Friday, March 27, 2009


Apparently, I have a special place in my heart for well-intentioned failure. Even moreso for well-intentioned failure that turns into success somehow.

The X-Men are a curious property--when originally launched, they were one of the few Marvel launches that didn't catch on, and they tried pretty much everything--new team members (The Mimic, who probably failed because he was another milquetoast white dude in a team of them except he had all their powers and was a serious asshole besides) a long, over-arching storyline (Factor Three, which has to be the one continuity backwater no one's tried to mine again, possibly because it was completely asinine) hot-shot deaths (Professor Xavier, killed by a cave troll in the subway) breaking up the team, getting the team back together, two crossovers with Avengers, a Spider-Man guest shot, and, when all that failed, two issues by Jim Steranko, presaging the tactic of dropping in hot artists to revive a flagging title.

None of it worked. There's a lot of theories as to why this is--the scripting vacillated between Arnold Drake's lifeless and leaden writing and Roy Thomas' then-frequent habit of writing everyone as a whiny hysteric, the lack of any credible villains leading to never ending Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants--a lot--and somewhat also it was meant to parallel racism and address the issues of discrimination with a cast of well-to-do honkies in a fancy prep school, which sort of undercut the message slightly.

But no one thought to cancel the book--at least not yet--so X-Men kind of thrashed along, working through its growing pains in public, occasionally succeeding, often failing, and sometimes having the X-Men fight bad guys dressed as grasshoppers.

It is, I should add, my favourite period of X-Men ever.

Perhaps it's morbid curiosity.

Anyways, Essential X-Men Classic Vol. 3 (geez, what a title) covers the end of the original X-Men run, which ended up being a bit on the bittersweet side. It begins with a few dreary issues from Drake and Roy Thomas and Don Heck, who gamely try to convince us simultaneously that the Living Pharaoh is at all an interesting villain and Cyclops' heretofore unknown brother Havok is interesting despite being written entirely in Stan Lee Angstese. They're redolent of the plodding kind of storytelling and lack of characterisation that got us here.

Things pick up substantially (kinda) three issues in, as the stories Roy Thomas/Neal Adams runs begins. The story itself is still rather dull--the Living Pharaoh's alternate identity, the Living Monolith, isn't any more interesting--and it's full of the genteel racism of bygone years (watch as Cyclops calls Arabs "camel jockeys!") but the art's real nice to look at (in some places, looks a lot better in black and white) as Adams was really feeling his oats back then and packed every page with dynamic layouts and very kinetic action that all too often seems barely contained by the panel borders, and sometimes not even then.

The old urban legend is that Adams wanted to work on Marvel's lowest-selling title when he jumped from DC to Marvel, and I've always wondered if that was by design--working on the lowest-selling book, it didn't matter if what he did didn't work, because the book was pretty much on the block anyway, so he was free to cut loose.

The Thomas/Adams run is fondly remembered, and Adams has remarked--not unfairly--that pretty much every successive X-Men creative team has run through the same subjects they would--Sentinels, the Savage Land, Magneto--often in the very same order that they'd occurred in the Thomas/Adams run. If you look at Claremont's early run with the newer X-Men of the 70's you'll see he's not far wrong.

Of course, some of the Thomas/Adams run doesn't work today, and has been mostly abandoned. The Living Monolith, for instance, has rightly been put on the shelf, more or less. Sauron, yet another in a seemingly endless line of villains with hypnotic powers (seriously, they were a dime a dozen in Marvel in the 60's) fares a little better in that he's fondly remembered at all, but again, as he basically Ben Casey MD who turns into a Pterosaur who wears cutoffs in his off hours and no one remembers who the hell Ben Casey is anymore, he's fallen into disuse. And the less said about the Z'Nox story which closes out their run (wherein the most potentially devastating and astoundingly boring invasion force is defeated by a great big beam of love, as Paul O'Brien says) the better.

The Sentinels, the Savage Land, and the Magneto stuff plays a bit better, and these went on to become the major tentpoles of the franchise, really--even if the Savage Land stuff is a curious artifact that was bolted to X-Men continuity because Stan Lee felt like it that day.

In-between the Adams issues, Don Heck makes a yeoman's effort to draw very much like him in a story that introduces future X-man Sunfire and good God, talking of the genteel racism of bygone days, read this and cringe cringe cringe. To be fair, Sunfire is one of those elements from this run that hung on--he's one of the charter new X-men, after all (and, to show us how far race relations have come in the 5 years since X-Men was cancelled, he is less "Japanese villain" and more "inconsistently characterised asshole" and he quits real fast anyway, so. . .yeah.) it's just that the issue introducing him is . . .well, very problematic.

Then, X-Men ends with a very confusing issue involving the Hulk. But fret not, True Believer--there's still several hundred pages in this volume.

Our first stop post-cancellation is an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, wherein Iceman fights Spider-Man because Spider-Man has been set up (yet again) as a bad guy. It's a very middle-of-the-road story (it reads more like Iceman's wandered in to ASM's ongoing soap opera by accident) but, funnily enough, formed the basis for a Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends episode back in the day, which is probably the most current reference I will make in this entry.

From there, we stop in at Incredible Hulk, wherein, on the run from the damn US Army for the 90th time, the Hulk fights Havok while Havok tries to decide whether or not to go back to the X-Men (spoiler: he does) It's a fairly pedestrian issue of Incredible Hulk (I do not for the life of me know how they got so many issues out of the Hulk vs. the Army storytelling engine) livened up by John Severin inking longtime Hulk penciller Herb Trimpe's pencils, giving it a grittier than usual feel.

From there we go to Amazing Adventures #11-16, featuring the Beast.

Oh Lord.

There's not much to say about this--Beast gets a job at the Brand Corporation (for you old school continuity wags, you will recognise Brand as supplying disposable villains for more Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One issues than one could shake a stick at) turns grey and furry and then kinda bitches and moans about it in typical Marvel-esque "Oh God, what kind of monster have I become" gibberish for awhile, as Steve Englehart tries everything to make this rather stunted premise work (Patsy Walker, pre-Hellcat, even shows up. Why, I do not know) and Tom Sutton does a pretty good job with the art, but really. It's an unworkable premise in the long run and Englehart, like so many fans who'd become creators is writing too much like Stan Lee and aping the surface tics without the style or energy Stan brought to Marvel's formative days.

It also contains my least favourite fans-who-became-creators tic, wherein Englehart writes himself and a bunch of the Marvel Bullpen into one story wherein they give Beast and his girlfriend a ride so he can fight Juggernaut. This stuff stops every story I've seen it used in stone dead and I'm glad the practice is largely gone now.

There's a brief detour in-between Amazing Adventures issues, wherein, the X-Men pop in to an early issue of Marvel Team-Up and fight Morbius. Nothing of consequence happens, except an attempt to re-launch the X-Men fails and Spider-Man kisses Jean Grey because he's got a thing for redheads and their book's in reprints anyways, so nuts to them.

Beast's run in AA finishes off with a reprint issue, wherein Beast fights El Conquistador (and his sidekick Chico!) and we tie up a loose plot thread in an issue of Incredible Hulk, wherein the Beast gets dragged to Canada because the Mimic could potentially kill everyone on the planet. Englehart and perpetual Hulk artist Herb Trimpe demonstrate a rather dodgy understanding of Canadian law enforcement (I'm virtually sure Mounties don't all dress like Dudley Do-Right in these modern times) and bring off the rather odd trick of having an issue of Incredible Hulk wherein the Hulk's appearance is kind of an afterthought and really only happens because the story required that the Mimic die, and the Hulk was the easiest way to make that happen It's all a bit ropey, as the Beast feature in AA wasn't particularly successful (Beast's character renaissance would come in Avengers) and the Mimic's most current appearance had been in one of the reprints X-Men was running at the time, so the whole issue feels a bit . . .pointless, somehow.

The volume finishes out with a gallery of covers from the reprint run and some original art, and well, the whole mess with the X-Men finally rises like the Phoenix (see what I did there?) in Giant-Size X-Men #1, wherein the new X-Men, a more diverse and vital team that more accurately reflects the book's innate concept . . .totally failed again and is barely remembered today. These days, it's all pirate comics.

I kid, I kid.

Despite the fact that I'm very hard on the issues contained here, it's because, objectively, most of the stories in this book are rubbish. Those that aren't rubbish are very dated, and those that aren't rubbish or dated don't appear in this collection. The real value of this book is its existence as a record of just how Marvel evolved, re-evolved in the 70's and the dead ends they ran into as things developed. That, some pretty awesome Neal Adams art, and the fact that some of those dead ends lead to extremely goofy fun (God bless them for actually calling a story "DO OR DIE, BABY!") that can be had if you're in the right mood for it.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Yeah, I don't think the racism angle worked until Claremont came in - ostensibly because it was the primary theme in his run, but perhaps also because his team was ethnically diverse, so it was mixing metaphors to a certain (effective) extent.

I've never been able to get into this particular era of X-Men (or comics in general, really). The random craziness just gets in the way, IMO.

Kazekage said...

That's it exactly--it's not entirely plausible that 5 white kids in an upscale prep school in upstate New York are ground under the heel of the worst racism imaginable. At best, it's halfhearted. Disingenuous at worst.

But if you take that formula and add people of colour (and some stand-ins for people of colour, like Nightcrawler, that concretise the metaphor in a very comics-specific ways) and anchor it to the book in a way that hadn't been done consistently before . . .well, then you've got a franchise.

Well, objectively it's eye-rollingly terrible, but I find something rather amusing about it's desperate, unrelenting attempts to make the book about something even as they ran from the most obvious thing. It's emblematic of the Silver Age reaching its limits.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

It probably didn't help that, aside from Cyclops, none of the original X-Men were physically marred by their mutation in any way - Nightcrawler was always good for a bout of angst regarding his looks, which took the allegory a step further.

And I think Claremont also introduced the whole concept of religion into the mix as well, with Kitty's (and, presumably, Magneto's pre-latest retcon) Judaism and Nightcrawler's Catholicism. That added a lot to the cast's diversity as well.

I'd say the most impressive thing about that era - from a structural point of view - is that I recall they actually had a stint where they split up the team and alternated between the various fragments. In the days before teams consisted of thirty-plus superheroes, that's a fairly bold move.

Kazekage said...

Well, Angel and Beast kind of were, but the art never really sold that they were all that put out by it.

Well, it was a function of actually being able to explore the outer reaches of the concept, I think, and the reason it was never done previously was because no one really bothered to adequately explore any of the questions posed by the premise.

Well, it was tried out of desperation and I think it ended up lasting all of . . .two issues? Four at the most? They tried a lot of things before Claremont's vision hit--I think there's a couple issues in the 70's where they're plainclothes superheroes or something like that. That's how far they went trying to bring back the X-men.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

And then they both turned blue and wouldn't shut up about it. Go fig. :)

You won't hear this at all nowadays, but wow, good thing Claremont turned up when he did...

Given their relatively nascent status at the time, I can't blame Marvel for all the Hail Mary passes at the time. The plainclothes bit seems like it could've been an interesting idea, given that these were atypical superheroes to begin with...

Kazekage said...

Well, we were years away from that Eiffel 65 (or whoever it was) song about it made it an OK career move, so that's worth bearing in mind. Not a lot of jobs for blue folks in those rocky pre-smurf years.

Yeah, he was exactly what the franchise needed to endure, but at the same time, exactly what it didn't need later on because it had grown beyond its need for him.

I dunno if the plainclothes thing would have worked all that well, really--instead of five boring people wearing the same uniform, you now have five boring guys in plainclothes. Barring a big character overhaul, the team dynamic just wasn't going to work no matter what.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

An Eiffel 65 reference? I am undone! :)

Or rather, it had grown beyond his capacity to adapt, since I think Claremont probably could tell some decent stories if he'd just get with the times already.

And characterization wasn't exactly at a premium back then, I see what you mean... I wonder if that's where Morrison got the idea for the paramilitary uniforms, though.

Kazekage said...

Someone mentioned it somewhere else--I'd like to say I was that quick with a reference, but why lie?

I like your explanation better. I think Claremont tried to do something new conceptually with the Neo, unfortunately, he didn't have the chops to execute it properly.

No idea, really--I'd heard they were based on search-and-rescue team gear, myself. Of course, it could also have been Morrison wanted a clean break--visually and textually--from what had gone before as well.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

And that was, I think, the moment where his Great Epic Fail really began: when the idea of the Neo as post-mutants was far more compelling than anything he actually did with the concept. And, of course, no one will ever do a post-mutant story again because your mind automatically goes to the Neo and recoils in revulsion.

Kazekage said...

Well, to be fair, how do you do "being who are more powerful than mutants and outstrip them on the evolutionary ladder" when mutants already have world-destroying powers? Claremont did himself no favours in the execution(The Shockwave Riders? Man, really?) but he didn't have much room to go anywhere.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I suppose the next logical step would be for "neo-mutants" to choose and alter their mutations at will. Granted, that'd make them walking deus ex machinas, so you'd need a more creative and flexible mind to work that angle. And no pirate-themed outfits, please.

Kazekage said...

That would be an awesome concept, but how do you separate that from the slew of mutants with the power to do whatever's plot-convenient? Unless you go in the other direction and make it less about power-based slugfests and have the Neo-mutants quietly but inexorably engineering mutants and humanity's extinctions, thus setting up a three-way conflict.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Oh, that's easy: retcon the Deus ex Mutantis as Neo. :) Then you get to do the whole "divided loyalties" bit and you have a familiar face attached to a new threat. Original? No, but still better than what actually saw print...

Actually, I'd imagine the Neo would be completely unconcerned with humans - what possible threat could they pose?

Kazekage said...

Anything would be better than what we actually saw, Diana. That could work, actually--you'd have to finesse the term "Omega-Level Mutant" to indicate a borderline between "peak mutant" and "Early Neo," but as we're dealing with Whatever Science anyways, why not?

Well, to use a metaphor the head of SPECTRE used in some Bond movie--pit two of your enemies against one another, let one finish them off, and beat the weakened victor and assume control in one fell swoop.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Of course, the catch there is that it couldn't be easily retconned, and we all know how much Quesada loves playing with those clock hands...

Come to think of it, you could probably get an interesting fight out of Sentinel vs. Neo, since they both adapt to what the other person's doing. Much like that excellent Fury/Jaspers fight at the end of Alan Moore's run on "Captain Britain".

Kazekage said...

True, but it was that way of thinking that got us 198 mutants in the first place, didn't it?

That could work, and it does give the humans a leg up in a potential three-way-battle and lays pipe for a four-way battle when Sentinels become self-aware and add another elements.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I forget who mentioned this during the last stage of "Final Crisis", but never put a finite number on something like that - you're not only limiting yourself but limiting everyone else after you until they just get fed up with the status quo and undo it (which seems to be happening now, on several fronts). 198 mutants? Sure, after "House of M", but that was a good while ago, and this being X-Men there have been many, many, many deaths since. And people are coming back too. Does Magik get added to the tally? Does Legion?

Of course, that sort of thing requires imagination: a substance in short supply at Marvel. Hey, let's do some pirate-themed villains instead! Because kids are into pirates now! Johnny Depp said so!

Kazekage said...

Especially given comics obsession with fetishising the past--for good or ill, people are paying attention to these things and (thanks to editorial pressure) being forced to hew to a status quo that limits creativity and means that questions like a sudden resurrection of Magik or whoever becomes a needless continuity headache, or more of one than usual.

Oh yes! And DARK versions of everyone. Because DARK is KEWL.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Some of those decisions are almost beyond belief, though - do they seriously expect the greater majority of readers to even know who Magik is? I'm not talking about Illyana Rasputin dying in 1993 or whatnot; even then, she hadn't been Magik for ages. Who exactly do they think is so invested in a 20-year-old character?

Dark is the new Young. Which was itself the new New. :)

Kazekage said...

Since 1989, actually--it's been almost an even 20 years since Illyana's been Magik at all.

Who do they thinks is invested in it? Those die-hard, OCD-addled people who are the only people creating and buying comics left to give a damn.

And New was the new X, which was the new Extreme, which was the new . . .oh God it gets more depressing the more you follow it back, doesn't it?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Wow. Even I wasn't even reading comics back then. To be fair, Magik did pop up during Judd Winick's run on "Exiles", but that was an alternate version and she was kind of a bitch (intentionally so, apparently; the idea being that for once the Exiles were stuck with someone who wasn't inclined to just play ball with the rest of the team).

Hmph. Damn zombies. Where's Ash Williams when we need him? ;)

Oh, yes. And who knows where you'll end up? :)

Kazekage said...

Thanks, Diana. I feel fairly geriatric now. ;) The teased bringing her back a few times, once with Kitty getting the Soulsword (in a Warren Ellis Excalibur book I have otherwise forgotten because fuck that guy) and then in X-Infernus they came up with a second Magik who was promptly forgotten about, and just as well.

I'd settle for a collective moment of clarity. Or a situation analogous to how most smokers are quitting now that the price of cigarettes are running high.

In Hell, Diana. In. Hell. :)