Friday, 23 May 2014

Essential X-Men volume 4

The original edition of Essential X-Men volume 4 consists of Uncanny X-Men #162 to #179 and Annual #6. Later editions have transferred Annual #6 to volume 3 and added both annual #7 (which I'll look at with volume 5) and Marvel Graphic Novel #5 entitled "God Loves, Man Kills". The writing is all by Chris Claremont. The art on the regular issues sees the end of Dave Cockrum's second run, then a run by Paul Smith followed by the start of a run by John Romita Jr. Annual #6 is drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz. The graphic novel is drawn by Brent Anderson.

The high octane excitement continues in this volume, with adventures ranging from an outer space battle with the Brood to smaller scale, more personal adventures such as Rogue's quest to join the X-Men to control her powers that are making her lie impossible. There aren't too many additions to the ever growing extended cast of allies and foes - the most significant are Madelyne Prior, Lockheed the alien dragon and the Morlocks, who include the likes of Callisto, Leech, Plague, Masque, Sunder and Healer. But rather than quantity the series focuses on quality, with each of the new arrivals making an impact in their own way. At the same time there's quite a lot of development of the existing characters.

At one extreme is Cyclops, who is establishing roots in multiple directions. Having already discovered that Corsair is his father, he now discovers his grandparents and in the process meets a surprising woman. Madelyne Pryor is a cargo pilot for his grandparents' company in Alaska - and the spitting image of Jean Grey. More amazingly she was the sole survivor of a plane crash at the very moment that Jean died. At this stage it's never cleared up whether Madelyne is somehow Jean reincarnated or if this just an amazing coincidence, but she and Scott rapidly fall for each other. Within just seven issues of meeting they get married and Scott both leaves the X-Men and declines his father's invitation to go off into space on adventures with the Starjammers. Instead he seemingly retires, flying off with Madelyne to enjoy a happily ever after.

Meanwhile Storm undergoes developments of her own, including temporarily bonding with a young Acanti, a giant fish that flies through space. Subsequently Storm seems to be losing her refinement of her powers and then she decides to change her look, adopting a very 1980s leather costume and mohawk, to Kitty's horror. Kitty herself is continuing to grow and acting on her feelings for Colossus. At times she is highly suggestive to him, a rather disturbing point considering she is only fourteen years old and fortunately Colossus goes no further than kissing. However Kitty gains an affectionate companion of a different kind when she encounters a small alien dragon on another planet; subsequently the dragon comes to Earth and is dubbed "Lockheed", regularly staying by her side and deploying his laser power to help her.

But the biggest developments come with Carol Danvers and Rogue. Carol has been hanging around with the X-Men ever since Rogue stole her powers, but now the Brood subject her to accelerated evolution and hybrid nature results in her gaining the powers of a star as the being Binary. It's a major step forward but not long afterwards she departs for space and so there's little opportunity for further development as she continues to grow her emotions once more. However before she goes she briefly confronts Rogue once more when the latter turns up at the mansion seeking help. Rogue is now portrayed as much younger than in her earlier appearances and very much has the feel of a young, vulnerable woman trying to come to terms with herself and to evade being used by others. This leads to an early fight with Mystique and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, but Rogue makes clear what her free will is. She also has a rapid baptism of fire when she and Wolverine are the only available X-Men to evade the effects of poison in Japan and Rogue puts her life on the line to save Wolverine, who in turn lends her his healing power. Later on she again risks her own life to help save Colossus and the other X-Men come to accept her. Meanwhile Professor Xavier undergoes a major transformation when his body is destroyed by the Brood but his mind is transferred into a cloned one with fully functioning legs. Although his mind and powers take time to adjust, it seems he will now be able to play a much more active role in future adventures.

This volume comes from the period when the series began to spawn a number of spin-offs. The most obvious ongoing one was the New Mutants, founded whilst the X-Men were away in space, but in general the two teams manage to stay out of the way of each other's adventures apart from a brief fight when the X-Men return from space and discover strangers in the mansion. Beyond that and an issue where Kitty is briefly set to be transferred to the New Mutants until she demonstrates how far she's already come (with the New Mutants themselves noticeably absent), plus the occasional mention and cameo, the New Mutants are almost as distant from these issues as the Defenders. More noticeable was the rise of the limited series, with both Wolverine and Magik (Illyana - Colossus's sister) receiving one. Neither is included here but both are referenced. In particular the Wolverine limited series is followed up on in issues #172-173 which feel almost as though they should have been part of the limited series (and are sometimes collected with it) but it ran out of space. Given the practice in more recent volumes - Essential Defenders volume 7 springs most readily to mind - I wonder if the limited series would have been included had this volume come out in more recent years. (Although there have been some modifications to the contents of the Essential X-Men volumes for new editions, there may not have been enough space to crowbar in a whole extra four issues as well as the graphic novel.) Consequently Wolverine doesn't get as much good material as usual, but both his desperate solo flight from the Brood and his wedding where his bride jilts him, having been convinced he is not worthy, both give him depth on either side of the series. The Magik limited series is rather less noticeable by its absence and seems to cover her missing years in Limbo that are alluded to here.

There are other signs of wider developments at Marvel impacting on the series here. Issue #167 contains one of the oddest scenes in the whole volume as Lilandra learns of events in Fantastic Four where Reed Richards saved Galactus's life and immediately transmits a warning that he will be prosecuted for the subsequent destruction of any known inhabited planet. This isn't remotely relevant to current events in Uncanny X-Men, and hardly a pressing matter for Lilandra who is at this stage a deposed monarch in exile and, as she admits herself, in no position to be rushing around issuing warnings in the name of intergalactic war. It just feels like a gratuitous snipe by Chris Claremont at his former collaborator John Byrne. I was surprised to see that this scene had originally seen print several months before Byrne's better known snipe in Fantastic Four when he declared an earlier Uncanny X-Men appearance by Doctor Doom to have been a slightly out of character Doombot that the real Doom casually disposed of. In the normal retellings of the feud and how it impacted on the comics themselves it's usually Byrne who gets depicted as the proactive antagonistic one, beginning with the Doombot incident, but here is a sign that it seems to have started even earlier and possibly with Claremont.

What is getting a little annoying are the constant references to Phoenix, especially as it's now a few years since her death. They come in multiple forms, especially with Madelyne's resemblance to Jean Grey, but the most blatant come when Storm sees what looks like the image of the Phoenix force in an explosion, and even more so when Mastermind manipulates Madelyne into impersonating a resurrected Phoenix. However the resolution proves crucial as Cyclops saves Madelyne and fully comes to accept Jean is gone, saying a final goodbye at her grave before going on to marry Madelyne. Hopefully this will bode well for future volumes. But just as one irritation seems to be on the way out another is looming with the continued teases about just what Nightcrawler's connection to Mystique is. It was first raised back at the end of volume 2 but is now becoming a never ending subplot with a seemingly obvious solution that she is in fact his real mother. It's one thing to have something never explicitly stated, but the way this is played it feels more like eternally unfinished business.

Included at the end of the original edition of this volume is annual #6, but it feels extremely inconsequential to the series, and its initial absence from volume 3 (and catch-up placement here) has not been noticeable in the slightest. The story sees the return of Dracula and his final showdown with Rachel van Helsing, with Dracula's daughter Lilith thrown in for good measure. It may be resolving leftover matters from the Tomb of Dracula and also following up on Dracula's earlier appearance in X-Men, but the X-Men themselves feel rather out of place in a rather confused storyline focused on vengeance and possession. Still as an annual it's easy to overlook this awkward tale and move onwards.

Also potentially easy to overlook is an addition to recent editions, Marvel Graphic Novel #5, entitled "God Loves, Man Kills". Released at about the same time as issue #167, it shows signs of having been created much earlier, not least because Kitty is here using the codename "Ariel" that she in fact rejected in the regular series, and also wearing a different costume from the norm. The story focuses heavily on anti-mutant prejudice as a zealous preacher declares them unholy and launches a crusade to purify the human race, using Professor Xavier's powers. In the struggle the X-Men find themselves allying with Magneto despite their differences. The world depicted in this tale is much darker than the comics, with the preacher's "Purifiers" seemingly unstoppable as they go about their mission. It's a world of dark alleys, of gangs who try to rape Kitty as payment for protecting her, where people get shot and bleed, where two little children are chased to a playground and murdered, and where a well-connected charismatic speaker can easily sway the crowds. It's one of the better examples of what the graphic novel format can do, presenting a deeper story free of the shackles of the Comics Code Authority, but also keeping it sufficiently standalone that it was not necessary for contemporary readers to pay out almost ten times the price of a regular issue, or for readers then and now to have to track down a harder to find format.

Regardless of the rotating nature of the annuals and graphic novel across different editions of this volume, the regular issues remain strong and solid, showing both diversity of new creation and a willingness to build on existing successful elements. The team's line-up is kept reasonably intact with only Cyclops retiring and Rogue coming on board, allowing for the character development that can only really happen when there's a stable cast. Although some individual elements may irritate they don't detract from the overall thrust of the series that keeps moving forward, offering exciting adventures but also always making the reader care about each and every one of the characters. Nor is there much requirement to obtain additional comics just to know what’s going on, with the spin-off New Mutants title wisely concentrating on a separate line-up of characters, though Wolverine's limited series could have been better explained, especially as it's followed up on but not included here. But overall this volume maintains the series's strong momentum that has been running since the revival, a astonishing achievement after so many years.

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