Month: May 2017

(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.


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.


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.


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!