Friday, 30 May 2014

Essential X-Men volume 5

Essential X-Men volume 5 initially contained X-Men #180 to #198 and Annuals #7 & #8. Later editions have transferred Annual #7 to volume 4 and added the mini-series X-Men and Alpha Flight. Everything is written by Chris Claremont with the art mainly by John Romita Jr and a couple of fill-in issues drawn & co-plotted by Barry Windsor-Smith. Annual #7 is drawn by Michael Golden and Bret Blevins and #8 by Steve Leialoha. The mini-series is drawn by Paul Smith.

Unfortunately this volume represents the start of a period where the series begins to rather complicated and confusing, with a mixture of long running subplots and the curse of crossovers and tie-in titles. But this series alone can't be solely blamed for a worrying trend that began at Marvel in the mid 1980s whereby it becomes increasingly hard to follow an individual series without having to pick up multiple additional titles. The first obvious sign is when most of the X-Men are taken away to fight in Secret Wars and come back with new costumes that generally don't last very long and accompanied by a female dragon who grows in size. And the X-Men's account of their experience with the dragon on the alien world isn't exactly what gets shown in Secret Wars itself; a sign of the problem in creating a gap in the narrative and only filling it in afterwards. Meanwhile Kitty comes to grief whilst investigating the Massachusetts Academy but this storyline is told in the pages of the New Mutants and subsequent issues see various New Mutants appear without the greatest of introductions; it's not even clear if Rachel's arrival is partially told in that series. Later on a two part tale ties in with the battle against the Dire Wraiths but if you're not familiar with the premise from the pages of Rom then it's not too clear what's going on. At around the same time two of the team members are briefly absent from the main series because they're co-starring in the mini-series Kitty Pryde and Wolverine, which isn't included here. Then there's a crossover with Power Pack, although the X-Men only appear in the issue from their own series and it's structured as such that it can be read without the Power Pack ones. Towards the end of the volume comes the first crossover with Secret Wars II and Magneto is suddenly hanging around with the X-Men. And to top it all off there are references to adventures in issues to come of Marvel Fanfare. Amidst all this the references to the graphic novel Dazzler: The Movie are easy to follow without that book itself. For what it's worth Panini's pocketbook reprints of this era, which are currently only up to issue #194, have included several of the New Mutants issues, so both Kitty's mission and some of the characters are more familiar when they pass through the Uncanny X-Men issues, but none of the others.

The Power Pack and Secret Wars II crossovers are adjacent to each other and show two extreme approaches to how to handle the concept. Issue #195 could almost be an issue of Power Pack with the X-Men guest starring, and indeed none of the title team actually appears before the tenth page. A non-completist reprint series could quite easily leave this issue out without it being too noticeable. By contrast issue #196 just sees the Beyonder, in his earliest days on Earth, wandering through the events of the issue and observing, with few noticing his presence and none of the events are driven by his presence.

Also somewhat surplus to requirements are issues #190-191, which feature what is ultimately a brief alternate universe until the reset switch is hit. A decade later this approach would consume the entire franchise across twice as many months, but here we get a two part sequel to an old issue of Marvel Team-Up as Kulan Gath returns and transforms Manhattan into a Hyborian Age city. There are guest appearances by the New Mutants, the Avengers, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, but at times it's less than clear just who the primary stars are. The climax sees many familiar characters killed off in the final battle but then Doctor Strange and Illyana combine their magic to undo the whole thing, rendering it non-consequential and not even the few characters who retain their memories mention it again in the volume. This story would probably have been better placed as a mini-series or one-shot that could have been more broad ranged in its cast. Here it feels like another intruder on the general flow of events, even if in the reset timeline Gath's transformation is stopped by the arrival of new X-Men foe Nimrod.

The other major side-shows are the two annuals. Annual #7 is a particularly oddball issue but the final page reveals all - it came out during Assistant Editor's Month, when the regular editors were away at a convention, leaving the assistants in charge. In the regular title the month was marked solely by a one page story in place of the letters page, and this wasn't included in Essential X-Men volume 4 so it was easy to mix. However the annual more than makes up for it, putting the X-Men through a bizarre adventure as the Impossible Man goes rampaging through the Marvel universe, stealing a bizarre collection of items for a scavenger hunt and the X-Men seek to stop him, with the chase even going through the Marvel Bullpen. It's a pity that the cover doesn't explicitly warn the readers that it's part of the event, but it falls perfectly into the spirit of it. The Impossible Man is one of those creatures that it's very easy to get wrong, but when done in the right context the result can be good tongue in cheek fun. Unfortunately Annual #8 is one of the worst issues in the whole series. It's a science fiction fairy tale told by Illyana to the X-Men and New Mutants around a campfire, with Lockheed and Kitty in starring roles. Presumably Kitty's earlier fairy tale had proved popular at the time and so led to this follow-up, but the story is weak, inconsequential and has ridiculously cartoony art. It just hits all the wrong buttons and simply doesn't work.

 A much more serious side comes in the regular issues. Although there have been signs of it in individual stories in recent volumes, it's here that the theme of anti-mutant hatred becomes ever more prevalent, starting with the introduction in Congress of a Mutant Affairs Control Bill. Fear and hostility are widespread throughout the story, with bigots everywhere, ranging from the students who try to kill Professor X to the government agents commissioning and deploying weapons designed to strip a mutant of their powers. It's an ever more hostile world where casual fear and racism is rampant, to the point that even mugging victims are scared to be saved by the X-Men. The shadow of the dark world seen in Days of Future Past returns with the arrival in the present day of Rachel Summers and later Nimrod. Rachel may have landed in an alternate timeline from her own, but that doesn't make the danger any less real. Nor does it negate her memories of just what she did in her past.

We soon see the horror of Rachel's past through flashbacks to her days as a "hound", drugged and manipulated by the authorities who used her to track down other mutants. It's a chilling idea but fortunately it's established fairly quickly. By contrast there's an increasing presence of characters with mysterious backgrounds - not only do we have Wolverine but Rogue's past is coming through in dribs and drabs with the complication of Carol Danvers's memories confusing her and those around her. And then there's Nimrod, a robotic mutant hunter from the future that carves out a reputation in the present day as a popular vigilante.

Some characters go through journeys, with Professor X suffering a major assault by bigots, including some of the students on the university course he now teaches, and struggling to regain full control of his telepathic powers. Meanwhile Magneto's path to redemption continues as Xavier brings him in to help the X-Men, leading to the amazing but understated moment when a bullet is sent the way of a murderous bigot and it's only the master of magnetism who prevents it reaching its target. Storm goes through her own hell when in trying to save Rogue she's hit by a blast that strips her of her powers. As she recovers she falls for her rescuer Forge, a mutant Native American inventor, only to discover that he created the weapon. Subsequently she drifts through the world, slowly coming to terms with how everything has changed - even basics as adapting to the temperature around her are new. However her non-mutant skills are shown to the fore and she eventually returns to Kenya where she discovers her purpose in life in bridging the divide between cultures, in a quite philosophical issue that rounds out the volume. Storm's absence creates a vacuum of leadership, with Professor X's attempts at more fieldwork falling away and Nightcrawler finding himself a worried leader also facing religious conflict as he struggles to reconcile the existence of the Beyonder with his faith. In his temporary absence it's Kitty who comes to the fore as the best strategist. Her relationship with Colossus ends when she discovers he found another whilst away on the Beyonder's planet, and other X-Men such as Wolverine and Nightcrawler feel that Peter has been a jerk (another slight discontinuity with Wolverine's conclusions in Secret Wars itself that Colossus's feelings for the healer Zsaji were a by-product of how her alien power worked). Eventually he and Kitty settle as just friends.

The conflicts themselves are getting a bit repetitive with multiple encounters with the Juggernaut, even if the second involves Nimrod, the Hellfire Club and the Morlocks, even if some individual characters are being added such as Selene. There's also yet another return of Arcade, again in seeming conflict with Doctor Doom. There are some foes brought in from other series, such as the Dire Wraiths from Rom, Magus, the father of Warlock in the New Mutants (nothing to do with Adam Warlock or the Magus) or the Hellions from the New Mutants, including the revenge seeking younger brother of the original Thunderbird. That team now also include the first appearance in comics of Firestar, with her appearance ending in a sign that she's on the road to becoming a fully fledged hero.

The most recent editions of this volume have added the mini-series X-Men and Alpha Flight. Consisting of two giant sized issues they tell the story of "The Gift" as Loki seeks favour with Asgardian deities by giving humanity an amazing fountain that can grant them powers and transform them into perfect beings, offering the prospect of creating a utopia on Earth and ending all the problems. But it comes at a price as magical beings are slowly killed by it whilst the transformed humans are denied imagination. The X-Men and Alpha Flight jointly investigate the area and discover the stark choice of whether to accept such a solution or whether to retain what it is to be human; a question that divides the teams amongst themselves. Eventually they reject the gift but it's a painful outcome. This is doubly so for Rachel who would give anything to prevent the dark future she comes from, yet at the same time she discovers her own future is ever less likely to come to pass as her mother is already dead and her father's wife is pregnant but with a boy, not the only child she is. The story sees her first encounter with Cyclops, but it's ambiguous as to whether he's guessed that he is her father. The story is suitably epic for this kind of mini-series but without too much familiarity with the current status quo of Alpha Flight it can at times be confusing to follow some of their own troubles and dilemmas. Still it's good to see the story has at last been included here.

But overall this volume represents a series that is getting too complex for its own good and spawning too much of a franchise. It's a little hard to fault X-Men for the reproduction problems that have reported prevented any Essential New Mutants volumes, or the volumes for not carrying numerous limited series and crossovers that only have a partial bearing on the series. But for the contemporary reader it was necessary to purchase an ever increasing number of additional comics to stay abreast of everything, whilst at the same time continuity was getting over burdensome, with repetition and subplots dragging on forever. This volume represents the series taking a decisive turn for the worse.

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