Month: April 2017

(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.

Uncanny X-Men 195

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.