(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: Old Soldiers and Charge of the Light Brigade

Reading the entire Uncanny X-Men comic book series really illustrates how the team and its characters have evolved over time, and how they both reflect and influence comics of the time.

I’m now up to 1987, right after the first official X-Men crossover event Mutant Massacre, and the fall-out of that story sees a darker shift toward paranoia and a grim chance at a hopeful future for the characters. The specter of death and doom hangs over them more heavily now, and it’s affecting how they act. The art is also becoming more moody and intense with darker colors.

The industry as a whole was responding similarly to the previous year’s surprise hits, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. They redefined how comics creators approached telling superhero stories. While those two stories took a more dark and grim approach to superheroes, it was a tone used to enhance specific themes and devices that really made those two classic comics resonate. Ultimately, I think the industry learned the wrong lesson and replicated the wrong elements from these milestone works. Some creators got it, but too many devolved their stories into gritted teeth and anguish, mistaking it for realism, with no real foundation of character, thematic exploration or even structure. In improv comedy, players are encouraged to “play to the height of your intelligence,” and I think too many writers and artists did not write or draw to the height of their intelligence during this period. In the 1990s, the comics industry nearly drowned from this content. While Marvel’s X-Men franchise was far from the most guilty, it had its fair share of going for the low-hanging fruit. Fortunately X-Men as a concept and its classic stories were strong enough, and enough quality creators added worthy stories to carry the book through this period.

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Storm looks awesome (Davis/Green)

This batch of issues, Uncanny X-Men #215-219, definitely reflects a transition into this darker era. Being a transitional period, there are a number of fill-in artists and new characters as we move toward settling into a new status quo.

The first two-parter focuses on Storm and Wolverine, the only two members of the team still in the line-up since X-Men was re-launched in 1975. The story is a bit odd because while trying to deal with the threat of the Marauders, Storm is kidnapped by a trio of old World War II superheroes-turned-vigilantes. So it kind of feels like a distraction from the main story of the Mutant Massacre aftermath. At the same time, it’s probably more realistic that the rest of the world is still happening and the X-Men are bound to run into unrelated threats. I like how Storm is conflicted over working with another person that’s been kidnapped who is clearly not a very good person. She also wrestles with how far she’s going to go to escape, and whether she’ll take a life to do it. Storm originally held life to be precious, but then following the Brood Saga went through an evolution where she embraced a darker side of herself where she was willing to kill. Now she seems to be looking for a balance between her original naivete and her more recent cynicism. This kind of nuance perhaps shows a rejection to the simplistic death wish mentality that will permeate the ’90s, and maybe reflects Claremont second-guessing his own contribution to this trend.

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Wolverine doesn’t kill (Guice/Green)

Even Wolverine, who is again struggling with his animalistic regression during this two-parter, doesn’t kill when he has the chance in this story. In fact, since Wolverine’s battle with Lady Deathstrike, he’s being drawn to look older and more tired, and it’s reflected in the script. His transition into the wise old samurai is really taking shape now, and it’s interesting to now see what triggered this transition in the character. Wolverine will eventually be revealed to be extremely long-lived, with his healing power dramatically slowing his aging. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns starred an old Bruce Wayne many years in the future coming out of retirement as Batman, and it’s possible this is where the Wolverine as a veteran superhero concept came from. Also interesting is that years later, this idea is carried further by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan (and this year’s movie Logan), where an even older Wolverine roams the future Marvel Universe.

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Storm and Wolverine question the team’s next steps (Guice/Green)

At the end of this two-parter, Storm is still reflecting on the attack from the Marauders and decides the X-Men need to take a more proactive approach. This more revolutionary or militaristic angle to superheroes will become the modus operandi for several comics in the future, including the X-Men spin-off title X-Force. The Avengers and Justice League comics will also sometimes take this approach, and it’s another concept I associate with the advent of this dark and gritty era.

The three World War II heroes are presented as ultra-conservative and some of the language particularly used by the Crimson Commando eerily echoes modern nationalistic messaging.

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Crimson Commando justifies it all (Davis/Green)

Madelyne Pryor shows up in a subplot. She was seen, although not explicitly identified, several issues back being brought into a hospital as an unidentified Jane Doe. Through some flashbacks, we find out that she might’ve been one of the Marauders’ first targets, and after being in a coma for some time, now wakes up. In the interim, over in the pages of X-Factor, her husband Cyclops has left her to go back to superheroing. While editorially mandated so the original X-Men could be back together again, it will be a black mark on the character for a long time.

Alan Davis shows up against for the first half and is just wonderful. I especially love how he draws Storm here, which is good since she’s the central focus of the story. It really is too bad he wasn’t brought on as the main artist at this point but I think he was also working on Detective Comics at DC Comics at this point. Jackson Guice jumps in for the second part, as well as the first part of the next two-parter. He’s not as strong or distinct here as Alan Davis before him or the artist that comes next (more on him later). Guice is a fantastic artist but the first of two might’ve been a bit rushed or maybe not the best pairing with the inker. The second is good but he goes on to do much stronger work in his career (persona favorite: Ruse).

The next two-parter features the rest of the team, now relocated to Muir Island, a fictional location just northwest of Scotland. We’ve seen this place before, most prominently during the Proteus Saga from 1979. It is the site of a research and medical facility run by Dr. Moira MacTaggert, a scientific colleague and ex-girlfriend of the X-Men’s former mentor Professor Xavier (still presumed dead from mortal wounds when he was rushed off into deep space with his space girlfriend and her space pirate friends). All of the injured X-Men and surviving Morlocks from the Mutant Massacre were moved here for treatment. Moira is dating Banshee, who was a part of the X-Men before he lost his mutant powers of hollering. He never really resonated with me during his time on the team, in part because writer Chris Claremont went overboard with phonetically spelling his accent. But I liked him here, where he’s serving as a trainer for the new X-Men. It’s a brief appearance, so maybe that helps too.

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Longshot eats “burned animal flesh and unborn baby birds” (Guice/Leialoha)

The new X-Men are training while Storm and Wolverine are off doing their thing. The new recruits have a lot of catching up to do. Rogue is the senior member, as she’s been around since 1983. The new members are:

  • Psylocke – the telepath Betsy Braddock just joined toward the end of Mutant Massacre after surviving an attack from Sabretooth
  • Dazzler – the pop singer Alison Blaire generates light and lasers out of sound, and while she’s been a friend to the X-Men since 1980, she finally joined in the Mutant Massacre epilogue when her career and reputation were destroyed by the possession of Malice
  • Longshot – an extradimensional oddity who just joined in an Uncanny X-Men Annual that I don’t have
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Cool sequence of Dazzler absorbing background noise to recharge (Silvestri/Green)

These three members replace longtime X-Men Nightcrawler, Colossus and Shadowcat, who were seriously injured during the Mutant Massacre. Psylocke was a supporting character in British Marvel comics but was largely unknown in the United States until her introduction in a recent New Mutants Annual story. Dazzler had a solo series of her own that ran for 5 years, but while the character first appeared in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, there didn’t appear to be a lot of readers that followed the character into her own adventures. Longshot had only been seen in his mini-series by Ann Nocenti (coincidentally, editor of Uncanny X-Men) and Art Adams (who is the cover artist of the second part of this two-parter), released in 1985. While these characters aren’t complete blank slates, it’s not unrealistic to assume these are complete strangers to readers. It’s a big gamble to jettison half the cast all at once, and this two-parter is dedicated to winning readers over on the new members, especially Dazzler.

Callisto is still around too, but mainly as a device to get Dazzler to storm off in a huff. She shows up in the last issue of this batch to be grumpy again, which seemed a little forced. But I guess if I lost all of my friends to a band of murderers, I’d probably be a little grumpy too.

It’s a bit odd that Dazzler gets the spotlight, as she and Psylocke were heavily featured revery recently when they joined the team. Longshot is the biggest stranger and since these issues are the first time he’s being seen in the main book, it’s strange how peripheral he comes across. I was largely won over by Psylocke last time, and while previously ambivalent, here I’m mostly won over by Dazzler. As you might expect from a one-time celebrity, she’s a bit of a diva, prone to tantrums, and really only on the team because she has no other options. It’s a unique approach to a superhero team member’s inclusion. She’s certainly not the first reluctant superhero or reluctant member of a superhero team by any means, but because of the higher calling intrinsic in the mutant rights aspect of being an X-Man, there is an extra layer to it that feels unique within these pages. It’s also funny that she runs into the Juggernaut (even if her recognizing him out of costume as he speeds by in a car is a little much), who happens to be a huge fan of hers.

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Juggernaut is a closet Dazzler fan (Guice/Leialoha)

Of course, the four come together in time to defeat the Juggernaut and save some locals in Scotland. It’s a fun story that doesn’t feel incredibly consequential other than establishing these characters. Again, it feels a bit like a distraction from the impending Marauders threat, which is now starting to feel like maybe their attack on the Morlocks was it and the X-Men are just imagining that they’re still in danger.

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Longshot vs. Juggernaut (Silvestri/Green)

More noteworthy is the second half of this two-parter being drawn by Marc Silvestri. After one more fill-in artist, he will become the new regular artist on Uncanny X-Men, which has been rotating through a stable of fill-in artists since John Romita Jr.’s departure not even halfway through the Mutant Massacre. Silvestri is the first of a generation of artists that would become rock stars in the late 1980s and early ’90s, so I suppose it’s fitting in a way that his first issue of Uncanny X-Men focuses on the rock star Dazzler. Along with later stars Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Erik Larsen, and Jim Valentino, Silvestri will eventually help form Image Comics, a huge force in establishing creator-owned comics as a viable publishing strategy. As part of Image, he launched Cyberforce and eventually formed his own imprint, Top Cow Productions, which had huge success in the mid-’90s with Witchblade and The Darkness. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here, Silvestri brings a refreshing look to the characters. There is a degree of fun to his layouts and characterizations that help counter the darker tones seeping into the book post-Mutant Massacre. He also has a sleek and sexy edge that prevents it from tipping into too silly. Maybe for the first time since John Byrne and Paul Smith, the characters just look cool doing what they’re doing. They’re expressive, dynamic, and it looks exciting. Really, his arrival is probably the best part of this batch of issues, although probably more for the promise of what is to come.

The last issue in this set brings Havok onto the team, which you’d think they would’ve done before the team-building two-parter with Juggernaut. Havok is Alex Summers, the younger brother of Cyclops, the first X-Man (retcons aside). Alex was first introduced way back in 1969, a couple of issues before the arrival of the legendary artist Neal Adams attempted to save the beleaguered original X-Men series from getting cancelled. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work, and the book was put on hiatus about a year later (and then successfully relaunched in 1975). But during that time, Alex was revealed to have the ability to convert ambient cosmic energy into cool looking blasts of concentric circles. Like his brother Alex, he has poor control over his powers. While he briefly served as an X-Man, he has mostly wanted to try to live a normal life. His girlfriend the green-haired Lorna Dane is also a mutant. Of course the two invariably get sucked back into mutant shenanigans and that’s exactly what happens here.

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Suspicion and paranoia (Blevins/Green)

A few other odd things happen (or don’t happen) in this issue. First, the issue right before it ends on a cliffhanger of Alex and Lorna discovering one of the big fish that serve as the spaceships for The Brood (last seen during the Brood Saga). If the Brood are back, that is seriously bad news, and Alex and Lorna acknowledge this. Then, in the next issue, no mention of this is made whatsoever. It’s revealed during this issue that Alex’s memories were tampered with by Psylocke (more on that soon!) so it’s entirely possibly his memory of why he was going to visit the X-Men was erased too. But Lorna makes no mention of it either. Apparently this whole plot point is left dormant for years, which is crazy to me. Why introduce it the way it was if nothing is going to be done with it? Alex could go visit the X-Men for any number of reasons that lead to him joining. To me it is indicative of how Chris Claremont isn’t quite on top of things as a plotter as he once was. Smaller clues suggest that Claremont’s awareness of the character’s history, even history that he himself wrote, is not very strong. Again, this could be chocked up to Psylocke’s mind-wipe, but it seems like a convenient excuse rather than a choice made for the story.

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Havok twists and turns through his own paranioed confusion (Blevins/Green)

Despite this, the use of Alex’s narration and his discovery of his own former teammates’ treachery at altering his memory present a good tale of paranoia and increasing anxiety that also play into the post-Mutant Massacre tone the book is taking. Fill-in artist Bret Blevins provides a suitably creepy, twisted and unsteady style that really serves the story here. The X-Men gather in the abandoned tunnels of the Morlocks to plan how to fake their own deaths so the Marauders will leave them and their loved ones alone. This makes it seem like Storm might’ve changed her mind after deciding to be more proactive a few issues earlier. Although I guess there’s no real reason why both plans can’t still be in place.

Meanwhile, in case we forgot that the Marauders are still a threat, Lorna is being attacked by them, and is eventually taken over by the mind-controlling Malice. Ultimately, story is showing both Alex and Lorna as they’re forced back into the X-Men’s world, but end up on opposing sides. Neither is entirely making their choice of their own free will. One is straight-up mind-controlled, and the other is somewhat coerced and somewhat left with no other option.

Speaking of lack of free will: the mind-wipe. Years later, DC Comics revealed a similar mind-wipe among teammates in the pages of Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales. This was a big event for DC, and an extremely controversial moment. Here, it’s kind of brushed aside as a failed attempt to keep Alex safe and everyone moves on. It’s quite bizarre and reminiscent of Professor X’s ethically dubious use of his telepathy back in the very beginnings of the X-Men comic. This is a big red flag that the X-Men are losing their way without their mentor (who eventually took a more ethical approach to his powers).

Another controversial moment comes from Psylocke when she suggests killing Alex when Storm asks for any additional alternatives of what to do with him. From what I understand, this got a lot of angry letters but this didn’t ring as troubling for me. First, the story is told from Alex’s perspective and he’s obviously pretty suspicious and shaken. There’s always the unreliable narrator factor, and it’s clear his state of mind is frazzled and panicked, clouding his judgement and clarity. I don’t think the option was as seriously considered as he feared. Second, he’s only recently met Psylocke. Even Storm isn’t a close friend to him. So it’s very possible he’s misreading them. I think it’s more likely Psylocke is offering it as an improbable alternative to highlight that they really have very few options.

But even if she didn’t propose it as a genuine option, this is still another hint at what Psylocke will eventually become. Even in her previous encounter with Sabretooth, she longed to be tougher, and demonstrated a willingness to risk Wolverine to get information out of Sabretooth. There is a cold-bloodedness to her that is easily missed because of her pink costume and prim British appearance. So while I don’t think Alex was in any real danger of being murdered by the X-Men, it is a clue of what Betsy will become.

That kind of disciplined foreshadowing is what makes writer Chris Claremont impressive. But at the same time, plots get away from him, and juggling the hints and mysteries he’s setting up can clearly get away from him. There is something to be said for clarity and straightforward storytelling without all of the winding diversions and distractions. This batch of issues was a mixed bag of his strengths and weaknesses colliding.

Amid this transitional period, letterer Tom Orzechowski and colorist Glynis Oliver continue to be the bedrock of the series. As artists come and go, they have held down the fort for years now. Orzechowski has been on the book since 1977 and Oliver since 1978 with only occasional interruptions. With about a decade on the book each, they’re both only surpassed by writer Chris Claremont’s legendary duration. Just look at the colors above that add to Blevins’ bug-eyed delusions, and the lettering that sells the scene of Dazzler using countryside sounds to recharge herself. Those are some of the more obvious displays of their talent, but they are continually serving the stories and characters well with their skills.

Next time: Marc Silvestri officially settles in as the main artist in the build-up to the next crossover event.

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(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: Mutant Massacre

What? Another post so soon? Yes!

I continue my epic read-through of Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men comic book series, which started all the way back in 1963. I’m up to the end of 1986 and the very start of 1987 with the very first crossover event for the X-Men titles, Mutant Massacre.

Marvel had done events and crossovers before, notably with Secret Wars and its sequel Secret Wars II, but this was the first event where it was mostly centered around a family of titles. Also unique was that there wasn’t a mini-series or other comic released as the main narrative. There are no comic books titles Mutant Massacre, the whole story is told as part of regular issues of ongoing comic book series.

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Uncanny X-Men #210: one of the more effective scenes of the X-Men encountering an anti-mutant mob

It was such a hit that the X-Men comics franchise would refine and recycle this publishing strategy every year for a long time. For a while, it was like clockwork.

In some ways, this was the first big step toward the bloated X-Men line with its convoluted interconnected storylines that eventually became impenetrable for more casual readers. It’s the beginning of a slippery slope, but what’s actually here isn’t as bad as what comes of it. Mutant Massacre is well constructed from an accessibility standpoint. Each comic book series looks at their own characters’ perspective of the event and largely stays in its lane. I only read the Uncanny X-Men issues. While it drops in acknowledgements that there are things happening elsewhere (in issues of X-Men spinoff titles X-Factor and New Mutants, and less X-Men-centric titles like Power Pack, Thor, and Daredevil), it wasn’t a disruption and it largely read well.

Another peculiarity to this event is that it isn’t clearly branded. In the first part of the event there was a guide of what issues to read but that’s basically all you got. The event isn’t referenced by name on the cover. There’s no “Part 1 of 4” language used anywhere. Even the structure of the plot is somewhat ambiguous in its conclusion. The main action happens fairly early on and the rest is mostly aftermath. There’s no big climactic conclusion, the characters just continue on the best they can. This soft ending is reinforced by some printings of collected editions disagreeing on the final chapter of the event. For the sake of my reading, I’m including Uncanny X-Men #210-214, which matches more recent collected edition reprints. Even though the original promotion for the event had it finishing with 213, I think the whole thing reads better by adding 214.

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One of the more brutal attacks: Riptide’s flying weapons

Many events in the future will brag that “nothing will ever be the same again” but before that became a marketing cliche, this event actually did it without really saying it was going to do it. The title’s status quo and cast get seriously altered and won’t really get restored until the ’90s, and in some cases, not until the 2000s.

The big inciting incident is that a brand new band of villains called the Marauders slaughters the majority of the Morlocks, the mutant civilization living in abandoned subway tunnels under Manhattan. They’re basically a band of homeless squatters and only some of them have any notable mutant powers to speak of. There’s no real explanation of why, except that the Marauders’ mysterious boss considers them an unknown quantity and wants them removed. Since Storm is supposed to be the leader of the Morlocks, the X-Men go to help. They assist the escape of several surviving Morlocks, and get pretty beat up in the process. They’re followed back to their home, the Xavier school, and are left pretty defenseless.

It’s some of the most death the comic has seen so far. Hundreds of Morlocks are seen dead. Wolverine and Nightcrawler were already in poor shape from recent adventures. Colossus and Shadowcat also get seriously injured. Of course Wolverine heals because that’s what he does, but it’s clear he’s still struggling and not in the best shape. That really only leaves Storm, still with no powers, and Rogue. With half the team decommissioned, the event ends with two new recruits, the British telepath Psylocke and the laser-light generator Dazzler, who after several past recruitment attempts finally joins the team for real.

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Colossus loses any innocence he had left

The carnage clearly leaves the characters rattled.

Storm seriously considers quitting as X-Men leader due to the losses. She’s talked out of it by her rival Callisto, the previous leader of the Morlocks. Callisto and Storm have had a begrudging respect for each other for some time and this nicely builds on that. I was really hoping that Callisto would join the X-Men. At this point, she’s one of my favorite recurring characters of the series. Storm remains one of my favorite X-Men and she continues to be the glue holding the team together through some pretty rough times.

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“Logan old son…”

Wolverine finally has his milestone encounter with Sabretooth. They’re establishing as longtime rivals. The mysteries of Wolverine’s past are starting to stack up and it’s a bit obvious in retrospect that they often had no idea what half of this stuff actually meant. Whatever makes him seem cool, just throw it on the pile. From interviews of the time though, we know that Sabretooth was meant to be Wolverine’s father. Some of Sabretooth’s dialogue in these issues makes this pretty clear too. But as with too many of Claremont’s long percolating plots, he never got around to confirming it. After all, he only had 15+ years writing Uncanny X-Men and many of its spin-offs to get around to this stuff. Later writers naturally wanted to put their own stamp on things so they did something different with the hints. Usually this results in retroactively causing some dialogue in the older stories to be a bit discordant with what is to come. It doesn’t outright contradict but it doesn’t quite line up either.

Rogue doesn’t seem to do too much in this story, emotionally. She’s around a lot to use her powers but she doesn’t get a lot of character moments.

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Shadowcat fading away

During the initial battle with the Marauders, Shadowcat’s powers are disrupted somehow, causing her to slowly fade away. She eventually can’t even talk and we don’t even get any thought bubbles from her, making it extra creepy and sad. She’s put in some kind of container, although it’s not made clear exactly what it’s supposed to be doing since she could theoretically pass right through it. Nightcrawler also gets seriously injured and ends up in a coma. The two characters, along with Rachel Summers, who was written out in the last set of issues, will all star in the spinoff series Excalibur, although it doesn’t launch for another year.

Colossus sadly snaps during the fight and actually kills one of the Marauders. This is one of the most memorable moments of the story and really drives home how grim things are getting in the midst of the massacre. While he makes it out of the Morlock tunnels, it’s discovered that his injuries are actually worse than they seemed and he ends up being paralyzed. He’ll vanish from the series for a time too. Apparently he was also intended to be in Excalibur but during the development of that series, Captain Britain took Peter’s spot as the strong guy. So he’ll eventually return but it’s too bad we don’t get to see him dealing with his actions during the fight.

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Psylocke’s first knife, not the focused totality of anything

Betsy Braddock is a semi-new character. She was new to American readers, but she first appeared about ten years earlier in Marvel’s UK comics. She gained the name Psylocke in her first US appearance for New Mutants Annual #2, where she is kidnapped and given bionic eyes so she can be an unwitting spy for the extra-dimensional villain Mojo. She hangs around the Xavier school for a few months as everyone, including herself, debates what to do with her. While clearly older than the teenaged New Mutants cast, she’s considered for that team instead of the X-Men. But when Sabretooth invades the mansion, Psylocke proves herself and she earns a spot as an X-Man. This issue was really interesting because I mostly know the character in her ninja guise she’s given later. It always seemed like a random juxtaposition between the two versions of the character, but there are a lot of clues in this issue that indicate Claremont might’ve actually planned the transformation all along. She tries to use a knife in self-defense (she’ll later have a psychic knife), and her own narration has multiple references to her wanting a darker side to her prim exterior. This fight with Sabretooth gets a sequel years later. I’ve read that issue and never knew the characters had a history like this.

Dazzler was outed as a mutant a couple of years ago, which ruined her singing career. A subplot in these issues shows her taking a job as a musician in Lila Cheney’s band. Lila is a character that only had a few appearances in New Mutants up until now. This is her first appearance in Uncanny X-Men and she probably could’ve been introduced a bit better. There’s nothing to indicate that she knows the X-Men until they get a call from her letting them know Dazzler is acting weird. But anyway, what seems like an unrelated incident ends up being another of the Marauders mind controlling Dazzler. They eventually free her but now her career is completely ruined, so without really any other options, she agrees to join the team.

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A mind-controlled Rogue isn’t helping the X-Men’s already bad reputation

Speaking of the Marauders, aside from Sabretooth and the mind-controller Malice, we don’t get a lot on them. They’re obviously brutal but they’re mostly just different flavored foot soldiers serving someone named Mr. Sinister. It seems like most of them are mutants but other than their boss vaguely wanting to get rid of “wild cards,” there isn’t much explanation for why this is all happening. And since this is mostly mutants killing mutants, it’s not really furthering the building theme of the growing anti-mutant hysteria. From what I’ve heard, the original plan for this story was that Nimrod was going to be the main villain slaughtering the Morlocks. This probably would’ve been better thematically. Of course, there was just a big battle with Nimrod, but I assume if the original Mutant Massacre plans held, those issues would’ve played out differently.

On the art side of things, it’s a bit inconsistent, averaging one artist per issue. After three years as the main artist, John Romita, Jr. departs. He’ll return to the series in 1993 for another stint, at which point his distinctive style will be firmly in place. Bret Blevins steps in for several pages on Romita’s last issue. He will later show up for a run on New Mutants. Rick Leonardi, who wonderfully handled Cloak and Dagger, does a fill-in. Alan Davis arrives for a fill-in issue as well, and his issue looks wonderful. I wish he took over as the regular artist but his style may not quite fit the darkening tones. Barry Windsor-Smith shows up again for his fourth issue of the series. Although here he only does pencils, the first time he didn’t also handle inks and colors. It was strange to see him hop in on something more conventional but it still looks great. Those are all fantastic artists but their styles vary somewhat, weakening the cohesive unity of the overall story. As w get to later crossover events, this will become more of a problem. Here it seems like Romita was maybe removed from the book before they had a new regular artist in place, causing a bit of a scramble.

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Wolverine demonstrates just how rattled they are

While the X-Men are trying to rebuild, they are both physically and emotionally battered, both individually and collectively. While there have been harrowing moments and the threat of danger hanging over the series for a long time, this is among the most permanent repercussions they’ve had to face. Half their team is medically unstable, the mansion is serving as both a morgue and trauma unit for the Morlocks, their mutant-detecting equipment Cerebro is beyond repair, and they are in no shape to defend themselves from an attack, which they expect could come from the Marauders any day. In many ways, the series had been coasting on the momentum of the classic John Byrne era of 1978-1981. This seems like the strongest step toward bringing the book into a new era.

While I’m sad to see this era of the X-Men end and some of these characters move on, I have to admit some elements were getting a bit tired. Most of the characters getting removed were directionless for awhile, as if Claremont had run out of things to say with them, so it seems like a good move. I’m liking Psylocke more than I expected already. Dazzler I can take or leave so far but we’ll see. This kind of deck clearing is rare in any kind of franchise, so I appreciate the bold move and am excited to see what happens next.

Next time: More new characters, and moving out of the X-Mansion

AMA: What happened to the CrossGen stuff?

Last summer, I did a month of Ask Me Anything posts. The beauty of the internet is that it remembers everything. Last week, I got a new submission from those old posts. It asked:

What happened to your CrossGen stuff?

Scroll down to the last paragraph for the answer if you know the CrossGen story. If not, read this first:

meridianSoooo… for context, CrossGen Comics was a comic book publisher that ran in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At the time, I was pretty burnt out on Marvel. They offered a great alternative without being too alternative. They were mostly action/adventure tales using similar storytelling techniques seen in superhero comics but they were set in different genre trappings or remixes, like sci-fi, high fantasy, Victorian mystery, kung-fu, etc. Like Marvel and DC, the comics were all set in the same universe, but to give breathing room, independence and accessibility, each comic was set on a different planet, instead of a different city or part of New York. This allowed a lot of unique world building and stylistic freedom. But because there was some shared mythology and the possibility to visit other planets, it still had the appeal of shared universes. For the most part, this allowed readers to read as little or as much of the publisher’s line as they wanted. When characters did crossover, they were initially very good at presenting it so it held up regardless of how much of the line you read.

That unique approach to publishing was already intriguing to me, but to add to that was the unique business model. At the time, and for the most part still today, comic book creators work as freelancers. There will be exclusive contracts here and there, but for the vast majority, comic creators still almost entirely work from home project to project with little job security. CrossGen Comics was bankrolled and led by a comics fan who just so happened to have been a CEO for a previous non-comics company that had been bought. He took a decidedly corporate approach to running CrossGen. Creators were hired full-time to work in the office headquarters in Tampa, Florida. They were given a salary and full benefits like a real full-time employee. This led to a collaborative bullpen, like the mythological Marvel Bullpen. At the same time, the company innovated in how it handled reprint editions to bookstores, establishing a format and release schedule that has become industry standard, and digital comics well before the launch of comiXology.

It all sounded pretty exciting, so I jumped right in early on. I bought every book and built a fan-site that tracked each character and their appearances. It was pretty barebones design-wise, and I never got around to actually dressing it up, but it became a good resource for those getting into the company’s universe, especially as it grew. Around the same time, I started writing for the short-lived online resurrection of The Comics Reader (another site sadly no longer online), and interviewed CrossGen’s CEO for one of the first in-depth articles on the nonprofit organization that would become The Hero Initiative. I interviewed several others on the initial board for The Hero Initiative, but CrossGen’s CEO was the most generous with his time. We spoke on the phone and he was very charming, generously sending me a few prints.

Good times.

Abadazad1So what happened? Long story short (too late), the company overreached. The CEO’s ambitions outstretched the limitations of the comics industry at the time. Plus, from what I understand from various interviews, there were some significant clashing of egos at the CrossGen Compound in regards to how much the shared universe elements should play a part in each book. Risks were taken that didn’t pay off. Paychecks started to slow down. Creators started to leave. Finally, they went into bankruptcy. Because of the corporate structure, all of the properties were either fully or partially owned by CrossGen (aside from a few partnerships with other publishers). When the properties went to auction, Disney’s Hyperion Books showed up and bought the entire line just so they could get J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog’s Abadazad, a beautiful fantasy series that riffed on classic children’s books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The comic was a late entry in the publisher’s output intended for an imprint set outside the CrossGen Universe line. Only 3 issues were published before the company went under. The book was relaunched by Hyperion Books in 2006 as a comics/illustrated children’s book hybrid that sadly didn’t find an audience and was discontinued after the third book in the series. Also in 2006, Checker Books licensed reprint rights to try to get unreleased collected editions to market. At the time, there were rumors of Checker trying to also publish unreleased stories, such as the highly anticipated Negation War. But alas, Checker seemed poorly equipped to really promote the line properly and their production quality couldn’t match the original books. Plus, the bad taste of the company’s end was probably still too fresh.

Then in 2009, Disney acquired Marvel Comics, which means that ironically CrossGen Comics is now part of the same company it once wanted to supplant. The following year, Marvel announced a CrossGen revival, and a few mini-series were released in 2011 minus the shared universe element. Historically, Marvel has not done well with marketing non-superhero comics, with the most notable exception of Star Wars, which basically markets itself. So needless to say, that relaunch fizzled. It’s been nothing since.

Every so often I’ll get an email asking me about that old site proving that either old CrossGen fans are still out there or new readers are somehow still finding the old books. As I said in the beginning of this post: the internet remembers.

To (finally) answer the original question, somewhere mid-2000s I switched a few services in how my sites are hosted. Sadly, the CrossGen site was lost. I thought I had locally saved the information, but even that seems to be gone now, probably swallowed up in a computer transfer. It’s one of those things in the back of my mind that I’d like to try to rebuild but honestly it’s not a priority as I don’t really relish the idea of redoing all that work, and I don’t really know if there’s still enough CrossGen fans out there that would care. Maybe someday… Heck, if Valiant can come back…

EDIT: Oh yeah, and sure, I’ll keep the Ask Me Anything open:

(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: Wounded Wolf and Ghosts

I’m still here! I’ll be honest, getting through the Secret Wars II period was a bit of a challenge. But I’m glad I kept going because on the other side of it are some stories that prove there’s still some worthwhile comics with these characters.

In case you can’t tell, I’m reading (or in some cases, re-reading) Marvel’s entire Uncanny X-Men series, starting from the original X-Men comic book from the 1960s, through to its relaunch in the 1970s and its rise to the best-selling comic of the 1980s and ’90s until… well, I guess we’ll see. I’m obviously not very prolific, but slow and steady wins something or other.

Anyway, I’m up to 1986, right before the very first X-Men event, Mutant Massacre. This batch of issues covers Uncanny X-Men #205 to 209.

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No words left in the final battle

The standalone Uncanny X-Men #205 is one of the best issues of the era, thanks in large part to the return of extraordinary artist Barry Windsor-Smith. This is his third assignment on the series, previously handling the two Lifedeath stories starring Storm. It seems like a pretty good gig. He gets to show up once a year and really spend the time on creating a beautiful book, leaving the month-to-month grind to others. He provides pencils, inks and colors, which is unusual at the time for an artist on a big superhero book to get such ownership over so much of a comic’s visuals. But it pays off, with an atmospheric and tense story.

This may be the most primal and animalistic we’ve seen Wolverine yet, and this is nicely juxtaposed with the innocence of 5-year-old Katie Power, the youngest member of the pre-teen superheroes Power Pack, who first met Wolverine in issue #195. The issue is told from Katie’s perspective for a good portion of the book, which helps present Wolverine as more scary than we’ve seen him.

(Aside: I love how the adult with Katie in the beginning is never fully seen, keeping the perspective on Katie. It reminds me of the charming POV trick used on the animated Muppet Babies show, where we almost never see the Nanny above the height of the childlike main characters. Muppet Babies had already been airing for a couple of years by now, so I’m going to go ahead and claim that Windsor-Smith was inspired by it for this scene.)

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Katie is clean and bright, Wolverine is bloodied with muted tones

Another nice juxtaposition device is the initial POV on the villain Lady Deathstrike before shifting to the innocence of Katie. I thought Lady Deathstrike first appeared here but apparently she had been bouncing around Daredevil and Alpha Flight for a few months. This is where she adopts the look she will maintain for a long time. The first scene shows her grotesque transformation into a cyborg with creepy fingers that extend out into long razor sharp claws. It’s left a bit vague but Lady Deathstrike believes that her late father will somehow be redeemed by her confronting Wolverine, to the death if need be. “The key is Wolverine, and the secrets locked within his gaijin brain,” she explains in narration. The mystery of his tortured mind and his feral regression depicted here still seem novel at this point but they become more common devices to amp up Wolverine’s cool factor with increasingly diminished returns. Apparently, Deathstrike believes that Wolverine somehow stole her father’s process to bond adamantium to a person’s skeleton. Geez, Lady Deathstrike, how about just hire a patent attorney?

After that issue, we return to regular artist John Romita, Jr. where the X-Men are still in San Francisco from the events of the last batch of issues. Freedom Force (formerly Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants but with a government pardon and deputized as federal agents) chases them down and actually beats them, wrecking the neighborhood in the process, and only the intervention of local police buy the X-Men time to flee. It’s a decent fight scene but the X-Men fighting this batch of characters is starting to wear a little thin, even with the addition of Spiral and Spider-Woman. The issue ends with Rachel deciding to finally reveal herself to Scott as his daughter but then the next issue the X-Men are back in New York with no mention of that trip. Maybe that scene happened in the recently launched X-Factor? Either way, it’s a bit weak that there’s no follow-up on it in the next few issues, especially considering their focus on Rachel. This era in particular is muddled by too much interactions between books and not enough awareness that people may not be reading every book. Essentially, if you don’t read it or miss the connection, too bad, you’re on your own.

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Nice use of colors and angles for Rachel’s nightmare

Once the X-Men return to New York, recuperating with the Morlocks, they all remember that they’re mad at Rachel for co-opting their life essences to fight the Beyonder during Secret Wars II. This is one of the increasingly odd Chris Claremont ticks where the leapfrog approach to plotting has these delayed responses to things. In the previous issue, it seemed like everyone was fine with Rachel but now everyone’s giving her the cold shoulder. Regardless, there’s some good stuff here, including cool dream sequences (enhanced by Glynis Oliver’s colors) of Wolverine hunting Rachel down as she struggles with her survivor’s guilt and even some suicidal thoughts (echoing Jean Grey committing suicide in the Dark Phoenix Saga). Rachel’s dreams foreshadow the final encounter, with Wolverine, dragging himself out of bed while recovering from his fight with Lady Deathstrike, to try talking Rachel down from murdering Selene. The scene abruptly ends with one of the best cliffhangers the series has had in a long time.

The final two issues show the aftermath of that encounter where the Hellfire Club prepares a retaliation and the X-Men and Morlocks search for Rachel. Everyone tracks Rachel to Central Park, and then must also fend off the random arrival of Nimrod, the pink mutant-hunting robot from Rachel’s future. Aside from some goofy costumes (Leland, what are you wearing?!), there is some really creative moments with the different powers and nice juggling of multiple parties with distinct motivations and objectives. Where the Freedom Force battle was kind of boring, this had higher stakes with better choreographed set pieces.

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Creative use of lettering by Tom Orzechowski to show a telepath waking up

Spiral’s Body Shoppe, which debuted in the first issue of this batch of comics to transform Lady Deathstrike into a cyborg, appears again at the end, luring Rachel into a way to escape from her own guilt. Nightcrawler, who finally returns to the team, appears to be removed again from the playing field (although only temporarily). So the story ends with the team down to five: Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Shadowcat and Rogue. (I can’t really figure out what Colossus is still doing here. He maybe had five lines in this run of issues. I like him but he’s being wasted and could be swapped out for virtually any other super-strong person.)

John Romita, Jr., and Dan Green continues to be a good visual storyteller. He’s more interesting in dream sequences and other strange scenes where he seems to give himself permission to be more unconventional.

All told, while plotting coordination is slipping, resulting in some uneven issues, this is a mostly decent set of comics, with the Barry Windsor-Smith issue in particular skewing the average up considerably. Next is the first X-Men-centric event: Mutant Massacre! I’ll try to take less than 6 months this time.

(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: The Trial of Magneto and Secret Wars II

Yes I’m back for another thrilling installment of me talking about what I’m reading!

I’ve been reading the entirety of Uncanny X-Men, stretching all the way back to 1963 and working my way up to the present (or thereabouts). Right now I’m in the mid-1980s, and nothing is more indicative of that than the arrival of an omnipotent white guy with Michael Jackson hair. This batch of issues covers Uncanny X-Men #199-204.

What this doesn’t include is the Asgardian Wars two-part story in New Mutants Special #2 and Uncanny X-Men Annual #9 , which takes place between Uncanny X-Men #199 and 200, because (a) it mostly seems to be a New Mutants story, and I’m saving New Mutants for their own (Re-)Reading New Mutants series, and (b) I couldn’t find it in Marvel Unlimited, Marvel’s otherwise pretty great digital subscription service I’m using for this reading project. While Marvel Unlimited has every issue of the main Uncanny X-Men series, it’s pretty spotty and disorganized when it comes to the annuals. I include them when I can but this time was not meant to be. However, I did listen to the always-excellent X-Plain the X-Men episode covering the Asgardian Wars story arc. From that podcast, it sounds like it’s worth reading but I must confess to a bias. I have a low threshold for Marvel’s Asgardian dialogue from this era, which is not only a weird subpar-Shakespearean speech pattern but also seems to afflict characters with overly verbose soliloquies that completely abandon the “less is more” school of thought. So not only is it clunky to read, but it goes on forever. So for now, it’s getting skipped. That aside…

This entire era of Uncanny X-Men is getting really hot and cold. Last time, “LifeDeath 2” was the stand-out among some otherwise unspectacular stories. This time, “The Trial of Magneto” in issue #200 and its lead-in of #199 lead the pack, with the rest mostly running the spectrum of just OK to downright forgettable. From what I’ve read around the intertubes, a number of plots that writer Chris Claremont wanted to do during this period were completely derailed, so I will charitably excuse the subpar issues as him trying to recover and figure out what to do instead. Besides, he’s crossing his 10-year anniversary with the title at this point; every issue can’t be God Loves, Man Kills.

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Hint: The guy with the big M is the one on trial

Still, “The Trial of Magneto” is a big status quo change for the title and the characters. It effectively writes Professor X out of the book. I think this makes at least the third time he’s been removed, and it makes sense. Having recently regained the use of his legs (by being cloned into a new non-paralyzed body), he’s been a more active member of the team, even serving as field leader on missions. With his considerable mental powers, Claremont had to keep coming up with reasons for his powers to not be working at full strength so he wouldn’t render the rest of the team useless every issue. This problem of Charles the father figure rescuing his students goes all the way back to some of the earliest issues of X-Men, where he’s mind-wiping villains left and right while his original students ran interference and played clean-up, or just stood around while he did all the work. (Of course, replacing Prof. X with Magneto doesn’t really fix that problem, as Magneto is extremely powerful as well; probably one of the reasons why Magneto mostly sticks to the New Mutants series, and only occasionally directly joins the X-Men in battle.) He would sometimes leave for secret missions or go into seclusion to work on some special project in the basement and finally was thought dead toward the end of the original ’60s series. Then in the ’70s, when he thought the X-Men were dead, he abandoned his mission and took off with his space girlfriend. More recently, his powers were disrupted by the arrival of the Beyonder (who we’ll get to in a moment) and then he barely survived a hate crime. Since he didn’t properly recuperate from that attack, he’s now on death’s door, so they shuffle him off to be cared for by the super high-tech space pirates, the Starjammers. Due to some political machinations, they can’t teleport him back after he’s cured so he’s effectively stuck in space with the X-Men having no idea what became of him. For all they know, he could’ve died after being whisked away. Or maybe Magneto killed him and this is all a ploy.

I was surprised that last theory didn’t end up having more legs. Cyclops and maybe Wolverine briefly consider it but after a few issues, it seems most everyone is reasonably convinced that Magneto is truly trying to be a good guy. I like the idea of some of them believing him but considering the wacky plots he’s tried to pull off in the past, I think some of them, particularly the ones that have been around the longest, have good reason to not buy into what appears to them to be a sudden change of heart.

But the change of heart hasn’t really been all that sudden. The wheels were set in motion for this back in Uncanny X-Men #150, when signs of a sympathetic Magneto began to surface. Fifty issues later and he is now officially an X-Man. Simultaneously, the X-Men have had to take an increasing number of actions that put them on the opposite side of the law. So it’s not that Magneto has done a 180, it’s that both sides have gradually shifted about 90 degrees toward each other. I could quibble on just how thorough this has been depicted and reinforced, but overall the execution exhibited more patience and methodical plotting than almost any other mainstream comic book writer up to this point.

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Baby: “Little personal space, please?”

Immediately following that issue, the rest of the team responds to what’s happened, including the birth of Cyclops’ son. Scott was pulled back onto the team over concerns with Professor X’s health, and it was discovered that his wife/Jean Grey double Madelyne Pryor was pregnant. This surely skewed many young children’s perceptions of pregnancy. It seems to happen very quickly and we never really see her showing as pregnant. But here he his, a baby bouncing Summers. Because Cyclops doesn’t know how to human, instead of being a proud father, he broods over the loss of Professor X and the arrival of Magneto. This mostly makes sense, as Prof. X is his father figure and since his teen years, Magneto has been their biggest enemy. But could he maybe have a little bit of happiness? Poor Madelyne feels pretty rejected and it leads to an argument between them over whether Scott will be returning to the team, which seems like he just wants to bolt because he looked around and suddenly saw a normal human life with a wife and child ahead of him. Scott really doesn’t come off looking good here, and while there have been hints of this in the past, this is the first big step toward a really unfortunate period for the character. Much of it is editorially forced, as the character here is being set up to co-star in a new spin-off book called X-Factor, where Jean Grey and the rest of the original X-Men will reunite. While this issue ends with Scott relenting leadership of the X-Men over to Storm and departing from the book once more, Claremont’s plans to have Scott permanently retire end here.

Speaking of the leadership mantle, Storm challenges Cyclops to a duel in the Danger Room, which is an overly simplistic way to determine who should be leader. Even though Storm is still powerless, she’s more clever, strategic and determined. That, and the editors have predetermined the outcome. While I’m happy Storm wins, it’s one of those comic book fights where you can feel someone’s finger on the scale to skew the results.

After that, we dive right into Secret Wars II crossovers. I didn’t read the main mini-series (mercifully) but these issues of Uncanny X-Men are tie-ins to a big Marvel event that consumed the majority of Marvel’s publishing line for about 9 months. Fortunately Claremont dealt with this intrusion fairly gracefully. I was able to read these issues without feeling lost and they reasonably stand on their own without reading other crossover issues or the main mini-series.

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Rachel Summers vs. the Phoenix Force

The Beyonder is this cosmic force that assumes the guise of a Michael Jackson-haired human as he tries to understand what it means to be human. This leads to a confrontation with Rachel Summers, who has now fully assumed the identity of Phoenix. Naturally this pulls the rest of the X-Men in where they end up hanging out in San Francisco for several issues. There are some good moments here, mostly for Rachel as she deals with the challenge of the Beyonder and how far she’s willing to go to try to defeat him. It also appears to be her wrestling with the full Phoenix Force, which ultimately corrupted her mother. After a beautiful Starlin-esque 3-page sequence of her encompassing and experiencing every living being in the universe, and being challenged by Storm, her own humanity wins out over the corrupting aspect of the Phoenix Force. It’s a great show of strength for Rachel, who has been a bit maudlin since her arrival in the book, and a great moment of redemption for the Phoenix name since the Dark Phoenix Saga. It also makes a strong case for the possibility that Rachel has a stronger will and is a better host for the Phoenix Force than Jean Grey.

The last issue in this set deals with Nightcrawler, who it’s acknowledged was curiously left out of the Beyonder confrontation in San Francisco. He’s having a real crisis of faith over the Beyonder’s God-level abilities and his motivations, as well as regret over his doubt-filled stint as team leader. It’s basically an adventure story to return the character back to his more swashbuckling self but it spends a bizarre amount of time on a damsel in distress character who he eventually rescues. It’s also the villain Arcade again, which seems crazy since there was a story starring Colossus and Kitty fighting Arcade within the last year. He’s such a throwaway villain with no thematic tie to the X-Men. I’ve never gotten the appeal of the character and there’s really no compelling reason given for why he’s popped up so frequently. The story itself feels way too inconsequential and ends on some surprise reveal of the damsel’s name, which has zero impact because the name has no relevance to anything that’s come before. The damsel’s revealed name is lifted from some book series that I’m not familiar with that otherwise has no connection to the X-Men franchise. Apparently this issue was supposed to begin an origin story for Nightcrawler but I guess the creators weren’t really feeling it, so they just abandoned the plot and left this as a self-contained and ultimately forgettable story.

June Brigman, who was fantastic as the co-creator and original artist for Power Pack, does the art for the Nightcrawler issue. Power Pack is a better example of her talent. She’s inked by Whilce Portacio, who might not be meshing well with her stylistically. He will eventually show up as a big hit artist on the series in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The rest of this batch continues John Romita, Jr.’s long run on the book. He continues to be solid, consistent and capable. His Magneto, particularly in issue #200, has a regal air about him but retains a humanity, which really feels appropriate for the story. His scratchy/blocky stylistic quirks are starting to creep in but it doesn’t yet overwhelm his character body language. Romita is joined by guest inker Al Williamson for a few issues, and I think I like this pairing slightly better than Romita with Dan Green. Rick Leonardi handles Uncanny X-Men #201 and it’s too bad he’s only ever pulled in for fill-in issues. Whilce Portacio inks here as well and they seem a better fit. I think Leonardi would’ve made a great regular artist for the series. He’s expressive with great character acting and a fun, recognizable style, which would be a good counter-balance as the series entered this darker period.

Fortunately, Secret Wars II is now over. In the aftermath of The Trial of Magneto, mutants are unambiguously hated and feared. While the charges against Magneto were dropped (probably would’ve been declared a mistrial anyway, with the interruption of Fenris), it doesn’t improve public opinion of him or the X-Men.

Next up: Barry Windsor-Smith returns as artist for a third issue, this time focusing on Wolverine. Plus, other things!

(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: LifeDeath 2 and Other Tales

I was going to read up to issue #200, but looking at how Marvel collects these issues and how the book shifts course soon, I decided to stop a little early for this batch. So this covers Uncanny X-Men #194-198. Yes, only 5 issues. Next time will be more.

So yes, in case you’re just stumbling onto this for the first time, I am going through reading every single issue of Uncanny X-Men since it launched in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In some cases, I’m re-reading issues, and in other cases, it’s my first time reading these stories. This is all thanks to Marvel’s wonderful subscription-based digital comics library, Marvel Unlimited. (Hey DC Comics, get on the ball.) I’m now up to the Fall of 1985. These issues are primarily by writer Chris Claremont and the art team of John Romita, Jr. and Dan Green, except one issue is illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith.

This period of X-Men continues to be a bit odd. These are all one-off stories with sub-plots bubbling throughout. Looking back, it kind of feels like some padding might be going on, like they know what they want to do next but they’re saving it for the big anniversary issue #200. So there are some set pieces being moved in place, some long-simmering sub-plots being addressed or wrapped up, and of course some superhero action to fill things out.

The highlight here, easily, is issue #198 by Claremont and Windsor-Smith (who even get cover credits, a rarity for Marvel at the time). Called LifeDeath II on the cover, the story is formally called “LifeDeath: From the Heart of Darkness”. This story follows up on a lot of the themes from the first LifeDeath story in issue #186. It again stars Storm, with no other X-Men appearing (other than some hallucinations of her teammates), and allows the character to face her fears and accept the changes she’s gone through, namely losing her powers. It wasn’t quite as wonderful as the original story for me, but it was still head and shoulders above the stories around it. It had me longing for a Storm series by Windsor-Smith but I can’t imagine he’d be able to hold a monthly schedule. Apparently there was to be a third LifeDeath story, but Marvel was uncomfortable with the ending. They claimed it supported suicide, which Windsor-Smith denied. But since he refused to change it, Marvel declined to publish it. Years later, Windsor-Smith apparently made some superficial changes to the story and published it as a black-and-white story in his own anthology comic as Adastra in Africa (later released as its own graphic novella).

With a comment made by Kitty in the issue before it, the cover depicting Storm in flight, and a scene in the issue where it appears Storm stops a sandstorm, I was really hoping she would get her powers back. Sadly it doesn’t happen, but it ends with a beautiful acceptance of her powerlessness, as well as how she let her powers distance herself emotionally from others. Storm is by far one of the richest characters in the X-Men, and one of my favorites, so this issue was a treat. I want to go on about this issue more but there are other stories to talk about.

Elsewhere in this run, Colossus and Kitty Pryde (now going by Shadowcat) get kidnapped by Arcade and the adventure lets them finally address the tension between them since their breakup. It ends with them agreeing to be friends. This issue wasn’t quite as satisfying as I was hoping. A lot is left unsaid between them, and it’s clear Peter has a lot of unresolved emotions and affection for Kitty. Previously it seemed like he was pretty determined to move on, but this story really establishes his pining over her for years to come. I’m hazy on their relationship between this period and the more recent present but I think this is basically the status quo of their relationship until Joss Whedon and John Cassaday reunite them in Astonishing X-Men around 2005.

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Wolverine: Worst Babysitter Ever

This run also included a guest appearance by Power Pack, a pre-teen superhero team of siblings with their own comic book series that had been running for about a year at this point. I really adore Power Pack, especially when handled by their creators Louise Simonson and June Brigman, a fantastic artist who really brought the kids to life. Claremont and Romita, Jr.’s handling was pretty good too (although Romita’s proportions for children were a little off). The story itself was pretty dark – the Power kids wake up and their parents don’t remember them. Eventually it turns out to be the work of some rogue Morlocks trying to help one of their member whose kids were mysteriously killed. Basically they’re trying to replace some Morlock kids with Power Pack. Kitty Pryde steps up as a fill-in leader in the issue and proves herself to be quite competent. She must be about 15 years old now, but since that Wolverine & Kitty mini-series, she’s really grown up.

Elsewhere, Rachel Summers has a bit of a breakdown (not surprising considering her fragile emotional state since she first showed up) which leads into a confrontation with Magneto, who is suddenly hanging around. This is a really good scene that deals with both of the past they may regret and who they’re trying to become. Magneto has resurfaced as an ally following Professor X’s violent mugging. Actually, it’s weird that it’s referred to as a mugging because a gang of students weren’t trying to rob him. This was a hate crime. Anyway, he barely survived and his health has been teetering ever since. When the Beyonder from the original Secret Wars came back for the sequel (aptly titled Secret Wars II), Professor X thought he needed help and enlisted Magneto. It’s hasn’t been made clear why he reached out to someone who has been a bitter enemy since the X-Men’s very first adventure. While there have been hints of Magneto softening, I don’t remember Professor X witnessing anything to convince him of this. Maybe something happened in New Mutants? Or maybe Magneto was just the most powerful mutant he could call on. Regardless, all of the X-Men are justifiably suspicious of their sworn enemy suddenly hanging around the X-Mansion. And for some reason Lee Forrester is hanging around with him. She was the fishing captain that Cyclops worked for when he took a leave of absence after the Dark Phoenix Saga. Cyclops and Lee hooked up for a bit, ended up getting kidnapped by Magneto, and then drifted apart. More recently, Lee happened to pull Magneto out of the ocean and the two have been buddies since. Kind of weird, and it definitely feels like an issue or even a scene is missing to fill in some holes.

The other bubbling subplot is Nimrod. This stupidly-named character is from the future, possibly the same future as Rachel, and some kind of advanced Sentinel maybe? The time jump scrambled his programming somewhat so he’s trying to act like a superhero but closer to The Punisher than Captain America. Despite being overly violent, public sentiment is regularly shown to absolutely love him. I’m not exactly clear on the point of this whole thread. It almost feels like a subplot from another comic.

Anyway yeah. Again, nothing wrong with these issues. LifeDeath II was excellent but the rest feel like something is missing.

Next (for real this time): The Trial of Magneto

(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: Warhunt 2 and Other Tales

My epic (re-)reading of Uncanny X-Men, starting from the very beginning in 1963, continues. In some cases, I’ve read these issues before, but some are completely new to me; hence “(re-)reading”. This batch covers Uncanny X-Men #189-193, originally published during the first half of 1985. Of this era, I’ve read the last issue but none of the others, so it was interesting to finally have greater context to that story.

The creative team remains the same here: Chris Claremont as writer and John Romita, Jr., as artist (usually with Dan Green as inker). Some of the over-writing Claremont is known for has been sneaking in more and more. It gets pretty clunky in the big anniversary issue of 193, which is unfortunate, as it seems when Claremont is given more pages to write a story, instead of letting things breathe a little, he just crams more in there. Romita is picking up more and more of his signature style but his characters aren’t blocky and stiff because of it yet, so visually things are looking pretty nice.

This is an odd period. The team and cast is really scaled back. Cyclops is finally, really retired from the book, and doesn’t show up at all. Storm, now powerless due to the last set of issues, takes a sabbatical, gets sucked back in for one more multi-part adventure, and then actually leaves. Wolverine and Kitty Pryde are away for half of these stories for their Wolverine & Kitty Pryde mini-series. And Professor X pulls back from his more active leadership role, although he’s still around. Otherwise, that really only leaves us with Nightcrawler and Colossus among the cast we’ve had since 1975. They’re joined by the recent addition Rogue and newest team member Rachel Summers, who at times doesn’t even feel like a full team member. So basically a 4-person team for a good portion of these issues. Things get so sparse that the cast of sister title New Mutants keep popping up to fill things out. They even spend a whole issue fighting the father of Warlock, a villain clearly meant for the New Mutants book.

There are two major stories here. The first involves Kulan Gath, a villain from the Conan the Barbarian series. Yes, that Conan the Barbarian. Marvel Comics licensed the sword-and-sorcery character and had a long-running series or three starring for about 15 years starting in 1970. At some point, because Marvel writers and editors couldn’t leave well enough alone, it was revealed that Conan’s stories, firmly set in the fantasy genre, happened in the modern Marvel universe’s distant past. Because of course everything has to be connected. Kulan Gath was an evil sorcerer who obtained immortality, so of course he eventually started popping up in Marvel’s superhero comics. His appearance here was shortly after his first “modern” appearance, where he met and fought Spider-Man, who makes a guest appearance along with the Avengers. Kulan Gath basically alters Manhattan to be a Conan/ancient fantasy world. These days, this story would’ve been a big event but instead it’s just a couple of issues of Uncanny X-Men. It’s fun to see the X-Men mixed with a straight-up fantasy story but I couldn’t help but feel it was largely unnecessary. The ending is a bit odd too, as though Claremont had written himself into a corner, so basically Dr. Strange hits the Cosmic Reset Button. It ends up feeling like a bit of a cop out, and is responsible for the arrival of Nimrod, an oddly named special Sentinel from Rachel Summers’ future. The whole thing probably would’ve fit better in Avengers or maybe Amazing Spider-Man since he has more history with the character at this point.

The other major story here is big anniversary of the All-New, All-Different X-Men. It turns out the original Thunderbird has a younger brother who wears his costume and tries to get his revenge on the X-Men for causing his brother’s death. This character will become more prominent in some spin-off books. Firestar is also introduced, a character first created for the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends cartoon. This is her first time appearing in the main Marvel Comics universe. She doesn’t do a whole lot, but she will also end up being more prominent in other comics later on (most notably for me, one of my all-time favorite super-hero series, New Warriors). There are better emotional beats here, with James Proudstar really feeling conflicted about going through with his mission of vengeance. Since the cast is so slim, I wish one or both of these new characters ended up either joining the New Mutants or just sticking around.

Another significant moment is Professor X being the victim of a hate crime. He started lecturing at Columbia University, but some of his students didn’t take kindly to him being sympathetic to mutants and they actually assault him, complete with a brick to the head. While healing, his powers are seriously tampered. Xavier is a really powerful mutant, so the series is constantly finding ways to tamp his powers down so that the rest of the cast has something to do. Claremont tries to write him out of the book a number of times, but like with Cyclops, fan nostalgia is too great and he’s always brought back.

Rachel Summers gets a lot of attention during these issues, as she continues to be haunted by the future she came from. We’re still in the early days of the crazy time travel antics of the X-Men. It’s going to get much more confusing and convoluted. Rachel basically comes from the Days of Future Past storyline (or some version of it) which was partly set in the year 2013. Even though 2013 is now in our past, it was still the future when the original story was published in 1981. That story seemed to end with the dystopian 2013 being prevented but in actuality it just created a new reality where the future played out differently. How much the present X-Men’s future will turn into the Days of Future Past future is a (confusingly worded) question that hangs over the books for decades. And Rachel’s arrival from her future, and her constant fretting about the life she had to lead in that messed up future, is a constant reminder of that question. Unfortunately this is basically the entirety of Rachel’s personality for too long, but I guess if you were forced to hunt down your own people and then time traveled to your past to discover all of your loved ones aren’t exactly the version of them you remember and what does that mean for this future and will they forgive you…? OK yeah that’s kind of a lot to take. (Although, let’s be honest, if we lived through any given year of Uncanny X-Men, we’d be in an insane asylum.)

During this period, Nightcrawler becomes field leader and he’s plagued with doubt even more than Storm’s first few missions. He does rally toward the end though and while the implication seems to be that he’s not cut out for it and he only got the gig because Wolverine was away and Colossus was too heart-broken from his break-up with Kitty, at least it’s giving the character something to do.

Kitty returns and from what I’ve gathered from the Wolverine & Kitty Pryde mini-series, she has received some ninja training and now uses the codename Shadowcat, which she’ll use for a good decade or so. She and Colossus don’t really seem to address their break-up, although I don’t know what’s to say. It’s notable that they barely interact once she returns, which seems right. Wolverine has pretty firmly settled into the grizzled know-it-all. By now, he’s a little too “I’ve seen it all” for my tastes.

So yeah. This run was a little underwhelmed. A little low on the whelming meter. There’s nothing significantly bad going on, it just seems like the series has stalled a bit.

Next time: The epic Uncanny X-Men #200, where nothing will ever be the same again, again.