Friday, 17 January 2014

Essential Classic X-Men volume 3

Essential Classic X-Men volume 3 represents the end of the X-Men's original run plus some of the material from their hidden years. It reprints X-Men #54-66 and then the Beast's solo strip from Amazing Adventures #11-16 plus the framing sequence that topped & tailed a reprint in issue #17 (as the new feature War of the Worlds - featuring Killraven - wasn't ready in time). In addition there are appearances by some or all of the X-Men from Amazing Spider-Man #92, Incredible Hulk #150 & #161 and Marvel Team-Up #4. Finally as bonus material there's a cover gallery showing X-Men #67-93 & annuals #1-2, the unused cover for issue #56 and some unused interior art from issue #64. All but one of the X-Men issues are written by Roy Thomas; the exception is by Arnold Drake and one back-up is by Linda Fite. Werner Roth draws the back-ups whilst the lead and then full issues are mainly by Neal Adams with a few by Don Heck and the last by Sal Buscema. The Amazing Adventures issues are written by Gerry Conway and Steve Englehart and drawn by Tom Sutton, Marie Severin and Jim Starlin. The Amazing Spider-Man issue is written by Stan Lee and drawn by Gil Kane, the Incredible Hulk issues are written by Archie Goodwin and Englehart and both drawn by Herb Trimpe, and the Marvel Team-Up is written by Conway and drawn by Kane. As that's such a large number of series and creators, a separate post has been created for some of them.

The first half of the volume contains perhaps the X-Men's most desperate hour. Sales on the series were slipping and unless something amazing was done quickly the book would be cancelled. And at first it seems that something amazing did happen. Roy Thomas returned to write the series and he was joined by Neal Adams. Looking at Mike's Amazing World of Comics: Database: Neal Adams I was surprised to see just how few comics he's actually drawn in his career, and also how early his X-Men work came - it was his first Marvel work and came before some of his most famous DC work on Batman, Detective Comics and Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Indeed issue #65 is almost the first time Adams worked with Denny O'Neil before the two would go on to have a huge influence not just on Batman and Green Lantern but also on the direction US superhero comics as a whole would take in the 1970s. Adams's work impresses heavily despite his all too brief run and it's clear that one half of the title is now firing on all cylinders. So too is the other half.

After a rather turgid stretch covered by the second volume there's a distinct upswing here that begins even on Arnold Drake's last issue but then steps up several gears as Roy Thomas returns. The origins stories and detailed powers back-up features are maintained just long enough to complete the set by telling the tale of the Angel and showcasing Marvel Girl's powers (her own origin and recruitment to the team was covered sufficiently at the start of the series) and then the main stories go full-length. There's a mixture of returns of some of the stronger past foes, but each in a new and deadlier form, alongside the introduction of new enemies and allies. Almost until the end of this run the series is better than it has ever been.

There's a succession of new characters that help to enhance the series. By far the most significant is Cyclops's younger brother Alex Summers who soon adopts the identity of Havok. Although both he and Lorna Dane are sparingly used in these issues, it's good to see an expansion of the line-up with characters who have ties to the existing team at a time when the school is not in operation and so new members can't be recruited that way. Whilst it would have been nice to see both used more in the limited time available, although there are some tensions as Havok steadily becomes a rival to Iceman for Lorna's affections, both need time to both develop their control of their powers and decide whether or not to become adventurers, and this is eventually addressed in Incredible Hulk #150. Less successful though is the reintroduction of Professor X, with the revelation that it was in fact a terminally ill Changeling in disguise who previously died, and Xavier has been hiding in a basement preparing to deal with an alien invasion. Although the actual preparation is convincing, the need to have faked his death just doesn't convince. It's also unfortunate that his return is in one of the weakest issues in the volume. A dramatic adventure was needed to justify his return but this one is far too rushed and involves a never seen before foe of the type not normally dealt with by the X-Men. It's as though the ending of the series was known about and there was a rush to get Professor X back in case of a revival or guest appearances. However other things suggest against this foreknowledge.

In the meantime there's a very strong line-up of villains, both old and new. The Sentinels return for their strongest challenge yet, this time guided by Larry Trask, son of the robots' creator who blames mutants for his father's death without realising he himself is a mutant. The Sentinels seem impossible to stop until Cyclops defeats them with logic and makes them all fly to the source of mutation - the Sun. Meanwhile in the Savage Land there is the mysterious "Creator" who has seemingly helped other mutants but in fact has genetically engineered them. In a twist the end of issue #62 reveals that the creator is an unmasked Magneto. It's a nice trick that takes advantage of the fact that the master of magnetism has never been seen without his helmet before and was never a mystery identity villain, whilst his scheme shows new deviousness as he no longer surrounds himself with buffoons and uneasy followers but instead creates a new set of deadly foes. On the new front there's the Living Pharaoh, who is transformed into the gigantic and fearsome Living Monolith, and Sauron, a man cursed to drain energy from others that transforms him into a pterodactyl man. The alien invasion is by the Z'Nox, merciless giant reptiles from another galaxy. Then there's Sunfire, a young Japanese mutant with the power to generate solar energy who represents the conflict within Japan over the country's role in the post war world, with Sunfire's father a diplomat promoting stronger links with the United States and his uncle encouraging vengeance.

With each issue flowing into the next there's a real sense of momentum about the series, showing it has found its vitality again and offering the prospect of a long run of greatness. But sadly it wasn't successful and with issue #66 the series came to a close. The last three issues show some scrambling about with either Thomas or Adams absent each time, suggesting some fill-ins and a rush to wrap things up. The return of Professor X and the Z'Nox invasion in issue #65 is underwhelming and then issue #66 is a search for the Hulk, with his military pursuers thrown in as well, that just doesn't do justice as a final issue. The final panel shows the seven X-Men standing around Professor X's bed as he recovers and reminds us there are still wrongs to right and foes to fight, with the X-Men confirming they will carry on saving the world and a final caption "And they fought happily ever after...??" Whilst the last few issues themselves may not have been the greatest, this was a premature cancellation.

Given how long it took to assemble accurate sales figures, I suspect the decision was taken before the full impact of the Thomas/Adams run became available. For somebody seems to have realised that X-Men still had sales potential and within less than a year the series returned as a bimonthly reprint title. There were also two "King-Sized" specials; annuals by any other name. As the first eight issues had already been reprinted elsewhere the revived series reprinted from issue #9 onwards, almost in exact order bar some rearrangement to put two-part tales in the same issue in both the annuals and in ongoing issues in the brief period when regular Marvel series increased in size. All the covers from the reprint era are included here and although many of them reuse previous cover images it's nice to see them for completism's sake. It's interesting to see that the reprints came to an end with issue #93 reprinting #45, despite that being a mid-part of a crossover with the Avengers. I wonder if there was a reprint of Avengers #53 somewhere in 1975; otherwise readers would have to wait until 1992 when it appeared in Avengers #350.

1975 would prove a big year for the X-Men and issue #94 would go its own way. But that is all for another day. In the meantime the X-Men spent some five years confined to the guest appearance circuit and we get a few of those appearances here. It's telling that once Marvel Team-Up switched from its initial plan of a buddy book for Spider-Man and the Human Torch to become Spider-Man's and Marvel's answer to The Brave and the Bold, the X-Men were the first guest-stars to appear. There may be a slight lapse of visual continuity as they wear their original costumes (before switching to civilian gear) but otherwise it's a good story that manages to juggle all the heroes in such a way to show them well and prove there's life in the team yet. The first of the two Incredible Hulk issues reprinted here helps fill in some gaps by showing developments with Lorna and Havok and how the triangle with Iceman has been resolved for now. The issue of Amazing Spider-Man included here seems rather redundant though. Whilst Spider-Man and Iceman would go on to co-star in the cartoon Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends a decade later, here we get the second part of a Spider-Man story as he's pursued by an unscrupulous candidate for District Attorney, with Iceman getting caught up in it. This isn't the most essential of inclusions.

The main feature of the latter part of this volume is the Beast's solo series from Amazing Adventures. It's clear from reading this here that the series was truncated in a hurry after just six issues, with a number of plot threads left outstanding and not all of them were resolved in the second Incredible Hulk issue included here. Additionally issue #17 was an emergency reprint fill-in issue retelling the Beast's origin with a couple of new pages to frame it. A text caption at the top of the reprint explains this was because the new feature (War of the Worlds featuring Killraven) wasn't ready in time, suggesting it was quickly selected to replace the Beast.

The series itself sees the Beast leave the X-Men to go and work for the Brand Corporation. There his experiments and attempts to hide his identity backfire and he winds up being mutated into a furry and seemingly less intelligent form. Initially grey, by the end his colour is changing to "black" but it seems to be the more familiar blue. In the process Hank gets caught up in plots by the shadowy Secret Empire (the new Number One's identity is not revealed here but it would turn out to be one of the most potentially libellous things Marvel has ever published) and falls for Linda Donaldson, assistant at the Band Corporation but actually Number Nine. Throw in conflict with variously a new version of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, here consisting of Mastermind, the Blob and Unus the Untouchable, Iron Man, Quasimodo and the Angel, and Hank's struggle with the physical and mental changes and the series rattles along but never quite takes off. There's even an appearance by Patsy Walker, now married to Buzz Baxter, though her maiden name isn't used here to identify the character. Truly the Marvel universe takes in everything. This is stretched further in the last full issue as Hank and former girlfriend Vera Cantor find themselves battling the Juggernaut around some of the Marvel bullpen - Roy Thomas, Jean Thomas, Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway and Len & Glynis Wein - at the Rutland Halloween Parade in Vermont, in a story that is also a discrete crossover with Thor and the Justice League of America. However the strip comes to a premature conclusion with the developments around the Secret Empire left to another series and the story of Vera's search for Hank's help is wrapped up in Incredible Hulk #161 as they encounter the Hulk and the Mimic in the Canadian wilderness. All in all the strip is functional but doesn't really leap out and make one wish for an ongoing Beast series. Still it's good to see it hasn't been forgotten by the Essentials.

The last part of this volume may be bitty as it presents some of the key X-Men stories from their hidden years, but it's completely appropriate for most of them to be here. But it's the main run that is the volume's greatest feature. At a time when the series was floundering it needed to do something amazing and it certainly achieved that. Clearly it was short-sightedness that led to the series being cancelled despite this revival and what we're left with is probably the best run on the X-Men from before the All-New All-Different era. It was a tragedy to end it so soon and that impacts on the very last few issues but overall the series went out on a high.

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