Archive for April, 2012

Xavier’s Demons

Uncanny X-Men #106, 117

Chris Claremont/Bob Brown, John Byrne

I was very tempted to skip Uncanny X-Men #106. It’s clearly stated as a filler issue, put together from old art they had laying around while Dave Cockrum was working on Jon Carter of Mars. This issue was never reprinted in the Classic series. It would be an easy one to pass over, but I found the idea of Xavier having a dark self a bit intriguing. So I thought I’d pair it off with #117, when Xavier fights a psychic duel with Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King.

Dark Shroud from the Past

#106 picks up right after the X-Men have gone through the Star-Gate. Xavier is in some kind of delirium, believing that Misty Knight is Moira and that it’s several weeks before when she was taking care of him. The Focus shifts to the X-Men training in the danger room. There’s another moment of strife between Wolverine and the rest of the team. Banshee entreats Cyclops to stop riding the team so hard, this group is different than the first team. They’re older and have learned to hone their powers on their own instead of with a team. They can’t be held to the same standards. This talk is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Angel, wearing his classic X-Men uniform. He taunts them and then attacks, joined by Beast, Marvel Girl and Iceman.

What follows is a strange fight. It’s acknowledged that the new team is more powerful, but they are kept off balance because the original team coordinates their attacks much better. There are some odd indications that something isn’t right. Wolverine can’t get a scent off of Iceman, and Angel is able to shrug off Banshee’s scream.

Just when it seems to be a stalemate Xavier crawls into the room, still under the influence of the sedatives Moira gave him. He disperses the original team, who were just projections from his mind. But then another enemy appears and declares that he is Xavier’s dark side. The X-Men try to attack him but he throws them off. Xavier is able to hold him back though and brings back the specters of the original team to keep him at bay. He explains to the team that he is usually able to keep his evil self at bay, but all the mental stress of his dreams and meeting Lilandra and then her being kidnapped momentarily broke his resolve.

Even though this was just a one-off filler issue that may not be considered canon, there’s a lot of stuff to unpack here. Once again the new team is compared to the original team. This time it’s their teamwork that is called into question. Wolverine is still a big disruption. His lashing out at Colossus is a little disturbing. But this plot was formed before he had been developed very much. His temper is a bit curious though. If he really hates being bossed around and told to work with the group, why doesn’t he leave? However when the chips are down he will dive into the fire for any of the others without hesitation. It seems like he’s made his choice and that he considers the X-Men his new family, but he just doesn’t want to sacrifice his identity as a loner.

The idea that the original team is better than the new team is worth examining. This all is happening in Xavier’s mind, does that mean that he doesn’t have faith in the new team he assembled? Or is he frustrated that they seem to have a different dynamic? It’s not clear at the end if he accepts the new team, or if he still holds his original students up on a pedestal.

The Shadow King

Jumping ahead to #117, the X-Men are off somewhere and I Xavier is recalling one of the events many years ago that inspired him to form the X-Men. He was travelling in Egypt, back when he could walk, and came across another telepath like himself. The man was Amahl Farouk and he made no secret about using his powers to control others and take whatever he wanted, he even called himself the Shadow King. Xavier refused his offer to join him and the two enter into a kind of telepathic duel.

The fight itself is fairly short. Farouk’s astral form is dark and dangerous and he shifts it constantly along with arena that they fight in, but he’s all style and no substance. Xavier conserves his energy and just when it seems like he will be overwhelmed he focuses all his power into one blast and is able to defeat the Shadow King. Farouk was the first evil mutant Xavier ever encountered, and it gave him the idea that mutants like him should be guided onto a righteous path, and trained to fight other evil mutants if necessary.

I can’t ignore the classic orientialism ideas here. Xavier, the white westerner, encounters the evil middle-eastern man who uses his powers to enslave people. It’s only right that a young and virile American come in and put him in his place. It doesn’t help that Farouk looks like a villain from a James Bond movie. Although if he’s supposed to be Egyptian, I’m not quite sure if he would call himself a ‘king’. That’s more of a European concept. I probably shouldn’t expect too much historical or linguistic accuracy here. Xavier initially states that he will “see Farouk brought to justice”, but that’s pretty obscure. I’m not sure what charges or which court would apply. But that’s a moot point, he pretty much kills him. Maybe he didn’t mean to, and maybe he’s not really dead. It’s implied that the physical death is instant but on the mental plane it takes ages. Is that more merciful?

If Xavier succumbed to his “dark side” would this be his fate, to become something like the Shadow King? Why is it that really a danger to begin with? Is it just the lure of power? Things would be so much easier if he used his powers to make people do what he wanted. Maybe part of Farouk is still there in Xavier’s mind, and that’s what tempts him to use his powers for evil. Maybe telepaths are just more susceptible to darker impulses because the very nature of their powers is based on invading the minds of other people. Other powers, like teleportion, weather control or strength focus on external things. You can practice and explore their limits without affecting someone else. But telepathy can only affect other people’s minds. Often Xavier and other telepaths talk about the strain of constantly having access to the thoughts of people around them. In a way the telepaths would be picking up on some manifestation of Jung’s collective unconscious. It would be so easy to let go and be swept away by the darkness of all the minds around you, and influence them to your will.

This is not the last time we’ll see Xavier’s dark side, or Amahl Farouk. He’s just too good a villain not to revisit. But in the meantime we have to get back to the present and see what’s on the other side of that Star-Gate.

 

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Lord and Master

Uncanny X-Men #104-105

Chris Claremont/Dave Cockrum 1977

These two issues feature a few more attempts by Eric The Red to destroy the X-Men. Each time he enlists someone else to do the work for him. First it’s Magneto, the Master of Magnitism; then Firelord, the former herald of Galactus. Both of these foes are quite powerful. Fighting them does more than serve the plot, it acts as a way to calibrate the effectiveness of the X-Men. This team is still relatively new, they’ve never fought anyone as powerful as these villains before. This is where the benchmarks will be set.

 Magneto

The story picks up not long after the fight with Juggernaut. The X-Men are at a dock trying to rent a hovercraft so that they can get to Moira MacTaggert’s mutant research center. The owner of the craft, one Angus MacWhirter, refuses rent it out to “costumed freaks” though. This is perfectly within his right. There’s a whole host of reasons why this would be a bad idea. How often to superheroes return things in working condition? They argue but he tells them to shove off, saying that he’s keeping their deposit for wasting his time and making the reservation in bad faith. This is also his prerogative as a business owner. But the X-Men feel this is unfair, so they pay him the rest of the faire and take the hovercraft; hanging the poor old man from the hook above his door. This will have more consequences later, besides denting their reputation. Of course the craft does incur some damage. Well, it literally falls to pieces just as they approach the island. Once the X-Men swim to shore and make it into the compound they come face to face with Magneto.

There is a brief cutscene where we see Cyclops come in (on the “final of two” X-Jets, at least they’re trying to account that one was destroyed not long ago) and finds Jaime Madrox. He says that Eric The Red broke in and freed Magneto, who had been put here after being transformed into a child. Somehow Eric had the technology to restore him to his prime at the height of his power.

The fight is pretty much a joke. Magneto is way too powerful for this team. He manages to counteract each of there powers, sometimes in rather gruesome ways. Just as things are getting really bad, Cyclops comes in and hits him from behind when his guard is down. This stuns him enough for the others to flee. Wolverine makes a fuss about how he’s not a coward and how he’ll never forgive Cyclops for making him look bad. Cyclops voices his suspicions that this might have been a diversion as they race back across the ocean to rescue the professor.

 Firelord

In the next issue the X-Men arrive back at the mansion when they are attacked by Eric The Red and his new ally Firelord. The X-Men are dispatched quite quickly, and Eric recalls the way he tricked Firelord into helping him. Firelord didn’t kill the X-Men, and Eric couldn’t go back and finish them off without tipping his hand to his newest companion. The two of them then go after Xavier, who is just then sitting down to a nice cup of tea with Jean Grey and her family.

The party is interrupted by the subject of Xavier’s visions, the alien princess Lilandra. She appears out of nowhere, this time fully in the flesh. They only have a few minutes to make sense of this before Firelord breaks through the wall and demands the princess and Xavier. Jean gets fed up and knocks Firelord across the street. The two of them fight, but she is the clear favorite. While this is going on Eric sneaks in and grabs the princess and takes her to the roof. While he is assembling his “Stargate” the X-Men arrive on their hover-jet. This is the second time the hover-jet is used. It was there breifly when Eric attacked the airport in #97, but I must not have noticed it. It’s never said where this vehicle comes from. It vaguely resembles something the Fantastic Four sometimes use. But it’s origin doesn’t really matter, Eric blows it up.

Before the X-Men can stop him Eric activates the Stargate and jumps through with Lilandra. Xavier cries out in anguish, but all is not lost. Jean manages to reactivate the gate and the team goes after the princess.

 Power

It seems like these issues are all about establishing a pecking order of power. Magneto is returned to adulthood and is able to defeat the X-Men without breaking a sweat. There’s a possible reason given for this, Cyclops mentions to Moira that this new team was never trained to fight Magneto because no one thought he was a threat anymore. Another clear reason for his victory might have been that the two most combat-effective X-Men, Wolverine and Colossus, are effectively made of metal. But what’s really going on here is that Chris Claremont is declaring that Magneto is now a credible threat to the team. He’s more powerful this time. He’s no longer someone that the X-Men can just shrug off.

This idea can also be applied to the other old villains that the team has faced recently. Juggernaut was nearly unstoppable. It was by chance that the X-Men were able to divert him away from them in the end. The Sentinels on the other hand weren’t that impressive. This shows Claremont’s lack of interest in them as a real threat. The Sentinels really aren’t an enemy themselves, they’re more of a tool used by those who hate mutants. This became referred at the “Mutant Menace” plot because it hinged on the anti-mutant hysteria that seems to bubble up every now and then. But in the last encounter with them they were kind of a joke. The figurehead of the hysteria this time around was Lang, who was a rather unrealistic zealot that was hard to take seriously. The most significant thing that happened in that plot was Jean’s apparent death and rebirth. But that’s looking at it the wrong way. Claremont and Cockrum had been planning to remake Jean all along. The whole Sentinel plot on the space station was a set up to get her bombarded with cosmic radiation and become Phoenix. Clearly Claremont thinks that characters with real relationships and driven goals, like Magneto and Juggernaut, are more believable threats than giant robots.

Firelord is also used to gauge the power of the team. At first he’s able be defeat the X-Men with ease. Firelord is a cosmic being, on the same level of power as Silver Surfer (that’s a lot). And yet Phoenix is shown to be much more powerful than him. She knocked him 12 miles across the bay into New Jersey. Originally Claremont wanted to have Phoenix fight Thor. But the editors wouldn’t allow it, so he settled on Firelord. Jean is also powerful enough to restart the Stargate, which is noted by Scott at the time.

Lilandra

This issue also finally reveals the nature of Xavier’s strange visions. Until now we’ve only seen a bunch of disconnected images of space ships and someone in a space suit. I’m glad this is finally amounting to something. Xavier has really been overlooked as a character. For the most part he’s just yelled at people and barked orders from his chair. The sudden appearance of this woman with some kind of spiritual connection to him is a good opportunity to develop the professor more.

 Lilandra and her people, the Shi’ar, came out of some random sketches that Dave Cockrum was doing one day. Claremont looked over his shoulder and said that they had to use that somehow. The character’s name, Lilandra Neremani, is an anagram of the names of two of Cockrum’s ex-girlfriends. Lilandra’s story is touched on briefly in the back story of Classic X-Men #14. She discovered something called the M’Kraan Crystal, and her brother the Emperor wants to use it to take over the universe. As she hatches a plan to stop him she starts getting visions of a man from earth. Just as Xavier is haunted by images and memories of her, she is bombarded by him. So she goes to him. When she appears he uses his mental powers to teach her English, just as he did for some of the X-Men in Giant Sized #1. I still don’t think this is completely ethical, especially for an alien who may have a completely different system of language and semiotics. I would rather have had her learn English gradually, aided by her connection to Xavier. But this way is quicker.

The coming of Lilandra also finally reveals the identity of Eric The Red. Before he captures her she names him Shakari, and he scorns her for exiling him. It would appear that he is a Shi’ar agent, and the superior he was talking to before must be Lilandra’s brother. However, not long ago I came across another theory about who Eric The Red was intended to be. I can’t really sum up the argument because it’s long and advanced and ludicrously researched taking a look through the entire Claremont canon. Go check it out at How Would You Fix…? There’s a lot of good essays over there. That’s all for now. Monday will deal with some Professor Xavier side-plots and we’ll see just what’s on the other side of that Stargate later in the week.

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Emerald, Crimson and Jet

Uncanny X-Men #101-103

Chris Claremont/Dave Cockrum 1976

It’s kind of funny that superheroes can’t go on a vacation without something terrible happening. Either they get attacked by something or they just happen upon some evil plot and have to put their rest on hold and deal with it. This time the X-Men need to take some time off while Jean recovers, so they go off to Ireland so that Banshee can settle some matters at his family’s estate. Of course they run into something they weren’t expecting. This isn’t just a coincidence though, they were lured here by some sinister enemy that will not leave them alone.

This time the vacation is initiated when Professor Xavier puts the X-Men on hold. In a moment of serendipity Banshee checks his mail and sees a letter from his solicitor back in Ireland telling him to come there at once. He suggests that the team go with him on the errand and everyone seems to like the idea. What could go wrong on a nice trip to the Emerald Isle? The trip over there is without incident. The X-Men take civilian transit this time. Which makes sense since their jet was destroyed a few issues ago when Thunderbird died. They arrive at Banshee’s castle and get ready for dinner. Nightcrawler makes a show of messing around with his image inducer and how it can make him look like just about anyone. On the way to dinner a huge trapdoor opens in the hallway and everyone falls down into the dungeon. On the way down they have the presence of mind to change into their superhero-costumes, because that’s important. In the dungeon they find Banshee’s cousin Black Tom Cassidy and their old foe Juggernaut.

This is the first appearance of Tom Cassidy, though a lot of history about him is mentioned or implied. From the way they talk it seems like he and Juggernaut have been good friends for a while. Tom claims to be a mutant, but his power is a little odd. The only thing he seems to be able to do is shoot some kind of energy bolt out of his shillelagh. For years I always thought it was just a magic stick or something. That would seem to make more sense. Apparently his power was later clarified to say that he has some kind of affinity with wood and uses it as a conduit for energy transference. This is really stretching the bounds of credulity. Furthermore, he and Banshee mention being immune to each other’s powers. I guess that would make a little sense if their powers were similar, but they’re awfully specific. That means that Tom is immune to directed sound waves and Sean is immune to energy catalyzed through cellulose. The only way you’d be able to swing it is if their powers had a certain psionic component that shut off when directed at one another. I really shouldn’t try and think about it too much.

I’m not going to bother saying much about the fight between the X-Men and Juggernaut. He literally wipes the floor with them. Part of what makes it so easy for him is that Storm is reduced to catatonia by her claustrophobia  when the X-Men are sealed up inside the depths of the castle. Just like when she fought the N’Garai, she gets another flashback to when she was buried alive as a child. This time it’s much more detailed, showing her life for several years after. It is mentioned that she became a master thief at a young age. Nightcrawler was initially defeated in the fight, but his body is overlooked when it falls into a shadow and seems to vanish. This is a new power he seems to have, the ability to be invisible while in a shadow. His body is found by a group of leprechauns who carry his to safety and nurse him back to health. Meanwhile, the rest of the X-Men are tied up with fancy manacles designed to counteract each of their powers. Tom’s plan is to cause them great amounts of pain so as to trigger the psychic link Xavier has to his students and lure the Professor to the castle to kill him.

Cyclops is… a responsible boyfriend?

That psychic link was already activated when Storm went into a panic. Xavier is very much aware of what is happening in the castle, and he commands Cyclops to go and help them. Surprisingly, Scott refuses. He says that his duty is to stay be Jean’s side, and he wouldn’t be able to get their fast enough to make a difference anyway. This is true, even in the fastest jet it would still take several hours, and the X-Men’s own jet was recently destroyed. Xavier is having none of this insubordination though. He lashes out at Scott with more vicious anger than I can ever recall him using. This outburst could be explained by the tremendous amount of stress Xavier has been under. Before it can go further he has another one of his hallucinations. I’ll talk more about those next time.

Back at the castle, Nightcrawler is still recuperating with the leprechauns and they tell him about how Black Tom took over. He was aided by a man wearing red armor: Eric The Red. Earlier Tom hinted that someone helped him and Juggernaut get out of prison, (though I’m not sure what prison could have held Juggernaut, maybe Tom was just talking about himself) and gave him enough money to take over the castle and turn it into a deathtrap. The full extent of this renovation will be revealed later. While talking with the leprechauns Nightcrawler learns more about his new shadow power.

The leprechauns show Nightcrawler where the X-Men are being held and he overhears Tom’s plot about luring Xavier there to be killed. He decides to trick time by using his image inducer to make himself look like Xavier. We’ve already seen that the device can be used to make him look like anyone he chooses. But this is the first time that he uses it for a tactical advantage instead of just concealment. The plow works well enough. Juggernaut goes into a rage and tries to attack his step-brother Xavier. Tom is a little confused about how Xavier is able to jump about the room like an acrobat, but his warnings go unheeded. Eventually Juggernaut destroys a wall exposing the room to the open air. This give Storm a chance to free the others with a small tempest. Tom and Juggernaut flee with Banshee still tied up and Nightcrawler runs after them.

Colossus is unable to get Wolverine out of his restraints, but Storm opens them with ease thanks to her training as a thief. She flies off and leave the two of them to follow. There’s a silly moment here where Colossus is fed up with Wolverine’s attitude and throws him over the wall. I wonder what brought this on. It seems a bit out of character. This is before Wolverine’s metal skeleton was established. How could colossus know that Wolverine would land safely? As it happens he lands on the other side of the castle and has to be lead back to the fight by a leprechaun. This is where the exchange I talked about the other day occurs.

When Storm gets to the top of the castle she’s attacked by a bunch of “energy blasters”, which would have killed her if not for her training in the danger room, she thinks. Nightcrawler frees banshee while Tom is shooting at Storm, and Colossus and Wolverine catch up. But now the X-Men are in the same position they were in at when they were first captured. Somehow they have to defeat Juggernaut, who just too powerful to be harmed by any of their powers. In the past the only way to beat him was with some kind of psychic attack, but Jean and the Professor aren’t there.

The solution to this presents itself as Banshee and Tom duel on the battlements. Banshee loses his sword, but manages to throw Tom off of the wall and into the sea. Seeing his only friend fall into the water, Juggernaut jumps in after him. In a lot of ways it seems like Black Tom was added into the story as a catylist. He was an enemy for Banshee and a way to explore that man’s history. Juggernaut is literally just a brute, and therefore has a rather narrow range of things he can do. Having Tom there as well added a more intellectual menace. The two work quite well together. In the end Tom provided the only way that the X-Men could defeat Juggernaut. In the past he has been shown to have only one thing in the world that drives him: destroying Xavier. But now we see that he’s just as much of a human being as the rest of them. He could have followed through with the plan and subdued the X-Men and drawn Xavier into the trap. But no, once he sees Tom in danger he doesn’t hesitate for a second. His love for his best friend means more to him than getting back at his step-brother.

The story ends with Eric The Red talking to someone. It turns out that he’s not the puppet master he appeared to be. The other man tells him the a “Princess Neramani” is closing in on earth and that she must not contact the X-Men. Eric promises that they will be dealt with shortly, and refers to the other man as “my liege”. Very soon we’ll finally find out who he is and what his plans are.

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The Wolverine

Weapon X

From time to time I’m going to check in with some of the characters to talk about major events that affect them. Uncanny X-Men #98 was a landmark issue for Wolverine. It showed him without his costume, and consequently hinted at the character’s age. That issue also had his claws come right out of his hand for the first time. Both of these were not what Len Wein, the character’s co-creator, intended. In 1974 Wein introduced the character in Incredible Hulk #180. This is the first image of him from the last page of that book.

Although much of the idea for Wolverine came from conversations with Roy Thomas, the idea of Weapon X is all Wein’s. The design for the character was by Herb Trimpe, though this is the only time we see this design. When Gil Kane drew the cover for Giant Sized X-Men #1 he made a mistake on the helmet. Dave Cockrum liked the mistake and decided to use it when he drew the character in the actual comic. Wein preferred the original Trimpe version, he thought it looked more like a wolverine.

It’s interesting that Wein wanted the character to look more like a wolverine, because it is widely thought that Wein intended him to be an evolved wolverine instead of a human with mutant powers. Wein staunchly denies this still and thinks that idea is idiotic. The evidence for this started in Uncanny X-Men #98 when he is examined by Lang’s scientists who can’t confirm that he’s human.   It’s been speculated that Wolverine was perhaps an experiment by the High Evolutionary. This idea was suggested by Cockrum, who may have been responsible for both of these ambiguous moments. However after Cockrum left the comic in 1979 nothing ever came of that idea and it was abandoned.

The next moment of doubt comes in Uncanny X-Men #103, which we’ll talk about this week, when Wolverine meets a leprechaun and insists that he doesn’t believe in them. The leprechaun replies that maybe he doesn’t believe in talking wolverines. Somehow the leprachaun happens to know Wolverine’s name. This is the first time it’s mentioned, and it won’t appear again for a while. The name Logan comes from Mt. Logan, the tallest mountain in Canada. Both Claremont and artist John Byrne, who started drawing and c0-plotting the comic after Cockrum left,  credit the other with coming up with that name, although having it mentioned here before Byrne came to work on the book suggests that it wasn’t him.

One idea that did take root was that his claws were part of his body. This was not something that was planned ahead of time. Writer Chris Claremont added that in because he thought it would be a cool “gotcha” moment. This one little detail pretty much changed the character forever. Now there has to be some kind of accounting for how he got those claws. Is that what the Weapon X program that Wein first mentioned was all about? In that first appearance a military officer mentions how much money they spent developing “Weapon X”. Is that what they meant? If he has claws, then maybe he has to have metal bones to house them, maybe a whole skeleton. All of those ideas that define the character for decades to come spring from Claremont’s whimsical gaff. Claremont justified this departure later saying that if the claws were in the gloves then anyone could wear them. Doing it this way made it a, literally, integral part of the character and was something to build off of.

One thing that sets Wolverine apart from the rest of the characters is that his past seems to be intentionally obscured. Other characters seem to get flashback moments where something reminds them of some moment in their past. So far this has happened with Storm and Colossus. These moments add more depth to the characters and give them a clear sense of history. But Wolverine never gets anything like that. The narrator always shies away from saying much about him. All we have are his actions and every now and then his thoughts.

Love-Struck Puppy

Another defining moment for Wolverine is his relationship with Jean Grey. He doesn’t have a lot of interaction with her in these early issues. I think that maybe the first time he actually talks to her is in #98 under the Christmas tree right before the Sentinels attack.  She tries to get him to open up and he gruffly blows her off. Later on when the two of them and Banshee are being examined by Lang, Wolverine is very protective of her. When Lang slaps her Wolverine breaks his bonds to defend her and starts their escape attempt. I don’t think this was out of actual tenderness for her though. Probably just the masculine drive to protect women-folk. Any gentility he might have shown in defending her is quickly washed away as he gleefully helps her tear her dress so that she can run. The grin on his face as he cuts it shorter than she wanted is a bit juvenile. The most intense moment they have is when he confronts her about her plan to pilot the shuttle. It’s not clear if he’s approving of her plan or speaking against it. Mostly he’s just bothering her, so she let’s him have it.

This is the first time that someone has really stood up to him in the comic. I’m not counting the small moments when Storm or someone else has to hold him back from a brawl. Jean really puts him in his place. Maybe that verbal slap in the face is what does it. From that moment on he’s all dreamy-eyed for her, despite the fact that she makes no secret that she loves Scott. Later on when she’s in the hospital he makes a big deal of going to get her flowers, thinking that maybe the two of them could start talking and one thing could lead to another.

I’ve always thought that Wolverine’s obsession with Jean is a little strange. It makes him look like a bit of a creep, trying to steal Scott’s girl. It’s very likely that his feud with the other man only feeds this infatuation further. Claremont never really speaks about it that deeply in the interviews I’ve read. All he says is that there’s an intense chemistry between them. He makes it sound like this is an Archie comic and that Jean has to choose between the straight-laced Cyclops or the rough and wild Wolverine.

Well, that’s about all that is going on with Wolverine so far. I’ll check in on him later when we learn more about him.

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Sentinels, Pt. 2

Uncanny X-Men #100-101

Chris Claremont/Dave Cockrum 1976

Picking up where we left off, Cyclops has gone alone to face Lang and save Jean. As soon as he enters the room Lang knocks him out from behind and he wakes up in a glass tube. Maybe you should have brought someone with you. Meanwhile down below the others have rescued Wolverine and Banshee. But then Lang releases his secret weapon, the core of the whole Project Armageddon. It’s the original X-Men: Iceman, Angel, Beast, Marvel Girl, Cyclops and even a Professor X who can walk and punch Wolverine in the face.

Old vs New

This is one of those odd moments in comics where members of a team fight each other for some random reason. I understand the drive behind this. Fans always have their favorite characters and sometimes it’s exciting to think of who would beat whom in a fight. In this case it’s a little strange. These are all the older versions of the characters. The Cyclops they’re fighting is using his older visor. Lang watches on the monitors and gloats to Cyclops that this will bring the downfall of mutantkind. To use their greatest defenders against them. For a while it seems like the old team are going to win, but then Wolverine gets fed up and guts Marvel Girl, saying that she’s not Jean. It turns out that she was a robot. The other impostors are quickly dispatched. This is the second time wolverine has killed something. Morality isn’t an issue because in both cases they weren’t human, and Kierrock came back to life a few moments later. But Wolverine wouldn’t have known that. It isn’t clear that he knew the impostor was a robot, he just knew that it wasn’t Jean. While Lang is moaning about his plans failure Cyclops focuses his eye-beams enough to break the “nega-tube” that contained him.

Lang tries to escape in a hover car but Cyclops and Jean blast him with their powers and he crashes and dies. The Classic X-Men version of the story Absolves them from responsibility by having Jean save Lang from the crash in an act of mercy. However he then dies in an explosion as the space station begins to fall apart.

The Death of Jean Grey

As they start to get their shuttle out there Dr. Corbeau is dismayed to find that the auto-pilot is damaged. Someone will have to pilot the ship through a radiation storm while the rest of the team hides in the shielded section of the craft. Corbeau volunteers, as he is the only one with the piloting skills. But Jean insists, taking that knowledge from his mind and zapping Scott unconscious so that he can’t stop her. She manages to get them back down to earth, all the while certain that she’s about to die. Her last words are for Scott.

The shuttle crashes in the harbor near JFK airport, which the X-Men wrecked fighting Eric the Red not long ago. For a moment there’s some panic when they can’t find Jean. But then she suddenly bursts out of the water in a new costume calling herself Phoenix.

This is something that Claremont had been planning for a while. From the start he had wanted to revamp Jean’s image and her powers. He wanted to give her a completely different costume, but the editor at the time, I want to say it was Marv Wolfman but I can’t be sure, vetoed that. He finally relented enough to let the costume be changed but not the color scheme.

After her surprising entrance, Phoenix falls back down into the water unconscious. The rest of the team manage to make it to shore and to a hospital without being seen. For a while everyone is worried about Jean, but she manages to wake up and it looks like she’ll be okay with some rest and care. After much rejoicing Xavier informs the team that they will be taken off of active duty for a while, because he cannot lead the X-Men and care for Jean at the same time.

Exactly what happened to Jean on the shuttle isn’t clear, and at the time it was hotly debated. Many years later the powers that be would explain it in such a way as to allow for some things that they wanted to do. But looking back at exactly what she says, it fits quite well. I don’t know why I’m bothering to be so vague, I’m sure everyone knows what I’m talking about. These particular events were covered in the Classic edition. Though they are a bit gruesome. I’ll show a bit of that on the Tumblr. Next post will be all about Wolverine. Till then…

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Bechdel Testing

 

I’m going to pause for a moment and pick up with the plot in the next post. Right now I want to talk about the Bechdel Test. It’s a way to determine if a story’s female characters are as strong or as complex as male characters. It’s really simple, the story must have all of these requirements.

  1.  It must have at least two women.
  2. Who talk to each other.
  3. About something other than a man.
I’m bringing this up because this issue is the first one in the new series that happens to pass the test, and only barely. This panel is the only one where Jean and Storm happen to speak to each other, and it’s not really much of a conversation. It’s a shame that there are so few women in the comic at this point. Even though Jean is going to rejoin the team soon, events are going to keep conspiring to separate her from the rest of the group in one way or another. For most of these early years the only woman on the team is Storm. I know that eventually we will have Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Psylocke, Dazzler and many others. But right now it’s kind of stark. Maybe Moira and Storm just got off on a really bad foot. Maybe having a demon smash through the wall within hours of meeting one another will do that.
It is true that the Classic versions of these stories contain a lot of extra pages and extra stories, and in these supplements are a lot of moments where the female characters talk and interact as much if not more than the men. But I’m not going to count those here because they are literally revisions. Anything can be made up to look good in hindsight over a decade later. These stories should be tested on their own merits.
You know, I can’t really think of any other female members of the team besides the ones mentioned above for the entire decade of the 80′s. Wait, Rachel Summers and Madlyne Pryor for a little while, and Jubilee. That’s just about it though, and none of them were there at the same time. That’s really depressing. It really seems like the women are constantly overshadowed by the men. At the best of times there’s an equal number of women to men, and only for a little while before some people leave. At least some of the other teams, like New Mutants and Excalibur, consistently have at least as many women as men. Although on the other side X-Factor is worse with having Jean be the only woman during  the whole first roster of team, and the second roster isn’t much better since it only had Polaris and Wolfsbane.
I know there are a lot of side characters. Besides Moira there’s Stevie Hunter and Lee Forrester and Lila Cheney and a handful of others. But they don’t really do that much. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. I’ll check in on this from time to time when I think it’s relevant.

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Sentinels, Pt. 1

Uncanny X-Men #98-99

Chris Claremont/Dave Cockrum 1976

This story marks the return of one of the earliest X-Men villains: Sentinels. Twice before these giant robots have been defeated by the X-Men, and this won’t be the last time they appear. They always seem to come back because at their heart the Sentinels are fueled by hatred and anti-mutant hysteria. It seems like there will always be some zealot who picks up the reigns and sends these metal giants out do “protect” mankind. This time that zealot is Dr. Steven Lang.

There are a lot of contradictions in the very concept of the Sentinels. They are robots, but they are shaped like humans, both in proportions and behavior. The name Sentinel means a guard or something that watches out for danger, but they are always made to be aggressors. The first Sentinels were made by the anthropoligist Bolivar Trask. I wonder if Trask designed the Sentinels to so closely resemble humans because he meant to honor that humanity. And yet their enormous size is meant to frighten and subdue mutants, those Trask considered to be mankind’s natural enemy. The Sentinels would invoke a larger human. The speech patterns of the Sentinels is also very human like. They constantly trade tactical information with one another, but they also speak to the mutants that they are hunting. Trask probably included this function to make them more lifelike and to drive fear into their prey.

Return of the Sentinels

Before the X-Men encounter them this time they are all celebrating the Christmas season in Rockefellar Plaza. There’s a full page scene that shows a host of cameos from other comics from Dr. Doom to Stan Lee himself; I’ll put it up on the tumblr site. After the team stops to admire the tree and reflect on the season, Scott and Jean break away for a dinner alone atop a nearby skyscraper. Their dinner is interrupted when the Sentinels attack the restaurant. Both of the mutants are able to fight them off rather easily, remarking that they aren’t nearly as formidable as the ones that they had fought in the past.

Cyclops is a Dick, Pt. 2: Look Out Below

I’ve been trying to go easy on Scott in the last few issues, trying to find ways to forgive his obvious follies. Splitting up the team on Krakoa, and it was his fault that Kierrock the Damned was released from the cairn. Maybe those things can be excused by inexperience and grief. But during the fight with the Sentinels in the restaurant he waits for the Jean to push one of the robots near the window so that he can let loose with his eye beams at full power, knocking it out the window, where it will fall 60 stories down to the ground. Scott took care not to hurt anyone in the restaurant, but what about the hundreds of people down below? This Sentinel is about the size of a bus, it’s a miracle that no one is crushed by the impact when it hits the ground.

As if in punishment for his folly, another Sentinel blasts him and he falls out the window. Jean tries to defend herself but its gas knocks her out and it flies away with her. Banshee recognizes the Sentinel and he and Wolverine go flying after it. Storm goes to follow, but she sees Scott hanging out the window. She rescues him and then another one attacks them. She counters with all of her weather powers. Scott has the gall to caution her about endangering the people below, but she disintigrates the robot before it can fall and tells him that everything is under control. He tells her that he saw Banshee and Wolverine taken while he was hanging there.

Meanwhile, we see the real reason that Xavier went on vacation. He’s on a boat with astronaut Peter Corbeau. He had asked his friend for help trying to find the star system that he keeps seeing in his visions. Corbeau is no help though. Just then a Sentinel Attacks and makes away with the professor. The remaining X-Men meet up with Corbeau and they eventually find the location of the Lang’s base.

On that very base Lang is running a series of tests on his captives. There are some interesting results with Wolverine. The technicians say that he’s not even human. Lang blows them off though. It isn’t until Lang slaps Jean that Wolverine breaks free from his bonds and fights back. He frees the others and when they clear the room they have a few moments themselves Banshee exclaims that Wolverine’s claws are coming out of his hands. That one moment defined the character more than almost anything else. It wasn’t something that was planned ahead of time. It was just something that Claremont threw in because he thought it would be cool. He didn’t even think about how that would affect the interaction between the other characters. That comment of surprise from Banshee came from Marv Wolfman who pointed out that the other X-Men might be a little startled by this. But the in the story the moment is quickly glossed over as Wolverine makes a show of tearing Jean’s dress.

They manage to escape the base, but that turns out to be a bad idea since the base happens to be a space station. I’m not sure what kind of space stations they were making back in the 70′s. The three X-Men are saved from dying in the vacuum of space by Sentinels who have some kind of bubble ray to collect them in.

Mutant Menace

As the team prepares to rescue their friends there’s a small cameo by Geraldo Rivera who is reporting on the news about a rash of “Anti-Mutant Hysteria” sparked by the reappearance of the “notorious mutant-hunting Sentinels”. The Mutant Menace plot is something that comes up now and then whenever the Sentinels are brought out. It’s no secret that the X-Men are meant to be an allegory for all minorities. It’s kind of odd though how the Sentinels themselves are the harbinger of the hysteria, and not the other way around. The Sentinels are characterized as notorious, and yet people hate their prey instead of them. It’s almost like people only remember about mutants when they’re being hunted by giant robots.

The news broadcast shifts to show the Starcore space shuttle taking off, along with several new members meant to augment the international crew of the mission, “inter national, inter-racial, inter-sexual, something for everyone” That’s a very odd comment. Almost like this new crew is really just Affirmative Action at work. Of course if you take into account that the international make up of the new team was essentially a marketting decision by Roy Thomas, it actually was Affirmative Action.

These new crew members are the X-Men in disguise. During take-off Colossus panics as he remembers how his brother died in a shuttle accident. They make their way to Lang’s base but get attacked by Sentinels just as they get there. Storm is sucked out into space as the shuttle crashes into the station. She has a space suit though, she’s got a chance. There’s a huge fight with more Sentinels. Someone even makes the comment t