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.

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