Friday, 4 September 2015

Essential X-Men volume 8

Essential X-Men volume 8 consists of Uncanny X-Men #229 to #243 & Annual #12 plus X-Factor #36 to #39. Bonus material includes adverts for "Inferno" plus the cover of the trade paperback which combines elements from the covers of issues #240 & #242. All the Uncanny X-Men issues, including the annual, are written by Chris Claremont and all the X-Factor issues by Louise Simonson. The Uncanny X-Men issues are drawn by Marc Silvestri and Rick Leonardi with the annual by Arthur Adams and the X-Factor issues by Walter Simonson.

This is an unusual volume in that everything in it was released in a single calendar year, 1988 (though due to cover dates being four months ahead and the newstands being slower than the direct market there are listings out there that place "Inferno" in 1989). This year saw the series go twice monthly in the early summer months, participate in an crossover even larger than any that had come before and also saw the annual take part in the first ever line-wide annual crossover. That's a lot in a short time (and a large assault on reader's wallets - the start of the year also saw the price rise by 25% for not just this book but all of the mutant titles and for that matter four other series that also took part in "Inferno") so it comes as a surprise that this is also an era that set out a very distinct status quo for the team, setting them apart from much of the wider Marvel universe.

That status quo is established at the outset of the volume. Following the X-Men's seeming death at the end of the previous volume they wind in up in an abandoned town in the Australian outback where they battle the Reavers and defeat them. Then they take over the town and the advanced systems beneath it. The mysterious Roma casts a spell that will make them invisible to any electronic scanning device bar their own, whilst the mysterious Aboriginal mutant dubbed Gateway will teleport them to places all over the world. And so the scene is set for the outback era of the series in which the team operate as secretly as possible, seeking to uphold and implement Xavier's dream.

This is quite a bold change from before, with several clear effects. The membership of the team is absolutely consistent throughout the entirety of the volume, comprising Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Rogue, Psylocke, Dazzler, Longshot and Havok. The supporting cast of Madelyne Pryor and Gateway are consistent too at least until the final storyline in the volume. As a result, there's clear character development that isn't messed around or interrupted by membership turnover. However, the set-up does come with some potential loopholes. Though it's not acknowledged here, this volume coincides with the period when Wolverine received his own solo series and it's none too clear how he's simultaneously hiding in Australia invisible to all electronic sensors whilst also operating out of Madripoor. There are a lot of times when the X-Men's involvement has to be hidden and Psylocke resorts to using her powers to alter memories with little regard for the ethics of such actions. And Gateway feels all too convenient a plot device, somehow always knowing when his powers are needed despite never saying a word. On the other hand the electronic invisibility is handled well and sometimes it proves a disadvantage, such as when Rogue and Wolverine try to infiltrate a prison on Genosha in disguise but find their absence from the monitor screens gives them away. Being dead to the world means they cannot contact their families and this leads to Colossus having to pretend he is merely his own spirit conjured up to help his sister Illyana when he goes to see if she is okay and finds her in battle with the witch Baba Yaga in the realm of Limbo. It's a heart wrenching moment to see how cut off the siblings are. By contrast Madelyne has been deserted by her husband and continues to search for her son discretely.

The stories range from a light-hearted Christmas issue (originally on sale in, erm, February) through to the darkness of the Genosha storyline, followed by the "Inferno" crossover. In general the world the X-Men inhabit feels ever darker than before and they find themselves reacting accordingly, finding themselves becoming ever more ruthless and increasingly willing to kill opponents. There's another storyline with the Brood who have possessed a group of mutants in Denver and this story sees the darkness increasing as both Wolverine and Havok find themselves having to kill the aliens.

Some lighter moments come in the annual, which is part of "The Evolutionary War" crossover. Here the X-Men and the High Evolutionary tangle with the alien Terminus in the wasteland that was once the Savage Land and meet with the remains of the tribespeople. It's a so-so story that undoes the needless destruction of the Savage Land, though this didn't take place in Uncanny X-Men at all, but it's utterly unclear just how this ties in with the Evolutionary's masterplan and this frankly could have been a standalone annual with a guest star for all the difference that it makes. A back-up story is more fun as it sees Mojo seek to find television stars to replace the X-Men now that they're presumed dead. After lengthy auditions that parody the practice of finding suspiciously similar characters and gimmick variations, he finally discovers the X-Babies, very young versions of the team but independent characters rather than simply the originals in a de-aged format. And then audience demand overtakes his plans and hopes. Whilst the idea of junior clones of the X-Men should be a disaster waiting to happen, this story actually holds up quite well and offers a fun take on the concept. It would be completely wrong to have them take over the regular series but they have clear potential for side projects here and there.

The first main epic is a four-part tale that introduces the island nation of Genosha, a society built upon mutant slave labour and the use of genetic engineering to convert mutants and alter their powers so they become near zombie slaves who will serve the needs of the state and the economy. The state employs brutal security forces who go out into the wider world and crack down on Genoshans who have escaped the island, refusing to recognise any other legal rights. It's easy to see the parallels with South Africa, then still under apartheid, even though Genosha proclaims itself to be a country of racial harmony. The Magistrates who go out and kidnap emigrants are clearly inspired by the South African security services of the era. On a more mundane level some of the technology is fantastic such the Magistrates sending their kidnap victims to Genosha via a combination of a teleporter and modem. I wonder just how many science fiction and fantasy writers in the period actually understood the capacity of contemporary modems. The X-Men are drawn in when Madelyne is kidnapped alongside a flying doctor who had escaped from Genosha but is now recaptured. They engage in detective work to discover the distinction and head in on a rescue mission. The story has a strong human element as the son of the genetic engineer discovers that his fiancé, the doctor, is actually a mutant and has been converted by his father. This forces the son to go on a journey of discovery to find out just what his country is really like and then to embark upon a mission to educate his fellow humans, albeit initially from abroad whilst the X-Men only rescue their own and leave, albeit after Wolverine and Rogue have temporarily had their powers cancelled by the mutant Wipeout. This causes Wolverine to nearly succumb to his altered body chemistry whilst on the mental level Rogue must confront the traces of all the personas she has absorbed into her. But with the X-Men only rescuing and not actively seeking regime change the overall message of the story seems to be that a discriminatory regime will only be liberated from within when the "superior" people are enlightened, and there's not much the outside world can do about this. It's a very downbeat and depressing state of affairs that suggests oppressive countries should be left to eventually sort themselves out, even if this was not the actual intention.

The biggest story in the volume is "Inferno" which is steadily built up to in the earlier issues as we see S'ym preparing to retake Limbo whilst Madelyne experiences dreams that convince her ever more that for her husband she was only ever a substitute for Jean Grey and was rapidly cast aside when she was found to be alive. In what she thinks are still her dreams she accepts the temptation of S'ym and chooses to seek vengeance on all those who have made her life what it is. At the same time she and Havok have been drawn to each other and begin an affair in spite of him being her brother in law. But it's here that confusion starts to be sewn when S'ym's role is largely taken over by another demon, N'Astirh, who secretly communicates with Madelyne over subsequent issues. It's not particularly clear in the issues included in this volume just what the relationship between S'ym and N'Astirh actually is, though as the alternative would presumably involve including the three New Mutants issues of Inferno (one of which is double-sized) and the four-part limited series X-Terminators then this was probably an inevitable omission in the collection.

"Inferno" itself is a sprawling saga that sees the long-awaited first meeting of the X-Men and X-Factor. It's trying to cram a lot in and the result is that the actual demon invasion of New York is largely rendered a backdrop in the core issues included here apart from the final confrontation with N'Astirh. The dark magic does, however, bring changes to the various X-Men that extenuate their characters in different directions such as extenuating Dazzler's vanity whilst others become more bloodthirsty in their dealings with both the demons and the Marauders. But the real focus is upon Madelyne Pryor who has become twisted into the "Goblin Queen", seeking revenge on Cyclops, Marvel Girl, the X-Men and Mr Sinister all at once. The story sets out to explain both Madelyne's background and the wider manipulations by Mr Sinister over the years, and then to sort out some of the awkward mess caused by the resurrection of Jean Grey and the creation of X-Factor. Overall it does it well but it succumbs to the mess of a newish villain - this is in fact Mr Sinister's first significant storyline - being revealed as the force behind events and confusion going back many years before their debut. The story is also a homage to the Dark Phoenix Saga as once again a copy of Jean Grey acquires great power and is corrupted beyond redemption. But it feels as though it's more of an X-Factor saga than an X-Men one. Yes they may be the original X-Men and the saga doubles as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the X-Men and the 150th issue of the New X-Men (#243 to be precise), but issue #242 is in fact the first time the original team have all appeared in the title since way back in issue #66. The two teams are very different in their standing and approach and so whatever the merits of the crossover for the mutant books as a whole, it does feel a bit underwhelming for the X-Men specifically.

That's pretty much the pattern for this volume as a whole. There are some strong and original issues but they're let down by an underwhelming execution combined with the team not always winning out or being at the forefront. It's a pity as the overall set-up is certainly quite novel but the full package is less than effective.

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