of-the-form comic series and, more pertinently, periodicals offering news and criticism of the various sequential art creations. According to Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics, it was the fearsome reputation of the the company’s flagship magazine that helped secure the material needed for a book covering Marvel’s merry mutants.

“I cut a deal with Jim Shooter, who gave us carte blanche to use all the X-Men images we wanted to for the X-Men Companion,” Groth later remembered. “They even supplied black-and-white stats for us. My gut told me that there was a sort of quid pro quo implied, that we would be nice to Marvel in The Comics Journal as a result of this largesse. I chose to ignore that implication, of course.”

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The second volume of The X-Men Companion focused intently on the era of the superhero team that had just concluded, but was already on its way to legendary status. Written by Chris Claremont, pencilled by John Byrne (who also co-plotted most of the run), and inked by Terry Austin, this stretch of issues took a reinvention of the team book that had already begun to a whole new level. Claremont was able to convey a deep sense of character with a few quick strokes and had a knack for storytelling with a soap opera momentum. And Byrne’s art was crisp and vivid, especially when boosted by Austin’s finishes. It practically popped off the page at a creative intensity almost unseen since the heyday of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

The issues were middling sellers upon release and developed a heightened reputation not long after, mostly because of the informally dubbed “Dark Phoenix” saga. Most of the comics hit stands before my time as a true blue collector, and the back issues had already skyrocketed in value, putting them well beyond my means. And this was before comic stories were routinely collected into bound volumes. For me, the generous reprinting of panels and thorough recounting of story elements — in long-form interviews with the creators — was my entryway into comics I longed to read, but felt were nearly impossible to attain.

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Eventually, I properly read every comic the Claremont-Byrne run. The experience was tinted by memories of my countless hours with The X-Men Companion II, because of both individual pages that were instantly familiar from the reprinted chunks and the retrospective perspective of the creators on what elements worked best. Byrne, in particular, was a completely unguarded interview subject, spilling opinions on every bit of the experience. I could see what was on page, but also the specter of what the artist felt should have been there. It was like having a commentary track embedded into my brain, always there for easy access.

It’s entirely possible that these X-Men issues were my favorites from the era of Marvel when I joined the grand saga. (As I’ve previously recounted, my inaugural purchases took place the same month that the monumental X-Men #137 was released, though I sadly didn’t acquire it at the time.) That I my exposure to those issues was shaped far more by The X-Men Companion II than the original comics themselves doesn’t diminish my affection one bit. It probably enhances it.

xmen companion hembeck

All images in this post nicked from elsewhere.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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