Friday, May 22, 2015


Story: Scott Gray | Coloring: Val Staples | Lettering: Blambot's Nate Piekos
Production: Paul Acerios, Damien Lucchese & Taylor Esposito
Assistant Editor: Michael Horwitz | Editor: Jordan D. White
Supervising Editor: Nathan Cosby | Editor-in-Chief: Joe Quesada
Publisher: Dan Buckley | Executive Producer: Alan Fine

Art by Nelson DeCastro & Scott Koblish

Art: Roger Cruz
Wow! I mean, wow! I have no idea what happened here. As covered last week, the first four issues of this series were decent at best. We had inappropriate artwork from Roger Cruz and lackluster stories, albeit with decent characterization, from Scott Gray. But now, suddenly, things have changed. First, Gray ups his game in the writing department as the Knights of Hykon arrive on Earth. These creatures are alien gladiators who travel from world to world engaging in duels which ultimately leave their battlegrounds completely destroyed. Of course when they arrive on Earth they meet up with the X-Men, and it falls to the merry mutants to save the entire planet.

Gray nails everything here. Characterization for everyone is spot-on. Thought balloons abound, giving us insight into what all the various characters are thinking with regards to the Knights, the battle, and even their own interpersonal relationships. Professor X has something to do, heading into space in his astral form and then traveling to the Knights' home dimension. Phoenix showcases her power by saving the SHIELD Helicarrier from a crash. Wolverine cryptically hints at his healing factor, which wasn't yet public knowledge at the time these issues take place.

Gray even pays service to a sub-plot from around this time, as Cyclops learns that the Knights of Hykon caused the solar flares which (it was believed at the time) amped up Jean's powers, transforming her into Phoenix and changing her from the woman he loved into a different person. Previously this was not mentioned until the X-Men wound up in the Savage Land, believing Jean dead. But here Gray uses the solar flare angle to plant the idea earlier, helping to fit this story in among the issues between which it takes place. It all feels perfectly right and natural. More than any other story to date, this trio of issues would fit pretty much seamlessly into the original Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne chronology.

Art: Paul Pelletier (left) & Reilly Brown (right)

And a a big part of that seamlessness is the gorgeous artwork from Nelson DeCastro and Scott Koblish. I'm about to go nuts gushing here, but I seriously think these guys may draw the most appropriate versions of these X-Men since Byrne and Cockrum. Note that I didn't say the best versions -- many artists have tackled the "All-New, All-Different" X-Men over the decades, and, allowing for various styles, there have been several excellent interpretations. But DeCastro and Koblish nail the feel of the seventies stories. Everyone looks perfect. The characters are expressive and animated but not overly cartoony. Koblish even does some wonderful feathering in certain scenes which evokes the early Cockrum issues. And they get Nightcrawler's hair absolutely right, which seems to be a problem for a lot of artists!

So just as Gray's story is a great fit for the then-contiuity, showcasing the development of Phoenix's power while developing the characters toward the ideas Chris Claremont and his cohorts would eventually explore, the artwork is just as perfect. If Nelson DeCastro and Scott Koblish had done a fill-in issue of UNCANNY X-MEN circa 1978, the series would not have lost a step artistically. Their work just feels right. They even manage to make the Knights of Hykon look like characters Dave Cockrum might have designed! If I had my druthers, these two would've been the "tag team" artists alternating regularly with Tom Grummett and Cory Hamscher on Chris Claremont's X-MEN FOREVER series (DeCastro did do some work there, but not that much, and not paired with Koblish).

Sample pages from issues 6 & 7. Bask in the old-school goodness!

Art by Fernando Blanco

Art: Cameron Stewart
Gray wraps up FIRST CLASS with another Banshee spotlight issue (like I said before, the guy seems to have quite a fondness for Sean Cassidy!). The story brings Banshee, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, and Colossus back to Banshee's ancestral home, Cassidy Keep, to investigate the apparent suicide of one of the castle's leprechaun inhabitants. The trail eventually leads to a fight between the four X-Men and an army of fairy tale creatures.

"The Cures of the Craeliach" is a really interesting issue: a "whodunnit" murder mystery starring Banshee as the consulting detective. Gray reminds us of Banshee's past as a police officer and an Interpol operative as he explores the old castle and questions possible suspects. Plus the idea of Banshee, Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine as the X-Men's "four stooges" is a lot of fun. And after the three-part epic that just concluded, this quieter story is a nice way to wind the series down.

I will take minor issue with the artwork, however. It's not bad at all, and Fernando Blanco turns in some nicely atmospheric scenes set within Cassidy Keep. But after the great era-appropriate work of DeCastro and Koblish, Blanco's art once more feels too modern for the series. And he gets Nightcrawler's hair completely wrong, drawing it long and stringy rather than short and curly.

The eight issues of UNCANNY X-MEN: FIRST CLASS feature some hits and some misses. Unfortunately it suffers out of the gate with some dodgy ideas, lackluster stories which at best could be called "inoffensive fluff", and questionable artwork. But the characterization is mostly strong throughout, and Gray knows the era well. So when he goes epic for his only three-part arc and gets a pair of artists appropriate to the retro nature of the project to illustrate it, the series suddenly and unexpectedly fires on all cylinders with one truly memorable storyline which feels totally appropriate to the tone and style of the best seventies X-Men comics.

I read this series via Marvel Unlimited, and I can't say I'm excited enough to grab the collected edition. But if "Knights of Hykon" is ever collected all by itself in a slim paperback volume, I would be more than happy to have that particular story on my bookcase among my UNCANNY X-MEN OMNIBUS volumes.

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