Friday, February 27, 2009

Previously on X-Men

Thank you, Elise. I wanted to share.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I never knew it, but Joe Rogan is fucking brilliant

I was a big fan of Newsradio and I think Fear Factor a fine example of human idiocy... but then so does Joe. I've been reading his blog and watching a lot of his stand-up and it's really quite brilliant at times. I think he might be one of those rare stand-up philosophers like Carlin and... uh, well, as I said, they are rare.

A few highlights:

Blog excerpt

Sunday, February 15, 2009

X-Men Primer - Revised

Thursday I got my paycheck so Saturday I bought myself a printer/scanner. I've spent the weekend scanning things to death which is so much more fun than trying to find barely adequate pictures to represent what I'm talking about... but the more pictures I have, the more room they take up which means I have to put in more text or they look really funky.

Anyway, this is my long way of saying that I revised parts 1 and 2 so you should go check them out. I clarified some of my vague parts, added things I forgot, and just generally made them better. I hope to have number three out soon, but it's more of a pain in the ass than you might think.

So why am I doing it? I'm trying to find out that quality that I love about comics by analyzing my favorite childhood comics and trying to use those storytelling methods to get the same kind of wild, fantasy action Lucas evoke in Indiana Jones by analyzing his favorite serials. The X-Men have complex interactions and a fast moving pace that I want to latch onto.

That and it's fun.

Oh, and naturally, you can click all of the pictures to see a larger version. Most pictures were chosen because of the art, but some of it has some pretty good dialog as well.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

X-Men Primer - Part 3

You may have noticed that I covered only fifteen issues in the last post as opposed to sixty-five in the previous one, although the reason should be fairly obvious. Claremont's scripts left the reader always wanting more. One story tumbled straight into the next; often stories were left unresolved for years leading to bigger stories down the road. When read as a whole, these are not so much a series of random adventures like you would find in other superhero comics, but a single-ongoing epic with various trials along the way, some major and some minor, much like the Odyssey or Gulliver's Travels. By giving the X-Men an unachievable objective ("world peace between humans and mutants"), the book was given a single, long-term direction which normal superhero comics, with their random acts of heroism, did not have. Writers had to balance progress with regress so the X-Men could succeed as heroes, but not so much that they invalidated their whole premise. Consequently, they are a team defined as much by their failures as their successes.

This period of X-Men history is marked by the departure of Dave Cockrum as regular penciller. While Cockrum's work was a truly elegant representation of comic pop art at the time, John Byrne's took art to the next level of depth and realism. The X-Men went from cartoons to three-dimensional figures. The writing became more sophisticated as well with more time devoted to character development.

After the Phoenix Saga

Following the alien adventure and the near unraveling of the fabric of reality as they know it, the X-Men return home for some much needed downtime... which, of course, they don't get. Moira organizes a picnic trip with Banshee, Storm, and Colossus only to be surprised to find Wolverine wanting to join.

This moment, however, is fondly remembered by fans because it is the first time you get a sense of Wolverine's values as he exercises the primative side of himself, but still has a fundamental respect for life.

This issue also gives us a pretty good glimpse into Storm's values as she lounges on a towel with Colossus:
Storm: What a marvelous feeling, Peter, to have a day to ourselves -- without problems or danger-rooms or death-traps or super-villains. The sun reminds me of home. Gods. I wish I didn't have to wear these absurd scraps of cloth.

Colossus: You remember what happened when you went... uh, swimming in the mansion's pool?

Storm: I remember, my friend. I will never understand. It is only for the professor's sake that I endure this land's strange taboos.
I always enjoyed the idea that Storm didn't have a western sense of modesty and I've found it disappointing that it is an aspect of her character little shown today. Although it might be interpreted as a form of objectification, I've always felt that objectification is the act of the observer, not the observed. Ororo doesn't like to be naked because she is promiscuous or exhibitionist, she likes it because it is natural and comfortable. And she is strong enough not to be afraid of what anyone might think or do.

Anyway, the picnic/hunt is interrupted by Canada's answer to Captain America by way of Superman. His name is James MacDonald Hudson, he calls himself Weapon Alpha, but the X-Men prefer to call him Major Maple Leaf... for obvious reasons. "My battle suit," he cries, "is the ultimate product of Canadian technology--" which I'm guessing involves a hand-made noose tied to a strong sapling. Hudson has come to return Wolverine to Canada after he deserted his post to join the X-Men. Apparently, the Canadian government feels that the work they put into him was worth too much to just let go. Needless to say, four X-Men manage to beat the ultimate product of Canadian technology and he goes running back to his socialized medicine, but this would not be the last time the X-Men would be threatened by their pale, eh-saying neighbors to the north.

The issue #111 opens with the Beast at the local circus disguising his deformed body from the crowds with a trenchcoat and fedora, apparently thinking this is 1928 and everyone else is Mr. Magoo. Beast discovers, to his amazement, that in his absence the X-Men have went and joined the circus in Sullivan County, Texas complete with Wolverine billed as Man-Beast of the Yukon. Hank investigates and learns that the X-Men have been brainwashed by their old villain, Mesmero, but only after Colossus and the carnies beat the snot out of him. It is only Wolverine's rage at his humiliation that enables him to brake free. After slapping around Jean abit, Wolverine releases the rage of the Phoenix who, after smacking Wolverine back, regains her senses and frees the others. The X-Men fight their way to Mesmero's trailer only to have him fall at their feet and discover Magneto sitting at his desk.

Lifting Mesmero's trailer into the stratosphere with magnetic shielding, Magneto flies them to a geothermally powered fortress in Antarctica where he quickly kicks the crap out of them. As revenge for... uh, taking care of him after he was turned into a baby, Magneto straps the X-Men down to mechanical chairs designed to impair their motor control to that of an infant making them unable to speak or use their powers. To make the justice even more poetic, he has them cared for by a robot named Nanny whose so sweet she makes Julie Andrews seem like Dog the Bounty Hunter.

Fortunately, the fact that Ororo was unusually dexterous as a young child combined with her skills as a thief offer them a way out... but only then after days of relearning her basic motor functions. With concerted mental effort over the course of hour, Ororo manages to knock off her crown and retrieves the lockpicks hidden behind. Unfortunately, Nanny returns before she can finish, pats her gently, and returns the crown to her head. Unable to stand any more, she cries for only the third time in her life.

Somehow, she manages to repeat the task and when Magneto returns, the X-Men are ready for him. Using Phoenix to link their mind, Cyclops tells them how to use their powers in unison. In the battle, the base is destroyed pouring molten lava through the corridors. Beast and Phoenix manage to escape together through the ceiling as Magneto flies out the back. The remaining X-Men tunnel out through the ground led by Cyclops' eyes. (For some reason, they all think that they are the only survivors.)

Naturally, being in Antarctica, Cyclops tunnels straight down to the Savage Land. Unlike the original X-Men, the new X-Men kind of fit in here. Wolverine in particular starts letting his anger lose. Where normally he's just a pushy jerk, here he can really dig his claws into things; the dense jungles are the perfect environment for the acrobatic Nightcrawler; and upon encountering Ka-Zar and the native tribe, Ororo feels more at home than she has since leaving Africa.

It is then that they find out about a priestess who goes by the name of Zaladane and how she has brought back to life an ancient sun god named Garokk who seeks to destroy the Savage Land. After the snow starts falling for the first time in the Savage Land, the X-Men head to his mountain citadel and after several battles manage to reach Garokk with Cyclops literally facing him eye to eye.

With the energy pouring out of them, the city around them begin to collapse into a chasm. The X-Men barely manage to escape, though Garokk falls deep into the chasm.

Meanwhile, Lilandra is convincing Xavier to go back to the Shi'ar Empire with her now that the X-Men are gone. This following a flashback of his first meeting with Ororo Monroe when she was only a young pickpocket. Walking down the streets of Cairo, Xavier's telepathy warned him when Ororo lifted his wallet. Just as he stopped her, he was "smashed down by a psychic bolt." (Sidenote: It always bothered me the power of telepathy was such an important part of the X-Men, but they would constantly be using things like "psychic bolts" without describing what they did. Only until recent comics by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar was telepathy portrayed in a rational, thoughtful manner.) This bolt was cast by a man going by the name of Amahl Farouk, king of the thieves. For the first time, Xavier encountered a telepath with power to rival his own. It was also the first time he encountered a mutant who used his powers with a complete disregard for others. Xavier and Farouk battled each other on the astral plane. The loser's body would die, but his mind would be trapped in infinite never-ending agony. They changed forms and armed themselves with various mental weapons and armor, but in the end, Xavier won by turning his power inward, no longer being clever but simply being stronger and more focused. Needless to say, Xavier won, and he learned from this encounter that the mutants of the future would have to deal with those amongst them who would use their powers at the expense of others. This laid the seeds of the X-Men.

Meanwhile in the present, the X-Men borrow a rather simple boat from the villagers and use their powers to navigate it out to Cape Horn where they get picked up by a Japanese ship running on communication silence. The ship takes them to Japan where they meet up with Sunfire and help Japan with a little super-villain problem. Meanwhile, Wolverine accidentally runs into Shiro's cousin, Mariko, and takes an immediate liking to her. He speaks to her very politely in perfect Japanese. When he introduces himself as Wolverine, she asks if that's really a name. He replies, "Not really... My name is Lo--" And that is the first hint we ever get to Wolverine's real name.

On their way back home, the X-Men stop in Canada where they encounter their old friend, Major Maple Leaf, now calling himself Vindicator. He has assembled a league of Canadian stereotypes to help retrieve Wolverine, including the first openly gay mainstream superhero, Northstar, ironically seen here in his first appearance surrounded by adoring women. Compensate much?

The Canadian Avengers, calling themselves Alpha Flight, was the creation of Canadian John Byrne who went on to write and draw later adventures of Canada's finest. They demanded, once again, the return of "Weapon X," but this time they were a force to be reckoned with. In the end, they are too evenly matched, but Wolverine steps up and surrenders while giving a little speech about how he's part of the team now and needs to do what's right for the team. He walks into the armored truck, but manages to beat the X-Men to their own jet saying simply, "The cage ain't been built that can hold me."

By the time the X-Men get back to the mansion, Xavier's vacationing in the Shi'ar Empire and Jean is visiting Muir Island with Moira, so they have the place to themselves. They are out for a night on the town when they encounter the world's most needlessly complicated assassin, Arcade, hired by Black Tom Cassidy and Juggernaut who apparently aren't tough enough to do the job themselves.

I always liked Arcade because there is something amusing about seeing heroes in carnival deathtraps. Often these traps are designed to challenge the X-Men's weaknesses or cause them to question their reality. Arcade called it Murderworld and it's kind of like the Danger Room only much more dangerous and with a sense of humor. I also enjoyed the theatricality of Arcade's murderous impulses. It always makes for a fun (if shallow) adventure, so I really don't have much to say about this story except the X-Men escape and so does Arcade.

Meanwhile on Muir Island, Moira and Jean are living at Moira's research institute with Alex, Lorna, and Jamie Madrox (called the Multiple Man for his ability to create identical duplicates of himself). After running into a posh young man by the name of Jason Wyngarde, Jean has been having visions of herself in Victorian times. Little does she realize, Jason is the alter ego of the X-Men's old enemy from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Mastermind. But of far greater concern to them, Moira has just discovered that Mutant X has gone missing after Magneto's escape. This is excellent timing since the Beast just visited the mansion to discover the X-Men alive and reports that Jean is alive and well in Scotland. With more than enough reason to visit, the X-Men return to Muir Island.

When they arrive, they discover a man who appears to have been mummified spontaneously. They come to learn that this is the work of Mutant X, also known as Proteus. He is Moira's son, possessing the ability to leap from body to body absorbing its life and warping reality around him as he sees fit. His only weakness is metal. The X-Men track down Proteus and face him, but he warps space around them, literally tearing them apart only to return to normal when he is no longer paying attention. Moira stakes out a vantage point and targets her son with a sniper rifle. Just as she is about to fire, Scott screws up her shot. In response, she hits him with the butt of the rifle and takes off.

Scott returns to a deeply demoralized X-Men including Wolverine shaking from fear and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He had never faced an enemy like Proteus before, one who made him feel completely helpless. Realizing the team needs to gain some confidence fast, Cyclops picks a fight with Wolverine, working him up to a murderous rage and putting Cyclops within an inch of his life. After getting the other X-Men involved, they soon realize what Scott is doing and Wolverine begins to respect Cyclops for the first time. After all, it's the sort of thing he would have done.

Moira goes to warn the boy's father, a powerful politician looking to become Prime Minister as he disassociates himself from his wife and child. Only moments later, Proteus arrives, takes control of his father, and holds his mother hostage as he distorts the world around him. The X-Men try to take him down without killing him even as he is cruelly demonstrating his god-like powers. In the end, he tries to possess Colossus as he is in human form. Peter manages to armor up and in the process destroys Proteus. Banshee stays at the institute to comfort Moira as Jean returns to the X-Men.

Flying back to their mansion in Salem Center, New York, Jean continues to have dreams of a Victorian double-life with her lover, Jason. It's an awkward time for Scott to tell her how empty he has felt inside since he thought she had died. They arrive to discover that Xavier has returned as well and immediately begins running the X-Men like they are students... leading to a very pissed off Wolverine. Cyclops begins to confront Xavier when they are interrupted as Cerebro detects two new mutant signatures. Xavier, Ororo, Wolverine, and Peter go to Chicago while Scott, Jean, and Kurt go to a nightclub in Manhattan.

In Chicago, we meet Kitty Pryde, a mutant teenager who has been falling through the floor in her sleep. Only moments before the X-Men arrive, Kitty is visited by another teacher by the name of Ms. Frost. Kitty has an immediate dislike of the woman. The opposite is true when she meets the X-Men's Storm to whom she feels an immediate sense of admiration.

Ororo takes the girl out for a trip to the malt shoppe when they are attacked by men in mechanical armor. After they defeat their opponents, the X-Men are struck down by a telepathic bolt from Ms. Emma Frost, White Queen of the Hellfire Club. Her soldiers carry the X-Men into their transport as prisoners only to unknowingly bring along a phased hitchhiker in Kitty.

Meanwhile, in the club, Jean has another day dream. In this one, she marries Jason and he proudly announces her Black Queen of the Hellfire Club. Snapping back to reality, both Jean and Scott are surprised to find her kissing a stranger. As Scott turns away, he spots the musician on stage delivering a dazzling light show.

Alison "Dazzler" Blair was originally supposed to be a commercially created pop star with a real life actress/model/singer to play the role. It never quite came together, but she had a healthy run on her own ongoing series which a friend of mine, who doesn't read comics, adores. Technically, I believe it was the first X-Men spin-off.

Soon, Dazzler is under attack by the same armored soldiers. She briefly joins up with the X-Men and soon they encounter Kitty Pryde fleeing from the Hellfire Club where the Wolverine, Colossus, and Storm are held captive. They return with her where Jean pits her telepathic prowess against Emma Frost... not for the last time. The psychic backlash destroys the room and the X-Men escape together with Kitty Pryde eager to become their newest student.

Instead of going home, the X-Men fly to New Mexico where they meet at Warren's private retreat. Cyclops explains that he didn't want to go where the Hellfire Club might expect them. They seemed to be one step ahead of them suggesting that they have been secretly monitoring the X-Men. Jean get a moment alone with Scott on the top of a butte when Jean pulls his visor off and tells him to open his eyes. When he does, she holds the power back so she can see his face. In the moment, Jean and Scott agree to form a deep psychic rapport between them promising total sharing, intimacy, and trust.

One week later on a rainy night, Wolverine and Nightcrawler are infiltrating the Hellfire Club through the sewers with the water rising around them. In a clever move of dickishness, Wolverine strips the insulation off the wires insuring that when the water level rises, the club's power will blow. Meanwhile, Scott, Jean, Ororo, and Peter sneak into the club under false names provided by legacy club member Warren Worthington III. Apparently their daring plan doesn't take into account security cameras because it doesn't take their enemies long to spot a guy wearing bright red glasses at night with a stunning redhead, a young black woman with snow white hair and brilliant blue eyes, and a beefy six-foot seven Russian. Go figure.

As it turns out, Jason Wyngarde has been promised a membership in the elusive Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club if he delivers Phoenix to them as their Black Queen. You see, the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club is ranked like chess pieces with the king and queen ruling. As the Black King, Sebastian Shaw seems to be in charge, but they also have a matriarchal representation as Emma Frost demonstrates as the White Queen. We also meet Donald Pierce, a cyborg disguised as being entirely human, and Henry Leland with the ability to increase an object's mass at will, although their ranks are not mentioned

I only found out fairly recently that the Hellfire Club is based on an actual organization for the elite intellectuals in 18th century Britain and Ireland rumored to conduct demonic rituals and indulge in wild drug use, orgies, and Satanic rituals. Mostly this was a combination of the group's mocking disregard for puritanical social moires and... well, puritanical social moires. But I still find it interesting that wealthy, powerful men often seem to engage in pseudo-Satanic rituals. It's as if to say, "I am above the laws of man and god." Well, that certainly fits this Hellfire Club whose ultimate goal is world domination. The theme of the club is colonial, but the women from the prostitutes to the maids to the waitresses are all scantily clad to match the decor.

Scott and Jean start dancing to fit in when suddenly Jason Wyngarde cuts in, and again Jean is living in the Victorian age dancing with her husband. As they leaves, Scott follows only to be ambushed by Jean as the Black Queen. Storm and Colossus hear Cyclops scream in pain from the psychic attack and run to the rescue. Colossus strikes first hitting Sebastian Shaw, only to discover he can absorb force used against him. It doesn't take long for Shaw to overcome the brute physical attacks of Colossus and with the strength he has absorbed, Storm falls quickly as well. Elsewhere in the building, Wolverine and Nightcrawler are attacked by Pierce and Leland. Pierce uses his cyborg strength and an electrical pulse to disable Nightcrawler while Leland forces Wolverine straight through the floor and back into the sewer. The issue ends with the X-Men captured, the Black Queen inducted into the Hellfire Club, and Wolverine standing hip deep in sewage looking really pissed off.

The next issue is entitled Wolverine: Alone and its the first issue that shows you how cool Wolverine is as he goes through guards room by room. The other X-Men are held captive with their powers inhibited and Scott's head in a ruby quartz mask, but in Jean's mind Ororo is her disobedient slave... however, that doesn't explain why the three white guys are in chains. In any case, Scott calms himself and retreats into his mind along the psychic rapport he set up with Jean a week ago. He soon finds himself in the astral plane dressed in his colonial garb from Jean's imagination with Mastermind armed and blocking the way. The two have a sword fight, but like Xavier's battle with Farouk (or, if you prefer, like the Matrix), the stakes are still life and death. Unfortunately, Scott is not a duelist and Mastermind wins, running Scott straight through the chest. Moments later in the real world, Wolverine bursts through the door with two guards hanging off of him. In the shock of the moment, Jean reestablishes some control of her power by saving Scott's life and removing the lock from his mask. Scott quickly takes advantage of the moment by blasting the manacles off of his teammates while his aim is guided by Jean's telepathy.

Avoiding a direct attack, Scott blasts the floor beneath Shaw while Wolverine has a rematch with Leland, jumping down at him with his claws drawn. Instinctively, Leland uses his powers but doesn't realize his mistake until it's too late. As Shaw and Pierce turn and run, the sewer water hits the power lines and the lights go out. It is only then that Mastermind realizes he no longer has any control of Jean, but he has managed to enrage the Phoenix. Phoenix taunts her powers over him and grants him her universal insight without any ability to control it. The experience leaves him trapped in mental agony while a vegetable in the physical world. Jean returns to the X-Men, but they've hardly left the club when Jean changes once again.

This time she calls herself Dark Phoenix and she has switched her green and gold costume for red and gold. She begins by attacking her fellow X-Men without explanation. She demonstrates her god-like powers on them one by one and it isn't long before they are defeated. With this, she declares proudly that she has cut off her last ties to this life.

Meanwhile at the Hellfire Club, Sebastian Shaw is escorting his VIP guest, senator and presidential candidate Robert Kelly, out the front door. Kelly had witnessed the X-Men in combat with the Hellfire Club and took it as an unprovoked terrorist attack, which is how the media ended up spinning it as well. This would be just the beginning of the X-Men's outlaw reputation. In response, Shaw suggests the Kelly begin a new mutant containment program using Sentinels.

At the same time, Phoenix leaves Earth and heads for the stars. Her presence is immediately felt by scientists, psychics, mystics, and cosmic beings alike... and they all sense evil. Professor X contacts Beast who manages to create a crown which will inhibit all thought from Phoenix or Jean. Traveling to a far away galaxy, Phoenix finds herself hungry and consumes a healthy star setting off a super-nova that consumes an Earth-like planet, killing billions from an ancient and peaceful civilization. A Shi'ar vessel witnesses the act and foolishly decides to fire on the Phoenix. They are consumed only moments after sending a distress call back to the empire and her majesty Lilandra. Back on Earth, Scott senses the Phoenix through their telepathic rapport -- she's coming back home and she's still hungry.

Lilandra holds an emergency imperial meeting and the decision is unanimous. To protect the universe, Phoenix must die. Speaking of Phoenix, when she returns home, she returns to her parent's home in northern New York where she is, for some reason, surprised to find her family. With her powers out of control, she can't help but read every thought they have including their memories, which is far more intimate than she wants to get. She says that she is fine but in her mind, she's screaming. She knows that a single stray thought could destroy them all, so she tries to frighten them away, demonstrating her power on a particularly unfortunate house plant.

As Phoenix flies away, Nightcrawler jumps on top of her placing the crown on her head before she knows what's happening. The crown manages to dampen her powers temporarily, but she is quickly burning it out. Wolverine decides then and there to do what everyone else is afraid to do and kill Jean. As he tackles her to the ground and draws his claws back, she pleads with him to do it, but seeing her face instead of the power mad grin of the Phoenix, he sees Jean's face scared and vulnerable. He hesitates long enough for Dark Phoenix to emerge and destroy the crown.

Phoenix, however, doesn't hesitate. She stops the X-Men cold and lines them up helplessly as she tauntingly decides what to do with them. Scott interrupts with a simple, "Stop it, Jean." Cyclops asks her why she didn't kill them before and why she hasn't killed them already. He tells her that Jean is still in there and she loves them too much to really hurt them. Phoenix is tempted, but she also describes an all-consuming hunger and rapture beyond all comprehension. In that moment of indecision and weakness, Xavier strikes her down with a telepathic bolt. Unfortunately, it doesn't keep her down.

In a mental battle, Xavier, the most powerful mind on Earth, matches his power against the cosmic force of the Phoenix. Xavier would have lost were it not for the fact that Jean was fighting with him. When the battle is over, the Phoenix has been contained within Jean's mind. As Scott holds her in his arms, she smiles and before they know it, they are engaged. They barely begin to explain what just happened to Jean's father before the X-Men vanish off the face of the Earth.

The next issue begins with an introduction by the Watcher, the big-headed cosmic portent of doom in the Marvel Universe. He only shows up for events of cosmic significance. The X-Men find themselves on the flagship of the Shi'ar Empire in the prescence of Lilandra and Gladiator, praetor of the Imperial Guard and copier of Superman's powers. Lilandra informs the X-Men that although she considers them friends and owes them much, for the safety of the universe, Phoenix must die. Fortunately, from his time amongst the Shi'ar, Xavier learned that the X-Men can challenge the Imperial Guard to a duel for Jean's life. It is a challenge Lilandra cannot refuse. The X-Men are given a night to consider their decision. Each of them have their doubts about if the Phoenix can really be contained, but all decide to stand by Jean.

The battle begins on an ancient alien city on the dark side of the moon where a habitable, artificial environment exists. Jean has donned her old Marvel Girl costume, wisely thinking that her Phoenix costume would be inappropriate. The X-Men quickly have to learn to compensates for the moon's lower gravity. One by one the X-Men fight the Imperial Guard and one by one, they lose until Scott and Jean are the only two left. They fight together against impossible odds, but soon the strain become too great for Jean and once again, she transforms into the Dark Phoenix. Suddenly, the X-Men have stopped fighting the Imperial Guard. They turn their attention to containing Jean, but they are still holding back and trying not to kill her. Finally, it is Jean who finds the strength of will to destroy herself, giving her love to Scott in her final moments.

The closing narration is given to the Watcher who determines that what makes humanity virtually unique in the universe is their capacity for self-sacrifice. "This ability," he says, "to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles if the cause be just knowing all the while that to do so means certain death. ... Jean Grey could have lived to become a god, but it was more import to her that she die... a human."

This concludes our look at the classic era of X-Men... or at least what I consider to be the thematic conclusion to the plots Chris Claremont set in motion in the beginning of his run. Dave Cockrum's departure almost marked the mid-point with the Phoenix Saga while similarly, John Byrne would stay on for a few more issues and help begin a new era in X-Men history before moving on to other projects.

Personally, this next era is my favorite. The X-Men start becoming more involved in mutant affairs and their lives becomes much more complicated. I may not write it any time soon, but keep an eye out for the next segment in this series. If you have any comments or questions, they are always appreciated.


Part 1
Part 2

Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8 (coming soon)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

X-Men Primer - Part 2

I am a huge X-Men fan, if I haven't made that clear already. The pride of my collection is a recent acquisition. It cost me $100 and it isn't even old. It's an 849-page, hardbound X-Men Omnibus Vol. 1. There is no volume two... not yet anyway, but you can bet I'll be waiting for it.

The first time that this edition was released, I missed it and it drove me crazy. The moment I spotted a copy in the comic store, I knew I had to have it... and wouldn't you know it? My debit card was rejected. I tried to withdraw cash, the bank confiscated my card, and I found out the bank had issued me a new card, canceled my old one, not told me about it, and not shipped me my new card. Fortunately, once I got this all resolved, the comic hadn't sold, but I was terrified that it would be.

On the dust jacket of this edition is the original cover to Giant-Size X-Men #1, the issue which ended the X-Men's hiatus in reprints and cameos in other books. During this period, the Beast had a brief run in Amazing Adventures as a semi-horror character. To suit his new series, a story was concocted in Amazing Adventures #11 whereby Hank starts working at the Brand Corporation, a genetics research facility, where Hank develops a serum to turn humans into mutants for short periods of time, but when he takes it himself, Hank turns into much more of a beast than he was before with gray fur, fangs, and claws. After his fur turned a more child-friendly blue, the Beast came to join Marvel's foremost superhero team, the Avengers.

Although the X-Men are my favorite, the Beast being in the Avengers always struck me as being particularly cool. I'm not sure why, but if I had to guess, it's probably because the Avengers were the best of the best taking on the worst of the worst. The idea that Hank was smart and strong enough to deal with both Earth-shattering crisises and the more subtle type of social engineering that the X-Men work on made perfect sense. (Much later, Wolverine joined the Avengers, but that was entirely motivated by sales.)

It should be noted that in early Marvel Comics, time passed much differently than they do now. Nowadays, time passes to a crawl and how much time has passed is always determined retrospectively. Often this estimate is revised as well. For instance, in X-Men #1 (1963) the X-Men range from age 15-17. In X-Men #5, they graduate from the Xavier School, but in 1973, the Hank McCoy is said to be twenty. Now, thirty years later, the original class is in their mid-twenties, although extremely accomplished for being so young.

In October 1974, Wolverine first appeared in the final page of The Incredible Hulk #180 (although his first appearance is generally credited to #181). The Hulk encountered a super-powered cannibal spirit named Wendigo in the wilds of darkest Canada. The nefarious Canadian government sends their secret Weapon X to take down the Hulk, but he goes by The Wolverine. (Check out the whiskers on the mask!) Their fight ends more or less in a stalemate with Wolverine badly bruised and not much of interest happening. (Incidentally, this accounts for about half of the plot to the recent Hulk vs Wolverine animated movie.)

Now that you are caught up, let me explain to you why a this volume begins with Giant-Size X-Men #1 and not X-Men #1.

The All-New, All Different X-Men

The X-Men as we know them didn't begin to take form until 1975 with Giant-Size X-Men #1 by writer Len Wein and Dave Cockrum. For the first time since their creation, the X-Men were getting a very different team roster, however this would only be the beginning. The biggest difference from the old team is that the new one reflected an ethnically and religiously diverse cast from around the globe.

The story begins in Germany where we find a demonic-looking man by the name of Kurt Wagner leaping across rooftops away from a torch-wielding mob. Backed into a corner, exhausted, and unable to convince them to leave him in peace, he leaps into the crowd gradually beaten down until Professor Xavier arrives and commands them all to stop. Next, Professor X goes to Quebec to recruit Wolverine... who resigns by cutting his commanding officer's tie in half. In Kenya, the Professor meets Ororo, worshipped in her tribe as a goddess for her ability to control the weather. On the Ust-Ordynski collective in Siberia, he meets a farmer's son who can turn his body into solid steel. And a little closer to home in Arizona, he meets John Proudstar whose strength and speed is greater than that of a raging bison as he demonstrates. He has a huge chip on his shoulder due to the way his people have been treated, but with a little white man's trickery, Xavier gets him to join up. Really getting jet-lagged by now, he also visits the Japanese fire-mutant Shiro "Sunfire" Yashida and reluctant X-Men enemy Sean Cassiday, the sonic-screaming Banshee. After quickly hiring a team of custom fashion designers to create original costumes for the new guys (and a new mask for Wolverine while they were at it), Professor X christening them Colossus, Storm, Thunderbird, and Nightcrawler. Together, they known as "The All-New, All-Different" X-Men (due to the covers declaring them so).

I've always felt, to some extent, that this incarnation was inspired by Star Trek and it's heavy-handed approach to diversity. Although it is indeed heavy-handed, there is something charming and indeed inspiring about seeing such strange and different people who are picked to live in a house and see what happens when people stop being nice and start--

Hey! This was the original Real World!

In all seriousness, for the first time the X-Men didn't get along and that was part of the fun. Thunderbird was just a jerk who assumed everyone was racist. Wolverine just liked to pick fights with everyone. Sunfire didn't want to be there from the beginning. Cyclops was struggling to keep them all together as the only remaining member of the original team.

Speaking of Cyclops, the story begins when it is revealed that the X-Men (with the exception of Beast and inclusion of Havok and Polaris) have been lost on the isle of Krakoa where they had gone to find a mutant whose power levels were off the charts. Only Scott managed to escape, but could not remember how. Xavier recruited this new team to save the old.

They arrive on Krakoa to find various bizarre monsters and after showcasing their powers (including Nightcrawler's ability to teleport in a puff of sulfer), they come to find their missing X-Men being fed on by vines of some sort. They soon discover that the mutant they detected was Krakoa itself (how this works, I never could figure out). After a big battle, they combine their powers and fling it into space thereby either killing a new and unique species or leaving it in limbo for eternity. On their way home Angel asks the question that readers had to have been asking by this point, "What are we going to do with thirteen X-Men?"

Starting with issue #94, Chris Claremont took over the writing on the X-Men. His first two issues were plotted by the previous writer, Len Wein, and so they don't exactly reflect Claremont's personal writing style. At the beginning of this issue, they start widdling down the team. Sunfire is the first to quit, but that's no surprise considering he nearly chickened out of the first fight. Banshee tries to quit, but Xavier talks him out of it. Finally, Angel announces that he and all of the old X-Men are leaving to lead their own lives as adults... everyone but Cyclops who stays on to lead the new team.

In a nutshell, this story is about Count Nefaria and his Ani-Men taking over NORAD and threatening the world with its nuclear arsenal. It always seemed like more of an Avengers plot to me, but it was little more than an opportunity to showcase the new team consisting of Cyclops, Banshee, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm, Thunderbird and Wolverine. The single-notable characteristic of this storyline (other than being Chris Claremont's debut... sort of) is that it features one of the first long-lasting character deaths when Thunderbird is caught in an explosion while chasing Count Nefaria. Although his name and costume has been reused over the years, this character remains dead... a rarity in comics.

Why Thunderbird? Well, because he didn't have any characteristics (other than racial) that the others couldn't duplicate. Colossus was stronger, Nightcrawler was more acrobatic, Wolverine had that animal fury and acted like a jerk. Thunderbird was pretty redundant, but he would be remembered as the first casualty of the X-Men... though not the last.

Chris Claremont's first issue as solitary writer was X-Men #96 which served as a memorial issue for Thunderbird. It is a more or less forgettable issue except for the introduction of Charles Xavier's best friend and former lover Moira MacTaggert, a Scottish biologist. Moira is one of the few humans to become a part of the X-Men family. In her first appearance, she fights off a demon with an AK-47. Banshee fell in love immediately.

This issue also introduced Storm's severe claustrophobia. I always enjoyed this aspect of her character. Although it was explained due to her tragic past, I like how the X-Men's powers often effect their personality. Storm hates confined spaces because she is psychically connected to the atmosphere. Cyclops is incredibly restrained because he is an unstable weapon. Nightcrawler is so kind and gregarious because he wants people to see past his demonic appearance.

Allow me to take a brief moment to talk about Chris Claremont because he was the sole X-Men writer for sixteen years writing almost two hundred issues of Uncanny X-Men and more X-Men spin-offs than I can count. More than any artist before or since, Claremont defined the X-Men and was responsible for their incredible success. With Len Wein's plots and Thunderbird's funeral out of the way, Chris Claremont began to lay the groundwork for the X-Men's most famous and popular storyline of all time.

The Phoenix Saga

X-Men #97 begins with Charles Xavier having fevered nightmares of an intergalactic civil war and a lone traveler reaching out for him. The experience leaves him shaken and wondering if he is losing his mind. Meanwhile, Alex "Havok" Summers and Lorna "Polaris" Dane are settling into civilian life when they are attacked by a mysterious stranger calling himself Eric the Red. Taking control of their minds, Eric the Red uses Havok and Polaris to attack the X-Men as they visit Jean Grey at the airport. Hurt and angry, but not defeated, the X-Men manage to repel the attack, but not save their friends from mind control.

In the next issue, it's Christmas in New York City and the X-Men are having a night on the town when the Sentinels attack without warning (which is generally the smarter way of attacking). After a brief fight, Jean, Banshee, Wolverine, and Professor X are taken prisoner on an orbital space station. The remaining X-Men fortunately have a very influential friend in the space program and soon the remaining X-Men, along with pilot Peter Corbeau, are in a space shuttle bound for the space station and racing against a major solar flare soon to hit Earth. With a few twists and turns along the way, the X-Men manage to rescue their comrades and escape in the shuttle they arrived in, yet the shuttle's autopilot had been damaged in the fight and the solar flare was about to hit any moment requiring the crew to ride in the shuttle's better shielded "life-cell," but without autopilot, there would be no one who could both survive the radiation and land the shuttle. No one except Jean. Telepathically borrowing Corbeau's piloting skills and knocking Scott unconscious when he tries to argue with her, Jean sends the others to the life-cell while she pilots the ship, protecting herself with a telekinetic shield, knowing full well that while her powers may protect her long enough to land the shuttle, they won't save her life. As she flies the shuttle down, she can feel the radiation coming through her shield and she cries out both physically and mentally.

In the following issue, #101, the shuttle crashes along the runway at JFK Airport, sliding across the tarmac into Jamaica Bay. The shuttle quickly sinks into the water, but the X-Men manage to reach the surface... all but Jean, but before they can do anything, Jean shoots up from the bay wearing a new costume, new attitude, and calling herself Phoenix.

Immediately, Jean collapses into the water and is rushed to a hospital. The doctor determines that she will be okay, although she has not yet regained consciousness, and Xavier can't help her because everytime he uses his powers his "nightmares" reappear. Meanwhile, Wolverine has discovered not only that he has feelings for Jean, but they are stronger than any he has known. On his way to visiting Jean in the hospital, he picks up a bunch of flowers, but when he arrives, he realizes he isn't the only one who loves Jean. The rest of the X-Men are already there and he tosses the flowers in the trash can.

While Scott, Xavier, and Moira stay with Jean, Xavier suggests that the others take a well-earned break and so they decide to vacation in Banshee's ancestral home of Cassidy Keep in Ireland. (Apparently Eddie Izzard is right. We do think they all live in castles.) They aren't there long before they discover that the castle has been claimed by Banshee's cousin, Black Tom (not to be confused with Uncle Tom, who is black) and the X-Men's old rival Juggernaut... although these X-Men had never faced him before.

During the fight, Ororo suffers a claustrophobic attack giving us a nice little flashback into her past. We learn that her father was David Monroe, an American photo journalist from Harlem, and her mother was N'Dare, an African princess. Both were killed in Cairo by a downed French plane in the Suez War. Ororo was trapped with the dead body of her mother for hours. She managed to escape and learned to become a beggar and a thief only to leave for the Serengati where she became a mutant and was worshipped as a goddess.

After a hard fought battle, Banshee manages to toss Black Tom over the castle wall and into the ocean where Juggernaut dives in to rescue him claiming that Tom was his only friend. Soon after, Moira MacTaggert calls the X-Men to alert them that an alarm has sounded at her genetic research facility on Muir Island off the coast of Scotland. The X-Men arrive to find Magneto has taken over. In his last appearance in a different comic, Magneto had been reverted to infancy, but Eric the Red restored him to a more vital age with his powers at their peak. The new X-Men, with the steel-skinned Colossus and adamantium-clawed Wolverine, don't fair well against Magneto and barely escape with their lives leaving Muir Island to their enemy.

A cryptic little message accompanies this storyline which the creators would not follow up on for nearly two years. Namely, what is Mutant X? (Of all the X-Men villains, X-Men director Bryan Singer named this one, who only appeared in one story, as his favorite.)

Jean awakens from her coma, able to become the Phoenix again with but a thought, just as Xavier's mysterious alien visitor finally meets him in person. Although she doesn't speak English, Xavier instinctively knows that her name is Lilandra. Soon they learn that she is the princess of a powerful intergalactic empire known as the Shi'ar. She is, for lack of a better word, Xavier's soulmate sharing a connection that she has followed across the universe knowing that his X-Men could help her stop her mad tyrant of a brother, D'Ken, from possessing the all-powerful M'Kraan Crystal. Eric the Red was sent to prevent this from happening and, true to his work, he shows up just in time to kidnap Lilandra and escape through an intergalactic stargate. Using the awesome and vaguely defined powers of the Phoenix, Jean manages to recharge the device and the X-Men jump through, not knowing what will be on the other side.

In a story titled "Where No X-Man Has Gone Before," the X-Men face the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, a large team of diverse superpowered aliens under the command of Emperor D'Ken. Jean is down from the effort of powering the stargate and the X-Men are hopelessly outnumbered by the well-trained Imperial Guard. Nightcrawler teleports to Lilandra's aid while Wolverine loses his costume and steals a new one. The X-Men do their best, but they are quickly defeated... only to be saved at the last instant by the mysterious space pirates known by their vessel as the Starjammers. Led by the human Corsair, the crew consists of his cyborg officer Raza, the feline-humanoid Hepzibah, and the giant reptilian Ch'od.

The tide of battle turns, but too late as the stars align, granting D'Ken the power of the crystal. Reality bends not only around them, but the entire universe begins to blink out of existence. The crystal is protected only by the midget Jahf who, with one punch, knocks Wolverine into orbit forcing the Starjammers to go retrieve him. Phoenix marshalls her strength and drops an asteroid on him, but it isn't before Banshee screams himself hoarse that he goes down.

Upon touching the crystal, they find themselves in a city inside the crystal where laws of space and time no longer apply. Jean reaches for a light in the center of the courtyard sensing a connection between the Phoenix and the crystal saying "Reality as we know it has no meaning here. And within this sphere is the heart of it all. I can feel life, Scott, and pain. Something is calling to me. Scott, I sense such... beauty." Suddenly, she triggers something and they all experience their worst fear. Jean suddenly realized that her own fear of death had gone when she had died, making her immune to the effect.

As the sphere cracks, Phoenix wraps her bird form around it to try to keep it from breaking and preventing a second big bang. Still, she lacks the power and it is only with the help of Ororo and Corsair that she manages to find it. As she leaves, she says, "Look after Cyclops for me, Corsair. He's the man I love, but he's also your first-born son." She becomes the Phoenix again and becomes the crystal even as she becomes the universe and life itself seeing her X-Men in mythic patterns. As suddenly as they left, the X-Men return to Earth, leaving D'Ken comatose and the Shi'ar empire in turmoil. Lilandra returns to Earth as her fate, both as heir and traitor to the crown, is debated. All in all, it's a happy ending.

Aside from being the last issue of the Phoenix Saga, X-Men #108 marked the first issue of penciller John Byrne who brought the best of both Neal Adams and Dave Cockrum to his work. The team of Claremont and Byrne is still widely considered to be the greatest X-Men collaboration of all time.

The X-Men meet Canada's official superhero team Alpha Flight, the child-like assassin Arcade, the reality bending Proteus, and the hedonistic, meglomaniacal Hellfire Club.


Part 1

Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8 (coming soon)