[This post is part of a series of posts looking issue by issue at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the tool bar on the right.]
“To Save the Savage Land”
John has discussed on his online forum that a mantra he’s heard leveled against him for most of his artistic career is that his “old stuff is better.” At one point not long after he left X-Men, a more specific variation on the complaint was that his work had become less detailed. Byrne’s response was that the people who liked all the detail in his X-Men artwork were actually not John Byrne fans; they were, without realizing it, Terry Austin fans.
A prime example of Byrne’s point is the amazing double-page splash on pages 2 and 3 of Uncanny #116, depicting the “City of the Sun God.” Byrne’s talent for design contributes hugely to the awe-inspiring visual, but Austin’s contribution – all that intricate linework, implying that the structure contains layers and layers of complexity beyond the surface – is just as significant. The Byrne/Austin remain one of the best examples ever seen of great penciller/inker chemistry on a mainstream superhero comic book.
It’s already been noted that the issues from this period are an extended Adams homage, but the specific plot to this one more precisely recalls the original Savage Land story by Lee/Kirby in Uncanny X-Men #10. In that issue, as in this one, the X-Men were split when half the team was captured natives for use in a ritual sacrifice. Claremont, by John Byrne’s accounting, hadn’t read the Lee/Kirby run at this point in his career, although Byrne had. The plot of this issue may be largely Byrne’s doing.
Byrne also continues his agenda to make Wolverine a fan favorite with the first half of “To Save the Savage Land,” as it depicts Wolverine displaying a new ability (to communicate with Ka-Zar’s pet sabretooth tiger), acting as a competent substitute leader when Cyclops is captured, and – most significant of all – deliberately taking an enemy’s life. Up to this point, readers had certainly seen Logan try, and there was lots of talk of Wolverine being a “psycho.” But here, Byrne has Wolverine walk the walk. It is something of a seminal moment in the series. (Byrne’s visual of Storm reacting to the moment gives it a particular gravitas.)
Having had his fun with his favorite of the “new” X-Men, Byrne then moves on to his favorite all-time team member, Cyclops, who in this issue proves that his optic blasts are equal in power to – per Claremont’s dialogue – “forces that were ancient before [the human] race was born!” That’s fairly impressive. As Byrne continues to exert more influence over the direction of the series, he will give Cyclops increasingly more impressive bits. By the time Byrne leaves in 1980, Cyclops will be one of the coolest superheroes in comics, but – as we’ll see – without Byrne to safeguard his favorite X-Man’s integrity, Scott Summers will undergo a very gradual diminishment over the first half of the 1980s, culminating in a devastating story turn (not written by Claremont) that ruins Cyclops for the next 20 years. (It will be up to Joss Whedon and John Cassady to resuscitate him.)
Once again ending an X-Men victory on a negative turn, Claremont closes with Storm attempting to save Garokk from a plunge to his death, but failing after an acute attack of claustrophobia. Her shame over the failure lasts only a page however, so Claremont and Bolton’s backup in this issue expands upon the bit.
(Meanwhile, we will eventually learn in Uncanny #149 that Garokk survived via the inverse of how the X-Men escaped Magneto’s volcano base. They escaped by tunneling down into the Savage Land; Garokk escaped to Magneto’s volcano.)
[I'm sorry -- what was "the devastating story turn (not written by Claremont) that ruins Cyclops for the next 20 years"?]