X-Men Annual #3 was distinctive for me in a number of ways. It was the first X-Men annual that I bought--issues 1 and 2 were simply reprints of prior material from the main title, a decision which probably did little to endear readers to the original team and perhaps gave the indication that even Marvel couldn't think of material to write for these people. The third issue also featured the "new" X-Men for the first time in an annual, at the time when Cyclops led the team of Storm, Colossus, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, and Banshee, and the X-Men book was extremely popular on the comics rack.
The issue also was an amazing assemblage of creative talent--written by Chris Claremont, pencilled by George Perez, and inked by Terry Austin, cramming the issue with 46 pages of first-rate work. And, like the fifth X-Men annual, this issue isn't hampered by the careful storytelling being done in the regular monthly issue and gives the team more room to just cut loose, yet still retain Claremont's nice touches of characterization which set X-Men apart from the rest of Marvel's line.
The issue's story ties in with a prior Avengers tale, where the team was forced to clash with Arkon (the "Magnificent") who had been driven to save his own world by destroying ours in an atomic holocaust. In fact, given the similarities between the two stories and the way the new one plays out (at least in terms of battle), it might seem the latter story is simply siphoning the action elements from its predecessor and substituting a threat to Storm's life for the threat to Earth dealt with by the Avengers. But there are enough differences--particularly that of seeing the X-Men's style of battle here, rather than the Avengers'--that it's easy enough to regard this story as simply a new take on the original.
"A Fire In The Sky!" starts off as several X-Men stories have successfully opened with--a session in the team's Danger Room. I think this is before the Room got souped up with Shi'ar technology, operating instead with a number of mechanical devices and traps--which I think better gives the impression of the "team training" spirit of the room and practice of skills, rather than the image of the X-Men being soldiers on some holographic battlefield. We already know at this point that Arkon has arrived on Earth and is heading to X-Men HQ; but Claremont gives a generous amount of space for just the X-Men in these first pages, which serves to present the team in a great and dynamic way for any new reader who was tempted to sample the book through this annual. And I can't tell you how nice it was to flip open an X-Men annual and see brand new material, including this beautiful double-page panel:
I probably don't have to tell you that, in typical X-Men fashion, the team ends up trashing the place after an accident sends the Room out of control and everyone has to fight for their life just to shut it off. Besides, we have Arkon to get to, after he's tried to capture Storm and has been rebuffed accordingly.
You can probably already tell that there's a marked difference between Perez's action-oriented pencilling vs. John Byrne's more "presentation" approach to the team. Each have their merit, and there's no question that Byrne's style suits the regular monthly title's pacing. Yet in an annual, it's nice to see things taken up a notch. And with Perez's work, you can see pacing and then some.
Arkon may look on the ropes here (and probably spitting out a few thorns off-panel), but he's succeeded in sending Storm back to his world--and since he's not forthcoming with any details (despite a great sequence with Cyclops needing to check Wolverine before he proceeds with his unique method of "persuasion"), the team makes use of Arkon's transportation methods and returns with him--landing in the middle of armed warriors. Now, if you have the X-Men challenge a warlike race who thrive on battle and don't know the meaning of surrender, what do you get? You get another beautiful double-page spread like this one, that's what.
Eventually, the X-Men battle their way to Storm, who we discover is needed to supply power to recharge a machine which Iron Man had designed to provide energy to this world's life-sustaining orbiting energy ring that was once again disintegrating. The effort would most likely kill Storm, but she was willing to take the risk; yet Cyclops called an end to hostilities and proposed to join his power to hers and thereby decrease the risk to her life.
The story ends rather abruptly once the dust settles, with the X-Men being honored by Arkon and sent home. Yet on the whole, this is a fine story for an annual, as well as a nice link in the chain of the new team's integration with each other. We haven't seen the last of Arkon in an X-Men annual, though--he reappears in that fifth issue I mentioned, along with the Brotherhood of Badoon and the Fantastic Four. I can almost see the original X-Men folding their arms in a huff.