Friday, 9 May 2014

Essential X-Men volume 2

Essential X-Men volume 2 originally contained X-Men #120-144. (The adjective Uncanny was formally added to the series's legal title from #142 onwards; however it had been present in the cover logo since #114 apart from the odd issue that skipped it, a practice that continued for many years afterwards.) Later editions have transferred Annuals #3-4 over from volume 3; however I'll continue the practice of looking at such material where it originally appeared. Chris Claremont scripts the entire volume with John Byrne drawing and co-plotting all but the final issue which is by Brent Anderson.

It's impossible to ignore the significance of the stories in this volume, representing the period when the X-Men broke out of being a niche cult title and became one of Marvel's biggest sellers. Much has been written about the "Dark Phoenix saga", which dominates all the different covers used for this volume, whilst this month sees the release of a movie version of "Days of Future Past". But there's a lot more than just those two tales within these pages. It's also a run in which there are a number of introductions, including a few that would go on to have their own series.

The volume kicks off with the debut of Alpha Flight, as the Canadian government (Pierre Trudeau appears on panel delivering orders to the now renamed Vindicator) tries to recover Wolverine through the deployment of its own team of superheroes. The team isn't explored in any great detail, but they show potential for future use, although how they explain the failure of their specially designed prison van to contain Wolverine isn't shown. Earlier they force the jet carrying the X-Men to Calgary, allowing John Byrne to draw his home city and show Canada as it really is, rather than cliched US stereotypes. Right at the end of the volume Alpha Flight (well half of them) reappear as Wolverine returns to Canada, with Nightcrawler in tow, in the hope of putting an end to their pursuit of him. They all battle the Wendigo in the northern Canadian wilderness - when has any hero gone there and not found the Wendigo? - before departing on good terms with Vindicator promising to get Wolverine's resignation accepted by the government. However upon returning to Ottawa, Vindicator is told by Trudeau that Department H and Alpha Flight are being disbanded, due to both costs and fears about superheroes. This serves as both closure to Wolverine's fugitive status but also opens up the possibility to use Alpha Flight as an independent team. (I'm also surprised that the comic managed to show Trudeau in person on this occasion as it was published just a couple of months after his surprise return to power. Imagine the mess if they'd drawn Joe Clark instead.)

Dazzler is introduced in issue #130 and I don't know whose idea it was to make her a mutant but it seems clear there was very little background developed for her beyond "singer who can project light" and her appearance here does little to flesh her out apart from establishing her as a mutant. It's not exactly a debut to set the world on fire. The preceding issue is more significant for the series in the long term as it introduces Kitty Pryde, an intelligent thirteen year old who is discovering the ability to become intangible. A young kid sidekick can go spectacularly wrong but here she brings a degree of optimism to the team as well as helping to restate principles as she learns them. However one problem comes from not nailing down a single standard name for her from the outset - she rejects the name "Ariel" (and so denies the opportunity to make endless jokes about washing powder) and instead adopts "Sprite" but she's just as likely to be called "Kitty Pryde" as anything else and the result can limit her ability to stay memorable. Still she is a breath of fresh air that reminds us of the ongoing mission to find and train mutants. Otherwise the cast broadly stays the same throughout these issues bar the formalisation of Phoenix's return and her subsequent death, the retirement of Banshee due to a throat injury, and Cyclops's decision to leave the team following Phoenix's death, though the final issue in the volume shows his continuous movements.

At the start the cast are still split, with Professor X, Phoenix and the Beast believing the others died in Antarctica and vice versa, and it takes several issues before they all finally discover they've all survived. In the meantime Cyclops is steadily coming into his own and also becoming more at ease with women, briefly dating Colleen Wing but when Scott and Jean discover each other is alive this doesn't cause too many problems. In the interim though I'm surprised Colleen puts up with Scott talking a lot about his ex, or for that matter she's one of several girlfriends captured by Arcade. The other romantic interests are less developed, with Colossus's feelings for Storm toned down to the level of adopted siblings, but Kitty develops a crush on him and in a glimpse of the future they are shown as married. At another level Professor Xavier and Lilandra find themselves on opposite sides when aliens from across the universe assemble to tackle the Dark Phoenix, and although it isn't spelt out they seem to have effectively separated.

Guest appearances are surprisingly limited here, and mainly confined to those from either previous Claremont-Byrne collaborations or earlier issues of the X-Men. Cyclops may briefly date Colleen Wing from Power Man and Iron Fist but otherwise there are few of note. Spider-Man turns up at the start of an issue to try and warn the X-Men that Arcade is back, having clashed with him during the Claremont-Byrne run on Marvel Team-Up, and the final issue, post-Byrne, sees an appearance by the Man-Thing, whose last solo stories had been scripted by Claremont. Meanwhile the Beast, Havok and Lorna Dane all show up for the duration of the Proteus storyline, and later the Angel gets caught up in the Dark Phoenix saga and never quite leaves. Ice-Man's sole appearance is at Jean's funeral.

With more epic length story telling the foes battled in this volume are limited but usually either new to the series or assembled in a new grouping. Early on the team battle Proteus, Moria MacTaggert's mutant son who can warp reality and take over bodies whenever his current one burns out, and then later they come up against the Hellfire Club, a fictionalised version of the real world club Its "Inner Circle" includes various foes including new ones such as Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost and returning ones such as Mastermind, under his real name of Jason Wyngarde. Later on the X-Men fight a new incarnation of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Led by Mystique, previously seen in Ms. Marvel, the team includes the Blob and three new mutants - Destiny, Pyro and Avalanche. Mystique offers further mystery when Nightcrawler finds her familiar but she just tells him to ask his mother. There's a couple of foes from other series, with both Arcade and D'Spayre brought over from the pages of Marvel Team-Up where they'd been introduced by the same creative team. And then there's Senator Robert Kelly, a potential Presidential candidate who is pushing towards legislation that would introduce controls on mutants, with the horrifying prospect of where that could lead. It's a reminder that not all threats come in costumed action form.

Nor do they always come from the opposite side. For by far the best known storyline in this volume involves one of the X-Men going rogue. The "Dark Phoenix saga" has been referenced many times and adapted for both television and film. It's easy to see why - it's a tale of an ordinary(ish) person gaining ultimate power and eventually going out of control with devastating consequences. At the time there hadn't been that much exploration of the ultimate danger inherent from superheroes but here we get a tale of corruption, redemption and sacrifice. The storyline is steadily built up with Jean slowly corrupted by the power of Mastermind, who has no idea of what he's unleashing. The resulting Dark Phoenix is a scary demonstration of all the worst potential, going on a destructive course, lashing out at those closest to her and even casually destroying a whole solar system. And just when it seems as though Jean has been saved and the Phoenix side of her locked away, the wider universe come to execute her, forcing the X-Men into a duel with the Imperial Guard in which it becomes clear that Phoenix is not as confined as thought. Ultimately Jean does the only thing she can to permanently end the threat and commits suicide, showing humanity triumphing over the corruption of power. She was by no means the first comic character to be killed off, but in the past this had usually happened at the end of a title's run or else when a character had been confined to limbo for years. To kill off such a key part of the team, one who'd been around almost continuously since the team began seventeen years earlier, was an incredible move. The impact on the rest of the cast is shown in subsequent issues as characters' thoughts frequently turn to Jean/Phoenix. In the wider industry it helped to put X-Men firmly on the map.

However it's "Days of Future Past" which is inevitably the storyline that will attract the most attention at this precise time. It follows the classic time-travel plot of going back in time to alter the future for the better. But here we get a dark vision of the future that in 1980 was much closer to reality than many may now realise. The United States has become a brutal police state, with most technology breaking down and civilisation slowly sinking into brutal primitivism. The population has been brutally classified into multiple groups, with strict controls on breeding. Mutants are set apart, mostly confined to designated areas, and are forced to endure terrible suffering. This may have been presented as a world 33 years into the future, but it has clear similarities to the contemporary situation in apartheid South Africa. The brief history that Kate Pryde tells the X-Men reinforces the metaphor with a number of subtle parallels to the history of how apartheid was steadily introduced and "justified" as a response to whipped up fear. The scenes really personalise the impact with moments such as a row of gravestones with familiar names, the desperate struggle of recognisable albeit aged faces, and the horror as they are rapidly cut down. And whilst Kate's mission was successful in preventing the assassination that is believed to have started the chain if events, we're never actually shown what the resulting future now is, just a single page in the present suggesting that the Sentinels will be revived and deployed anyway. That helps to reinforce the uncertainty and fear for the long term and helps to reinforce the elements of bigotry and oppression that have hitherto been underused in the series.

The following issue, #143, also feels like the inspiration behind a film, albeit a very different one. A decade before Kevin McCallister found himself Home Alone and had to fight off intruders in the house at Christmas, Kitty Pryde had to do exactly the same thing. The issue also feels like a homage to Alien with the N’Garai demon resembling the alien whilst Kitty herself resembles a young Sigourney Weaver, desperately racing through the mansion to find some way, any way to defeat the creature. In the process she causes no end of expensive damage, but it's a key rite of passage for the character.

And this volume represents a major passage for the series. Between the dynamic art of John Byrne and the intense, thoughtful scripts of Chris Claremont, the result is a complex series that maintains strong, well-defined characters at its core and puts them through a complex and varied set of situations that try and test them immensely. Some of the storylines are better known than others, but taken together they show good ongoing development, in which all the characters are steadily built up. Not all their pasts are revealed at once - in particular elements about Wolverine such as his adamantium skeleton and revelations from his past are only dropped in as and when they come up - but the overall result is that all the X-Men continue to feel like real people and the reader wants to keep reading to find out what happens to them. By the end of the volume Claremont has been scripting the series for fifty issues, a surprising achievement already, even before one considers how long he would go on for. Such long runs often give a title a good degree of stability that help to refine it when the original take on the concept has floundered or got lost in a sea of ever changing creative teams who each try to change everything before moving on. Here it works wonders and so finally X-Men was a title that was here to stay for the long run.

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