You think you know a comic, and then you discover a whole new side to them that you never knew existed.
That happened to me just the other night when I finally got around to cracking open a trade paperback of "X-Men: Vignettes," which has been sitting in a to-read pile since a few Christmases ago. See, I do this thing where I collect comics faster than I can read them, because there's a void in me that can never be filled! But after sitting on it for a few years, I finally got around to cracking open this collection of short stories from 1986, starring characters that I have known for twenty years now, and I was ridiculously surprised.
To say that I'm an X-Men fan is an understatement. I am that type of fan that naturally assumes that every other fan just doesn't get it the way I do. Yeah, I fully acknowledge how unbearable that sounds, but that's just my relationship with these characters. Every single X-Man means something to me; every single X-Man has a ton of memories attached to them. Just seeing Gambit in his pink and blue body armor can transport me back to being in elementary school, back when I had to hide his Marvel Masterpieces card from my parents because he was smoking a cigarette on it. It's safe to say that I have thought about the X-Men every single day of my life, dating back to when Bill Clinton was first inaugurated.
So yeah, this history runs way back and way deep. But I had never gotten around to reading "X-Men: Vignettes." The stories -- by Chris Claremont with art by John Bolton -- were originally printed as back-up features when the reprint title "Classic X-Men" launched in 1986. Each story took place in roughly the same time period as the issue it was paired with, meaning that each tale offered fans a glimpse at what happened just before or after some of the X-Men's biggest adventures. The stories were never really referenced anywhere else and never seemed all that vital to me, so I never made it a point to track down reprints of back issues that I already owned in -- off the top of my head -- three different formats.
I really should have, because these stories really cut to the heart of what makes the X-Men great in a way that I did not see coming. Each vignette focuses on a character pairing, further justifying a lot of the more iconic couplings that I thought were never given enough real attention.
The first story, set just after the events of "Giant-Size X-Men" #1, shows Wolverine's first encounter with Jean Grey. I've never cared about that pairing, and I think the films' fixation on it is one of their greatest flaws, but the quick story does a lot to sell the idea. Jean's upset because Cyclops has been thrown deeper in to his X-Man life and has begun neglecting her, so she naturally takes to Wolverine when he approaches her. She's attracted to him in a way she can't really pin down -- but she's not about to sacrifice what she has with Scott nor her own sense of self to just hook up with Wolverine. She acknowledges their connection, helps him in a moment of weakness, and then chooses to remove herself from the team and all of the romantic entanglements to live her own life. It's powerful stuff, especially the scene where Jean says goodbye to Professor Xavier, and especially knowing that Claremont knew exactly how little of a life Jean would really have (thanks Phoenix!) when he wrote this story eleven years after the issue it was paired with in "Classic X-Men."
The follow-up focuses again on Jean, but this time with her friendship with Storm. It was obvious that Claremont wanted the two most prominent female X-Men to be friends when he first brought Jean back into the fold in 1976's "X-Men" #98, but the way the two of them were written as old friends seemed out of left field in those original stories. The way this story fills the gap, by showing each woman learning of and relating with the others' struggles, definitely solidifies them as BFFs in my head. I now retroactively buy their friendship. I should probably reread every issue they've ever appeared in together…
Nightcrawler and Wolverine even got a story devoted to their bromance -- which is an overused term but an apt description of these two's relationship. Their short story even seems ahead of its time -- or it makes 2013 look super behind the times. In it, Nightcrawler uses an image inducer to hide his blue skin while hanging out with Wolverine at the local pub. Logan calls his teammate out on this, though, saying that mutants shouldn't have to hide who they are.
"How can mutants ever expect to be accepted if we keep hidin' behind masks and facades?" he says. "If we're worth anything, we oughta stand straight up and tell the flamin' world." Nightcrawler then turns off the image inducer, grabs a cane and hat, and goes strutting down the sidewalk, bolstered by kind words and with a friend at his back who has also got his back. It's. Heart-warming.
There are definite parallels in this story from 1986 to the discussions Rick Remender has been including in recent issues of "Uncanny Avengers," where the politics behind mutant pride and mutant culture have taken as much of a center stage as Apocalypse and Kang's shenanigans. In these "Classic X-Men" back-up stories, Chris Claremont was able to look past high action and daring adventure and just focus on what makes the X-Men a rich title: the characters.
And that's really why these stories work. These are stories written by the master during the height of his prowess. This would be like getting a dozen new "Revolver"-era Beatles songs that you had just somehow missed. I've been reading these characters for so long, and I've had this very collection on my shelf for a while too, and I just had no idea. This gives me hope, and it should give readers who might feel disillusioned with the state of their favorite characters right now a little hope as well. If you miss a character that's gone, or a status quo that's been changed, or a creator that's retired, it's entirely possible that one of your favorite stories is still out there, waiting to be read. It might be as close as your own shelf, so I'd start looking there.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).