My Misspent Youth — The Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Paul Smith

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.

Paul Smith hadn’t drawn that many comic books when he was assigned art duties on the title that had recently transformed from a longtime also-ran to arguably the most important in Marvel’s stable. He’d handled a few fill-ins here and there, including the capper on the four-issue story that launched the Marvel Fanfare series, and had just started what was intended to be a regular run on Doctor Strange. Marvel needed someone for Uncanny X-Men, though, and they were evidently impressed enough with his efforts drawing Charles Xavier’s charges in Marvel Fanfare that they offered him the gig. Smith really coveted a turn drawing Spider-Man or Conan, the barbarian, but he was shrewd enough to realize handling the X-Men could be a stepping stone to wherever he wanted to go. He agreed to one year of art chores to begin immediately following Dave Cockrum’s second tenure on the book.

Animation was Smith’s entry into making a living an artist, first working on Ralph Bakshi’s legendary feature adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. The background was immediately evident when Smith took over Uncanny X-Men. As opposed to Cockrum (and John Byrne before him), who tilted toward the muscular fullness of Marvel standard-setters such as Neal Adams and John Buscema, there was a lightness and cleanliness to Smith’s pencils. He didn’t sacrifice detail so much as suggest it, finding ways to render action boldly and convincingly with an economy of lines. His art was indeed cartoonish, albeit without any negative connotations that term might often imply.

Smith’s art absolutely popped off the page. It also arrived at a point when it was most needed. Chris Claremont, the longtime writer of Uncanny X-Men and most adjacent mutant projects at Marvel, always had a tendency to lapse into overly complex plots buoyed along by densely loquacious dialogue and captions. With the headwinds of immense popularity in his sails, he raced furiously in that direction. As Smith joined the title, the X-Men were solidly into a an outer space saga involving intergalactic politics and Alien-like beasties who parasitically take over hapless humans. It’s a lot and sometimes difficult to follow. Claremont’s storytelling is simultaneously complemented and counterbalanced by Smith’s. What could be an arcane tangle of elements with someone else toiling away at the Bristol board instead becomes smooth and compelling under Smith’s watch.

Because Smith was determined to adhere to his plan to only work on one calendar’s worth of issues, his time on the title feels a little like a missed opportunity. The mutant-populated corner of the Marvel Universe was in the earliest stages of its major expansion, and Claremont still hasn’t quite figured out how to take advantage of the bustling cast as his disposal. Monthly series The New Mutants was a recent addition to the spinner rack, and having two teams setting up residence in the same Westchester County boarding school opened up all sorts of possibilities that it would have been fun to see Smith explore more than was afforded him in the relative shortfall of issues.

Although Smith wasn’t on Uncanny X-Men for long, his time looms large. The comic shifted from hit to full-on sensation while his name was among the credits. I’m convinced he’s a big part of the reason why the characters’ collective marketplace presence escalated the way it did, and I’d argue the number of iconic images he signed his name to offers formidable support to my theory.

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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