(Re-)Reading Comics

(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.

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

My epic (re-)reading of Uncanny X-Men continues. The “re-” part of that is in parentheses because some issues I’ve read before, and some are brand new to me. I’ve never read through the entire series, and this is my attempt to do so, from 1963 until… Well, I’m not sure how far yet but at least until the first volume of Uncanny X-Men ended in 2011.

Click here for all my past installments, starting with the most recent. I actually started writing about this on social media, so you’ll notice that the oldest installment doesn’t go all the way back to the first issue of Uncanny X-Men. Eventually, I may go back and fill in the gaps. But for now…onward!

This batch of stories includes Uncanny X-Men #181-188, issues that were originally published with cover dates through the second half of 1984.

The last batch ended with the majority of the X-Men vanishing to participate in the original Secret Wars event. I won’t be covering that mini-series in this read-through, as I’m trying to avoid spin-offs and crossovers unless they directly include the main Uncanny X-Men series. After all, I’m kind of slow at this and I’d like to try to wrap this up before I die.

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Uncanny X-Men #181 “Tokyo Story” by Chris Claremont and John Romita, Jr.

Writer Chris Claremont and artist John Romita, Jr., continue their run together. This set of stories really build up nicely with a few plot threads drawn together into a pretty decent climax. There are some pretty solid emotional beats as well, so while I wouldn’t put it on the level of the Brood Saga or Byrne-era X-Men, the series is really humming along nicely during this period. There’s also one issue with guest artist Barry Windsor-Smith, which is gorgeous.

This is the arc where Rogue is first completely overtaken by the suppressed personality of Carol Danvers, Storm loses her powers, Rachel Summers and Forge are introduced, and Colossus and Kitty Pryde break up. The first two and Forge’s introduction are pretty closely connected. All of these things will have long-lasting effects to the characters, some for decades.

Rogue’s fretting over her uncontrollable powers, which absorb powers and memories from those she touches, will eventually become somewhat tiresome. But here it’s still very fresh, and the way we see her shift to Carol Danvers, without really realizing that’s what’s going on, is done really well here. I thought the unsettling reveal in particular was excellent. She essentially kidnaps Michael Rossi in trying to rescue him from an undercover mission gone wrong, thinking that she’s reuniting with an old boyfriend, but he’s never seen her before. The whole issue is pretty heartbreaking and one of the strongest in this period.

That story leads into the government going after Rogue with a weapon designed by a new character named Forge. The weapon detects aliens and mutants (basically, anyone not a normal human) and takes away their powers. Forge himself is a mutant (vague inventing powers), so initially this seems strange that he would betray his own people. But there are two things that clarify this. One is that the weapon was commissioned by the government and designed with the Dire Wraiths in mind, not mutants. The Dire Wraiths are an invading alien race that has been disguising itself as humans (a premise that will be used a few decades later in the Secret Invasion event, although with a much different execution). These creatures are the primary antagonists of the comic book series Rom, so it’s a little random to suddenly see them referenced here so prominently when the two books haven’t had that much of a connection until now. But both books exist in the Marvel Universe, so it’s not completely out of left field. The second aspect that clarifies Forge’s position is that he is actually quite ambivalent, even apathetic, about his own people. Or at least, he initially presents himself that way. Forge is Native American, and an early scene catches the end of a tense conversation with his former mentor Naze. Apparently Forge is neglecting his duties with their tribe, and Forge basically makes it clear that he doesn’t care and has rejected that life. While it’s specifically about his Native American tribe, and foreshadowing some demonic/magic shenanigans that show up soon, it’s also indicative of his initial disinterest in “his kind,” whether it’s Native American or mutant. But once he discovers that the new weapon he just handed over is instead going to be used to bring in Rogue, he suddenly seems to care a lot more.

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Uncanny X-Men #186 “Lifedeath: A Love Story” by Chris Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith

Unfortunately, Storm is the one that gets hit by the weapon. Forge is able to bring her back to his place to try to help her. This is the issue that’s drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith, and it’s such a fantastic character study. There are wonderful quiet moments, as the two characters awkwardly navigate each other and maybe even start to fall for each other. Both are rather stoic characters, and they both find ways to chip away the other’s walls. It’s a beautiful issue that ends with Storm rejecting Forge once she finds out his involvement with the government-sponsored weapon that stole her powers. I’m guessing that Barry Windsor-Smith had plot input because in the very next issue, Storm literally turns around and heads back to help Forge against a raid from the Dire Wraiths. Maybe this turnaround was planned but it felt like a betrayal of the previous issue’s ending that felt very much earned.

The break-up of Colossus and Kitty was also sad because it was so unnecessary. Last time, Peter was starting to get jealous of Kitty’s friendship with Doug Ramsey because they were closer in age and could connect about computer geek stuff. Then Peter and the rest of the X-Men were zapped off to another planet for Secret Wars, where he met this alien woman who had healing powers. The two fell in love as she helped him heal from near-fatal wounds. Then she ended up dying saving his life. So, yeah, pretty intense whirlwind relationship. Kitty takes it pretty hard, which is understandable for a 14-year-old having what I assume is her first heartbreak. Wolverine and Nightcrawler take Peter out to a local bar to really give him a hard time over dumping Kitty. Of course, it just so happens that the Juggernaut is hanging out in the bar too, and naturally a big fight happens. It’s pretty clear that Peter really lost some points with Wolverine. It’s probably the first time that Peter doesn’t come off as a genuinely decent guy. He thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he screwed up, and the implication is that it could harm the trust among the team. Allegedly, the break-up was editorially mandated because Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter didn’t like the idea of a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old dating. Peter might even be 19 at this point. So, yeah. I can see that. Kitty leaves during this arc to join Wolverine in a mini-series that I will not be reading now. Apparently that’s where she gains some fighting abilities training with Logan and officially takes on the name Shadowcat.

Finally, we have the introduction of Rachel Summers, the future daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey that we saw in the Days of Future Past two-parter. So yes, technically more of a re-introduction. The timing of this is interesting because during these issues, Senator Kelly begins proposing anti-mutant legislation, again hinting at the dystopian future glimpsed in Days of Future Past that will haunt this series for a long time to come. Rachel soon discovers contradictions in the history she knows, and concludes that the past she traveled back to is not her past. She comes into conflict with Selene, who will become a recurring villain for a while. Rachel has never resonated with me, she always seemed a bit dry as a character. But I definitely warmed up to her more here as she’s finding her way.

This set of issues also includes a running subplot of Professor Xavier being more active as the leader on missions, now that he’s able to walk again. Storm, who’s previously been in charge on missions for some time now, tries not to step on his toes. Government intrigue takes more center stage during this time too. Senator Kelly grows more as a threat, and Val Cooper becomes more prominent. She is initially pretty staunchly anti-mutant, but an encounter with Rogue opens her eyes more. Mystique also continues her undercover work in her guise of Raven Darkholme. In fact, Forge is her contact, and she brings Val to him to pick up the weapon, which then gets grabbed by another agent, Henry Peter Gyrich, to bring in Rogue. Raven, who of course had been Rogue’s adopted mother, flips out over this but she feels trapped by her undercover role to stop it. So instead she goes back to Forge to get him to interfere.

The interconnectedness of everyone just continues to get more convoluted but in reading the stories, it doesn’t weigh the book down yet. It just feels like a very flushed out and realized world where different people have different relationships with other people. So yeah, good stuff!

(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: Decisions, Sanction and Other Tales

Yes, I’m still here and I’m still reading every issue of Uncanny X-Men. At least, the first volume, anyway. Haven’t decided yet if I’ll continue on when the series got relaunched in 2012. Maybe. We’ll see. I’m only up to 1984, so I don’t have to worry about that right now.

I’ve created a (Re-)Reading Comics category, so you can find all the previous installments in one place, in case you missed any.

This batch of issues, Uncanny X-Men #176-180, covers the immediate aftermath of the marriage of Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor, and goes up to the team’s disappearance for Marvel’s first big crossover event, Secret Wars.

This also starts artist John Romita, Jr.’s proper run on the series, following a rushed epilogue in the previous issue. He’d been the regular artist for Iron Man and Amazing Spider-Man before this, and continued to be the main artist on both Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men for months. Nowadays, almost no one does more than one book a month, so the idea of someone doing two monthly books, and those two books being Marvel’s two biggest franchises at the time, is astounding (as well as amazing and uncanny).

John Romita, Jr. is the son of Marvel stalwart John Romita, who himself had been the regular artist on Amazing Spider-Man for years following the departure of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko. Romita Sr. defined the new look for Spider-Man that really catapulted the book to new heights. Handing the reins over to his son may seem a bit like nepotism on paper, but fortunately Romita, Jr. is a solid artist completely qualified for the job(s). As time goes on, he develops a striking style of his own, but here he’s still in the Marvel house style established by his father and peers, more or less. While maybe not daring or experimental, it’s clear and effective storytelling.

Meanwhile, writer Chris Claremont was approaching his ninth year on Uncanny X-Men. Nowadays that’s unheard of, but even in the ’70s and ’80s that was impressive. We’re not even halfway through his first run on Uncanny X-Men! Earlier in his career, he had written Iron Fist, Spider-Woman, Ms. Marvel and Marvel Team-Up, among other books throughout the Marvel Universe, but by 1983 and 1984, he was exclusively writing Uncanny X-Men and its various spin-offs, such as the sister title New Mutants and various mini-series projects. It’s probably not coincidental that this is around the time the scripting begins to get more wordy and management of the X-Men property begins to get more dense and convoluted.

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John Romita, Jr.’s first Uncanny X-Men cover

Last time, I bemoaned the handling of the Madelyne Pryor mystery, which really felt like the first serious mis-step. The first issue of this batch spotlights Scott and Madelyne on their honeymoon, giving Claremont and team yet another opportunity to finally clean up the ridiculous coincidences and red herrings about Madelyne’s Jean Grey likeness that we keep being told aren’t fishy. That was a little sea pun for you, which I suppose is appropriate due to the (no doubt Jaws-inspired) brush with a shark followed by a superfluous fight with a giant octopus. As a kid, I really thought aquatic menaces were going to be a much bigger problem in my day-to-day life. Of course, this a 1980s super-hero comic, and you can’t go a full issue without some action for the kids, but the fight quota could’ve been handled in one of the cutaway scenes dedicated to furthering subplots. Instead we get fishy fisticuffs. The fight against the elements ends up being much more suspenseful and engaging, and results in a good character-driven decision for Scott to decline his father’s offer of space adventures and settle down with Madelyne, effectively shuffling him off the book. This is at least the second time he’s been written out, and it won’t stick either. But it’s good for now.

The next set of issues brings Mystique and her Brotherhood of Evil Mutants back into the picture. They’re fun recurring villains and make for more exciting battles than the original Brotherhood from the ’60s. The whole ambush ends up being a ruse so that Mystique can sneak in and free her adopted daughter and teammate Rogue. But, she discovers that Rogue left her and joined the X-Men of her own free will. Rogue continues to be the controversial member of the team, despite winning over Wolverine recently. Here we finally hear it from her just how important it is to be with the X-Men, eliminating any lasting doubts about her true motives.

Another subplot is resolved when the Morlocks kidnap Kitty Pryde to make good on her previous promise to the love struck Caliban. She had promised to stay with him forever in exchange for her friend’s freedom, and then waltzed out of his life. The ploy was really an attempt by Callisto to regain leadership of the Morlocks from Storm, which of course fails, but Kitty ultimately agrees to honor her word. Caliban, ever the tragic character, learns that he can never force Kitty to love him, and releases her.

The final issue in this batch finally addresses the changes Storm has been going through in cutting her hair, changing her clothes, and generally being more ruthless (my theory: since being replaced with a flawed duplicate by the space whale in the Brood Saga). They don’t really answer any questions about it, but Storm speaks more directly about it than she had previously, and she and Kitty have a good heart-to-heart about it. The issue ends with a cliffhanger that is continued in New Mutants (which I’ve decided to not read) and the rest of the X-Men getting teleported to another world for the big Secret Wars event (which I also won’t be reading). So it seems as good as any to stop there.

This is kind of a transitional period of the X-Men. Some long simmering sub-plots are finally getting resolved or moved forward. Colossus is feeling jealous over Kitty’s friendship with Doug Ramsey. Professor X finally regains full use of his legs (and even starts joining the X-Men in the field). Nightcrawler’s ties to Mystique are teased again.

It’s a good batch of issues anchored by some good character moments.

Next up: The X-Men return from Secret Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: The Brood Saga

What must be over a year ago, I started to read the entirety of Marvel Comics’ Uncanny X-Men comic book from the very beginning.

Originally titled just X-Men, the series started in 1963 and is still running today in some form after 53 years. With over 600 issues published, if it were a TV series it would have more episodes than The Simpsons. Issues average 20-22 pages each, so there’s probably about 12,600 pages total. That’s nearly the length of Artamène or Cyrus the Great, considered the longest novel ever published with 13,095 pages over 10 volumes.

So lots to read!

I’ve been sharing my progress on Facebook, and I kept threatening to blog about it, so here we are. It kills me to not transition all my old Facebook posts here but this whole daily blog challenge is about cranking stuff out, not toiling away forever to make it “right”. So we’re going to skip nearly 20 years of comics and start with the last set of stories I just finished reading.

I have no idea if this will appeal to anyone not into comics, but I hope it will. I’ll try to make this accessible. As such, a little background: The X-Men was an underdog superhero comic that became the biggest seller for Marvel in the ’80s and ’90s. Nowadays, they aren’t top dog like they once were. But back in the heyday, they were the cat’s pajamas. Wait, I’m mixing my pet metaphors. Their success was really made by the creative team of writer/co-plotter Chris Claremont and artist/co-plotter John Byrne. This period is most famously remembered for “The Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past”, two storylines that still influence superhero comics today. Creative tension drove Byrne off the book, but Claremont remained for a nearly unprecedented 17 years. His style of writing, using soap-opera plotting techniques and character-driven subplots to balance the action/adventure heroics, redefined superhero and fantasy comics for an entire generation. The success of the book led to spin-offs, which resulted in a blockbuster franchise that turned into video games, cartoons, blockbuster Hollywood films, and more. Claremont left the book in 1991 and since then an ever-expanding roster of creative talent have come and gone, adding their stamp to the lives of these characters.

I was a big reader of X-Men comics in the early ’90s, and had read a lot of the older issues through reprints over the years. But I had never read the entire series, from the very first issue by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, all the way through. With nostalgia-heavy affection for these characters, and a subscription to the Netflix-style subscription service Marvel Unlimited, I decided it was time.

It’s been a lot of fun going through these old stories. Due to their serialized publication, they are very much like magazines in that they are products of their time. Even so, there is a timeless quality to these characters and the themes they address. The fun and passion in these stories shines through. And of course, sometimes there are duds or clunkers too.

The batch of comics I most recently read was Uncanny X-Men issues 160-167, which includes “The Brood Saga”.

During this story, artist Dave Cockrum is replaced by Paul Smith, and what a welcome arrival. Cockrum had been the artist on the book right before the defining run by John Byrne. When Byrne left, Cockrum returned and I was sad to see his art wasn’t at the same level. I don’t know if he was just paired with an inker that didn’t suit his style or if he couldn’t keep up with the monthly schedule or what, but it just didn’t have that old magic. Paul Smith handled the last three issues of this storyline, and right away I was jealous of the alternate universe that’s out there where Paul Smith began his run earlier. Smith brought a really smooth and clean line to the book. I love the body language and acting he gives his characters, I love his page design, I love how he choreographs scenes. There’s a real elegance to his work, but it still suits a superhero comic. One of the things that really struck me was Claremont actually letting Smith’s artwork speak for itself. Claremont can tend to over-script, but there were a couple scenes with not a single word, just letting Smith do some wonderful storytelling. I don’t remember even Byrne getting that kind of breathing room.

For the story itself, The Brood Saga injected some energy and direction into the book. It seemed to be meandering somewhat after Byrne left. While it found some really nice moments, this really locked into something with some heat behind it. X-Men in space is always a little strange but it’s a recurring device in the series that can help cleanse the palate from the mutant angst themes. Even so, it can feel a bit like the X-Men are starring in someone else’s comic. That aside, if you’re going to do an X-Men In Space story, do it like this. This was closer to a horror and suspense story. It was at times trippy, disorienting, and a little gruesome (for an all-ages superhero comic from 1982).

The Brood are an alien race of bug-like gross things. Visually, they are more than a little inspired by the space creatures from the Alien movies starring Sigourney Weaver. But they can talk and shoot guns and fly space ships.

Once again Wolverine gets the spotlight as the coolest guy around, but in the context of the story it makes sense. Due to his adamantium skeleton and healing abilities, he’s the only one that ends up breaking free from The Brood. I want to be a little big vague here because I think there’s a really cool reveal that is actually quite unsettling that is best discovered in the story. Wolverine is the first to figure out this unsettling secret and is tormented over revealing it to his teammates once he helps them escape. Of course, the truth ultimately comes out, and everything works out but the journey there has some unexpected turns and weird mythology building that felt fresh for the series.

There’s some nice character moments throughout this. The big vastness of space is used well to give the characters some breathing room to react to the terrifying reveal.

Peter and Kitty finally verbalize what’s been pretty obvious for awhile: they like like each other. But, she just turned 14 and he doesn’t want to be a pedophile because being in space doesn’t make you not a pedophile. Still, it’s a sweet scene and Paul Smith’s art really relays how tender and sincere Peter is being.

Nightcrawler’s religious side is explicitly revealed for the first time. He has a brief conversation about faith with Wolverine, where he pretty flatly states he’s an atheist.

Storm really takes the news bad, although I didn’t quite buy how she found out.

And Scott makes a vengeful decision to go back and kill the Brood’s Queen, which establishes a darker side to Scott that comes back years later.

The storyline ends with a somewhat anti-climactic battle with their mentor Professor X, where he gets a new body that allows him to walk again. This issue felt a little uneven in compared to the rest of these issues. Even Paul Smith’s art didn’t seem as strong as the previous two issues. But it established that a significant period of time has passed since the X-Men were last on Earth. During that time, he abandoned that weird island in the Bermuda Triangle, rebuilt his school, and had begun to teach a new class of students.

This new class of students starred in the first ongoing spin-off, The New Mutants. Claremont wrote that series too, so I considered reading it along with Uncanny X-Men, but I was talked out of it on Facebook. It would probably distract me and tempt me to read other spin-offs, which ultimately would probably lead me to reading every Marvel comic book. And then I would never finish.

Last thought: I love the little Brood gnawing on Wolverine’s shoulder in the cover image above.