Friday, 16 May 2014

Essential X-Men volume 3

Essential X-Men volume 3 first contained Uncanny X-Men #145 to #161 and Annuals #3 to #5. Later editions have seen Annuals #3 & #4 transferred to volume 2; Annual #6 transferred from volume #4 (where I'll look at it) and the addition of Avengers Annual #10. The writing is all by Chris Claremont and most of the art by Dave Cockrum; other issues are drawn by Jim Sherman, Bob McLeod, Bill Sienkiewicz and Brent Anderson. The annuals are drawn by George Pérez, John Romita Jr and Brent Anderson. The Avengers annual is drawn by Michael Golden.

This is predominantly a volume of consolidation and development rather than creation, with very few significant first appearances. Dave Cockrum returns to the series and there's some more space opera with the Shi’Ar but otherwise there's a continued focus on the core characters within a world that is growing steadily more hostile to mutants. There are very few changes to the team - Angel storms out in protest over Wolverine's presence and Cyclops comes back on, but otherwise it's a period of stability for the line-up. We get more use of past X-Men in the form of reservists, with Ice-Man, Polaris and Havok all pressed into service for one adventure whilst Banshee appears more and more in a supporting staff role; his powers not having restored themselves. Another supporting character comes in the form of Carol Danvers, now depowered following events in Avengers annual #10, who hangs around with and helps the X-Men for the time being.

However we get a number of character developments, with Cyclops and Sprite especially benefiting from strong focuses. Within these issues Cyclops and Corsair of the Starjammers finally discover that they are son and father, leading to the inevitable confrontation about why Corsair never came after his son in the orphanage. It's a tense situation at first but soon Scott accepts that his father naturally believed both Scott and Alex had died when their parachute caught fire, whilst the horrific treatment and death of their mother had further distanced Corsair from Earth. The family reunion is handled well and helps add to Scott's character growth as he becomes ever more a strong individual, unfettered by the trauma of his childhood or the loss of Jean. The early issues see him marooned on an island with Lee Forrester, the captain of the ship he signed aboard before they were swept out to sea. Although the island scenario itself drags on for a few too many issues, it shows Scott slowly discovering another woman and moving onwards.

Also growing rapidly is Kitty Pryde, though she retains her youthful optimism and role as the team's little sister. Her crush on Colossus is becoming a relationship, with surprisingly nothing said about their different ages. Otherwise she shows enthusiasm and at times is at the core of a plot's resolution. However one thing that is off-putting is her constantly changing costumes in an attempt to get more individuality than the original style X-Men outfit she is given pre-graduation. At one point she comes up with an outfit that may have resembled early 1980s sparkly fashions but looks hideous and is mercifully subdued by the black and white. On another level she is growing ever closer to both Storm and her dance teacher Stevie Hunter. Issue #148 sees the three on a girls' night out, together with guest stars Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman and the Dazzler, which is interrupted by the introduction of the lonely mutant Caliban who comes searching for company, causing panic and chaos but also making Kitty realise how some mutants like Nightcrawler cannot help their strange appearance and she shouldn't be so uncomfortable around them.

But the biggest developments come for one of the X-Men's greatest foes. Issue #150 brings some of the strongest material yet for Magneto, with further enhancements in a flashback in issue #161. We get the clearest statement yet that he sees himself as a warrior defending his people, the mutants, making him a Malcolm X figure much more so than before. His background is also filled out with the exploration of his drive coming from the horrors he endured in the Holocaust. Rejecting Xavier's vision of mutant-human co-existence as unrealistic, he instead seeks to bring about mutant superiority, securing peace through security. Although there have been hints of this in some of his earlier appearances, we now have a clearly rounded vision of the character that moves him away from the run of the mill would-be world conquering supervillains and into a much more complex character. Yet the same issue also starts him down a new path when he thinks he's killed Sprite. Earlier he had no regrets about sinking a Soviet nuclear submarine that had fired upon his island, yet now that he thinks he's killed a child, he realises he's become like the monsters of his childhood, the guards at Auschwitz who joked as they herded people to their deaths, their lives meaning nothing to them. The horror that he has become a monster to the innocents he sought to protect and the very thing he hated and despised is a striking moment for the character. Was it also meant to be a subtle wider comment about events in the real world? Whatever the external intentions, there is a hint that he changed forever though it is not followed up on within these pages.

Magneto's shift comes not long after the X-Men's first encounter with another world-conquering villain from the early Silver Age. It's quite a surprise that the X-Men haven't clashed with Doctor Doom before now, given how much he's appeared all over the Marvel universe over the years. Here he seems rather subdued, being in exile from his kingdom and operating in a strange alliance with Arcade, with the gamesmaster also Doom's prisoner. Though there's a brief scene with Storm that sees the two slightly drawn towards each other, overall it's a rather disappointing use of such a major foe. Equally weakly handled is Dracula, who shows up for a single issue when he tries to take Storm as a mate, but there's none of the awe and majesty from the character's own series.

The Shi’Ar epic brings the first appearance of the Sidri, a monstrous gestalt alien species, and the fearsome insect race the Brood, as well as Deathbird, previously seen in Ms. Marvel, the sister of Lilandra. She's not the only foe of Carol's to come over, with Rogue also appearing, following on from the Avengers annual. Meanwhile a flashback to the younger days of Professor X and Magneto shows their struggle with Baron von Strucker and a nascent Hydra, giving Magneto his first encounter with leftover Nazi villains. An adventure into a magical realm brings the team into conflict with Belasco, previous seen in Ka-Zar, and new demon S'ym. It's a dark place in which the X-Men find time does not function as normal, bringing them into conflict with older versions of themselves. At the end Colossus's sister Illyanna is briefly lost for what is only seconds for the X-Men but a whole seven years for her. Having gone from six to thirteen, losing much of her childhood in that realm, must be a horrific experience and will hopefully be explored further in later volumes.

One aspect of the series that is slightly stating to irritate are the long drawn out subplots, especially as some of them keep overlapping on multiple Essential volumes and so take an age. Cyclops spends half a year lost on a desert island and then later the conflict with the Brood is stretched out with Professor X mentally wounded for many months. He is cured in the final issue in the volume but then Deathbird and the Brood return in a cliffhanger, with the latter planning to use the mutants as hosts for breeding. Unfortunately the remaining space is then taken up with other, less consequential material.

Lurking at the back of the volume (at least in the original edition) are three annuals. With #1 & #2 having been all-reprint specials in the wilderness years, these are the first original specials for the X-Men and show a variety of foes and guest stars. Two of them feature Arkon, first as an enemy, albeit with noble motives seeking to restore his world, and later as an ally when the Badoon invade; the Fantastic Four also guest star in the latter story. Meanwhile the other one features a trip into what is supposedly Hell, resembling the depiction in Dante's Inferno, with Doctor Strange guest starring and a fight with Minos, a being from Dante's poem. Reading all three annuals back to back, as per the original edition's presentation, it's easy to see why the whole format is so often dismissed and/or overlooked, including sometimes by collected editions. (Not only had Essential X-Men volume 2 left out two annuals, but at about the same time that this volume was making up for this omission, Essential Spider-Man volume 3 was missing out another pair.) None is drawn by the regular series artist of the day and none of the events are mentioned in the regular title. The middle annual may explore some of Nightcrawler's past and reveal his current girlfriend to be his adoptive sister and childhood sweetheart in disguise but it's still easy to blink and miss it. Nor is there any connection with the hint in the previous volume that he and Mystique are related. Placed at the rear of this volume, like an obligatory appendix, they feel like they were almost forced upon it and are being sidelined as much as possible. None feels like a typical, if extended, adventure of the type seen in the contemporary regular series so the annuals don't even work as one-off introductory specials. Of course the same charge can be levelled at many, many annuals for many other series, but it's rare to get three all at once and so the problem stands out the more. Worse still having so many at once has restricted the number of regular issues contained in this volume and possibly increased the necessity of ending on a cliffhanger, one that would be left hanging for nearly three years before volume 4 came along.

Later editions of this volume have also included Avengers annual #10 and it's easy to see why given that both Carol Danvers and Rogue go on to make significant appearances in the regular issues in both this volume and later ones. I've never been too clear as to how much of the issue reflects Claremont's original plans for Ms. Marvel and just when he conceived his plans for Rogue, but here we get a conclusion to Carol's conflict with Mystique that had been building and building and building and building in her own series (Claremont's long-running subplots have not been confined to the X-Men titles). Ms. Marvel gets put through the wringer once more as her powers and mind are absorbed by Rogue; with Professor X's help she regains some of the latter but is left a broken woman trying to put her life back together. The epilogue allows both her and Claremont to confront the Avengers and their writers about how callous they were when she was kidnapped and raped, but otherwise the bulk of the annual is given over to introducing a new foe who takes down the most powerful Avengers quite quickly. Other than the epilogue wouldn't it perhaps have been better to tell this story with the X-Men in their own annual? It would certainly have made a far stronger and more memorable offering than that year's team-up with the Fantastic Four against the Badoon, and the subsequent use of both Carol and Rogue in the regular series would have given the annual a lasting significance. Still that error of placing has now been corrected with its inclusion here.

Although more run of the mill than the two previous Essential X-Men volumes, and limited by the need to include the various annuals, this volume continues to show a series based strongly on character development and a distinct scenario. It takes in a diverse range of locations and threats but manages to stay consistent and true to its core characters, continuing to make them feel real and worth caring about. This is a series that has settled in a clear permanent role for the long run.

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