Friday, 28 August 2015

Essential X-Factor volume 5

Essential X-Factor volume 5 contains issues #60 to #70 & Annual #6 plus the crossover issues Uncanny X-Men #270 to #272, #280 & material from Annual #15, and New Mutants #95 to #97 & material from annual #7. The regular X-Factor issues see the end of Louise Simonson's run then subsequent issues see Jim Lee & Whilce Portacio plotting and Chris Claremont scripting then Fabian Nicieza and Peter David finish off the run and write the annual stories between them. The Uncanny X-Men issues are written by Chris Claremont and Fabian Nicieza with the latter handling the annual whilst the New Mutants regular issues are written by Louise Simonson and the annual by Fabian Nicieza. The regular X-Factor issues are drawn by Jon Bogdanove and Whilce Portacio with the final by Kirk Jarvinen and the annual by Terry Shoemaker, Steven Butler and Guang Yap. The Uncanny X-Men issues are drawn by Jim Lee and Andy Kubert with the annual by Jerry DeCaire. The New Mutants issues are drawn by Rob Liefeld and Guang Yap with the annual by Kirk Jarvinen. Due to so many creators, most of the labels are in a separate post.

This volume is almost drowning in crossovers, containing material from not one, not two but three of them. It kicks off "X-Tinction Agenda", a nine-part story also told in Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants. Then the annual is part of "Kings of Pain", a crossover between the three mutant titles and also New Warriors though their annual is not represented here, with a second storyline entitled "The Killing Stroke" running across the three mutant annuals only. Finally, the end of the volume encompasses the latter half of "The Muir Island Saga" which also runs in Uncanny X-Men and contains some major developments for both titles. It's lucky that not all of the latter two crossovers have been included here as it probably made the difference between getting up to issue #70 and not, but it reflects on an unfortunate situation whereby it became increasingly hard to follow an individual series without "having" to buy lots of extra issues in order to be able to read a whole story.

And the stories they got were simply not that great. "X-Tinction Agenda" is an overlong, excessively rambling storyline that X-Factor is clearly the least essential element in spite of the villain being Cameron Hodge. It's also poorly paced, most notably when a key character is killed off in a rush at the end of the issue, and it's the first of several signs in the volume that artists rather than writers have secured control of the general plot and direction of the various series but are exercising that control rather poorly, with the result that many issues are confused and dominated by action to the detriment of the overall storytelling. As for the content, it revolves around the African island nation of Genosha that was initially devised as an allegory of apartheid South Africa but in the year that Nelson Mandela was released we get a rather more violent overthrowal of the state and its apparatus than in reality. The plot hinges on the state's practice of enslaving, brainwashing and genetically altering mutants into "mutates" to serve as slaves for the country. A mixed group from the X-Men and the New Mutants are kidnapped by the Genoshan Magistrates and taken to the island where some are converted, with the remaining team members calling in X-Factor for help to rescue them. The story is grim and brutal, though some of the resolutions are rather simplistic in their effects, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that the story would have worked better as a six parter without including X-Factor since none of the current team go through any significant changes and there isn't really anything that comes out of Hodge's involvement in the storyline that hasn't been covered before. More so than any previous crossover, "X-Tinction Agenda" marks the point at which the mutant title crossovers ceased to be either major moments in the lives of all the titles involved or else wider events that individual titles brushed past and instead became regular events telling tightly connected stories in which titles participated simply because they were part of a declared "family" of books. The mutant books weren't alone in pioneering and developing such crossovers but as one of the best-selling set of titles at the best selling comic company they were amongst the most noticeable - and profitable - and so bear a great deal of responsibility for the development of such a mechanical process that interrupted and sucked the life out of so many titles. And when it comes to the collected editions this crossover takes up almost half the entire volume so it's not something that can be simply shrugged off as just a few issues amidst a much bigger whole.

The annuals show an alternative way to do crossovers. The "Kings of Pain" storyline ran in the lead stories of the annuals for X-Factor and also New Mutants, New Warriors and Uncanny X-Men but only the X-Factor chapter is included here, (this isn't the only way to collect it though - both Essential X-Men volume 11 and New Warriors Classic volume 2 contain all four chapters) as this is the point at which the team get involved in the main storyline. X-Factor arrive in Scotland to find that Proteus has returned, fused with an energy absorbing mutant and is now converting Edinburgh into a strange computer mathematics environment of structure and order. Together with the New Mutants, New Warriors and the "Muir Islander" X-Men, X-Factor have to find a way to persuade Proteus to stop, one way or the other, whilst from afar both Aim and the Toad & Gideon - the self-proclaimed "Kings of Pain" - have been manipulating events. It's a so-so annual story but with only the X-Factor portion included here it doesn't take up too much space needlessly. Also included are a few other stories from the New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men annuals. A three-parter, with the concluding chapter in the X-Factor annual, entitled "The Killing Stroke" sees the rump of Freedom Force - the Blob, Pyro, Avalanche, the Crimson Commando and Super Sabre - on a mission in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation, with orders to either extract a German scientist or prevent the Iraqis finding him. However it goes badly wrong when they encounter "Desert Sword", a group of Middle-Eastern heroes including the Arabian Knight, Black Raazer and new characters Aminedi the Invisible One, Sirocco and the Veil, and Freedom Force is further depleted. Another back up in the X-Factor annual sees Mystique coming to terms with Destiny's death and taking a cruise to scatter her ashes. The oddest inclusion is a short story from the New Mutants annual in which former X-Terminators members Leech, Artie and Taki meet an eccentric old woman who resembles Leech's late adoptive mother, whilst a mob assembles outside. It's a nice character piece but it has no particular reason to be included here. All in all the annual material here is forgettable but there isn't too much space taken up with stories from non-X-Factor issues and so it's not as bad an offender as the "X-Tinction Agenda".

Over in the regular series there's a real sense of a protracted winding down with a variety of elements brought to the fore and wrapped up prior to a crossover covering the final two issues. Louise Simonson's final storyline in issues #63 & #64 was the very first X-Factor story I ever read when I was lent these issues back in 1991. Today it still holds up well as it focuses upon Iceman's girlfriend Opal when she's kidnapped by the Cyburai, cyborg warriors working for her natural grandfather, Lord Tatsu'o, and taken to Japan where she is expected to marry a warrior and provide an heir. Bobby heads off to rescue her with the help of Jean and Mariko. It's a good intense personal story, particularly the scenes involving the warrior Hiro, and it answers various questions about Opal, but it's not the most exciting storyline for the series's longest running writer to go out on. In a way that should have been the next storyline, a four parter that sees the return of Apocalypse as he seeks to reclaim Ship. The early issues also contain extracts from "the Apocalypse Manifesto", single page profiles of each team-member with in character comments by their greatest foe. The story shows its age in the names of Apocalypse's new henchmen, Foxbat, Tusk, Gauntlet, Psynapse, Hard-Drive and Barrage, collectively known as the Dark Riders, but it gives a good exit for Ship and also a team-up with the Inhumans in a showdown on the Moon. However it's let down by introducing a mystery woman called Askani who declares baby Nathan Christopher to be both "the Chosen" and kin, as part of attempts to save her timeline. The story ends with Nathan being infected with a techno virus and taken off to the future. Children have always been problematic in long-running comic series and Nathan has not really aged at all during the run of this series so it's a neat way to remove the problem but it also has the consequence of once more wrenching Scott away from another family member.

The final two issues form the penultimate chapter and epilogue to "The Muir Island Saga" which sees X-Factor and the various groupings of X-Men reunited in battle against the Shadow King, with Professor Xavier returning and reuniting with his original students for the first time since this series began. It's a strong reunion that has clear repercussions but it's also very clearly an X-Men story that X-Factor have wandered into midway through and explanations for those who haven't read the earlier parts are somewhat lacking. The story sees the original X-Men return to the team but the final issue of the volume and indeed of the original incarnation of the team just doesn't feel like an appropriate wrap up issue with too much emphasis on Xavier and Legion or Rogue and Mystique rather than on the actual X-Factor members. As a result X-Factor dissolves itself into the older team in a blink and you'll miss it moment and the final page of this book is more concerned about what to do with so many X-Men. This is a real letdown as X-Factor deserved a much stronger ending on its own merits. Instead it goes out with a whimper, playing second fiddle to another team which is what it's done for much of this volume.

This is frankly the worst of the five Essential X-Factor volumes, largely because the regular series is swamped by all the crossovers and the original is wound up rather suddenly without a proper final issue. There are some good moments when the series is allowed to do its own thing but otherwise this volume shows how crossovers and franchises were starting to take over regular series in the early 1990s and it wasn't for the best. Nor was the increased dominance by the artists, often putting more emphasis on individual images than the overall storytelling and the results here show poor pacing and rushed critical moments. It's a disappointing end to the original incarnation of a series that had managed to rise beyond its roots as an awkwardly forced reunion book and often offer something much more spectacular.

Essential X-Factor volume 5 - creator labels

Yet again we have a volume with a lot of creators so here's a separate post for some of the labels.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Omitted material: Wolverine '95

Left out of Essential Wolverine volume 5 is Wolverine '95, which was the awkwardly named annual from that year. It seems the numbering caught Marvel out rather than problems with rights. The main story is written by Larry Hama and drawn by J.H. Williams III and a back up is written by Christopher Golden and drawn by Ben Herrera.

If anyone knows for certain the reason why this was left out then please do speak up in the comments. There are no obvious licensed characters present in either story and in any case that should not have prevented publication of the other. One of the stories has more recently been printed in a Deadpool collection and the whole annual is available digitally so it certainly can be published. Story quality has never been a threshold for inclusion so it seems most likely this was a mistake. The legal information in the issue suggests that it was registered as a one-shot due to Marvel ditching the numbering of annuals around this time, and the issue came out the same month as the regular series #93 so the numbers may have confused someone. Hopefully future reprint runs will reinstate it.

As for the issue itself, the lead story is a team-up with Nightcrawler who has come back to the States in concern about Wolverine's degeneration. Meanwhile the N'Garai race that resemble the creature from Alien are once again trying to break through to invade Earth and Wolverine and Nightcrawler go through to battle them, with Logan's killing rage worrying Kurt. The back-up story sees various veterans of the Weapon X project being kidnapped and experimented on to try to find a cure for the Legacy Virus. Wolverine and Maverick team up to rescue Deadpool and hopefully find a cure.

All in all this annual is focused on action but comes with strong contemporary continuity. The lead story benefits from having the regular series writer on it and fits right into the saga of Wolverine's degeneration. The back-up is a little more broad as it ties into the wider plotline of the Legacy Virus that ran across the X-Men titles for several years but is making its first significant appearance in this series. This annual isn't the most significant but does feel very much a part of the contemporary series in a way a lot of annuals in this era don't.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

X-Men: Kitty Pryde and Wolverine

As part of an occasional look at material left out of the Essentials it's time to turn to this classic mini-series.

One of the less well reprinted X-Men mini-series is Kitty Pryde and Wolverine from 1984, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Al Milgrom. It's not often been seen again but did appear in the Marvel Premiere Classic line that mainly handles classic limited series and short storylines in a hardback format together with two alternate covers.

This series starts off incredibly slowly as Kitty, trying to pull herself together after breaking up with Colossus, discovers her father is involved in shady business with Japanese gangsters and follows them all to Tokyo by clumsily stowing away aboard an aeroplane. There she finds she is a fugitive in a strange land, lacking even friends or shelter and contemplating crime. The aim is clearly to establish her as a naive girl who has bitten off more than she can chew, but the pacing is awful. Worse still, her co-star appears only in one brief scene when Kitty tries calling the mansion but chickens out when he answers. The second issue is almost as slow, focusing upon Kitty's training and brainwashing as the mysterious Ogun turns her into an efficient ninjas, ready to kill even her dearest friends whilst Wolverine starts searching for her. Only in issue #3 do things start speeding up with the return of Yukio and a battle between Wolverine and the ninjified Kitty. The rest of the tale is one of training and prolonged conflict as Kitty rebuilds both herself and her life, facing down first the gangsters and then Ogun.

This is very much a tale of Kitty coming of age, as she comes to term with many of the certainties of her life evaporating and has herself almost literally deconstructed and recreated by Ogun in a memorable sequence as he uses first his katana to cut up her and clothes and then mentally regressed her to a baby before implanting ninja training as she regrows. Her regrowth under the guidance of Wolverine sees her recover not exactly her past self but still enough of her innocence and youth remains that she does not become as hard edged and brutal as Logan. This is also the tale in which she adopts the codename "Shadowcat", as well as an early version of what will become her best known costume. The business affairs of her father aren't given too much attention but by the end he and Kitty have reconciled as he accepts his mistakes made in good faith and turns himself in.

Whilst there's a strong emphasis on Kitty and her character development, her co-star isn't used so well. We get a revelation that Ogun is a key figure from Wolverine's past who he was once very close to, and although this characteristic hasn't yet been overused to the point of cliché, it is nevertheless a reminder of the problems of maintaining a major character with a mysterious past. If not handled well with a private history clearly mapped out then there's a real danger of such a past becoming a dumping ground for the needs of every individual story, leaving a sprawling mess of numerous closest friends and teachers and absolutely no overall coherence. As part of an effort to provide clear chronology to all Marvel titles, this series also sees Wolverine learn the news about his old friend Guardian of Alpha Flight but, unlike the out of season snow (due to events in Thor), it feels dropped into the tale for editorial purposes rather than a clear turning point in the character arc.

The setting of Japan may invite comparison with Wolverine's solo limited series but the only characters to return from there are Yukio and Mariko. Once again there's a look at how the notions of honour and duty are followed in that culture, but it's something of a sideshow to the main themes of growth, development and standing up the values and actions of one's parents, biological or otherwise. An attempt is made to build up Ogun as a great figure of legend, but the way the character is depicted and drawn just doesn't match up to such ideas. In general Al Milgrom's art just doesn't set things on fire as he struggles to match the style of Miller in a world largely defined by him.

Overall this limited series is rather disappointing. It's trying to contrast Kitty from Wolverine and develop her in the backdrop of his world without her losing her innocence and becoming completely like him, but the pacing is very poor and the themes feel awkwardly placed. Wolverine's past is a tricky thing to mine and the results are less than spectacular, making for a somewhat pedestrian affair that has the critical job of dragging Kitty forward from an innocent young girl to a worldly and ready young woman. Such a major development deserves a much stronger tale.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Essential Wolverine volume 5

Essential Wolverine volume 5 contains issues #91 to #110 plus "Wolverine '96" which was the unnumbered annual for 1996 and also the crossover issue Uncanny X-Men #332. Notably absent is "Wolverine '95", the annual for the previous year. The writing on the regular series is all by Larry Hama bar the final issue by Tom DeFalco. The stories in the annual are by Jeph Loeb, Ralph Macchio and Joe Kelly and the Uncanny X-Men issue is by Scott Lobdell. The regular series art is by a mix of Adam Kubert, Val Semeiks and Anthony Winn with other issues by Chris Alexander, Ramon Bernado and Joe Bennet whilst the annual is by Ed McGuinness and Tommy Lee Edwards and the Uncanny X-Men issue by Joe Madureira. With a lot of creators, inevitably there's a separate labels post.

The last volume ended with reality shattering as the universe was temporally altered but after a four month interruption and the "Age of Apocalypse" crossover the series and normal service resumed. The substitute title "Weapon X" is not included in this volume but its absence is not felt in the slightest (which, together with it not actually being part of the series, is why it won't be covered in an "Omitted material" post), showing how in consequential some giant crossovers can be. The one mega crossover that is represented here is "Onslaught", a massive crossover from the summer of 1996 that engulfed nearly every single title in the Marvel line and led to radical changes in some of the "Heroes" titles. Its impact on Wolverine's adventures was rather less and the two issues we get here are somewhat periphery to the main storyline. Issue #104 sees Wolverine and Elektra investigating the origin of Onslaught but it doesn't add anything to what had already been revealed. In #105 Wolverine decides that his powers and abilities are more use in the clean-up operation than the actual battle with the Sentinels and so works with fire fighters to save people from burning buildings. During one rescue mission he encounters the mysterious Stick, Elektra's mentor. A visit by the Human Torch at the end to round up heroes for the final battle is the main connection to the wider crossover but otherwise this series continues its practice of avoiding too much entanglement in wider events and instead concentrates on telling its own story.

The main theme of this volume is Wolverine's further degeneration as he discovers that his adamantium skeleton had actually disrupted his mutation and healing factor but now the metal bones are gone his body and mind and getting ever more feral, taking to living in the wilderness. The situation is even more accelerated midway through the volume when Genesis tries and fails to reintroduce adamantium to Wolverine's body with the result that his degeneration continues even further. Much of the focus is upon Wolverine's attempts to claw his way back and regain control but it's not the easiest task for someone who has always been fairly wild. His fellow X-Men try to help but it's not the easiest of tasks as the healing factor is also greatly accelerated.

The pattern for much of the volume sees Wolverine teamed up with various characters, old friends and new, as he struggles to suppress his feral nature in favour of his human side. There's an early encounter with Generation X, the latest incarnation of young mutants in training, which both provides the cover for the volume and allows another encounter with Jubilee who has been apart from Logan for some time now. Guardian and Vindicator, Wolverine's old friends from Alpha Flight, both monitor and try to reasons with him as he roams the city, but it's complicated by the mutant Dark Nap who absorbs victims and takes on their forms - until he tries to absorb Wolverine, accelerated healing power and all. The young X-Man Cannonball falls into the traditional sidekick role, making for some humour when he tries to tackle the Juggernaut whilst drunk and then again when a camping trip is attacked by a grizzly bear. Throughout much of this there's a meandering story involving the cross-dimensional agency Landau, Luckman and Lake that doesn't seem to really get anywhere except a battle in their offices with the mysterious Chimera. Otherwise the involvement of the agency's Zoe Culloden seems mainly to serve the purpose of getting Wolverine to various locations for his adventures.

Midway through the volume comes issue #100 in which Genesis, the time-travelling son of Cable, and his minions the Dark Riders seek to resurrect Apocalypse and make Wolverine the new Horseman Death, using adamantium from the killed Cyber in order to restore the skeleton. It's a dramatic story that sees Wolverine's feral nature inadvertently accelerated which will be a key factor in issues to come, but for all the talk from Culloden about Wolverine's destiny it just doesn't feel like a natural Wolverine story worthy of the anniversary issue and instead comes across as a more generic X-Men adventure as neither Genesis nor Apocalypse have been significant factors in the series outside this storyline. When originally released the issue had one of the fancy covers that were just still all the rage in this era; on this occasion being a special hologram on the cover that should have switched between an image of a costume Wolverine in pain to one of his skeleton depending upon which angle one viewed it from. However the hologram effects often didn't work well and the scan of the skeleton version of the cover is especially dark and difficult to follow. Fortunately there was also a non-hologram edition of the issue with the costumed cover and this is used to lead into the reprint here.

The issue is immediately followed up by a quick crossover with Uncanny X-Men as the ever more feral Wolverine encounters the ancient Egyptian Ozymandias who has carved visions of the future since being imprisoned by Apocalypse. This leads to a battle with the carvings, but there seems little reason why the story needed to be told over both titles unless it was to hurriedly get things out of the way in time to line things up for "Onslaught". The build-up continues as Wolverine encounters Elektra, who seeks to get him back onto his path as a warrior and retrain him. Together they learn the secret of Onslaught and then Elektra's mentor Stick pops up with his own lessons. Then in actions of joint cleansing they visit first Wolverine's old cabin in Alberta and then Elektra's family home in Greece, where unknown to her the last of her father's assassins has been captured by her family servants. There's also the revelation that Wolverine was a Canadian corporal who aided the gardener when he was in the Greek resistance during the Second World War, though as the gardener can't read he doesn't spot the names are the same. By this stage Wolverine's past is becoming less of an intriguing mystery and more of a patchwork of chaos with endless revelations that he was involved in one past action or another.

Some of the stories seek to tie up old threads with a return visit to Madripoor seeing the death of Prince Baran as well as encounters with Tiger Tyger and General Coy. The annual that is included here is more connected to the regular series than is standard for such fare, even though it does incorporate guest appearances. Set in Japan, the lead story sees a reconciliation with the Silver Samurai as he and Wolverine set out to rescue Sunfire who has been incarcerated after his powers got out of control. Meanwhile the mysterious Bastion has activated the Red Ronin robot, this time without a human operator. The annual has a back-up strip in which Amiko, Wolverine's adoptive daughter, runs away in search of a hero and a mythical place, only to find what she seeks is not what she has been dreaming off. It's a nice little character piece that also serves to reintroduce Amiko in advance of a key storyline in the main series.

The storyline sees Wolverine still in Japan as he battles a succession of agents of the Hand who kidnap Yukio and Amiko, hoping to brainwash the latter into turning against her adoptive father and it's not clear how far they've succeeded. This leads to a succession of battles with ninjas and cyber-ninjas that shows Wolverine is getting back to his normal self but there's none of the charm of Wolverine's past adventures in Japan and this instead feels like too many action sequences for the sake of it. The volume ends on a fill-in issue as Wolverine teams with Shaman, another ex-member of Alpha Flight, to track a grizzly bear possessed by a demon in the Canadian wilderness and also deal with two petty criminals on the run. It's a so-so piece but not a great issue to end a volume on, particularly given the previous issue ended on ambiguity about Amiko.

The issues in this run are reproduced with the original colour burnt in which can make the images very dark at times but it's usually clear just what is going on. What does impede readability is the continued use of double-paged spreads that have dialogue almost buried in the binding and the resort to sideways on artwork that requires the book to be rotated in order to be read at all. Fortunately the latter problem largely fades away as the volume progresses, suggesting that somebody realised people actually want to be able to read these stories easily, but the double-paged spreads continue to pop up throughout the run.

On effect of this is that the volume feels rather light with some issues being not much more than a protracted conversation and a battle to underscore the moral of the story. Also there's a lot of lengthy subplot building towards adventures that don't really pay off for the wait. The result is a volume that feels slight and over focused on inconsequential action even though it does seek to deconstruct and then rebuild Wolverine's character. It's an odd volume but not Wolverine at his best or most substantial.

Essential Wolverine volume 5 - creator labels

Yet again we have a volume with a lot of creators so here's a post for some of the labels.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Alpha Flight Classic volume 1

Continuing the occasional look at series that haven't been given an Essential volume, it's time to turn to Alpha Flight.

Alpha Flight Classic volume 1 reprints the first eight issues of the original series. All issues are both written and drawn by John Byrne.

Alpha Flight had previously appeared in the pages of X-Men as a team of Canadian superheroes sent to retrieve Wolverine for the government agency Department H, before being disbanded due to budget cuts. Up to this point they had largely been a plot device, though occasionally individual members appeared elsewhere but now comes a full series to flesh out and develop the team. The first issue adds a couple of extra members and establishes the former existence of "Beta Flight" and "Gamma Flight" which allows for a pool of further potential recruits. (Though it's lucky the programme stopped there - imagine having an emergency and calling for help only to have "Psi Flight" arrive. That'd be on a par with getting the Great Lakes Avengers or Justice League Antarctica.) But amazingly there's no point in this run when all eight team members go into action together. The nearest comes in the first issue as the original six tackle the beast Tundra with the aid of Marrina, a member of Beta Flight summoned due to misunderstanding the cards. However due to the military not believing him and supply transport, Puck doesn't make it to the party until after the battle. There's one further adventure that brings most of the team together when they go from a training session to investigating a strange alien ship that contains the Master of the World, but Snowbird is absent from the training due to duties in her other identity, Puck is incapacitated before the team even gets to the ship and Shaman stays behind to give him medical treatment. Beyond that the issues explore the individual members, making for a distinctive change from the normal approach of team books.

What's also unusual is to find a US based publisher printing a team of non-US based superheroes, though as John Byrne is himself Canadian there's a degree of authenticity to the series and it avoids the typical US stereotypes of Canada as a land of frozen forests populated by French speaking, beer drinking, ice hockey playing lumberjacks all going "Eh?" while dodging moose and beavers. Instead we get a portrayal of a sophisticated modern diverse country. And the team is drawn from across the whole of Canada with two members living in Ontario (Guardian and Puck), two from Quebec (Aurora and Northstar), one from British Colombia (Sasquatch), one from Alberta (Shaman), one from (as it was then called) Newfoundland (Marrina) and one from the Northwest Territories (Snowbird). A few provinces and territories have been left out for now but there are hints of more to come as shown in a subplot when Smart Alec, late of Gamma Flight, is recruited by Delphine Courtney in Manitoba.

That's not to say there aren't some questionable bits. Marrina's home on the coast of Newfoundland is described as "a closed, frequently inbred community... [where] freaks and sports are not uncommon". In fact it's unclear if "that tiny island" refers to a small offshore settlement or to the whole of Newfoundland. But whichever is the case it feels all too clearly like a stereotype of the province that matches British stereotypes of Norfolk. Shaman calls himself a "Sarcee" but I don't know if that term had been objected to at the time by the Tsuu T'ina people. However Puck does challenge head on casual terms like "midget", pointing out it's now "little people" and he is in fact a dwarf. I also find the references to the "Ministry of Defense" sticking out like a sore thumb as that's a British term not used by its Canadian counterpart and also the spelling is American not Canadian.

There's a strong emphasis on building up the characters, helped by both the solo stories and several issues carrying a back-up strip entitled "The Origins of Alpha Flight", showing the individual origins of Guardian, Shaman and Snowbird and the common ties that bind them, mainly Guardian's wife Heather. With the exception of Sasquatch all of the team get some individual attention in this volume but it's also clear that the series and team are still a work in progress. The team's leader adopts his third name, ditching "Vindicator" in favour of "Guardian", reportedly because of a line in the National Anthem but this is not made explicit on panel. His look may be that of a Canadian Captain America, literally wearing the flag but James MacDonald Hudson is shown as a complex and doubting figure who has found leadership thrust upon him rather than seeking it. Snowbird's origin and nature is a mystery slowly unravelled here and we see her troubles as she struggles to maintain a cover identity as a corporal on a military base when she's often absent. Shaman is the team's First Nations member, a man who initially rejected his family traditions in favour of a career in medicine but after the death of both his wife and grandfather he came to accept his heritage and learnt magic. Puck is a tough, feisty man who is the only character to say "Eh?" a lot but shows both a softer sensitive side and skill at detective work as he uncovers a drugs ring operating out of a hospital. Marrina is the focus of the first extended storyline as both she and we learn how she is an alien adapted to life on Earth; however she also appears to be the first team member to be dropped when she accepts an invitation to stay in Atlantis with Namor the Sub-Mariner to find out more about herself.

The most underexplored member at this stage is Sasquatch but that may just be because of where this volume stops at. Otherwise he clearly fills both the brute strength and scientist roles on the team whilst also having a relationship with Aurora. Or one half of her. Aurora is quickly established as having a split personality with the two halves almost unaware of each other. Her "Aurora" side is relaxed, liberated and free; her "Jeanne-Marie" side is a heavily restrained prim and proper teacher in a convent school. This is a cause of concern for her brother Northstar, who is the team's main jerk, at times putting his foot in it and being unrepentant about using his mutant powers to build his champion skiing career but also displaying a strong degree of loyalty to his sister. With hindsight it's surprising how blatant the hints about his sexuality are, especially in issue #7 as he dwells upon the death of Raymonde Belmonde who took Jean-Paul "scarcely more than a boy, alone and frightened. Frightened of what he thought he was, and what he feared he might become. And Raymonde had led him out of that dark fear, into the bright clear light of self-acceptance, teaching him not to fear his mutant powers, or any other thing." For 1983 this was probably as close to openly saying it as one could get.

Issue #6 was part of "Assistant Editors' Month" when most of the Marvel line got up to some wacky stuff. Here we get a famous five-page sequence as Snowbird battles the ancient demon Kolomaq in a blizzard, representing by blank panels and lettering. These must be the quickest drawn pages in Marvel history but rather than an original joke it feels like a shortcut. Although Snowbird's beast forms are primarily all white, her human form and costume incorporate other colours. Kolomaq is also not depicted as an all white being but instead his face, chest and arms are a distinct yellow. So the joke falls apart as the elements just don't add up. It's also unoriginal as the same joke had been done with more visually appropriate characters in What If? #34, which was broadly the forerunner of "Assistant Editors' Month". It's hard to resist charges of laziness. Elsewhere there are a lot of panels with no background drawn and instead the colourists has resorted to filling them with bright but different colours. The 1980s may have been a bright and multi-coloured era but the effect is distracting.

The villains encountered in these issues are a mix of the big scale and the small. As well as the drug dealing ring Puck deals with there's also Deadly Ernest, a Montreal based crime boss seeking to expand his empire with the help of a death touch. At the grander scale there are the wilderness beasts Tundra and Kolomaq, but it seems the big recurring foe will be the Master of the World, a caveman who encountered an alien spaceship that kept him alive for study but he adapted, eventually turned the tables and is now set on world conquest. Would-be world conquerors are by their nature invariably limited in their aims but the origin shows a good sign of originality.

This series is to be praised for doing things differently from the norm and for the willingness of John Byrne to develop a group who had been intended as a limited use plot device. The need to build up and establish the characters probably explains why there's so much emphasis on them rather than action and although this may not be to everyone's tastes it's a pleasant alternative from the norm. It's just a pity that the art at times slips into lazy shortcuts.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Essential X-Men volume 7

Essential X-Men volume 7 comprises Uncanny X-Men #214 to #228, Annuals #10 to #11 and the limited series Fantastic Four Vs the X-Men. Bonus material includes an article from Marvel Age about the "Fall of the Mutants" and a special promotional card for a competition linked to the crossover. Everything is written by Chris Claremont with the regular series drawn mostly by Marc Silvestri with individual issues by Barry Windsor-Smith, Alan Davis, Jackson Guice, Bret Blevins, Kerry Gammill and Rick Leonardi. The annuals are drawn by Arthur Adams and Alan Davis and the limited series by Jon Bogdanove.

This volume covers a somewhat odd period in the X-Men's history as they try to cope with the fallout from the "Mutant Massacre" and really stumble around more than anything else until the next big event, "Fall of the Mutants" (a pun that doesn't translate well). The lack of direction is extenuated by some vague questioning as to what the overall purpose of the team is, but it doesn't really get very far. Significantly, this is the first volume to be completely devoid of any of the original team, leaving the long-term continuity in the hands of Havok and, to a surprising but small degree, Magneto. But the Master of Magnetism makes rather fewer appearances in the regular issues than one would expect. Instead his main contribution comes in the limited series.

The "Vs" limited series was a curious phenomenon in the 1980s whereby characters from two titles would meet for a special story but one told in its own release rather than as a crossover between the two regular titles. It has the advantage of allowing a single writer and artist to handle the project (at least under normal circumstances) but it can also wind up dancing on the periphery of the regular series, trying to adapt to ongoing developments whilst also telling its own story. From the perspective of this volume Fantastic Four Vs the X-Men is fortunate in this regard as it is written by the regular Uncanny X-Men writer and comes at a time when not too much is happening in the main title. However it has to leap through some hoops in order to include She-Hulk amongst the Fantastic Four's line-up, a point commented on in-story. The series seeks to justify its place by resolving the worst of Shadowcat's injuries that have left her trapped in her intangible form and slowly dissipating, but does so amidst a struggle of mind games between Doctor Doom and Reed Richards. This limited series is actually quite a good Fantastic Four tale that delves into one of the biggest question marks surrounding the four's origin and looks at Reed Richards's approach to those around him and Doctor Doom's ultimate goal in their struggle. But amidst all this the X-Men are something of a bolt on to provide recurring conflict. Any group and problem could have served their purpose in the story and it wouldn't have made much difference. Even Shadowcat's recovery is not immediate and as she doesn't return to active duty with the team before the end of the volume it doesn't have much of an impact on the story. The one notable feature is the continuing rehabilitation of Magneto, with the Fantastic Four slowly coming to accept him, but in the battles which break out too easily his magnetic powers prove more dangerous than helpful when he accidentally nearly costs Kitty her last hope. Overall this is good Fantastic Four, and in the very long run a good audition piece for Claremont eventually taking up the main series in the late 1990s, but rather forgettable and inessential X-Men.

The two annuals both feel somewhat superfluous to the main narrative beyond the first one introducing Longshot, previously seen in his own limited series, to the regular series. But it does so in a very awkward way by giving him amnesia and then comes with some awkward continuity as the presence of Shadowcat, Nightcrawler and Colossus implies it takes place before the "Mutant Massacre" in the previous volume yet this doesn't explain why Longshot is then absent for several issues of the regular series and both his amnesia and ongoing culture shock goes against the idea that he has been exploring the world around him. Otherwise the annual sees the X-Men's first encounter with Mono and the wackiness of the "Mojoverse" but it's never been a very good fit with the more gritty style of the X-Men's adventures and just feels like silliness for the sake of it. Amidst this comes a piece of role reversal as the New Mutants temporarily step up to the role of being the senior team, complete with individualised costumes intended for when they graduate. Meanwhile the X-Men are reduced in age in one of the examples of babyfication that was all the rage following the Muppet Babies, becoming cute toddler versions of themselves. Were it not for Longshot and later appearances by Mojo, this annual could be so easily forgotten. The other annual is also trying to incorporate elements from other series into the mainstream Marvel universe with guest appearances by Captain Britain and his girlfriend Meggan, even though neither is essential for the story told. In it the X-Men and guests are captured by Horde, a never before seen alien, and taken to a strange citadel to secure a crystal of incredible power, in one of the most generic plots going. Whilst making their way through the citadel the group gets picked off one by one and offered their hearts' desires by the citadel itself. It's a minor character study that doesn't leave much of an impact beyond the scene where Wolverine is killed by Horde but his whole body regrows itself from a single drop of blood, aided by the power of the crystal. The whole group gets returned home to exactly when they left with memories fading, making the whole thing no more significant than an obscure dream.

Over in the regular issues the team continues to develop. Injuries meant that both Shadowcat and Nightcrawler are off the active roster and stay that way when big changes come though Colossus has returned to the team just in time. He's not quite the same Peter of old as his injuries have left his armoured form as the default norm with a great deal of effort required to turn to his human self. Also rejoining the team is Havok, who finds himself in the curious position of being the earliest member of the X-Men yet is treated by the others as an untested member. Returning to the team after Polaris is possessed by Malice and joins the Marauders, Havok finds himself in the horrific situation of having to either let her go to harm others or else stop her permanently - and winds up releasing a plasma blast though Malice/Polaris manages to block it and escape. Alex is somewhat taken aback by what the X-Men have become, particularly their alliance with Magneto, but doesn't really have the long-term history with the team that allows him to perform the role of keeper of the original aims. Nevertheless he stays around, particularly to help protect his sister-in-law Madelyne Pryor who has had her husband walk out on her, all records of her past erased and who is now being hunted by the Marauders. There are signs of an attraction between them but they're not developed just yet.

The other new addition to the team is also driven to them by the actions of Malice. Since the end of her own series Dazzler has been trying to rebuild her career, starting out as a backing artiste but both her own ambitions and the interference by Malice soon put paid to this. Alison soon accepts the protection of the X-Men and undergoes training to refine and enhance her light powers, putting especial emphasis on being able to use them as a laser, but there's an ongoing tension between her role as an X-Men and her ambitions to be a singing star, making for an especially tense confrontation with one fan, none other than the Juggernaut. Also causing tensions is the presence of her old enemy Rogue, with Alison making it clear she hasn't forgiven the past enmity until another battle with the Marauders where she risks her all to save Rogue from drowning. At this stage Dazzler is still the only member of the team to have had her own series and as well as her past battles with Rogue the series is also echoed by the return of O.Z. and Cerberus in a tale about a mutant drug dealer.

The old ways also come up in another fashion when Storm is kidnapped by the Crimson Commando, Stonewall and Super Sabre, a trio of old heroes fighting against the values of the modern world. They take Storm and another girl and release them to be hunted in the wilderness. Later on they're captured and agree to join Freedom Force, which continues to skate the line between a government sanctioned team of mutants and a group with its own agenda. The hunt also puts both Storm and Wolverine to the test as the former faces up to the fact she may well need to adopt her comrade's ethics of kill or be killed whilst the latter struggles to retain his humanity as he faces confusion all around him. The threat level is also raised by the introduction of the Marauders' master, Mr Sinister, but for now he remains a dark force on the edge of things.

A lengthy storyline sees Storm searching for Forge in the hope that he can restore her powers, helped by Forge's shaman mentor Naze. In the process she also finds it in herself to forgive him but also discovers the presence of a demon known as "the Adversary". Meanwhile Destiny of Freedom Force has a vision of the X-Men all dying in the near future. The storylines merge and climax in the "Fall of the Mutants" issues, #225 to #227. This was an unusual crossover between the three mutant titles as they shared a theme of big status quo changing events, rather than a single storyline running across them all. The X-Men find themselves first battling Freedom Force and then facing the end of the world due to the magic of the Adversary and the past mistakes of Forge. In full view of a camera broadcasting to the world, the X-Men set out to risk their all to build a better world. It's a dark moment for them but a great one for mutantkind, setting up a new position for the future. However we don't get to see that in this volume as the last issue has all the feel of a standby fill-in being pressed into service, hastily turned into a flashback.

Overall this volume isn't a particularly great period for the X-Men. It's a time of stumbling more than anything else, with no great sense of purpose or direction. The newer members of the team help to keep the cast fresh but rarely bring any particularly exciting story elements with them. Overall this volume shows the team going from one big event to the next with not too much of note happening in between.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Wolverine By Chris Claremont and Frank Miller

As part of an occasional look at material left out of the Essentials it's time to turn to this classic mini-series.

Wolverine By Chris Claremont and Frank Miller is the full title of a Panini pocket book that has on the cover and spine just "Wolverine". It contains the four issue limited series from 1982 plus the follow-up in Uncanny X-Men #172 & #173. (The series has had lots of other releases over the years as well, both in the original English but also in quite a number of other languages. Be warned that not all collected editions include the Uncanny X-Men issues.) As a bonus it also contains Wolverine's first full appearance from Incredible Hulk #181. The mini-series is by, amazingly, Chris Claremont and Frank Miller with Claremont also writing the Uncanny X-Men issues which are drawn by Paul Smith. The Incredible Hulk issue is written by Len Wein and drawn by Herb Trimpe.

This was one of the very first limited series from Marvel and may have been the first to be commissioned for the format. It's a curious tale for its era as although Chris Claremont scripts the story it feels as though Frank Miller is the main creative force as we get a lot of his recurrent themes from ninjas to a deconstruction of the lead character against a dark, edgy world. It also begins the practice of taking Wolverine away from his normal environment and starting a long run of adventures with him set in the Far East. However there is an opening sequence set in his original stomping ground of Canada as he tracks down a raging bear that has been wounded by a stalker/hunter who made the mistake of assuming a poisoned point was enough to kill. In a nice piece of foreshadowing it is a mistake made more than once in this series.

The story of the limited series is very brief, focusing on Wolverine's attempt to regain the hand of Mariko Yashida and conflicting with her father Shingen, head of the clan and a crime lord. Defeated in battle with Shingen and scaring Mariko, it becomes a matter of honour for Wolverine to win a rematch and show that he is not a savage animal. Along the way he encounters the ninja woman Yukio who is drawn to him. The Uncanny X-Men issues have the rest of the team arriving in Japan for a wedding but there are further conflicts around the Yashida clan leading to Wolverine and Rogue alone having to take down the Silver Samurai, the Viper and Hydra. The ending comes with a shocking twist due to a surprise intervention.

The real focus is on the characters and the world around them. This series first came out in 1982, just as the US was embarking upon a craze for all things ninja (although in the UK it would run into the slightly awkward problem that the word "ninja" and a number of weapons were deemed inappropriate for younger audiences) and discovering more and more about Japanese culture which had hitherto been little known or understood in the west. One result is a high degree of exposition for concepts that were not so familiar back then. Wolverine is a fierce fighter normally able to hold his own against Shingen, Yukio, the Samurai and various ninjas he comes up against, though at times only his claws and healing ability save him. It's also increasingly clear as the series progresses that Yukio and not Mariko is the right woman for Wolverine. Midway through the story it seems Mariko is set to stay with her abusive arranged husband and Wolverine is enjoying time with Yukio, but his heart is clearly elsewhere. We're still not given much in the way of Wolverine's background beyond the odd reference, including a comment that he can only trace his family as far back as his father, but we do get the start of Wolverine stories including an important longstanding friend of Wolverine who has never been seen before and won't be seen again, here introduced by local spy Asano Kimura.

The art is strong and suitably dark but the story can be a little confusing at times with various revelations and switches of allegiance but it ultimately boils down to the traditional tale of the hero setting out to prove his worthiness and rescue the damsel in distress. It's exciting but not the most tremendous Wolverine tale ever told. Still it does a lot to add to his character and show his complexities. The Uncanny X-Men issues form a sequel that deal with the outcome of the limited series and it's useful to have a resolution to the final page (plus they bring up the page count). For Wolverine the main interest is in his first teaming with Rogue as she seeks to prove herself and overcome his hostility. The issues work for him but for other characters they're part of a longer running saga and some of the ongoing subplots and themes can be confusing in isolation.

As a bonus we also get the first full appearance of Wolverine as he enters a fight between the Hulk and the Wendigo in the Canadian wilderness before it became a cliché. Here he's just a plucky little fighter who first manipulates the Hulk into subduing the Wendigo but then ultimately loses the one on one fight. Based on this issue alone it's surprising that he went on to great fame as here he feels like just another one-off character thrown in the Hulk's path.

Both the Uncanny X-Men and Incredible Hulk issues are available elsewhere (in Essential X-Men volume 4 and Essential Hulk volume 5 respectively) so the main interest in this little book is the limited series. It's okay but not the all conquering story of legend. Still it's good to see it available in such an easy to access format.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Essential X-Factor volume 4

Essential X-Factor volume 4 contains issues #51 to #59 & Annuals #4 to #5 plus the one-shot X-Factor: Prisoner of Love, Marvel Fanfare #50 which printed an issue prepared as a standby fill-in and the lead stories from Fantastic Four annual #23, New Mutants annual #6 and Uncanny X-Men annual #14 which, together with X-Factor annual #5, make up the "Days of Future Present" crossover. Bonus material includes Cyclops's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The regular X-Factor issues are written by Louise Simonson, bar one by Peter David, and drawn by Terry Shoemaker, Steven Carr, Andy Kubert and Jon Bogdanove. The X-Factor annuals both contain multiple stories written variously by Louise Simonson, John Byrne, Ralph Macchio, Mark Gruenwald, Peter Sanderson and Peter David, and drawn by John Byrne, Jim Fern, Mark Bagley, John Bogdanove and Dave Ross. X-Factor: Prisoner of Love is written by Jim Starlin and drawn by Jackson Guice. The Marvel Fanfare issue is written by (Mary) Jo Duffy and drawn by Joe Staton with an "Editori-Al" introduction written and drawn by Al Milgrom. The Fantastic Four annual is written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Jackson Guice, the New Mutants annual is written by Louise Simonson and drawn by Terry Shoemaker & Chris Wozniak, and the Uncanny X-Men annual is written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Arthur Adams. Inevitably, there is a separate labels post.

The list above gives some indication of how this volume doesn't actually advance the main series very much - with just nine issues from the regular title this has almost the shortest stretch of any single Essential volume. The main culprits for this state of affairs are the annuals, with each forming part of a wider crossover but the two take very different approaches. Annual #4 is from the "Atlantis Attacks" crossover which filled up no less than fourteen annuals in 1989 and tells the tale of an incredibly complicated plot involving Serpent Crowns, multiple undersea kingdoms attacking each other, a great serpent deity being resurrected, superpowered women being offered as incubators and turning the human race into serpent men. It's all rather convoluted and the X-Factor annual is rather blessed to be at the periphery of much of this, focusing upon the kidnapping of Marvel Girl whilst the Beast is reunited with his old Defenders comrade Andromeda in conflict with her father Attuma, current ruler of Atlantis but, as he discovers here, not actually the main villain in the storyline despite the title. The forgettable nature of the chapter is such that despite promises we never get to see Jean being dragged away into the sky in the regular series with Hank grabbing onto her leg. The Atlantis Attacks annuals also contained a multi-part back-up story entitled "The Saga of the Serpent Crown" which retold the whole history of the central object. Normally these chapters are excluded from Essential reprints but it's included here, briefly retelling an old Namor the Sub-Mariner adventure as he battled with an emperor of Lemuria possessed by the crown. On its own it just adds to the general confusion that these annuals create when the whole storyline isn't present. Of more interest are two other back-up strips though one seems to have landed in the annual by accident as Magneto and Doctor Doom encounter one another and recount their pasts, seemingly for the purpose of setting out just how different the two are. The other is a somewhat comedic piece entitled "Inferno Aftermath" as two FBI agents drawn to resemble the Blues Brothers and even named Jake and Elwood explore the aftermath of the events and try to find out what happened, with X-Factor winding up supplying the cover story. It's a nice little piece that addresses how the general public seems to shrug off such events but it's also a reminder of how stretched out things have been thanks to annuals, crossovers and off-world storylines all affecting the pacing as the build-up to "Inferno" began back in volume 2.

The following year saw a shift in policy to running multiple shorter crossovers in related annuals, with the three mutant titles and Fantastic Four all tied together for the "Days of Future Present" storyline, a sequel to the well-known X-Men storyline "Days of Future Past". This storyline proved a mess at the time with the X-Factor annual numbered "Part Two" and the New Mutants annual "Part Three", and they were released in that order, but the contents were inverted such that the New Mutants annual comes first. This volume places the annuals in narrative order but the cover numbering continues to confuse. The story itself involves another time traveller from the dark future of the Sentinels, an adult Franklin Richards. Franklin wanders through the locations of his childhood memories from the alternate timeline, at times reshaping them to match his childhood happiness. Meanwhile the present is attacked by new villain Ahab, the master of the mutant hunting "Hounds" from that dark future. Elsewhere Rachel Summers is drawn into the action, encountering Franklin whom she thought had died in her own time and also having her first meeting with Jean Grey, the woman she recognises as her mother. With four different team books involved there are a heck of a lot of characters running around without the greatest of introductions and the story is primarily focused on Franklin and Rachel, with their parents getting only a partial connection. A major point left completely unaddressed is just who Rachel's mother actually is - when she was introduced her mother was unambiguously the Jean Grey with the powers of Phoenix in the alternate timeline but since then Jean and Phoenix in the regular timeline have been retconned into separate entities and it's thus unclear which is actually Rachel's mother. Jean now having both Phoenix and Madelyne's memories inside her does not help with the confusion. Overall this isn't the greatest crossover for X-Factor with such a key first meeting bungled and swamped by everything going on around it. The only back-up feature in the annual is a character piece focusing upon Jean as she visits Phoenix's grave and tries to reconcile her multiple identities, with the help of an elderly survivor of the Holocaust. It's a good little character moment that serves to cut through much of the quagmire on this.

Also focusing on characterisation is the prestige one-shot X-Factor: Prisoner of Love, since there's frankly not much else going on in it. This over-expensive special sees the Beast go to rescue a pretty young woman called Synthia Naip and end up in her apartment where he has weird dreams and finds out she is an alien and needs protecting from the mysterious "Dark One" who has killed the rest of her race. It's slow, dull, over expensive and the art suffers from both an obsession with drawing pretty women and such bizarre renditions of Hank that at times I had to check just who he was meant to be. The whole thing is rather random and dull, feeling like it was just churned out to get Starlin and Guice's name on the cover. It's definitely something that could have been left aside.

More worthy of inclusion is Marvel Fanfare #50 which contains, according to Al Milgrom's special intro, an issue prepared as a fill-in for the regular series but used here instead. It's been structure to be easy to adjust for use at any point with the main section taking place in flashback when the Angel was assumed dead and a former female acquaintance hires Arcade to kill Iceman and the Beast as punishment for X-Factor's anti-mutant campaign. Her motivations are more personal when it turns out she has a son with angel wings - and claims Warren is the father. In the present day Warren tells the truth about the woman and the boy. As a fill-in that could potentially be called up at any point in the title's run it has to be flexible but it turns into Hank and Bobby asking Warren about something that's been on their minds for quite a while since his return. Still it holds its own and deserves to at last have been included with the regular series.

Warren is also the main focus of the regular series issues which see X-Factor return to Earth and deal with a succession of external and internal problems, starting with Warren finding himself getting ever more out of control and lashing out at all around him at random and making for especially vicious fights with first Sabretooth and then Caliban as the former X-Factor member turned Apocalypse's horseman finally comes into conflict with his former teammates. Then Warren and the others face the vampiric Ravens, including Crimson, Coral and Azure, who infect him with a poison that drives him mad and into different personas at night and day, with his night self becoming an especially vicious vigilante, before the Ravens seek to transform him permanently into one of them. It's not all darkness as he steadily befriends police officer Charlotte Jones and by the end of the volume things are steadily growing between them.

Meanwhile Scott and Jean have their dinner interrupted by an attack by giant roaches led by the old X-Men foe the Locust, but it's not enough to prevent Scott going on to propose to Jean, a proposal she declines as she is still struggling with the multiple memories inside her from Phoenix and Madelyne. Bobby also finds a degree of happiness as he befriends a young woman called Opal Tanaka, but first has to deal with the misunderstanding Mole who seeks to protect her. Hank's relationship with Trish Tilby is on the rocks due to her reporting of a number of incidents that show mutants in an unfortunate life and the tensions just keep on growing. Old flame Vera Trantor turns up when she's manipulated by Mesmero on the commission of Infectia as part of a bigger plan.

These nine regular issues cover a curious period in the title's history when the team are publicly known popular heroes but instead of showing the overall effects of this we get instead a concentration on the individual characters and little indication as to how their status is helping the cause of mutants in general. The story of Archangel's steady rehumanisation is the main focus but at times it feels as if that's the only thing of significance going on with the ongoing Scott and Jean plotlines rather fizzling out whilst the other stories all feel a bit inconsequential.

Overall this volume feels a mess because there's relatively little meat to the regular issues and so much additional material that doesn't really add much to the ongoing series. Annuals and crossovers can both slow things down and here we have both at the same time, taking up such a significant chunk of the series. This is a volume very much treading water.

Essential X-Factor volume 4 - creator labels

Once again, we have a volume with a large number of creators so here is a separate post for some of the labels.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

New Mutants Classic volume 1

Continuing the occasional look at series that haven't been given an Essential volume, it's time to turn to the New Mutants.

New Mutants Classic volume 1 contains the team's first appearance in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, New Mutants #1 to #7 and Uncanny X-Men #167. Everything is written by Chris Claremont. The Graphic Novel and early regular issues are drawn by Bob McLeod who is succeeded by Sal Buscema. The X-Men issue is drawn by Paul Smith.

One of the long running mysteries of the Essentials has been why New Mutants was never collected in the format. At first sight it seems to be because series from the early 1980s onwards are instead collected in the Classic format. Indeed only three Essential series cover titles that began their original run after New Mutants. But two of these are X-family books (X-Factor and Wolverine) so New Mutants became the exception to the exception. A reason often seen doing the rounds claims that Bill Sienkiewicz's art on the title has proved unreadable in black and white when tests were done (or, in a variant, the remastering techniques used by the Essentials wouldn't work) but insiders have rejected this claim. (Sienkiewicz's work doesn't appear in this volume as he didn't start on the title until issue #18.) Whatever the reason, the main collected editions for the series are the Classics that have so far notched up seven volumes.

The series was conceived in response to multiple influences. One was the demand for a second title to build on the success of X-Men. It's fortunate that a second title focusing on the same cast was not picked at this stage (a sign of restraint that was absent in later generations) but this pushed the request into spin-off territory with various proposals kicking around including one that was basically a cross between the later series West Coast Avengers and X-Factor. The prospect of "X-Men West" did not appeal to Chris Claremont and so he assembled an alternative proposal. Around the same time there were strong editorial demands to focus ever more upon the school aspect of the X-Men, showing youngsters learning how to use their powers and dealing with the pressures of growing in a changing world, perhaps due to the popularity of Kitty Pryde. New Mutants met all these demands, evoking some of the earliest days of the X-Men as once more a team of five young mutants studied at the mansion under the guidance of Professor X. Of course the early days of the X-Men are not particularly highly regarded, with few holding them up as either a great era for the team or one of the best of the Lee-Kirby collaborations. New Mutants also notably channelled elements of the more successful All-New All-Different era, right down to the make up of the class and the opening sequence of their initial giant-size debut.

Most of the entries in the Marvel Graphic Novel series are stand alone affairs, with a good number featuring characters without their own series, and so any regular reader who either couldn't spare the money or find a copy at the time would not have missed out on a key part of a story. But #4 is different, being effectively an expanded double-size first issue and so readers of the regular series would have to seek it out. This may explain why there are scans of three different versions of the covers in circulation with one including a flash proclaiming a reduced price. And the title page used here has been taken from a fifth printing; a sign that the story remained in demand. The story itself is a straightforward affair as a succession of young mutants find their powers manifesting, generating hostility in the process. Despite initial reservations, Professor X is persuaded to once more assemble a class of young mutants to teach them to control their powers, though this time he doesn't intend to send them out to risk their lives. This third genesis follows a similar pattern to Giant-Size X-Men #1 by introducing an international team of mutants starting with each being showcased individually and then the group has a baptism of fire in dealing with a rather forgettable villain, here in the shape of Donald Pierce of the Hellfire Club.

The team is at this stage confined to five characters with none having any significant pre-use beyond Karma debuting in an issue of Marvel Team-Up. A refugee from Vietnam with the ability to take temporary control of others, Xi'an (pronounced "Shan" and often lettered this way) Coy Manh comes with a criminal uncle and backstory of horrors from the war. As the eldest she becomes the group's first field leader though it's not Xavier's intention for them to go into action. I do find her habit of dropping the odd phrase in French a little irritating though, especially when she then repeats it in English.

Wolfsbane is my favourite character at this stage. Hailing from the United Kingdom, Rahne Sinclair was raised in an isolated strict Scottish Presbyterian environment and often finds her puritanical upbringing clashing with discovering the wider world and her classmates' enjoyment of it, making for a conflicted individual discovering herself. She can change into a wolf and sometimes finds she prefers this form. Her third, mid-transformation mode is less visually effective although it allows her to combine her animal abilities and human dexterity.

Sunspot is the hot head of the team in more ways than one, being able to absorb solar energy to gain super strength. Coming from a rich Brazilian family Roberto da Costa sees early tragedy when his girlfriend dies to save him from Pierce's mercenaries. With a father involved in shady business activity and a mother spending all her time on archaeological digs. A return to Brazil at the end of the volume suggests there are darker things to come in his family.

Psyche is the oddly named Dani Moonstar, a Native American with the ability to project images of people's thoughts. This effect doesn't work very well in colour because of the practice of rendering the images as monochrome outlines yet characters react as though they're real. Otherwise Moonstar is the team's headstrong and independent member, modifying the standard issue uniform to retain the belts and boots of her tribal dress.

The final recruit to the class is Cannonball, the all-American lad. Coming from Kentucky where his father's early death made him abandon his dreams and become a miner, Samuel Guthrie can project himself at rapid speeds and stay invulnerable whilst moving. Initially recruited by Pierce, he turns and accepts Xavier's offer.

The cast is rounded out by the use of Stevie Hunter and Moira MacTaggart, both lifted from the main X-Men title. The team may tick some boxes with character traits but offers a diverse set of experiences and backgrounds that offer potential. There's bickering and tension, especially as they try to control their powers, but also growing friendships to the point they will willing put their lives on the line for one another.

Despite Xavier's wish to avoid sending any more youngsters to risk their lives the team face a variety of threats including an attack by a new class of Sentinels, sent by government arsehole Henry Peter Gyrich and then an attack by a Brood growing inside Professor X. This leads to a crossover with the X-Men and an obligatory fight based on a misunderstanding. More smaller scale stories include Stevie being stalked by one of her dancing pupils who has both a crush on his teacher and abusive parents. Then they face Hydra, including the Viper and Silver Samurai, and AIM before coming under attack from the Hellfire Club again, this time under the direction of Sebastian Shaw.

There are no lasting original foes created here and the earliest issues show a little too much dependency upon the Brood storyline running in parallel in the contemporary Uncanny X-Men. There's also an appearance by Team America, a bunch of uninteresting motorcyclists who had just had a short-lived title, and this just adds to the crowding. And the first regular issue reveals that Xavier has a son but this isn't followed up within this volume. When the series is able to advance its own ideas it's working quite well but when it gets sucked into supporting other series and characters it loses its way. At such an early stage it needed to devote its space to developing its own niche better.

As spin-offs go, this is a good way of taking some of the concepts from a title and applying them to a new set of characters who can potentially stand on their own two feet. The characters offer potential and there are some ideas. It's a pity that some of this potential is squandered by detouring into the affairs of the X-Men or the totally needless appearance of Team America. The best is clearly yet to come.
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