Friday, 20 February 2015

Essential X-Men volume 6

Essential X-Men volume 6 comprises Uncanny X-Men #199 to #213 and Annual #9 plus New Mutants #46 and Special Edition #1, X-Factor #9 to #11, Thor #373 to #374 and Power Pack #27. Chris Claremont writes all the X-Men and New Mutants issues, Louise Simonson the X-Factor and Power Pack issues and Walter Simonson the Thor issues. The art on the regular X-Men issues is mainly by John Romita Jr with individual issues by Rick Leonardi, June Brigman, Barry Windsor-Smith, Bret Blevins and Alan Davis with the annual by Arthur Adams. The New Mutants regular edition is drawn by Jackson Guice and the Special Edition by Arthur Adams. The X-Factor issues are drawn by Terry Shoemaker and Walter Simonson, the Power Pack issue by Jon Bogdanove and the Thor issues by Sal Buscema. And yes, there's a separate labels post.

This volume contains material from three different crossovers and they represent almost the full spectrum of types. There's what is basically a crossover between annuals that amounts to just a couple of specials telling a combined story. There's a big event crossover based around a limited series with other titles just dipping in to the story for a short period. And there's a storyline told over several ongoing titles.

The annual is the second half of a crossover with the New Mutants Special Edition. This was originally planned as an annual but turned out to be so long it was instead put out in the deluxe format of the day. This avoided the problems of graphic novels as it wasn't too much more expensive than a regular annual, would be easier to find in later years and also reproduces well in black and white. Unfortunately, this extension now means that the second issue in the volume features a team of characters who are largely unfamiliar to the regular X-Men series and the story takes an age to wade through. Worse still it's placed after a dramatic issue ending as Magneto agrees to go to trial and even though the length of time it takes to set up a trial makes this the natural place for the story (and the trial issue shows the return to Earth) it still feels like an obstacle in the path of the story rather than a crucial step forward. The tale sees Loki allied with the Enchantress to seek revenge on Storm and the X-Men but instead Storm is currently with the holidaying New Mutants and so all are transported to Asgard. The Special Edition naturally focuses on the New Mutants in this different environment but whatever its merits as a New Mutants tale here it's just an extended character study of unfamiliar characters. The X-Men annual brings our regular cast into the story but for the most part they're just exploring Asgard and rescuing the New Mutants from the changes Loki and the Enchantress have brought. Storm is also transformed and given both a hammer and weather powers to take the place of the absent Thor as the new goddess of thunder. It's an intriguing idea but it isn't explored as fully as it could be, with Ororo one of many characters distorted by the magic around them. Other good points include the prospect of the New Mutants staying in Asgard where they are accepted rather than returning to a world that fears and hates them. But ultimately this doesn't really feel like an X-Men story but an intruder from another series. Beyond seeing Rachel publicly adopt the name "Phoenix", to Cyclops's displeasure, this is an entirely forgettable crossover in the way of the main narrative. The art is, however, highly effective, helped by having Arthur Adams draw both parts. There are even some fun pop culture references including Warlock's disguises as the Starship Enterprise and Hägar the Horrible.

Issues #202 & #203 are crossovers with the later stages of Secret Wars II. Crossover issues for this event can be mixed, ranging from the Beyonder merely passing through the events of a regular issue to an incoherent mess as he gets needlessly involved in ongoing storylines to something spectacular when the encounter is used to explore the regular characters in-depth in such unusual circumstances. Here we get a two-part story focused upon Rachel as she sets out to destroy the Beyonder who instead enhances her power and manipulates her into attempting to destroy the whole universe. The parallels with Jean's descent into all-powerful madness are all too clear, especially when Rachel nearly uses the M'Kraan crystal as her main instrument of destruction. Eventually she relents, realising she cannot sacrifice so many lives who are unaware of their situation. It's a strong character study of Rachel and a chance to bring redemption to the legacy of Phoenix at a time when other titles were resurrecting Jean Grey and decoupling her from the power. This is one of the best of the Secret Wars II crossovers.

The "Mutant Massacre" was the first big crossover between various mutant titles and various satellites; the latter consisting of those also written by various mutant writers. It's surprising to find the whole thing collected here (bar a rather detached Daredevil issue) as the X-Men and X-Factor are kept apart throughout this volume and Essential X-Factor volume 1, which was released the same year, only the X-Factor side of the crossover is included. We also get an early example of the mess that can come when crossovers try to show the same even from different angles as a scene where Magneto and X-Factor spot each other outside the Hellfire Club has noticeably different dialogue in each series. The event itself is rather unsatisfying as a group of killers called the Marauders make their way into the Morlocks' tunnels under New York City and start killing the mutant residents. No clear reason is given for the action at this stage and the Marauders are mainly a set of previously unseen mutants, including Arclight, Blockbuster, Harpoon, Malice, Prism, Riptide, Scalphunter and Scrambler. They do, however, also include Vertigo and Sabretooth. The actual victims of the attack are surprisingly less than the story implies, largely amounting to just one established character, Annalee, and a whole bunch of background extras and one-offs created just to be killed off here. All the other established Morlocks are shown escaping, though some may now end up in one new home or another. As an event it's rather tame in the broader impact on the world. But as a character piece this is a desperate time. Few of the heroes who go into the tunnels emerge unscathed and by the story's end Nightcrawler, Colossus and Shadowcat are all incapacitated in one way or another whilst Storm undergoes a crisis of confidence. And the story introduces the conflict between Wolverine and his best-known foe, Sabretooth.

The Wolverine/Sabretooth conflict has become such a core part of both characters that it's extraordinary to realise that both had been around for about a decade before they were first shown fighting together. It seems the problem was that Sabretooth was deemed an Iron Fist villain and thus unavailable to Chris Claremont after he left that character's series, but with Power Man and Iron Fist having come to an end only a few months earlier it was now possible to transfer Sabretooth over to X-Men. The series doesn't waste time in throwing the two foes against each other twice in as many issues and dropping hints about a longstanding enmity between them. Neither character's full history has been detailed, leaving many mysteries to be addressed another time, but it seems we have a conflict between a hero and a distorted reflection of himself. Given the little we do know about Wolverine's past we have perhaps the conflict between a tamed savage and an untamed one, showing the very different route Wolverine could have taken.

Another Wolverine conflict appearing in the X-Men titles for the first time here is that with Lady Deathstrike, previously seen in Alpha Flight and, in her pre-cyborg form of Yuriko, in Daredevil and other titles. However despite Yuriko's body being transformed by Spiral as, presumably, part of her ongoing plans, the issue (#205) feels like an emergency filler, as does its immediate predecessor where Nightcrawler rescues a young woman from Arcade's complex only to discover she's unknowingly the heir to a European throne. She's written out so quickly it's as though plans were made and rapidly ditched.

The issues in this run are from the era when the X-Men titles grew into a clear franchise with the launch of a third title, X-Factor, as well as continuing to feed elements between X-Men and New Mutants. Both throw up a few problems within this volume. Although the New Mutants are usually introduced when they appear it can at times be confusing to know what's going on over in their title that feeds into this one. In particular Magneto seems to spend most of his time as the school's new headmaster over there rather than here, reducing the impact of his now working with his old foes. More problematically Betsy Braddock seems to just appear in the mansion from nowhere and has presumably been imported from the UK Captain Britain stories via the New Mutants. The "Mutant Massacre" sees her demonstrating her telepathic abilities and courage to the point where the very last page in the book shows her being welcomed to the team under the name Psylocke, but it would have been less jarring if there had been some explanation as to where she's come from and what she's doing in the mansion.

The biggest impact in the long term comes from the launch of X-Factor. Issue #201 represents X-Men's contribution to the heavy lifting required to set up that series as Cyclops is written out abruptly. At the same time he has to face now being a father himself but also the loss of his main father figure as Professor X is stuck in deep space with Lilandra and the Starjammers. He feels his family pulling in direction but the team in another, a situation made worse by his apparent lack of interest in keeping in contact with Madelyne whilst he was in Paris for Magneto's trial. Finally Storm forces the issue by challenging Cyclops to a duel for the leadership and surprisingly wins. This proves the impetus for his departure but the whole thing feels forced, trying to simultaneously extract Scott from both the team and his family and support his characterisation in the new series. It makes the newly born baby boy (so far unnamed) suddenly feel surplus to requirements along with Madelyne. The whole thing all feels very sudden and forced, as later interviews have confirmed that X-Factor was created by editorial dictat. Also complicating this series is the publicity campaign in the early issues of X-Factor that inadvertently ramps up anti-mutant tensions.

The other main loose end with Scott concerns Rachel as it's never established if he's deduced that she is his daughter from an alternate timeline. Also, in light of the retcon that set-up X-Factor, it's never made clear just who her mother actually was - the real Jean or the Phoenix entity that impersonated her? Rachel is succumbing to doubts, fears and revenge leading her to go on a rampage that nearly has her killing the villain Selene until Wolverine intervenes and stabs Rachel. It's a shocking moment but seemingly the only way to prevent the Phoenix menace taking off once more. Rachel survives but is alienated from the X-Men and succumbs to the lures of Spiral.

The dark world that Rachel comes from seems to be getting ever closer in many different ways. Early on we see other mutants starting to work for the government as mutant hunters when Mystique negotiates for the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to become the government sanctioned agency Freedom Force, complete with provisional pardons for all its members. Meanwhile Magneto's alliance with the X-Men takes some big steps forward as he surrenders himself for trial before an international court and then after the trial is derailed by terrorist attacks he accepts Xavier's request to take his place as headmaster as Xavier goes off into space to be healed from his recent injuries. It's a bold step forward though as noted above Magneto is featured less in the volume than one might expect though he is shown mulling over an offer of a rank within the Hellfire Club as an alliance between the Club and the X-Men; however this doesn't seem to go anywhere here. Nevertheless it's a sign of how the X-Men's world is twisting into an ever-darker environment in which the "baddies" are now either on the "good" side or the side of authority - and the two are not always the same. Meanwhile Professor X, hitherto the guiding light of the team, finds himself accidentally lost in space when the Starjammers' ship is unable to return to Earth.

This is actually quite a bleak run for the series, breaking down traditional assumptions and instead presenting a dark world where sides are now far more blurred and death is ever closer. The reformation of Magneto is seemingly complete and his replacing Xavier is a dramatic step but one that has been carefully built up to. Less well handled are some issues in the middle of the run with the rapid writing out of Cyclops and the starting then stopping of the story of Nightcrawler's new friend. The two big crossovers covered here provide some strong character moments for the series but overall the "Mutant Massacre" is based on a rather thin premise that makes it less than stellar. Also underwhelming for its length is the annual Asgard crossover due to the excessive time devoted to the unfamiliar to here New Mutants at a critical stage in the book. Overall the result is a somewhat mixed run.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...