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(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: From the Ashes

My gigantic reading of every issue of Marvel Comics’ Uncanny X-Men continues!

I’ve made it to the second half of 1983 with issues 169 to 175, and the 20th anniversary of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original creation and debut of the X-Men. Of course, the characters were on hiatus for 5 years in there, but to go from cancellation to being the best-selling Marvel comic book is pretty impressive.

This set of story concludes Paul Smith’s stint as artist, which I was really sad to discover. Having never read the vast majority of his issues, discovering his work has been a delight. He continued to improve and provide clear, graceful, character-driven scenes that really added personality. I really wish he had stayed on longer, but his too-short run remains influential. His cover of Uncanny X-Men #173 was used as the inspiration for a cover by Art Adams for a charity book Marvel produced a few years later. Apparently editor Ann Nocenti specifically requested that the cover be modeled after Smith’s layout and design. This cover was then in turn used for a promotional poster and retailer standee. These images really cemented Art Adams as a superstar artist and the late ’80s/early ’90s look for Wolverine.

John Romita, Jr. takes over on the final 8 pages of issue 175. Apparently those pages were done over a weekend because Smith had left the book over creative differences. I don’t know what the differences were about specifically, but that now makes 2 out of 3 artists that left over creative differences. A pattern seems to be forming. Are the editors pairing writer Chris Claremont with temperamental artists, or is Claremont not playing well with others? Hard to know for sure, likely a combination of both along with other factors, but it’s really a bummer to lose Paul Smith so soon. Nowadays, 10 issues is normal, bordering on a long stint, but in the ’80s, it was expected that creative teams would stay on for years. Romita tried to draw like Smith in those final 8 pages to make the transition somewhat smooth but it’s pretty rough due to the tight turnaround time. A few characters are mis-colored and some are unidentifiable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This starts off with the introduction of the Morlocks, a misfit society of mutants that live underground in the lower levels of the New York City subway systems. Growing up for me, they always seemed like such an established element of the X-Men mythology, so I was surprised it took this long for them to show up. For some reason, I was sure they were part of John Byrne’s run.

The issue also sees the return of Caliban, who seemed like a throwaway sorta-villain when he showed up two years ago. He’s working with the Morlocks to find them new members but they don’t seem to get along very well mostly because of the Morlock’s leader Callisto, an eye-patched punk who has always looked like some kind of weird, flawed amalgam of Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde. She’s kidnapped Angel and wants to marry him. I’m not exactly sure why. I can’t tell if she really expected it to be a binding marriage, or if it was some kind of statement about “pretty mutants” vs. “ugly mutants”. Angel is silent for the entire two-part story, usually unconscious, and is essential a cypher or stand-in. I don’t know if this was an intentional gender-swap of the damsel in distress trope, but I’m going to pretend it is.

The team is outnumbered and overwhelmed, and the only way they can get medical attention to their injured teammates in time is for Callisto to be dethroned as leader of the Morlocks. And of course that is done by a duel to the death. Nightcrawler issues the challenge, but knowing he won’t go through with the “to the death” part, Storm steps in instead despite being one of the injured. In an extreme reversal from the last 13 year of Storm’s deep concern for life, Storm does not hesitate in making the fatal strike. Of course, the Morlocks have a mutant healer in the ranks so Callisto won’t actually die, but it’s made clear she would have.

mohawkstormEver since Storm returned from being reborn through a space whale (a phrase I will never get tired of writing), she has been acting weird. She’s lost her connection with nature, which is causing her powers to go wonky, and apparently it’s also affecting her personality. In the following story, she teams up with former Wolverine lover Yukio, who seems more than a bit crazy, and is inspired to take on a more punk look, complete with mohawk. As startling a redesign as it is for her, it somehow works. Still, there’s a part of me that’s disappointed to see Storm be taken in this direction. Her character needs to go through a challenge or she’ll just stagnate, but the metamorphosis seems too vague. There’s never any reference to the changes she went through during the Brood Saga, that’s my own theory. In-story, she just starts acting tougher and then shows up looking completely different and then everyone carries on. At times, it just feels like she’s being made more Wolverine-like for the sake of making her more cool. I think I’m going to pretend that Storm actually did die in space and the ‘rebirth’ was actually a not-exact, slightly flawed duplicate created by the space whale.

This also features Rogue joining the team. This is the first new X-Man since Kitty Pryde joined in 1980, right after the conclusion of the Dark Phoenix Saga. This is actually a controversial move because Rogue has been a recurring villain since she was introduced in 1981 as a member of Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. In that first appearance, she permanently stole the powers and memories of Carol Danvers, who after recovering became a supporting character. This was actually an unusual shift as Carol Danvers had starred in her own book as Ms. Marvel for a couple of years and was also a member of the Avengers. Her solo book was written by Chris Claremont at the time of its cancellation, so it’s not terribly surprising that he would take her over to his best-selling book despite her getting de-powered. Still, kind of weird at that time to have a former Avenger as a supporting character for the X-Men. (Although, founding X-Man Beast became an Avenger, so I guess it was evening out the trade?) During the Brood Saga, Carol Danvers gains cosmic powers different from her Ms. Marvel powers and now goes by Binary.

Anyway, Rogue suddenly starts feeling guilty for stealing Carol’s powers and memories, and starts to feel haunted by Carol’s emotions that she absorbed as well. She abruptly flees Mystique and heads straight to Xavier’s mansion. How she knows where the X-Men live isn’t clear – maybe it’s common knowledge? Or maybe it’s due to the mystery man who appears to be influencing her. Either way, Professor Xavier decides that Rogue can stay and announces to everyone else she’s now a full-fledged member. The rest of the team strongly objects, especially Storm who has been in a few fights with Rogue and as the field leader, feels she should have say. Then in a really gigantic coincidence, Carol Danvers decides to pay an out-of-the-blue and unannounced visit to the X-Men, sees Rogue, flips out and a fight ensues. In the end, Xavier’s decision holds, as he makes the point that they defend Wolverine’s position on the team despite his questionable past.

I found this issue really interesting in that the central character, Rogue, doesn’t get much page time. She’s the impetus for a lot, but she’s most often sitting quietly. We know she’s telling the truth about freaking out and not feeling like Mystique can help her, but we don’t really know if she’s truly remorseful and wants to give up her villainous ways. All we really have to go by is Professor Xavier’s word based on his off-panel examination of her. For a few issues, she remains pretty quiet, and understandably uncomfortable around the rest of the team, who have made it all too clear they’re not happy with her presence.

So during much of this, Wolverine was off starring in his first solo title, the 4-issue mini-series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. While tempted, I did not read it. But that’s apparently where Yukio is introduced, and I think where Wolverine proposes to Mariko, who he’s been dating for some time now. The X-Men, along with new recruit Rogue, show up in Japan to attend the wedding of Wolverine and Mariko. But while walking down the aisle, Mariko abruptly cancels the wedding. It’s pretty obvious she’s being mind-controlled because it’s such an about-face. Her change of heart appears to be caused by the same guy who drove Rogue to the X-Men. Paul Smith’s art on the traditional Japanese wedding attire is really nice here.

Meanwhile, Cyclops is getting closer to Madelyne Pryor, who everyone notices looks just like Jean Grey. It’s even discovered that she has no memory of her life before surviving a plane crash where everyone else died except her. And oh yeah the plane crash happened on the exact date of Jean Grey’s death. But you guys, that’s just a coincidence! She’s just a normal person where her entire life makes it seem like she’s the reincarnation of Jean Grey, who became a cosmic entity known for resurrections. Why are you so suspicious? This is totally possible!

What’s particularly frustrating about this is that there is a really good way out of this nonsense just staring at us and it isn’t taken. The mystery guy that manipulated Rogue and Mariko, and probably is at least partially responsible for Storm’s transformation as well, is Mastermind. This is the sleazy guy who tried to seduce and manipulate Jean Grey into being a pawn of the Hellfire Club. It didn’t work out so well, and Jean basically drove him mad. He eventually recovered from the psychic battle but he wanted revenge and set out to basically break the hearts of the X-Men.

So why couldn’t Madelyne Pryor actually not look exactly like Jean Grey but instead just be kind of generally similar looking in that way white people look alike, and Mastermind’s illusions were causing everyone to see her more as an exact match? Why couldn’t Mastermind have basically used Madelyne as a tool, forcing her to forget her life and think she was in that plane crash? She could still have survived the crash even, but maybe not on that exact day? All the ridiculous coincidences would then have been explained as part of Mastermind’s ploy to play with Cyclops’ mind. Madelyne would then get to be her own person, rather than a lookalike forever defined by how much she is or isn’t Jean. Cyclops would then get to finally move on with a new life and a person who isn’t just a Jean Grey proxy.

Or how about Madelyne Pryor doesn’t exist at all, and her entire existence was just a creation of Mastermind? Now Cyclops is really shattered, and he can go off into space with his father Corsair and the Starjammers, an option that kept getting hinted at in the final two issues. It’s obvious Cyclops is getting shuffled off the book one way or another.

But no. Instead, all of the ridiculous questions about her are still in place. And on top of that, they got married. Jeez, way to show up Wolverine, Scott. Way to rub it in. Way to steal his thunder. Still, I think this was the first X-Men wedding, so fun to see.

I was really disappointed with the Madelyne Pryor part of the story, but otherwise these were great. Kitty and Colossus got caught making out in Storm’s attic. Lockheed is still adorable. Nightcrawler didn’t get a whole lot of focus but he’s just fun to look at. Professor X is still struggling at walking with his new cloned body and his space girlfriend is probably going to take off soon. Some really great Paul Smith-choreographed fight scenes (Storm vs. Callisto, Wolverine vs. Silver Samurai). I was tempted to read issue 176 because it’s included in the collected edition of these issues. But the story concluded and there’s a big creative team change-up, so I’d rather stop here.

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(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Professor X is a Jerk

Thought I was gone, didn’t you? I didn’t quite make it to the end of August, but I’ll keep blogging from time to time.

My epic look back at Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men comic book series continues! For the backstory on what this is, and what has come before, check this out.

This here covers the original graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, as well as issues 168 of Uncanny X-Men. Last time, I decided not to read the spin-off series New Mutants, and mostly I’m going to resist reading peripheral titles unless the story being told in Uncanny X-Men directly crosses over to some other book.

God Loves, Man Kills isn’t a direct crossover, so right away I’m a hypocrite and I’m breaking my own rules. In fact, this graphic novel won’t even be referenced in the main X-Men series for years to come. It doesn’t even exactly fit in anywhere. Kitty Pryde’s code name and costume here contradict how she’s depicted in Uncanny X-Men at the time, but there’s no other time where this cast of characters is living in Xavier’s mansion.

However, it was such a seminal chapter in the development of the franchise, I felt it was too important to skip. It also has a fantastic title.

The Marvel Graphic Novel series were meant to be stand-alone stories aimed at a slightly older reader than the monthly comics. In a sense, it was ahead of its time, as the graphic novel format today is generally aimed at the book store market, instead of the weekly visitors of comic book stores. In the early 1980s, this was still several decades away from being a reality and the infrastructure just didn’t exist to support it. But it was a valiant effort.

Like the main Uncanny X-Men series, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills was written by Chris Clarement (credited here as the more formal Christopher Claremont), with art by Brent Anderson (who also gets a more formal credit, Brent Eric Anderson). Anderson’s name might have been familiar to X-Men readers; he was the artist for the first issue right after John Byrne’s departure in 1981, right before the start of Dave Cockrum’s second stint. He was also the artist for that year’s Uncanny X-Men Annual. But he wasn’t Marvel’s first choice.

Neal Adams was an innovative super-star from the ’60s and ’70s who had saved the X-Men from cancellation in the late ’60s (at least, temporarily; they were cancelled soon after, but they were brought back). By the early ’80s, he’d mostly moved on from the two major publishers Marvel and DC Comics, where he made his name. Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter wooed him back for a special project. It was a great idea to see Neal Adams return to these characters. Several pages were created before Adams left the project because Marvel didn’t produce the type of contract they had verbally agreed to. So with Adams out, Brent Anderson was brought in. Considering Anderson follows the Adams school of cartooning and illustrating, it was a good choice.

After almost 20 years of X-Men, religion was rarely referenced. Only in the last several years was it even referenced at all. Nightcrawler’s belief in God was explicitly established in the Brood Saga stories (as was Wolverine’s agnosticism), and Kitty Pryde’s Jewish heritage, while rarely mentioned by the character, can be seen in the Star of David necklace she always wears. I think Cyclops may have mentioned God in a generic sense in some of his self-pitying monologues. Storm was worshipped as a goddess in a small African village because of her weather-manipulating abilities, and there were a couple other generic tribal religions depicted in the ’60s (South American and Egyptian, I believe). Beyond that, there’s never been a real look at how the mythology of mutants in this world interacts with religion. How does the existence of mutants affect churches and religious institutions in the Marvel Universe. This graphic novel does that.

Of course, this is still superhero comics, so yes there is a para-military group of anti-mutant soldiers being run by what appears to be an evangelical megachurch called the Stryker Crusade. This church is run by Reverand Willaim Stryker, who appears to be somewhat of a reference to the televangelist Jerry Falwell. Stryker spends much of the story excessively quoting the Bible. Not a line or two here or there, but huge blocks of text are quoted. At times, he holds conversations with people where his half of the conversation is just Bible quotes. He is clearly the villain here, a truly despicable man willing to murder his own wife and son. He twists the Bible to support his obsessive bigotry toward mutants. His soldiers are called Purifiers, who kill two mutant children.

This catches the attention of Magneto, who ends up teaming up with the X-Men. Magneto’s involvement is another significant step toward Magneto’s transformation from his clear cut super-villain status from the ’60s to a sympathetic figure conflicted by his past and his ideals.

Professor X is kidnapped along with Cyclops and Storm, which happens a little too easily. Kitty Pryde is almost captured too, and there’s quite the harrowing chase scene. She also phases with another person for the first time.

Through brainwashing and some scifi doohickey modeled after Cerebro, Professor X is going to be used to kill anyone who is a mutant during a highly attended sermon. Of course the X-Men and Magneto bust in, which leads to a pretty chaotic climax.

While Stryker is played heavy-handed, he serves to highlight other characters. In a general sense, we get to see shifting public opinion of mutants and how some religious people see mutants in the context of their belief in God. Not everyone sees it the way Stryker does. Kitty ends up giving a fantastic defense of Nightcrawler and a gripping stand-off ends with a really good unexpected hero. The layout of these pages is particularly good, never once dropping the suspense.

At the very end, Professor X is so shaken by this incident and how he was brainwashed that he considers leaving with Magneto. But at the last moment, he declines the invitation.

ProfXJerkBack to the main series, with issue 168. This opens with the famous “Professor Xavier is a jerk!” line from Kitty Pryde. I’ve seen this image before but never read the issue before. I always imagined that all of the X-Men were there, including Professor X. But she’s just venting to Illyana, who ends up shutting down her tantrum pretty nicely.

Last issue, Professor X made the decision that Kitty would be demoted from the X-Men and moved to his New Mutants class of students. Of course Kitty doesn’t like this because what 14-year-old wants to be taken off the cool adult team and put on the lame kiddie team? Plus, and probably most of all, she doesn’t want to be taken off the team with her crush Peter, who just recently admitted to her that he likes her too. Of course, Kitty eventually proves herself (again) and the Professor agrees to keep her as a full-fledged X-Man.

That cute dragon from the Brood Saga becomes Kitty’s pet or sidekick or something here. It’s clear there’s some intelligence to Lockheed (Kitty names him this, presumably based off the dragon based off the Blackbird jet in her fairy tale she told back in issue 153).

Following the Brood Saga (and the above events of God Loves, Man Kills, if we assume they did occur), everyone is shaken up and needs a little break.

After her weird time in space getting reborn inside that space whale, Storm is having problems reconnecting to Earth’s ecosystem. Her powers kind of turn back on her. This seems to be hinting at big changes ahead for her.

Nightcrawler reunites with his girlfriend/adopted sister (why is everyone OK with this?) and we see a Bamf doll, a cute stuffed animal of Nightcrawler also based off Kitty’s fairy tale. I think it’s the first depiction of one of these.

Wolverine takes off for some alone time in the Canadian Rockies, which leads into an adventure told in the first Wolverine limited series, which I will resist reading now. But that makes spin-off #2 for the X-Men spin-off. It ends up being a big hit and results in a long-running Wolverine on-going series.

Professor X is trying to get used to the clone body he know lives in. Some kind of psychosomatic response is causing his legs to not work as though he’s still paralyzed.

Cyclops goes on a trip to Alaska with his father and brother to meet his grandparents. While on this trip, Cyclops meets Madelyne Pryor, who ends up being a Jean Grey lookalike. This is the start of a can of worms that really sours Cyclops specifically and X-Men in general for a lot of people. I’m trying to stay open-minded, as these two stories were quite good, but I can’t help but think that her arrival is the signal that the peak years for the X-Men are over. I hope I’m wrong. But I suffered through that stupid Locust issue from 1967, so how bad could it get…?

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The Infestation…!

HALP!

Our apartment is being overrun by weird little moth-type bugs!

I’ve tried reasoning with them. I’ve tried making examples of the bold ones and letting the weaker ones escape to spread the word of my wrath. I’ve tried butchering their families. But none of it matters!

Every day I viciously murder more and the next day more are back.

Sometimes the little moth bugs are wearing police outfits to come arrest me for the crimes I have committed against their kind. Sometime they’re in military outfits. Their efforts are futile but so are my efforts to get rid of them.

This stalemate must end!

How do I defeat them? What is their weakness? When will I be free of their torment? How can I wash the blood of their fallen off my hands?

 

TheImprovSpace

The Web Space for The Improv Site

Wait, reverse that.

The web site for The Improv Space.

I’ve been performing at this theater, located in Westwood near UCLA, since October 2012 by my count. A few years ago, I offered to help out with the redesign of the website, and I’ve been serving as webmaster ever since. I can’t take full credit for the site because a lot of the overall look was established before I started to help out, and several of us pitch in to update it, but I’m glad to contribute to a really wonderful group.

So if you’re in the Los Angeles area and want to take some classes in how to do improvisational comedy and/or want to be entertained for a night or two or ten, this is a wonderful community with smart and silly players.

We’ve got some classes starting in September with excellent, experienced teachers. You can sign up now.

YOUConventionThere’s a full line-up of stand-up comedy, open mic and jam opportunities, and improv. I perform every Thursday night in the 8:00 hour with The YOU Convention.

GroundControlBefore joining up with The Improv Space, I was part of the Magic Meathands, which incorporated a lot of games and short-form improv into their shows. So it’s been really fun to return to short-form improv with Ground Control, which has a show this Saturday night! That’s going to be a lot of fun! (Fun fact: that fantastic Ground Control logo was designed by the super-talented Kristian Horn.)

And the theater has started a sketch comedy program, and we’re now accepting submissions for writers and performers to help form our first sketch house teams.

So yeah, lots going on in Westwood. Please check out the site and stop by the theater in person. I’d love to see you there.

Trying to Catch Up

Last Sunday, I scheduled most of the week’s blogs in advance. I was so productive and efficient!

Over the last few days, you might’ve noticed that my posts haven’t been going up at the regular time (around 12:30 PM Pacific).

So yeah this is a quick cheat blog to buy me a day and also to remind you that you can still submit a question for me to answer. I love hearing from you!

Hot Rod, You Punk

It only took me 30 years, but what is this nonsense? (Warning: the following is a total geekfest. Proceed at your own risk.)

In 1986, I had been obsessed with the Transformers cartoons and toys since they first debuted two years earlier. As a 10-year-old, that’s a century. On August 8, 1986, The Transformers: The Movie hit theaters. This was a fully-animated feature length film that promised big changes to the toys and TV series. I begged my parents, and my father took me to the movie theaters to go see it.

I remember driving back home trying to figure out how to answer my father’s question of what I thought of the movie. I think I was still in shock. They had killed my hero Optimus Prime. I was stunned. They also killed a bunch of other favorites while introducing a new cast of characters.

It took me a long time to forgive those new characters. I was mad at them because they just couldn’t replace my favorites, especially Optimus Prime. Over the years, I found it in my heart to forgive them and accept them. (Yes, I’m still talking about toys and fictional characters. Why do you ask?)

One of those new characters was named Hot Rod. He was a younger character, a little impetuous, a little rebellious, and a little bit in the way during a crucial battle that caused Optimus Prime’s death, but he meant well. At the end of the movie (30-year-old SPOILER WARNING!), he officially took Optimus Prime’s place as leader of the good guys, and was given the new name Rodimus Prime.

Of course, new toys of these new characters followed. Actually, I don’t know for sure if the movie was released before the toys, but it’s clear they didn’t want to spoil anything on the toy boxes. As was now tradition with the Transformers line, each toy came with a little character bio and power grid explaining their personality and abilities. The power grid portion worked on a scale of 1 to 10 and measured things like strength, intelligence, courage, and skill. To add to the intrigue, the power grids were color coded so that you needed a red plastic thingie from the box of the toy you just bought to read it. Actually, you could usually make it out without the red plastic thingie, but don’t ruin the fun. Called “tech specs,” these mini-character bibles, along with the cartoon episodes, were mined for source material to inspire hours of playtime.

Since I was mad at the characters back in the day, I never got the Hot Rod or Rodimus Prime toys. But a little internet wandering over the weekend led me to a website that has every single tech spec!

It’s been a lot of fun combing through each character, remembering some of the ones I had when I was a kid and learning about others. Every once in a while, the numbers given to a character for their abilities would seem slightly off. Nothing too terrible, but not what I expected. Turns out, the three original jets Starscream, Thundercracker and Skywarp all had their numbers swapped around. Soundwave wasn’t nearly as powerful as I imagined him to be, turns out he’s actually pretty average as giant robots go.

Then I got to Hod Rod. And come on!

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This is ridiculous! In case you can’t make it out, he’s basically all tens except for speed (9! For a car!) and courage (7). Averaged out, he basically rates as powerful as Optimus Prime. This is blasphemous! Mind you, this is Hot Rod, before he’s turned into Rodimus Prime. It turns out, Rodimus Prime is the most powerful robot ever.

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All tens again, except for nines for speed and firepower!

Just to be clear, on almost all other toys, a 9 for speed is only used in the case for the fastest of jets. 10 shows up for space shuttles and things that go ridiculously fast outside of orbit. Hot Rod turns into a race car. Rodimus Prime turns into a TRUCK! What the entire what?!

Hot Rod was sold as part of the Autobot Cars sub-line of the Transformers. These were medium sized toys when compared to the rest of the Transformers line. Every other character in that line has power levels more in-line with this. They were mid- to high- but not outrageously powerful.

Let’s take a moment to remember that Megatron easily over-powered Hot Rod in The Transformers: The Movie in the midst of a brutal fight with Optimus Prime. At this point in the fight, both characters were near collapse, and then in runs Hot Rod, who immediately gets headlocked by Megatron. According to the above, Hot Rod should’ve been able to take Megatron on his own.

I can begrudgingly accept Rodimus Prime’s levels. He’s the next leader of the Autobots, and despite being a story about giant robots, there is some unexplainable magic to the story where each leader is in some way linked to past leaders. So, I’m fine with Rodimus being more powerful than Optimus. But why bother turning Hot Rod into Rodimus Prime if Hot Rod is already the most amazing robot in the universe? The numbers are so unbalanced from all the other toys, it’s like a fan snuck into Hasbro headquarters and got his own character released. If this wasn’t an official toy, I’d think it was a Mary Sue.

This injustice cannot be allowed to stand! I immediately demand from Hasbro a retraction and apology, plus the release of corrected tech specs for Hot Rod 30 years after the fact. I will accept no excuses, as there is no statute of limitations on fan indignation.

Please watch for my Change.org petition.