Friday, 13 September 2013

Essential Classic X-Men volume 2

Although I'm mostly looking at the first volumes of various series at the moment, when the posts on a particular series prove especially popular I'll take a look at the next one in the series. It's no surprise which one is the most popular so far...

The X-Men's 1960s adventures continue in this second volume, which altered the title used for this particular Essential series but I detailed that last time. Essential Classic X-Men volume 2 contains X-Men #25 to #53, plus Avengers #53 which was the second half of a crossover. Bonus material includes a few unused covers - issue #33 went through a number of attempts before the final version, which is also used for the volume's cover.

Most of the writing, including the Avengers issue, is by Roy Thomas. Gary Friedrich scripts a couple of issues and Arnold Drake writes the last six. The art is more mixed, starting with Werner Roth and then a succession of others including Ross Andru, Don Heck and George Tuska, plus single issue jobs by Jack Sparling, Dan Adkins and Jim Steranko. Some issues are drawn in combinations of two or even three. The Avengers issue is drawn by John Buscema.

This volume covers nearly half the original run of the X-Men. And reading it through it soon becomes clear why the series was getting into dire straits sales wise. Much of the run seems to tread water, there's an early example of subplots that run on and on and don't deliver particularly great conclusions, there are twists to the status quo introduced and then ignored, there's a split in the later issues to carry a back-up detailing the origins of the various X-Men and even that can't get things in order, and there's a general sense of a lack of direction even when a major status quo changer comes in the middle. This volume shows a somewhat tired series that doesn't really know what it's doing or where it's going.

Part of this is rooted in the stability of the line-up. Despite being a school with a mission to find and train mutants to use their powers to help others, there are no permanent additions to the team at this stage. One of the only two significant changes in this run of issues comes at the end of issue #39 when the team adopt new, individualistic costumes with Cyclops adopted the predominantly blue affair he's best known for. The issue's cover is used as the artwork on the volume's back cover (at least on the first edition) but recoloured and it gives the impression the Angel has a bare torso, bar braces; however it turns out this is an error on the new colourist's part and in fact his top is yellow. There is a brief recruitment drive when membership is offered to Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch and even Spider-Man, but each declines for their own reasons. The one new member added is the Mimic but his arrogance is all too clear and he demands the deputy leadership of the X-Men as a condition for joining. He never really gels with the others and his powers are limited to copying others', but after a few issues he gets a good send out that actually makes use of his unique abilities when in a fight with the Super Adaptoid their powers cancel each other out. Earlier he almost succumbs to the Adaptoid's offer to enhance his powers, but he realises that this will mean slavery and he quickly turns. He leaves with his powers seemingly negated by the encounter but retires from the team on favourable terms.

Otherwise there are a couple of future members of the X-Men introduced here in the form of fist the Banshee and later Lorna Dane (who doesn't take on a codename at this stage) but neither actually joins the team within this volume. However we do get a major shake-up in issue #42 when Professor X sacrifices his life to save the world, having been suffering from a terminal disease and rushing to get the team's training complete in time. This creates a new dynamic with Cyclops now in full command of the team, but it isn't explored too deeply at this point due to two multi-part tales involving Magneto and the temporary disbandment of the team on the orders of Fred Duncan, a federal agent Professor X had worked with, on the basis that they'll be more effective and less vulnerable if scattered across the country. This leads to a brief run of couple adventures but the format is soon abandoned in favour of having the whole team back together.

There are a few new villains introduced but they've rarely made much long-term impact. Amongst them are El Tigre, a hunter who is possessed by the Mayan god Kukulcán, the Cobalt Man, a scientist who is trying to copy Iron Man's armour and sell it to the military, Mekano, the neglected son of a philanthropist taking his revenge out on his father's donations, or the Frankenstein Monster, who here is portrayed as an alien who inspired the novel, but it's my understanding the later Monster of Frankenstein series used a different character closer to the original. There's Grotesk, an alien who wants to destroy the Earth, and finally Mesmero, a mesmeriser, and his minions the Demi-Men. The big foe across a dozen issues is the shadowy organisation "Factor Three". New characters introduced as part of the storyline include the Banshee, who turns good by the end of the storyline, the Ogre, who would later pop up in Thunderbolts, the shape-shifting Changeling, who would later become the basis of Morph in the 1990s X-Men cartoon, and the organisation's leader, the Mutant Master who turns out to be an alien.

That's not to say there aren't return appearances by old foes, with both the Juggernaut and Magneto popping up twice, with the latter having reassembled several of his followers in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants including the Toad, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Factor Three contains a number of old foes in the form of the Blob, the Vanisher, Mastermind and Unus the Untouchable. Foes from other series include the Puppet Master, following on from an encounter in Fantastic Four and the Super Adaptoid from Captain America's strip in Tales of Suspense, complete with the powers of Avengers Captain America, the Wasp, Goliath and Hawkeye. Another story brings an encounter with the underworld rulers the Mole Man, originally from Fantastic Four, and Tyrannus, from the Incredible Hulk, as they continue their conflict first shown in the Hulk's strip in Tales to Astonish. Yet another visitor from Fantastic Four is the living computer Quasimodo, working through the device Computo and using robots called "Cybertrons" (possibly the first use of that term by Marvel, nearly a decade before they created the backstory for the Transformers). An even further visitor from Fantastic Four is Blastaar, a deposed monarch from the Negative Zone. Then there's the Warlock, who had previously appeared under the name "Merlin" in Thor's strip in Journey into Mystery. Making his first Silver Age appearance is the Red Raven from the Golden Age Marvel series of the same name who has now become embittered against the human race.

Throughout these issues there are a lot of threads that get abandoned. At the start of the volume Jean Grey has been transferred to a normal university, but often comes back for weekends and her visits coincide with virtually all the adventures. However it's soon forgotten that she's been moved out and eventually she's just back at Xavier's school like all the others. Another thread involves her fellow university student Ted Rogers who seems to have worked out her identity, but he disappears along with her university days. Later the team disbands by order of federal agent Fred Duncan but after a few issues everyone's back to working together without any mention of the order. The origin stories also experience a slapdash approach when the Beast's story is given before the Angel's despite the internal chronology establishing the latter as having been recruited first (and the end of Iceman's story promised the Angel would be next). Even in the stories themselves captions notice the discrepancy and promise we'll get the Angel's story though we'll have to wait until volume 3 to see if that promise is met.

The origins back-up strip starts in issue #38 and shows in succession how Professor Xavier was spurred into action and steadily recruited the individual X-Men one by one, rescuing them from foes ranging from the Living Diamond to general hate mobs. The start of the series hadn't felt the need to cover this ground in detail, having contented itself with showing Marvel Girl as a new arrival to set the general scene, but now we get the background on Cyclops, Iceman and the Beast as we see how they handled the emergence of their powers and the reactions of those around them. The series also includes one part profile pieces for each of these X-Men, exploring their powers and abilities and answering details such as how Cyclops operates his visor without touching it or how Iceman produces so much ice.

Overall this run of the series feels rather flat, probably because what are meant to be the big dramatic moments often come off somewhat flat. Factor Three is the first example of an X-Men subplot that feels like it lasts forever and the ultimate pay-off isn't terribly interesting. Had the storyline appeared as a standalone then it would have been just about okay but here we get a lengthy build-up and the plot running in the background during other encounters, with Professor X kidnapped in the process and Spider-Man encountering one of the organisation's robots. When the storyline finally kicks into higher gear with a plot to start a nuclear war thought it soon becomes clear the Mutant Master's plan is not just to destroy human civilisation and allow mutants to take over the planet but instead to wipe out all life completely. Oddly despite being the big storyline built up to over so many months, this isn't the point at which Professor X is killed off. Instead he meets his end in a shorter story just three issues later which also sees a new foe trying to destroy the world. It just feels highly repetitive for the sake of it. The crossover with the Avengers also feels rather less than such a moment should be, especially considering how rare crossovers were back in the 1960s. It is at least based around the common link of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants once containing Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch before they became Avengers, with the siblings having now returned to Magneto in the hope of haling the Scarlet Witch's wounds and escaping from all human contact whilst Magneto plans new conquests. However it tries to do too much and is particularly let down by the middle X-Men issue detouring to introduce the Red Raven into the Silver Age. Roy Thomas's enthusiasm for the Golden and Atlas Ages heroes is well known and at times his work to reincorporate them into modern continuity has produced wonders. Here though it just provides a needless distraction as the Angel flies across the Atlantic to fetch help and ultimately as the story ends with the Raven going back into suspended animation it's a tale that just didn't need to be told at this point.

There's a bit of character development with Warren finally giving up on his attraction to Jean and subsequently being reunited with childhood friend Candy Southern, whilst Hank and Bobby face the recurring problem of their double dates with Vera and Zelda being interrupted by events that cause them to rush off and switch into costume. Towards the end of the volume Vera and Zelda disappear amidst the confusion of changing writers and the temporary disbandment of the team and by the end Bobby seems set to become an eventual item with Lorna Dane. Meanwhile Scott often seems to be getting closer to Jean but at times seems to muck it up by not always displaying enough outward concern for her. Still these are at least some steps forward.

However overall this is still a rather turgid run on the series and it's easy to see why the alarm bells were ringing by the end of it. Few of the individual stories really excite and it's also succumbing to a mess of new writers ignoring some of the subplots and developments set up by their predecessors. There are references to the overall problems mutants face in the world, particularly in the back-up origin stories, but very little is actually done with the theme beyond some villains expressing a general superiority viewpoint. Otherwise we're left with a team of heroes staggering on from one general threat to another and not really charting out any particularly new or exciting territory. This one is for completists.

1 comment:

  1. Due to the original version of this post getting hit by spambots, I've had to recreate it at a new URL so I can re-enable features. Apologies if you had a comment or direct link.

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